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Acocella to ballet stars: "Stop flirting with the audience."


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#16 Andrew73

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Posted 03 February 2009 - 04:00 AM

The situation is worse, of course, in lighter-hearted pieces. When American Ballet Theatre performed Twyla Tharp’s “Baker’s Dozen” last year, the cast couldn’t stop telling us what a fun bunch of people they were. (Craig Salstein, in his solo, practically gave us his phone number.) But this is going on in darker pieces, too. Strangely, the problem has no relation to talent.


I'm not at all sure what the problem is; when I first started seeing live ballet regularly, one of the few things that I found distracting was the grinning rictus that appeared on many faces - and sometimes the whole corps (much as described by Merrill Ashley, above). It must have been choregraphed, and was awful, robotic and distracting. Happily, that seems much rarer now.

I'd suggest that teaching dancers to focus effort on facial expression is an error; for a start, they have more important things to do, also attempting a half-smile, 'to disguise effort' could end up an almost anything after a lot of effort, and a need to concentrate on what comes next.

I'd much rather see - as others have suggested - a calm, in control dancer, who does not feel they have dance with their face in any way at all, though, hopefully, they'll play down any pain or difficulty - and, as actors, they'll remain in character.

In some comedy ballets, there is a specific interaction with the audience at times - Elite Syncopations comes to mind - where the audience is 'in on the act'.

I'm happy to say that I've never ever seen the malaise described here, though I'm equally happy to say that I've seen some beautiful smiles from dancers, usually in response to audience appreciation.

Is there a problem, or it it just a reviewer with writers block?

Craig Salstein, in his solo, practically gave us his phone number.


That has to be just plain spite, doesn't it?

Strangely, the problem has no relation to talent.


But has it something to do with the specific character in the specific ballet - way over the head of our critic?

#17 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 03 February 2009 - 05:04 AM

Is there a problem, or it it just a reviewer with writers block?

Craig Salstein, in his solo, practically gave us his phone number.


That has to be just plain spite, doesn't it?


Accoella is surely the only person on the planet who would actually object to being given Mr. Salstein's phone number :wink:

#18 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 03 February 2009 - 05:19 AM

I thought it was such a pleasant break from NYCB's stony stares.


In The Four Temperaments their looks don't have to be stony, but they should be at least contemplative. The themes figures are sort of Janus ones--or Janusaries for what is to come. They face opposite directions and they go off on different sides of the stage. And what is to come is fairly intense.

There are Balanchine ballets that can take smiles--and whole movements that are smiles in themselves.


A clarification: at the performance I saw, SF's three Theme couples were smiling at each other, not engaging in the kind of aggressive wooing of the audience that Accocella points to. Since they're dancing together and the music isn't uniformly solemn, the smiles didn't strike me as inappropriate to the situation.

#19 PeggyR

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Posted 03 February 2009 - 12:06 PM

This past weekend I saw SFB dance 'in the middle, somewhat elevated...'. Most the dancers kept a straight face, but in the final pdd Ivan Popov had a big grin while his partner, Rachel Viselli, looked like she was ready to chew his arm off. Not sure who was right, but it was a little incongruous.

#20 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 03 February 2009 - 01:44 PM

Re: In the Middle, Forsythe has made it clear that the competitive attitude of the dancers at Paris Opera weighed heavily on the mood of the piece - I think he recounts a story of one woman oh-so-casually showing off her arch before the audition, and then another, and so on. That became the first moments of the ballet. So that mood is there, but I've seen dancers telegraph that in performance so that the ballet becomes only about attitude. The attitude has to be in and through the dancing, not on top of it.

I care most if a dancer seems dishonest to me, subjective as that sounds. Some dancers are naturally flirtatious; some smile all the time. Jeanette Delgado grinned like a madwoman all through Square Dance, but I think it's clear that's what inside (and so must Acocella, as she didn't complain about it.) Whether smiling or not, I've been in situations where a dancer didn't do what I asked on stage - but barring that, the criticism needs to be laid at the feet of the director, not the dancer. S/he's responsible for the look of the ballet, and that includes how the dancers are behaving. In the end, everyone involved needs to realize that mood is part of a ballet, and work appropriately.

#21 Hans

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Posted 03 February 2009 - 02:01 PM

It is necessary to control one's facial expression during class because that is one of the ways in which one disguises effort. A pasted-on grin or a creepy half-smile are both wrong. No one wants to see furrowed brows and contorted mouths during a difficult adagio--it must appear easy. One develops almost a 'poker face' in class, betraying nothing, and although there is nothing wrong with a natural smile now and then, control of one's face is essential so that one can portray the appropriate 'look' for any given ballet. I think acting classes can also help with this because even if a ballet does not have characters, there is generally still a mood to the piece, and the dancers need to be able to understand and convey that, even if they are not using the usual 'acting' techniques one would see in a 19C classic.

#22 Andrew73

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Posted 03 February 2009 - 02:32 PM

I care most if a dancer seems dishonest to me, subjective as that sounds.


Beautifully put - the dancer needs to be true to themselves, and to the part they are performing - that means they need to be following direction - but also that the director needs to know them!

That should avoid both the rictus at one extreme and the 'over the top' displays of personality at the other, that people have described above.

From an audience POV, I'd guess that some parts in some ballets would require much more self discipline than others.

#23 bart

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Posted 03 February 2009 - 02:38 PM

Opening night Jonathan Porretta danced what I call the "cheeky boy's" role in Rubies. When he is on stage with the quartet of male dancers, leading them around the stage as if they were some sort of team of horses, there is a moment when the "cheeky boy" runs along the edge of the stage, completely down stage. When Porretta did this, he not only smiled, but he gave a hearty winking laugh and devilish look directly at the audience. He completely broke the 4th glass wall in that moment. It was appropriate for that moment, and invoked great laughter from the audience (just as it should IMHO).

When Edward Villella performed this, I remember the exhileration and the big grin, but not any acknowledgement of the audience. The same is true of performances I've seen by Villella's company, Miami City Ballet and in the Paris Opera Ballet dvd. Do other dancers in this role adopt Porretta's approach?

I care most if a dancer seems dishonest to me, subjective as that sounds. Some dancers are naturally flirtatious; some smile all the time.

I think Acocella would respond: "flirtatious" with whom? Delgado is a naturally sunny character on stage. Her smile in a ballet like Square Dance communicates: "I love dancing this so much!" But so does the "character" in the ballet. I have never had a sense that she is trying to have a direct conversation with the audience that excludes her fellow dancers and violates the sense of the dance.

I think of the stage as a kind of "box" of energies and feelings that the dancers share with each other, and which we are privileged to observe. Any dancer -- except in very specialized choreography -- who opens the box to "talk" directly to the audienece is dissipating the energy and feeling of the ballet. It would be the same thing if the Dying Swan suddenly noticed that we were there and sought to solicit our pity. Or if the ballerina in Diamonds kept checking to make sure we understood just how difficult the choreography is.

#24 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 03 February 2009 - 04:07 PM

One dancer's commentary is another dancer's wit - if it's properly integrated. It also depends on how we take it. I agree with Acocella by and large, but it's possible that the dancers she sees as chief offenders wouldn't be the ones on my list, and vice versa.

#25 carbro

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Posted 03 February 2009 - 04:59 PM

I think Acocella would respond: "flirtatious" with whom? Delgado is a naturally sunny character on stage. Her smile in a ballet like Square Dance communicates: "I love dancing this so much!" But so does the "character" in the ballet. I have never had a sense that she is trying to have a direct conversation with the audience that excludes her fellow dancers and violates the sense of the dance.

I'm not so sure about the "character" of Square Dance. I read Acocella's line about Salstein giving out his phone number and thought, "Well, I guess that means that Jeannette Delgado planted a kiss on everyone's cheek in Square Dance." I think she was conversing with the audience, in much the same way that Ashley Bouder tends to. Never mind that both of them can dance up a storm. It's this sunny, open, "come with me," attitude that endears such dancers to us.

It's not always appropriate, and in Bouder's case, it's not always the face that communicates it (part of her genius). Show me dancer who doesn't communicate with directly with the audience, and you can hand me my coat, please. The name of the game is performance.

And as pointed out by others, if it isn't genuine or spontaneous (as Poretta's seemed to be), it's wrong.

#26 Marga

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Posted 03 February 2009 - 05:10 PM

Apparently Farrell can't hear that a march is 2/4, not 4/4.

A march is not always in 2/4 time. Actually, 4/4 (or 2/2) have been used as time signatures for marches that are not usually parade marches. Although 2/4 is accommodating to marching feet, 4/4 has been used for marches which are more aesthetic in movement, such as those in social and folk dances. John Philip Sousa even wrote a few marches in 6/8 time, notably the "Washington Post March".

Suzanne Farrell is nothing if not musical. She has an innate understanding and relationship to music. It must hurt her sensibilities to see dancing which doesn't attach itself to the music being played either in technique or feeling, or both. Farrell is known for her musicality.

Watching her dance and being pulled into her performance as you began to feel the music with her was an indescribably special experience.

#27 Hans

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Posted 03 February 2009 - 06:04 PM

I still find it hard to believe that she has students who can't hear the difference between 3/4 and 4/4. I seriously doubt someone with that sort of deficiency would make it past beginner ballet.

#28 bart

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Posted 03 February 2009 - 06:04 PM

[I] the final pdd Ivan Popov had a big grin while his partner, Rachel Viselli, looked like she was ready to chew his arm off. Not sure who was right, but it was a little incongruous.

Now this DOES sound like a problem. Maybe Acocella, in her article, just picked the wrong dancers as examples. :huh:

#29 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 03 February 2009 - 06:10 PM

On the other side, I have a problem with the "martyir-going-to-the-scaffold" look...I've seen this many times as a performance ruining fact. Give me the grin anytime instead. (I wonder if I could give examples, cause I have the perfect two cases)

#30 canbelto

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Posted 03 February 2009 - 06:30 PM

I think that's one of the problems I have with Uliana Lopatkina. Her supporters call it her "spirituality," but having seen her several times I've come to dread her patented frozen, "the stage is a temple" expression. For instance when I saw her dance La Bayadere her Nikya never smiled at Solor, never frowned at Gamzatti, much less the audience. During the Shades scene the mask froze even more. I find it terribly disengaging, the fact that she dances as if she were unaware that the audience was watching her.


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