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The fell influence of Balanchine, by Sarah Kaufman


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#31 dirac

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 05:42 PM

Isn't the Balanchine Ballet a bit of a straw man for Kaufman?


I had the same thought. The Soulless Balanchine Ballet is like that Purist Balletomane of John Rockwell’s that Leigh used to talk about.

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


Couldn't agree less. As you say, Hans, different tastes. :flowers:

Nice to see that we're getting so many different points of view here.

#32 SandyMcKean

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 06:16 PM

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 .....


Seems to me that this "criticism" could be leveled at any discipline. Every field has its geniuses (thank heaven). My field is physics. I admire Richard Feynman in physics as I do Balanchine in ballet. Every physicist since Feynman uses "Feynman diagrams", does that limit the thinking of new bright physicists? I suppose it does. None the less, following the master Feynman is just what they ought to do, and want to do since they knew they stand before his genius. Newton held sway for a few hundred years, and probably held back some new idea or other (see the incredible film version of "Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead" for hilarious and apt demonstrations of this). But should Newton's ideas of absolute space and time have been put on the back burner so as not to limit new ideas? I don't think so for a minute.

ADs and choreographers don't limit themselves by the devotion they have for a master genius -- they do it because they know no one has fully fathomed the depths a once-in-a-era genius such as Balanchine or Newton hath wrought (edit: originally I said "wroth", clearly I don't know my Biblese). And we be fools to think we had. One of the hallmarks of the next dance genius will be that they are able to overthrow the master's sway without the help of us lesser beings. Einstein did it to Newton, and that's one way we knew Einstein was genius too.

Have patience. The man has only been dead for some 25 years!

#33 kfw

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 06:26 PM

ADs and choreographers don't limit themselves by the devotion they have for a master genius -- they do it because they know no one has fully fathomed the depths a once-in-a-era genius such as Balanchine or Newton hath wroth. And we be fools to think we had. One of the hallmarks of the next dance genius will be that they are able to overthrow the master's sway without the help of us lesser beings. Einstein did it to Newton, and that's one way we knew Einstein was genius too.

Have patience. The man has only been dead for some 25 years!

Wow, such wise and heartening words. :flowers: Thanks, Sandy.

#34 dirac

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 06:38 PM

One of the hallmarks of the next dance genius will be that they are able to overthrow the master's sway without the help of us lesser beings.


Great post, Sandy, but I don’t think that those here who are questioning the omnipresence of Balanchine are suggesting that. No one is saying that the next great genius of ballet, assuming there is one, will be unable to cut his way out of the forest raised by Balanchine’s heirs. The concern is that over-emphasis on the work of one man and one aesthetic limits the vision of contemporary choreographers, who may not be geniuses but might be doing more varied and interesting work if ADs and other lesser beings were more open to the different approaches represented by Ashton and Tudor.

#35 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 07:11 PM

I think Kaufman does have some very good points about the necessity of healthy "genetic
diversity" in an art form. But I don't think Balanchine's overrepresented in American ballet. Would you rather see Valse Fantaisie or Dracula? THAT's overrepresented in American ballet.

I'd also argue his influence - I could understand Kaufman saying that 20-5 years ago, but frankly, Balanchine's influence is waning fast. Most companies aren't working any longer on a NYCB model, even those that once did such as SFB are moving from it. I see a lot more faux and fourth-tier Forsythe derivatives out there such as Jorma Elo. Or just bad dansicals.

Balanchine can look more third-tier than it is if the coaching and casting is bad, and that happens the farther we get from the source.

I agree in many ways with Kaufman's observation of symptoms but not of cause. Balanchine is not stifling artistic creativity. Bad, insular artistic direction and lack of funds are.

#36 papeetepatrick

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 07:44 PM

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.


Well, that interests me. I've never cried at a Balanchine ballet, with one exception. And that was 20 years later, and had to do with the performance and specific elements of that performance only, not the work; or rather the work was secondary, and I know it was because I love the work, but don't 'cry over it'. But I don't 'require that I cry' for judging the merit of something, although I've cried at the work of others (one at least, and that was more because of wonderment at how it could ever be done, not that it was 'sad'). It's not that it's the 'abstract', because I might weep at something that was abstract. I knew a woman who cried at 'The Prodigal Son', but only when Baryshnikov was in it, and only because of that. And she'd cry every time she saw it on tape.

Edited to add: Having now read the article, I think it's very good and thought-provoking, whether or not all of it is 'perfect'. Good paragraph on epaulement in particular. She should have stopped short of the overdone title, that was bad strategy, because it probably stopped a lot of people from paying attention to the many very worthwhile details even before they started reading it. Lots of good ideas in it.

#37 volcanohunter

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 08:31 PM

One of the hallmarks of the next dance genius will be that they are able to overthrow the master's sway without the help of us lesser beings.

Exactly. As though the reason for the absence of great composers today is orchestras playing too much Beethoven. If only they played more contemporary program music (is there such a thing?), the talented would-be composers out there would feel less inhibited and start composing great music. Somehow I don't think that Beethoven needed to be shielded from Palestrina, Monteverdi, Bach and Mozart in order to thrust his artistic revolution on the world. I'm sure that the young composer of today loses nothing by immersing him- or herself in Beethoven, just as the young choreographer can only gain from prolonged exposure to Balanchine.

#38 Quiggin

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 09:04 PM

As though the reason for the absence of great composers today is orchestras playing too much Beethoven. If only they played more contemporary program music (is there such a thing?), the talented would-be composers out there would feel less inhibited and start composing great music.

:volcanohunter

I like that...especially in reference to Sarah Kaufman's comment:

Before Balanchine's dominating influence, in the early to middle years of the last century, ballet was more of a lively American folk art -- cavorting to music by Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson -- than the highbrow prize of the connoisseur it became after Balanchine swept in, bringing Bach and Stravinsky with him.


Stravinsky and Bach I thought was amusing.

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.)

#39 SandyMcKean

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 09:44 PM

But I don't 'require that I cry' for judging the merit of something.......

Crying is a funny thing.

As a male, I've always felt at odds because I cry so much. I enjoy crying. It's a sort of release while feeling overwhelmed by beauty. I don't accept the premise that crying equates with being sad (as you implied elsewhere in your post). Surely sometimes it does. I cried when a friend died not too long ago -- that was sad, but far more often I cry because I am moved by something that "feels" universal. Sometimes it's about awe, sometimes about love, sometimes it's about truth, sometimes about exquiste beauty. I can tell you one thing, it's always about emotion. I'm a bit of an emotion junkie. I enjoy feeling it. It makes me feel alive. So for me crying in a ballet (which I do often) is a tribute to the power of what I'm seeing. The ballet, be it the choreography, the dancer's performance, or the story, has moved me in some profoundly human way. For that I am grateful. Perhaps I am not your "typical" guy, but for me one common way I acknowledge being moved and feeling emotion is to cry. And if I cry, you can be pretty sure the observed has merit......that particular reaction has been a pretty reliable barometer for me over the years.

#40 papeetepatrick

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Posted 12 May 2009 - 12:10 AM

(one at least, and that was more because of wonderment at how it could ever be done, not that it was 'sad').


I don't accept the premise that crying equates with being sad (as you implied elsewhere in your post).



that was sad, but far more often I cry because I am moved by something that "feels" universal. Sometimes it's about awe, sometimes about love, sometimes it's about truth, sometimes about exquiste beauty.


Okay, if I put it with your remarks, you see I said exactly the same thing you did--both things. It's sometimes about sadness, but in the other matter, I used 'wonderment at how something could be done', instead of 'feels universal'. They both have to do with beauty or truth or both. I just cry if I do, I don't do it often, no matter how moved, but I'm not ashamed of it either, else I wouldn't have written that I do it at all. Has nothing to do with male or female, despite the stereotypes. Well, as for it being 'about emotion', it has to be about emotion, there isn't anything else crying could be about. Interesting that you say you 'enjoy crying'. I do in some cases, but that's changed over the years. It used to be more of an indulgence, now I never cry unless I'm overwhelmed, and that doesn't feel like an indulgence (no judgment on anyone else's crying, we can't know most other people in those ways. It is true that the one Balanchine ballet I mentioned that made me cry 20 years after seeing it had to do with sadness--which doesn't mean that the vehicle, the choreography, was not well-suited for carrying that emotion forward, but that was secondary. It's one of my favourite ballets, but if I saw it danced again, I wouldn't cry, I'm sure of it. It had to do with that specific performance and circumstance and no other.

#41 Helene

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Posted 12 May 2009 - 12:20 AM

Great post, Sandy, but I don’t think that those here who are questioning the omnipresence of Balanchine are suggesting that. No one is saying that the next great genius of ballet, assuming there is one, will be unable to cut his way out of the forest raised by Balanchine’s heirs.

I think that was what Kaufman was saying about the influence of Artistic Directors. Genius doesn't sit around waiting for an invitation or a contract. A creative genius creates because he or she has to, and s/he gets a bunch of like-minded people to collaborate, if s/he needs performers. S/he rents a warehouse, or in Balanchine's case, a high school, or finds another place to perform. Or s/he has a day job (Balzac, Ives, Zola, Tharp) and funds his/her work. If they are inspired by narrative, they'll choreograph narrative ballets.

A very talented choreographer/Principal Dancer at PNB, Olivier Wevers, is forming his own small company to perform his choreography. He's making it happen, not waiting to be handed a main stage.

The concern is that over-emphasis on the work of one man and one aesthetic limits the vision of contemporary choreographers, who may not be geniuses but might be doing more varied and interesting work if ADs and other lesser beings were more open to the different approaches represented by Ashton and Tudor.

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, to which I can attest having done the Calendar for the last three years, some of which makes me cringe.

Balanchine protegees are cited as having a single aesthetic, but I don't think that is borne out by the rep or by the most talented resident choreographers (Possokhov, formerly Wheeldon, Ratmansky). The more workman-like AD choreographers might, but Ballet Arizona's programs this year included three full-lengths, a Wheeldon/Fokine/Tharp triple bill, and an all-Balanchine. (I think we lost a new Andersen ballet when program six was canceled.) Robert Weiss at Carolina Ballet is the principal choreographer, but the rep this year was five full-length story ballets, a Robbins/Weiss/Bongar triple bill, and a Weiss/Taylor-Corbett program. Taylor-Corbett's work is described as "inspired by Amnesty International...At times dark and disturbing, this piece also explores our ability to endure and persist, allowing hope for humanity to flower in our hearts." Hard to imagine which Balanchine ballet that would describe.

This year's PNB triples bills have been "Jewels", an all-Tharp (including two new works), a Broadway mixed bill (Robbins/Stroman/Wheeldon/Balanchine), and a Robbins/Wheeldon/Balanchine closer. Next season, we get Maillot's "Romeo et Juliette", three full-length story ballets, a Kylian/Goecke/new Caniparoli/Robbins program, a 4-Dove program, and an all-Balanchine. The only things I've seen by Caniparoli are "Lambarena" and "The Bridge", neither of them terribly Balanchinean, and the latter with a story.

The throw-out-the-baby-with-the bathwater syndrome happened in those companies that were tied to the legacy of their genius choreographers: the Royal Ballet with Ashton, who was accused of quelching the young, maverick talent of MacMillan and was quelched himself, and ABT with Tudor. The closest thing to protegees who are protecting the seedlings are New York Theatre Ballet with Tudor and Iain Webb in Sarasota for Ashton, if choreographers need exposure to these.

#42 miliosr

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Posted 12 May 2009 - 04:52 AM

What does it say about the classical ballet as a major art form if it cannot generate diverse choreographers of stature (or even talented craftsmen) on a more regular basis? I can only speak for myself but an artistic discipline that has to wait 25/50/75/100 years for a "savior" to come along to rescue it is a discipline doomed to minor art status.

If the nature of the art form is so rareified that very few (Ashton, Balanchine, Tudor) can do it well, then a "savior" who comes along to overturn the apple cart (which, by the way, I don't believe is what Balanchine did) will only ever be a singular success -- the followers cannot replicate the "genius" and the result is a floodtide of mediocre imitations. (Evidence A from the prosecution: The former New York City Ballet dancers. Is anyone going to make a serious case that the existence of Balanchine resulted in lasting work from Peter Martins, Helgi Tomasson, Kent Stowell or Robert Weiss? Or that the work of second generation Balanchine adherents like Melissa Barak and Benjamin Millepied will be any more lasting??)

If Balanchine was, in fact, a "once-in-an-era genius" then I get back to one of my original points: He has said everything that can be said in that particular key and it's time to move on to something else. What Balanchine wrought may represent the apex of what the classical ballet can achieve and express. But it may also be a vein of creation in which no one else is suited to explore.

As for the examples presented by Helene, the same names (Balanchine/Robbins/Tharp/Wheeldon) appearing over and over again says it all about the increasing homogenization of ballet repertories. (I'll give Peter Boal a mild pass because of the Ulysses Dove evening. Feckless but at least different.)

#43 cargill

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Posted 12 May 2009 - 05:59 AM

Though I could watch a different Balanchine ballet every night of the year and be very happy, I tend to agree with Sarah Kaufmann, in that making mediocre Balanchine ballets is easier than making mediocre Ashton or Tudor short story ballets, because stringing together an unrelated series of steps is easier than putting together a coherent story, so probably it would be better training if young choreographers tried to tell a story--though I would never ever want to sit through that San Francisco Ibsen ballet again! Though she didn't say so, I think economics is another big reason for so many bad baby Balanchines (I tend to put Forsythe and the egregious Elo in that camp since Forsythe says he learned from Balanchine), because story ballets tend to needs sets and costumes which are expensive, and abstract ballets just need leotards and lighting, which are cheaper.

#44 papeetepatrick

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Posted 12 May 2009 - 06:54 AM

Genius doesn't sit around waiting for an invitation or a contract. A creative genius creates because he or she has to, and s/he gets a bunch of like-minded people to collaborate, if s/he needs performers. S/he rents a warehouse, or in Balanchine's case, a high school, or finds another place to perform. Or s/he has a day job (Balzac, Ives, Zola, Tharp) and funds his/her work. If they are inspired by narrative, they'll choreograph narrative ballets.


What does it say about the classical ballet as a major art form if it cannot generate diverse choreographers of stature (or even talented craftsmen) on a more regular basis? I can only speak for myself but an artistic discipline that has to wait 25/50/75/100 years for a "savior" to come along to rescue it is a discipline doomed to minor art status.

If Balanchine was, in fact, a "once-in-an-era genius" then I get back to one of my original points: He has said everything that can be said in that particular key and it's time to move on to something else. What Balanchine wrought may represent the apex of what the classical ballet can achieve and express. But it may also be a vein of creation in which no one else is suited to explore.


These two together get to the core of it all. However much we may wish to disdain 'relevance' in some sense, relevance in terms of being able to generate choreographers, etc., as miliosr has put it so well, has to then do this. If it is finished with Balanchine (I don't kinow if it is), then there will just be the museum-piece prestige item continuing. But the 'genius not waiting around for an invitation or a contract' is part of the equation too. If ballet has real validity in further continuance, rather than just preservation and pleasant tinselly effllorescences from time to time, it will find these geniuses, as per miliosr and Adorno. The artist conveys, carries the artwork forward by virtue of the form not having been exhausted. He CANNOT do it in a vacuum. Ballet's greatest days could well be over (and I imagine they are), while still having other 'symptoms' that make it seem 'greater than ever'--such as dissemination to all the provinces and many more competent companies all over the world.

It's as with concert pianists and others. There were many great pianists in the 20th century, some Olympian like Horowitz and Richter, but even these came nowhere near the sheer hugeness of ripeness and incomparable fulfillment of Franz Liszt, whose very life was an adventure in richness of all kinds, all of which only enhanced his virtuoso playing. He was like a rock star as a celebrity. The great pianists of the 20th century and beyond are very circumscribed as they develop new packaging and specializations, try to find something 'that nobody has gotten around to yet'. The great days of concert piano, in other words, were OVER even though great work continued anyway. It's definitely true of all the major traditional arts, opera, ballet, and also in the more popular arts. I believe dirac was talking a while back about the exhaustion of film noir, which I agree is finished. The Broadway musical still has occasional charm, but its great days have long been over, and there's really no reason to think there will be any reversal of this. And do we really even want it, if it truly is exhausted? Of course we do not. The only question is then to find out if a form is exhaused, and can just exist as a 'minor art form', a kind of 'backwater'. Media is outstripping culture very fast, this is unarguable. The masses are more interested in how they get their culture than what it is. Right now even John Kerry's talk about the newspaper being an endangered species (I think that's what he said) has all the op-ed people going to town. CD's are a;ready outmoded by iTunes, and DVDs are going the way of all becoming-obsolescent phenomena (and, of course, these are only media forms themselves, not culture). When you've got Japanese girls writing cellphone novels and making money on them, a lot of numbers begin to feel as if they're up (and that's already 2-3 years since I heard that vile report.)

Even so, miliosr's 'singular suceess' is still to be hoped for, as when a new film comes along which proves that someone can pull up something even if the form itself seems to be steadily degraded.

One possibility that hasn't been mentioned much is that someone from way out in a seemingly non-ballet nation or situation might be able to transform all the old stuff, seeing it all anew, but I agree with miliosr that none of Balanchine' proteges have done it, even when they've run companies well. It has to be fresh are just get MANNERED, which happens to all art forms at some point (or in some movements of them, because obviously painting only continued all the more robustly after Dutch Mannerism's glory days.)

#45 Ray

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Posted 12 May 2009 - 07:19 AM

Great post, Sandy, but I don’t think that those here who are questioning the omnipresence of Balanchine are suggesting that. No one is saying that the next great genius of ballet, assuming there is one, will be unable to cut his way out of the forest raised by Balanchine’s heirs.

I think that was what Kaufman was saying about the influence of Artistic Directors. Genius doesn't sit around waiting for an invitation or a contract. A creative genius creates because he or she has to, and s/he gets a bunch of like-minded people to collaborate, if s/he needs performers. S/he rents a warehouse, or in Balanchine's case, a high school, or finds another place to perform. Or s/he has a day job (Balzac, Ives, Zola, Tharp) and funds his/her work. If they are inspired by narrative, they'll choreograph narrative ballets.


I think Helene is onto something that SK's aesthetic focus de-emphasizes: that repertory decisions are made by myriad actors in particular cultural contexts. SK uses "ballet" often as the subject of her sentences--"Ballet Must Make Room Onstage for More Than One Genius," "Ballet has to get its humanity back"--fuzzing the focus on the people who create, distribute, maintain, and promote the art: ADs, independent choreographers, EDs, and presenters. Like many dance critics she shies away from digging into and discussing the material conditions that shape repertory decisions, which are never as straightforward as they seem. The roots of a stagnant repertory problem are deeper than SK will admit (such as the problems of little-to-no training for choreographers in ballet, a lack of artistic/institutional long-term vision or leadership, reduced opportunities to allow choreographers to collaborate and/or to fail, etc.).

I don't think SK's aesthetic arguments are compelling at all--abstraction can be deeply moving for many, whether rendered on canvas, in music, or bodies on stage, and furthermore people have been talking about this for more than a century--but her piece is suggestive in re the lemminglike qualities of many dance EDs and presenters who will blame all but themselves for poor or uninteresting repertory: audience expectations, money, lack of talent, etc.


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