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Hypercriticism vs Enjoying the Art


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#31 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 10 July 2010 - 08:05 AM

This is a danger and I can think of more than a few times it's happened. Sorella Englund's interpretation of Madge in "La Sylphide" has started to include intimations at the close that Madge was once a Sylph. I don't know that there's any justification within the ballet or the source legends for this (Alexandra?) and it works to give Englund richness to her role but it's private subtext that is starting to become the text. That shouldn't stop Englund from doing it, but someone does need to say "That's not the ballet; that's just how she does it."

At City Ballet Marika Anderson got a shot at Carabosse and did her borderline psychotic - which I actually thought worked for her (and a lot of people disliked intensely.) Were I the stager, I'd let her do it that way, but would never let her teach it to anyone.

When the choreographer is gone, you can try to insist on fidelity to the text. Sooner or later the work is going to calcify - or the culture underneath the work will move enough that fidelity to the text is no longer actually fidelity to the text, because different eyes are looking at it. Constant adaptation introduces the risk of corruption and bad versions - it means that the stager needs to know not just the steps, but the intention of the ballet, and needs to be as much of an artist as the choreographer - but I think it's the only way for a work of genius to last as a work of genius.

#32 Helene

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Posted 10 July 2010 - 08:45 AM

That's what I'm wondering too. Or what if the dancer sets the role on another dancer later -- much later -- and simply forgets that changes were made, or doesn't remember the original steps? I guess what I'm wondering is whether there is evidence that this is happening.

Yes, there is, but at this point, it's been mainly spoken and not written. For example, one of the classic questions at Q&A's is "How do dancers learn the steps". Inevitably, every few dancers will say, "Oh, I just watched the videotape". Stagers will say that videotape is one way, particularly as a reminder, but is only one tool, because what's on tape is one performance and one performer of the role, and that it's dangerous to rely on it solely, as changes creep in. It's one thing when those stagers can identify the changes, because they know others or were taught the ballet by Balanchine or by the original dancers. (It's funny how they sometimes can't stop themselves from inadvertently rolling their eyes as they describe it.) It's another when the person looking at the tape as a reminder didn't know what the intention was and can't put that performance in context, when there's not much more to go on but the tape.

For commercial videotapes, this is a snapshot in time. Given that most available Balanchine has been released on one official edition -- often the series that Balanchine made in the late '70's and shown on PBS -- what Merrill Ashley or Karin von Aroldingen did in "Emeralds" is the definitive version and interpretation most people know. That Balanchine stopped casting Ashley in the Verdy role, described by Croce as a failed experiment, isn't what's on the record. Even for companies that tape all of their performances, there isn't necessarily a great range, although looking carefully over time, differences might be apparent.

Also, Balanchine made adjustments for dancers and to the ballets themselves. Francia Russell had permission from Balanchine when he was alive and now from the Trust to stage the versions she knew, where she could speak to intent. Maria Tallchief, in "Dancing for Mr. B" describes telling him that she staged his ballets for her company as she knew them, and he told her that was right. Then there are the change Balanchine made to "Apollo" by dropping the entire first scene. At least there are several videos with the full version, or it could have been lost.

Like with classical vocal recordings, where a phrase is interpreted in a particularly beautiful way, it's easy to be disappointed at a live performance where the phrasing changes. For me, that's in Suzanne Farrell's performance in the "Apollo" pas de deux from the Balanchine biography. In it she does a supported turn and ends in a perfect fifth position on a little "pah" in the music. She doesn't quite pause there -- it's more of the contrast of the split-second stillness after the momentum of the turn. Every time I see "Apollo", I want to see that fifth position phrased the same way, and it's never happened.

#33 bart

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Posted 10 July 2010 - 09:20 AM

At City Ballet Marika Anderson got a shot at Carabosse and did her borderline psychotic - which I actually thought worked for her (and a lot of people disliked intensely.) Were I the stager, I'd let her do it that way, but would never let her teach it to anyone.

This strikes me as the most sensible solution -- one that is made on a case-by-case basis and which involves serious deliberation.

So here are the two extremes: the risk of a "private subtext ... starting to become the text," on the one hand, and the opposite risk of :"calcification" of content, on the other. One risks perverting the work. The other risks making it appear out-of-date or irrelevant. Those who must make the decisions have a lot to think about. I don't envy them.

Helene, I also have the feeling that most dancers rely on the video (possibly without really questioning the authenticity of what they see). This may not be true at the very top companies, where the coaching budget is larger and where there is usually a longer communal memory, but I know it is the case at Miami, as it was at the late Ballet Florida. I suspect this happens at many other regional companies -- even when they do bring in coaches to work with the dancers.

(Now THERE's a related topic: What do the COACHES rely on when they're prepping for a visit to X Company?)

#34 Helene

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Posted 10 July 2010 - 09:44 AM

Helene, I also have the feeling that most dancers rely on the video (possibly without really questioning the authenticity of what they see). This may not be true at the very top companies, where the coaching budget is larger and where there is usually a longer communal memory, but I know it is the case at Miami, as it was at the late Ballet Florida.

I think an issue is that place in time where video recordings proliferated. In classical vocal music, there are prolific numbers of recordings from the beginning of the 20th century. While the range of voices recorded has been limited until a people started to pirate, and recently since it's so much easier to record off the radio and radio over the internet is worldwide and so many older, until recently out-of-print recordings are re-issued. Still, there is so much more available for so much longer than for dance videos, and hugely more available to the general public, even in the gray market. In dance, if "definitive" Balanchine was recorded in the 1970's, or most of the "Swan Lake" DVD's available on the market were recorded between 1995-2009, then the range of interpretation and technique is relatively small. It would be like only hearing Vargas through Kaufmann: not that there's anything amiss with either, but you wouldn't hear Caruso, Sobinov, Schipa, etc., let alone Pavarotti. That is one of the reasons why I get so angry when historical recordings are pulled off YouTube: they provide a range of interpretation and style, sometimes from the original dancers, to whom dancers -- and stagers -- are exposed.

In vocal recordings there is such a range of style that a young singer could listen to. You can hear Leonid Sobinov, a singer Stanislawski described as one of the greatest performers on stage, from 1910-11 recordings sing Lenski's aria and compare it to any number of recordings over 100 years. You can see the stylistic changes and similarities over time. "Sleeping Beauty", not so much: there isn't as wide a range of recordings.

Interviews with singers from the trainee to the Diva level show a wide range of dicta from teachers and coaches about listening to great singers, from "listen to everything you can" to "no listening to anyone else", with the underlying fear that the singer will copy instead of finding his/her own style. That's always going to be an issue with dancers using videotape as well. Do you copy Suzanne Farrell? Do you think she's hopefully old-fashioned and should be doing quadruple pirouettes in the middle of "Apollo"? With dance, there's rarely a way to go back to the score, the way the singer can to say, "That's nice that Tenor X belted out a gorgeous high note at the end of "Celeste Aida", but the score says 'piano', and I'm going to sing piano."


(Now THERE's a related topic: What do the COACHES rely on when they're prepping for a visit to X Company?)

Almost every one I've heard speak on the subject rely on videotape to one degree or another, with the exception of Tharp. (I can't remember if Molissa Fenley was asked.)

Francia Russell primarily used her own copious notes, and nearly all the dancers who described working with her mention "Francia's notes". She mentioned referencing video with a huge caveat. Others rely on it much more, but the range of the use is very broad: some might use it to figure out how X in the corps gets to the other side of the side and to get general patterns. Others use it to be referenced when there's a conflict in memory or instruction or as a memory jog. (There could be different stagers in subsequent productions, and very frequently a stager in subsequent productions after the piece is originally choreographed.)

In the PNB/Louisville Ballet co-production of "The Seasons", for example, Val Caniparoli could make edits, or changes could be made by his stager, inadvertently or deliberately, to accommodate a dancer or if the stage size is significantly different. (There isn't any info on the Louisville Ballet site about who will put it on stage.) If there are edits that are not dancer- or space-specific, which videotape is correct when/if PNB revives it?

I think it's a matter of what the tape triggers. For a stager or a dancer for whom there is no context other than the tape, what you see is what you get, unless there is an intuitive insight. For a stager or dancer who was there at the creation, the tape triggers an entire world of aural and physical instruction.

#35 kfw

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Posted 10 July 2010 - 10:27 AM

At City Ballet Marika Anderson got a shot at Carabosse and did her borderline psychotic - which I actually thought worked for her (and a lot of people disliked intensely.)

Isn't this an example of a common phenomenon in character roles now, observable as well, from what I read, in portrayals of Drosselmeyer, Bottom, and the guys and gals in Fancy Free -- a heightening of a character's salient characteristic to the point that the character is flattened out? I'm asking, not asserting.

#36 Quiggin

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Posted 10 July 2010 - 12:28 PM

There's also the problem of how videotape distorts or re-torts the choreography. An 90mm lens would make it look different by flattening it, while a 35mm or 28mm would make it appear more sculptured but with unnaturally large negative spaces. Repeatedly looking at the same version of a performance does deaden it -- and probably limits the imaginative possibilities, as Helene points out is the case with vocal recordings. I think someone has says in the Ken Burns jazz documentary that before Woody Guthrie recorded a song like Goodnight Irene, there had been hundreds of regional versions and overnight everyone was singing it with the same phrasing and intonation.

Helene:

Do you copy Suzanne Farrell?


Danilova has commented on how different her version of Terpsichore was in Apollo than Farrell's, the tone and the accents, and Verdy in Garis points out how Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux was set on a short body -- hers -- and how different and difficult it was for Farrell to bring it off. Also Kyra Nichols pointed out how she had to strip the ornamentation from the roles she inherited and completely rethink them. Farrell does seem to be an important point of reference in discussions on interpretation (a 35mm lens version of Balanchine roles?).

#37 dirac

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Posted 10 July 2010 - 08:18 PM

When the choreographer is gone, you can try to insist on fidelity to the text. Sooner or later the work is going to calcify - or the culture underneath the work will move enough that fidelity to the text is no longer actually fidelity to the text, because different eyes are looking at it. Constant adaptation introduces the risk of corruption and bad versions - it means that the stager needs to know not just the steps, but the intention of the ballet, and needs to be as much of an artist as the choreographer - but I think it's the only way for a work of genius to last as a work of genius.


In addition something of the kind was already happening while Balanchine was alive. He told different dancers different things about a given ballet at different points and if something didn't suit a new dancer in the role he would often change it. Of course, any such alterations made in his lifetime happened under his own aegis. But when the creator is gone others have to make those decisions -- responsibly, one hopes.

Danilova has commented on how different her version of Terpsichore was in Apollo than Farrell's, the tone and the accents,


Also Balanchine changed some of Terpsichore's steps for Farrell and so the "score" she worked from was slightly different from Danilova's. When Farrell was new to the scene some thought she was distorting some of her choreography. Now she's the "old-fashioned" standard.

#38 Hannahbella

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Posted 14 November 2010 - 05:00 AM

To change or not to change? To remain true to the original visions of the masters, or to tweak to accommodate circumstance or personal style? To allow video to take authorship as it overshadows the work of generations - or to remain true to the original work?

So many answers. However, as food for thought, I'd like to mention that we don't go into art museums with crayons and "retouch" works of great art to suit our needs. We don't take chisels to great sculpture because we think it could use a few tweaks. The melody lines of the great symphonies are set forever. Just IMHO.

#39 dirac

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Posted 14 November 2010 - 04:01 PM

Hello, Hannahbella. Thank you so much for posting. Fair points. :)

I think someone has says in the Ken Burns jazz documentary that before Woody Guthrie recorded a song like Goodnight Irene, there had been hundreds of regional versions and overnight everyone was singing it with the same phrasing and intonation.


Also a good point.


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