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What is an "adult quality" in ballet?

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Alistair Macaulay's NY Times review of San Francisco Ballet's all-Balanchine program contains the following paragraph. The point is not developed, but it got me pondering. I've put part of it in boldface:

The San Francisco dancers are a remarkably unmannered, elegant, and grown-up company. The adult quality is impressive. Ballet elsewhere so often seems to be a matter for girls and boys, and I have accused both the Royal Ballet (though less sos today than in the past) and New York City Ballet (today) of having too many dancers who simply seem infantilized.
Macaulay drops the point after introducing it. I THINK I know what he is referring to, but I'm not sure. There does seem to be a huge difference in the impression made by York City Ballet in the late 50s through the 80s and what the company has become today. And sometimes my own local company, Miami, seems to be engaging in the spirit of "hey, kids, let's put on a show," though at the highest level.

But does this reflect a loss of "adult quality," or something else?

In general, is "adult quality" primarily a matter of age and experience? Is it a a matter of company style? Can anyone give us some examples to help us see this more clearly? Or do you think he's off-base?

The complete review is here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/15/arts/dan....html?ref=dance

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After reading the review I would say he's referring to the way the San Francisco dancers present themselves. A sort of mature, sophisticated elegance. A grown-up perfume if you will.

I'm interested to hear what BTalker's who see the company on a regular basis have to say about it. Paul chime in! :thumbsup:

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There does seem to be a huge difference in the impression made by York City Ballet in the late 50s through the 80s and what the company has become today. And sometimes my own local company, Miami, seems to be engaging in the spirit of "hey, kids, let's put on a show," though at the highest level

But does this reflect a loss of "adult quality," or something else?

In general, is "adult quality" primarily a matter of age and experience? Is it a a matter of company style?

I think I know what he means, but it's still the kind of thing a bit dangerous to jump all the way into. I haven't seen the Royal Ballet enough to see anything like that in them, and would always see them as some sort of paragon of an 'adult company' from what I've seen live and on tape. POB also, but I've never seen them except way back in the old days with 'Notre Dame de Paris' from Petit, which I paid little attention to, beyond tapes.

I've noticed it more with American companies, and the most extreme was at PNB recently at the Joyce. It didn't bother me as such, because there had been this unfortunate choice of material--they have to go on and be troupers in circumstances like that, but they did all seem curiously very 'youngish'. I haven't noticed it at NYCBallet recently as such, though, even in crummy material like the divertissements in 'Swan Lake' (maybe the Russians are pretty hammy and turn it into a burlesque, but that's not for kids, or even adults, maybe, we used to call that 'adult entertainment'--on second thought, that might be one form of 'putting on a show' just like Rothbarts' idiot=looking sci-fi capes)--those divertissements, even the pas de quatre, are just boring, not so much infantile. You think they'll never end in Peter Martins's production, all flat and moribund.

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For me, there are several things 'adult' can imply. One is the ability to share. My first thought when I originally read the article (and before Bart's post appeared) was that this company enjoys dancing for the audience as much as for themselves, which is interesting in light of your comment "And sometimes my own local company, Miami, seems to be engaging in the spirit of "hey, kids, let's put on a show"...". Adults can share. Adolescents are in it to have their own fun; if the audience does too, fine, but that isn't really the point.

I think too that 'adult' can suggest confidence -- not typically teenage know-it-all, over-confidence, but the mature confidence of a company or dancer comfortable in the technical challenges, now willing to explore, willing to look for something inside the choreography or inside him/herself. An example is Yuan Yuan Tan as the Waltz dancer in Saturday afternoon's Serenade. This exquisite but sometimes remote dancer found something in Balanchine (and in herself) that broke my heart. I wish she'd do that more often.

The other side of adult confidence, though, can be lack of spontaneity. Macalay also says: "...the company is too discreet." I can't disagree with that; there are times when I wish more dancers would use more attack, take more chances -- Van Patten will do it sometimes; Feijoo does it, but then with her technical strength, she's hardly taking chances. The occasional flashes of 'go-for-broke' dancing (Pascal Molat spinning offstage doing speed-of-light chainés, Tina LeBlanc's bounding jetés, each bigger than the last, none seeming to touch ground) leave me wanting more of that kind of dancing, even at the expense of a little technical finish now and then.

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One distinction stands out very clearly to me: cynicism seems to be a quality exclusive to the "adult" realm.

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I too was intrigued by that paragraph. In regards to the difference between how NYCB looked in the late 50s through the 80s and how in looks today in this respect, are we talking largely about the fact that dancers smile and grin more today whether doing so suits choreography or not, and that this makes them look like kids? Or is it really much more complicated than that? (Why they smile and grin more could of course be a more complicated question).

This is perhaps a little :thumbsup:, or perhaps not, but when I go see an HD Met broadcast, I'm drawn further into the story and production when the performers are asked intelligent questions between acts. But when a NYCB principal tweets between acts of a story ballet, I wish she was still concentrating on the ballet, not on giving us a blow-by-blow. I know the Met's interviews are a smart marketing technique, but when they're well done they're not just fun peeks backstage, they're educational. Twittering between acts reminds me of adolescents and their constant urge to talk, talk, talk with their friends. I'm not picking on a particular dancer, just saying that the technology in this case seem infantalizing (adolescentizing?). And I don't know about anyone else, but what I know of a dancer offstage can affect how I see them onstage.

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When I first started seeing NYCB regularly in the late 70s, the dancers did seem very adult -- but then they were all older than me, or at least my age. Now that they're all young enough to be my children and then some, they look like kids. It's that simple. :thumbsup:

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But San Francisco itself is too discreet and naturally reticent. An essay from Mademoiselle magazine in the early sixties, directed to “girls” thinking of moving here after college, noted that San Francisco was always comparing itself with New York, with the difference we do it all here but on a very human scale, slightly pleased with this answer. But when you asked for anything direct and special and explicit, you were told, a bit cooly, well, you'll have to go somewhere else for that.

What I notice about the Miami Company -- I've only seen them twice on tour here -- is the sharp finish and accents of the hands and feet so that the choreographic figures are more fully realized, whereas with San Francisco I think the emphasis is on a lovely finish of the hands -- at one time Leibesleider seemed to be an important influence on some of Helgi Tomasson's choreography (who has a great musical sensitivity), the way people would run off stage with one hand seemingly taking the dancer away.

I have enjoyed watching large personalities who seem to work character from inside out, a little dangerously: Tina LeBlanc, Gonzalo Garcia, Sofiane Sylve and Taras Domitro (Joan's Boada's sensitive musicality was important too). They can expand and contract the lines and play with the music, and they have a burning narrative to tell.

Adult? Life’s too short to be adult, and dancers are poets -- and tweets discourage the aloneness that poets need. (Despite the fact that Mildred Dunnock famously listened to the world series on a transistor radio during her Death of a Salesman performances.)

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Lots of great points so far. One thing that continues to puzzle me: what was Macaulay himself thinking of when he selected the word "adult"? (This may not be the same as what the word means to each of us.)

I had to chuckle with recognition when I read the following, from Kathleen O'Connell:

When I first started seeing NYCB regularly in the late 70s, the dancers did seem very adult -- but then they were all older than me, or at least my age. Now that they're all young enough to be my children and then some, they look like kids. It's that simple. :blink:
I know what you mean, Kathleen. I was in 10th grade when I first began attending NYCB regularly, so even Allegra Kent was unimaginably old, in experience if not in years.

I think, however, that there are other aspects of this. (Sorry if I go ahead an number them, but that's the way I think.)

(1) The dancers of the 50s and early 60s emerged from a very different system than those of later generations. There's was a risky business: no scholarships to speak of, impossibly low pay except at the top, a world in which becoming a "starving artist" was a real possibility, etc. They were artists but they were also theater people. They were "on the stage," which had very different connotations in the old days than it does today. If that didn't mature them, what could? Watching Hayden, Adams, Wilde, even Verdy: you knew that you were watching someone who had seen the world. They had mystery and a kind of inaccessibility. Suzanne Farrell, despite her baby face, never came across as young in the sense of naive and or sheltered.

(2) That generation of dancers, along with an older generation, became the teachers and coaches of the 70s and 80s, even after the School of American Ballet became a major institution and scholarships became widely available. Young dancers' behavior on and off stage reflected this, I think. They wouldn't have dreamed of making the kind of comments that young dancers today make routinely on video blogs for certain major U.S. companies. (I love kfw's term: "adolescentizing.")

How does this reflect itself in performance. I'm not sure. PeggyR's point about there being a difference between "dancing for the audience" and dancing for one's own sense of fun sounds pretty good to me. I notice, when reading and watching videos on the non-stop-chatter Miami City Ballet blog, that only one dancer -- Deanna Seay, the company's senior principal, who is retiring at the end of this season -- wished to talk extensively about the serious aspects of ballet as a performance art.

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One distinction stands out very clearly to me: cynicism seems to be a quality exclusive to the "adult" realm.

I can't see that. Cynisism seems to me a veritable lexicon that is learned, along with sustained irony, among the young--modelled, perhaps, on the generation above them, to seem smart. Now. PNB's 'youngish' ardour, even in that recent program here, was not cynical at all, of course, and they were never cynical, btw. That's another issue, but 'adult' means also therefore, being more sober and reserved when you can afford to be. I think that a fine production and composition allow this, whereas lesser products may invite attempts to make something more out of something that is not enough to begin with; and that is normal, because you have to try to make the best of what you've got to project.

When I first started seeing NYCB regularly in the late 70s, the dancers did seem very adult -- but then they were all older than me, or at least my age. Now that they're all young enough to be my children and then some, they look like kids. It's that simple. :blink:

I think I'm even older than you, but NYCB is not 'like kids' when dancers like Sara Mearns are at work. And I say that even about the her dancing in roles I don't think she fully succeeds at. She is always 'adult', in the sense of either being fully serious or trying to be, as in 'swan lake'. She is just one example of a dancer who is always serious about what she is doing, so that even seeing her do something in which she is not fully convincing is still along the lines of what I used to see Farrell or McBride of Villella doing. It's an attitude, and some of them do the silly grins, but not all do. And some don't do much of anything except a perfunctory performance that should have been left behind in a rehearsal.

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Cynisism seems to me a veritable lexicon that is learned, along with sustained irony, among the young--modelled, perhaps, on the generation above them, to seem smart.

There is a difference btwn cynicism and alienation. (Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye might be a good example.)

P.S. It's been noted elsewhere on this board that I may have a "dry wit". I admit to having something like that whatever term best describes it. In any case, my comment above was meant to be a soft jab at a disproportionate amount of cynicism I find often expressed on this board......my opinion only, of course. (Now that I think about it, perhaps a better word for what I was getting at would be jaded rather than cynical.)

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In Michael Popkin's recent blog post, he talks about Kowrowski, in her 2nd Swan Lake performance, not just dancing her part well but taking responsibility for the whole performance and lifting it to a higher level. That sense of responsibility might also be what Macauly is talking about. I think most dancers at NYCB and elsewhere take their work seriously but not all of them are capable of going beyond themselves to lift the entire company to that level. That is a rare quality (it might be said to be the test of a true ballerina) and we don't see it, for example, in a dancer like Somova or even in Sofiane Sylve, who I always thought communicated some lack of interest or even disdain for her fellow performers.

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( In any case, my comment above was meant to be a soft jab at a disproportionate amount of cynicism I find often expressed on this board......my opinion only, of course. (Now that I think about it, perhaps a better word for what I was getting at would be jaded rather than cynical.)

Yes, Sandy, a lot of us New Yorkers and Londoners are definitely jaded, myself not least. But you can always count on a jade to say something good about something that really doesn't bore the hell out of him/her! ShHe'll awaken from his/her dissolute slumber, and say 'AHA!' Of course, he is unjust and wicked the rest of the time.... :P

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When I first started seeing NYCB regularly in the late 70s, the dancers did seem very adult -- but then they were all older than me, or at least my age. Now that they're all young enough to be my children and then some, they look like kids. It's that simple. :P

I agree with that. Dancers didn’t look as young to me even ten years ago as they do now. Another decade or so and I’ll probably be wanting to burp them.

Twittering between acts reminds me of adolescents and their constant urge to talk, talk, talk with their friends. I'm not picking on a particular dancer, just saying that the technology in this case seem infantalizing (adolescentizing?).

From what I understand, the younger set are actually (relatively) uninterested in Twitter. It’s very much a phenomenon among adults as well. And dancers using Twitter may well be doing so for professional as well as personal reasons.

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Dancers didn’t look as young to me even ten years ago as they do now. Another decade or so and I’ll probably be wanting to burp them.

:P Yes, I am right there with you. Also, "older" folks sure don't appear as old as they used to.

-d-

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And dancers using Twitter may well be doing so for professional as well as personal reasons.

I expect some do, but I had a specific case in mind.

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I would substitute 'adult' for 'mature'; that is, artistically mature--and not necessarily in years. It is a quality I miss most in today's performers. I do not see it at NYCB and it's the main reason I go to so few performances.

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The term "mature" has a big advantage over "adult," which does tend to make one think in terms of chronological age first of all.

The idea of "mature" artistry seems to apply, for example, to what papeetepatrick finds in the chronolgically quite young Sarah Mearns. It also seems to relate to liebs's point (citing Michael Popkin): "not just dancing [a] part well but taking responsibility for the whole performance and lifting it to a higher level."

atm711, can you give a specific example or two of the maturity -- or lack of it -- that you are thinking of?

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atm711, can you give a specific example or two of the maturity -- or lack of it -- that you are thinking of?

I have very often wondered what today's ballet-goers would have thought of seeing Danilova, Markova or Dolin perform near the end of their careers. I had some inkling when reading some caustic comments about Darci Kistler on Ballettalk. I haven't seen her perform live in a few years so perhaps her technique is far from what it once was---but didn't anyone see anything else? A maturity, perhaps? And this 'maturity' is not a question of age---Nora Kaye had it in her 20's. I also see this quality today in Michelle Wiles and I don't only look upon her as a whiz-bang technician, which she surely is.

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So ... is "adult" something culturally-based (the environment in which you grow up; the behavioral expectations you learn from those around you?) My suspicion is that this plays a strong part. The dancers of the 1930s-60s were trained in a tough world were you had to "grow up" quickly. You can say the same todayof many of the brilliant and amazingly mature artists coming out of difficult circumstances in Brazil, Cuba, the former Soviet Union, parts of Eastern Europe, etc.

I mean no disrespect, but maybe young dancers growing up in prosperous societies -- in which studios, scholarship possibilities, and so many kinds of physical and mental support are such that earlier dancers could not even have dreamed of them -- lack strong incentives to grow up inside.

Which raises the question of temperament. I don't mean just HAVING temperament and being able to DISPLAY it, but knowing how to control and use it. I keep thinking of mature people as those who possess ALL the classical temperaments -- sanguinic, melancholic, choleric, and even phlegmatic, though an excess of that might be a disadvantage to a ballet dancer. They can access each -- or re-balance them, within limits -- as the performance requires. As Suzanne Farrell one said in an interview, the dancer is a "servant of the choreographer and the composer, but I am also me."

In that interview, Farrell also said: "I'm a a big card player, you know. And whatever the hand I'm dealt, I play for blood." This was well into her career. But I suspect that the feeling was already there very early on.

Wanting to be the star is common among the young nowadays. Knowing all the things you have to do in order to BECOME a star is less so.

A final thought (with apologies for rambling) -- Earlier in this thead, papeetepatrick praised the maturity NYCB dancer Sara Mearns. In today's NY Times, Alistair Macaulay, who hates and apparently avoids Peter Martins' production of Swan Lake as much as possible, writes that

Ms. Mearns's performance of the famous double role [Odette/Odile] is the finest I have seen in about 20 years (since the Kirov ballerina Altynai Asylmuratova).
It's a detailed review, but I was struck by the following statement, which seems quite relevant to our topic.
Her Odette is a woman ...

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Thanks for posting that observation of Macaulay's, bart. Yes, and Sara Mearns is always a woman, and always (to me) a very feminine one. Whether or not his emphasis is a little more on Odette than Odile (as mine is) I don't know, of course. With Odile I want to see sometning like the idea of 'the devil is a woman', or a temptress as self-serving as the Siren in 'The Prodigal Son' (how different are Odile and the Siren character-wise? I don't think they are at all). I always go for these 'wicked women' types, whether Jezebel in the Old Testament and in Racine, as remembered by her daughter 'Athalie'. and I probably have specific kinds of sharpness I look for in their chracterization. It's probably more impressive to make Odette really moving (as Mearns does) than it is to make Odile All the Playgirls You Ever Dreamed of But Knew You'd Better Not Meet... still, I love Odile, and have learned to live with what many BT'ers think is my bad taste in Galina Mezentzeva's Odile. Oh my god, she is so vicious--but that very mannerism that some complain about in her exaggerated movements is part of what makes a great Odile: The 'mannered' is part of what being 'false' is. But that may be a lesser component to add to her range--her Odette is glorious, and ti could be that 'playing down Odile' (whether or not consciously) is also an effective way of presenting it (although the delights of a truly vicious Odile I'd probably always miss.)

But delighted to find Macaulay giving praise in the form of 'the finest in 20 years': this is wonderful to see, and Ms. Mearns is rapidly becoming a truly great artist (which always means 'maturity', 'adult' in some aspect of the definition, and 'serious', which she was even as the light Dewdrop when I saw it back in 2006. Just by way of comment on the 'mannered' part of the range, Farrell was also always thought to be serious and a dancer of great integrity, but could be very mannered when the part called for it, as in 'La Vales' (I believe reading in Arlene Croce that she also had sometimes been a bit mannered in the big-star years pre-Bejart, but I only saw her once then, and knew nothing at all then.) This is never the foundation of the 'seriousness' and 'integrity', but can be part of it, especially with a dancer who is given everything as Farrell was. Martins in 'Far from Denmark' wrote that Balanchine 'pampered her, gave her what she needed'. Since Farrell was totally focussed on her work, this made her able to be extravagant without being 'spoiled'; she made a lot go a long way. Mearns may do the same, although she doesn't have a Balanchine to make masterpieces for her. But someone may come along, and she has already proven to be able to shine brilliantly in the Remains of Petipa. I like it that Macaulay would go that far--as I'm sure there have been many brilliant Swan Lakes in the last 20 years.

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