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The Greatest Living Choreographer


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#1 Calliope

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Posted 02 March 2002 - 08:17 AM

This past week I've read (so far) 2 pieces where a choreographer (Cunningham and Paul Taylor) have been referred to as "the greatest living choreographer".
Who would you say is?

#2 Manhattnik

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Posted 02 March 2002 - 10:04 AM

Taylor. No doubt about it.

#3 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 02 March 2002 - 11:50 AM

Both men deserve the highest accolades for their work. I think Taylor tends to be more underrated than Cunningham in the "genius" department, because his works are more direct. When I wrote an article about Cunningham, I referred to him as "one of the senior living masters of the craft of choreography" - which seems like an unassailable assertion for either of them.

Sadly, in ballet at present, I think we have no one living who even comes close.

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 02 March 2002 - 12:04 PM

I agree with Leigh, that there's no one in ballet that comes close -- at least, no one that I've seen.

I would note that in alt.arts.ballet a few days ago someone posted a press release that said that Yuri Grigorovich was the greatest living ballet choreographer.

This will not be a popular opinion with some, but Americans often act as though Bejart and Petit don't exist. I have seen very little Bejart, and none of his Extravaganzas. But from what I have seen, he certainly has craft. Petit's work is extremely uneven -- much of it is little better than cabaret acts -- but he also has craft. Both of these men are in their 70s.

#5 Alexandra

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Posted 02 March 2002 - 01:20 PM

News note: I've posted threads on the Martha Graham issue, and the current Paul Taylor and Mark Morris seasons in New York in the Dance Forum. Any comments on Graham are welcome there. Also, if anyone is going to Taylor and Morris, please tell us!

#6 Farrell Fan

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Posted 02 March 2002 - 03:30 PM

I agree that most Americans behave as though Bejart and Petit don't exist. In fact I mentioned the former to someone during an intermission at NYCB a couple of weeks ago, and though knowledgeable about ballet, he expressed surprise that Bejart was still alive. I wish I'd seen more of his work. I saw a little more of Petit's and agree with Alexandra's assessment. So that leaves Cunningham and Taylor, and because he's more accessible, I vote for Taylor.

#7 Manhattnik

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Posted 02 March 2002 - 04:10 PM

Ah, Beige-Art.

Who could forget his amazing recension of Fokine's Le Spectre de la Rose, with Judith Jamison as the girl, manhandling an unfortunate, vampirish (and much shorter) "Spectre," before flying out the window herself?

Who could forget his also-amazing decision to cast Maya Plisetskaya as Isadora Duncan (in ballet slippers!)?

I think his level of "craftsmanship" might be debated, but of his taste there can be no doubt.

#8 Nanatchka

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Posted 02 March 2002 - 08:01 PM

Choosing between Cunningham and Taylor is like choosing between Cezanne and Manet. One doesn't have to, does one?

#9 julip

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Posted 02 March 2002 - 10:06 PM

While I enjoy the works of Taylor more...I have to vote for Cunningham as the greatest between the two. Cunningham, IMO has done alot more to progress the art of choreography than Taylor did.

#10 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 02 March 2002 - 10:29 PM

I'm with Nanatchka on Cunningham and Taylor. I'm much happier loving both.

I find Farrell's mention of Béjart and Petit and Manhattnik's reaction very telling. It says a lot about the intellectual course of dance in 20th century America.

Like many other art forms, dance has its people who are audience members with varying degrees of interest and passion, and it also has a hardcore intelligentsia; the people who document it and write about it. A good part of the dance intelligentsia in the United States was shaped by Balanchine, and as importantly, by the people who wrote about him (Denby, Kirstein, Croce). And the beliefs that held sway were formalism (a belief that there a great part of the meaning of something lies in how it is made, that the form is the content) and modernism (much more complicated to explain simply because it seems to mean slightly different things in different disciplines - for the sake of this post, one of the most important aspects of it is the idea that a dance needs no other context than itself; "It means what you see.")

At the same time as American dance defined itself this way, European dance took off in a different direction, emphasizing theatrical content and narrative. (I'm not saying that Balanchine had no theatrical content nor narrative, but his priorities about what makes a dance are far more similar to Cunningham's than Béjart's)

Béjart and Petit get short shrift in America because of this bent toward formalism. I think the disagreement is quiet but deep-seated enough that it's usually the fissure between most dance lovers: Which do you value more, effect or form? Those in Béjart's camp value theatrical effect, those in Balanchine's, form. And we tend to divide off accordingly with other choreographers, Cunningham is a strict formalist, Taylor and Morris, accessible ones. Tanztheater is the camp of effect pushed out to its limits, and I think that it, like Butoh, could not have developed as easily here.

Every website has a personality to it, I don't think it's unfair to say Ballet Alert has a very vocal formalist contingent; people whose viewing began with choreographers like Balanchine and Cunningham and whose reading began with Denby. Interestingly enough, among the places that people can choose to discuss dance, I'd be willing to wager whether they realize it or not it's that very question of effect or form that makes people most comfortable at one place or another. You'll find this question behind some of the most polarized arguments about choreographers like Béjart, Petit and MacMillan. It's also an interesting issue to discuss about choreographers like Morris. The reason I think people find his formalism so accessible is there's so much recognizable gesture in his work (alas, it's exactly what I don't like, but that's another discussion) or someone like Forsythe, who straddles the camps, and one either thinks it's genius or the emperor's new clothes. Of course not every European dancegoer loves Béjart, etc. and pop culture (and ballet) in America has a history all its own. If nothing else, it makes for very interesting discussions between people in the "European" camp and people in the "American" one.

#11 rg

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Posted 02 March 2002 - 10:32 PM

cezanne and MANET???
to me, perhaps MONET would be a fair for-arguments-sake comparison, but i'm afraid where MANET is concerned i feel rather similar lincoln kirstein: (and i'll vaguely paraphrase: 'manet was a bad painter!')
to mine eyes both cezanne and monet were GREAT painters.
as to pitting cunningham against taylor, the joust holds no interest for me. see each charging off in a different/opposite direction.

#12 Alexandra

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Posted 02 March 2002 - 11:00 PM

I'd find it hard to choose between Taylor and Cunningham too. I've always thought of them as the Ashton and Balanchine of modern dance; they're very different, but equal.

I would like to say a word about Bejart and Petit. I think the reason they get short shrift in America is because their works aren't seen here often. We don't have much evidence on which to judge them -- Bejart's gala pieces aren't his entire oeuvre. He did several neoclassical works as well as the theatrical works. If Farrell carries out her plans to revive them, Bejart may suddenly enjoy a renaissance smile.gif I have one older colleague who is a staunch defender of Bejart, ranking him with Balanchine at the top level. He saw a lot of Bejart's choreography in the 1960s and 1970s. And Balanchine spoke well of Bejart's "Sacre." (I've seen very little of Bejart's work, about eight ballets, and most very long ago, so I really have no opinion on him.)

Which brings me to an Administrative Aside: While I'm very happy to have a vocal formalist contingent here, I don't want people who appreciate other choreographers to feel blocked out, or laughed out, of discussions. I think we've gotten into trouble in the past because of categorical statements: "He's THE greatest choreographer/dancer" or "He's THE way classical ballet is going." That usually just raises hackles and so isn't particularly useful. But if anyone wants to discuss or defend Bejart, or Petit, or Grigorovich (there are several thousand people in the world, I'd warrant, who would vote for Grigorovich and wonder why no one else did.) Or, heck, Neumeier or Feld, or Peter Martins, or Ben Stevenson, or Kenneth MacMillan, I want them to be comfortable doing so. I think we have to be able to discuss more than our own personal interests, and more than just Balanchine, and recognize that other people -- particularly those in other countries, -- have other views, and perhaps actually have reasons for holding them. smile.gif And I hope this is remembered when the next Eifman discussion comes up!

[ March 02, 2002, 11:58 PM: Message edited by: alexandra ]

#13 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 03 March 2002 - 12:00 AM

Apologies - I didn't mean my post to be a value judgment or a marking of "turf" (This here's Formalist Country, pardner! None of you theatrical types welcome round these parts!) And definitely, not all Americans are formalist and not all Europeans like tanztheater and there are people who like both Balanchine and Petit and so on. . .I do think though, that when people tend to take sides, that's how the lines are often drawn, and it does make for an interesting discussion. I've found it's helped me understand why I'm not seeing eye to eye with someone or why I like X choreographer and someone else doesn't.

On Bejart, though, I wonder about the effect of Croce's excoriating reviews of the company every time it came here (ditto Cranko and Stuttgart.) Granted that Croce wasn't writing those first reviews in the New Yorker, but in a magazine with a far smaller circulation (Ballet Review) but let's just say they weren't the sort of article I would have clipped for my press kit. I'm sure Bejart (like Cranko) had his partisans in the papers too. Veering a bit off topic, one of the reasons Repertory in Review is so fascinating is it compiles the reviews of many authors, including those whose works weren't compiled. Balanchine's history has become the one that Denby and Croce chronicled (and perceptively) but those are only two voices and there was John Martin, Walter Terry, B.H. Haggin - their essays have also made it into print, and then so many others that you'd have to go to the library to read. It makes one realize just how many ways there are to look at a single dance or choreographer.

#14 Alexandra

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Posted 03 March 2002 - 12:20 AM

Thanks, Sheriff. I'm glad there won't be no shootin' smile.gif (And I didn't mean my post as a chiding, but because I was trying to think like an Expressionist encountering this thread!)

I'd love to get into all of these issues -- why the divide? Taste is the most difficult of all. I've read that British critics found Balanchine's "Union Jack" to be in bad taste; I loved it (with its original cast. I understand their reasons, and if someone made a ballet with sailors marching in a dessert singing Air Force tunes, I mightwell make fun of that.)

I think Leigh's point about the critics is very important. Croce has defined what we think of choreographers. (It helps to be collected.) I've seen a few pieces (not by Croce!) lately that are reconsidering Cranko -- but in very hushed tones.

There's also a comment I read once (Repertory in Review?) by Ruthanna Boris, complaining that Balanchine didn't like the way she was using music in a new ballet, saying, "George, we all don't hear music the same way." Good point, Ruthanna!

I also think, along with the reading one does, there's the eye training. I know my eye was trained to Balanchine's sense of music and structure because the first decade of my danceviewing had lots of Balanchine ballets in it. It's hard to break away from that to watch work that doesn't come from the school of Balanchine. (Ashton's "Les Patineurs" and "Les Rendezvous" have a different structure than Petipa/Balanchine that seemed rambly to me for years.

I also agree that it's important to understand where both the artists, and those who discuss them, are coming from. Otherwise, if we just say "good" and "bad" we won't understand each other. I once printed a piece by Sybil Shearer, who's a mentor, and big backer, of Neumeier. I'd had several conversations with her, found her fascinating and very intelligent, and wanted to read what she had to say. She didn't convince me, but it was an interesting article smile.gif

[ March 03, 2002, 12:25 AM: Message edited by: alexandra ]

#15 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 03 March 2002 - 12:54 AM

This should be taken into a thread of its own but I'm going to leave it here first to see if anyone bites wink.gif . I think the recent divided reaction among the critics in London to Tudor's The Leaves are Fading may be an example of what we're talking about here. In that work we saw an abstracted, "Americanized" and formalist Tudor. I'm not saying he had been Balanchine-ized, but what I saw that I loved in Leaves was its form, and all the more because it was as structured in its own way, yet completely unlike Balanchine. However, that woman in the dress slowly meandering across the stage at the beginning could set someone up to expect an entirely different ballet than the one they got.

As interestingly, could one do Leaves as either a formalist or an expressionist work? Is the Leaves of either Royal Ballet (the English or the Danes) a ballet with different priorities than the one danced in the US?


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