bart

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

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Here's a Link posted today by dirac:

Stop flirting, Joan Acocella tells dancers in The New Yorker’s Critic’s Notebook.

http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/note...tebook_acocella

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.

A while ago I posted about the lead dancer at Ballet Florida, a charming young woman, who virtually ignored her partner in Tchaikosvsky Pas de Deux and in an over-the-top duet by Vicente Nebrada, while making flirtatious eye contact with the audience. She seemed to be communicating to the crowd: I'm ecstatic :wink: to be dancing this for you. Can you tell?

My other local company, Miami City Ballet, doesn't seem to tolerate it. Or, possibly, the dancers are just focusing on dancing well so they don't have time for this kind of distraction.

So: what do you think? Have you noticed this phenomenon yourself in recent performances? How do you respond when you observe it?

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In a post-performance yesterday, Peter Boal mentioned that he told dancers in Diamonds to stop smiling so much, and that a broad smile to the audience wasn't appropriate for the ballet. They listened: Jewels was given three superb performances this weekend.

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I was also at the Q&A last night where Boal talked about smiling.

Interestingly, his comment was in response to an audience member who asked why some dancers smile and others don't. There seemed to be a definite element in this lady's question where she seemed to be wanting ever more of the happy-happy smiles. I think it was that implication that had Boal slam the practice....and slam it so hard that he even admitted that he had told some dancers to cut it out in Diamonds.

P.S. While talking about this issue Boal painted a very interesting image. He said that he imagined a dancer to be in a box with 4 walls -- one of which was glass. We the audience were privileged to be able to watch the dancer thru that 4th glass wall. He clearly sees separation of dancer and audience as vital (while also saying that the audience was of the upmost importance in any performing art).

P.S. I wouldn't be surprised that Boal read the article of which you speak bart. Not hard to imagine that a NY'er like him reads the New Yorker. (Of course I have no evidence of this.)

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In Acocella's piece on Suzanne Farrell Ballet in 2003, she quotes Farrell saying that her students lack musical sensitivity.

"They don't know a waltz from a march," she says, wonderingly. "When the music changes from three-four to four-four, they don't hear it."

If many young dancers can't hear time, I guess it's not so surprising they can't hear mood, and smile their way through Emeralds and Diamonds.

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

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Many San Francisco Ballet dancers are smilers and it sort of destroys the dance, as if they're saying pay attention to my mouth, not what I'm doing. It's really terrible in The Four Temperaments, and in the last round of Liebesleider performances in New York there seemed to be a bit of smiling and it's not such a happy ballet.

I think Peter Boal's four walls distinction important. Kyra Nichols in a talk in SF differentiated between in-the-box ballets and ones that were not.

I like dancers when they appear to be listening intently ahead for the next phrase of the dance. As if they don't know what it is quite going to be--and they're going to quietly meet it half way.

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Many San Francisco Ballet dancers are smilers and it sort of destroys the dance, as if they're saying pay attention to my mouth, not what I'm doing. It's really terrible in The Four Temperaments ...

Interesting! I noticed the SFers smiling in the "Themes" section of 4Ts during their visit to NYC in the fall of '08 and thought "Oh, isn't that nice!" I thought it was such a pleasant break from NYCB's stony stares. I wouldn't necessarily want to see it that way every single time, but during that performance, at least, I rather liked the effect ... Chacun a son gout!

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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.

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Is it really just a choice between smiling or not smiling? A smile -- whether serene, joyful, slap-happy, exhilerated, or coy -- can be integral to a role. Acocella seems to be focusing on the "knowing smile" -- the "self-conscious smile" -- even the "conspiratorial smile." (Wink, wink.) This breaks that imaginary wall separating dancer from watcher. It also, for me, destroys the illusion that the dancer -whether in a happy ballet or not -- is genuinely absorbed in his or her movements, in the other dancers on stage, and in the music.

There are ballets that call for the "stoney-stare," I know. But there aren't all that many. If this is indeed typical of any company or individual dancer, something seems to have gone wrong.

Facial expression is a crucial element in the illusion created by dancing on stage. I wonder: how much attention is paid to it in ballet schools and during rehearsals?

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We do pay attention to facial expression in ballet class. The look must be alert, yet calm--simultaneously serene and engaged. One learns to not make faces during difficult exercises, but a smile every now and then, during a particularly enjoyable combination for example, is welcome. In Gretchen Ward Warren's Classical Ballet Technique, there is a description of the appropriate classroom expression, as well as expressions to avoid. One classroom expression that particularly irritates me is usually found on teachers who demand that their students always appear to be extremely alert: eyes open a little too wide, eyebrows slightly raised, and a sort of half-smile on the lips. While one does not want to appear bored, the 'One too many cups of coffee' look is going too far in the opposite direction.

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One of the finest uses of facial expressions I've seen was in Doug Fullington's "Balanchine's Petipa" lecture demonstration #2. In it, Lucien Postlewaite partnered Kaori Nakamura in "La Bayadere". His face was on the one hand live, expressive, and focused on his ballerina, but on the other hand, subtle and refined. This was in a studio in full light, with the "audience" feet away from him. He's very young -- I'm not even sure he's 25 -- but it was an impressive display of control and maturity.

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Hans, I remember reading something somewhere once about a fixed smile being used as a tool to mask effort. The basic idea stands to reason, but there was more to it than that, something technical I can't recall. Do I have that right? In any case, Macaulay reviews PNB's Jewels in tomorrow's Times. See those now forbidden smiles here. :wink:

Macauley reports that

The Pacific Northwest “Rubies” at once showed what had been missing from Miami City Ballet’s recent New York performances of this dance: fun, repartee, naughtiness, even devilry. The Seattle audience, rightly, kept laughing out loud.

This makes me wonder if, to use bart's wording, the conspiratorial, wink, wink smile is appropriate in Rubies, or in other ballets or sections of ballets where showing off is part of the point. Or do the feelings and the motives show to better effect if they're directed the other dancers enacting the story onstage?

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It's funny -- Boal said that "Rubies" is the ballet in "Jewels" in which a full smile to the audience is appropriate :wink:

I remember in Merrill Ashley's book, she said that her now-husband told her after they first met that she had two expressions: I can't remember her wording for frozen smile, and the other was "pained ballerina look", which I misread as "painted ballerina look."

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I agree with Acocella's condemnation of dancers who "woo us, grin at us, give us saucy looks." I did cringe at her naming names though. That just seemed unnecessarily harsh.

Facial expression and focus should be an integral part of the total performance, and appropriate for the work, and the role, not something arbitrarily plastered on.

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I like dancers when they appear to be listening intently ahead for the next phrase of the dance. As if they don't know what it is quite going to be--and they're going to quietly meet it half way.

I love this mental image. I couldn't have put it so nicely into words as you do here, but I think this is exactly what I see when a dancer's performance truly moves me.

Is it really just a choice between smiling or not smiling? A smile -- whether serene, joyful, slap-happy, exhilerated, or coy -- can be integral to a role. Acocella seems to be focusing on the "knowing smile" -- the "self-conscious smile" -- even the "conspiratorial smile."

You are right on the money bart. There is nothing wrong with smiling; and in fact, smiling might be mandatory if the role calls for it. It's the "pasted on smile" (for smile's sake alone) that is inappropriate. Certainly the types of smiles you quote from Acocella are completely out of place.

This makes me wonder if, to use bart's wording, the conspiratorial, wink, wink smile is appropriate in Rubies, or in other ballets or sections of ballets where showing off is part of the point.

Ironically, the production of PNB's Jewels gives a perfect example of how even the conspiratorial smile can work in Rubies in spite of it not working in Diamonds. 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). Notably when Peter Boal made his comment a few days later at the Q&A about having chastised the dancers for too much smiling in Diamonds, he did not say a word about Jonathan's outrageous cheek in Rubies. Interestingly, on Sunday afternoon when Olivier Webers did the same role, although he is an excellent actor and very accessible to the audience, Wevers did not ham up this moment as much as Porretta had opening night. Personally, I thought Poretta's choice was the better one (and judging by the laughter, so did the rest of the audience). Rubies is so full of wit and playfulness that "showing off", as you put it kfw (later edit...initially I said bart here, sorry kfw), is completely appropriate.

Just to overkill the point about Rubies, I can't resist mentioning another part in Rubies where the music is somewhat serious, and the dancing wholly into that syncopated Stravinsky thing, when suddenly the music totally shifts to light-hearted laughter. At at that moment four girls (I think it is 4) come out and whoosh though the other dancers. I call these four girls the "bathing beauties" because to me their movements remind me of flappers from the 1920's in whole body swimming suits frolicing on the beach! Too serious there and the entire illusion, and wit, of "seeing" that particular music would be lost.

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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?

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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