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Alexandra

Is there such a thing as a perfect ballet?

27 posts in this topic

Given that it's received its ideal performance?

Jeff posted this on the design/redesign thread:

"I was thinking of works that are finished -- not to be worked on again, ever. Few dances, in my opinion, fall into that category."

Like many things, I can argue both sides of this one. Petipa was still tinkering with Sleeping Beauty when they pried his hands off of it, and other choreographers (Fokine, especially, springs to mind) reworked his ballets nearly every time he staged them. Other choreographers tinker for awhile, some don't.

What ballets do you think are perfect? Not a single dead spot, nor irksome variation, nor dance/divertissement/whatever that causes your eyelids to droop. Be tough. Use the gold standard -- not just ballets you like or even love, but ballets that are freeze driable in a perfect state. Or were once :)

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But Serenade was one of the ballets Balanchine tinkered with the most. He moved around the soloist parts, combined them; at one time there were five soloists. The √Člegie was added several years after the ballet was done. I heard this story from Barbara Milberg, a dancer with the company in the 40s and 50s: When he was reviving Serenade, Balanchine was stuck at a certain point. A notator (Ann Hutchison) came up to him with the notated score and offered to tell him what came after. "No dear. She moves differently. I'd rather change."

Concerto Barocco has also changed massively over the years, going from the jazzy allegro ballet that Marie-Jeanne danced to the lyric adagio one that Farrell did (with the jumps removed because of Farrell's knee problems)

Does mean these ballets aren't perfectly wonderful? No way, they're among my favorites too. But they (and The Four Temperaments and Agon) were fluid in Balanchine's lifetime, undergoing constant change. And interestingly, you picked the two that may have changed the most (except for Apollo). As for perfect ballets? I think perfection is impossible not just because of human nature, but time. I think the Messel production of Sleeping Beauty is a great example. In '46 it was perfect. Two decades later (according to accounts) it no longer was.

This seems like a good place to respond to Robert's question about Liebeslieder on the parent thread of this. I was mistaken, Robert! I began watching NYCB in '83, so to me, the Mitchell sets for Liebeslieder are the only sets I know! I think it furthers the discussion, though. Alexandra remarked a long while back (discussing National Ballet of Canada's lineage of Swan Lakes) that tradition is what you know, and one dancegoer's tradition is another's heresy. I liked the Mitchell sets for the same reason Gorey hated them; he thought they set the ballet "in a bank" - for me, they state the social class of the dancers (haute bourgeois, very wealthy but not nobility) and it fixes the ballet in a social milieu.

On other points: I'm a believer in change in the passive tense. Ballets change; they must because the world they inhabit changes. I'm a great deal more wary of the desire to go in and "improve" someone else's work. A restager should approach all revivals as an advocate for the choreography. It doesn't mean that they should not change a step, but that changing should not be the first option, but the last resort.

However, I change my own ballets all the time. Two reasons:

Choreography is like couture to me. If someone doesn't look good in red, I'm not going to make them wear red. I change my stuff all the time to suit the dancer doing it. I know the effect I want, it's easy for me to substitute an analogous step. I make corps de ballet work so it doesn't need to be particularized in that way.

Dissatisfaction is the other reason, but I've gotten to the point where if I think the original concept was sufficiently flawed, I'll gut the ballet entirely and use the same music for a better idea. I did that with Scherzo Fantastique. I'm planning to scrap 1998's Reger piece and recycle the music. I could see myself entirely redoing the first movement of Quodlibet (it's dull because its unfocused).

With other ballets, the foundation is solid enough that you only need to repair the flawed area. I intend to tinker with the second tableau in my Les Noces in that way. The danger there is a common one; the fix may be worse that leaving it alone. It's half a decade old, I'm half a decade older, my style has changed, and what I do may not integrate with what I did. I changed a section near the end of Horizon in '99 the same way and the fix was better than the original, but it didn't feel integrated into the work, and it still wasn't good enough for me to be satisfied with that part. It's always a relief and source of great satisfaction if I think a ballet is good enough as is. I know I will never make a perfect ballet, but I'm satisfied with "good enough to please me."

[ 09-01-2001: Message edited by: Leigh Witchel ]

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oh, sorry. I thought we were supposed to respond with ballets and how they are performed now. I always thought that you'll never get the same performance twice anyway and that the steps evolve in a new way everytime someone knew dances them but that overall the meaning (for lack of a better word) doesn't change.

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Respond any way you like. What's interesting about Diane's examples and Leigh's response is that there's something constant in both those works despite the changes -- in costume as well as steps and allocation of roles.

I was thinking of ballets that were perfect in choreography, cast, and design, where everything was so perfect that you didn't want to see it any other way (even if others, including the choreographer, did). I'd nominate Monotones II (the white pas de trois).

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I'm sorry, Diana, I didn't mean to squash your response. I thought it was fascinating that the "perfect" ballets you named were among Balanchine's most fluid, and wanted to loop that back to the earlier thread on change.

There's certainly no wrong answer to Alexandra's question. For me, one ballet that feels perfect is Liebeslieder Walzer. I've never seen a perfect performance of the Four Temperaments, but I know it's a perfect ballet :)

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for me the defination of a perfect ballet is one that i can sit through and at no point want to change something. i can count on one hand the ballets that i have felt were perfect. one is serenade, at least the later versions that i have seen ;) . the others two are ferdinand nault's symphony in psalms and forsyth's in the middle somewhat elevated.

if i were to have runners up, la valse would be at the top of my list. in fact, the first part of the ballet i do put into the perfect catagory. the second half, however is another story.

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I've never seen a ballet like that. Come to think of it, I've only seen one show of any genre like that, and that was in a genre I generally don't care for -- musical theatre.

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To answer Alexandra's question about perfect ballets, I would nominate Nijinksa's Les Noces, Ashton's La Fille Mal Gardee, Bournonville's Folk Tale, possibly Sleeping Beauty (though in terms of never, ever getting tired, seeing the cats 5 times in one week can be a teensy bit wearing), 4 Temperaments, Liebeslieder Walzer, Les Sylphides for the geometry, and Ashton's Dream and Monotones, and Symphonic Variations. Cheating I know, but the Shades scene in Bayadere is perfection (without the added male solo), so that gets added. Again, all with perfect casting and productions.

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It doesn't matter, in the sense that I don't care how the thread develops, but my initial question was in the context of DESIGN -- are there any ballets that you think are so perfectly designed that you can't imagine them any other way. (I just don't want anyone to think that I think the only perfect ballet in the larger sense in the whole entire world is "Monotones.") Within that context, I'd certainly second Mary's mention of "Les Noces." Balanchine's "undesigned" (black and white) ballets also seem perfect. I'd be curious to see the original 4Ts, but I don't imagine I'd love it -- but then, you never know :)

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I cannot imagine a better performance of MacMillan's Romeo & Juliet than the one with Fonteyn and Nureyev. It is still a great ballet with other people in it, but it doesn't achieve perfection. However, I do have to limit my comment those times when just the two of them are dancing together. Not that the rest of the ballet isn't nice but simply that I don't recall the other parts quite so vividly.

On a shorter note, I think Balanchine's Apollo is right up there with the best of them. I know that Balanchine changed the end of the ballet at one point but that doesn't affect its status in my mind.

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Off topic. salzberg, you left us hanging. (Well, you left me hanging.) Which show was it?

On topic: Although I understand the original intent of the query and think it's perfectly valid, I wouldn't nominate anything, because nothing is ever perfect and that's what gives viewers and artists something to strive for. I think of Sir Galahad: he achieved the Grail, God, and perfection and there was nothing for him to do but die. Well, we can't have that all the time, can we? ;)

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I think of perfection as infinite, not static. I can think of several "perfect" Siegfrieds, or Giselles, or Auroras, and I hope to see several more. Same with ballets. (Although I would like to see some new perfect ballets sooner rather than later :) )

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I think mine are all Ashton, and all include music and design in their perfection - how could they not? La Fille Mal Gardee, Monotones and Symphonic Variations. Most Petipa ballets have perfect bits - I agree about the Bayadere Shades scene - but I couldn't think of a completely perfect Petipa ballet. They have mostly been too messed about, anyway.

Oh, and possibly Petrushka?

[ 09-05-2001: Message edited by: Helena ]

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Originally posted by dirac:

Off topic. salzberg, you left us hanging.  (Well, you left me hanging.) Which show was it?

The original cast revival of Man of La Mancha at the Vivian Beaumont in (I think) 1972. When it ended, I was crying (I've cried at shows many times many times since then, but they've all been my own shows, and if I cried because of their artistic quality, you must remember that "bad" is a quality). Had the evening ended there, it would still rank as the most memorable night I ever spent in a theatre -- but it didn't end there.

Afterward, we go to go backstage and meet Richard Kiley in his dressing room. While we were chatting, the composers of his new movie came in, so he introduced us to "Fred" and "Al". About 30 seconds after they left, we all realized at the same time who Fred and Al were.

What do you say to Lerner and Lowe: "Look, I really don't think Eliza should have come back. . . ."?

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Isn't it interesting that Monotones II has come up several times. I think I'd nominate that one too. I saw 2 performances back to back and the 1st was more perfect than the 2nd so what does that mean? Add the "performance angle" and I'd add Makarova and Dowell in one particular performance of "Swan Lake", and Harvey and Bissell in "Giselle".

Giannina

I'm going to answer my own question. The ballet (Monotones II) is perfect; the performances need not be.

[ 09-05-2001: Message edited by: Giannina Mooney ]

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It's no surprise to me that Monotones II has been mentioned and it wasn't just choreographed by Ashton, it was designed by him too. Of Ashtons ballets I would nominate Symphonic Variations, but not with just any cast. Also his Scenes de Ballet. My most "perfect" memory is of Robbins's Dances at a Gathering with the RB cast that included Nureyev, Seymour, Dowell and Mason. And although I only saw it once, I would also like to nominate Le Loup by Petit(POB). The design element of this ballet is outstanding.

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I was going to mention Ashton's Scenes de Ballet, but in terms of absolute perfection in every aspect, I decided not to, because I find the sets and costumes a bit clunky (though I like the hats). As I recall, Ashton didn't like the original set at all, and managed to get some of it removed. But in terms of construction, yes, it is perfect.

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Les Sylphides is my only choice. The first time I saw it I was sitting way up on the fourth level of the old Met and I was immediately struck by the beauty of his many groupings. Fokine made it all look so easy!

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Well, there's perfect and there's perfect. I fear the following doesn't quite represent the kind of design perfection Alexandra was looking for in this thread, but, if you want to see perfection, check out the blurry video made from bootleg films of Gelsey Kirkland's first few performances of Giselle, available at the Dance Research Collection in NYC. Giselle was never better (I know, this is wildly subjective), and, sadly, neither was Kirkland.

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Perhaps a bit closer to what I see as the idea of this thread, which calls for perfection rather than sublimity, I'll go out on a limb and say that I think Stars and Stripes, with a really good cast and on a really good night, is pretty darn near perfect.

If you're regarding perfection as a cohesiveness of design, style and execution, and a compelling internal consistency, along with a lack of material, of any sort, that's extraneous to or unnecessary for the work's central argument, then it's entirely possible to say that ballets of which one doesn't even approve are perfect.

Not to say I don't approve of Stars and Stripes -- it's one of my favorites.

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'Symphony in C' has to be one of the most perfect ballets of all.

Melissa

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I would go for 'Monotones' too - it seems to me to be a perfect mix of pared-down sculptural movement plus mood, light and music. However, I have a problem with Ashton's costume designs. The all-white leotards are absolutely perfect but he spoiled them, in my view, by adding clunky jewelled belts (ridiculous in particular for the men) plus intrusive white skullcaps for all three dancers.

Still, it is a perfect gem of a ballet and it thrills me every time I see it.

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Like Melissa I would also go for "Symphony in C"; and in addition "Concerto Barocco".

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Ann, I remember reading that when Ashton was making Monotones, he was intrigued by the idea of walking in space, and the costumes he designed were modifications, or inspired by astronauts' apparel. I think the headresses and belts give the dancers a sort of androgynous, otherworldly look.

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