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Alexandra

Classical/contemporary

39 posts in this topic

One of the reasons I started this site was a concern that, in this time between the Giants, when there's no presiding Giant of a choreographer (like a Balanchine) to set a standard in choreography, or company (like the Royal) to serve as a model for great, living, breathing classical dancing, the waters tend to get a bit muddy. Part of the muddiness is the fact that, in the past 15 years, and especially in the past five, a distinction between classical ballet (as the root of a classical ballet company) and the never-properly-named hybrid ballet-modern combination (as a novelty to supplement the repertory) has not only begun to erode, but what was once considered novelty is becoming central. This affects the nature of a ballet company and it's concerned me (and many others.)

This is why, to me, the issue matters. We all like different things, for different reasons. Some like classical ballet because it's beautiful or, because as someone posted earlier, because it's what we're used to. Some like contemporary ballet because it's exciting, some because it has no rules and can be enjoyed on its own merits. I'm not trying to attack anyone's taste, and I'd like to take the discussion beyond what I/we "like" to what is the nature of ballet, what should a company's repertory be, etc. I know most people go to see dance because it's fun, and that's how it should be; that's the short term response to what we see. But there's a long term effect of what we see that, eventually, will determine what we see. That is why I think this question matters.

Ninette De Valois once wrote that a company's repertory should be composed of the following: the classics (which, for her, writing in the 1930s, meant Petipa); modern classics; national works (not necessarily those designed to last, but those that would be enjoyed by a local audience and give a new company a national identity); and novelty (works not designed to last, but which would prove amusing or excting, or just plain interesting, to the audience) -- an audience whose tastes had been educated by directors who knew what they were doing.

I think that formula still holds today and is infinitely expandable.

When that formula is out of whack, things begin to go wrong. If a company presents only the 19th century classics, everyone gets bored. If novelty begins to dominate, however, there can be several negative effects. When novelty achieves critical mass, the nature of the company changes.

One of these effects is that a new audience, drawn to the new works, understandably believes that these works are not only great, but are what the company should be doing. Anything else is "old-fashioned." This is what is happening, with at least one segment of the audience now.

Imagine if an opera company, to boost ticket sales, decided to do "West Side Story." Now, WSS is a very good musical. It may be a better musical, in fact, than some of the operas in the repertory are operas, if that makes sense. (A first-rate musical vs. a fourth-rate opera; no names given.) Well, suppose hundreds of people flock to West Side, ignoring not only the old chestnuts, (Carmen, La Boheme, etc.) but the more "difficult" operas, Wagner, anything from the 20th century. The new audience is delighted to have discovered what they have every reason to believe is "opera," the management begins to program more musicals, the opera audience drizzles away, etc. That's what's happening in ballet. It's not an exact analogy, because I don't think ballet moderne is a direct analog to musicals, but the difference between ballet moderne and classical ballet, and musicals and opera, is the point I'm trying to make.

I don't accept the notion that Tetley, Forsythe, Nacho Duato and/or Val Caniparoli are part of the Lully/Noverre/Bournonville/Petipa/Balanchine/Ashton line, any more than I accept the notion that the artist formerly known as Prince is "Our Mozart," as was said at the time the Joffrey Ballet was producing Billboards.

Finally (honest), a steady diet of contemporary ballet affects the dancers. It erodes their classical technique -- all over the world, linking steps, the small, lovely things that make up classical style and have, in various guises, since the 16th century, are being lost in favor of kick, kick, roll on the floor, jump, jump, kick the woman in the face and drag her between your legs, walk around with a plant on your head, etc. Watching some of this stuff is like reading a novel that's composed of a dialogue of curses; it may be exciting and modern, but the vocabulary is limited.

Those are the main points. Sorry it's so long. I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts, pro or con.

I'm going to post another thread, about the history of contemporary ballet.

alexandra

[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited 03-02-99).]

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Alexandra - Love your post! - I am in complete agreement! - I just was trying to say the same thing in a different way! - I really feel that all the "greats" as we refer to them now, were inovative in exploring the classical vocabulary and creating and incorporating differnt movements to their own vision or invoative "style" of ballet. So, when i say incorporating modern/jazz/ballet/theatre dance it was my way of describing what i would like to see. But i would not term many of these "new" modern choreographers "ballet" choreographers as they do not use fully the classical vocabulary - and though, i love some of their work, i miss Ballet! - Ok i hope this clarified a little what i was saying earlier.

Aloha

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Alexandra, thanks for your long, interesting post.

But there is one thing which puzzles me: for you, is there any living choreographer who is in the "Lully/ Noverre/ Bournonville/ Petipa/ Balanchine/ Ashton line"? Perhaps one of the problems with the company directors is that real "classical" choreographers seem to be quite rare nowadays, and so they choose among the "most classical" ones... For example, the Paris Opera Ballet recently ordered some new works to choreographers such as William Forsythe and Jiri Kylian. That's not real "100% ballet" style, but I wonder what else

choreographers they could choose (and that'll

probably be better than Preljocaj, or than some of Nureyev's "classical" choreographies...) Do you think that there still are choreographers who'd be able to create "modern classics" in De Valois' classification? And perhaps another problem

is that the "classical ballet" repertory seems more narrow than the repertory for music and opera: the oldest works in the repertory are rather "recent" in fact (late 18th century), and most of the works are known only through reconstructions, and there doesn't even see to be a "canonical" faithful version for some ballets. The list of pre-20th century ballets which can still be danced is quite narrow ("Giselle", less than

a tenth of Petipa's ballets, some Bournonville's ballets (and they aren't well

known outside Denmark), reconstructions of "La fille mal gardee" or of some works by Taglioni...) and so it makes a narrow choice

for programmers.

And also, how do you draw the line between "ballet" and "ballet moderne"? For example, Balanchine's "Agon" or "The Four temperaments" seem pretty far from "Giselle"... Here in France, "ballet moderne" isn't used often, people are more likely to talk about "neo-classique" (as opposed to "danse contemporaine"). But it isn't a clear definition, and might include Balanchine, Nijinska, Fokine, Tudor, Ashton and Lifar as well as Bejart, Petit, Spoerli, Kylian, Forsythe, Neumeier, Van Manen or even Mats Ek. And so there are probably as many differences among such "neo-classical" choreographers as between some of them and some "contemporary" ones.

[This message has been edited by Estelle (edited 03-03-99).]

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Thanks, Estelle, for a very interesting post, that really raises a lot of good questions.

To your three main points, I would say:

First, yes, the pre-20th century ballet repertory is not nearly as rich as that of opera, but I would argue that the 20th century classical/neoclassical repertory is richer. There's much fine repertory that's never done now -- lots of Fokine and Ashton, for starters. In Paris, there are Leo Staats ballets, and why have Neumeier do a "new" Sylvia when Darsonval revived a lovely "traditional" Sylvia a decade ago? Somehow, in the 1970s and '80s, it became the norm to "update" the classics. Nureyev's aren't my favorite versions, either, but they're a lot more pristine than most of what followed.

Second, as for living classical or neoclassical choreographers, there aren't many, but there are some. Some that aren't of the first rank, shall we say -- and I don't mean I'm suggesting that their works should form the core repertory -- but they do exist: the house choreographers I mentioned before. But there are some young men -- Michael Corder, Christopher Wheeldon are the most known. I haven't seen enough Bintley to be sure, but I think he's neoclassical. (Cranko and MacMillan are in this line. I don't think they're the equal of Ashton or Balanchine, but they're not negligible.) Ib Andersen has done twelve ballets that are "after Balanchine," in a way, but, at least the two I've seen, not formulaic. Unfortunately, he's not attached to any company now, and his name has often come up in conversations I've had with people about contemporary choreography; I can remember three times when three very different people have said, "Oh, they won't use him. He's too much of a threat," which speaks volumes about what's going on in the ballet world. Finally, I've gotten many reports since I started Ballet Alert about someone -- Christopher Stowell, Ricardo Bustamente -- doing a classical piece at a workshop, but it never gets into repertory. Thre is a prejudice in ballet, at the moment, against ballet.

Third, I found your ballet contemporaine/ballet neoclassique question especially interesting. Perhaps this is an American versus European view again, but in my eyes, Balanchine, even Agon and Four Temperaments, are very much related to Giselle -- not in theme or story or content, of course, but in language. They use the same vocabulary and the same aesthetic. To me, your list of "Balanchine, Nijinska, Fokine, Tudor, Ashton" (I'm not sure I would include Lifar with those luminaries; he's neoclassical, but I'd rank him with MacMillan, Cranko, Robbins) are neoclassical. I'd even put Petit and Bejart in this line; I haven't seen enough Spoerli to know exactly where to place him, but my guess (from reports I've gotten from colleagues) is that he's rather like our Ben Stevenson; he's classical, but his works are not for the ages. Van Manen, in the 1960s and '70s, did use a classical base -- although he'd always muck it up, turning a plie into a squat, or having a foot wiggle at the end of an arabesque to show he was modern; I haven't seen a new Van Manen work in years, so I don't know how he turned out. The others: "Kylian, Forsythe, Neumeier, or even Mats Ek" are what I'm calling ballet moderne; they're hybrids. They're more descended from Butler and Tetley and, some of them, influenced by Bausch. I guess the European equivalent of Tetley and Butler is Birgit Cullberg, Eks' mother. They do not use the classical vocabulary (Balanchine grafted foreign material to a classical base; these moderns just use a movement here and a step there) and their aesthetic is anti-classical.

I see the "three-generation theory" at work here. When a major change occurs (and I mean change, as in the world turned upside down, not evolution, as in something a little new) the generation that lives through it is horrified and says, "No, this is wrong. There is this, and there is that, and you can't do this." The second generation, their children, remembers the old, and grows up with the new, and is often divided as to the relative merits, but can see the distinction clearly. The third generation, the grandchildren, have known nothing but the new, and can no longer see the distinction; it's all become blended.

Does this make any sense?

alexandra

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An afterthought to my earlier long reply to Estelle.

The difference between the neoclassicists and the modernes/contemporaines is that the neoclassicists came OUT OF ballet; even if they broke rules, they knew the rules they were breaking, while the contemporaines come from OUTSIDE OF ballet. Yes, I know Neumeier "studied with" Volkova, as in admired and took classes, and that both Neumeier and Forsythe were members of the Stuttgart ballet, but they did not grow up in ballet and they never had a balletic sensibility. The same thing with America's Eliot Feld (who's now abandoned ballet entirely). He mastered the vocabulary and he could pass, for a time, but his heart was never in it; he remained part modern dancer, mostly Broadway dancer.

The real rule breakers -- the Impressionists, and their best balletic analog, Fokine -- understood the rules and could produce rule-bound work before they broke with the rules. Fokine said he made Chopinana "to show that I could do it."

I think the modernes are more analogs to Andy Warhol and his "Art is anything I say it is." Which is to say, "Art is anything I can get away with." (I am a great poet; this post is a poem. Well, no, it's not, and the stakeholders of poetry should rise up and say that before I become the acclaimed New Poetess of the age.)

So the difference is that of the inside/outside view of ballet, the buy-in to what ballet is all about or the come-from-outside-try-to-worm-your-way-in, that makes the difference.

alexandra

[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited 03-03-99).]

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Basically, of course I agree with Alexandra, and would like to second a recent review by Clement Crisp talking about some modern ballet--I say it's spinach and I say the hell with it. But of course you should have reasons, or you just become reactionary and destructive. The lack of vocabulary is one reason I don't like some modern ballets, and the apparent anti-historicism of some of the attitudes. Since some people (it seems mainly marketing types) split the ballet audience into two types--little old ladies and young trendies--we either get dumbed down, tarted-up versions of full-length ballets (Swan Lake will sell so why bother with the details, or pale pastisches like The Snow Maiden), or sexy black on black numbers. It's like only being given a choice between Walt Disney and MTV, when ballet is so much richer and more profound and imaginative.

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I'm in the midst of doing an article on Forsythe right now, and so it's hard for me to define my thoughts on the matter, which are very divided. I'm impressed with his work. I recognize classical ballet used within it. I think it's neither his major interest nor focus. Forsythe as an artist should follow his muse, and does very well, but I find it distressing when other people refer to him as the future of ballet. I've been watching his work for more than a decade now, and it is distinguished, but only operates within a small segment of the repertory. I've never seen an adagio, for instance.

About two years ago on a.a.b we were batting around an analogy of ballet repertory as a tree. We were seeing a lot of branches, we needed to see more people nourishing the trunk. At the same time, to use Balanchine as an example, he wasn't a conservationist, he was a Janus figure, looking both backwards and forwards. His conservation of ballet was a by-product of his omnivorous attitutde toward repertory, not the other way around. He did what interested him, he changed what suited him, his first concern was not "ballet", but his own expression.

It's hard for me to talk more clearly about this issue, because I feel like I'm living inside of it (both in terms of writing and choreography), rather than looking at it from any objective distance!

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Thanks to both Mary and Leigh for your posts -- and setting an example of conciseness, which I will try to follow!

Mary, I love the choice between Walt Disney and MTV. I think that says it -- and of course, I don't think anyone of this opinion thinks that "real ballet" is Walt Disney and "real modern dance" is MTV. Both can be more.

Leigh, I agree with you about Forsythe -- he, or any artist, should follow his muse, and to hell with labels. "It's not his focus" says it well. I think of it as a matter of language. For Balanchine and Ashton (I have an affirmative action plan for mentioning Ashton, since he's so often ignored, or treated as a retrograde embarrassment) ballet was the language. No matter what they "said," they spoke that native language, although they enriched it immeasurably. As often happens, the problem is one of marketing, not artistry. We're in the century of New Now Shock, and those labels are applied whether they're warranted or not, and work that is now obviously New or Now is devalued.

About your dilemma, I can sympathize, and I think the battle between being a choreographer (following one's muse) and a balletmaster (maintaining the art form) is one doesn't get enough attention. If you work for a large institution, I think the balletmaster side has to keep watch on the long view, and that can distract the choreographer.

alexandra

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To go back a post or two: yes, David Bintley is neoclassical. He's not a great choreographer in the Ashton/Balanchine class (and incidentally I'm sure he wouldn't claim to be - he's a passionate admirer of Ashton) but I see him as extremely important for the survival of this line because of how he uses the style. Bintley seems to have more, and more diverse, ideas than any other choreographer now working: his ballets are very different, across a wide spectrum from plotless like 'Tombeaux' to the melodrama of 'Edward ll' and jazzy pieces like 'Nutcracker Sweeties'. Not by any means all of them are successful, but the crucial thing is that he is showing young aspirants that they *can* produce exciting and different work within the fold of ballet. Of course he has the luxury of his own company and doesn't have to fight to get his work on, but it's interesting that BRB is widely seen as the most successful company in the UK. Also, he can take a Forsythe work (Limb's Theorem, later this year) into the repertory from a position of strength, showing it as one aspect of the current dance world rather than the model towards which all should aspire.

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Thanks for that, Jane. I hadn't thought about your point that Bintley's variety of ballets is good not only for itself, but as a role model for other aspiring choreographers. He's also (I think) the last choreographer making demicaractere ballets.

I also agree with your point about taking in a contemporary work "from a position of strength." When the Danes worked, that's how they did it. The dancers and the audience (although, unfortunately, not some of their more important critics) understood this as novelty. I remember once going to the "Modern Night" at the RDB: a Laura Dean, a Forsythe (forget which one, the one with the dwarf) and two neoclassical works by Danish choreographers (Ib Andersen and Anna Laerkesen). I sat next to two old, old ladies who were actually atwitter with excitement. They wanted to be shocked! The Theater then was the city's magic carpet. You trusted it to take you on wonderful rides, and you were confident not only that it would bring you back home again, but that, when you got home, the house would still be there.

Thinking of the Danes reminded me that Clive Barnes spent a good part of the 1960s and '70s telling us that Flemming Flindt ("possibly the most interesting young choreographer working today") was the future of ballet.

Nothing to do with Jane's post, but I wanted to clarify what I, and I think others, mean by saying that Forsythe's works are not ballet because ballet is a language, a vocabulary. Yes, he does use ballet steps in his works (and I don't mean to beat up on Forsythe. Like Leigh, my only quarrel with him is the notion that he is ballet's future. I think his work must be taken seriously, but as dance, not ballet).

Raspberry cup table steal berry berry steel grommet, in the basket over the mountain plate car boat.

These are English words and phrases and they look like a sentence, but they're not used in a way that is recognizably English. Again, not a perfect analogy, because this is an incompetent sentence and I don't think Forsythe's works are incompetent, but you can use English words without writing English.

Alexandra

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Alexandra mentioned Eliot Felt, and this subject had made me think of him. Alexandra said he did not grow up in ballet; didn't he dance with ABT or is that not enough to qualify as a neoclassicist? Anyway, when he first started choreographing I liked some of the things he did. There was "Dances from Intermezzo" which was lyrical and lovely. My favorite was a couple of scenes from "Half Time" (I think this qualifies as one of those ballets we're embarrassed to admit we like). A dance called "Red, White and Blue" (on point) danced by Michaela Huhes is a riotous depiction of a ditzy cheerleader. It's sexy, funny, jazzy, but Hughes's technique is still balletic and she's beautifully turned out. In 1984 I sat through an evening of Feld that was so bad I developed a killer headache and was ready to leave after the 2nd selection. My husband convinced me to stay and we were treated to "The Jig Is Up", a rolicking spash of Highland Fling. I was sorry to see that Feld did not live up to the promise I thought he showed in his early endeavors.

Giannina

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Giannina, I'm going to start a new thread and answer you. Thanks for joining in the discussion

The last post on the old thread (Contemporary vs. classical/importance) was by Giannina Mooney about Eliot Feld.

Giannina, I'm pretty sure Eliot Feld was trained at the High School for the Performing Arts. I think he did study at SAB (wasn't he a Prince in Nutcracker?) but again, there's a difference between taking lessons and immersing yourself in a technique. Yes, he did dance with ABT, but, first of all, that's hardly a classical hothouse and secondly, when I say "you have to grow up with it," I mean from about age 8 or 9 (Yes, Ashton and Tudor came to it as young men, but Ashton is an exception to the other Greats in almost every way, and many people feel that Tudor's lack of facility in creating enchainements was due to the fact that he came to ballet so late).

Yes, Feld was considered very promising. I saw several programs of his in the late '70s that were definitely ballet; he was rechoreographing, or making his own versions of some 20th century classics ("The Gods Amused" was a two-Muse Apollo, etc.) His dancers were never classical; I can't think of one. They were all demicaractere, but ABT's rep in the '60s and early '70s was mostly demicaractere, and most of his dancers came from ABT.

I remember Michaela Hughes with great affection - what was the Fred Astaire ballet that he did for her? She joined ABT for awhile in the early '80s, I think, and was a wonderful character dancer, one of the few dancers in that company then who really looked alive on stage and had a distinct face and personality. But when she was in a classical solo, it was pretty evident that she wasn't that sort of dancer, and she didn't dance many classical (tutu or Balanchine) roles after that first season.

Feld now has something called Ballet Tech and he's stated (and the repertory bears this out) that he's no longer interested in choregraphing ballets but has gone back to his roots. His new works are very grounded in popular culture, as I think they put it in the press releases, telling today's stories of today's youth.

Alexandra

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I'm going to digress a bit (my apologies.) When telling the story of her friend who disliked both Giselle and Agon, Libby touched on the problem ballet has to face in the current times, which is a distrust of interpretation. Her friend wasn't willing to believe that he had sufficient resources at hand (his own eyes, ears and mind) to make sense of what he was seeing. It was as if there might be some sort of test, and the answers were being withheld.

I may sound like I'm dismissing the problem, but I don't think ballet needs to change to become more obvious, but that people need to be made less afraid of interpretation. Certainly art is enriched with background knowledge, but it can also stand on its own. It reminds me of the times I catch myself in museums reading the comments next to the pictures more than I've even looked at the paintings. . .

(there's an essay on this at my website - http://members.aol.com/lwitchel/interp.htm)

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hmm.. sounds like the backlash against contemporary has started. I mean for the past few years I've heard the phrase "If I see one more dance on pointe in tutu's I'll puke" more times than I care to remember. Now it seems contemporary is getting put under the microscope.

My mind is still boggling having just read this entire thread (all three of them!) in one hit. I can't remember a lot of the points brought up- even though everything said is terribly interesting to me...

So where to start? Well I like contemporary. Just so you all know. I have seen a few bits of fluff passed off as 'contemporary dance' (with that terrible 'slogan' abt the company being on the cutting edge, etc)- but then I've seen ballets that aren't the most substantial ballet meals as well.

I think a classical company needs to have modern works as well. Its all part of a balanced diet for the dancer and means they don't get bogged down with the one style (and a dancer must be versatile!). Its been mentioned that contemporary can impede the dancer's classical technique (was that you Alexandra?). What an interesting point... I certainly hope not! Its up to the individual to keep their technique up to scratch... but then a lot of people seem to be under the impression that modern dance isn't technically demanding and allows the dancer to slop around or something. Oh if only that were true! I do contemporary as well as classical, jazz, tap and a little spanish. Obviously classical is the most disiplined of the five. But modern is the style I am having the most trouble getting into my body (oh the traumas of trying to get your feet parallel when you've just come out of a classical class!). It has almost as many 'rules' as classical. There is a certain way to do things. Its not simply a case of "oh we'll chuck our leg over here maybe fall over here" (and there is an art to falling.. like Margot Fonteyn said to Martha Grahem "Why we (Royal Ballet) fall like paper bags. You fall like silk'). Perhaps the fact that the dancer is working in a different style adds something to their classical technique that isn't very beneficial. I can't really say because I hadn't noticed.. btu then I dn't see enough dance to notice! I'm not saying nobody else knew that or that I'm saying something new and mind blowing- just nobody else has mentioned that...

Hmm. and I also think if any of you have the opportunity to see Sydney Dance Company do 'salome' take it. Its a fantastic work (I'm going to see it again in april!). It uses a huge dance vocabulary as well as an acrobatic one.. And its wonderful. And its something that you remember long after you've seen it.

I'm afraid I cant comment on all that neoclassical part. I simply don't have the knowledge to make an informed comment... But still.. does everything have to fit neatly into a label? dance is an artform and is about expression... not about "OK, I'm now going to do a Balanchine-neoclassical-ballet where this guy is constantly chasing after youth" or something! (Does anyone get the point I am trying to make?!).

I think thats all I want to say for now. I just want you all to know that I think contemporary does have its important place in dance... if anyone has seen one excellent contemporary piece I'm sure they'll agree..

-Katharyn who's hoping she's not just totally mucked up the progression of this thread

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Leigh, thanks for such a good point. I do think lots of people think of dance (modern dance as well as ballet) as some sort of test, but then we have no training in how to watch it. I did a preperformance lecture once where I showed a video and talked over it. I thought I was saying the most obvious things (the sylph could be a dream, or she could be a symbol of James's longing. Look, (as they're walking backwards to the door in the first act), the Sylph's arms -- she's trying to "pull" James out the door) -- but I could tell by people's faces that these things weren't obvious, and they were happy to hear them. One man came up to me afterwards and said his wife had been "dragging" him to the ballet for 40 years and he'd never seen any point to it before. "I learned about poetry and painting and music in school," he said. "But nothing about ballet."

Like music or a painting, one should be able to listen to and watch ballet with pleasure without knowing anything about it, but also, you'll probably appreciate it more the more you know.

Katharyn -- thank you very much for joining in the fray. I can imagine reading all this in one gulp would produce grave indigestion.

I'd like to address some of your points. First, yes, definitely there are bad or silly works in every genre. I'd also like to stress that my complaint against contemporary (nonclassical) ballet is when it's danced by a classical company. If the Martha Graham company put on "Sleeping Beauty," I think people would feel that was odd. Well, why doesn't it work the same way in ballet?

I'm not sure there's a new "backlash" against contemporary; some were alarmed back in the late '60s about it. There's a great article by Deborah Jowitt, critic of the Village Voice (and a modern dancer) called "Hybrid: Will Grow in Any Soil" that sounded an alarm in the early '70s. It's one of the clearest expositions of the problem I've read (It's in her collection, Dance Beat).

On technique, no kind of dance is "easy," and any style one is not trained in will be difficult, but yes, I know older dancers and balletmasters (who loved dancing modern works and, when they were young dancers, wanted to dance everything, as all young dancers do) talk about how difficult it was to maintain a classical technique when dancing a heavy diet of modern works. (There's an article about this on the main site, in the Ballet Alert! sampler which is in the Reading Room. The interview with Bruce Marks, trained as a modern dancer, switched to ballet, and was one of the leading voices in the push for ballet companies to dance modern works. After directing a mixed-repertory dance company for many years, he changed his mind.

Finally, there has to be new repertory, absolutely, but, as Marks and many other people have said, it would be better if it came from within ballet rather than from without, if ballet is to survive in recognizable form.

Bottom line, you can't do what ABT tried to do in the 1980s: be the Joffrey Ballet during the week and do a mixed rep, and then turn into a Great Classical Company on the weekend and dance a convincing, international level Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty. Pick one. Life is about making choices.

alexandra

We've all written so long (who am I to complain?) that I'm going to start a new thread)

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Katharyn said that a classical company needs to add modern dance to its repetroire as a means of keeping balanced and versitile. I've heard some dancers say the same thing...that they like the added challenge. I, however, feel cheated if I pay to see classical ballet at one of the major ballet companys and get a sampling of modern dance. Had I wanted modern I would have gone elsewhere.

Giannina

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(Apologies for the awful editing of my posts-but I'm afraid I don't know how to improve it!)

What a big thread- it's interesting, but I'm getting a bit lost...

Alexandra, you wrote some time ago:

"First, yes, the pre-20th century ballet repertory is not nearly as rich as that of opera, but I would argue that the 20th century classical/neoclassical repertory is richer. There's much fine repertory that's never done now -- lots of Fokine and Ashton, for starters." Well, perhaps one of the problems is that the "classical" repertory for music or opera has been around long enough to become a part of the "common culture", while the 20th-century repertory

for classical dance was created at the same time as other dance forms, and is less widely

known (and even some parts of the 19th century repertory- there was no complete "Swan Lake" in the POB repertory before the 1960s, for example). The "standard" repertory depends on the country- Ashton is almost unknown in France, for example...

I'm afraid I haven't seen any work by the active "neoclassical" choreographers you quoted. And in France, even "ballet moderne"

young choreographers are quite rare (the only ones coming to my mind are Maillot and Malandain)... By the way, would you include Rudi Van Dantig in the list? I saw his "Romeo and Juliet" yesterday by the Ballet de Marseille, it looked quite classical to my untrained eye(but I'm afraid I didn't find it very interesting- or maybe it's just I'm becoming severely allergic to Prokofiev's ballet music).

You used the word "hybrid" for some choreographers such as Forsythe or Kylian, is it a negative term for you? Is it the fact that some people consider their works as "ballet" which disturbs you, or do you think their works aren't good, or both?

You also wrote: "I'd also like to stress that my complaint against contemporary (nonclassical) ballet is when it's danced by a classical company. If the Martha Graham company put on "Sleeping Beauty," I think people would feel that was odd. Well, why

doesn't it work the same way in ballet?" I see what you mean. On the other hand, I was quite happy to see some works of Graham in the POB repertory, even though they weren't danced very well. But the French context is special: the dance scene mostly is divided between "the POB" and "anything else", at least in term of company sizes and state subsidies. The POB subsidies are higher than the sum of those of all the other French companies, so it's not so surprising that people expect much from the POB, and so even expect them to have a really large repertory... And there are modern works whose preservation seems as difficult as the preservation of ballet works- seeing anything by Graham, Limon or Humphrey in France is almost impossible; perhaps the situation would be clearer if there also were some "repertory" steady modern companies?

[This message has been edited by Estelle (edited 03-05-99).]

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You are quite right Estelle, Rudi van Dantzig's "Romeo and Juliet" is a classical ballet, as is his "Swan Lake", but that doesn't necessarily make him a neoclassical choreographer.

Van Dantzig's "Romeo" is rather exceptional. It was a commission from the Dutch National Ballet he first turned down -- indeed, it was to alien for him. When he eventually did the ballet (somewhere in the mid-sixties) he followed Lavrovsky's staging, used Prokofiev's music, and thus proved Ashton was right when he remarked that "Anybody could get up and do Romeo and Juliet, it's all there structured for you."

By the way, I don't think Van Dantzig's "Romeo" is that uninteresting Estelle; it's quite comparable to MacMillan's version of the ballet, only it's less well known. Of course, it won't be for his "Romeo and Juliet" or his "Swan Lake" that van Dantzig will be remembered in books on ballet history. Pieces like "Monument for a Dead Boy", are more like it, and are quite a different kettle of fish.

The same could be said about the other famous Dutch choreographer Toer van Schayk. It's not because his "Nutcracker and Mouseking" is a purely classical ballet, that van Schayk has to be considered a neoclassical artist. Those works are probably merely escapades for them.

Where to classify these guys then? Well, perhaps Alexandra's term "hybrid" is an idea.

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Gosh, you all have been busy!

Giannina, I agree with you. There is something akin to "truth in advertising" in all of this. If I go to see the New Now Dance Company, I won't want to see "Sleeping Beauty." If I go to see the XYZ Ballet, I expect to see ballet. I think the onus is on the directors to find, train, encourage, etc. classical choreographers. They are out there.

Estelle -- so many good points, I hardly know where to start. I'll take them in order, but this is going to be long! (What awkward editing? Your posts are great.)

The repertory. I agree with what you say, and would only add that ballet seems to be, of necessity, a much more provincial art than music. You have to be there. Videos are still new - very expensive to produce and with a limited market - and not nearly as pervasive as recordings or CDs. So what you know is what you see. Balanchine

gave a lot of his works away, Ashton and Robbins really didn't like to see their ballets done on other companies, or, with Ashton, on other casts in his own company. Also, until about the last twenty years, the repertories of the major companies were all quite different. That was part of their charm.

I forgot about Van Dantzig. I've only seen his "ballet moderne" stuff. I think he also did a "Swan Lake" -- the Dutch National Ballet has always had a very eclectic repertory, lots of "classics" as well as new works by The Three Vans. I've seen some Van Schayk that I would call neoclassical and some I would call . . .not neoclassical. I haven't seen Van Dantzig's "Romeo," so I can't comment, but Marc's comments make sense to me (and I'm sure he's seen much more of the three Vs than I have.)

Yes, hybrid is a negative term for me, as is eclectic. I'd like to keep a kosher kitchen: this is this and that is that. I also love the '30s, '40s period of Modern Dance, which, of course, I didn't see, but I've read about it avidly. Those dancers nearly died for their art, and certainly fought for it and believed in it, and all that technique MEANT something. It wasn't supposed to be used as a trick, which is the way it is used now. I believe roots should be respected; you don't use the heart of a martyred goddess as decorative jewelry.

But you are right, that what bothers me is calling it "ballet," because it isn't. I think there are some who are trying to steal ballet's cachet. They don't want to do ballet, they rather scorn it and say quite nasty things about it, but they'll use its name, and claim they're carrying it into the 21st century.

As for the actual work, I think some of it is good within its own field, but I've seen very little that I would consider of the first rank.

As for Paris doing Martha Graham, I hate to be cynical again, but I think this is all about money. Ballet companies have money and also the institutional underpinnings to produce work. "Appalachian Spring" is, all of a sudden, turning up in all sorts of companies this year; I think I've counted four or five. Why? Because someone is getting paid to stage it. (The same thing is happening with Tudor and Balanchine. Some stagers are more active than others.) I think, at this point, much of the repertory selections are being driven by the salesmen, the ones who want to stage their wares, than by an artistic director with a clear plan.

There have been a few repertory modern dance companies over here, but they've never really take off. One of the reasons that's usually given is that you really can't dance a mixed repertory well. Graham, Humphrey, Limon, all had their own technique. If you dance a Humphrey piece with a Graham technique, it doesn't look like Graham. This is, not surprsingly, an argument with which I have total sympathy.

I do understand why the big state companies have wide-ranging repertories, though. But that, too, can be done from a classical base, i.e., without compromising a company's technique or style. I think Ashton's seven years with the Royal Ballet in the 1960s are a great example of this. He brought in a really pop Petit (Paradise Lost); the company didn't die. And he revived "Les Noces" and "Les Biches" -- great works that were out of repertory. It can be done.

Marc, how do we classify Grigorovich and Vinogradov? And Eifman? They're in the ballet family rather than the modern dance family, but.....

Libby, you got me. I'll pass the buck to Mary and Leigh on that one. Some of the Diamond Project is definitely ballet moderne (hybrid dance, a mixture of modern and ballet techniques), but Christopher Wheeldon has made works for them, too. So I'd say mixed bag. But Mary may have another opinion.

My sincerest thanks to everyone for resoponding, and please keep talking!

Alexandra

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With his ballets, new works as well as stagings of the classics, Grigorovich provided, in my opinion, one of the most convincing answers of a 20th-century choreographer to the problem of how to present the tradition of academic dance in a for a contemporary audience fully acceptable guise. Yet, in doing so, Grigorovich never got away from the classical structures. That's why some critics considered him to be too traditional -- thanks for the compliment. Grigorovich's "Nutcracker" is one of the best I've ever seen.

Vinogradov and Eifman tried or try to give answers as well, but in their cases I fully understand your hesitation concerning their classification, Alexandra. They started from the academic dance idiom as well, yet deliberately reacted against it and travelled away from it (in Eifman's case quite far) by introducing alien ways of movements, patterns, shapes, gymnastics (something Grigorovich never did). As with many western choreographers, who influenced these Russians, some people call this an "enrichment", others... well, will think differently. However, the end-result is completely different from the starting point (of course next to some more "modern" pieces Vinogradov did also his versions of "Coppélia", "Cinderella", "Fille mal gardée" etc which are still in a classical mould).

If somebody wants to call the pieces of Vinogradov and Eifman "ballets", that's fine with me. Yet, are they still "classical" works, that's another question. Perhaps, I can answer this one this way.

In 1995 Forsythe scrapped a commission to create a new work for the Royal Ballet, because he felt the classically-trained dancers of that company would in his opinion be UNABLE to dance his choreography in an acceptable way. -- Sounds to me, that Mr. Forsythe had at that point completely forsaken his roots.

Regarding Grigorovich

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I have to add a wicked story -- rumor -- that went around when Forsythe was trying to work with the Royal Ballet. It is this: that when he went home, he was complaining that he kept asking them to give him steps and they "couldn't," they kept expecting him to set steps on them. He does mention, I believe, that he works "collaboratively" with dancers.

About Grigorovich...Marc, your post trailed off. I know that Soviets (if not Russians) considered Grigorovich a great genius of the 20th century, and I must confess a weakness for Spartacus, but.... I do agree that he uses the classical vocabulary and I definitely agree that he tried very hard to modernize ballet from within. But...I hope there's a better Nutcracker out there! (Marc, have you ever seen Balanchine's?)

One of the problems, for me, with Grigorovch, except for the signature motif of the woman grabbing her ankle when she's in a one-hand-over-the-head-lift, no matter what's happening, or what character she's playing, is the elimination of anything that isn't a Big Effect. No little linking steps, no subtlety, no real subsidiary characters (like all the fairies in Sleeping Beauty) You're either the hero, or you're a shepherd -- or a legionnaire, or a whore, etc. I also would classify a lot of the lifts and (remembering Mukhomedov in "The Golden Age") some steps as gymnastic, if not acrobatic. And I would object, also, to the eradication of both mime and character dance in his classical revisions.

I still would rather see Spartacus than any Forsythe -- or Lar Lubinovich, or Val Caniparoli (he's real hot here right now; fast worker), etc. than I've yet seen. But if I had to pick a 20th century Russian, I'd pick Lavrovsky.

alexandra

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There is another side to this issue - the difference in technique involved in these two dance forms. To put it simply, a ballet dancer lifts up (the extreme is pointe) and turns out and a modern dancer gets down to the floor and works turned in. As long as they are turning out, you're looking at classical ballet. I don't know if this makes sense but as someone who has danced both, I can tell you it is difficult to master these two extremes.I can think of very few dancers who have.

Many companies have added modern dance to their repertory to attract a new younger audience and to produce dance with a low overhead. Unfortunately this forces them to form a diverse company which looks mediocre in all circumstances.

I am surprised at this policy because I find modern dance more of an acquired taste than classical ballet. Anyone who has sat through an evening of Molissa Fenley works, better know what they are getting into.

Here in Montreal, this "contemporary ballet" has all but taken over. A lot of this "new" choreography is pure pretentious garbage that gets a lot of critical attention because it is so "cutting edge". Please. I wonder if anybody who knows anything about dance can sit through more than 15 minutes of a company like La La La Human Steps. And to top it all off, ballet companies are so desperate for choreographers that they ask modern dancers to produce ballets for them. Has that experiment ever really worked?

The Peter Martins ballet, Adams Violin Concerto drove me up the wall because I thought the ballet dancers (Merril Ashley and Adam Luders) made the modern dancers look awful. And I'm someone who really loves modern dance. I just don't think they go together.

And then you see a ballet like In Paradisium by James Kudelka or a beautiful piece by Nacho Duato and you have to rethink the whole issue over again...

I still consider that crazy mess of a ballet (which I quite enjoyed), the Golden Age, classical because of the pointe shoes. In the Middle Somewhat Elevated, as well. Take the pointe shoes off the girls, have them hit the floor and stop turning out, and only then have do you have modern dance.

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Go, Lillian! My dream is that, at a New Now Night in the not too distant future, there will be people with picket signs saying, "We want real ballet!" (Always remembering that if it's the My City Contemporary Dance Company, that's just fine.)

I thank you for pointing out the turned in-turned out difference which is, of course, very valid. I do think you need more than pointe shoes to make it a ballet, though (and some ballet companies, including the Bolshoi last time I saw them, aren't turned out in the classics now; perhaps as a result of the moderne influence). You could put a modern dance on pointe, but it would need more than that (and Rambert and the Limon companies dance Dark Elegies off-pointe, but I'd argue that the work is still a ballet). And my definition, at least, includes character dance and mime as possible material for ballet-making.

I think a ballet makes reference to the established rules of classical form (entree, adagio, soli, coda); even if it breaks the rules, the choreographer knows what they are. Likewise, the steps move through the five positions of the feet, and there are complete phrases, with linking steps, not just high kicks and jumps (no sentence fragments).

I'd agree that Golden Age is a ballet. I think "In the Middle..." looks almost like a ballet when Paris Opera Ballet does it, but they dance everything with their own accent, and so could probably make "Billboards" look like a ballet (this is not a repertory acquisition suggestion).

Nacho Duato is everywhere this year. I found his work harmlessly pleasant until a modern dancer sitting behind me at a performance, who was seething (I think it was Jardi Tancat) over it, pointed out that this section was "borrowed" from this work by Martha Graham, and that section "quoted" from a dance by Jose Limon. There were more references, but I lost track. But that gets more into "good" vs. "bad" than "ballet" vs. "modern;" again, there are good and bad in both.

It's fascinating to me, that some people recognize a distinction, yet we all have a different dividing line: vocabulary, pointe work, turnout. And others, especially those who've come to ballet after the merging began see it all as ballet, because (I'm guessing) it's done by a ballet company and ballet dancers are dancing it. (I'm not trying to criticize that definition, just trying to summarize the discussion.)

Finally, to Lillian, yes, the two styles, if done right, are very different and very few people can really do them both. I liked the Paul Taylor dancers better in the 1970s, when the dancers were mostly modern trained; now they're ballet trained, and it shows. Air turns are centered instead of rough and powerful and raw.

Fifty years ago, someone in the general audience could tell a Russian dancer from a French dancer from an Italian dancer from a British dancer from a Danish dancer. A professional could tell who the dancer's teacher was.

A hundred years ago, I read in a biography of the Legats, Cecchetti (dear, sweet old grandpa Cecchetti) was considered coarse; Johansson (Legat's teacher, and a pupil of Bournonville) was more refined. Balletic diversity is disappearing. That's at the root of what troubles me.

Please keep posting. I am really very interested in the different points of view - dancers, teachers, watchers, and I've gotten several emails from others who are reading this conversation with great interest, also.

Thanks,

alexandra

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Dear Alexandra and fellow dance enthusiasts,

I'd like to emphasize a point I made in the first post. Ballet is about lifting up and modern is about getting into the floor. This point is crucial, especially to modern dancers who would probably pass out at the suggestion of a modern piece being done on pointe. I don't think anyone could dance Martha Graham on pointe. The pitch turns alone (turn done with the body parallel to the supporting leg, head down and the other leg in a high arabesque) are unimaginable on pointe.

Women in classical ballet are also expected to dance on pointe and no other kind of dancer is trained for pointe work. Everything Balanchine choreographed (except for the Paul Taylor piece in Episodes) is classical ballet. The Four Temperaments is incredibly classical, it is the style that is different from say, Sleeping Beauty.

Concerning turnout, I think it is Arlene Croce who has written the most interesting essays on the subject. If the Bolshoi dancers weren't dancing turned out, shame on them. Turnout is essential in ballet- not an option or a style.

I'm sorry to sound so picky, but I learned all this when I studied modern with an ex Graham, Limon, Doris Humphrey dancer, Ina Hahn. With the help of Labanotation, this wonderful teacher revived a Humphrey work for her students (most of us were ballet dancers).It was a beautiful little piece set to a partita by Bach. It was also extremely difficult because we had to get down and bend sideways from the waist, and all the fast little steps were done on bent knees. It was a real challenge and not one bit of that dance had any ballet in it .

I liked your point, about modern dance being rough, powerful and raw. This is the best thing about modern dance- the raw energy and abandon. That is probably what attracted Nureyev to Paul Taylor's company.

I'm not surprised about the Duato bit. Although I quite like Jardin Tancat, the rest of his ballets do nothing for me. I find them unmusical, unfocused and too long. Mark Morris is another choreographer I would love to like, but I don't. (sorry to sound so opinionated!)

There are choreographers out there who defy definition in both these categories such as Bejart and Eliot Feld. I have enjoyed both these companies, and they change shoes and styles constantly.

Let us also keep in mind that the reason we don't see more full length classical ballets is because many companies just don't have the talent to fill the roles. These ballets call for stars, a large strong corps de ballet, some good character dancers, and a whole lot of money. Only about six companies in the world can pull that off today.

Concerning your point about all dancers looking the same- it reminds me of sports teams. Our local company Les Grands Ballets Canadiens was full of Americans at one point. If there is no good school with a common technique attached to a company, you're bound to get a bit of everything- the technique milkshake. Does anyone actually teach pure Cecchetti anymore?

This is why the Kirov is still such an interesting company. At one point all those dancers were even wearing the same shoes. Today they probably order Freed's. Ah, the beginning of the end!

(sorry to write so much...this is just such a huge and interesting subject)

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