dirac

The fell influence of Balanchine, by Sarah Kaufman

180 posts in this topic

Ashton was very varied in his work, and did abstract as well as story ballets. Assuming this means narrative ballets, Artistic Directors are chomping at the bit for new story ballets...

The Ashton work that may well be his greatest is an abstract ballet but I don’t think that’s what people mean when they suggest looking to Ashton as an example of a different kind of approach to the art form. ADs love new full evening story ballets but smaller-scale ones somewhat less so.

A few other things about the article. Rubies is a complete ballet, not an excerpt. Balanchine was immersed in Russian avant garde influences in Russia, as well as 19th century ballet forms, well before he went to France--SK skips over this. The Bauhaus was not a unilateral school, and indeed had deep humanist traditions. Paul Klee and Johannes Itten both taught there alongside Mies. (Moholy Nagy was the bad guy who telephoned in his paintings to be fabricated offsite and scared everyone by this cold way of making art.)

Thank you for pointing these things out, Quiggin. (Kaufman’s article reminded me of that little book Tom Wolfe produced some years ago about the Bauhaus where he also had some blinkered things to say about Balanchine.)

Would you rather see Valse Fantaisie or Dracula?

Good point.

I'm glad so many BTers are putting in their two cents. There are still a few precincts to be heard from, however, and you know who you are. :wink:

Share this post


Link to post

To add something else into the mix that has been discussed before, I think the emphasis on pyrotechnics (and the attendant competitions) have had a longterm effect on artistic quality. We've been in an age of technique over substance for a while, but more than that, to train dancers at that technical level we sequester them early and specialize them mercilessly. A few dancers "cross-train" in music and other visual arts, but often they get that on their own and late, so that you'll often see a new choreographer who's being so earnestly daring that you don't have the heart to tell him that Arvo Part isn't cutting edge. I think we'd have a shot at better ballets with dancers more broadly exposed to art and with the best education possible. Smarter dancers = smarter ballet.

Share this post


Link to post

Those pyrotechnics are solos and, to an extent, pas de deux, and even when they are classical, they are out-of-context, in that these works look best when they are danced in classical style in the context of a full ballet and company. (That by inuring the audience with "pow", they make it harder to "see" the more delicate elements that lead up to them in longer ballets is a big issue, like when Beijing Opera comes with all stick-fighting and little opera to appeal to foreign audiences.)

One of Balanchine's greatest insights was to create dance that required uniformity of energy and impetus rather than uniformity of style, because he wasn't going to get uniformity of style at the Ballet Russe or in his many attempts to create his own company in America. How many companies actually hire dancers they've trained since they were eight years old like in the royal/imperial academies?

Almost all of the major company schools in North America split the school in early teenage years, some continuing with a parallel track of kids who don't make the Professional Division. SAB, the most prestigious company academy in the US, trains the majority of its dancers professionally for at most five years, and they add top level students each year. That's not molding dancers in a company style from the beginning of their training, although with the retirement and death of many of the Russian and European teachers who've been replaced by former company dancers, training is probably more homogeneous now than not that long ago.

The current rep provides jobs for the most diversely trained group of dancers without relying upon style.

Share this post


Link to post

One last word from the raskol'niki camp . . .

In a 1987 essay on Twyla Tharp titled Post-Modern Ballets, Arlene Croce digressed from her main subject to address a then-current Lincoln Kirstein essay titled "The Curse of Isadora," in which Kirstein launched yet another of his tiresome broadsides against the modern dance. Croce responded as follows:

Might it not be time for another essay, called "The Curse of Balanchine," in which it would be shown how the great choreographer created twentieth-century ballet and put it off-limits at the same time? He incorporated into the mainstream everything there was to incorporate -- jazz, Bauhaus, twelve-tone music, American pop; yes, even the modern dance -- and left the academy at a peak of virtuosity, with nothing further to express. Balanchine's progeny rework his accomplishments; they can honor his precedents, but they can add nothing to what he has said.

If Croce wrote that in 1987, I can just imagine what she would write now given the ever-decreasing marginal utility of the Balanchine-style abstract/plotless ballet.

Ah well, I suppose I am a Cassandra on this matter. But then, look what happened when no one listened to her. :clapping:

Share this post


Link to post

Fascinating topic. I've reread the Kaufman piece several times and am struck by how on target many of these posts are, even when the writers disagree.

On the whole, I side with volcanohunter and those who continue to be moved, deeply, by Balanchine's work and are delighted to see it preserved and even developed by regional companies around the world. I don't think that Balanchine can be blamed for, or tarnished by, the ballets of less-talented choregraphers who have entered the scene in his wake. "Plotless" does not mean, in the hands of someone like Balanchine, that there is no "story" or no ability to provide a deeply human fascination.

Re: the eye-caching and emotionally charged slogan, "Curse of Balanchine." I was struck by the fact that Kaufman's editors at the post chose NOT to flaunt this in the headline. Instead, they lead off with: "Ballet Must Make Room Onstage for More than One Genius." This is not a controversial point, but it's a good one. If only Kaufman had stuck with it.

Kaufman has clearly thought a great deal about this matter. Good for her. In arguing for more variety in ballet programming -- a more adventurous spirit and a willingness to engage in different styles and formats -- she is performing a service. By returning several times to her "Curse of Balanchine" theme, she does her cause no good.

How do we break the Curse of Balanchine? ... What's needed is the antidote to all curses: Ballet has to get its humanity back.

I'm sorry, she loses me on this. I see Balanchine as one of the greatest artist-humanists of the modern age.

Share this post


Link to post
How do we break the Curse of Balanchine? ... What's needed is the antidote to all curses: Ballet has to get its humanity back.

I'm sorry, she loses me on this. I see Balanchine as one of the greatest artist-humanists of the modern age.

Yes, her remark reveals a profound inability/unwillingness to see B's work in a larger cultural context.

Share this post


Link to post

I really don't think Kaufman is referring to Balanchine with that remark but rather to current ballet performance and choreography trends begun by people who misguidedly think ballet is primarily about steps.

Share this post


Link to post
I really don't think Kaufman is referring to Balanchine with that remark but rather to current ballet performance and choreography trends begun by people who misguidedly think ballet is primarily about steps.

I agree, because she praises Balanchine's work a lot in the article. That's why her title was ill-chosen. But I think that remark is pretty clunky on its own merits--DO it, don't SAY it, as they say; in this case, if you say it, it just comes across as cornball and cheap nostalgia about the 'getting its humanity back' --or the lack thereof. It also rather rhymes with that 90s cliche, pronounced by Monica Lewinsky among others, about how 'I just want to get my life back'. Gross. I'm so glad I haven't heard that for awhile.

But when she says 'Of the more than 400 ballets Balanchine created in his 79 years, roughly 75 are still actively performed. And they are, for the most part, so exquisite it's hard to complain about seeing them over and over. Who can tire of the radiant stasis in "Serenade," the spacious, deconstructed architecture of "The Four Temperaments," the mass precision of "Symphony in C"?' this proves that she does have something to say, since she's clearly not a Balanchine-basher if she can say that. She should have called the article 'The Oppressive Cult of Balanchine and Its Refusal of All Critique', instead of 'The Curse of Balanchine'. Because I don't think Balanchine himself would care for this cult.

Perhaps it's because I grew up with Balanchine's style--I generally find his 'surprises' predictable..

Agree there too, although only because I did see a lot of Balanchine before any other ballet, which is the reverse of what most do, I think. It doesn't mean that I ever tire of the ballets of his I most love, of course, and there are a good lot of them. But there is definitely too much hype, and I basically thing the article is important.

Share this post


Link to post

miliosr, it seems to me that Kaufman is suggesting that Balanchine’s example is too limited and limiting; Croce is saying almost the opposite. (There’s a story about Jackson Pollock throwing a book of Picasso reproductions to the floor and saying, “Damn it, the guy missed nothing!” That’s closer to Croce than Kaufman is.)

I really don't think Kaufman is referring to Balanchine with that remark but rather to current ballet performance and choreography trends begun by people who misguidedly think ballet is primarily about steps.

She may not have intended that, Hans, but in the context of her article and references to “.....the sinewy style he favored, his preference for plotless works on a naked stage, his taste for fast, skinny, emotionally guarded dancers” and all those wholesome American types he kicked off the stage to make way for Bach and Stravinsky, it sure sounds like it.

Share this post


Link to post

Well, dirac, whether you subscribe to the Kaufman take or the Croce take, they both lead you to the same end point -- don't they?

Share this post


Link to post
.......given the ever-decreasing marginal utility of the Balanchine-style abstract/plotless ballet.

This takes me back to my initial comments (perhaps overly simplistic) on the Kaufman article. In spite of all the interesting and insightful comments made in this worthwhile discussion, doesn't it all boil down to personal taste? If any of the arguments in this thread uncovered some fundamental "Truth", I certainly remain unconvinced. Isn't this issue nothing more than "I like this type of ballet" whereas someone else "I like that type of ballet"?

miliosr, I may be oversimplifying your view above, but I take from your comment that you prefer ballets with a narrative rather than "abstract/plotless ballet" without a narravite. Terrific. You know what you like. In contrast, I happen to like plotless ballet (that's not to say such ballet has no meaning beyond just a series of steps). That's terrific too. I know what I like.

I bother to post this simple proposition because it hits home for me as I've watched what Peter Boal has done in the 5 years he's led Pacific Northwest Ballet. Full length story ballets have never been my favorites (even the greats such as Swan Lake). That's not to say I don't love story ballets, because I do, but I just prefer a ballet like Agon or In the Middle Somewhat Elevated. Like everyone (I presume) I want a season that includes both, but I prefer a season that emphasizes the plotless over the story ballets. So when it became clear that Boal was moving seasonal programming toward more "modern" ballets as opposed to the Stowell/Russell choices I was used to, I was ecstatic. I found myself more excited by ballet than ever before.

Now here comes the point for me personally. I pretty much go to every post-performance Q&A session when I go to see PNB. I often make comments at these sessions as, of course, do many others. My comments often express my pleasure that such and such a ballet was presented (let's say something like State of Darkness, or perhaps a Dove ballet), but invariably at these Q&A sessions someone else makes a comment to Boal that they are bothered because PNB is not presenting enough story ballets these days. Each time I hear that, I cringe because an irrational fear comes over me that Boal might actually be persuaded by such comments to cut back on the non-traditional stuff. So I want to go in one direction, but someone else wants to go in another direction. Neither of us, of course, is right or wrong.

Perhaps much of this debate reduces down to nothing more than personal taste. (I say....perhaps.)

Share this post


Link to post
There’s a story about Jackson Pollock throwing a book of Picasso reproductions to the floor and saying, “Damn it, the guy missed nothing!”

:FIREdevil: Oh man, does this make me love Pollock, even though I'm more of a Matisse girl myself.

Thank you, Dirac!

Share this post


Link to post

I suppose it does come down to personal taste. Those of us who love Balanchine more than other choreographer are naturally quite happy with the way things are, whereas those of us with broader tastes would like to see a more diverse repertoire and aesthetic. No one wants Balanchine to go away entirely, but the steady diet of Balanchine, reworked Petipa, and Flashy Contemporary Drivel is becoming monotonous.

Share this post


Link to post

Thanks, miliosr, for reminding us about Croce's 1987 article, "Post-Modern Ballets." To wit:

Might it not be time for another essay, called "The Curse of Balanchine," in which it would be shown how the great choreographer created twentieth-century ballet and put it off-limits at the same time?

It seems pretty clear that Kaufman knows this essay, though she does not refer to it.

The animus in Croce's piece seems to be against Lincoln Kirstein especially and the desire to perpetuate, "rework" and continue making new variations on the basic Balanchinian style. As a whole, the essay is something of mixed bag. Croce seems thinking through, and working out, the problem of how to respond to the death Balanchine and the future of American dance without him.

The "Curse of Balanchine" portions of Croce's essay, taken out of context, do not give a fully accurate impression of what she seems to be trying to express.

Share this post


Link to post
Those of us who love Balanchine more than other choreographer are naturally quite happy with the way things are, whereas those of us with broader tastes would like to see a more diverse repertoire and aesthetic. No one wants Balanchine to go away entirely, but the steady diet of Balanchine, reworked Petipa, and Flashy Contemporary Drivel is becoming monotonous.

That's a bit of a generalization, isn't it? I don't think anyone is really happy with the status quo (even Balanchine lovers), particularly on these boards. Aren't we all still waiting for the next best choreographer to come along? Don't a lot of us wish there was more Tudor and Ashton programming? Don't we all want to see more traditional productions of Petipa's ballets? Yes, I agree that the repertoire of companies worldwide has become monotonous, but to say we're all just content with what we're seeing is flat out wrong. I don't have the answer as to how to change this trend, but I have to side with argument that Balanchine is not to blame.

Share this post


Link to post

I don't think anyone has said Balanchine is to blame. I certainly haven't. When I wrote "happy with the way things are", I was referring to the ubiquity of Balanchine's choreography and his aesthetic, for which the man himself is not responsible.

Share this post


Link to post

Regarding Sandy McKean's PNB comments, I remember going to ABT at the Met and hearing the man next to me say pointedly, "yes, yes, a story ballet. I just love ballets with stories--I really think Balanchine and the others missed the boat on that across the way a long time ago."

I think Balanchine’s great appeal is while he is an orthodox modernist, within his modernism he has created a world of great breadth and variety of forms that’s as big as Verdi’s, whom he admired, or even Shakespeare’s. What I’m always astonished at is that while everyone talks about the work of the soloists, there is all this brilliant counterpoint that goes under the critical radar. This counterpoint is a mad concerto of talk-back of the minor characters with the major ones--or othertimes there are forms that verge on puns and double entendres like the ones Paul Muldoon plays with in his poems. Nobody else can riff and create variations like Balanchine can, and variation form is life itself. Therefore B's wide appeal. Wheeldon, in comparision, is inventive and good, but his variations aren't interesting and his world is medium sized and a bit astringent and dour (as is Kaufman's).

Anyway there’s a stalled topic on Balanchine’s hierachies and communities started by Kathleen and and nudged on by Dirac somewhere on this board that might be a more appropriate place to develop this out.

Share this post


Link to post
Aren't we all still waiting for the next best choreographer to come along?

Hmmmm, I wonder. Are we, BTers? Perhaps a topic for a new thread? Or a poll?

Share this post


Link to post

I think there is a related topic on the Next Big Thing in choreography somewhere, but it might have come up on one of the Wheeldon threads we've had in the past. It would most certainly be for new thread.

The post on hierarchy and structure Quiggin mentions was put up in this forum a day or two ago, and I do urge BTers to take a look, please. :FIREdevil:

Share this post


Link to post

Checking in from raskol'niki HQ!

One of my favorite dances is Jose Limon's A Choreographic Offering, which is completely abstract. So, I have no bias against the abstract/non-narrative/plotless dance -- provided that it is done right. And that is the crux of my complaint -- I don't see anyone doing it right and that makes me wonder whether the form itself is well-suited to most choreographers, especially young choreographers. Whether you accept this argument as expressed by Kaufman (that the form, as developed by Balanchine, is too limiting) or by Croce (that the form, as developed by Balanchine, is "mined out") is irrelevant -- you end up at the same dead end.

My belief is that too many people looked to what Balanchine was doing in the 20th century and decided that, henceforth, Balanchinean dance was the form all future dance should take without ever thinking through the possibility that the form might be peculiar to the man himself or that the abstract ballet was a long-term destination point rather than a starting point for most choreographers. Balanchine had a lifetime to get to where he ended up. That meant a great deal of trial-and-error and exploring different forms and methods of presentation before he settled into the High Modernist phase of his last 25 years or so (and which most choreographers appear to be imitating.) Given the great difficulty choreographers making dances in the abstract mode have had in creating works which last beyond a season or two, maybe a more fruitful area of exploration would be to go back to narrative or semi-narrative forms and use them as a structure through which they can develop their craft over time and then begin stripping away. This seems like a more useful way to get out of the current rut rather than having choreographers jump into the middle of the abstract ocean and expect them to find their way back to shore.

Maybe my approach won't work and we'll end up with a lot of bad Ashton and Tudor imitations rather than Balanchine imitations. But, again, if the classical ballet cannot evolve beyond the 19th century warhorses on the one hand and the Balanchine repertory on the other (as the Ashton and Tudor repertories disappear), then it truly is a minor art form and we are all wasting our time.

As for the Balanchine repertory itself, Hans put it best -- it's the sheer monotony of it all that I object to. I don't think it's healthy for ballet in America to be as overdominated as it is by former Balanchine dancers. Even when someone like Peter Boal makes a good faith effort to program different things, the impression one is left with is that the type of dance programmed is all of a certain piece. Meanwhile, the Ashton repertory barely clings to life (even in London) and New York Theatre Ballet tries to preserve Tudor's repertory as best it can given its modest means. I guess I just find this state of affairs galling.

Share this post


Link to post

miliosr, very provocative. You've given me a lot to think about (tho I somehow doubt I will find myself in agreement). And frankly, I think you said more in that short post that SK did in her entire article.

The only thing that doesn't compute for me is the use of the word "monotony". I can't even imagine that. I suspect one's relationship to that feeling must have to do with how long one has been immersed. (Fish, I imagine, find water monotonous.) I've been going to ballet for 40 years, but it's only been in the last 10 years that I have gone "over the edge". It's still all too new to me to find monotony anywhere. (Perhaps monotony can only strike in a place like NYC where one can get exposed so frequently.)

Share this post


Link to post

Gosh, some of these posts are depressing. Monotony? Balanchine's ballets are as monotonous as the music he chose - in other words, NOT. I can't help remembering and paraphrasing the late Clive Barnes on the subject of La Bayadere: if you don't like Balanchine you don't like ballet.

Share this post


Link to post

I can't speak for Hans or Old Fashioned but my use of the word monotonous wasn't referring to the contents of Balanchine's ballets. What I was referring to is their ubiquity -- many, many companies program them and, frequently, the artistic directors program the same ones. The companies and their repertories blur together as a result.

As to whether you can be lukewarm about Balanchine (or even dislike his work) and still like ballet, I thought Arlene Croce put it best in an interview she did with Dance Ink in the 1990s. She said that, even when Balanchine was alive and doing great work, there were still a lot of people who honestly preferred a Bolshoi highlights program to going to the New York City Ballet. You can argue that the people who preferred the Bolshoi to Balanchine had reactionary taste or even bad taste but I think it's a stretch to say people who fell (and fall) into that group "don't like ballet."

Share this post


Link to post
You can argue that the people who preferred the Bolshoi to Balanchine had reactionary taste or even bad taste but I think it's a stretch to say people who fell (and fall) into that group "don't like ballet."

Agree and well-said, I do love much (most) Balanchine, but I think Barnes's remark very snob-appeal type of thing. Critics in all the Arts love those kinds of grand-gesture elitisms like that. They slip them in every chance they get, as if 'making history', it sometimes seems.

Share this post


Link to post
I suppose it does come down to personal taste.
That certainly seems to be the way the discussion is turning. The farther down that path we go, the more we lose sight of Kaufman's real point, which is the decline and even disappearance of other ballet styles and approaches on the U.S. stage.

Kaufman exagerrates this a bit, but I think she hits a bull's eye when she writes:

Some of the post-Balanchine work has been interesting, much of it has not. But ballet has not become richer. (My italics.)
She's in a good position to make such judgments, partly because she is looking at things from a Washington DC point of view:
Balanchine's ubiquity creates a particular problem for Washington. The Kennedy Center presents more touring companies than any other venue in the country, and with other local stages in the picture, conditions are ripe for overload. In the past six months alone, audiences have seen the annual Balanchine-heavy runs by New York City Ballet and the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, along with Balancine works danced by ABT and the San Francisco Ballet. This week at the Harman Center, the Washington Ballet essays "Rubies"...

These companies are CHOOSING to perform these works. American audiences are supporting them. Returning to Kaufman's article, I was struck by the following insight:

Balanchine is the blue-chip stock of ballet. And unlike a lot of blue-chip stocks nowadays, it is still a stable investment. As the old saying goes, no one ever got fired for buying IBM -- or for licensing a Balanchine work. After all, who can argue against the visual and musical joys behind his innovations in the speed, virtuosity, and urban glamour of ballet?
For a company to invest heavily in a guaranteed high-prestige winner isn't suprising. Let's add to that the possibility that performing Balanchine well is a kind of litmus test for a company with pretensions to excellence. "Last season we got permission to do Allegro Brillante; this season, Rubies; next year: a full-evening JEWELS!!! We MUST be good!"

Financially, nowadays, there's much less room for experimentation and failure. The same goes with prestige and impressing your Board. Is it possible that Balanchine has become the safe, cost-effective alternative to sitting down and trying to create something new, rich, beautiful, and significant from scratch?

:) Thanks, dirac, for starting this topic, and for giving it such a great (i.e., un-fell) title. Thanks, Ms. Kaufman, for provoking such a variety of fascinating responses.

Share this post


Link to post