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Is Ballet Over - radio debateKaren Kain and Jennifer Homans


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#1 innopac

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Posted 21 October 2010 - 12:06 PM

The alert to this was posted on BT4D...

Radio Program

"The National Ballet's Karen Kain debated former dancer and current New Republic dance critic Jennifer Homans on that question this morning on Q. Jennifer Homans says ballet is an art in steep decline, and today's artists just haven't lived up to ballet's legacy. Karen Kain deeply disagrees. You can have a listen to that below -- and let us know what you think. Is ballet over for you the audience? Do you think ballet is too idealistic for our cynical times? Or is it exactly what we need?"

#2 Helene

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Posted 21 October 2010 - 12:39 PM

Here is a link to the excerpt from Homans' new book, "Apollo's Angels" which was published in "The New Republic":

Is Ballet Over?

and listed in 13 October Links, thanks to a heads up from Kathleen O'Connell.

Homans writes,

Even Balanchine is only partially representedóhe created more than four hundred workds, of which only a fraction remain today. None of this is really surprising: dances have always had a short half-life. The gaps are part of the tradition too.


What is not surprising is that dances have a short half-life because the majority don't have a score like music does and the lost scores of a student Bizet, for example, don't exist for the 21 ballets Balanchine choreographed for the Young Ballet, nearly 5% of Balanchine's output. That doesn't count the 35 or so dances he created for resorts, cabarets, and commissions he created before he had a company of his own or the 18 more in the second 200+ works he created (~ on eighth of his output). Presumably the work he did for 5 films and 7 TV shows are preserved in some form, if not generally available, but for the works he did for musical comedy (16, almost 4%), incidental divertissements for plays, primarily the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford (10, 2%), and especially the operas -- 112, or 26%, of which only one directly spawned a ballet ("Orfeo ed Euridice"/"Chaconne") and two indirectly may have influenced another ("Faust"/"Walpurgisnacht", "Don Carlos"/"Ballo della Regina") -- were in forms never intended to be repeated or revived.

Looking at the ballets, and removing the stagings and small alterations and the re-workings, about half of the (somewhat) final versions are preserved and in the active repertoire.

#3 Quiggin

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Posted 21 October 2010 - 11:19 PM

Helene:

... don't exist for the 21 ballets Balanchine choreographed for the Young Ballet, nearly 5% of Balanchine's output


Young Ballet would be a great key to Balanchine's subsequent work ... often ascribed solely to American influences, jazz, westerns, etc.

JH:

That we make ourselves better than we are - that's the idea behind ballet.


That strikes me as false and pessimsitic and darkly religious - rather you might say we make ourselves into what we naturally are.

Art reflects the society it comes out of, even ballet. Petipa ballets existed as a sort of odd repression or contradiction to the unrest outside, of the revolution to come. Diaghielev rode the waves of that revolution as manifested in the arts of Acmism, Cubo Futurism, etc. Balanchine was a part of the high modernist that followed - the anxieties of the cold war transmuted into art, such as the Four Temperaments and Agon.

We live in very conservative time - without wit (who could imagine making a Mozartiana today?) or gravity - only a sort of preemptive self-irony. And how can new art come of that?

The fact that opera has had a revival of interest - as JH mentioned - would be an interesting point of investigation, how it relates to the winded world we live in - and how our time relates to the mid-19th century when they were created.

#4 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 22 October 2010 - 06:45 AM

I haven't had a chance to listen to the interview yet, but a couple of words of warning about the essay:

1) The print version I downloaded is studded with an unconscionable number of typos; it reads like a flawed transcript of dictated text. And it's not just the occasional "on" where an "of" should be. Example: "Ashton mounted Swan Lake so beautifully because he was at once emerged [sic] in Russian classicism and free from its orthodoxies." I assume Homans wrote "immersed," not "emerged." Let's hope that Random House has better copy editors than The New Republic.

2) The essay is the epilogue to a long book; it reads like a summing up rather than a robustly argued thesis. I found myself bristling at a number of points in the essay, not because I necessarily disagreed with Homans, but because she seemed to be indulging in hyperbole, sweeping generalities, and straw-man arguments. Then it occurred to me that this may simply be a function of the essay's being an excerpt that can't really stand alone. Frankly, I think it reads like the opening chapter of a different book -- i.e., a book that's not a history of ballet, but something else altogether: an analysis of the transition (I refuse to say decline) from artistic modernism to what came next. Gabriel Josipovici's recent book What Ever Happened to Modernism? is an example from contemporary literary criticism.

3) There are moments when she appears to be projecting her theses on to what she sees rather than letting what she sees generate her thesis. Example:

For performers, things are no easier. Committed and well-trained dancers are still in good supply, but very few are exciting or interesting enough to draw or hold an audience. Technically conservative, their dancing is opaque and flat, emotionally dimmed. And although many can perform astonishing stunts, the overall level of technique has fallen. Today's dancers are more brittle and unsubtle, with fewer half-tones than their predecessors. Uncertainty and doubt have crept in. Many of today's dancers, for example, have a revealing habit: they attack steps with apparent convictionóbut then at the height of the step they shift or adjust, almost imperceptibly, as if they were not quite at ease with its statement. This is so commonplace that we hardly notice. But we should: these adjustments are a kind of fudging, a way of taking distance and not quite committing (literally) to a firm stand. With the best of intentions, the dancer thus undercuts her own performance. There are, to be sure, dancers whose larger vision and more sophisticated technique set them apartóDiana Vishneva (Kirov/Maryinksy), Angel Corella (American Ballet Theatre), or Alina Cojocaru (Royal Ballet)óbut too often they waste their talent in mediocre new works or plow their energies into reviving the old. [emphasis mine]


As much as I'd like to defer to Homans' expertise (she's a trained dancer; I'm not) I think I'd need to go to the tape -- lots of tape -- before I could accept this analysis. I can't even visualize what she's talking about. I hope the book provides more by way of example and explication.

All that being said, it's an interesting essay -- and there were certainly points that had me nodding in agreement. I'd love to hear what other BTers think about it.

#5 GNicholls

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Posted 22 October 2010 - 07:55 PM

A little context -- as a long-time CBC listener let me say this to Americans and the international community who may not be aware: it is really CBC Radio far more than ballet that is in decline! The current CBC motto is, "Let there be lite:" expect nothing insightful in the cultural sphere that compares to BBC or NPR programming, or even to the CBC of a decade ago. After CBC Radio Two took the axe to classical music a couple of years ago, confining it to a 10am-3pm slot of single movements and bon-bons interspersed with perky chit-chat and directed to its "aging demographic" (CBC arts administrators love that sort of talk), the Canadian classical music community protested loudly but to no avail. Since then I've regarded CBC arts coverage as a joke. It is sad when you think how CBC TV did so much innovative showcasing of the National Ballet of Canada and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in the 1950's and 60's.

Jian Ghomeshi is a superficial commentator ("and in this corner ..."!). Deborah Honans should have been debating another ballet critic or independent expert, not Karen Kain who as National Ballet artistic director is bound to uphold an institutional perspective. Honans is hardly the first ex-dancer and critic to understandably be disappointed with same-old -- but I turned the interview off when she made to be such a big deal of her own feelings! Since I started in classical music thirty-five years ago, there has been a long procession of critics and professors announcing "the death of classical music," a theme which as Charles Rosen says is as old as classical music itself. It bothers me when you have a bright, enthusiastic student coming from a smaller community to Toronto hoping for inspiration and instead having the art that they love dismissed as obsolete, according to the dictates of some stunningly banal post-modern thesis on, say, Madonna as icon. the book by Deborah Honans will no doubt be worthwhile, but disregard this CBC squib, please.

#6 Drew

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Posted 22 October 2010 - 08:50 PM

Well, oddly enough, I recently started thinking that ballet has gotten a lot more interesting than at any time in the last couple of decades...There is lots to point to but, for me, Namouna on the one hand and Osipova on the other sealed the deal--a stunning and wildly eccentric new ballet and a heart-poundingly exciting, intense, and unpredictable ballerina. If these are one-offs (Ratmansky never does anything that strange and strangely beautiful again; Osipova becomes a fly-in, fly-out generic 'star'), then I will have been wrong, at least about them, but I think there is good reason to think these are not one-offs and in the meanwhile the overall standard of dancing in at least two top companies I have seen recently (Bolshoi and NYCB) seems pretty smashing. Of course, I write as an amateur and can't offer the kind of technical analysis cited above, but while this or that company may be in decline, I have hopes 'Ballet'--that is, ballet at its best, which is (forgive me) the only kind that matters, is looking up...

#7 Mel Johnson

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Posted 23 October 2010 - 02:50 AM

Every decade or so, this topic comes up somewhere or other. It's always been followed within a couple years by a BIG epiphany coming from a totally unexpected direction.

#8 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 23 October 2010 - 08:39 AM

Every decade or so, this topic comes up somewhere or other. It's always been followed within a couple years by a BIG epiphany coming from a totally unexpected direction.


"BIG ephiphany..." :D

#9 papeetepatrick

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Posted 23 October 2010 - 09:18 AM

I think that may be the pattern in all the arts, some kind of epiphany, as I described 'In the Heights' within the seemingly 'dead world' (or maybe 'impotent' is more what it is, except for the cash cows) of the Broadway musical. So that the 'every ten years' thing has a dark side to it as well as a hopeful one. There's no longer a strong tradition in any of these traditional arts in terms of newly created works compared to past periods (or there isn't now, and with media and technology not at all threatened, no, not even by nuclear holocaust, the knowledge is already there, then we're not going to go back to any neo-past periods except very briefly; sometimes shoppers 'go back' to brick-and-mortar shopping, but it doesn't stop the climb of online shopping except the speed of it), and there are definitely no producers of dance like Graham and Balanchine, opera composers like Verdi and Wagner, or even musical comedy as with Rodgers or Gershwin or Jule Styne or Harold Arlen.

This is okay, it's what we've got. There will be the performance tradition continuing, and that even has expanded, with regional companies having propagated all over the country and the world, and great technical dancers like Osipova and Vishneva and Gomes and Hallberg forming such a glut of superlative brilliance that people are even worried that they 'might get bored' by too much exposure to 'too few great guest ballerinas' at ABT: Worry about NYCB, they have very few guest dancers, I think I once saw Corella there, and I never know Aurelie Dupont was there till after the fact, it seems; but that's beside the main point . But anyway, that's not bad on the performance end. But we do live in a world in which the 'end of history' may be partly a false assumption; on the other hand, people weren't even talking about the end of history until Fukuyama coined the phrase. Now's there's even a glassware store on Hudson Street called that.

But as a 'living force', in which people are looking forward to the next season as a 'big new thing to watch for', I don't see it as happening ever again. All the more reason why the epiphanies really do seem all the more startling and surprising and stunning--but the very sparseness of 'genius' in the older sense is something we've gotten used to, because it's just that way (maybe some will say film hasn't exhausted itself to quite this degree), and this sparseness will have a trace of nostalgia to it, no matter how great the new mutation, just due to the fact that it IS so rare. It doesn't matter whether this is 'bad' or 'good', but just that it's probably inevitable.

We live in very conservative time - without wit (who could imagine making a Mozartiana today?) or gravity - only a sort of preemptive self-irony. And how can new art come of that?


Without wit or gravity? You don't think that can be disagreed with? That can be disagreed with. It does remind me of some of Macaulay's pronouncements, though, although I doubt that you mean that a 'Mozartiana' emerging or not will determine whether we have only 'a sort of pre-emptive self-irony'.

The fact that opera has had a revival of interest - as JH mentioned - would be an interesting point of investigation, how it relates to the winded world we live in - and how our time relates to the mid-19th century when they were created.


What do you mean by 'winded world'?

#10 Quiggin

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Posted 23 October 2010 - 04:02 PM

papeetepatrick:

What do you mean by 'winded world'? ... Without wit or gravity? You don't think that can be disagreed with?


Apologies for trying to string too many vague impressions together.

I was thinking of Cioran's "Notes on a Winded Civilization" which I read a long time ago. But leaving that out, I was interested in hearing why opera seems to be on the upswing, with interesting productions of the Makropulous Case, La Grande Macabre and the 19th c repertoire of course, and how opera seems to speak to our time more than ballet does ... It seemed to be a good side topic here.

The sort of light wit that informs the variations in Mozartiana, Pas de Dix, the first movement of Symphony in C seems to be in short supply these days. It seems difficult for dancers to draw on examples in their own experiences in order to bring some of these ballets over to the audience with appropriate quick and free brilliance. The Cubans certainly do it, but they're still drawing on sources and lines of teaching and cultural experiences which barely exist elsewhere.

A sort self-irony seems to prevail in San Francisco and on the internet (which might be the same place) in choice of avators or on comments pages. It's different that the light self-mockery you used to see in old fashioned correspondence - for example, in Chekhov's or Elizabeth Bishop's letters. It is limiting, and seems to me pre-emptive, self-protective and self-censoring.

#11 dirac

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Posted 23 October 2010 - 04:20 PM

Well, oddly enough, I recently started thinking that ballet has gotten a lot more interesting than at any time in the last couple of decades...There is lots to point to but, for me, Namouna on the one hand and Osipova on the other sealed the deal--a stunning and wildly eccentric new ballet and a heart-poundingly exciting, intense, and unpredictable ballerina. If these are one-offs (Ratmansky never does anything that strange and strangely beautiful again; Osipova becomes a fly-in, fly-out generic 'star'), then I will have been wrong, at least about them, but I think there is good reason to think these are not one-offs and in the meanwhile the overall standard of dancing in at least two top companies I have seen recently (Bolshoi and NYCB) seems pretty smashing. Of course, I write as an amateur and can't offer the kind of technical analysis cited above, but while this or that company may be in decline, I have hopes 'Ballet'--that is, ballet at its best, which is (forgive me) the only kind that matters, is looking up...


I'm inclined to agree. Odd that Homans is raising these familiar complaints at a time when things seem to be improving. Apparently these gloomy sentiments conclude a book that is a history of ballet, so I hope naive readers don't take it too literally.

#12 papeetepatrick

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Posted 23 October 2010 - 04:51 PM

A sort self-irony seems to prevail in San Francisco and on the internet (which might be the same place) in choice of avators or on comments pages. It's different that the light self-mockery you used to see in old fashioned correspondence - for example, in Chekhov's or Elizabeth Bishop's letters. It is limiting, and seems to me pre-emptive, self-protective and self-censoring.


I think what you are reacting to is that there is too much irony everywhere, and it is sickening and sometimes even seems that one will be suffocated by it. I probably feel much the same, so that when I do find something that has real wit and direct affection, etc., (as in that B'way show I saw last week) I myself become very defensive about those very 'epiphanies' that Mel first referenced on this thread, wanting to hold onto them, since I've found that 'ah, not ONLY irony is alive'. I think it's more 'television and the internet' than particular cities, although I know San Francisco is supposed to be a world of its own.

#13 papeetepatrick

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Posted 24 October 2010 - 08:45 AM

http://www.nytimes.c...nce/01gala.html

http://thefastertime...second-thought/

http://www.nytimes.c...ce/20music.html

Drew--I just caught up a bit on 'Namouna', which your remarks about have interested me. These reviews (even Macaulay's, which is less impressed) all made it sound like something I'd very much like to see, and might agree with your assessment of its importance. otoh, if it's a 'one-off', I don't care so much (I hope not, but one is more than most, you know). I doubt you have to worry that Osipova will be just another 'generic star', because there are plenty of others dancing now who go way beyond that, but this matter of a new ballet that does sound as interesting as 'Namouna' sounds right up my alley of the kind of thing that always gives me hope that a fine piece sometimes springs up out of nowhere or unexpectedly (it would be the latter in Mr. Ratmansky's case, even if it's his masterpiece).

I did a search here at BT and found little, but it was probably written about in the spring season reviews. Would still like to hear more about your impressions of the ballet, as it sounds as though you think it is not just 'good for our time', but rather comparable to the works of those departed masters we still lament.

#14 Drew

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Posted 24 October 2010 - 01:43 PM

papeetepatrick: the critic whose writings most reflect my view of Namouna is Roslyn Sulcas.

I'm worried I'm off topic, but will try to answer your question about my impressions of the ballet. I note I saw it in the fall when it had been cut a bit since the premier. I would not want it cut any more!

I do find Namouna hard to describe: the main thing that strikes me is that it's both beautiful and very eccentric. It remains strongly in my memory and having it seen it twice, I would love to see it again. (For me, a tiny flaw is that the variations for Whelan, the ballet's leading lady, are less consistently inspired than those for the other ballerinas until the final pas de deux--I believe Deborah Jowitt said something similar.)

As you know from the reviews, it's a quest romance by a lad in a sailor suit, who encounters three ballerinas and finally ends up with one. Taking such a familiar structure, it also has a number of riffs on older ballets a few of which I recognized. But the world of the lad's journey still looks like no other ballet world I have seen. It has a dream-like logic--nonsense that somehow generates all kinds of meaning.

As others have said the costumes, hair pieces, and swim caps suggest a seaside world in the 1920's, but the effect is not, as I had expected, warmed up Diaghilev, but a strange sense of freedom: think of the way one's body feels lighter and stretchier in the water, so you become a different person. And yet the original corps in yellow dresses and identical 'bob' wigs, sets a more fateful framework in which individual emotion is in delicate tension with group motion from the opening of the ballet. When they enter later with tiny cymbals beating rhythmically to the music, they seem to imply that there is a kind of law or fate to this world even at its most unpredictable and festive.

Anyway, it's hard to describe.

By the by, this is the first ballet in which I have seen Mearns give a performance in which I could see the dancer that everyone is raving about--she looks utterly powerful, sensual, and wild, even as her movement quality remains lush, contained, and clean. It's a great performance.

To return closer to topic: if one were to place Mearns' performance next to any performance of the dance 'boom' that I can remember, I don't think it would lose its luster. And today (more, I think, than might have been the case a decade ago) there is a larger context for the quality of this performance: the premier of a new ballet, by a choreographer who is continuing to work with major companies, other exciting principal performers in the same ballet company, on the same program etc. etc. That's why ballet feels more interesting to me now. The issue--as I believe Homans suggests as well though drawing different conclusions--is not this or that performance but a context of larger growth and excitement. I think that may be starting to happen. At least I'm hopeful...

#15 papeetepatrick

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Posted 24 October 2010 - 02:59 PM

I do find Namouna hard to describe: the main thing that strikes me is that it's both beautiful and very eccentric. It remains strongly in my memory ...

As you know from the reviews, it's a quest romance by a lad in a sailor suit, who encounters three ballerinas and finally ends up with one. Taking such a familiar structure, it also has a number of riffs on older ballets a few of which I recognized. But the world of the lad's journey still looks like no other ballet world I have seen. It has a dream-like logic--nonsense that somehow generates all kinds of meaning.

As others have said the costumes, hair pieces, and swim caps suggest a seaside world in the 1920's, but the effect is not, as I had expected, warmed up Diaghilev, but a strange sense of freedom: think of the way one's body feels lighter and stretchier in the water, so you become a different person.


Drew, thank you so much for taking the time, as I am quite sure now I will try to see it next spring (I just checked the schedules, and it's not going to be done as far as scheduling has been completed, that being Jan., 2011.) That's beautifully written as well as evocative enough for me to understand something of what you mean by that 'freedom' and 'dreamlike logic' even if I'll change my mind when I see the actual production. The 'way one's body feels lighter and stretchier in the water' actually reminded me of Proust's long pages about the waves 'like custard' at Balbec (and I had had that same image at the ocean just before reading that passage)--not that Proust has anything to do with 'a sailor and some girls' kind of story, of course, which is more theatrical or cinematic. I guess this is the clincher:

But the world of the lad's journey still looks like no other ballet world I have seen.


I thought you meant that primarily, and that is the kind of thing I'm looking for in all the Arts--at least that sometimes they must be able to achieve a 'world' that is new. This would be the thing that give the most 'hope' to me in your idea that ballet may be on the verge of something that creates 'larger growth and excitement', and perhaps this ballet is a prelude (or one of them) to that. That IS what we used to see from Graham and Balanchine, and we're not seeing this that often, something so singular that you can't miss it (btw, it seemed to me that even Macaulay had not been quite able to miss it, no matter how much he kept trying to say 'trivial'.) And finding 'a ballet world like no other' is also not retrograde, that is what was always valuable found to be discoverable in a new age. And this for me is a kind of 'gold standard' of what must be found in opera, theater, music, literature, all of the arts, if they are really to have life that is more than just re-hashing (no matter how well) the old things of another age.

It has a dream-like logic--nonsense that somehow generates all kinds of meaning.

I'll have to wait to see it before I really know what you mean by that, but I'm quite excited all the same. I got the feeling that it was already generating significant interest, and that I can be confident we'll see it again in the spring season (if not in February even, that's not up yet.)


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