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The Ballerina is Dead, Long Live the Danseur?

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#1 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 13 February 2002 - 01:14 PM

Jennifer Homans' article in The New Republic has plenty to discuss in it.


What did you think?

My own impression was that she was describing a situation with certain accuracy over at ABT, but ABT is only one company. Walk across the plaza and the strengths are exactly the opposite. It is not a universal argument.

#2 cargill


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Posted 13 February 2002 - 01:32 PM

I think she made some good points about ABT dancers, but a bit short on specifics. Far too much canned history (and not terribly good history at that--saying Taglioni and sylphs set the standard for 150 years ignores a lot of history, and a lot of male dancing (like Bournonville) not to mention the buxom Imperial ballerinas. I would say that Pavlova really set the 20th century standard. Also, I don't know about the idea that a plie is a submissive statement--it seems like she is finding sociology when there is a perfectly good physical explanation. How were dancers going to develop strength, after all! Plus anyone that uses "privileges" as a verb has no right to make aesthetic judgements!
I also thought her tone was a bit too arch and knowing, being condescending to Bruhn when it is not clear at all if she saw him dance. In the same vein,I think she was just too dismissive of the female dancers at ABT, too glib without giving reasons. I got the feeling she just likes male dancing better, which isn't the same as making some intelligent comments. Boy, do I miss Mindy Aloff!

#3 dirac


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Posted 13 February 2002 - 02:29 PM

In Homans' defense, she's providing ballet history to an audience of educated readers who don't necessarily have much of a background or interest in ballet. So it may be inevitable that some of it will seem a little boilerplate, or canned. She does show in this article, as in some other TNR pieces of hers that I've read, a tendency not uncommon among writers to rhetorical overkill and boldly stated assertions that don't always hold up so well when you think about them for long. I haven't seen ABT recently except on television, so I can't comment intelligently on her remarks about the company.

That said, I'm a little puzzled by the central thesis of her article, which, if I understand it correctly, is that ballet is not in trouble because of a lack of fine dancers or genius choreographers, but rather of a loss of its once radical spirit, which today is not to be found in the current crop of dully correct ballerinas but in the macho assertiveness of its danseurs, boldly shoving their henlike female counterparts aside to display their multiple pirouettes. We are not to whine about this, but advance boldly into the new era. Depressing, if true, and I don't think it is.

#4 dirac


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Posted 13 February 2002 - 02:34 PM

I forgot to add to my previous post that I believe the use of "privilege" as a verb, while infelicitous, is an acceptable secondary meaning of the word. When I was in college, around the time of the Second Punic War, I often heard and read sentences such as "So-and-so privileges text over the spoken word," and so forth.

#5 Alexandra


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Posted 13 February 2002 - 03:13 PM

Dirac, I love your summary. I think you've nailed it. (I write in the Olympic spirit.)

I'm very glad to such a long article, treating ballet so seriously in a major magazine. That said....I kept my temper until the paragraph about Vestris, fils, WHICH IS SIMPLY NOT TRUE!!!!! Vestris was a paradigm of elegance and the notion that he gleefully pushed aside the danseur noble tradition to trash it with his own new, nifty little inventions -- well, if one reads Bournonville's "unpublished writings" (a neat trick; try the published ones, especially the new, English translation by Knud Arne Jurgensen that Dance Books released a few years ago) and his account of Vestris and Vestris's classes one gets a different view.

I also question the notion that ballet is a radical art form. That's not my reading of history. It's an evolutionary one, stealing from everywhere, melding the purloined steps, whether from Russian folk dance or tap, into its vocabulary. The great reformers (Lully, Noverre, Bournonville, Fokine) have been conservators. The two most important classical choreographers of the 20th century (Balanchine and Ashton) didn't so much break rules as show us how they could be expanded. (I think it's we, the nongreat, who need the rules; they see beyond them. Wannabes look up the rules and smash them, one by one, thinking that's the way to greatness.)

#6 dirac


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Posted 13 February 2002 - 03:36 PM

The New Republic has been very good about giving space to dance; an Aloff article on the debate over Balanchine's legacy once made the cover. I assume we have Leon Wieseltier,the literary editor, to thank for this.

#7 Nanatchka


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Posted 13 February 2002 - 08:28 PM

Yes, Leon Weiseltier edits the back of the book. He has always had a lively interest in dance, and once wrote a libretto for a ballet called Mr. Worldly Wise (for the Royal Ballet, choreographed by Twyla Tharp. He is in that vanishing tradition of Lionel Trilling-style intellectuals, and I hope no matter who owns the New Republic, he will continue to write and edit there.

#8 dirac


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Posted 14 February 2002 - 12:48 PM

I almost forgot -- Tharp and Wieseltier used to be an item...

#9 katharine kanter

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Posted 18 February 2002 - 10:51 AM

I must say I found Miss Homan's article very offensive, for two reasons.

One, she scornfully dismisses people who have given their life to the ballet, notably Miss Jaffe, and Miss Kent. Not being an American, I do not know Miss Jaffe well, but I believe that she has to date enjoyed a high reputation world-wide as a technician, which is not exactly nothing, in these days of overall low standards. I also seem to recall that Miss Jaffe must be approaching, or perhaps over, the age of forty by now. Once people have given their all for twenty-five years, a little humility on the part of we critics WHO HAVE NEVER IN OUR LIFE HAD TO WORK SO HARD as the people we so harshly condemn, might be in order.

As for Miss Kent, I did not recognise her lovely dancing in the cold contempt she appears to have reaped here.

One has the impression that Miss Homan knows very little of the draconian discipline female dancers today have to live under, a discipline that NO OPERA SINGER on the planet would submit to for even twenty-four hours. And for a wage that is about one-tenth of what even a middling opera singer earns. A ballet dancer today is expected to be bone-thin, but bursting with energy and enthusiasm, aethereal, but athletic as Schwarzenegger ten minutes later, a great actress, and a circus acrobat. It is all too much, all over the top.

So I feel that snide remarks are somewhat out of place, and that a little compassion and insight, and, dare one say it, perhaps a desire to HELP THESE PEOPLE's SITUATION LOOK UP, might go a long way.

Secondly, I'm not at all sure that Miss Homan knows what she's talking about. I'd second Alexandra's remarks about Vestris - I find it difficult to believe that anyone who knows ANYTHING about dance in the first half of the nineteenth century, could so insultingly dismiss one of the greatest professors the ballet has ever known.

Miss Homan has worked herself up into a lather about how clever the men are today in the ballet. Who could disagree ? Men, worldwide, are dancing better than women today. They do not have to perform hyper-extensions. They do not have to starve themselves to look chic in a minimalist costume. Men tend to find acrobacy fun. Men are allowed far more artistic licence and freedom, the more so, as they are a rare commodity in the ballet world. Men are respected by artistic directors, while women are NOT, as a rule.

The fact that women in the ballet are once again being subjected to all sorts of things, both on and off-stage, that are degrading, and in short, awful, should be of concern to us all. Whereas Miss Homan's attitude is that of a dissatisfied consumer.

There's a French expression "parler pour ne rien dire" - you talk, talk, talk, but you haven't said anything, really. Miss Homan, back to the drawing board.

[ February 18, 2002: Message edited by: katharine kanter ]

#10 Mashinka


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Posted 18 February 2002 - 12:25 PM

The hyper-extensions that are such an unwelcome addition to present day ballet technique bother me as much as they do Ms Kanter, but I would like to point out that male dancers also perform them.

The first male dancer I saw with an unusually high extension was Wayne Eagling of the Royal Ballet. As an exceptionally flexible dancer, pointing his toe at the ceiling, didn't appear to afford him any effort. Unfortunately when some of his colleagues sought to emulate him, the end result didn't look quite as good.

The male dancer with the highest extension today is without doubt Nikolai Tsiskaridze of the Bolshoi. In fact at least one UK critic has pointed out that his are more impressive than Guillem's!

A high extension is simply a part of the male dancer's acrobatic arsenal. But best not displayed in any of the classics in my opinion.

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