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The fell influence of Balanchine, by Sarah Kaufman


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#16 volcanohunter

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 11:50 AM

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.

Isn't this the strongest argument against ballets that "reflect the realities of contemporary American culture"? Wouldn't Office Space: The Ballet seem equally alien to audiences 25 years from now?

Haven't Balanchine's ballets "aged better" precisely because they're abstracted and more archetypal as a result?

#17 miliosr

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 11:54 AM

<<Haven't Balanchine's ballets "aged better" precisely because they're abstracted and more archetypal as a result?>>

Fancy Free and Jardin aux Lilas have help up pretty well even though they are narrative dances set in very specific times and places.

#18 Hans

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 11:58 AM

Have Balanchine's ballets aged better than others'? It's a matter of opinion. I think some have, and some haven't.

#19 volcanohunter

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 12:17 PM

There must be some reason why so much of Balanchine is actively performed while most of Massine, sad to say, has disappeared.

For the record, I have absolutely nothing against narrative ballets. I also believe that the narrative vs. non-narrative dichotomy is a false one. The problem isn't that today's choreographers favour abstract ballet. The problem is that there are no choreographers with the genius of a Balanchine or an Ashton or a Tudor out there. Why would shifting emphasis to short narrative ballets succeed in manufacturing that genius?

#20 Hans

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 12:30 PM

It wouldn't. It might, however, start a trend of producing expressive, emotionally satisfying ballets rather than ones that are little more than technical exercises.

#21 kfw

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 12:43 PM

Wouldn't Office Space: The Ballet seem equally alien to audiences 25 years from now?

Not if the characters were well drawn.

#22 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 12:59 PM

Couselor Troi senses An Agenda. :D

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.

#23 richard53dog

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 01:44 PM

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.



Here in New Jersey, all gas stations are "full service". It's illegal for the driver to pump their own gas.

But the attendants are no longer recognizable as such, I haven't seen a uniform in years.

Just thought you needed to know this........... :D

#24 SandyMcKean

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 01:46 PM

Seems to me that Kaufman's central argument is really nothing more than:

"I like some types of ballet more than others......why, oh why, isn't there more of the kind I like?"

OK, I get that you feel that way, and that you even know why you feel that way, but that doesn't make it truth or even criticism.

I, for example, don't find too much Balanchine on the program.....in fact, if anything, I wish there were more. That's me. And that's all it is. It surely doesn't mean that today's Artist Directors have lost touch with the genius of Balanchine, or that today's choreograghers are obsessed with telling a contemporary story (with too much emphasis on characterization) instead of sticking to the purity of neoclassism, or that today's dancers have lost touch with their basic art as they search for ever more challenging acting roles. It just means that I like Balanchine a lot.

I know what I like, and clearly she knows what she likes. I see nothing wrong with that. Perhaps the real issue is answering the challenge to find something to love in any ballet that has stood the test of time, or that has created a new sensation, in spite of what I happen to like.

#25 SandyMcKean

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 01:48 PM

Here in New Jersey, all gas stations are "full service". It's illegal for the driver to pump their own gas.


Oregon is the same.

#26 EAW

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 04:48 PM

Can't believe we have to read yet another one of those "Balanchine ruined ballet" pieces that crop up every so often...this has to be one of the most useless of the lot. It's significant that Ms. Kaufman mentions the "visual" and "musical" joys of Balanchine choreography and dancing, but clearly that combination of the visual/physical and musical holds no drama for her. Edwin Denby once wrote that to be susceptible to poetic values in dance one had to be sensitive to both poetry and dance - these don't seem to be Kaufman's cup of tea. It's fine that she doesn't care for Balanchine, but does she really think she's going to convince anyone to share her narrow view? I think Balanchine's plot to take over the world's stages from beyond the grave will keep working in spite of her......

#27 miliosr

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 05:12 PM

I thought Kaufman's important (and long overdue) essay raised two interesting questions:

1) Are the works of George Balanchine overrepresented in the active repertories of American ballet companies, and

2) Are today's choreographers (both those who danced w/ Balanchine and those who came of age after his death) looking too much to one mode of creative expression; thereby limiting their own potential creativity in the process?

Obviously, the members of this board will answer these questions differently based on how you feel about the entire Balanchine enterprise. I would offer an unequivocal "YES" to Question # 1 and I don't see that situation changing anytime soon. Given that former Balanchine dancers now sit in positions of power in New York (Peter Martins), Washington DC (Suzanne Farrell), North Carolina (Robert Weiss), North Carolina (Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride), Miami (Edward Villella), Chicago (Daniel Duell), Colorado (Damian Woetzel), Arizona (Ib Andersen), Los Angeles (Colleen Neary), San Francisco (Helgi Tomasson) and Seattle (Peter Boal), the tidal wave of Balanchine productions will likely continue for the foreseeable future.

As to the Question # 2, I would also answer with a resounding "YES". If I'm a ballet choreographer (particularly a young choreographer) trying to find work in the United States, I'm going to look at the collective listed above for clues as to where the road to commissions lies. And the answer would appear to be (to me, anyway) non-narrative dance delivered in the manner of George Balanchine. That's fine as far as it goes but it prompts me to ask a question of my own: If Balanchine's ballets are in fact "archetypal" and represent ballet taken to its absolute apex and limit, then what's left to do or say in that particular mode of ballet? Like the old saying goes: You can beat a dead horse all you want -- it ain't gonna give you a ride.

Maybe the way forward for choreographers (especially young choreographers) would be to look toward undertapped areas of exploration such as those mined by Ashton and Tudor. But that's the catch. If these young choreographers rarely see other modes of expression, how would they ever know that these modes may be more suited to their creative gifts than the Balanchine aesthetic is???

It's ironic. The ex-Balanchine dancers obviously love the Old Master. But I have to wonder if, in their zeal to spread the Master's work to the four corners of the world, they aren't unintentionally inhibiting the advance of the classical ballet in the 21st century.

Heading off to put on my fire retardant suit . . .

#28 Hans

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 05:16 PM

It seems to me that what Kaufman is saying is that artistically, following Balanchine is only going to take us so far. Many of Balanchine's creations are quite dazzling the first few times one sees them, but after that, his conventional choreographic devices start to wear on one, and there is frequently not much else there to support them. (His formulaic 'homage to Petipa' tutu ballets come to mind.) I find that the 'less is more' formula really did seem to work well for Balanchine: when he doesn't have sets or costumes or 'easy' music, his choreography is much more interesting, albeit perhaps only from the point of view of choreographic and/or technical theory. Unfortunately, his choreographic imitators do not have his ability with abstract and plotless dance, and while 'The Four Temperaments' and 'Agon' pushed the notions of what ballet was (and is), ballet choreographers have not taken us beyond that, and even their imitations lack his perfect, diamondlike structure. Thus, whereas Balanchine's black and white ballets have (IMO) the most choreographic substance even if robotically performed, his imitators give us expressionless dancers performing choreography that is not even interesting from a theoretical standpoint. However, skilled dancers and choreographers, even if not geniuses, can take even conventional steps and use them in service of expression. Tudor, Ashton, Bournonville, and Petipa all did this very well, but the electricity their ballets (and plenty of dancers performing today) can create is largely ignored by AD's and choreographers who think high legs, spinning, and fussy choreographic embroidery are the only things that sell tickets.

In short, Balanchine's ballets are lovely, but empty imitations of his style are just pale, lifeless copies, however fast the footwork and however contorted the limbs.

NOTE: Apologies, miliosr posted whilst I was writing.

#29 EAW

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 05:27 PM

It seems to me that what Kaufman is saying is that artistically, following Balanchine is only going to take us so far. Many of Balanchine's creations are quite dazzling the first few times one sees them, but after that, his conventional choreographic devices start to wear on one, and there is frequently not much else there to support them. (His formulaic 'homage to Petipa' tutu ballets come to mind.)

Couldn't disagree more - Raymonda Variations, for example, is an endlessly enthralling "homage to Petipa" that uses "conventional" steps in wonderfully witty, surprising and brilliant ways. I could watch it every night. Do agree that "following" Balanchine is pointless, in the sense of copying superficial aspects of his art without substance of ones own.

#30 Hans

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 05:37 PM

That is funny--I find Raymonda Variations nearly unwatchable but love Apollo, even though I find it dated. Different tastes. :flowers: Perhaps it's because I grew up with Balanchine's style--I generally find his 'surprises' predictable.


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