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Poverty of narrative in contemporary ballet


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#1 Ray

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Posted 05 August 2010 - 05:04 AM

This piece by Macaulay deserves its own topic. A passage:

"Nowhere more than in narrative has ballet become the land of low expectations. Audiences regularly sit through a poverty of dance-narrative expression that they would never tolerate in a movie, a novel, an opera, a play or even a musical."

Do you agree that this is true? That it is a problem? If so, what's the solution?

#2 kfw

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Posted 05 August 2010 - 07:28 AM

Thanks for starting the discussion, Ray. One of the problems Macaulay sees is that while gender distinctions have been blurred in large segments of modern society, ballet emphasizes the traditional distinctions, especially through the ubiquity of pointe work.

Almost every ballet, storytelling or otherwise, features at least one partnering passage, usually central, in which the differences between men and women are highlighted. How well equipped is this genre to speak to, or of, the world we know? Will the choreographers of the 21st century change the genre’s ingredients so that it becomes less automatically sexist? Or will they change the dramas that flow from its heterosexual rituals? Most crucially: What future does ballet have as an art of modern expression?


a 21st-century art that knows no alternative to bringing men and women together in situations of love, chivalry or arrant manhandling will retain obvious limitations. Story ballet today is in danger of becoming a particularly sexist form of rom-com [romantic-comedy].

Hmmm, I'm interested in stories we haven't seen onstage before, but I don't think ballet's sticking largely with something it does well makes it sexist.

#3 Quiggin

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Posted 05 August 2010 - 08:15 AM

19th century ballets were based more on the sort of transformations (Swan Lake, Nutcracker, Coppelia) that run through Ovid (certainly not on the “Other”) and on Arabian Nights-like stories, which were very popular then. I don’t think of them as “narrations”, which implies a narrator, trustworthy or not. Plays and operas and ballets present; novels and short stories tell.

The only equivalents we have now are Japanese cartoons and video games.

I would tend to discount gender differences as being a big problem. Men dance differently than women because they weigh more and their bodies have different dynamics. It's like the difference between skateboard and bicycles (which have become everyone’s second body in San Francisco).

It’s not the lack of narration but the lack of the ability to dramatize on stage that’s the problem (if any). And also the lack of an alternate system -- like mythology or even romance -- outside the main "totalizing" one with which to think about our lives.

#4 Ray

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Posted 05 August 2010 - 09:02 AM

I would tend to discount gender differences as being a big problem. Men dance differently than women because they weigh more and their bodies have different dynamics. It's like the difference between skateboard and bicycles (which have become everyone’s second body in San Francisco).


I'm going to disagree here, though, and stress that there's no reason men can't perform on point well. The Trocs have certainly proven that. In that sense, then, as AM asserts, gender differences are a problem becaue of pointwork.

Think of sports: how many of them differentiate what they do b/c they're the women's versions or the men's? Female runners run the same runs; swimmers use the same stokes. Yes, men don't do rhthymic gymnastics (is that what it's called) the same as women, but not because they can't.

#5 bart

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Posted 05 August 2010 - 09:42 AM

The piece strikes me as "thinking out loud." The ideas ebb and flow and are not always developed or even connected to one another. As a result, there were many bits I agreed with and many I found unconvincing or overstated.

I failed to locate another article Macaulay published (sometime within the past 6 months) in which he addressed the issue of the narrative paucity of much contemporary ballet more directly. All I remember is his suggestion that these works often tended to be aimless, with no recognizable beginning, end, or point. He depicts a female dancer's motivation something like this: "Oh, I think I'll lift my leg now. Twice. And maybe do a couple of pirouettes." It was brilliant and quite to the point.

When I read that, I thought he was calling for a renewed commitment to narrative content in contemporary ballet choreography. Now he seems to have moved sideways rather than developing his earlier thoughts. Here, he adds gender analysis -- plus some more or less relevant ballet history -- to the pot.

As time goes by, I hope we'll see where Macaulay is going with all of this.

P.S. The article begins with Gelsey Kirkland's statement that she hopes to "encourage a renaissance of dramatic storytelling in ballet .." Responding to this In the "comments" section of the NY Times online, one of the readers writes as follows:

Gelsey Kirkland and her husband are responsible for the atrocious production of ABT's Sleeping Beauty. They decided to embellish and add their own little plot additions to the story. Their plot re-workings were a disaster, and every critic has said so. Kirkland was a great dancer, but she should stay away from creating or embellishing story ballets.

I don't know who's right here, but the disagreements do suggest how difficult and contentious are the issues raised by this topic.

#6 papeetepatrick

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Posted 05 August 2010 - 09:45 AM

"How well equipped is this genre to speak to, or of, the world we know?"

That sounds very serious, but may not be. It could be that people want ballet to be the single form which does base itself on more traditional male/female roles, without really placing as much emphasis on the seriousness of the passion as in the past (because people don't anyway, at least not nearly everybody does.) The seeming rigidity of the masculine and feminine roles may not be like in other forms, even opera. Opera could IMO more easily be about gay/Lesbian subjects and themes than ballet, although that might just be my own perception. There was talk a year or two ago about something for NYCO based on Brokeback Mountain. I wasn't that interested in what I remember reported about plans for it as an opera, but would have been less interested in a 'Brokeback Mountain' ballet. Sure, the Trocs have proved that men can perform on point. They might as well keep at it, if they want to. I haven't ever enjoyed the Trocs myself, but there's plenty of room. It seemed to me he was using the word 'sexist' where 'heterosexist' was what he meant. You could read 'sexist' into it, but you'd probably have to dismantle all of ballet to get what some might call 'sexist' out of it. It's based on traditional ideas of femininity, Balanchine's included. There are some branches of feminism that would see this 'exalted feminine creature' as a masculine fantasy and created purely by and for men. I don't know nor care as much as some, but i don't see the masculine/feminine dichotomy that is very pronounced in ballet going any time soon. I know something of what he may mean about the 'rom-com' thing, but it might not be exactly accurate. I recall when seeing the film 'Monster's Ball' that that was interesting and also romantic and moving, but it was inextricably bound up with the fact that the lovers were black and white. That made it fresh, and although it was romantic and sexy, it was dependent on that dynamic.

He didn't mention 'Wuthering Heights' at POB. That's a story ballet, isn't it? I remember asking azulynn and some of the French BTers about this, and apparently it even emcompasses both 'Cathies', both stories.

IN any case, ballet was never going to be very influential in what it said 'to this world' compared to literally almost everything else, so if it needs to change, which it will inevitable anyway, it won't be so that it 'speaks to this world' very powerfully. or 'of it' either, unless we get the hip-hop and sci-fi or whatever. So maybe we will. And it may be that ballet, even though new work is not usually considered to be in a Golden Age at the moment, is doing exactly that with whatever it's turning out. Maybe it's the period of history that's the problem, and we oughtn't expect that much more of ballet than anything else. It's certainly never influenced whole societies even where it was most popular, and it's never going to.

The piece strikes me as "thinking out loud." The ideas ebb and flow and are not always developed or even connected to one another. As a result, there were many bits I agreed with and many I found unconvincing or overstated.


Bart, I saw this after I posted, yeah, I agree, it's ruminations and just really throwing out possibilities. That's useful in itself.

#7 Ray

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Posted 05 August 2010 - 10:52 AM

The piece strikes me as "thinking out loud." The ideas ebb and flow and are not always developed or even connected to one another. As a result, there were many bits I agreed with and many I found unconvincing or overstated.


Bart, I saw this after I posted, yeah, I agree, it's ruminations and just really throwing out possibilities. That's useful in itself.


Sorry Bart--every post about AM should be implicitly prefaced with "Macaulay thinks this is a problem...." As for the usefulness of ruminating...I can't help thinking about AM's responsibility to do more than just ruminate--he's one of only a small handfull of writers who has the luxury of being able to write about dance in a major print venue.

#8 abatt

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Posted 05 August 2010 - 11:00 AM

Most of the stories upon which operas are based are just as silly as those in ballet. The stories, for the most part, are merely vehicles to hear great singing. Similarly, I tolerate most of the ridiculous stories in ballet in order to see great dancing. Personally, I prefer the "plotless" ballets. As Balanchine pointed out, a dramatic story is created merely by putting a man and a woman on stage together in a pas de deux. (Or 2 men, or 2 women, or whatever combo). (Yes, I know that is not the exact quote.) I agree that Kirkland and her husband should steer clear of staging any more story ballets, if the ABT SB is an example of the quality of their work.

#9 kfw

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Posted 05 August 2010 - 11:16 AM

Sure, the Trocs have proved that men can perform on point.

I've only seen them once, but have they ever shown that men can make it look beautiful, as opposed to campy? For all their fun, aren't they reinforcing this particular gender distinction?

#10 papeetepatrick

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Posted 05 August 2010 - 11:23 AM

Believe me, I don't try to answer 'gender distinction' questions, kfw. It just doesn't pay off :angel_not:

I don't find it beautiful personally, but campy is probably sufficient at some level. I like lots of campy things that I certainly don't consider (or expect) to be beautiful in a nobler sense. I admit I've seen little of the Trocs anyway, though, just the Swan Lake stuff, I think, and I don't care for that. I guess I might like them in some overtly campy new thing, if it was clever. I don't think it's their purpose to be deeply serious, is it, I mean in the traditional sense?

IN any case, they won't answer the problems of AM's accusations of sexism by their impending achievements. :helpsmilie:

#11 kfw

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Posted 05 August 2010 - 11:32 AM

I don't think it's their purpose to be deeply serious, is it, I mean in the traditional sense?

Not ever as far as I can tell, no, so -- I should have been clear, sorry -- I disagree with Ray, whom I thought you agreed with, that the Trocs have shown men can perform well on point. Technical achievement aside, they can camp it up well on point, that all. But campy was good enough for me, at least for the Swan Lake (and Dying Swan) spoofs.

#12 Helene

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Posted 05 August 2010 - 11:38 AM

Think of sports: how many of them differentiate what they do b/c they're the women's versions or the men's? Female runners run the same runs; swimmers use the same stokes. Yes, men don't do rhthymic gymnastics (is that what it's called) the same as women, but not because they can't.

Men's and Women's swimming, speed skating, and track events are differentiated by the length of the races competed, but are otherwise the same, with the possible exception of qualifying times. For javelin, hammer throw, and discus, the weight, and for javelin, the length, are different for men and women. For combined track and field events, there is a men's decathlon and women's pentathlon, and while there are men's and women's heptathlon, two of the events are different (60m for men vs. 200m for women; pole vault for men vs. javelin throw for women).

In artistic gymnastics, there are only two events that are similar: the floor exercise, which for women must be set to music and interpretive, while for men, it's tumbling and specific strength moves are required, and vault, which the women approach width-wise, and the men must approach lengthwise (launching from one end and vaulting over the length of the apparatus). Men also compete in five events vs. women's four, the additional events being completely different.

Figure skating is interesting in that in singles skating there are four main differences between Men's and Ladies' at the senior level: the free skate is 30 seconds longer for the men; the men have an additional required element in the short program and are allowed an extra jump pass in the free skate; Ladies cannot do a quad in the short program, and until next season could not do a 3A in the short program; and there is a required spiral element for Ladies, while the men have to do two footwork passes. (The spiral sequence, which is technically a step sequence, does not count for points for Men.) I don't see any rationale for this, especially since the reason Ladies skating was invented was that Madge Syers came in second in 1902, and The Powers That Be immediately banished women to their own competition.

In pairs and dance, the assumption is that the woman will be thrown and lifted, although there have been "gender bender" lifts in ice dance. The Italian team Faiella/Scali has done them a lot. These are the disciplines that most resemble ballet in addressing gender. Synchronized skating is different: men and women compete on the same teams, and they mostly do the same movements. (Even where the men do lifts, there are just as many women who are lifting other women.) If anything, skating is even more bound by gender roles, because it is rare to have a female pair skater who is over 5'4" and 100 pounds, while ballet has a bigger range of height and body type.

Macaulay writes, "I will defend the escapism of “The Nutcracker,” but I cringe at the sensationalism, the triteness and the ham that characterize the majority of story ballets, works like “Don Quixote,” “Le Corsaire” and “La Bayadère.” I don't think he's ever seen Ballet Arizona's "Don Quixote", where every person on stage is part of a community that defines the narrative, and Don Q and Sancho Panza aren't just weird old men who crash the village party. It's not like Shakespeare's much-performed comedy "Much Ado About Nothing" is full of depth or psychological insight -- the double-standard for men and women is pretty clear from "Don Quixote" -- but the text makes it rich, much like the dance text is worth watching the ballet. I also thought the Bolshoi did a terrific job of making the characters compelling in "La Bayadere" and "Le Corsaire" when they toured them in 2009. I wouldn't, though, go back to see ABT's versions of either, because I was so bored by them the last time I saw them.

Also he writes, "Nowhere more than in narrative has ballet become the land of low expectations. Audiences regularly sit through a poverty of dance-narrative expression that they would never tolerate in a movie, a novel, an opera, a play or even a musical." Wagner had the same opinion of opera, although he would have said "music-narrative expression". (It seems that most people still do.) I think that it depends on the company performing it, and whether the dancers know why they're onstage, what part they have in the whole, and whether they can carry it through with conviction, just like "Il Trovatore", which is often regarded as having the most stupid and improbable opera plot of all, can be made compelling by the performers and the production.

#13 cargill

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Posted 06 August 2010 - 06:56 AM

I know that is is off the topic, but I just wanted to say that yes, the Trocs do have their serious side, funny though their productions are. I did an interview with the Russian stager Elena Kunakova, who had worked with them staging some of their OTT Russian productions, and she said they were wonderful to work with because they took style very seriously, and really wanted to get the distinctions right. Which is one reason, I think, that their spoofs are so funny, and not just silly.

I don't think it's their purpose to be deeply serious, is it, I mean in the traditional sense?

Not ever as far as I can tell, no, so -- I should have been clear, sorry -- I disagree with Ray, whom I thought you agreed with, that the Trocs have shown men can perform well on point. Technical achievement aside, they can camp it up well on point, that all. But campy was good enough for me, at least for the Swan Lake (and Dying Swan) spoofs.



#14 Ray

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Posted 06 August 2010 - 07:00 AM

Believe me, I don't try to answer 'gender distinction' questions, kfw. It just doesn't pay off :angel_not:

I don't find it beautiful personally, but campy is probably sufficient at some level. I like lots of campy things that I certainly don't consider (or expect) to be beautiful in a nobler sense. I admit I've seen little of the Trocs anyway, though, just the Swan Lake stuff, I think, and I don't care for that. I guess I might like them in some overtly campy new thing, if it was clever. I don't think it's their purpose to be deeply serious, is it, I mean in the traditional sense?

IN any case, they won't answer the problems of AM's accusations of sexism by their impending achievements. :helpsmilie:


Points (haha) well taken. But despite what the Trocs' overall mission might be (i.e., to elicit laughter), I know--in line with Cargill's larger claim--that some of the dancers take their (point)work quite seriously.

#15 kfw

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Posted 06 August 2010 - 07:26 AM

I know that is is off the topic, but I just wanted to say that yes, the Trocs do have their serious side, funny though their productions are. I did an interview with the Russian stager Elena Kunakova, who had worked with them staging some of their OTT Russian productions, and she said they were wonderful to work with because they took style very seriously, and really wanted to get the distinctions right. Which is one reason, I think, that their spoofs are so funny, and not just silly.

"Which is one reason, I think, that their spoofs are so funny, and not just silly." Great point (ouch), thanks. I was not surprised to read, before I saw them, that they care deeply about style, and that made their performance touching as well as amusing.

Rereading the Macaulay article, the following sentence strikes me as odd:

The pure-dance sections, which provide a release from the acting and mime portions, slow down the narrative, putting a story ballet on pause for long periods.


At the risk of being persnickety, they may put the plot on pause, but not every part of a story has to advance the narrative. Pure dances set pieces like the Garland Dance in Sleeping Beauty and the Peasant pas de Deux in Giselle enrich it by providing context.


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