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Story ballets


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 18 September 2001 - 10:03 AM

Another piece about the place of the story ballet in the world today -- an interesting one, making some good points, by Rachel Howard, in the San Francisco Examiner.

[url="http://"http://www.examiner.com/ex_files/default.jsp?story=X0916STORYw"]http://www.examiner.com/ex_files/default.j...ory=X0916STORYw[/url]

The piece examines several angles -- how story ballets are off-putting to some and beloved by others and the recent love affair with Dracula and his friends. To someone who has seen many narrative ballets danced so that they "made sense," especially, not so long ago, by both the Royal and Royal Danish ballets, the idea that there's a problem with the ballets themselves and not their producers doesn't compute, and I've never agreed with the notion that the abstract ballet is inherently superior to the narrative one--nor vice versa. But I can't think of many examples of good storytelling that I've seen in the last decade--most places, much longer than that--either in stagings of the old classics or the attempts at making new ones.

Here's the first paragraph:

"Today the story ballet is in a strange state. It's hard to believe that at their premieres works like "Giselle," "Swan Lake," and "La Baydere" made sense not only as dance but as story -- that they were every bit as theatrical in their age as Broadway musicals are today."

(I think if audiences are expecting ballet to be "as theatrical as Broadway musicals" they will be disappointed, as our musicals were what was presented in the boulevard theatres, not in opera houses, and "Giselle" and "Swan Lake" had a different model of theatricality, namely opera and classical theater.)

Perhaps at the crux of the debates about story ballets is our view of realism. Should ballet be "real"?

There are many interesting points in the article -- comments, please.

[ 09-18-2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

#2 Richard Jones

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Posted 18 September 2001 - 12:56 PM

This one has so many angles! My first thoughts are of a missing link not mentioned in the article, French Grand Opera. I happen to have read a fair bit about this era for reasons of musical study, so, Alexandra, hoping that the following context is not too long, here goes.

Romanticism in the arts came late to France and Italy. In 1830 the July revolution resulted in the reactionary Charles X of France losing his throne; he was replaced by the ‘bourgeois monarch’, Louis-Philippe. As usual, revolution in Paris led to unrest elsewhere.

By 1830, the first phase of Romanticism in England and Germany had passed; by that year Wordsworth was 60, and Coleridge had just 4 years to live. Keats, Byron and Shelley were already dead. The most universal writer of the romantic era, Goethe, died in 1832. But by this time romanticism was only just emerging in France and Italy. Manzoni’s ‘I Promesi Sposi’, a historical novel after the model of Sir Walter Scott and a greatly influential work, appeared in 1827. Victor Hugo, perhaps the most representative figure in French romanticism, was born in 1802; his play ‘Hernani’ prompted a battle between classicists and romantics when it was produced in 1830 at the Comédie Francaise. In 1827 French audiences were introduced to Shakespeare by an English company, including the Irish actress Harriet Smithson who had such a shattering effect on the 24-year-old Hector Berlioz. It wasn’t long before he was describing, in autobiographical fashion, an artist’s dreams and passions (not forgetting the effect of an intake of opium) in his Symphonie Fantastique (1830). There was also, by now, a French translation of Goethe’s Faust; inevitably this story also found its way onto the stage. Romanticism in the arts was closely allied to political liberalism; the phrase “Romanticism is liberalism in literature” was coined.

Against this background, the Paris Opéra was transformed under the influence of new bourgeois tendencies. The administrator, Veron, ran the theatre along dynamic business lines; he responded to the taste of his potential audience for spectacular theatre, and the scenic department had a ball; the visual spectacles of the Opéra were famous. Rossini had been drawn into this, and produced ‘William Tell’ in 1829; regarded by Wagner as the prototype grand opera. It was Rossini’s last opera; he didn’t seem to like what had evolved after all, and pined for the old days (Barber of Seville, etc). The poster for the first performance of William Tell lists first the singers and then the dancers (including Taglioni); no name of any performer appears in larger type than any other. This was spectacle on a grand scale.

One of the most popular operas for this new public (and for the whole 19th century) was Meyerbeer’s ‘Robert le Diable’, which included one of the first white ballets. It was, as Mendelssohn said, ‘something for everyone’. It contains mediaeval chivalry, Gothic horror, a demon, a romantic hero, exciting orchestral scoring, heavenly choirs, an offstage organ….and of course the ballet of dead nuns (led by Taglioni) who appear in cloistered surroundings for some kind of midnight orgy. Doesn’t it sound as if nothing is new?! Just like a blockbuster musical of a certain kind? Perhaps this is where romantic ballet could be said to have been part of something which had the impact of the modern musical, notwithstanding the work in the less fashionable theatres as well.

(However, if you are considering Broadway Musicals, you might find something more stylish in some of the older musicals than in some recent productions here and there. In London, they now make a musical out of any subject you like, and some of them are pretty tawdry. Somehow it puts bums on seats, while the straight theatre struggles to finance plays. Meanwhile, the National Theatre has revived Oklahoma! to great accaim).

By the time that ballet had detached itself from the opera, and had been further influenced by Gautier’s exhaltation of his feminine ideal represented by the light-as-air ballerina, the audience was well prepared for Giselle (1841), again with a typical romantic juxtaposition of things earthly and things spiritual. Of course Giselle scores in its quality, whereas some of the modern attempts at Gothic horror ballets seem to be trying to put the clock back to the excesses of French grand opera c1830, which - by the way - is not the most popular operatic style just now (at least that's the case in the UK).

Story ballets need a subtlety today, I’d have thought; Onegin, Mayerling, and Manon come immediately to mind. There must be scope in the genre, but it will have to do without some of the fashions of the past. Swan Lake is sometimes presented with little mime, which is a pity, although that is a period thing belonging to an era when audiences would have understood its provenance. All performing artists have to be able to respond to the demands of different eras; you don’t ornament 19th century music as you do Vivaldi and Bach.

If creative artists are given the scope, surely they must find new life in the story ballet; if MacMillan could range from a straight story like Manon to such as The Judas Tree, we could hope for something better than some of what we are offered. Here in the UK, I saw Northern Ballet Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet in Bath; Prokofiev’s score was used in a cleverly reduced orchestration made to fit into mini pits. There was nothing gauche about this full-blooded retelling of R & J. However, much as I love Prokofiev’s music, there must be other composers; perhaps the music (or choice of composer) is part of the problem…..

[ 09-18-2001: Message edited by: Richard Jones ]

#3 dirac

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Posted 18 September 2001 - 03:13 PM

There are indeed almost too many ways to approach this topic. I'll just make a few points.

I thought Howard's piece was interesting and thought provoking. "So why do major ballet companies' seasons still deluge us with story ballets?" Well, they put butts in seats, for one thing; audiences do seem to be more willing to shell out large sums of money for a mediocre full length ballet with a familiar story than an excellent mixed bill.


The problem may lie in the deceptively simple directive, "tell the story clearly." Balanchine didn't do a lot of story ballets, but he knew how to tell a story when he wished to do so. That Ashton could tell one goes without saying. I'm not sure that the younger choreographers always can. There was a piece on clothes designer Stella McCartney in a recent issue of The New Yorker, which mentions that she and Alexander McQueen are unusual among their generation of designers in that they had gone out of their way to acquire bread-and-butter Savile Row tailoring skills; "she knows how to build clothes," is how I recall the quote. It takes a lot of years and training to acquire this kind of skill; and if you've been raised on a diet high in pure dance and low in mime and theatrical technique, you're going to have problems. Playwrights, to take another example, aren't born knowing how to construct a well made play, and a choreographer undertaking a story ballet is a kind of playwright, even if the libretto is not original. (Shakespeare used to help himself to other people's plots, remember.)


I don't quite understand what Howard means when she implies that the classic ballets once made sense both as dance as story but no longer do. As Alexandra observes, if they don't, it's because the people retelling the story aren't doing it right, not because there is no ballet equivalent of supertitles. Skilled mime is perfectly clear, even when telling an archaic story. (And opera was understandable in the days before supertitles, although I don't want to get into that here.)


At the risk of exposing myself as someone lacking in powers of comprehension, I also don't quite understand what Matthew Bourne is on about. The formula he says he developed sounds very much like the one other choreographers are trying for in their Cleopatras, Draculas, and Pied Pipers. And ,"Now we're the Swan Lake most people know"?? Really?


Finally, I question the distinction between "dance" and "theatre," or at least the sharpness of the distinction as made here. (I can see, for example, discussing as discrete phenomena Martha Graham dance and Martha Graham theatre). In the movie "The Band Wagon" there's a funny sermon on The Nature of Theatre into which the producer played by Jack Buchanan launches whenever he spots an opportunity, and one passage goes (I quote from memory) "There is no difference between the rhythms of Bill Shakespeare's immortal verse and the rhythms of Bill Robinson's immortal feet. It's all THEATAH!" Yes.

#4 cargill

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Posted 19 September 2001 - 06:50 AM

I had a problem with the article, beginning with the first sentence. It is not hard form me to believe that Giselle, Swan Lake, etc. mades sense as stories, because many productions I have seen still do. Giselle, unfortunately, more often than the current mangled Swan Lake, but that is not the ballet's fault. I saw the Royal BAllet's 1970's version of SL many times and it made perfect dramatic and emotional sense. Unlike, in my opinion, Matthew Bourne's, which has gaping dramatic holes (no oath of love, no broken promise, we don't know why the Prince should care about the Black swan fellow, why the tutor is in cahoots with the floozy and why he is then pleased when she is shot, etc. etc.) Bourne is dramatically incoherent, unlike a good (though now almost impossible to see) traditional Swan Lake.
I also don't really understand her main point. Is she saying Balanchine taught her and others to dislike story ballets, but everyone wants to see them, but the audience is bored by them?
I also don't really agree with her either/or outlook. There are good and bad ballets, good and bad productions, which apply to both story and plotless ballets. And it is hard for me to agree with her when she says ballet has yet to find the movement equivalent of supertitles, when I think of productions of Giselle, Lilac Garden, Echoing of Trumpets, The Dream, La Fille, and so many, many others. Nor do I think I am a rich patron with elite and arcane tastes because I love, understand, and believe those ballets.

#5 Alexandra

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Posted 19 September 2001 - 10:18 AM

Thanks for all the comments. Richard, I agree with your historical survey -- my reference to the French boulevard theatres was in the context of French Grand Opera, of course. There are several storytelling traditions left out of the article, but I don't think it was intended as an historical article, but as dealing with the here and now. I also agree that one of the chief problems in the past 50 years, at least, is the lack of new, danceable music. This may well be a problem of money as much as one of art.

I also agree with dirac's point about the lack of storytelling skills among today's choreographers -- for all the reasons she mentioned. Ballet (dance) has often functioned on formula following. A genius invents an Infinite Formula (the romantic ballets of Perrot and Bournonvile in the 19th century, the demicaractere ballets of Fokine and Massine in the 20th, or the plotless ballets of Balanchine) and other choreographers follow the formula, sometimes making very dull, competent works, but often making quite acceptable ones. (I'd submit that Ashton and Tudor worked in different ways; many were influenced by them, but no one is imitating them.)

I also was perplexed by the Bourne comment (that his is *the* Swan Lake for some people), but this may well be true. One of the impetuses for this board was a very acrimonious discussion in another setting over the question of whether Bourne's "Swan Lake" was a ballet or not (I thought it might be nice to have a discussion group for people who knew what a ballet was). But there were several people who wrote, "I never liked ballet before, but now I love it." There may well be those who weren't regular dancegoers and were attracted to Bourne's Swan Lake and have no other context. I don't think this means Bourne's version has replaced what's left of the original, by any means :)

I think Mary put her finger on the paradox reflected in Howard's article, that, as Mary put it, "Is she saying Balanchine taught her and others to dislike story ballets, but everyone wants to see them, but the audience is bored by them?" I think there are three audiences (at least): those who only want story ballets, those who only want contemporary dance that looks like a ballet--there persists the need to say "I'm going to the ballet," even if what one is seeing is David Parsons' "The Envelope"--and a very few who want good dance and are open to it in a variety of forms.

There's one aspect of this question that we've never really discussed -- it could prove contentious :) -- but I'm seeing more and more a division between high art and pop art. I know there are those who don't recognize such a distinction; I do. I've often used the opera/musical comedy division, which no one seems to question. Both are popular, both have different audiences, although there is some crossover, and there is a general understanding that one is high art and one is not.

In ballet, however, everything has been jumbled into one big pot. Much of what is being done in story ballet today that I've seen IS closer to musical comedy than opera. (Not meaning to insult good musicals, which, as Richard points out, are hard to come by too these days; storytelling skills have been lost there, too.)

While I agree with dirac that many people will go to see any full-length ballet, even if it's mediocre, and will pass up the opportunity to see a mixed bill, I haven't seen many excellent mixed bills recently either. The Kennedy Center developed a practice years ago of programming mixed -- mostly contemporary -- rep during the week and running full-lengths on the weekend. Companies around the country try to satisfy both audiences -- three programs of, mostly pop, stuff, with a Balanchine tossed in, perhaps, or a pas de deux, and then throws in a Sleeping Beauty to finish off the season. In some places, story ballets have become children's programming -- some companies have two programs of contemp and two kiddies' shows.

I'm working on an article for the next DanceView on Ashton -- how he's regarded today -- and came across an article by John Martin written in 1956 about his "Romeo and Juliet" which Martin much admired, and which was a very substantive, high art, story ballet using classical ballet. Martin wrote at the halfway mark of the Century of Short, Plotless Ballets, and said (paraphrase): "Fifty years from today, when the story ballet is reascendant, we will date its resurrection to Ashton's "Romeo and Juliet," which showed the 20th century how to make a story ballet using older formulas."

Unfortunately, the story ballet is certainly making a comeback, but, for the most part, not on a very high level.

Thanks for these comments -- more please :)

#6 dirac

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Posted 19 September 2001 - 11:39 AM

I wasn't necessarily disagreeing with the notion that Bourne's "Swan Lake" is known to some people who are unfamiliar with the original; I just thought Bourne's comments were a tad grandiose -- he said "most" not "some" people, and I do think that's an exaggeration.

#7 Alexandra

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Posted 19 September 2001 - 11:46 AM

I agree -- I didn't mean to take issue with your statement. :) I almost wrote "among his friends, perhaps ...." but that might have been taken as catty :)

#8 Alexandra

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Posted 20 September 2001 - 03:24 PM

Could we have some other views? What about those who like Dracula et al? Or who hate story ballets no matter what they are? Or, to phrase it more positively, prefer "pure dance" and find story ballets trivial?

Also, what about Ms. Howard's point -- which I think reflects an accurate general perception, even though there are many exceptions -- that story ballets are off-putting to some, while others will ONLY go to story ballets? Why is there the assumption, on the anticlassical side of the spectrum, that anyone who likes/attends narrative ballets is 85 with an equal IQ, yet at the same time rich and elitist? That's another paradox that's always fascinated me. Perhaps the notion of an old and stupid elite is comforting to some :)

[ 09-20-2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

#9 LMCtech

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Posted 21 September 2001 - 01:09 PM

I am ambivalent to story ballets. I hate the plot lines because I've seen them soooo many times before they are staler than three week old bread. But I like to see them because I can really see the dancer's technique because I know choreography so well.

I like that new narrative are being attempted. I wish the choreography was better so they would actually last. But maybe we just need to wait a while. Wade through the muck til we find a true jewel.

#10 Richard Jones

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Posted 21 September 2001 - 02:23 PM

A few further random thoughts.

First, Rachel Howard mentions high extensions and the fact that companies don’t distinguish between the style of Giselle and Swan Lake (the date for which she gives as 1877, but I think she means 1895). I couldn’t quite work out at first whether she approves, disapproves, or is totally neutral about this; later on in the piece she does mention something about sensitivity to style, which there surely must be.

Second, as far as accessibility is concerned, there are many parallels in other arts. We no longer use the English of Shakespeare’s time, so it needs a bit of effort from the audience to appreciate a performance of Troilus or King Lear. This is a far greater task than understanding a section of mime in a full length 19th century ballet. Opera in its original language can benefit from the use of what we in the UK refer to as sur-titles, but again there is rather more text in an operatic libretto than there is mime in a 19th century ballet, and I’d have thought that movement, however stylized, is a more universal language than anything literary. In fact it is the music which makes opera a universal art form. Combine music with movement and you can tell a story using a universal language, but why should we expect to discover everything contained in a work of art in one go? This attitude doesn’t allow for much depth. I took some school students to see English National Ballet’s ‘Rite of Spring’ (some of them were studying the score for public examinations); Tetley’s ‘Sphinx’ was on the same programme. One perceptive music student, very keen on dance and naturally gifted himself, made some telling comments about MacMillan’s choreography for The Rite (I agree with him that it is uneven in quality) and found Sphinx the more satisfying as a total entity. Meanwhile another student, although very involved in theatre (and now studying for a drama degree at university), found Sphinx difficult to understand – he simply hadn’t had the same amount of experience of watching the language of movement to the degree necessary to discern all of Tetley’s meaning. But the music (Martinu) was a point of contact, and he can move on from there.

Finally, the structure of story ballet, like the structure of opera, may be a problem. Traditionally in opera, arias reinforce the emotions of a particular moment and recitative carries on the story, but Wagner and Debussy both found this division of musical techniques a problem, and each solved the problem in his own way. However, high points are needed whatever the structural framework. I agree that many present day choreographers struggle when they try to tell a story with clarity without being banal.

#11 Alexandra

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Posted 21 September 2001 - 02:36 PM

Thanks for those comments. I think LMCTech goes right to the heart of one of the Great Divides among balletgoers: those who are more engrossed by content than form will be bored with "Giselle" by the third or fourth viewing. Those who are primarily interested in form and structure OR classical dancing (they'd be almost as happy watching a class) can go an infinite number of times as long as the dancing is good. (I don't mean to imply that either is right or wrong, although I'm obviously in the latter camp. But some of my best friends. . . . :) )

Richard, I totally agree with you on mime -- I've never understood why most people are so bored by it, or actually hate it, but they do. I also agree that today's balletmakers can't make story ballets, much of them are banal. Perhaps because we've become so dependent on love stories as the only possible ballet narrative (the Greek myths of the 17th and 18th vcentury at least gave you war, treachery, betrayal, and a few other ways to pass the time). Most story ballets today are two pas de deux -- that could be plopped down in any ballet -- and a whole lotta filler, and the only rule seems to be, whatever you do, don't use mime!


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