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Generational differences?


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#1 Diana L

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Posted 09 July 2001 - 04:17 PM

I hope I can articulate what I'm trying to ask.
It seems that there's a big gap between companies and within companies.
In the golden years of ballet when you had the Fonteyn's and Nureyev's, Tallchief's etc... why was it so different than it is now?
Why did their seem to be a flourish of genius about back then? Why was something back then so new and "uncharted", why isn't that happening today?
Basically I'm trying to figure out what it is that's changed in the ballet world (aside from $$)?
And I apologize if anyone feels I'm aging them, that's not my intention. Other art forms continue to flourish, but I'm not sure ballet is.

#2 Diana L

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Posted 09 July 2001 - 04:24 PM

After I turned the computer off, it came to me what I was trying to ask.
Does ballet need to change? Does it need evolve?
If it does, why?

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 09 July 2001 - 04:52 PM

Ballet has always evolved, I think, by stealing -- from folk dance, from art, from drama, from popular dances -- and it has to speak to each generation. Often it's recycling old forms in new costumes and new contexts (example, Balanchine's "Western Symphony.")

The American critic Marcia B. Siegel once wrote (I forget where) that perhaps ballet companies are like modern dance companies in that they're the best in the first generation when all that creativity just explodes. I think that may be true in a way, although there are companies that have lasted more than two decades (like, two centuries), so there's more to it than that.

It's just very hard to maintain something at a high level -- and perhaps not so interesting. Do you want to create your own works and make your mark, or do you want to try to maintain the works of the guy you bumped off to get the job? (figuratively speaking, of course). Perhaps one of the reasons the Kirov survived so long is that when the repertory was a bit dowdy, they brought in a first-rate balletmaster to clean it up. Then they had a Great Genius for a long time, long enough to really whip them into shape, and they could live off that repertory, adding a few novelties in between the Really Big Hits, for decades.

The dancers question is always a thorny one, because the younger generation (not necessarily in years; some people see their first ballet at six, some at 60) will always believe that the older one that keeps moaning about the Sheeznos and the Heeznos are just dotty old coots who can't get over a first love. One of the nice things about becoming middle aged for me is that you see how things change, and I do relish the sight of people who once argued with me that I had to "get over" the notion that Farrell was definitive in this ballet, or Kirkland in that, finally, dogmatically, intolerantly, saying the same thing about a dancer they'd seen.

I think the proof that, at least in some cases, Standard, not personal loves, is at work here is that the Older Generation opens its arms quite readily to a new genius. Two examples I often cite are Sibley/Seymour and Kirkland. I know many people who loved Fonteyn who were ecstatic when they first saw Antoinette Sibley and/or Lynn Seymour, neither of whom were at all like Fonteyn. But they were interesting, obviously born ballerinas, and it was going to be so exciting to watch them grow up. The same with Kirkland. When I first came to ballet, many people who also loved the current, or previous generations' ballerinas, said, That's the One -- and said it very happily.

One of the things I learned from studying the Danish ballet was that, given enough time, things can come back. There were three or four really bad dips in that company's history and three or four peaks. It's hard to see that in a company that's only 25 or 50 years old, but it's as likely, in theory, that things can get better as that they will get worse. (Hope you're reading this, Young Dancers :) )

#4 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 09 July 2001 - 05:25 PM

Just speculating here, and really more wondering than stating anything. But it seems to me that "back then", or "in the good old days", there really were Ballerinas, stars, mature artists who the public knew and loved. Not that we don't have ballerinas today, but with all the contemporary rep, and then the companies who do not rank dancers, and perhaps a lack of "emploi" in terms of developing the classical ballerinas in the classical roles, we just don't seem to develop the Fonteyns, Ulanovas, Plisetskayas, Tallchiefs, or the Farrells and Kirklands. Dancers are doing principal roles before they have matured into principal artists. We see brilliant young dancers with lots of potential, but we don't see many who have been given the chance to develop fully, at least in terms of the classical roles. The emphasis on youth may well be a part of this. Also, the difficulty of the contemporary rep seems to cause a lot more injuries, and dancers burn out earlier. Does any of that make sense to anyone else?

#5 Alexandra

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Posted 09 July 2001 - 06:26 PM

A lot of sense. I think the age question is a big part of it. When I started going to ballet, there were very interesting dancers in their 40s. It was a bit of a scandal that some companies started cutting soloists and principals at 35. Now you read that dancers are over-the-hill at 30.

If you look at photos of companies in the 1940s, the dancers of all ages look very grown up to me. The 20-year-olds look like adults, not kids. Today, the 30-year-olds have to try to look like kids. This is part of the youth culture, and part that the contemporary/pop dance is so high energy that it really only suits very young dancers.

If you go back even further, to the 19th century, look at all the ballerinas who were gave convincing performances at 16, 18, 21. That was a youth movement, too, and youth was seen as beautiful and touching, but they didn't look like children. They were dancing grown up roles.

The difference in hierarchy -- that that is disappearing in some places -- is something I've not thought of. Thank you, Victoria.

#6 Diana L

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Posted 09 July 2001 - 06:37 PM

Thank you Victoria, that's what I was looking for! I couldn't quite place my finger on it, but I agree that I feel just as pushed as some of the dancers in some roles and that maybe they're not ready to be put in some of the roles that they are in.
Whenever I see a SugarPlum Fairy debut by a really young corps member as good as they are, I never feel they're the matriach that perhaps the role calls for (matriach may be too strong of a word...)
Is the lack of ballerina because of the push or because there are so few matured dancers who are made to be role models before they're ready?

#7 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 09 July 2001 - 07:43 PM

It's both, or the same thing actually, Diana. The young dancers are pushed into major roles too early, without the coaching and guidance they need, and sometimes before their technique has even reached the point where they are strong enough. At the same time they are dancing very difficult contemporary works and sometimes wrecking their bodies in those works. Often they are learning roles from videos, and have far too little rehearsal ($$$ problem rears it's ugly head here). I also feel that they are not brought up and trained with the knowledge of history and the classical ballets to the point where these works and THE MUSIC are an integral part of their lives. This is a generalization, of course, but I do feel this happens in this country way too often. The dancers just don't really KNOW these works.

#8 Mel Johnson

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Posted 09 July 2001 - 08:15 PM

I wonder if, in addition, some of the regular "ebb and flow" of history isn't at work here, as well. A period of mastery, even genius, is followed by a period of good serviceable competency enlivened by a few sparks here and there, but not great fancy demonstrations of what is possible. Ask John Adams.

Similar observations could be made at the post-Martins thread besides. And think of the progression of ballet in Europe during the nineteenth century. A period up to the 1860s where there was a major ballerina behind every tree and up every flue, and then a comparatively fallow period.

#9 Lukayev

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Posted 14 July 2001 - 01:44 AM

About the knowledge of the history and classical ballet/music..

Everyday, I question whichever teacher at my studio who will be teaching variations the next day which ballet it's from, if I could have a copy of the videotape, the music, etcetera..

Right now my class is learning (or at least I am researching and constantly practicing while my classmates look on and talk about their social lives) the three Shades' variation from La Bayadere. I have taken it upon myself to watch the Kirov's version of this with Komleva as Nikiya many, many times so I could understand the gist of the plot.

I mean, there's a girl in my class who's several years older than me who has good technique, but (not to be like a grumpy critic, which I have no right to be) she dances everything the 'same'.. whether it be a Pas de Quatre variation or something as bright and merry as the canary fairy thing in 'Beauty'.
Not the style or anything, but the facial expressions, the general knowledge of the variation, and so on are limited to the steps (at least, in my class).

I'm not planning a full-scale revolution or anything, but I've dubbed over videos for everyone to see the complete Bayadere version so that they'll feel this weighty air about the differing variations. I can't explain it, because my vocabulary is limited to primitive English and my own made-up language. In the meantime, I cackle as my teacher asks me to show the 'steps' (ugh, I don't like that word) of the adagio variation to a small group. I'll try telling them a synopsis of the story to help them understand. :)

--Luka
(Hoping that dancers perform knowing what the storyline is.)

[ 07-14-2001: Message edited by: Luka ]

#10 Mel Johnson

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Posted 14 July 2001 - 08:24 AM

Yes, Luka, knowing what the ballet you're doing is about is very helpful in building a complete interpretation. There is, however, the danger of overrationalizing the content of a work and its context. Gelsey Kirkland was a notorious example of this tendency.

When approaching scenes like the Shades in Bayadere, one has to keep in mind that there is also the tradition of the ballet blanc at work here, and only a little thinking about characterization is necessary. That the characters are ghosts may indeed be sufficient. The academic vocabulary of the work is entitled to carry the heavy load of carrying the work forward. The structure of the work and the individual variations have their own internal drama, and go a long way in entertaining and yes, uplifting, the audience. In regard to Komleva, I've not much liked her Nikiya, as she seems to adopt this facial expression that is, I suppose, intended to be "soulful", but instead comes off looking, especially on video, like "Oy, sotch a GAS I got!" I guess I was spoiled in infancy by Kaleria Fedicheva.

#11 Drew

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Posted 14 July 2001 - 02:03 PM

I've never quite understood what people mean when they criticize Kirkland for the intensity of her research and preparation of roles. Onstage the results were magnificent (not just my opinion) and she looked utterly spontaneous...So from an audience or an artistic point of view why would one imply that her methods were somehow wrong? Presumably the answer to that question would be that some other dancers didn't enjoy working with her, or that her career was cut short and her general obsessiveness may have played a role in this etc. But in terms of what was achieved on stage, I don't think she can be said to have been "overrationalizing" anything. And there was, obviously some relation between her methods of preparation and that achievement...

I go back and forth on the generational difference question. I do think that memory gilds the lily, people are loyal to their first loves and so on. I am one of those who got sick of "sheezno Fonteyn" as a youngster and though my favorite ballerinas are all retired (as, for example, Kirkland!), I forbid the words "she's no x or y" to leave my lips unless I am provoked by an outright comparison, and even then I try to exercise restraint. But I do feel the differences, especially at the very top level of dancing. Then, once in a while I will see a performance or a dancer who inspires the kind of pleasure, I "used" to get and because of that, too, I tend to trust my other, more critical feelings when I think that much of what I see today is not of that quality. I do agree with Mel Johnson's point that there is some generational ebb and flow. I can't speak to what happens behind the scenes but everything else that has been said seems persuasive to me...I would like to add, though, that at ABT at least a few things actually seem to me to have improved, in particular the level of solo/demi-soloist dancing which in the "good old days" -- despite some heroic exceptions like Rebecca Wright -- was often worse than mediocre. In general the level of what I would call "second" tier dancing, even the quality of the "house" ballerinas etc. seems to me a bit higher than it used to me in a number of major companies not just ABT.

I have also felt that the last few years have offered more in the way of interesting and major ballerinas than the decade previous, and it may only be the lack of a major choreographer to feature them more extensively that prevents some of them from joining quite the same pantheon as some of the greats of the past. But despite what I said about my favorite ballerinas all being retired, I have a few new ones on the horizon. Male dancing, interestingly, I have more mixed feelings about. Here especially, good, very good, and even very, very good dancing abounds (certainly at ABT and NYCB), but little that to my mind that compares with the COMPLETE quality of the the really great artists.

[ 07-14-2001: Message edited by: Drew ]

#12 Mel Johnson

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Posted 14 July 2001 - 02:15 PM

If the question is "what was wrong with Gelsey Kirkland's method of preparation" then the answer is that she cost people a lot of time and money that could have otherwise been fruitfully spent, she often reinforced her own insecurities and doubts, the preparations often were hit-or-miss and provided no difference over what had been done before, or in the worst cases, a negative value.

I first met Gelsey when she was eleven; I followed her entire performing career with diligence, and made my own rationalizations for why she was doing what she was doing. There's not much you can tell me about her. You are entitled to your opinion, but I have a different viewpoint from yours.

#13 atm711

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Posted 17 July 2001 - 08:29 AM

Victoria Leigh writes:

"Back then...there really were Ballerinas....stars, mature artists who the public knew and loved."

You can also say the same about movie actresses and you don't have to rely on anyone's memory--it's all there on film. Just compare the 3 versions of "An Affair to Remember". We go from the mature, assured Irene Dunne to the slightly neurotic Deborah Kerr, and finally to the disaster (?) of Annette Bening.

It is not only ballet's problem.

[ 07-17-2001: Message edited by: atm711 ]

#14 Ed Waffle

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Posted 20 July 2001 - 05:18 PM

Victoria Leigh wrote: “there really were Ballerinas, stars, mature artists who the public knew and loved. Not that we don't have ballerinas today, but with all the contemporary rep, and then the companies who do not rank dancers, and perhaps a lack of "emploi" in terms of developing the classical ballerinas in the classical roles, we just don't seem to develop the Fonteyns, Ulanovas, Plisetskayas, Tallchiefs, or the Farrells and Kirklands. Dancers are doing principal roles before they have matured into principal artists.”

As usual, Victoria’s post cuts to the heart of things especially the last sentence quoted above. It rings very true because the same situation, with some variations, exists today in opera. What is termed either “international” style or “American style” in singing has become the norm, with a few besieged fortresses of national singing styles still holding out in France and Russia.

What has happened is that “Lucia di Lammermoor” will sound much the same at La Scala as at the Met. Unfortunately, Lucia at the met will also sound like “Don Giovanni” and “La Boheme” at Covent Garden.

Singers learn roles in languages other than their own phonetically without understanding the text. They get graduate degrees from Julliard, Indiana or Curtis, which means they can sight read Schoenberg, can learn a part while stuck in traffic during a commute and can write a paper on the core tonality of “Tristan and Islolde.” What they can’t do is perform Italian opera in an Italianate style. No one has taught them to do so and no one will.

That the same may be true of ballet training is at least indicated by Luka, who writes: “there's a girl in my class who's several years older than me who has good technique, but (not to be like a grumpy critic, which I have no right to be) she dances everything the 'same'.. whether it be a Pas de Quatre variation or something as bright and merry as the canary fairy thing in 'Beauty'. ”

I seem to recall that some of the ballerinas mentioned above were secular stars to some extent. Fonteyn, Tallchief (at least in Chicago) and Farrell were names known outside of ballet—as was Kirkland, but she more as a poster child for wretched excess than anything else.

Another parallel is a young singer being pushed into roles much earlier than before. There are well-documented instances of great lyric artists ruining their voices through taking on too many roles and too heavy roles before they were ready to do so. The most famous instance is Maria Callas, while Elena Suliotis, even more reckless than La Callas, ruined a magnificent voice in about five years. While the vocal abuse that caused Callas’ and Suliotis’ decline is not purposely visited upon young singers today, it is a consequence of casting practices.

Without boring non-opera listeners any further, what is happening is that what was considered a normal progression of roles over a period of years in the works of Verdi or Wagner does not always exist and younger singers are thrust into parts for which they are not yet equipped. In ballet this taking on of roles to early is detrimental to the art and the artist. The same is true in opera, with the additional factor of potential harm to the singer.

Drew wrote: “I've never quite understood what people mean when they criticize Kirkland for the intensity of her research and preparation of roles. Onstage the results were magnificent (not just my opinion) and she looked utterly spontaneous”

While Mel Johnson’s answer summed up the opposite point of view, I would also emphasize the cooperative nature of rehearsal and performance. In some forms of art or entertainment it can be funny—the movie star who won’t come out of his trailer until he feels motivated can be accommodated since his appearing in the movie means it will sell 30 millions dollars worth of tickets in its opening weekend. The performance of the other actors won’t be affected by his actions. But when there is just so much time available for rehearsal, when a sold out house is already guaranteed (or at least no more tickets will be sold based on who is appearing) and the success other parts of the performance hinge on interacting with the star, then the type of tortuous preparation referenced above can be detrimental.

With solo acts it is different—a pianist may work on a few bars for weeks until she is satisfied with them, a violinist may not perform a certain cadenza until she has played it 100 times to her satisfaction. In the world of sports, Martina Navatrilova revolutionized women’s tennis with her off-court fitness routines. Lance Armstrong spends 6 hours a day on his bike. Men’s and women’s figure skating bridges both sport and art and is another instance of how obsessive preparation can lead to success because there are no other performers to affect.

I very much agree with Drew regarding the way that memory gilds performances. It is very difficult for me (and perhaps for others) to separate the feelings created when one first encounters ballet with the dancers on stage at the time. There are many ways to interpret Odette/Odile and I have seen and loved many dancers in this role. None of them, however, were as “good” (in other words, moved me in such a fundamental way) as Makarova, who danced it the first time I experienced “Swan Lake”.

#15 Guest_dancedarling5_*

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Posted 31 July 2001 - 10:25 PM

The age factor is one that I feel should be considered, since it seems to be, as has been stated before, such a huge part of culture. Another example of this is pop music, where usual age of singers ranges anywhere from 11 to early twenties. It basically comes down to this: the society might praise them for their remarkably developed abilities, but at the same time disregarding necessary factors of maturity. The essential ingredient that pop music seems to lack is sincerity, and perhaps it is also the lack of this in ballet that causes doubt. People complain about teenage singers who sing about themes too mature for them - and there's no reason to believe ballet dancers should be allowed to dance the ballet equivalent before they are emotionally ready.
I don't know how much sense that makes...but it's something I've thought about.


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