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Nurturing new choreographic talent


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#1 dirac

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Posted 27 May 2009 - 11:00 AM

Ray raised this issue on the 'Next Balanchine' poll topic, and on reconsideration I think it would be nice to have a new thread on the subject, as it could raise a lot of new issues. Ray writes:

I just wonder the extent to which ballet watchers (both BTers and others) are interested in new choreographers at all--beyond, perhaps, providing vehicles for their favorite dancers. And I am genuinely curious as to how others feel about nurturing new choreographic talent--i.e., is it essential for the continuation of ballet?


What do you think?

#2 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 27 May 2009 - 01:40 PM

Yes and Yes.

Yes #1: I really enjoy seeing new work—either “new to me” or (even better) newly created. Some of it will be good, some of it will be awful, and there might even be a masterpiece or two. (As Balanchine himself observed, you have to make the bad ballets to make the good ballets.) I consider myself to have been privileged to be alive when it was still possible to see brand new ballets choreographed by Balanchine and Robbins. (Not to mention new works by Cunningham, Taylor, Brown, Morris, et al.) I was too young to be there for the really big works, but I there for the premieres of “Mozartiana” and “Antique Epigraphs” and those ballets seem special to me still. I prefer to believe that experiences like that aren’t just in my past, but are in my future, too. I was at the premiere of Wheeldon's "After the Rain" and Ratmansky's "Russian Seasons" and they're special too.

Here’s something that Susan Sontag wrote in her preface to the 1996 republication of the Spanish translation of Against Interpretation (her second book, written in 1966) that for me at least captures the special exhilaration of being “present at the creation”:

“I could never have imagined that both New York … and Paris … were in the early throes of a period that would be judged as exceptionally creative. They were … exactly as I’d imagined them to be—full of discoveries, inspirations, the sense of possibility. The dedication and daring … of the artists whose work mattered to me seemed, well, the way it was supposed to be. I thought it normal that there be new masterpieces every month …”


Yes #2: If no one choreographs new ballets, then doesn’t ballet become something like Kabuki or Noh, a carefully preserved artifact of another time and place? And I’d worry about dancers who spent their lives performing works by dead giants without ever thinking that they too could make masterpieces.

#3 Ray

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Posted 27 May 2009 - 01:55 PM

Yes #2: If no one choreographs new ballets, then doesn’t ballet become something like Kabuki or Noh, a carefully preserved artifact of another time and place? And I’d worry about dancers who spent their lives performing works by dead giants without ever thinking that they too could make masterpieces.


Lots to chew on, Kathleen, but in re Yes #2, I wonder if that is enough for some viewers--it's not for me, but I want to really understand another way of seeing the ballet heritage, w/o the "modernist bias" that Sontag represents in that wonderful quotation (though expecting a masterpiece every month could prove disappointing--and Sontag elides the material conditions that made that creativity possible--i.e., it's not all genius erupting spontaneously). I share that bias; I tend to lose interest in an art form that's not producing new work, and I share the concern about dancers who may be incipient choreographers. BUT we'd never say this about other classical forms like Noh, would we?

For some, the ballet establishment barely holds onto the classical (or even neoclassical) rep, and that's a legitimate worry.

#4 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 27 May 2009 - 02:52 PM

If no one choreographs new ballets, then doesn’t ballet become something like Kabuki or Noh, a carefully preserved artifact of another time and place?

"Carefully preserved" doesn't sound like a bad idea to me at all, to be honest...If faced with the non probable question of choosing between dancing ONLY the preserved XIX repertoire with no room for anything else, or electively choosing to loose it, and keep experimenting...I would go for the first choice.(But again, this is a highly hipotetical thing)

#5 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 05:51 AM

If no one choreographs new ballets, then doesn’t ballet become something like Kabuki or Noh, a carefully preserved artifact of another time and place?

"Carefully preserved" doesn't sound like a bad idea to me at all, to be honest...If faced with the non probable question of choosing between dancing ONLY the preserved XIX repertoire with no room for anything else, or electively choosing to loose it, and keep experimenting...I would go for the first choice.(But again, this is a highly hipotetical thing)


Nothing wrong with preservation, and I agree that we're unlikely to have to choose between creating new ballets and loosing the old ones.

My concern is that without new works ballet becomes a dead language like Latin: a relative handful of specialists pore over the old masterworks, a few students learn to read them -- maybe write a sentence or two themselves for practice -- and the real conversation takes place in another language. There is general agreement that The Aeneid is a touchstone of Western literature, but hardly anyone reads it in either the original or in translation and any influence it has on the culture at large is at a two or three degree remove.

Or maybe ballet turns into something like the Broadway musical, a once vibrant form that is now mostly for tourists and nostalgic aficionados, with the only over-amplified revivals and "new" works like "Mama Mia" on offer. We might not be lucky enough to get Noh.

#6 Simon G

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 06:24 AM

My concern is that without new works ballet becomes a dead language like Latin: a relative handful of specialists pore over the old masterworks, a few students learn to read them -- maybe write a sentence or two themselves for practice -- and the real conversation takes place in another language. There is general agreement that The Aeneid is a touchstone of Western literature, but hardly anyone reads it in either the original or in translation and any influence it has on the culture at large is at a two or three degree remove.

Or maybe ballet turns into something like the Broadway musical, a once vibrant form that is now mostly for tourists and nostalgic aficionados, with the only over-amplified revivals and "new" works like "Mama Mia" on offer. We might not be lucky enough to get Noh.



Kathleen,

Before Balanchine & Ashton became "set in stone greats" they both worked in commercial theatre, in Broadway, Vaudeville, The Negroe Revues, Films, commercial dance - it was their take on how populism could enrich ballet that moved them forward to become what they were.

Nor were they alone De Mille, Holm, Falco, Massine, Petit - none of them were adverse to exploring the wider field and using their findings to enrich creativity.

What will make ballet die and wither is viewing it as rarified, too precious to be tainted by base popular entertainment forms. If what it is is a language that can't be deciphered in any other format or form than classical purity it will be Latin; a dead language of interest to historians, librarians and antiquarians.

In their lifetimes the greats who now are viewed as establishment were straining to break free of the weight of the past, to find how classicism was relevant to creating within their time and space and for the society in which they lived - it's what artistic progression is about.

Balanchine & Ashton were lucky they had nascent companies and space to create as much as they wanted, to make mistakes and lived in a time when ballet was seen as relevant, or at least more relevant than it is now.

But to yearn for a past which probably never truly existed in the first place, to attach to it a quality of a halcyon nirvana to aspire to is a death knell. If ballet's apogee is historical and it's salvation as an art form is nothing but looking back and regressing,then perhaps it'll deserve to be relegated to the forgotten & dead languages file.

#7 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 06:35 AM

My concern is that without new works ballet becomes a dead language like Latin: a relative handful of specialists pore over the old masterworks, a few students learn to read them -- maybe write a sentence or two themselves for practice -- and the real conversation takes place in another language.

Kathleen, but if there's something highly unlikely to happen, is the fear to start having just a "few students" that will be able to "write a sentence or two themselves for practice"-(this translated into the ballet world as a few ballet students able to learn a couple of ballet exercises for themselves). Reality is, ballet schools, ballet technique and ballet competitions are fierce and in high demand. More and more kids are trying to get into companies, and they are sharper than ever. The feeling is certainly very enthusiastic, and even better than that...the kids want to dance the classics, and dance it good. I will always remember when I read Kirkland's book, and her internal struggling when she realized that she wanted to dance the classics, having to leave NYCB in order to do so. I sill this is still happening.

#8 Simon G

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 07:20 AM

Reality is, ballet schools, ballet technique and ballet competitions are fierce and in high demand. More and more kids are trying to get into companies, and they are sharper than ever. The feeling is certainly very enthusiastic, and even better than that...the kids want to dance the classics, and dance it good. I will always remember when I read Kirkland's book, and her internal struggling when she realized that she wanted to dance the classics, having to leave NYCB in order to do so. I sill this is still happening.



I'm not sure I agree with this summation CMB, competitions are really increasingly seen as a passport to a company job, in a field in which jobs are becoming scant, companies having funding cut, companies downsizing or closing altogether and the few entry positions narrowing and with dancers holding on to jobs for longer than usual at corps level.

An astounding talent will always be given room, but with technique becoming so homogenised and prevalant there are too many dancers being trained for too few positions if any. Coupled with the fact that dance training is astronomically expensive - it's why foreign dancers go for the Prix de Lausanne for the Royal Ballet scholarship - because it's the best bet for a job with a company that offers 52 week contracts and a modicum of job security.

Especially in the current climate who can afford to train their children and even if one could who would want their children to graduate with no qualifications, into a field with fewer and fewer job opportunities or future and definitely no financial security?

In regards to the question of nurturing new choreographic talent, something struck me, what exactly do you (general you) want to see choreographed? Without an underlying intellectual and emotional and artistic intelligence even the prettiest of pretty dances is just that a dance.

A great choreographer has something to say, the problem is will anyone want to listen?

#9 richard53dog

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 08:52 AM

I personally think it's important to have new works to keep ballet vibrant. I think Kathleen's language analogy is a good one .

In an ideal world there should be lots of both performances of the classics and well as new entries. This is important to renew the audiences, in many cases new viewers may be attracted by new works that have more points of reference for them. On the other hand the potential new viewer may relate well to the format of a tried and true classic. So let's have both.

#10 Hans

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 09:20 AM

Simon, I don't think Kathleen was saying musical theatre is not worthy of good choreography; rather, she was (it appears to me) comparing the state of the two art forms.

Also, I feel I ought to point out that we have always trained too many dancers for too few jobs. There has never been any money or job security in ballet (well, not in the last 100 years anyway) and unfortunately, that is life when you're a performing artist.

#11 Simon G

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 09:29 AM

Simon, I don't think Kathleen was saying musical theatre is not worthy of good choreography; rather, she was (it appears to me) comparing the state of the two art forms.

Also, I feel I ought to point out that we have always trained too many dancers for too few jobs. There has never been any money or job security in ballet (well, not in the last 100 years anyway) and unfortunately, that is life when you're a performing artist.



Hans,

I didn't take it to mean that Kathleen was saying musical theatre wasn't deserving of great dance makers at all. What I meant was that those great choreographers specfically Balanchine & Ashton Robbins, Demille, Petit etc worked and created in such a time the divisions between high and "low" art weren't so cut, it wasn't a case of never the twain - and perhaps that's why their art continues to be so relevant and their sensibilities as creative artists were more catholic (in the non religious sense of universal).

Those great bastions of high art such as the Royal & NYCB are actually historically pretty recent occurrences and it's sad how divorced the public at large increasingly sees ballet as being. If a choreographer has any duty whatsoever it's to create art and dances which reflect his society and are for his society - be relevant and then perhaps you'll have great choreography.

I wonder though is there really a dearth of choreographers creating today? I don't know, what's perhaps more apt is that there's a dearth of anything meaningful being done in choreography, leaving no impression and being so quickly forgotten.

#12 Quiggin

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 11:20 AM

If a choreographer has any duty whatsoever it's to create art and dances which reflect his society and are for his society - be relevant and then perhaps you'll have great choreography.


But what is there left to reflect, if I may be so bold to state a depressing thought? Masterpieces don’t come out of thin air, and what they used to come out of was keen intellectual curiosity and a wealth of venacular forms of expression. These seem greatly diminished, even in the last ten years.

Susan Sontag was discovering masterpieces each week, but many of these had been written years before. She was introducing them to U.S. audiences and this made them seem new and exciting. And she was still going to Carnegie Hall every week and listening to pianists like Maurizio Pollini play Beethoven.

Yet there were many great great things: Beckett plays in little rooms and the Polish theater and Godard films, but these happened out of sight, along the margins, out of the watchful eye of the mainstream press. When it was announced that the Joseph Patelson Music House would close, a friend said with all these nurturing out of the way places disappearing, why would a young person want to come to live in New York now.

The last things for me to happen in the protected margins are Cuban ballet, and Roberto Bolano and Javier Marias novels.

But classic ballet is a sort of Latin in a good way, a fixed form with complicated rules that we can enjoy again and again intact. (And in ballet-Latin Petipa would be Ovid, Wheeldon Catullus, and Balanchine Horace, the adjectives several beats behind the nouns.)

#13 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 11:34 AM

My concern is that without new works ballet becomes a dead language like Latin: a relative handful of specialists pore over the old masterworks, a few students learn to read them -- maybe write a sentence or two themselves for practice -- and the real conversation takes place in another language.

Kathleen, but if there's something highly unlikely to happen, is the fear to start having just a "few students" that will be able to "write a sentence or two themselves for practice"-(this translated into the ballet world as a few ballet students able to learn a couple of ballet exercises for themselves). Reality is, ballet schools, ballet technique and ballet competitions are fierce and in high demand. More and more kids are trying to get into companies, and they are sharper than ever. The feeling is certainly very enthusiastic, and even better than that...the kids want to dance the classics, and dance it good. I will always remember when I read Kirkland's book, and her internal struggling when she realized that she wanted to dance the classics, having to leave NYCB in order to do so. I sill this is still happening.


It isn't the number of students I'm concerned about. What I had in mind was my own experience learning Latin and ancient Greek in school. We would very dutifully write little paragraphs and and even poems to demonstrate that we'd mastered whatever point of grammar or rhetoric it was that we were learning that week, but there was no expectation that we would ever write something real in one of these languages. We might try our hand at imitating a few lines of Virgil, but none of us were ever going to write an epic poem-- or any kind of poem for that matter--in Latin for other people to read and enjoy.

I was thinking by analogy of ballet students mastering the steps and putting together little combinations to sharpen their understanding of what they'd learned, but never having any expectation that they might use that same vocabulary to make something new.

I don't think there's any great dearth of choreographers, by the way, even though there may not be a towering genius out there. I was just trying to address Ray's original question as to whether or not new works were necessary for ballet to continue. The answer probably depends on how one defines "continue."

#14 dirac

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 11:46 AM

I didn't take it to mean that Kathleen was saying musical theatre wasn't deserving of great dance makers at all. What I meant was that those great choreographers specfically Balanchine & Ashton Robbins, Demille, Petit etc worked and created in such a time the divisions between high and "low" art weren't so cut, it wasn't a case of never the twain - and perhaps that's why their art continues to be so relevant and their sensibilities as creative artists were more catholic (in the non religious sense of universal).

Nor were they alone De Mille, Holm, Falco, Massine, Petit - none of them were adverse to exploring the wider field and using their findings to enrich creativity.


All true, SimonG, but as far as Balanchine was concerned, at least, he did a lot of these extracurricular activities from hunger. I’m sure his art benefited from them to some extent and he did not look down on this work, but if he had been able to concentrate on ballet full time, he would have done so. (I suspect the same is true for Ashton, as well.)

I think you are right to emphasize that the classical choreographers of that era benefited from the closer ties between vernacular dance and the danse d’ecole. (Leigh remarked on this once upon a time.) What has happened in the last half century is that the distance between popular dance and music and ballet has increased. Something similar has happened to musical theatre, as Kathleen mentioned, which began slowly to die once its music was no longer mainstream pop. When Robbins’ original casts performed Interplay and Fancy Free, for example, they were doing dances very close to what people were dancing for fun and pleasure. That’s no longer true for the most part.

I agree with those who emphasize the need for new work, mediocre or no. Dancers need it, the audience needs it.

Masterpieces don’t come out of thin air, and what they used to come out of was keen intellectual curiosity and a wealth of venacular forms of expression.


Right, Quiggin, and as you've pointed out on other threads, Balanchine's genius didn't emerge from a vacuum but from an environment full of intellectual and artistic energy.

This has been a great thread to read. Thanks, everyone. :)

#15 Helene

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 12:04 PM

Right, Quiggin, and as you've pointed out on other threads, Balanchine's genius didn't emerge from a vacuum but from an environment full of intellectual and artistic energy.

Regardless of whether the general environment is as intellectually and artistically stimulating as Balanchine found, he started to choreograph experimentally at a young age -- not without difficulty or criticism -- at school, using his fellow students. As cubanmiamiboy has pointed out, the number of students in ballet academies has grown beyond the capacity for companies to absorb, and at schools, there are still the laboratories for someone who is compelled to create classical ballet.


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