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Are ballet companies too big or staff too small?


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#1 Calliope

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Posted 20 February 2002 - 11:40 AM

I went last night to NYCB and saw yet another under-rehearsed performance (Firebird) and I wondered if the company is too big or their teaching staff too small?
Certain ballets I realize require larger casts, for NYCB, Union Jack, takes the company plus some, but companies used to be smaller (didn't they)?

#2 Alexandra

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Posted 20 February 2002 - 11:47 AM

You raise some of the most interesting questions, Calliope smile.gif I think in the 1960s companies were smaller -- no more than 60 dancers (of course, the great companies in Paris and Russia were always much larger).

I wonder if another problem, too, is that each ballet now seems to have three casts, each getting 2 performances each. In the 1950s and 1960s, ballets generally had one cast, with understudies. I noticed this when I was looking at the Danish cast and repertory lists; I believe that in London the situation was the same. It would be possible to have 60 or 70 ballets in repertory and rehearse them thoroughly if there weren't so many casts. Dancers would also have a chance to become comfortable in their roles. In the goodolddays, stars would dance the same role throughout a career -- Fonteyn did over 200 Auroras. When I was compiling Kronstam's role list, there were many roles that he did well over 100 times. It would be interesting to study NYCB cast and repertory lists in the '50s, '60s and '70s and see what the stats are. Anyone in grad school looking for a paper topic?

#3 Ari

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Posted 20 February 2002 - 02:52 PM

From an NYCB standpoint, it's true that when I first started going, around 1974, most ballets had only one cast of soloists. I think this was because Balanchine's interest was always focused on what he was going to do next, and he was satisfied to let one cast do all performances of his old works. He would use whatever dancers were under-employed in his (or other choreographers') new works. Nowadays, there is a finite number of Balanchine ballets, and I think the company's thinking is that they have to expose their soloists to as many of these ballets as possible, so they double- or triple-cast them. This is just a guess, of course.

When it comes to rehearsing the corps, it gets tougher. The '70s-era NYCB corps was notorious for its sloppiness (things improved in the '80s), but at least Mr. B was around to straighten out the tone and feel of the ballets, which was something he could do with just a few words or gestures. Granting that no one can replace him, the issue becomes, who can convey the proper style to today's dancers? Which opens up a can of worms.

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 20 February 2002 - 06:39 PM

I also think that at least part of the reason why ballets have only one cast when they're new is that that's the cast the choreographer wants to see -- and, sometimes, that that's the cast the audience expects to see. Lucia Chase speaks about that in Charles Payne's book on ABT. When Theme and Variations was new, audiences expected to see Alonso and Youskevitch in the leading roles, and there was no second cast for quite some time.

I think the more casts a work has (post-1900 repertory) indicates how important the work is, or how the work is perceived by the company. First, there's one cast. Then a carefully chosen second cast. Then another cast or two, and then anybody who can do the steps and fit into the costume. When you get to this stage (or beyond), you're into three, four, five casts, only two or three performances each, and rehearsal time becomes an issue.

#5 Calliope

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Posted 20 February 2002 - 07:02 PM

I always look at 2&3 Part Inventions and it's original cast that Robbins did on students and then when it was brought over to the company. I'll never forget Jeny Ringer and Wendy Whelan in the leads, it had such a different feel that Kristina Fernandez and Alexandra Ansanelli.
What was ironic, was Ansanelli then seemingly had to "fight" for the role back!
I always question whether you leave a dancer in a role and let them develop into it before giving someone else the shot. It just seems there's too many people waiting to step in. I used to like City Ballet's policy of keeping young dancers out of certain pieces and letting that cast "gel". No people get "thrown" in unexpectedly all the time. So even though there's 3 layers of casts, the "debuts" always make me smile.

I would like to debate whether or not a ballet that has many casts is due to the ballet's importance or that people get injured, or don't want to do the piece. Or that they need to throw some dancers out there. Makes me question how many "throw away" pieces there are just to give people work.

[ February 20, 2002: Message edited by: Calliope ]



#6 katharine kanter

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Posted 21 February 2002 - 04:49 AM

The main difficulty we are facing today, is the fact that even the largest troupes no longer have a proper budget, and haven't, for the last fifteen to twenty years (although I don't know about NYCB ). Even here at Paris, there are not the funds to put up more than roughly three major classics, for example, a year, plus a number of smaller works.

Also for budgetary reasons, most theatres, at least in Europe, will do a straight run of one piece, for six weeks, and then a straight run of another piece, for the following six weeks, and so forth, rather than alternating the pieces in an interesting way. The straight runs mean that you've got the settings, costumes et al. all in one place, at one time, with the exact same logistical teams, and it is all so much cheaper.

Artistically, however, it's a right bore, and as for the dancers, they find doing the same thing every night for six weeks a strain. For example, this year at the 'Bayadère', by the end of the run, eight of the 32 ladies in the corps de ballet were knocked out by injury - those arabesques on the incline look pretty, but they're hell on the ligaments.

At Paris, the étoiles expect, by right, to alternate in the leading roles. This means that if there are, say, six men, and six women, who are étoiles, there will generally be six different casts, at the top.

There have been runs of 'Giselle' with only eight performances, and say, four casts.

The end result is a/ the étoile does not get to develop his or her characterisation properly and b/ the audience has got to see 'Giselle' twice a week for six weeks, though with little chance of seeing the precise same cast doing it twice.

As there are many injuries during such long runs, the corps de ballet gets short shrift as well. People end up being "bussed in" to take up the slack from those who are off ill, with very little rehearsal. This, in turn, contributes to the injury rate of course ! Not to speak of the fact that at the end of the day, the "carpetbaggers" are really just doing the steps. Ballet dancers are intellectually very strong, they can learn just about anything, of anything length, within a day or so, formally - but how can all the rest possibly follow ? The mime, the subtle gestures, the characterisation ? It can't. They're not getting the coaching.

So I say, let us go back to the system of alternating repertory, so over the year, people dance a piece several times, put it aside for a few weeks, and then come back to it, which gives them a better chance to internally work on the characterisation.

There are other issues involved, but for the sake of brevity, I shall stop here.

#7 Alexandra

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Posted 21 February 2002 - 12:52 PM

Calliope wrote:

I would like to debate whether or not a ballet that has many casts is due to the ballet's importance or that people get injured, or don't want to do the piece. Or that they need to throw some dancers out there.


In Toni Bentley's book, she says that young corps dancers wanted to get into every ballet, and older ones wanted to be taken out of them -- that made sense to me. But I do think there's a need to "throw some dancers out there." Perhaps that is the best reason for the throwaway pieces. (Not that they're consciously created as throwaway pieces.) My comment about casting and the work's importance is based on observation but certainly not a formal study. When "Push Comes to Shove" was new, only Baryshnikov did it. Alternate casts were announced (Ivan Nagy!) but never materialized. Then one season, two dancers had it, and now (although it isn't done very often) there are many casts. Once upon a time, there were only a half-dozen men who had danced "Apollo." Think of the Great Search for that ended in Peter Martins' coming to NYCB. At the time, there were only two men whom Balanchine would allow to do the role and both were unavailable -- not because it was so technically difficult but because it was so special. Now, ABT will put on -- was it 7? Seven performances, seven Apollos. Great for the resumes of the Apollos. smile.gif

I think Katharine also made some good points. The weeklong runs, or more, of a single program is a relatively new development -- although I've never understood exactly how much more money is involved to handle the backstage details of two ballets (sets and costumes). Aren't the union crews already on the payroll? Do you have to pay them more if they actually work? I agree that it's hard, psychologically and physically, on the dancers, and it's boring for the audience. It also can be fought. In Frank Andersen's last year (the last time) at the Royal Danish Ballet a new Theatre Chief determined to cut costs (do they have to wear shoes?) came in and there were, suddenly, a month of "Onegin," a month of "Romeo and Juliet" two months of "Sleeping Beauty," etc. When Peter Schaufuss came in the next year, it went back to a more shuffled repertory. There must have been some leeway in the budget so that choices could be made.

Thirty years ago, when there was not block programming, there was minimal marketing, no education programs, and other administrative costs that have been layered on to ballet companies today. Artistic directors didn't have travel budgets to let them zoom around the world any time they wanted to go to competitions, see premieres, etc (and not all do this now, of course, but some do). Bruce Marks said once in an interview (to me) that ballet companies have become bureaucracies and when that happens, the energy goes into protecting the bureaucracy.

#8 Alymer

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Posted 21 February 2002 - 02:33 PM

I suspect that the stagione system (straight runs of one programme or production)has grown up in opera houses because that's the way opera productions run these days. Very few opera houses have a complete resident opera company. You hire international diva La Superba and her favourite tenor, cast the other roles, dig out the production from the stores, rehearse the chorus, and away you go. OK, that's an exaggeration, but it's roughly what tends to happen. So, the general intendant doesn't see why his fully resident ballet company shouldn't perform in the same manner.
It's a development of the last 20 years or so. I seem to remember that ballet programmes at Covent Garden in the 70's were more varied and the elements of triple bills were sometimes mixed in various ways. I'm not saying this was always a good thing - often it resulted in 'something for everyone to dislike' as Dickie Buckle memorably put it. On the other hand, it did mean you had the chance of avoiding the one ballet you really didn't want to see.
With regard to multiple casting; I once interviewed the well known director (now retired)of a well known ballet company who switched off my tape recorder and said "the trouble is we put on too many casts". How you deal with this I don't know. Dancers these days are more inclined to speak out loudly and demand what they want. You won't stop your technical virtuoso principal demanding the opportunity to show the public his Albrecht, even if he regards the role primarily as a chance to display his cabrioles.

#9 Alexandra

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Posted 21 February 2002 - 02:47 PM

Now that that director is retired, Alymer, do you think you could get him to speak on the record smile.gif I think a strong director could sit on said virtuoso, or a clever one could convince him that he has twice as many opportunities for cabrioles in Ballet X. But now that the top level ballet companies are (with few exceptions) no longer closed shops, dancers have more options, and Il Virtuoso, that situation, could easily find a dozen companies that would let him dance whatever he wants.

Perhaps part of the situation (many would not see it as a problem) is because we are no longer in the Age of the Choreographer, but in the Age of the Dancer and Marketeer.

#10 Calliope

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Posted 21 February 2002 - 03:26 PM

I thought now was the Age of the "I'm not the original director but I need to make my mark"

#11 Alexandra

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Posted 21 February 2002 - 03:28 PM

That's a good one, Calliope. It varies from clime to clime smile.gif

#12 BW

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Posted 23 February 2002 - 08:32 AM

This topic seems to be on everyone's "lips" these days.

As Katharine wrote: [quote]Ballet dancers are intellectually very strong, they can learn just about anything, of anything length, within a day or so, formally - but how can all the rest possibly follow ? The mime, the subtle gestures, the characterisation ? It can't. They're not getting the coaching.
So I say, let us go back to the system of alternating repertory, so over the year, people dance a piece several times, put it aside for a few weeks, and then come back to it, which gives them a better chance to internally work on the characterisation.

So many feel this to be true. But as Alexandra added: tis the season of the markateer - sadly, I suppose it comes down to $$$...without the revenues there would be no company yet with those layers of bureaucrats to feed and clothe, it's beginning to seem as if the companies might need new business plans. Easy for me to say, I know. rolleyes.gif

#13 Hal

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Posted 25 February 2002 - 03:13 AM

I think this topic is meaningless in general. Each ballet company has a different style, different size, different needs, different audiences and these all can change over time. All of the above will determine who dances what when.

By the way I believe that NYCB is smaller than it had been in the past as well as larger. As I recall in the 70's and early 80's there were about 105 dancers in the company. Sometime in the late 80's early 90's when the company was in some financial difficulty it shrunk to about 85 dancers. It is now at 93 (20 principles, 16 soloists and 57 corps) based on Thursday program listing. So it is smaller than the 70's but bigger than the 80's.

The only time NYCB dances the same program continuasly is for the Nutcracker (6+ weeks) and sometimes the last week of the spring season where they will do some major full length ballet such as Sleeping Beauty. I believe the company considers the Nutcracker a vacation for them as they alternate roles like crazy and most don't dance that often. The rest of the time they usually have a different program every night with any one ballet usually scheduled 3-6 times over a one or two week period. They usually, but not always have more than one set of principles. Often one set of principles will do all of the performances for a new work. Also, NYCB tries to incorporate new works each season, so that requires time to work with the choreographer aa well as to rehearse the older repetoir. This has to put a strain on everyone. How they pull it off regularly year after year at such a high level amazes me. The occasional sloppy corps lines are a small price to pay.

The POB on the other hand, I think tends to do the same ballet or two for weeks at a time.

These different types of scheduling will create different problems as will myriad other factors.
Smaller companies will tend to use the same principles in any one role for years on end. So I think this topic (what was the topic again? frown.gif )
needs to be about one company at a time. You really can't generalize.

[ February 25, 2002: Message edited by: hal ]




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