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The fell influence of Balanchine, by Sarah Kaufman


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#1 dirac

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 10:03 AM

Obligatory link to Sarah Kaufman's complaint about the dominance of the Balanchine aesthetic in contemporary ballet.

http://www.washingto...9050704620.html

All of those experiences -- the high-art chic, the showbiz, the forceful physicality of Russian ballet and the broken lines and fragmentation that Picasso and Stravinsky were exploring -- surface in Balanchine's work. The bulk of his ballets are abstract, musically driven "pure dance." Even his few narrative pieces are little concerned with reality. Most of his works evoke a cool, purified, distant universe. And always, refinement: He loved tutus and tiaras ("Theme and Variations," 1947), showgirl legs on untouchable goddesses ("Concerto Barocco," 1941) and bracing simplicity. His ballets costumed only in leotards and tights ("Agon," 1957) had the angular, dramatic shock of a Mies van der Rohe house.



#2 miliosr

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 10:39 AM

[moved from a continuation of another thread]

She says everything I believe . . .

#3 Hans

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 10:44 AM

I have to say, I think she is exactly right (except about Bourne).

#4 volcanohunter

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 10:59 AM

If ballet is stagnant because there aren't any geniuses among Balanchine's choreographic disciples, what leads her to believe that imitating Ashton or Tudor is going to produce that genius?

#5 Helene

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 11:00 AM

It's hard to imagine that Kaufman has been watching ongoing performances of Balanchine by San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and Ballet Arizona when she writes:

We are cursed with George Balanchine, cursed with an overload of his ballets as well as with the ubiquity of the sinewy style he favored, his preference for plotless works on a naked stage, his taste for fast, skinny, emotionally guarded dancers.


That's not to say I haven't seen emotionally inscrutable performances by Natalia Magnicaballi at BA or Batkhurel Bold at PNB, for example, but time after time, I've seen anything but skinny, emotionally guarded dancers. (They are fast, though.) And I'll take the naked stage over Tony Walton's sets for SFB's "Jewels" any day of the week.

When she wrote

Gone, in new work, is theater, spectacle, satire, flesh-and-blood characters, the ache of real life, the escape offered by a sharp, piercing little story. Now more than ever, American ballet, artistically speaking, is a homogeneous entity. We are a thoroughly Balanchine nation.


I doubt she had seen Ginger Smith and Astrit Zejnati or Tzu-Chia Huang and Ross Clarke in the Kay Mazzo/Peter Martins roles in one of Balanchine's most abstract creations, "Stravinsky Violin Concerto", in which each couple painted a strikingly different portrait of a relationship through choices in phrasing and dynamics in complete service to the score. The audience met the end of Aria II by the first couple with an intense silence and by the second with audible sighs. I doubt the ache of real life escaped anyone.

These are not isolated examples that I've seen in the last decade.

#6 miliosr

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 11:11 AM

Looking toward Ashton and Tudor for inspiration may not lead to genius but at least it would offer an alternative to the wall-to-wall Balanchine and pallid Balanchine imitations we see today.

#7 volcanohunter

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 11:13 AM

Possibly, but I suspect you'll end up with pallid Ashton and Tudor imitations.

#8 Helene

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 11:16 AM

A couple of the best ballets I've seen since the death of Balanchine had his mark on them: Paul Gibson's "The Piano Ballet", and a wonderful little piece to Webern than Daniel Duell choreographed for a small group of dancers at Jacob's Pillow in the mid-80's.

#9 miliosr

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 11:23 AM

Ah, volcanohunter, but at least the pallid Ashton and Tudor imitations will be different and less routine imitations . . .

#10 Arizona Native

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 11:25 AM

Seconding the post by Helene, above, and having seen those particular examples at Ballet Arizona -- if it is all that abstract, why do people cry? Oh yes, they do. Men, too. They laugh, they cry, they sigh, and all the rest. Recorded music and all, well-performed Balanchine allows dancers, in all their humanity and individuality, to both stimulate the intellect and resonate with the soul, plot or no plot. In fact, when dancers are emotionally guarded in Balanchine pieces, it is noticiable and unsatisfying. For instance, also at Ballet Arizona, Chelsea Wilcox, while fully physically capable, is not yet up to the level of other company principals, specifically because of this. Roman Zavarov, as Apollo, for all his physical beauty, would be little without the range of expression he provided.

I'll buy some of it, including the relationship to artists working contemporaneously -- but not the blanket condemnation.

#11 dirac

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 11:28 AM

I take some of Kaufman’s points, but it was depressing to see her exhuming ancient criticisms of Balanchine as being abstract, remote, and lacking in good old human feeling. (“Ballet needs to get its humanity back,” etc.) It became harder to take the article seriously when Kaufman offered up the notion of hiring Matthew Bourne as “thinking outside the box.”

I will allow that I haven’t seen any gas station attendants or ranch hands on the ballet stage lately, but I don’t often meet them in real life, either, unless I’m filling up the tank at one of the rare places where full service is available or attending the rodeo.

I suppose if ballet were to reflect truly the realities of contemporary American culture, we would have ballets about life in office cubicles (“Dilbert: the Ballet”? Maybe somebody could have a go at “Office Space”?)

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Keep talking. :D

#12 Arizona Native

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 11:38 AM

Isn't the Balanchine Ballet a bit of a straw man for Kaufman? Dancers' limited acting skills may be, for instance, more closely related to specialization as ballet, like all arts and all sports, has become more demanding in pure physicality. One can imagine a number of other contributing societal causes, some relating to performers, some to audiences, others to the funding (which is mentioned). In other words, accepting the legitimacy of her concerns, wouldn't it be the case that the causes have societal roots ... rather than a causal connection to performing or preferring Balanchine works.

Interesting to contemplate Dirac's comment -- is urbanization itself a cause, as lack of colorful "characters" recede and the relative anonimity of the city takes over ....

#13 Mel Johnson

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 11:43 AM

Bourne isn't the answer to anything; his work is something between the drawing of mustaches on the Mona Lisa and the self-referentiality that the article decries. Balanchine, while "dabbling" in movie choreography, produced an uproarious version of Swan Lake which a lot of people have taken for a veracious picture of what ballet actually is!

But something seems to be missing, here. Ubiquity is disparaged and yet, the realization that propinquity begets ubiquity seems to have been forgotten. Balanchine was working in America, and it's a big place! Lots of wannabes were bound to be produced simply by the process of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. What I would like to know is: Where are the Ashton wannabes? Wheeldon seems to be a natural heir apparent, but doesn't pretend to the title. The UK can't depend on getting a genius like Ashton - indeed, no place can - every quarter-century; even he came to England via Ecuador and Peru. Balanchine came to America by another sort of track, but it's largely good fortune that both ended up where they did! Americans and Britons both saw both choreographers at their best, and practically simultaneously. Perhaps it is simply because short story ballets are so much work to produce.

#14 miliosr

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 11:45 AM

Actually, dirac, the "ballet" about contemporary life you describe sounds pretty close to Anna Sokolow's Rooms . . .

#15 Dale

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 11:46 AM

I agree with dirac. While I feel Kaufman has some valid points, I disagree with her line that Balanchine favored "fast, skinny, emotionally guarded dancers." I don't doubt she sees this sometimes but it's because Balanchine choreographic followers (I'll call them post-Modern ballet creators) miss the whole, encompassing view of Balanchine's work. His work was not devoid of story (think of his famous quote - just because it's abstract doesn't mean there's no meaning. When a man and a woman are on stage together, there's already a story), not all of them were devoid of scenery, and for a man who worked so closely with Karinska and other designers, he cared about costumes too. But post-Modern choreographers just riff on Agon (without any of the skill that ballet showed) and forget all the other ballets like Steadfast Tin Soldier or rethinks of ballets such as La Source or Raymonda Variations. Not every Balanchine ballet is a slash and burn, like William Forsythe or Jarmo Elo or even some Wheeldon. In fact, it is those performances of Balanchine's works that treat Agon or 4Ts like an Elo ballet that I find unacceptable.

However, it would certainly behoove ballet makers today to explore all of the great repertoire.


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