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The fell influence of Balanchine, by Sarah Kaufman


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#46 perky

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Posted 12 May 2009 - 07:44 AM

"Ballet started out here on a decidedly human scale: It nosed around gas pumps Lew Christensen's "Filling Station"), sailing ships (Eugene Lorings's "Yankee Clipper"), and farm folk (Catherine Littlefields's "Barn Dance")"


So Cowboys (Western Symphony), athletic contests (Agon), Majorettes (Stars and Stripes), and commercial theater (Who Cares?) are not "human scale" or down home enough?
I love how Balanchine would look at these "American" topics with affectionate humor and create a ballet that endures.


"Most of his works evoke a cool, purified, distant universe. And always, refinement:"


Is this a bad thing?


If the creative side of ballet is stagnant because of too many Balanchine imitators then it seems ridiculous to blame the original. Balanchine's vision was a reaction to AND a compliment to the ballet aesthetic that came before him, just as the next ballet creative genius will move it forward.

And miliosr, lucky for you my flamethrower is out of gas :wink: .

#47 papeetepatrick

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Posted 12 May 2009 - 08:08 AM

"Ballet has to get its humanity back"--


Yes, glad you repeated that, the one truly loathsome sentence in the piece, truly a howler. She's almost contradicting everything else she calls for in her 'asking-please-for' post-Balanchine rant.


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,


Yes, but important to point out that it's moving in a different way. Fact is, some abstract work can seem 'romantic' to some. But nobody responds to Xennakis and Stockhausen the way they do to Tchaikovsky or Chopin. It's not even possible. Being moved to tears is something we've been discussing as the thread has progressed, but I doubt that anyone was ever overcome with emotions of the heart from Boulez's 'Repons'. I've heard it performed twice in concert, and conducted by Boulez, but while totally dazzled, certainly it's not about any of the 'human themes'. A modernist film like 'Last Year at Marienbad', is clearly all sex, even when 'x' says 'I loved you' to 'a', he is not talking about getting married and starting a family. In other words, you can definitely be moved by this film, for example, because it's HOT, but not because the relationship of the two knockouts is 'touching and tender'. A less extreme example, then, is Balanchine as opposed to the old Petipa classics. I know lots of people who would still much rather see a shabby Burger King 'Sleeping Beauty', than have to 'endure' Apollo or 'Davidsbundlertanze. There's already a coolness in Balanchine that is not in the work from which he evolved. And there all sorts of minutiae to this: You get a great partnership between Farrell and Martins, breathtaking yes; but it is in no way that fully realized duo that Fonteyn/Nureyev had, who were dancing together, not together and apart, which is what Farrell and Martins were doing (I liked it, and it expresses different kinds of things, but it's not the same kind of warmth. I saw Nureyev and Fonteyn only separately in person, Martins and Farrell numerous times, but even on video, Rudi/Margot partnership is more intertwined. You can feel their real personal affection, and smoe could say that is irrelevant, but it is there for all the world to see, and you can't miss it, it is adorable.) Things like that. But there was still, even with the Balanchine coolness, a lot of Romanticism in many of the ballets--maybe even most of them. They are not as plangent as some modern dance works, but then they're not supposed to be. This happened less in music that was in the vanguard, and only the most kinowledgeable connoisseurs are going to call Boulez's Second Sonata 'romantic'. Atlhough it is, it is never going to be popularly hears as such--until there is a lot more robotic and singularity-type evolution, so that all that difficult High Modernism seems to be 'quaint' at some point. But with things like 'Jewels' and anything done to Tchaikovsky, you have instant Romanticism no matter what, so that the works in the vanguard of the Arts at a given time do not nearly always parallel each other.

#48 Helene

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Posted 12 May 2009 - 08:17 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?
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?

Maybe not, but they've done what Artistic Directors have done over time: create rep to feed their company at no cost above their salary. I don't know Weiss' at all, and I think Martins' is limited in keeping the dancers' chops up to speed for a large range of styles.

Tomasson and Stowell, at least, are talented craftsmen -- Ib Andersen is more than that, especially with his story ballets, since he hasn't seen to jettison his Danish roots in story-telling and creating a community onstage -- and they feed/fed their companies a range of rep that was needed at any give time and which keeps the dancers' skills honed.

I think there might be a few works of each that were in the standard rep if AD's would put on each others' work, already. It never ceases to amaze me that the promising things in the low-cost/abstract genre I see aren't shared/traded.

Balanchine's other genius was as a producer. Sure he was inspired and had a series of piano reductions in his back pocket, but he fed the company with what it needed -- populist hits, star vehicles, cameos, openers, closers -- all to a wide range of music and ranging the gamut from abstract to "Nutcracker". The best of the craftsmen do the same and stretch their dancers.


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!

I don't think it's a coincidence that Martins was charged with "The Magic Flute" for SAB when he started to choreograph. That wasn't his interest, and he let it slide until "The Sleeping Beauty", and not again that I can remember until the next full-length classic beckoned.

There are some opportunities for young choreographers: every major company has a school, and those kids give performances. (Whether there is a full-time job in it is another story.) At PNB, the Choregraphers' Workshop is the last performance of the year, for the last few years using students from the school in the works of company members and staff. Ballet Master Paul Gibson -- sadly nothing from him this season or next, at least for the main company -- and corps member Kiyon Gaines have had their works produced in recent seasons.

#49 Quiggin

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Posted 12 May 2009 - 09:05 AM

Pre-Raphaelite ballet?

How can you go back to narrative ballet when you really don’t have a narrative culture anymore? There is, rather, an atomizing one -- of “tweets” -- bits of knowledge about the world but not a sustaining narrative, not even a shaggy-dog ones anymore (except for Roberto Bolano’s novels). Yes, Wheeldon’s ballets of snippets speak to this.

Where do you find the actors to bring off even “abstract” ballets (as pointed out in a previous post)? We have to draw on countries who haven’t moved so head-strong into the future to find dancers who know how to possess the stage and project character.

Mark Morris seems to be the last of the interesting actors or characters to give birth to some unique work--out of the tradition of Merce Cunningham and Viola Farber and Tudor. And what is said about Balanchine eclipsing other choreographers can be said of Cunningham downtown. The life of art just happens like that.

And per Cargill I couldn't bear to sit through another SF Ibsen ballet either!

#50 SandyMcKean

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Posted 12 May 2009 - 09:47 AM

I mentioned my background is in science. There is a famous occurence in the world of technology which has entered the popular lexicon:

In 1899, then Patent Commissioner, Charles H. Duell reportedly announced that "everything that can be invented has been invented."

It's stunning to think how wrong Mister Duell was, but at the same time it's relatively easy to imagine that at the time his statement seemed reasonable. Predicting the future is tricky business.

#51 dirac

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Posted 12 May 2009 - 10:03 AM

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:

#52 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 12 May 2009 - 11:51 AM

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.

#53 Helene

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Posted 12 May 2009 - 12:26 PM

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.

#54 miliosr

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 04:30 AM

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:

#55 bart

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 05:02 AM

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.

#56 Ray

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 08:10 AM

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.

#57 Hans

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 08:17 AM

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.

#58 papeetepatrick

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 09:02 AM

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.

#59 dirac

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 09:11 AM

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.

#60 miliosr

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 09:25 AM

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?


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