senses An Agenda.
Kaufman’s article is not the most internally consistent argument against House of Balanchine that I’ve encountered. There’s a lot to chew on and respond to, but four quotes struck me immediately in this regard:
Today, new ballets come in two forms, either the plotless 20-to-30-minute piece or the evening-long, three-act "story" ballet. These full-lengths treat familiar tales -- "Dracula," "Peter Pan" -- with mixed results, or rework the time-tested "Swan Lakes" and "Sleeping Beauties." Most ballet companies perform one or two a year -- they are expensive to create but they sell the most tickets. Do they really tell a story? Typically, no. If you don't already know the plot, you are sunk. (Emphasis mine.)
What's needed is the antidote to all curses: Ballet has to get its humanity back. Telling a story may be viewed as unhip in our postmodern age, but human cravings don't subside just because artistic manifestos tell them to. We'll always love stories, especially when they're about us. Look at Tudor's "Lilac Garden," in which a woman must give up the man she loves for the one she doesn't: Done right, it's not a dramatization of Edwardian society, it's a heartbreak happening now. It's so real, it hurts to watch. Choreographers ought to study the old masters, particularly Tudor and Ashton, whose entwinement of movement, drama and feeling are unmatched. (Emphasis mine.)
Balanchine's streamlining of the dancer also extended to the content and look of his productions. Gone, under Balanchine, are the folk heroes, the common men and women. Gone is any kind of story, really; his brand of "neoclassical" ballet turns on atmosphere, musical response, pattern. There may be notes of spirituality, wit or romance, but his work is more about the body, less about the person. And the body -- the dance object -- needs no fixed realm. With some exceptions -- the woods of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the drawing room of "Liebeslieder Walzer" -- Balanchine's ballets exist on a bare stage. This emptiness represented a whopping change to what had been a richly theatrical art form. (Emphasis mine.)
Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky's "Concerto DSCH," which New York City Ballet performed here in March, is the most provocative recent exemplar of human relationships explored in ballet. It was by no means a narrative, but it had true characters and a palpable sense of drama, and you believed in his jittery, dark-shadowed world the moment the curtain went up. Having just begun his tenure as ABT's artist-in-residence, perhaps Ratmansky will take a shot at refreshing that company's dramatic origins. (Emphasis mine.)
1. I defy anyone to figure out what’s going on in “Lilac Garden” without reading the plot synopsis in the program notes.
2. Yes, it happens, but how many young Americans today must give up the person they love for the one that they don’t? Kaufman is talking about something most of us learn about from stories, not from our lives. Disappointed love? We've all been there. But the kind of renunciation going on in "Lilac Garden" is different from that; which is not to say that the story doesn't move us or that it doesn't resonate with our own experience. It just doesn't do so in the way Kaufman suggests it does. At the end of the day, how different is "Lilac Garden" from "La Bayadere"?
3. Kaufman needs to be explicit about the ways in which “Concerto DSCH” is an “exemplar of human relationships explored in ballet” or “has true characters and a palpable sense of drama” in a way that “Concerto Barocco” or "Apollo" is not / does not. We can use “Central Park in the Dark” if she needs a more in-your-face example from the Balanchine canon. If Ratmansky isn't using "atmosphere, musical response, pattern" or "the body" to tell us something about "the person" then what the heck is he using, and why isn't Balanchine doing the same thing.
4. I hope her argument doesn’t hang on the presence or absence of a bare stage (surely one could to “Lilac Garden” without the trees and frankly, I don’t even remember whether “Concerto DSCH” had scenery or not) or the presence or absence of “the common men and women.”
To quote Balanchine, how much story do you need? I suspect that Kaufman and I simply answer this question differently, or perhaps are moved by different stories.
I too get weary of ballets in the "Lifecasting," "River of Light," and "The Fifth Season" mode, but I'm not inclined to blame Balanchine for them, just as I'm not inclined to blame Pollock, De Kooning, and Rothko for half-baked abstract expressionism.
PS: A thought that I haven't worked out yet. Balanchine relied on any number of formal elements to help us with the “story.” Hierarchy is one, for example: we usually get a central couple, soloists & corps to help us map out the internal organization of the onstage community. “Hierarchy” in this sense doesn’t tell us who ranks
higher so much as who and what we need to pay attention to sort out the story. Many of Balanchine’s heirs have abandoned hierarchy, but Ratmansky most certainly has not.