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The fell influence of Balanchine, by Sarah Kaufman


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#61 SandyMcKean

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 10:38 AM

.......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.)

#62 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 10:43 AM

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!

#63 Hans

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 11:03 AM

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.

#64 bart

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 11:34 AM

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.

#65 Old Fashioned

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 11:47 AM

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.

#66 Hans

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 12:10 PM

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.

#67 Quiggin

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 01:01 PM

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.

#68 Ray

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 01:23 PM

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?

#69 dirac

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 02:56 PM

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:

#70 miliosr

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 03:51 PM

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.

#71 SandyMcKean

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 04:10 PM

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.)

#72 EAW

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 04:53 PM

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.

#73 miliosr

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 05:20 PM

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."

#74 papeetepatrick

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 05:33 PM

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.

#75 bart

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 05:50 PM

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.


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