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Evaluating (re-evaluating?) Dances at a Gathering

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Our Story/No Story sub-topic came to mind when I read Alistair Macaulay's review of Jewels in this morning's NY Times. Macaulay points out something we should want to ask when we see dancers on stage in a truly great "plotless" ballet: "Who are these people?" Contemporary audiences don't expect detailed or literal answers (as provided, for example, by the extended mime sequences of classical ballet). But I at least DO want the be presented with performances that allow me to answer the questions for myself.

The Balanchine curtain rises on dancers who are waiting to dance, braced for action. When it falls, it is because they show us that they are done, or because they’ve reached an apparently decisive resolution, or because we see that they’re evidently heading into transcendence.

"Who are these people?" Robbins in Dances (even though he begins with an empty stage) has created a universe in which we DO ask and ponder this question. If we don't ask --if we are restless, or focus on dancer personalities or narrow questions of technique, or if we have to rely on the program or on memories of previous performances to figure out what is going on -- the director and performers have not done their job.

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My impression of "Dances at a Gathering" since my first view of it is that the staging and balletmastering people have been perhaps a bit too reverential in preserving the work over the years. They have been industriously scrupulous about not turning the projection of the dancers into the choreographic equivalent of belting. Subtlety became such a great virtue that now a sort of gnosis seems to be at work, a secret knowledge which we, the audience, aren't in on, and the work has become rather cryptic - at least more cryptic than Robbins ever intended it. Chopin seems to bring out this quality in choreographers. Consider "Les Sylphides" - who are these people, and what are they doing here? What's Waltz to Prelude, or Mazurka to one of the "agonies"? Dunno, but it's a sort of the same question in "Dances".

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It's been great to follow along with this conversation -- I think “Dances” is a very important work in the repertory, as well as being a truly lovely ballet, and I'm always interested in responses to it.

I've been thinking lately about what makes a dance look “old,” I was at a rehearsal of Charles Weidman's “Brahms Waltzes” a couple months ago, and one of the other people there asked me if it had looked old when I had performed it in the late 70s. And although I don't think we meant the same thing by “old,” it did look different to me in 2009 than it had in 1978. But all that means, really, is that the context I saw it in those two times was different.

Some works are very clearly examples of their time, their style or their genre. They represent something about the artists involved, and their view of what dance should do. They may be on the forward edge of the art form when they are made, but that edge continues to travel while the work itself remains in its place.

We sometimes refer to these things as “dated,” which is an apt description, because they are attached to a specific time, representing the date they were made. And as we get further away from that date, as it recedes in the rear view mirror, the work attached to it feels less contemporary.

But at some point, the art isn't so much out of date as it is about a different date. It's gone from old fashioned or tired or outmoded to being historical. And sometimes, to be valued more highly than it was at its inception, just because it is still around.

When I was growing up, my parents had one of those boomerang-shaped coffee tables. It wasn't particularly valuable at the time, and my sister and I grew to value it even less as time passed and tastes changed. So when her art teacher needed a coffee table, we were happy to give it to him. Of course, if we'd saved it, we could sell it now and send our kids to college -- mid-century modern is doing very well in the consignment and vintage shops.

All of this is a long-way-round way of getting to this -- I think that “Dances at a Gathering” is one of those works that is a clear example of its time. Robbins's work was a tour de force of the concerns that permeated the ballet world at the time. It was a very innovative work, but the very elements that made it so (its seamless blending of technical dancing and pedestrian movement, the allusive nature of the characters/story, its intimate quality) became all tied up with the dance boom of the 1970s. When you think of the incredible number of clones this ballet has inspired it's easy to see how firmly rooted it is in its time.

But that time is 40 years ago, and I think that some people have had a difficult time letting go of the period -- we may dance works from that period, but we aren't making work that looks like than anymore and calling it new.

As far as the question of narrative and character -- I don't know this for a fact, but I think that Robbins was responding to the expectations that many people had of him based on his musical theater work. Compared to “West Side Story” or “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Dances at a Gathering” doesn't “tell a story,” but it does evoke a series of moods and suggest a wild variety of people.

I love the ballet, and was thrilled to see PNB pick it up last year. I'm hoping it comes back soon.

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Some works are very clearly examples of their time, their style or their genre. They represent something about the artists involved, and their view of what dance should do. They may be on the forward edge of the art form when they are made, but that edge continues to travel while the work itself remains in its place.

We sometimes refer to these things as “dated,” which is an apt description, because they are attached to a specific time, representing the date they were made. And as we get further away from that date, as it recedes in the rear view mirror, the work attached to it feels less contemporary.

But at some point, the art isn't so much out of date as it is about a different date. It's gone from old fashioned or tired or outmoded to being historical. And sometimes, to be valued more highly than it was at its inception, just because it is still around.

All of this is a long-way-round way of getting to this -- I think that “Dances at a Gathering” is one of those works that is a clear example of its time. Robbins's work was a tour de force of the concerns that permeated the ballet world at the time. It was a very innovative work, but the very elements that made it so (its seamless blending of technical dancing and pedestrian movement, the allusive nature of the characters/story, its intimate quality) became all tied up with the dance boom of the 1970s. When you think of the incredible number of clones this ballet has inspired it's easy to see how firmly rooted it is in its time.

But that time is 40 years ago, and I think that some people have had a difficult time letting go of the period -- we may dance works from that period, but we aren't making work that looks like than anymore and calling it new.

I hadn't thought of the "time and place" element but I think this is a very pertinent point. I first saw the piece when it was new so I also have a personal

referrence to that particular "moment"

And the "clones"; maybe a bit harsh of a term, but in a general way I agree, it does sort of take a very particular "bookmark" and drag it across time, space, and personality boundaries.

I also agree that this has been a very interesting discussion!!!!

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Thanks, Mel, for your point about companies today possibly being "too reverential" when it comes to reviving such works. This seems to occur most often with serious (as opposed to sprightly) works. Balanchine's choreography is a frequent victim, too.

Thanks, sandik, for your very helpful post.

But that time is 40 years ago, and I think that some people have had a difficult time letting go of the period -- we may dance works from that period, but we aren't making work that looks like than anymore and calling it new.

I guess I have to accept that I am one of those who continues to live in this particular aesthetic and emotional past. That is probably why the ballet continues to move me, even though no recent cast has lived up to my powerful, though very imprecise, memories of the original cast. (Maybe what I "remember" is the impact that this "new" work had on me, and not the performance itself.)

The issue for ballet companies today seems to be: how do you breathe NEW life into such works. I think you do this by suspending dis-belief and committing yourself entirely to the piece and to the imaginary world it depicts. A young dancer who is helped to enter into this world, and to empathize with us, has a big advantage.

We who have a long experience of this ballet have our own challenges. I'm glad that PNB's version didn't let you down. Miami is reviving it on their next program, and I too am "thrilled." One big difference between now and 1969: THEN the dancers were like gods and goddesses to me, infinitely older in experience and mystery, even if not in chronological age. NOW, the dancers sometimes seem like they could be my own kids, in the sense that I feel I know them well and have watched them develop over almost a decade of close attention to the company.

I bring older eyes and brain, and much intervening experience, to this ballet now. It will be interesting to watch myself while watching Miami's performances. Thanks to all who have posted for helping me understand this process.

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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.” '

I've never seen any of the "Dybbuk" versions nor "Watermill", but I would rather watch "Moves" three times in a row in a cold room than see "West Side Story Suite" again.

Croce described the early Royal Ballet performances of "Dances at a Gathering" as "Dances at a Garden Party".

Reading descriptions of the creation of the work by the original cast, Robbins had several dancers learn the same parts, and then would compare them: "Why can't you be more like Violette?" "Why can't you be more like Allegra?". It's not surprising that the roles could morph, based on the group of dancers.

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Some works are very clearly examples of their time, their style or their genre. They represent something about the artists involved, and their view of what dance should do. They may be on the forward edge of the art form when they are made, but that edge continues to travel while the work itself remains in its place.

sandik, what I great image in that 2nd sentence. I'm saving these words. It opens up a whole new time-centric way of organizing "art" in my mind. Thanks.

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As far as the question of narrative and character -- I don't know this for a fact, but I think that Robbins was responding to the expectations that many people had of him based on his musical theater work. Compared to "West Side Story" or "Fiddler on the Roof," "Dances at a Gathering" doesn't "tell a story," but it does evoke a series of moods and suggest a wild variety of people.
This is an important point, since Dances marked Robbins' return to the ballet stage after swearing off verbal theater. He probably wanted a clean distinction between the genres.

I've never seen ..."Watermill",

Be thankful........

:blushing:

I respectfully disagree. The first time I saw WM (with Villella, which is significant), it changed my life. It is entirely dependent upon the performer and on the viewer's ability (which, alas, I don't always have) to become fully immersed in the very slow action on stage.

Would I want to see it every month? No! No more than once every four to five years and only with a dancer able to convey the extreme intensity necessary to make it work. But I consider it one of Robbins' best works.

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." '

LaRocco chose a poor example in citing WSSS, which (except for a new dance for Tony) was not intended as ballet. It clearly stems from his desire to preserve what many (including himself?) consider his greatest work. A better example of a less serious effort might be The Four Seasons, a gentle spoof of ballet genres.

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Would I want to see [Watermill] every month? No! No more than once every four to five years and only with a dancer able to convey the extreme intensity necessary to make it work.
You make me curious, carbro. Are there any current dancers who, in your opinion, might make this ballet work again?

P.S. I saw this and am embarrassed to say that I don't remember it as dance so much as its striking setting and (another embarrassment) length. :blushing:

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I've never seen ..."Watermill",

Be thankful........

:blushing:

I respectfully disagree. The first time I saw WM (with Villella, which is significant), it changed my life. It is entirely dependent upon the performer and on the viewer's ability (which, alas, I don't always have) to become fully immersed in the very slow action on stage.

Yeah, I only saw it once, way back in 1979, I think, with Villella, and I thought it was beautiful. I don't know whether I'd still feel that way about it, though, or how much it had to do with Villella. Did Hubbe do it in the Spring, 2008, season, as someone once indicated might have been going to happen? I'd like if with him too, I imagine. It needs a natural magnetism, some kind of physical aura that not even some of the otherwise best dancers have. Not everybody thinks Hubbe has that, but I do.

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Are there any current dancers who, in your opinion, might make this ballet work again?

Marcelo Gomes who, unfortunately, is not in a company that is ever likely to include this work in its rep.

Disclaimer: You could ask me that question about any ballet (except maybe Dying Swan), and I'd likely answer "Marcelo Gomes." :blushing:

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Disclaimer: You could ask me that question about any ballet (except maybe Dying Swan), and I'd likely answer "Marcelo Gomes." :)
That works for me! :):blushing:

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Yes, Gomes could probably get it right. This is something modern dancers could also do, though. I can easily see Bertram Ross or Stuart Hodes knowing how to do this, or Paul Taylor--if any were still dancing (if also alive). But there's no virtuosity required at all, so one could search for personality outside the big ballet companies for this one. I think Corella could do it too.

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I've never seen ..."Watermill",

Be thankful........

:blushing:

I respectfully disagree. The first time I saw WM (with Villella, which is significant), it changed my life. It is entirely dependent upon the performer and on the viewer's ability (which, alas, I don't always have) to become fully immersed in the very slow action on stage.

I will admit I was being flip. I only saw this once, when it was brand new . I absolutely did not have the ability at that time to become immersed at that tender age( :) )and the piece was nothing more than torture for me. Was I perhaps a bit shallow at the time??? Perhaps!!!!

In all honesty, after all those years have passed I think I have gained an ability to absorb works in many more ways; but at this point I have also become somewhat impatient. I don't know if Watermill would work any better for me today, but for different reasons. Two steps forward and one step back, as they say......

But I'm certainly clearer on understanding that different viewers come with different sets of criteria and what may work for me may not work for someone else and vice versa.

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And the "clones"; maybe a bit harsh of a term, but in a general way I agree, it does sort of take a very particular "bookmark" and drag it across time, space, and personality boundaries.

I wondered if "clone" would feel too judgmental, but I was in a rush. The gist of what I'm trying to say is that as well as being an extraordinary ballet in its own right, "Dances" inspired a lot of other work, some of it not as distinguished. I've always thought that Peter Anastos's "Yes Virginia, Another Piano Ballet" for the Trocks really caught some fundamental elements of the style, loving them as well as poking some gentle fun at them.

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Some works are very clearly examples of their time, their style or their genre. They represent something about the artists involved, and their view of what dance should do. They may be on the forward edge of the art form when they are made, but that edge continues to travel while the work itself remains in its place.

sandik, what I great image in that 2nd sentence. I'm saving these words. It opens up a whole new time-centric way of organizing "art" in my mind. Thanks.

This is very kind -- there's some real use in being old enough to have watched the long-term development of something!

I do want to say, though, that there are other works in the repertory that seem to float along with that leading edge, so that we use them as a lens to understand whatever developments are going on. I think several of Balanchine's works do this (4 T's is my personal favorite, but your mileage may vary), a lot of Cunningham does this.

I'd like to add an element to this discussion, if people don't feel they've already said everything they have to say. I think it's very important that "Dances" is made to Chopin piano music -- I don't know that it would have had quite the same effect at its premiere if Robbins had used a different composer. Since this is Chopin's bicentennial year, I've been listening for him more carefully, so perhaps I see this out of its balance.

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And the "clones"; maybe a bit harsh of a term, but in a general way I agree, it does sort of take a very particular "bookmark" and drag it across time, space, and personality boundaries.

I wondered if "clone" would feel too judgmental, but I was in a rush. The gist of what I'm trying to say is that as well as being an extraordinary ballet in its own right, "Dances" inspired a lot of other work, some of it not as distinguished. I've always thought that Peter Anastos's "Yes Virginia, Another Piano Ballet" for the Trocks really caught some fundamental elements of the style, loving them as well as poking some gentle fun at them.

Robbins choreographed several other Chopin ballets -- "In the Night", "Other Dances", and I think a third -- so he seems to have cloned himself.

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I'd like to add an element to this discussion, if people don't feel they've already said everything they have to say. I think it's very important that "Dances" is made to Chopin piano music -- I don't know that it would have had quite the same effect at its premiere if Robbins had used a different composer. Since this is Chopin's bicentennial year, I've been listening for him more carefully, so perhaps I see this out of its balance.

Well, no it wouldn't have, because it couldn't exist without the Chopin, DaaG is as much Chopin as Robbins. He could have made another piece to another composer, but nothing that even resembled DaaG. in fact, both DaaG and Les Sylphides are, ultimately, Chopin's work as much as they are Robbins's and Fokine's. I think this may always be the case, unless the work is determined to be undistinguished and falls out of favour, the music might then still remain, but no longer associated with the choreography, of course. I guess the only alterations that may occur from piece to piece are like using pieces of SB or SL in changed form or in different places, or using something from Nutcracker in SB or SL, as we sometimes see, maybe you could leave out a piece here and there from DaaG, you may know more than I do, it's been a long time; but 'les sylphides' always has to be like that, doesn't it? You can't leave out pieces of it. I may not be right on this, but I can't imagine 'Les Sylphides' altered at all, I'm ot sure about DaaG, but don't know for sure.

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Robbins choreographed several other Chopin ballets -- "In the Night", "Other Dances", and I think a third -- so he seems to have cloned himself.
His first Chopin foray, The Concert.

I know you knew that, but it's in such a different mood that it's easy to overlook it for this discussion.

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Robbins choreographed several other Chopin ballets -- "In the Night", "Other Dances", and I think a third -- so he seems to have cloned himself.
His first Chopin foray, The Concert.

I know you knew that, but it's in such a different mood that it's easy to overlook it for this discussion.

I was thinking of a third that followed DaaG.

I don't put "The Concert" in the same group, since the tone and intent were different, but it's hard for me to watch "Les Sylphides" without thinking about big fluffy powder blue hats when that music comes on...

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Maybe this needs to be a thread of its own (there was an NPR piece yesterday about Chopin and his predilection for piano work) but I'm always fascinated by the works that different choreographers make to Chopin. I do think that it's interesting that Robbins started with The Concert, started with something that made light of the "traditional" Chopin ballet, and then later on came to use the composer for a set of beautiful and serious works.

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The use of Chopin in Dances definitely suggests, for me, a specific setting, and even a suggestion of social class. It makes me think of the Polish countryside, the "western" face of "eastern Europe," a group of people still in touch with rural culture but not buried in it.

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It's my sense of the music, too, bart, but I never could have described it with such precision. Thank you!

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For me, the use of the Chopin makes a big reference to Fokine and Les Sylphides -- I have trouble not thinking of that work and the place it holds in dance history whenever I hear anything using Chopin. Robbins certainly seemed to be interested in him, and unafraid of whatever baggage that comes with him.

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