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Evaluating (re-evaluating?) Dances at a Gathering-- Claudia La Rocco on a recent NYCB performance


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#1 bart

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Posted 20 February 2010 - 05:06 AM

I've always found Dances at a Gathering beautiful, mesmerizing, and moving, but -- sometimes -- a bit too restrained. Despite that, I can't wait to see it in multiple performances, and hopefully with multiple casting, when Miami revives it next month.

Now Claudia La Rocco, in a NY Times review of a recent NYCB program, raises some questions about both ballet and the way it is performed.

[T]here was ... a muted quality to the hourlong work’s slow pacing and quiet drama, so that a wearying sameness crept in as the ballet progressed in a series of interludes set to Chopin.

Some of this had to do with a less-than-convincing chemistry between the couples, despite generally strong performances from the women. [ ... ]

“Dances” itself sometimes strains after a poetic sensibility, staying within too limited an emotional range. (Joe Eula’s color-coded costumes, complete with matching ribbons and boots, don’t help.) Still, the many little narratives hinted at by Robbins form a dreamy world, a more innocent, old-fashioned vision of human relationships than what we now find, for example, in the plotless ballets that Alexei Ratmansky created for City Ballet in recent years.


This has always been my favorite among Robbins "serious" works. I know that a number of others on Ballet Talk share this view. Are we wrong?

IS there too much of a sameness in "emotional range" in performance or choreography? Has the way this is performed changed since its premiere in 1969, possibly becoming too reverential? Do the costumes, the subtle color-coding of which have become so important to the way people see and talk about the ballet, possibly detract from the effect of the piece? Does the ballet have to be re-thought? Revitalized? Cast more carefully? Possibly even -- :) -- given a rest?

What do you think?

http://www.nytimes.c....html?ref=dance

#2 sandik

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Posted 20 February 2010 - 12:56 PM

Oh this is going to be fun! I have to run (family stuff) but will think alot and come back soon.

#3 SandyMcKean

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Posted 20 February 2010 - 07:50 PM

.....so that a wearying sameness crept in as the ballet progressed....

I can't accept this. Seems to me something similar could be said about such works as Bach's "Art of the Fugue". There are what, 20 fugues?.....all with the same theme. I could say "a sameness crept in", but I'd be missing the point. Dances is a subtle work, and that subtlety also contributes to making it profound (possible in a work of genius....which Dances is, IMO).

#4 carbro

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Posted 20 February 2010 - 10:07 PM

I'm not a particular fan of Dances At a Gathering. There. I said it. I find it pretentious, often hearing Robbins saying, "Look what I did!", thumbs pointing towards this chest. (Ditto on Goldberg Variations.) Can't stand when any choreographer does that, but especially when it comes from someone with as much craft and raw talent as Robbins, who is not, IMHO, quite a genius.

Which is not to say that DaaG doesn't have sections that I like every (or almost every) time -- the big "Throw Sally Into the Pit" waltz, Chatterbox, the finger duet with Apricot (now Yellow) and Brick.

Over the years, I have seen performances, and don't forget that LaRocco is talking about that particular performance, where the dances tend to blend together, the ballet as a whole turns to mush. Sometimes, it seems it's mostly the fault of the pianist for letting tempi drag just a bit too much. Sometimes the dancers are tired. Sometimes it's just some missing X factor. :wink:

I may end up seeing a performance or two of this before City Ballet's current run of it ends. If so, sooner or later, I'll post my reactions.

#5 SandyMcKean

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Posted 20 February 2010 - 10:23 PM

.....particular performance, where the dances tend to blend together, the ballet as a whole turns to mush.

This I can understand. A poor performance of Dances could surely look like mush.

As far as Robbins being less than a genius, and that he may have been less than "in the zone" when he creates whatever he created, I guess I just don't give a flying leap. Jerome Robbins created some of the most memorable, fresh, and beautiful combinations of music and movement EVER......that's enough for me.

#6 atm711

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Posted 21 February 2010 - 07:16 AM

'Dances' has always been one of my favorites--and I wallow in it---it could go on for two hours for all I care. HOWEVER---the last performance of it I saw at NYCB was in June of '08. (Borree, Bouder, Mearns, Rutherford, Stafford) and it was one big yawn. After praising it to the skies to the person I was with, it was embarassing to be nudged by asking---when does it end? I had to agree, it was one long bore.

#7 dirac

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Posted 22 February 2010 - 10:21 AM

There are things in Dances that are a bit too cutesy-wootsy for my taste but all in all it is a beautiful ballet. I saw San Francisco Ballet do it a couple of times and didn’t think they quite had it yet. I seem to remember that during his lifetime that Robbins was very careful about who got to dance this particular ballet.

La Rocco lost me with this:

'Robbins is often more interesting when he isn’t trying to be so serious; such is the case with “West Side Story Suite.” '

As far as Robbins being less than a genius, and that he may have been less than "in the zone" when he creates whatever he created, I guess I just don't give a flying leap.


His work for ballet may not be on the level of Balanchine's, but we have enough testimony on his unending ingenuity and multifarious theatrical gifts from his colleagues to merit the term 'genius,' even if his classical ballets don't quite reach the true heights. But much of that genius was expressed in his work for Broadway which unavoidably is not as well preserved as his legacy in ballet. (You can preserve bits of it, as in West Side Story Suite, but it won't work as well outside its theatrical context.)

#8 SandyMcKean

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Posted 22 February 2010 - 11:11 AM

I keep thinking about this notion that Robbins was somehow "less than". Although I can't think if anyone who isn't "less than" when compared to Mr B, I still don't know how to doubt Robbin's genius when I think of the overall pantheon of choreographers. Robbins is the near equal of anyone IMHO. True, his stuff may be "softer" or even whimsical perhaps, but what sticks in my mind is me attempting to imagine the world of ballet without Robbins in it. What a loss! No one could fill that particular hole. He added a humanity to ballet that warms my heart (in spite of his well known failings in the realm of inter-personal skills).

#9 Simon G

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Posted 22 February 2010 - 11:47 AM

Although I can't think if anyone who isn't "less than" when compared to Mr B



I have to say I think Ashton is easily Balanchine's equal if not superior.

#10 Alymer

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Posted 22 February 2010 - 12:00 PM

What struck me when I saw the recent revival for the Royal Ballet was that some quite strange steps and lifts which I remember very distinctly from the original Royal Ballet cast, and a couple of viewings of a (largely original) City Ballet cast, had been smoothed out or effectively eliminated, making it a much more bland, "sweet", affair. I think also that it needs to be cast from dancers with strong and differing personalities.

#11 bart

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Posted 22 February 2010 - 12:07 PM

La Rocco lost me with this:

'Robbins is often more interesting when he isn’t trying to be so serious; such is the case with “West Side Story Suite.” '

This sentence surprised me as well, because I have tended to think of Gathering as one of Robbins most profound "serious" pieces and one which is given variety by elements of the lighthearted and the softly nostalgic.

I looked through the a couple of Arlene Croce books and found that there were indeed some perceived problems of pacing, etc., in the first version of Gatherings. In a January 1970 article, Croce writes:

This long, ambitious ballet used to hit its peak of excitement when it was only half over, and the struggle to recover from that climax made the ballet seem even long then it is.

But Allegra Kent's absence forced recastings and revisions, and the experience this season is altogether a new one. Limiting Violette Verdy to just one solo was eccentric and ingenious but perhaps to whimsical of Robbins. Now he has her come back immediately following the show-stopper (the waltz pas de six) and do the flirtation-walk number with the boys formerly done by Kent; then she vanishes as before.

Not only does the number fit the Verdy "Character," it's exactly what's needed to refresh the interest and set the ballet moving again, so that the major accent now falls where it should -- in the scherzo, on the pas de deux of McBride and Anthony Blum. The dramatic concentration of these two dancers is miraculous; because of them, Robbins is able to effect the trnsition from a gayk mood to a tragic one that makes people cmopare the ballet to Liebeslieder Walzer.

(Parenthetically, this story reinforces the idea that CASTING makes a more than usually big difference in this ballet.)

Some thing that confuses me is that Croce goes immediately to the following, which suggests she was ambivalent about the results:

The extension into tragedy gives Dances, to my mind, a rather bogus "stature," as if Robbins felt he could no longer impress audiences by being his sunny, funny, old self; and I can't help suspecting the ballet of a misty-eyed view of human relations. But there's no question now that this former whiz kid has the authority to go for the big things in life, or that Dances is as amazing a demonstration of his ingenuity in the sixties as Fancy Free was in the forties and Afternoon of a Faun in the fifties.

Maybe Lo Rocca picked up some of her negativaty from here?

#12 papeetepatrick

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Posted 22 February 2010 - 03:01 PM

Although I can't think if anyone who isn't "less than" when compared to Mr B



I have to say I think Ashton is easily Balanchine's equal if not superior.


That is perfectly balanced. I agree with it without agreeing with it (since I don't know enough Ashton.) But there has been talk of genius being 'one among many', and that I just don't buy--unless ballet is different from literally all of the other Arts by having only 'one genius at a time'. In that case, it might be the nature of the Art, I don't know, but it has never been the case with music, not in a single period..

But you've said it better, because I would have to expand 'genius', were it to mean anything to me, fo 'all important 20th century dance', and I do not think Balanchine is greater than Martha Graham. I don't care which one is greater, frankly, they are my favourites (to echo Jean Brodie on Giotto.) I might be able (although I don't know) to say the same of Ashton if I knew enough, but I just don't. But this is the balanced thing, because he is specifically the 'other competitor' within 20th century ballet per se. For me, Balanchine is the great 20th century ballet choreographer, but that's only because I know his work fairly well, and I do not know but a few works of Ashton. And yet that also does explain why miliosr, in particular, wants to champion the works of many other choreographers, because even people like me have not been so easily exposed to the other great specifically ballet choreographers (unless one thinks Robbins is on that level, and I probably don't). As it is, I'm a huge Balanchine fan, but part of that may be because I've seen so much of his work so that I can at least make some sort of judgment. I don't think I know more than 3 Ashton works, and it's not entirely my fault, you know.

#13 dirac

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Posted 22 February 2010 - 03:30 PM

La Rocco lost me with this:

'Robbins is often more interesting when he isn’t trying to be so serious; such is the case with “West Side Story Suite.” '

This sentence surprised me as well, because I have tended to think of Gathering as one of Robbins most profound "serious" pieces and one which is given variety by elements of the lighthearted and the softly nostalgic.

I looked through the a couple of Arlene Croce books and found that there were indeed some perceived problems of pacing, etc., in the first version of Gatherings. In a January 1970 article, Croce writes:

This long, ambitious ballet used to hit its peak of excitement when it was only half over, and the struggle to recover from that climax made the ballet seem even long then it is.

But Allegra Kent's absence forced recastings and revisions, and the experience this season is altogether a new one. Limiting Violette Verdy to just one solo was eccentric and ingenious but perhaps to whimsical of Robbins. Now he has her come back immediately following the show-stopper (the waltz pas de six) and do the flirtation-walk number with the boys formerly done by Kent; then she vanishes as before.

Not only does the number fit the Verdy "Character," it's exactly what's needed to refresh the interest and set the ballet moving again, so that the major accent now falls where it should -- in the scherzo, on the pas de deux of McBride and Anthony Blum. The dramatic concentration of these two dancers is miraculous; because of them, Robbins is able to effect the trnsition from a gayk mood to a tragic one that makes people cmopare the ballet to Liebeslieder Walzer.

(Parenthetically, this story reinforces the idea that CASTING makes a more than usually big difference in this ballet.)

Some thing that confuses me is that Croce goes immediately to the following, which suggests she was ambivalent about the results:

The extension into tragedy gives Dances, to my mind, a rather bogus "stature," as if Robbins felt he could no longer impress audiences by being his sunny, funny, old self; and I can't help suspecting the ballet of a misty-eyed view of human relations. But there's no question now that this former whiz kid has the authority to go for the big things in life, or that Dances is as amazing a demonstration of his ingenuity in the sixties as Fancy Free was in the forties and Afternoon of a Faun in the fifties.

Maybe Lo Rocca picked up some of her negativaty from here?


People like Garis and Haggin had reservations, too, although you are right, La Rocco's objections are remarkably close to Croce's quote. And Alymer mentions changes that have crept in since the early NYCB and Royal Ballet performances.

What struck me when I saw the recent revival for the Royal Ballet was that some quite strange steps and lifts which I remember very distinctly from the original Royal Ballet cast, and a couple of viewings of a (largely original) City Ballet cast, had been smoothed out or effectively eliminated, making it a much more bland, "sweet", affair

.

And both the early NYCB productions and the original Royal Ballet production had powerhouse casts. (There's a well known group photo of the Royal Ballet dancers, with Dowell, Sibley, Seymour, Nureyev, et al., in costume for the ballet, and I remember looking at it for the first time and thinking, "Wow.")

#14 richard53dog

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Posted 22 February 2010 - 05:32 PM

And both the early NYCB productions and the original Royal Ballet production had powerhouse casts. (There's a well known group photo of the Royal Ballet dancers, with Dowell, Sibley, Seymour, Nureyev, et al., in costume for the ballet, and I remember looking at it for the first time and thinking, "Wow.")


Even though I was then, as now, NYC area (read NJ) based, I first saw DaaG with this Royal Ballet cast and loved the piece. Shortly afterward I did see it at NYCB with mostly the original cast except for a replacement (don't remember who it was) for John Prinz who had left NYCB at that point and was with ABT.

I did think at the time and still do that the dancer's personalities are key to sustaining interest in the work. Otherwise it can get a bit "mushy"

#15 papeetepatrick

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Posted 22 February 2010 - 08:15 PM

I did think at the time and still do that the dancer's personalities are key to sustaining interest in the work. Otherwise it can get a bit "mushy"


I saw this a couple of times early on at NYCB, and I would tend to agree with Richard's remark, because it's all lovely, but can get a bit boring unless the performance is really inspired. I was just thinking of 'Les Sylphides', which definitely is a Chopin-based ballet of genius, but it has a drive through it that is considerably stronger than DaaG, if I'm recalling the latter correctly (quite long ago, I haven't seen it in recent years.) Some sort of stronger sense of 'narrative' in the Fokine, is that it?


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