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Alexandra

Classical/contemporary

39 posts in this topic

It is a huge and interesting subject. I'd like to grab your point about only about six companies in the world being able to do the big classical ballets. YES! So why do about 185 of them, right down to your neighborhood company, try to do them? (Three guesses).

I understand your point about turning in and turning out, but I do think there are exceptions -- Forsythe being one, and Tetley being another. He's all long lines and pulling up and sleek turnedout legs, but it's not ballet. (And Tetley's stated mission was to blend ballet and modern dance.)

Lillian, I, at least, don't think you're being picky at all. Anyone who cares about an art form eventually, at least, develops strong opinions. Blast away.

alexandra

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In the topic Ballet/modern #3, Alexandra asked me to say something about the Diamond Project dances. For all those not hanging on NYCB's every move, it is a series of ballets sponsored by someone whose last name is Diamond, to try to bring in new choreography. There have been, I think three series so far, about one every two years. There are usually minimal costumes and small casts, and not much rehearsal time. There are a few rules--ballet vocabulary, point shoes, and live music, though some choreographers bend things. So far, I don't think any of the ballets (there must be about 20 of them so

far) have made much of a mark other than the novelty of a new title. One of the reasons, I think, is that the choreographers don't know the dancers, and by and large just set "their" ballets, rather than work through the dancers. I did enjoy Christopher Wheeldon's latest, where he did a wonderful soaring solo for Meunier, but other than that, I can't really think of a one that I want to see again. To get back to the question, some I would consider ballet, some (like Kevin O'Day) not, but mostly I think they were dull.

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[Administrator's note: the preceding and subsequent posts disappeared during a move; this post and several following posts were in response to those missing posts. A.T.]

Before this degenerates into a miasma, I thought I'd clarify a point quoted slightly out of context.

I am not sneering at Forsythe when I say I haven't seen an adagio from him. I'm saying that in 12 years of watching any of his work when it comes to America I haven't seen an adagio from him. By adagio I don't mean something that is slow. I mean something that uses the adagio vocabulary as opposed to the allegro vocabulary of ballet.

There's little of Forsythe's work I've seen that I haven't admired. But the issue raised here was its relation to classical ballet. And Forsythe's choreography suggests that he takes the portion of classical ballet that suits his purposes - which is a segment of it and leaves the rest unused. If one sees this as where ballet is heading, we are leaving massive portions of it to atrophy, putting it on a diet of shrapnel and water.

This makes Forsythe no less of an artist. But to see him as the standard bearer of ballet post-Balanchine is, in my opinion, erroneous.

That having been said, I also very much agree with your final assessment of the dearth of ballet choreographers being due to the absence of any training in composition. One of the greatest things to happen to choreography in this century was Balanchine. Also, one of the worst things to happen to choreography in this century was Balanchine - he cast a long, crippling shadow. There is little use in emulating his process slavishly, genius has its own rules. His insistence against interpretation of his ballets has been taken so literally by those following that we now really have seen ballets about "nothing at all." A tenet of modernism has calcified into dogma.

One cannot teach genius, as I stated in a post elsewhere, I believe the parthenogenesis of genius. But when can teach craft, and we can teach composition, and not all learning needs to be "on the job" because that's they way Mr. B did it.

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Just to hit a few points without completely recapping, or this thread will become interminable, I don't think people were putting forth the names of Corder and Wheeldon et al. as GREAT classical choreographers, merely that there were living people choreographing recognizably classical ballets. I would add one more sadly, prematurely, dead name to this list, and that is Clark Tippet, whose "Bruch Violin Concerto" is one choreographer's attempt to make a classical ballet using the materials of classical dancing -- genres (classique/noble/character/demicaractere), style, all within the context of his (ABT's) repertory. It's touring America -- Ed, it's coming to Detroit soon. If anyone is curious about it, I posted a review of it, trying to explain these elements, back in December. It's in the Reading Room, under Reviews. It's nine years old. Tippet died two years after it was created.

Back to this thread, I think terminology is extremely important in any serious discussion about art. I also think there's a big difference between what is popular and what is good, between what I "like" and what is judged by people who actually spend their lives thinking about such things to be great. (Fifty years ago, the most popular, adored, all-time-greatest choreographer was Leonid Massine.) I'm quite ready to believe that many British ballet fans prefer MacMillan to Ashton, if only bcause they see very little of the latter and what they see is not very well done, but that doesn't speak to their relative worth as choreographers. I really don't think Forsythe has been around long enough to get into "is great/is not" discussion. (Again, this, to me, is a very different question than whether one likes him or not. Like anything you please.)

To me, it matters a great deal whether something is "ballet" or "notballet" (which I'd be more than happy to substitute for "ballet moderne") for all the reasons ranging from truth in advertising to direction of ballet to problems of technique, not to mention aesthetic, that have been mentioned here.

I brought up the opera analogy and I'll stand by it. I'm certainly not an expert in that field, but I'm generally conversant with its history and repertory. Messaien and Warlock are, as far as I know, generally considered "classical musicians," and part of the main line of opera (part of the problem is that "classical" has about 20 different shades of meaning. Yes, they are modern, contemporary, not Verdi, however you want to put it, and I'm sure a great huge chunk of the Puccini fans can't stand them, but they're a continuation, a development, of the main line.

Every art form has "rigid" classifications. Blank verse is blank verse; it is different from free verse. The reason we have such terms is so that when we talk, we know what we're talking about. Some are horizontal, i.e., of the same general type or rank (sonnet, epic poem, elegy; Aristotelian rules of aesthetics would rank them, and not in that order, I know). Others are vertical (poem, rhyme, limerick), and everyone knows that a poem is "greater" than a "limerick," although a limerick may not only be more popular but sell more beer than a poem.

Dance is the poorest of the arts in these phrases, I think. The best/worst example of this is "modern dance," which says nothing and everything, and which everyone has always found inadequate but no one has bettered. Since the Judson Church days here (the '60s) during the "dance is whatever I say it is and you can't stop me" phase, everything became dance. "Dances" had no steps, no dancers, used words. Since then, at least in America, there seems to be little attempt to classify. Ballet is not simply classical ballet (hard to remember in the post-Balanchine age where "pure dancing" dominates. It's also demicaractere and character. (I'd argue that Afternoon of a Faune -- Nijinsky's, not Robbins' -- is very much a ballet; it's out of the character dance line and it's not danse d'ecole, but it's a ballet. I don't buy the "Nijinsky was the first really modern dance choreographer" line at all, and I think that's been put forward because people see very little character dance these days, and therefore it's not part of our universe.)

I agree wholeheartedly that there's not much even halfway decent classical ballet being reproduced today, but I haven't seen anything in the notballet category that's worth seeing twice, either. (Taylor and Cunningham are Giants and still work, but they're in the "more of the same" phase. I keep going to things that I read are new and wonderful, but I think it's just wishful thinking. (I read the posts about "Carmen" at ballet.co. I have to say that nothing made me want to catch a plane.)

Why? I think (and this is purely opinion) partly because dancing has gotten too narrow. In ballet, everything here is "son of Balanchine," but the Balanchine aesthetic has probably run its course. The same thing that happened to modern dance in the time after the giants is happening in ballet now. I also think that abstract ballet feeds off narrative. The only way an audience can respond to abstraction is through the images narrative works have built up in their minds. When those memories grow dim, or are nonexistent, the abstraction is without inner meaning or reference.

People are turning back to narrative, but no one seems to remember how to make a narrative ballet -- well, a first-rate one, anyway. Also, the fact that "classical music" has been, shall we say, not very tuneful for the past 50 years (the aftershock of Stravinsky, musicologists say) has left choreographers with little new music to use. This, too, is changing. Young musicians in the Baltic States, I learned recently from a choreographer working here, are writing chamber music and symphonies that are looking both back and forward.

Which is probably what ballet needs to do.

If I could run a choreographer's workshop for ballet choreographers, I'd first make them stage some 19th century balets, then some 20th century (generally agreed upon) masterworks -- works whose structure and vocabulary are considered nearly flawless. The 19th century ones would have to be as close to the old versoins as we could get. None of this "throw out the character dancing and mime because I don't get it" stuff. I think this would serve the same purpose that painting the Old Masters does for budding painters. You have to recreate that lighting, draw those long fingers, reproduce that smile, before you can use the skills to express your own imagination.

The ones who did well with those stagings, those I would let try to make a ballet, and see how they do from there.

Modern dance students in the States all take "composition" courses, and many find Labanotation courses, Effort/Shape, helpful in analyzing dances, I'm told. I that such analysis is important. I did learn a terrible truth, though, about the way this idea is carried out at at least one American university. They take two semesters of composition. In the first semester, they do only solos. In the second, they do groups. Only they never get to the groups -- too many rehearsals, too many schedule conflicts. That explained a lot to me why choreography here looks the way it does!

I would also suggest that great artists in any medium need to know the other arts. Go to theater, concerts, operas, as much dance as possible. Read books, not to look for novels to dramatize, but to think about something other than themselves. Those skills were not being taught at the university where I was teaching, and the students looked utterly bewildered when I suggested it. And so they made dance after dance about how hard it was to be a dance student, and how terrible it was to break up with their boyfriends.

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This is in response to the interesting discussion on the previous thread. what recent derivations of Fokine and Ashton have been done? Here in the US we get almost no new single-act ballets with characterization or Cechetti-like steps. (I would say we get none, but there might be one somewhere--if so it hasn't come to New York.) I certianly agree with Leigh's point that most of our post-Balanchine choreography seems to confuse plotless with pointless. Balanchine leared much wandering through Petipa's forests, and surely current choreogrpahers, audiences, and dancers could learn from great 20th-century ballets, but where are Fokine, Nijinska, Tudor, and Ashton?

The supposed fact that more people like Macmillan than Ashton is beside the point. It is as if a statement about the dangerous fat content of fast food hambergers is answered by quoting statistics on how many were sold. That is an observation, not an evaluation. I really haven't seen enough Forsythe to make any judgements, but what I have seen uses only a very limited vocabulary. And why do so many pro-Forsythians seem so desperately hostile to other styles?

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Just a quickie on terminology. For music, I used "classical" in the "this way to the classical collection, rock and rap are under the stairs, jazz and folk are to the right." I did not mean that Messaien was "classical" in the sense that Mozart and Beethoven are "classical" (vs. "romantic," "contemporary," etc.) Sorry. I thought that was obvious.

I didn't think Bausch had yet come up. I actually would call her a great choreographer, although I don't particularly "like" all of her work. And I think she's several notches above her many followers who (as imitators nearly always do) rip off the externals -- the potted plants, the angst -- and not the genius. I would also add that I think it would be very dangerous for a ballet company that wanted to remain a ballet company to perform Bausch regularly. (Style creeps in to other works. When ABT was dancing Tharp regularly, they started to dance classical ballet a la Tharp. There's a moment in "Push Comes to Shove" when the corps does an arabesque penchee, and ducks their heads under their arms and looks at the audience. It's cute, and everyone knew it referred to the Kingdom of the Shades. It was less cute when they started to do it while dancing Shades.)

On Ashton v. MacMillan, I can't think of any of the British ballet critics I know, or have read, which includes at least all of the ones who saw his or her first ballet prior to 1990, who would rank MacMillan higher than Ashton. I have read sentences like, "Our two great choreographers," yes. Americans will write the same thing about Balanchine and Robbins, but I don't think we're saying they're equal. I know this kind of back and forth makes it sound like a food fight, and I don't mean it that way; anyone who thinks MacMillan is great is certainly welcome to do so. I think such discussions are useful in helping to form one's personal aesthetic, though. At least, they were to me when I was trying to learn everything I could about ballet in six months, and they still are.

Another thought on contemporary (another bad word which could cover a multitude of sins) ballet choreography and how it's gone astray. This is part of the narrowing problem. I know Balanchine is not the reference point for places outside America, but here, at least, many young choreographers seem to think that "contemporary" started with "Agon." I've heard/read people who think that works like "Scotch Symphony" or "Divertimento No. 15" are almost the silly indulgences of an old man, or a cynical pandering to a conservative audience. I think this misunderstands Balanchine, and I don't think ballet will be revived from within solely from this strain.

Someone mentioned "Ondine." I wish I could come over and see "Ondine," but then I wonder if such a delicate work can be revived. There's also the problem that the score is at odds with the ballet's theme. (It has a very then-contemporary score which is not what Balanchine would call "musique dansant," with a 19th century story and a choreography and structure that seem more in sync with the story than the score.)

alexandra

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One of the interesting things about Ondine is that the music has just recently started to be known and accepted by music audiences in the UK, thanks to the championship of compser/conductor Oliver Knussen. It will be very interesting to see how opinions of the ballet change over the years as the music becomes more accessible. The last revival, 10 years or so ago, was quite well received - though it was very disappointing that Kirkland, announced to dance it, never did. The 3 ballerinas scheduled for it - Durante, Yoshida and Wildor - could all in different ways be very well worth watching. The main thing to remember is that although the first 2 minutes, even for an Ashton lover, are awful, it isn't like that all the way through!

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Mary, you must have been posting at the same time I was writing, so I missed acknowledging your post in my response above. Thanks for mentioning Leigh's great comment about "confusing plotless with pointless." I'd forgotten to second that earlier. I think that could easily characterize a lot of the new ballets (especially the "after Balanchine" ballets) being made today. So much is just setting steps to music. And I don't blame audiences for finding such work both trivial and boring.

Jane, I'm sure the score to "Ondine" will be perceived much differently now, especially if it's gotten a good aring. I was referring to what I read in, I think, David Vaughan's critical biography of Ashton, that there were some ideas he couldn't use because they just didn't work with the music. I can imagine Kirkland as a wonderful Ondine. I remember when she first started coming up, I asked an older colleague if she was like anyone who'd gone before, and he said, in a curious way, she was like Fonteyn, because they were both "as pure and clear as water."

Libby, I don't think the question is naive at all; thank you for asking it and thank you for posting. Forsythe's work appears in several American companies' repertories and I have read him referred to as "the future of ballet," or "the hope of ballet," a sentiment with which I disagree. (I think Leigh also mentioned this.) I really think it's too early to judge his work; he's in mid-career. I don't see him as a particularly important force here, at least not at this stage. He's based in Europe, and his reputation (like Neumeier's) seems different there. Heinz Spoerli has ballets in the repertories of a lot of ballet companies in Europe and we see very little of it here. And all the comments that I and others have made about the Balanchine influence must seem totally irrelevant to Estelle and Mark, because I don't think there are dozens of "sons of Balanchine" scattered throughout Europe. So yes, I think, too, that it is very much what you see.

I can certainly sympathize with your comments on popularity, and it is a difficult subject to discuss, because if you say a popular choreographer isn't a total genius, that would naturally offend the people who like his work, and sound horribly snobby, to boot. On the other hand, taste in anything changes the more we see; audiences new to ballet will like different things than those who see a lot of it. And, as you point out, if you ever see something you regard as perfect, it's hard to accept something less. Until, of course, something just as perfect comes along.

alexandra

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Balanchine's influence is undoubtedly less important in Europe than it is in America, yet I always felt that he left such an indelible mark on 20th-century ballet that many choreographers coming after him would have worked in different way if they hadn't known him, just as most composers in the 2nd half of the 19th century (and even later) are in a way tributary to Wagner's music, whether they liked him or not, whether they admitted it or not.

It's also interesting to note that the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam is with New York City Ballet the main treasurer of Balanchine's heritage. The Dutch company has more than 20 works of Mr. B. on its repertoire and every season has at least one of his ballets programmed.

Even smaller companies like the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Belgium are not unfamiliar with Balanchine ("Four Temperaments" can be seen this year). And at least one Belgian choreographer, Jan Fabre, is tributary to Balanchine.

And yes, even the Russians are making progress. Now that a leading company like the Kirov is exploring his repertoire more and more, perhaps even out there they will see the light.

That said, it still is a fact that Balanchine remains an "American" choreographer, just as much as Neumeier and Forsyth remain "European" choregraphers for Americans. Some of Balanchine's work is little appreciated over here (not to say hardly ever shown): for example "Stars and Stripes", "Western Symphony", or "Union Jack" are forbidden territory for most of us or at best considered expensive jokes. Even (and by this I am somewhat indirectly answering your question of some while ago, Alexandra) his reputed "Nutcracker"; some people over here will say that Walt Disney might have done a better job on that one.

Whatever, future of ballet, genius, popular -- fine, as long as you are in the right part of the world.

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In some ways, Balanchine is an American choreographer, but in others, I think he's old school European. The first time I saw the Kirov do "Theme and Variations," I had the sense that he had been choreographing for that company all along -- these people knew what a Polonaise was, and it showed. And their "Scotch Symphony" is danced by a company that knows "Giselle." It's not that they turn it into "Giselle," but they know what's going on in the wings in ways that American dancers don't.

I see "Union Jack" is a good, old-fashioned Franco-Russian character ballet with (inaccurate) British trappings. Even "Stars and Stripes" and "Western Symphony" are classical ballets with Americana costumes, but that's just the surface. I've always thought this was Balanchine as marketeer. Americans were squeamish about ballet; it was foreign, too fancy. So he put it in cowboy clothes, and cheerleader/drum major outfits. What could be more American? (Bournonville did something similar, actually. "The Tyroleans" was a Greek ballet in liederhosen. He changed the characters names to Swiss peasants' names and set it in the Alps, but it was the myth of Anacreon. He chuckles about tricking his audience in "My Theatre Life.")

As for "The Nutcracker" being Walt Disney? There really is a huge gulf between European and American perceptions. To me, Walt Disney is cartoon -- simple message, broad characters, rather unsophisticated structure, aimed at a mass audience. Well, Balanchine's "Nutcracker" was aimed at a general audience, if not a mass one, but other than that, I don't see a cartoon there at all. It's not the story, it's the music and the dancing. The story has to be told well, of course, because it's theater, but that's not the point of it. What makes that Nutcracker Balanchine's is the choreography and the way in which it is danced.

The Vainonen Nutcracker (which I just saw, about 60 years after the fact) and all its progeny seem to see the story as predominant. To me, that version seemed very cartoonlike, with a simplified story but, more importantly, very simplified dancing. Now, of course, any semblance of story is thrown to the wind, and we have Drosselmeyer as a child molester and Masha's dream a real, five-star nightmare. Yes, that suits the book, perhaps, but not the music. (Vainonen's version seems to deliberately ignore the music. I mean literally. There are theatrical effects built into the score that he pretends aren't there.)

Balanchine modernized the dancing, leaving the music to tell the story. At least, that's the view from here.

Alexandra

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On the subject of Nutcracker, in my opinion Balanchine's production is the greatest, far superior to Peter Wright's both productions for the Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and the Kirov Vainonen production seen in London 2 years ago. I remember that I was so taken by Alastair Macaulay's (now critic of Financial Times) analysis of its merits in "Dance Theatre Journal" that I flew to NY to see it one Christmas when I was still resident in London. The best cast I saw was Darci Kistler as Sugar Plum, in 1989.

Marc mentioned Walt Disney. Actually the Nutcracker Suite in the Walt Disney cartoon "Fantasia" offered me far more kinaesthetic and visual excitement as well as poetry than many dull productions nowadays, e.g. Stephen Jefferies' production for Hong Kong Ballet. I urge dance-lovers to rewatch "Fantasia"! Arlene Croce wrote that Disney employed ballet dancers to model the steps for 'Dance of the Hours' - Irina Baronova, David Lichine, Tatiana Riabouchinska.

[This message has been edited by Kevin Ng (edited 03-11-99).]

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It's been facsinating reading the 5 different threads under this discussion-topic. I am a little surprised that nobody has mentioned the Boris Eifman ballets yet, as many consider him to be today's great ballet choreographer. He caused quite a splash in New York City during the past two tours AND is wildly popular in St. Petersburg. Love him or hate him, you have to admit that he is very MacMillan-esque. What do all of you think (who have seen his work)? Is he today's great Ballet-Modern choreographer or not?

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Well, Jeannie, I'm not sure if Eifman is today's great modern-ballet choreographer. He's certainly the great modern-ballet choreographer of 1953.

Eifman works in a vocabulary and narrative style discarded by western choreographers decades ago. I applaud Kisselgoff's kindness in attributing what I consider re-inventing the wheel to artistic courage, but I find the artistic naivete of Eifman unwatchable. It isn't Macmillan that he reminds me of, but Bejart. The same theatrical devices, only far staler, the same grandiose pretentiousness of thought, the same lack of logic and acuity to back the pretensions up.

What artist in their right mind would have Tchaikovsky played by two seperate characters after we have seen this device done to death by Bejart? What dramaturge would assume that characterizations not created by Tchaikovsky but by Petipa and his librettists would have *any* resonance in Tchaikovsky's life? I certainly understand the presence in the ballet of von Meck and Milukova, but DROSSELMEIER? Prince Desire? Who, mind you, was lying on the floor in a white classical tunic, and whom Tchaikovsky's double awoke by kissing on the lips. It's a wonder he didn't try to slip him any tongue. I slid under my seat, howling with laughter.

Yes, there are some good dancers and dancing within the company, but not enough to save the choreographer from his own inanity. Nor do I doubt Eifman's seriousness of purpose, I believe he thinks he is saying something of importance. But this is not an adolescent boy, this is a middle aged man. All the sincerity in the world cannot save the naivete of his concepts and the juvenile nature of his artistic vision.

[This message has been edited by Leigh Witchel (edited March 27, 1999).]

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LOL, Leigh, you have me in tears of laughter. smile.gif

I'm not sure if the good citizens of Little Odessa/Brighton Beach would agree with you, but I know what you mean. wink.gif

- Jeannie

[This message has been edited by Jeannie (edited March 30, 1999).]

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