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


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#16 leonid17

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Posted 23 February 2010 - 07:27 AM

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.


I have always thought that, “Dances at a Gathering” should be treated as a piece d'occasion not a repertory work as it needs great personalities involved to make it work. From October 1970 when Mr Robbins first staged the work, I can remember the atmosphere of anticipation before the curtain rose at the Royal Opera House and the tumultuous applause at the end of its performance. The interplay between the dancers was a joy.

The sheer physicality, the romantic subtleties, the comedy all brought together with the absolute commitment achieving a quality of performance in a single act work from the RB that I had only associated with performances of Ashton ballets.

Laura Connor, Ann Jenner, Monica Mason, Lynn Seymour, Antoinette Sibley, Michael Coleman, Johnathan Kelly, Rudolf Nureyev, David Wall was not the complete cast as Anthony Twiner’s subtle and powerful pianistics was a significant part of the ballet’s tremendous London success.

This cast of course met the criteria, “I think also that it needs to be cast from dancers with strong and differing personalities. “, that Aylmer expressed

The RB’s last two revivals of this ballet despite some stellar casting, never really got off the ground for me but then who could reproduce the appoggiatura or acciaccatura in the choreography that Lynn Seymour, Rusolf Nureyev and the rest of the cast brought to it early performances.

As Aylmer quite correctly states the choreography with the RB has been adjusted since its original staging. Did Robbins stage subtly different versions? Are The RB’s revivals of 2008 and 2009 meant to be a revival of the 1970 RB production or a reproduction of the NYC production?

#17 Mashinka

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Posted 23 February 2010 - 09:17 AM

I very much agree with Aylmer and Leonid concerning the RB's recent performances of this work. On both the nights I went the work was so devalued that one section was actually omitted. I now understand why during his lifetime Robbins was so picky over the casting of this ballet and I doubt if he would have sanctioned that RB revival in such an underpowered state.

#18 carbro

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Posted 23 February 2010 - 04:06 PM

As Aylmer quite correctly states the choreography with the RB has been adjusted since its original staging. Did Robbins stage subtly different versions? Are The RB's revivals of 2008 and 2009 meant to be a revival of the 1970 RB production or a reproduction of the NYC production?

The choreography itself, not that I've noticed, but with cast changes over the years, some of the dances have been moved from one character to another. Stephanie Saland, for example, first danced Mauve. When she later danced Green, she continued to do the first pas de deux that I had always known as Mauve's, giving Green three entrances (other than the final full-cast). Judith Fugate, both Apricot/Yellow and Pink, sometimes added a Pink pas to the Apricot role. I never saw an early cast of DaaG -- by the time I saw it, Verdy, Villella, Kent, Mazzo (at least in Blue), Blum, Clifford (was he original?) had been, uh, well "replaced" is clearly the wrong word. The roles they originated had been reassigned, and who knows what choreography may have gone with them?

Oh, and just a note about "genius" for clarification's sake. I'm of the school that believes it's the rarest of titles. I rarely got from Robbins the sense that his works burst forth fluently (think the death scene of Amadeus*). Too much craft shows through. It may be true of other choreographers who have been dubbed geniuses that their work doesn't burst forth fluently, but even in most of their second-rate ballets, the effort of making them doesn't show. That's how I make the distinction.

Now, if we want to discuss Robbins' theater works, that may be something else.


_____________
*I once had the thrill to see a page of a Mozart manuscript in his own hand. It looked like he wrote it in a near-frenzy, and there were no corrections. Looks like Schaffer got it right, whether or not he had ever seen a similar page.

#19 bart

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Posted 23 February 2010 - 04:47 PM

.... Anthony Twiner’s subtle and powerful pianistics was a significant part of the ballet’s tremendous London success.

leonid, I agree that the pianist is a cast member in a real sense. Flat musical expression often sucks the life out of the dancing, especially in a work like this.

Oh, and just a note about "genius" for clarification's sake. I'm of the school that believes it's the rarest of titles. I rarely got from Robbins the sense that his works burst forth fluently (think the death scene of Amadeus*). Too much craft shows through. It may be true of other choreographers who have been dubbed geniuses that their work doesn't burst forth fluently, but even in most of their second-rate ballets, the effort of making them doesn't show. That's how I make the distinction.

carbro, I'd love to see you develop this point about Robbins, especially as regards Dances.

I've read that Robbins was in awe of -- and somewhat intimidated by -- the fluidity and speed of Balanchine's work in the studio. The story about Dances, however, is that he really felt a strong creative urge to do this material (to this music) and that he worked as quickly as the NYCB's schedules permitted.

His original cast was moving because they danced as though this WERE a "theater work," to use your term. I cannot express how powerful the emotional impact of Dances was when it was premiered.

Maybe Robbins himself opened the door to problems of presentation when he started announcing to the world later on that there are "NO STORIES" in Dances -- that it's all about dancers dancing to music, etc. etc. That was Balanchine's skill, but probably not Robbins'. He worked most naturally with individualized characters. That is what he had with the original cast. "Mauve," "Pink" and "Brown" are short-hand for something more human and complex.

#20 papeetepatrick

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Posted 23 February 2010 - 04:50 PM

Scahffer right about Mozart's genius, but made up stuff about Salieri, not a genius, but not that character either. Peter Gay much better and not into villainizing. No real point comparing Mozart to Salieri in any case, insofar as genius goes, but rather Haydn and Beethoven. They're not considered to be lesser (except in certain forms, as Mozart's operas are far greater than 'Fidelio' or Haydn's operas, but then Beethoven's Piano Sonatas are definitely more important than Mozart's). So that's the perfect period in music to prove that there can be several obvious geniuses.

Would agree that 'the craft shouldn't show', and that 'burst forth fluently' is impressive, but not indiciative of genius in itself. I don't know Robbins well enough to say that he 'craft shows'. Would, hiowever, be interested to know what you or others think about Ashton in that regard. That's the other competitor: Simon said he thinks he's the equal or superior to Balanchine, but I'm in no position to know or even guess. I like the phrase 'burst forth fluently' though, especially if it is in the hands of a genius, because that means it was even enjoyable to take it down, you were already hearing the whole piece. I don't know if Balanchine's choreography came out 'fully polished' like this seems to indicate, but other geniuses were very painstaking, as Debussy and Tchaikovsky, and certainly Beethoven struggled. I doubt that all of Mozart was quite so spontaneous as some of it was, though, and might have to do with complexity of form--in working out his music drama, Wagner could not have managed to get it all out in a first draft; too many aspects, considerations. INteresting question though. And it's also true that hacks 'burst forth fluently', albeit with something not very luminous and often even just trash I'd also like to know about Petipa's process, and other of the long-ago choreographers like Bournonville. Some painters and sculptors had to struggle much more than others to 'get it out'. But definitely agree that, for the most part, the 'craft shouldn't show', unless, as in much modern art, that becomes part of what the piece is, as with some 20th century painting and architecture. And this that I just picked up from bart's above post would be a modern attitude already like those in painting, etc,.

Maybe Robbins himself opened the door to problems of presentation when he started announcing to the world later on ththere are "NO STORIES" in Dances -- that it's all about dancers dancing to music, etc. etc. That was Balanchine's skill, but probably not Robbins'.



#21 dirac

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Posted 23 February 2010 - 05:12 PM

Maybe Robbins himself opened the door to problems of presentation when he started announcing to the world later on that there are "NO STORIES" in Dances -- that it's all about dancers dancing to music, etc. etc.


I don’t think that’s a flaw in the work, though, or that Robbins’ explanation complicated matters. It is central to his conception that the ballet take place in the present tense – those dancers dancing to that music in that space, as he said. But I think that's a feature, not a bug.

On both the nights I went the work was so devalued that one section was actually omitted.


It's certainly hard to imagine Robbins' countenancing that!

#22 carbro

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Posted 23 February 2010 - 09:38 PM

I rarely got from Robbins the sense that his works burst forth fluently (think the death scene of Amadeus*). Too much craft shows through. It may be true of other choreographers who have been dubbed geniuses that their work doesn't burst forth fluently, but even in most of their second-rate ballets, the effort of making them doesn't show. That's how I make the distinction.

carbro, I'd love to see you develop this point about Robbins, especially as regards Dances.

Give me a video of the ballet and a laser pointer, and maybe I could. :wink:

Maybe Robbins himself opened the door to problems of presentation when he started announcing to the world later on that there are "NO STORIES" in Dances -- that it's all about dancers dancing to music, etc. etc.

Pardon my anglais,Mr. Robbins, but that's BS. Of course there are stories in Dances! There are flirtations and romances, a little competition between two guys. When the ten dancers (not to be confused with people in the ordinary sense) hit their marks more or less en face together, eyes raised high into the distance, are they scanning the back rows of the Fourth Ring for their friends? No. The music says "stormy" and they are watching some weather-related event. Are there parts of it that are simply dancers dancing to music? Yes, but the dance for the Woman in Green with the various gents who come and go is not one of them. It's a story as much as Giselle is, albeit briefer.



#23 bart

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Posted 24 February 2010 - 04:11 AM

I rarely got from Robbins the sense that his works burst forth fluently (think the death scene of Amadeus*). Too much craft shows through. It may be true of other choreographers who have been dubbed geniuses that their work doesn't burst forth fluently, but even in most of their second-rate ballets, the effort of making them doesn't show. That's how I make the distinction.

carbro, I'd love to see you develop this point about Robbins, especially as regards Dances.

Give me a video of the ballet and a laser pointer, and maybe I could. :)

Great response! :D We would all benefit from such a video. I couldn't find a commercial dvd of this, although In the Night was available via YouTube. (there are about 5 minutes devoted to Dances on the Robbins/biography dvd.) Dances really needs a marvelously crafted commercial video, a la those produced in Paris.

Pardon my anglais,Mr. Robbins, but that's BS. Of course there are stories in Dances! There are flirtations and romances, a little competition between two guys. When the ten dancers (not to be confused with people in the ordinary sense) hit their marks more or less en face together, eyes raised high into the distance, are they scanning the back rows of the Fourth Ring for their friends? No. The music says "stormy" and they are watching some weather-related event. Are there parts of it that are simply dancers dancing to music? Yes, but the dance for the Woman in Green with the various gents who come and go is not one of them. It's a story as much as Giselle is, albeit briefer.

I agree 100%. You illustrate the point perfectly. :wink: Is it possible that the dull performances some have complained in is because the dancers have lost touch with (or never been helped to GAIN touch with) the story-telling tradition out of which this choreographer has so clearly developed?

#24 richard53dog

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Posted 24 February 2010 - 06:34 AM

Pardon my anglais,Mr. Robbins, but that's BS. Of course there are stories in Dances! There are flirtations and romances, a little competition between two guys. When the ten dancers (not to be confused with people in the ordinary sense) hit their marks more or less en face together, eyes raised high into the distance, are they scanning the back rows of the Fourth Ring for their friends? No. The music says "stormy" and they are watching some weather-related event. Are there parts of it that are simply dancers dancing to music? Yes, but the dance for the Woman in Green with the various gents who come and go is not one of them. It's a story as much as Giselle is, albeit briefer.

I agree 100%. You illustrate the point perfectly. :wink: Is it possible that the dull performances some have complained in is because the dancers have lost touch with (or never been helped to GAIN touch with) the story-telling tradition out of which this choreographer has so clearly developed?


Yes, I think Carbro has really described this well.

Her point also illustrates once again how we have to take a lot of the statements from a Robbins or a Balanchine with a grain of salt. They may say something
relatively straightforward, such as "no stories" but the comment may actually be designed to make a certain type of point within a larger context. I'm just coining a possibility here but let say perhaps Robbins had an issue with some comments he had heard about the "plot" associated with certain numbers and it irritated him. So he quotes "no stories" to cut off this kind of discussion.

Just one kind of example that comes to mind....

#25 Brioche

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Posted 25 February 2010 - 01:25 PM

Yes, I think Carbro has really described this well.

Her point also illustrates once again how we have to take a lot of the statements from a Robbins or a Balanchine with a grain of salt. They may say something
relatively straightforward, such as "no stories" but the comment may actually be designed to make a certain type of point within a larger context. I'm just coining a possibility here but let say perhaps Robbins had an issue with some comments he had heard about the "plot" associated with certain numbers and it irritated him. So he quotes "no stories" to cut off this kind of discussion.

Just one kind of example that comes to mind....


I often wonder if choreographers go the "no story" route so that we can invent our own?

Balanchine said it, when you have two people on stage (a man and a woman I believe) you already have a story.

:huh:

#26 bart

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Posted 27 February 2010 - 05:19 AM

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.

#27 Mel Johnson

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Posted 27 February 2010 - 11:25 AM

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".

#28 sandik

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Posted 02 March 2010 - 11:10 PM

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.

#29 richard53dog

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Posted 03 March 2010 - 06:37 AM

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!!!!

#30 bart

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Posted 03 March 2010 - 08:19 AM

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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