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'Hierarchy' and classical structure


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#1 dirac

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Posted 11 May 2009 - 06:00 PM

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.


I don't really have a question to ask about the foregoing, but I wanted to pluck this quote of Kathleen O'Connell's from the Balanchine thread so it doesn't get lost, because I think it speaks to something that is missing from some ballets today. (And I hope Kathleen will share with us whatever she works out. :flowers:)

#2 bart

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Posted 12 May 2009 - 03:46 AM

An interesting premise, and one worth thinking about.

Can I add a related element? One characteristic of much modern choreography -- including that in which the women dance on pointe -- is a kind of randomness of activity, the apparent desire to create the impression of free and constantly varying flow on stage. Maybe this is related, in part at least, to a desire to reject some of the hierarchical implications of ballet up through Balanchine.

Having a structure (and balance) of ensembles, solos, demi-solos, pdd,, etc., strikes me as being essential to classical and neo-classical ballet. I miss it in much contemporary work that I see -- work in which the parts often seem beautiful and exciting, but which never cohere as a whole.

Thanks, dirac, for starting this topic.

#3 SanderO

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Posted 12 May 2009 - 03:53 AM

Everything is defined by its opposite.

#4 Helene

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Posted 12 May 2009 - 08:30 AM

When hierarchy is established through the structure of a work, that structure attempts to focus the audiences' eyes on the established one. When everyone is doing the same thing in parallel in the stage democracy, what better way to show hierarchy of talent? It's like the women who look glamorous in Mao suits.

#5 SandyMcKean

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Posted 13 May 2009 - 03:55 PM

I am very much in bart's camp as he expresses it above. I like structure in art. My natural tendencies are toward math, science, and philosophy -- hard to imagine any of those without structure. Much modern dance seems to lack that sense of structure -- often all that freedom turns to mush in my eyes.

During this season just concluding at PNB I had a powerful example for how this worked for myself. Peter Boal took the remarkable step (IMHO) of bring back Forsythe's One Flat Thing, Reproduced after introducing it to his audience just last year (the 2 performances were just 7 months apart). In Q&A sessions he explained he knew it was bad for box office, but he thought that on a 2nd showing some in the audience might see something they missed the 1st time around. I say "remarkable step" because last year I distinctly remember an unbelievable number of people walking out. They were everywhere, in all sections, leaving from the middle of the rows, stepping over people. The overheard comments during intermission were often along the lines of "that's not ballet". There was even one guy who said to Boal during a Q&A session that he didn't pay all that money to see something like THAT.

Well, I too didn't particularly like OFT,R the first time I saw it last year. I saw it a second time and my notes say "I liked it better this time". None the less I felt some sort of power there, and I am wise enough (:)) to know that the problem was me not the ballet. This year I made it a point to see OFT,R 3 more times. On time 4 it started to click. On the 5th and final time I truly loved it. Blown away by it. Was taken to a new level by it.

WHY? I willing to say: structure. The structure eluded me at first. Eventually I started to see the equivalent of a PdD here and a PdT there. I started to see themes come, go, and then repeat. I had been lost without perceiving structure, but once I saw structure that gave me a key to the entire ballet. I now quite easily see the Balanchine in OFT,R. Before I only saw randomness. It is rare that I get this sense of "cohere as a whole" (as bart termed it) from modern dance. Maybe I'm just missing it, but maybe too much modern is missing this ingredient that for my personality at least seems indispensable.

#6 Philip

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Posted 18 July 2009 - 04:19 PM

Hierarchy is an issue which of course, transcends the microcosm of ballet companies, but could be argued that is the cause for politics itself. Certainly every organization and social structure has its heirarchies.

One of my non-dance mentors often spoke about natural heirarchies. First one can refer to the natural world where heirarchy is determined by survival and who gest to eat who, LOL! But, in so-called civil societies, heirarchy is either determined by a social pecking order and appointment or the natural ability for leaders to arise.

Ballet companies of course, leadership is determined by the heirarchy of management. Corps soloist principle, in most companies do not influence hiring nor promotion. When I was jobbing at a company in NY (that shall go nameless) in the early 80s, I noticed that though hardly any of the dancers spoke to each other (particularly me - but I was not a full company member), it was a distinct social level of each rank. First, the men's corps dressing room was divided between gender preference. There was a straight dressing room and a "not-straight" dressing room. Regardless, you could hear a pin drop in those rooms before a show. This compared to some of the regional companies I danced for where the men's room was almost rockus. Women's rooms in many of the companies I danced for were always completely quiet! Back to the NY NY company, the soloists would rarely interact at all with lower levels until they began to move up the ranks. I noticed that the more rank, the more influence upon artistic staff and some of the decision makers there was.

I'll speak more about how I think this effects performance in a later post. (I have to go).

Philip.

#7 leonid17

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Posted 19 July 2009 - 12:38 PM

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.


I don't really have a question to ask about the foregoing, but I wanted to pluck this quote of Kathleen O'Connell's from the Balanchine thread so it doesn't get lost, because I think it speaks to something that is missing from some ballets today. (And I hope Kathleen will share with us whatever she works out. :blink:)


Thanks for giving us the opportunity to discuss what is important.

Kathleen O'Connell says, “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 does not 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..."

I know that it is not meant derogatory, but say that Balanchine, “...relied on any number of formal elements to help us with the “story” seems to me to simplify and denature his creative ability. Because there are, " ....any number of elements..." to help us with the experience, I really do not like "story" which perhaps wrongly suggests that we all watch a ballet performance objectively, which if that is the case we have witnessed nothing.

During his lifetime, Balanchine created in numerous styles, some seen before some not.

Why seek hierarchical explanations in a work of art that have nothing to do the artists creative process. I believe a high artist has an ability to go beyond what can be intended, unlike a lesser artist, who constantly thinks of what is to become in their finished work.

The original vision of the flow of a creative artist gets themselves into trouble when they go out of the creative mode and start to think objectively about what might be successful. We see this all too often in many, many works that show a hint of what they might have been.

I think great choreographers envisage no hierarchy consciously but work in the familiar various modes of their creative attributes and some they experience for the first time. On reflection upon having finished a work, they may themselves observe hierarchies, but for Katherine O’Connell to suggest it may be a deliberate, “relied on…”representation rather than an inspired creative outpouring seems wrong to me.

The problem in analyzing hierarchical elements in a ballet is that persons from different artistic and cultural values will not come up with the same understanding. There can be no absolute analysis of any ballet performance only observations. In the same way you cannot measure genius, analyze its processes or relate its expression to any normal life experience. If you try to, you will only end up with an imagined view of the persons ability and creativity.

The second viewings of bad ballets (Sandy McKean's) post, I have sometimes found that they seem less so than on first viewing and personally I take the view that familiarity sometimes breeds acceptance or I have to just surrendered to control my blood pressure.

#8 Alexandra

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Posted 19 July 2009 - 01:25 PM

It is an interesting question. Thank you for raising it, Kathleen andd dirac! That sense of hierarchy goes back to ballets at least as far back as the 18th century and probably the 17th as well. It's part of the French heritage (which Petipa revived in Russia) that's based on the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which is based on the hierarchies of the Roman armies. So much has been written about Balanchine reinventing ballet, and so little in what he carried on from the past!

I liked Kathleen's comment that it's not about rank, but about sorting out the story -- that may have been the original intent, although, of course, it can be used very much to show Who's Boss. I see it as an organizing principle of choreography rather than a way to keep dancers in line, but I know it's an issue among artistic directors today, especially in the smaller companies. It's eaiser to manage dancers when everyone is "equal."

Francia Russell addresses this issue a bit in Barbara Newman's "Grace Under Pressure." She says she finds hierarchy very democratic. Everyone deserves respect, everyone can reach the top (in theory, anyway).

I think the "bad ballets" (love it) don't have this sense of hierarchy because there are so few choreographers today who know about where ballet comes from, or care. Ratmansky knows and cares. His "Cinderella,l" despite the male fairies with orange mohawks, draws from every aspect of classical ballet -- classical, demicaracter and character dance, used mime in a new and inventive way, and used the hierachy naturally -- and absolutely to tell the story more clearly which, as several people have said, is what structure should do.

#9 carbro

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Posted 19 July 2009 - 10:50 PM

Fairly early in his choreographic career, Peter Martins made a ballet (apologies that I remember nothing else about it, but perhaps I can count on other NYCB-watchers' memories to fill in the blank) with a corps de ballet, a soloist couple (or was it a trio?) and two principal couples. It didn't work, because the heirarchy made no sense.

Thankfully, he seems to have learned the lesson of that failed experiment.

#10 bart

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Posted 20 July 2009 - 06:28 AM

As for hierarchy, the late medieval and Renassaince images of Heaven say a great deal:
http://www.aug.edu/a...gmentGiotto.jpg

I guess this was passsed on to ballet through the courts, especially that of Louis XIV. Monarchy worked very hard to absorb the "sacred" into its rituals.

Hierarchy has been based on so many qualities, and larger ballet companies seem to have absorbed many of them:

-- Ranking systems for dancers (based on ability, seniority, or influence). The multi-level organizational structure in Paris and St. Petersburg was nearly as elaborate as the hierarchy of angels (each with its own function) in the middle ages.

-- Rank defining one's status and function: Higher status was given to the pas de deux than to the character dance. Principals are given more time on stage than are demi-soloists or members of the corps.

But back to Kathleen's point about that hierarchy is directly related to what is expressed in a ballet, and how the story is conveyed. One way of approaching this is through the music.

Something directly connected to ballet as performing art form is the way that choreography inevitable reflects the structure of the music. I don't know much about music history, but it seems to me that most serious music up through the first half of the 20th century put a high value on structure and order. Balanchine was particularly fond of highly organized music.

One element of "hierarchy" is an emphasis on distinctions. Structure AND distinctions. This is reflected, in music, in separation between (for example) the various kinds of andante and allegro, each often getting its own section of the piece. Think of the rather traditional narrative plan of Symphony in Three Movements: (1) Allegro,speed and tension; (2) Andante, a time to rest; (3) Con Moto: back to the tension of the first movement, but more so. Each section calls on different sets of qualites from the dancers. The finale brings it all together: distinction resolves itself into a kind of community.

Four Temperaments, with its structure of Prologue, with 3 themes, quite short, for demi-solists and four variations -- longer and each quite different, for higher-ranked dancers -- and then the finale to the final variation, drawing in everyone back (as in the Stravinsky) into the piece's own form of communal expression.

Classical structure allows for closing with a bang. It almost always leaves us, as the curtain falls, with a vivid image of the stage full of dancers. This image almost always involves the highest ranking dancers at the center with the lower ranking dancers gathered round. As an image, it provides resolution and closure.

It's hard to imagine a classical or neoclassical choreography working as successfully with the structure-less structure we find in many contemporary composers. I enjoy listening to the music of Reich, Part, Glass, et al. , but can't imagine what Balanchine would have made of them.

Edited to add: Sealings has just posted, on another thread, a link to Vishneva dancing to Pierre Lunaire.
http://www.russiatod...te_Nights_.html.
I'd add that to the list in the paragraph above. I love this piece and know it well ... but it could never be a platform for classical/neoclassical ballet. (As Ratmansky, the choreographer, has been wise to understand.)

#11 Alexandra

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Posted 20 July 2009 - 07:43 AM

I didn't bring up the origins of hierarchy to go off point, but to support the point. It's part of how Western culture saw the world. As others here and elsewhere have pointed out, Balanchine used the structure of music as a musician would, and that "Symphony in C," to take one particularly brilliant example, music made visible! I think the use of hierarchy and "classical form" (as the structure of la pas de deux that can be expanded to something as large as Kingdom of the Shades -- entree, adagio, variations, coda) together does, directly relate to how to tell a story and how to make something clear to an audience, and I do think it's part of the form.

I'm very glad bart made the point that hierarchy is one of the elements that distinguishes/separates classical/neoclassical ballet from other forms -- it's part of its identity!

I don't remember the name of the Peter Martins piece either, bart -- but is it the one of which Croce wrote, "he has learned everything from Balanchine except genius?" Another example of hierarchy not making sense, as several critics pointed out at the time, is Helgi Tomasson's "Prism" where, after two movements that DO make sense, the third, with a virtuoso male soloist who comes out of nowhere, doesn't.

Perhaps hierarchy/structure is part of what Aristotle meant when he said that part of good art is that there are patterns that we find familiar. We don't have to fight the structure to figure out what's going on -- we've grown up with it. (Especially those who attended High Holy Midnight Mass :pinch: ) Nonclassical forms have a different intent and a different sense of structure. As musical and highly structured as Paul Taylor's work is, for example, it's a different sensibility, and though he certainly makes solos for his dancers, and some dancers are more favored than others, there's not the same sense of hierarchy. (NOT saying that's bad, of course.)

#12 bart

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Posted 20 July 2009 - 07:57 AM

Another example of hierarchy not making sense, as several critics pointed out at the time, is Helgi Tomasson's "Prism" where, after two movements that DO make sense, the third, with a virtuoso male soloist who comes out of nowhere, doesn't.

I see the point. However, I suggest however, using the word "expectations" to "sense."

If a choreographer shifts the pattern in his final movement, it can be interesting, which I imagine is what Tomasson intended. However, he has already set us up and created a certain set of expectations as to how lead dancers will be used. To drop this suddenly and without preparation, as Tomasson appears to have done, and to do switch to else, is disorienting to the viewer. It's a shock to our expectations, which have the choreographer -- by starting out with a certain structure -- has himself created in us.

The feelings and thoughts provoked by this disorientation have the effect of distracting us from the choreography. We have to take away our full attention to the work and ask ourselves questions: "What the heck is going on? Where did THAT dancer come from?" This can be maravelous in a ballet which has the AIM of throwing the audience off balance. But ... if disorientation WAS was the aim to Tomasson's piece ... why did he take so long to get there?

A lot of contemporary ballet is disorienting by intention. (I wish I could pull up some examples, but they're buried right now.) It's a legitimate artistic goal. But it's not a goal of classical art. Classical art does break down complex reality into its component parts; it does so, however, in order to rebuild it in a new way and to create a sense of coherence by the end. Coherence, unity, and healing.

#13 Alexandra

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Posted 20 July 2009 - 08:10 AM

Another example of hierarchy not making sense, as several critics pointed out at the time, is

A lot of contemporary ballet is disorienting by intention. (I wish I could pull up some examples, but they're buried right now.) It's a legitimate artistic goal. But it's not a goal of classical art. Classical art does break down complex reality into its component parts. It does so, however, in order to rebuild it in a new way and to create a sense of coherence by the end. Coherence, unity, and healing.


Of course! :pinch: Most of modernistic art and whatever period we're in now (post-post-modern? pre-something else?) is intentionally disorienting -- or seeking ways of making work that is not ordered in traditional ways. But when you make a work that IS conventionally oriented and break the rules, or don't see the rules, then that's different -- and gets in the way of the intention of the piece. Another early Martins work (and I don't remember the name of this one eithier -- it may be the one bart refers to in a post above) had, what Croce said, were "two dangling demis," and she made the point that if you're going to follow Balanchine rules, then you have to follow them. NOT TO SAY that, of course, there are many other "rules," and much experimental work prides itself on not using rules at all.

I like your last two sentences that I quoted above a lot, bart. What a beautiful way to say it!

p.s. Our board is structurally classically oriented. I tried to make the post and it refused me, saying that the number of opening and closing quote tags do not match. So I removed the "dangling demi." :blink:

#14 bart

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Posted 21 July 2009 - 01:21 PM

Doing a little research for another thread I came upon the following, in Robert Garis's Following Balanchine. Garis suggests that the differences among the sections in Jewels tells us something about the hierarchy of ballerinas in Balanchine's company -- from "Emeralds" (Verdy and Paul), through "Rubies" (McBride), to "Diamonds" (Farrell).

The whole structure led to Farrell's appearance as a climax...


When you think of it, "Emeralds" has two ballerinas to share the stage. They are gone by the end (at least in the revision made about 10 years after the premiere) leaving behind the three men who kneel downstage in a kind of homage.

In "Rubies." the ballerina must share attention with her bravura male partner. In the last section, each principal dances at the head of his or her pack of friends. Although there's a pose at the end, its brief. The central couple do not, if I remember correctly, touch at the end.

Only in "Diamonds" is the ballerina the center of it all. Everyone else on stage is courtier or cavalier. At the end of the finale grand polonaise, the two lines of corps couples form two diagonal linespointing upstage like an arrow, leaving a vast central space for the lead couple. The cavalier is there to support her. She's the queen .. and she gets the last word. Hierarchy-wise, you can't beat that. :wallbash:

#15 SandyMcKean

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Posted 21 July 2009 - 04:38 PM

Thanks bart for this insight. Jewels is a ballet I hope to see dozens of more times (I've seen it maybe 6 or 7 times so far). It's one of the pinnacle ballets for me. Your insight will be very much in mind the next time I'm lucky enough to see it.


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