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Ballet: Star system vs. "faceless/nameless"...?


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#1 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 29 October 2010 - 08:40 AM

From the MCB Forum, a discussion that I believe deserves a thread of its own...

Enjoy!


Sadly, Mr. Villella, who has so many virtues, persists in his hideous practice of refusing
to allow an audience ever to know who is dancing even a week in advance--or to plan to see a specific dancer. This is invidious and very bad for box office besides. Even NYCB under Balanchine, who was extremely anti-'star', announced casting a week in advance!


I'm glad I'm not the only one who hates this frustrating, unnerving practice... :angry2:


I'll agree with the "virtues" point in these remarks - Villella has a lot to be proud of, and we have a lot to be thankful for - and there may be reasons not obvious to us why he doesn't announce casting - it may have something to do with company morale or interest or spirit. Running a company is also about developing and nurturing dancers as well as pleasing us.

As to Balanchine's practice, I think he experimented with that, along with everything else, even the way the company was listed in the program: For a time, there was one alphabetical list, which gave a corps girl I talked with a few times a feeling that she just couldn't win! (Her last name began with "Z.")

My memory is that for a time, NYCB casting was listed on sheets glued to the north wall of the theatre lobby, on both sides of the doors, but I don't think that was the case early in my days there, which began in 1973.


Agree entirely about the strangeness of the refusal to issue cast lists ahead of time. I've wanted to ask a question about this for a long time at one of EV's pre-performance talks.

I suspect that the answer will have to do with the possibility of cast changes, though this doesn't seem to deter a company of similar size and rep, Pacific Northwest.

Another reason (which no one will admit) is that the audiences in south Florida, especially the subscription audiences, are probably perceived as not interested in casting. This may be true of the majority, who just go to "the ballet" or who follow brand names like Swan Lake, Jewels, Tharp, or Balanchine. But many audience members at the Kravis Center at least are or have been long-time NYCB subscribers, and I've had the chance to quite a number who go back with NYCB even longer than I do.


Except I don't really think it's strange that he doesn't announce casting - it's just his way, for reasons not clear to us. Interesting what you and jsmu say about box office - pardon my skepticism, I'm not saying either of you are wrong or anything, but I just wonder what your remarks are based on. I'm keen to understand what brings different people in, and I hesitate to speculate about this, but my little knowledge, based on what I hear (and overhear) when in the theatre, among other interesting but inadequate sources, doesn't go far.

For instance, the expensively-dressed older lady next to me one evening in Fort Lauderdale who was eager to tell me, without prompting, what she like and disliked - especially disliked - as we waited for the program to begin: "Oh, and Stravinsky. I don't like Stravinsky." Knowing Apollo was the first ballet on the program, I thought, This is going to be interesting. After Apollo, she was clapping enthusiastically, and I asked her, "How was it?" "Loved it!" she said. "And the music?" I asked. "Loved everything about it!" She went on clapping nearly as long as I did.

So while some of the old NYCB hands you know in West Palm Beach may actually know what they're talking about, bart, I frankly don't know what to make of it sometimes, and in this connection I don't think marketers' practice of "branding" is at all helpful, furthering as I think it does this kind of sloppy thinking.


I understand all of the above jack...but along with all those reasons, another immediate result of the practice is the inability to really develop a fan base on determined dancers...and hence the excitement that this type of artistic rivalries usually generates.


Aha! Yeah, I think you have a point there!


Jack, actually, NYCB has ALWAYS listed casting at least a week in advance, sometimes more--Balanchine never , so far as I know from empirical experience and a great deal of reading, deprived audiences entirely of advance knowledge of who was dancing. (yes, he did toy with alphabetical listings, prompting the immortal Tallchief remark upon her resignation in 1965, lol) Too smart. People want to see Patty and Eddie, Suzanne, Allegra, Gelsey and Helgi, Mikhail, Erik, Maria, Wendy--yes, Wendy-- etc, and MCB would do well to attempt to cultivate more of this sort of awareness on the part of its audiences. Quite true that they get a LOT of NYCB stalwart/fanatics (Bart and yours truly, among others) and they should be making people want to see Deanna Seay (oh, wait, she's gone... :wallbash: ) or Catoya or J. Delgado, and getting the point across that these ballerinas' dancing is as brilliant and marvelous as that taking place anywhere in the country--indeed, more so in most cases.


[size="4"]So:

What do you all think...?

Does this situation reflects your home-based company...?

Has this practice proved to be succesful...?[/size]

#2 abatt

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Posted 29 October 2010 - 09:14 AM

My history with ABT only goes back to the mid to late 1990s. Did ABT always announce lead casts months in advance, or is that a recent phenomenon? I think ABT's ability to sell subscriptiions would be severely impacted without advance notice of casting to potential subscribers. Personally, I choose my subscription series based on the casting. (I know some people are tied to a particular great seat that they don't want to give up, so they renew the same subscription every year.)

I think advanced casting info is much more important to my decision making process when I'm seeing a full length ballet. Providing casting info only a week before is more acceptable to me in the context of a mixed rep program, in which many principals will perform during the course of one evening.

#3 Mel Johnson

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Posted 29 October 2010 - 09:32 AM

Robert Joffrey used the unranked company roster as a selling point, leading to the famous "No-star, all-star" locution. In point of fact, we couldn't be sure who would still be unhurt until about a week before the show. And sometimes, that was a crapshoot!

#4 carbro

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Posted 29 October 2010 - 09:46 AM

ABT, at least in my experience (going back to the mid-1970s), always published casts months in advance, in its subscription brochure. Also, I remember going with my aunt and cousin when my cousin went to pick up ballet tickets at City Center -- obviously before its 1964 move to Lincoln Center -- and my cousin returning excitedly and announcing, "Tallchief's dancing!" So there must have been some notice, either posted in the lobby or (less likely) from the person at the box office.

I don't understand MCB's refusal to announce casts. It is less understandable now that they have added full-lengths to their rep. I agree with abatt. It's one thing if you have a mixed bill, because we get at least three lead couples (unless, of course, one or more is a true ensemble ballet), but if you are selling a Giselle or Don Q, no one wants to spend two hours with dancers they don't care for. And no one who bought tickets for Saturday night wants to read in the paper that their favorites danced on Friday. For full-lengths, the ticket buyers deserve to know at least who the principals will be.

#5 California

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Posted 29 October 2010 - 10:06 AM

ABT, at least in my experience (going back to the mid-1970s), always published casts months in advance, in its subscription brochure.


My memory might be getting foggy with age, but in the height of the mid-70s ballet boom (Baryshnikov, Kirkland, Makarova), ABT typically sold out at the Kennedy Center before there were any casting announcements. You had to psyc out when Baryshnikov was likely to appear and buy tickets before anything was announced. E.g., he was the only one who did Push Comes to Shove, so that was a safe bet, and it was also a safe bet he would not perform at both evening and matinee on the weekend. I do remember in the early 80s that there was a late announcement that Baryshnikov would be partnering Makarova in Swan Lake, and I was able to rush over to the ticket office that day and still get tickets for their performances. But nobody had expected him to perform in Swan Lake, so that might explain it. For his Don Quixote world premiere in March 1978, I believe that sold out before we knew any casting, although opening night (which was also a high-priced gala) was a safe bet, of course.

I don't know what the situation was with New York subscribers in that era, but I do remember gambling on single tickets for trips to New York, because so much seemed to be selling out before casting was announced.

#6 Quiggin

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Posted 29 October 2010 - 10:14 AM

I'd probaby go to any Miami City Ballet casting combination - in my mind they have such a strong company style and the ability to dance Balanchine with the appropriate accents, so that's what I'd go to see them for. San Francisco Ballet seems to be several companies in one with different styles so I definitely look at the casting.

Isn't Ballet Talk itself based on the phone tree of last minute casting changes at at City Ballet?

#7 papeetepatrick

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Posted 29 October 2010 - 11:36 AM

Not announcing casting never was anything to me except something at NYCB that Balanchine could pull off and that proved his point--to take the ballet seriously enough not to require having to know who was dancing. I remember the period well, but I always bought tickets only when the casting was finally announced--at least a week or two before the performance--knowing full well that I wanted to know. There was still some mystery in 'having to wait to know', but I don't see any point in it anywhere anymore. If someone has to cancel because of injury, then that's the case with anything and anybody anywhere. I think Villella's practice sounds a bit wishful, although I don't know the territory.

People always wanted to see specific dancers even when there was a stern 'no-star' attitude. It probably worked for some people who took it as a kind of religion, but I thought it created a mystique during that one period of NYCB, although I never paid any attention to it in a practical sesne at all even then, it just made me have to wait longer to get tickets to see who I wanted to. Which means, of course, that there was an 'anti-star' attitude only to a certain extent; not to mention, that even when it was at its most operative, in the 60s,70s, and early 80s at NYCB, it was only meaningful in a real way to some people, as well as the fact that it never concealed even for a second that fact that NYCB was a company FULL of stars--although I will definitely concede that that it made NYCB's stars seems like 'different kinds of stars'. It was just affordable then, and somewhat interesting. By now, it seems nostalgic in a rather empty way, unless there's some practical consideration.

I don't remember ABT ever doing it, and it would be ridiculous if they did. If they did, I'd never buy a ticket, and the recent thread on the 2011 spring season is all about people wanting to see Osipova this, Vishneva that, Hallberg this, Corella not dancing too much, etc.

As for box office, there can really be little argument: It could only enhance sales (or it certainly could not lower them), because even if balletgoers were still primarily going for 'Swan Lake', 'Giselle' or 'Jewels', there would be still more going to see certain dancers. There would be no balletgoers going for the pure excitement of having no idea who they'd be seeing (or this demographic would be so negligible as to be invisible.) Maybe Villella can afford to do this, though, even though it seems, frankly, inconsiderate, since it may well cause inconvenience. It doesn't seem out of character, reminding me of how you can see almost nothing of his own dancing on tape or video, due to his restriction.

Isn't Ballet Talk itself based on the phone tree of last minute casting changes at at City Ballet?


BT is not sufficient by itself to cover nearly all balletgoers, as far as I know. And casting changes at NYCB would be no different from any other company, for the most past, unless there is some tradition of changing them much more frequently. In any case, I think the matter was more 'whether casts are announced or not', not changes. I don't think 'late announcement' ever had anything to do with 'allowing for quick casting changes', if that was ever a practice (maybe it was, I don't know. Even so, it seems like a practice that ought to be abandoned across-the-board. I can't see a single advantage to it.)

#8 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 29 October 2010 - 11:51 AM

I don't remember ABT ever doing it, and it would be ridiculous if they did. If they did, I'd never buy a single ticket, and the recent thread on the 2011 spring season is all about people wanting to see Osipova this, Vishneva that, Hallberg this, Corella not dancing too much, etc.



Not to mention the willingness of some balletgoers to jump on a plane and travel to another state-(or even to another country)-to see this or that dancer...
I've done it,and will keep doing it...(next, Vishneva's Giselle... :clapping: ), and I suspect I'm not an isolated case here...

#9 Helene

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Posted 29 October 2010 - 12:55 PM

Isn't Ballet Talk itself based on the phone tree of last minute casting changes at at City Ballet?

It was "Ballet Alert", the original name of this site :)

Re: Maria Tallchief's comment, I believe it was that she retired because while she didn't mind being listed alphabetically, she minded being treated alphabetically.

When it came to my old home companies -- PNB and NYCB, both rep companies -- whom I saw in multiple performances, I wanted to know the casting to see the maximum number of casts and combinations, and, very, very rarely, to avoid a given dancer. Since moving from Seattle, I have to choose a weekend, although I'm hoping for both "Giselle" weekends. So far, having dropped the opening Thursday performance, on the first weekend, the Friday (opening night) and Saturday night have een cast identically or similarly, with a different cast for the matinee.

I rarely saw ABT, even when I lived in NYC, but when I do, the dancers, not the rep is usually the draw, unless they are reviving their heritage rep, like Tudor.

I do travel to see other companies. On the whole, casting makes a big difference for the full-lengths: if I travel to California to see the Mariinsky, I don't want to spend plane + hotel + tickets + vacation time to see Somova, for example. On the other hand, unless there's a dancer I've seen and loved, like Alexandrova, there's a good chance I'd be just as happy to see a dancer I've never seen before, and if I had to choose two of three nights, would skip a duplicate cast or try to see two new dancers.

It's different for rep companies, where the rep is the draw. I'm lucky that since Ballet Arizona generally has one or two casts for each ballet, if there are two casts, each will perform once on Saturday, and I know I'll see both, which is my aim. For SFB, I might choose between weekends to see a specific dancer in a full-length, but on the whole, it's rep that is the deciding point, and I know I'll see a wide range of dancers, which for me is ideal. If I were going to see Miami City Ballet, it would be about the rep and seeing as many of the dancers that are described in such detail on these threads.

Ballet Arizona doesn't distinguish by rank in the program, apart from noting apprentices and trainees. On the website, the dancers are listed in alpha order by first name. Rank is disclosed publicly in newspaper articles about dancers, and local newspapers reporting on local dancers made good tend to give dancers promotions, just like sports writers who know little about figure skating will interview a skater or team and suddenly they are/were Olympic and/or World Champions. Louisville Ballet changed to an alpha system this year.

I have no problem with people who buy tickets based on casting. For people who have a subscription or buy a single ticket and love Ariana Lallone or Carrie Imler or Carla Korbes, and are pleased as punch to open up their program to find their favorite cast in the lead role, I understand: I still remember my Happy Dance whenever I saw Paul Gibson cast. What bothers me are the people who don't know the company or dancers, and they cross-reference the rankings and are either ecstatic that the dancer is a Principal Dancer, or they're grumpy and disappointed that the dancer is a Soloist, or, Heaven Forbid, a member of the corps. Somova is a Principal Dancer. Obratzova and Kondaurova are not. 'Nuff said.

#10 bart

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Posted 29 October 2010 - 04:06 PM

I tend to agree with carbro:

if you are selling a Giselle or Don Q, no one wants to spend two hours with dancers they don't care for. And no one who bought tickets for Saturday night wants to read in the paper that their favorites danced on Friday. For full-lengths, the ticket buyers deserve to know at least who the principals will be.

As someone who grew up with Balanchine, I regret that there was not more information available as to who was dancing. But ... I am glad that I did not have the temptation to limit myself by watching only those dancers who I thought (or had been told) were ideal in any given role.

That said, I am having difficulty relating to the choice of "star system" versus "faceless/nameless."

Stars, yes, when appropriate. A "star system" is a different beast, which can be exciting but can also hobble a company and limit its creativity. Since a star system is, essentially, a branding operation, it can also make one less observant as an audience member and less willing to learn. Often the most interesting dancers on the stage are not the principals. And then there are those performances in which one looks closely at a lead dancer you would not have selected for a role, finding qualities you did not know were there.

As to the alternative -- "Faceless/nameless" -- why do I have the image of dancers with paper bags over their heads? :helpsmilie: Is anyone at a major ballet company actually advocating "faceless/nameless"?

Most ballet companies will find themselves working somewhere in between these two extremes. All dancers deserve to be listed AND identified by role in a cast list. That is the absolute minimum. MCB's unwillingness to publish cast lists in advance is, I suspect, a vestige of Edward Villella's respect for Balanchine's fear of cults of personality, for dancers anyway. :wink:

At the Kravis Center, MCB includes cast lists in every program. The names of every dancer is arranged in such a way that it is possible to figure out even who the corps people are in different sections of a work. I appreciate that, but I'd appreciate it even more if some sort of casting were made available IN ADVANCE. This would not benefit subscribers, but would be helpful to those of us buying extra tickets, or thinking of traveling to another nearby city for additional performances.

#11 jsmu

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Posted 29 October 2010 - 05:02 PM

Yes. Ballet Alert was a hilarious New Yorker article by Arlene Croce in the late Seventies. The parody is so dry and so straight that many people apparently took it seriously!

Tallchief indeed said exactly that...

Just imagining blowing plane + hotel + tickets and getting Somova... :smilie_mondieu: !!!!!!!!!!

I think that ABT publishes casts ages in advance for exactly the reasons mentioned by many posters here: ABT, except in rare cases like their all-Balanchine evening or Tudor revivals, is attended for the stars, not for the rep. That's the way Lucia Chase designed and ran the company and it has never changed. This is why it is imperative they import Vishnevas and Osipovas, etc.

Helene, as one who loves Lallone, Imler, AND Korbes, I am of course delighted to see any of their names in the program, surprise or not. However, were I deciding whether or not to attend an evening with a ballet or ballets on which I was--shall we say, lukewarm, LOL--the advance knowledge of any of those dancers' presence (or that of Pantastico, whose absence will never be okay--GOD, what a loss, as bad as Loscavio leaving SFB--) would be the deciding factor, period. This--among many other things-- is what MCB is losing out on. There is also the fact that, for example, the unique and irreplaceable Lallone is retiring this season, as the divine Seay retired last season from MCB. I would hate, if trying to see some of Lallone's last dances, to be forced to suffer what I endured to see even one or two of Seay's final performances, which I saw basically through dumb luck and maniacal persistence--all because of Mr. Villella's insane and completely baseless policy re casting.

Amen to the comment re: people who are upset because they are Not Seeing A Principal and who would always rather see Sheezno Fonteyn than Ima Buddinggoddess. However, I don't think having alphabetical casting and no principal listings will solve this problem. Sadly, people love pecking orders and rankings, even in the arts where such things should be viewed as anathemata, and they need to learn about the art form in order to get past this at all. if it requires healthy doses of Diva Rediviva to get them into the house in the first place, well, perhaps that's okay. Nureyev, Makarova, and Baryshnikov by their 'stardom' popularized ballet in a new way, and I prefer even the Cult of Personality to the pure-CHEEZ WHIZ so-called 'marketing' used by many big companies now. Shudder.

#12 ksk04

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Posted 29 October 2010 - 05:04 PM

With the price of tickets who can blame audiences for wanting to known casting up front? I would never pay to sit through a 3 acter with a few of the principals at ABT or the Mariinsky...but for example, with the Corella Ballet, who I am seeing next weekend, I have no idea about the casts and I am not bothered by that in the least. I'm not familiar enough with the company to have a strong opinion so it's kind of refreshing. If the cast lists were posted though, I admit I'd have likely made a different selection to see some faces I know.

If anything more detailed casting seems like it would sell more tickets. If I knew certain dancers were in supporting, yet usually unannounced roles, I'd be more likely to see multiple casts to see some favorites. Similarly, those supporting roles might get me to a lead cast I previously avoided like the plague!!

#13 papeetepatrick

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Posted 29 October 2010 - 05:43 PM

they should be making people want to see Deanna Seay (oh, wait, she's gone... :wallbash: ) or Catoya or J. Delgado, and getting the point across that these ballerinas' dancing is as brilliant and marvelous as that taking place anywhere in the country--indeed, more so in most cases.


THIS is important, vis-a-vis MCB especially. We New Yorkers very easily fall back on our 'centrality' and, even when we begin to look at regional companies and less-glamorous international companies, we still know there's NYCB and ABT and the top companies finally get here, the Kirov in 2008 and POB in 2012, etc. Is the casting at NYCB just like it used to be, only a week or so in advance? If so, even that's useless, as it doesn't have any of the exoticism of the 70s and 80s when Balanchine did this, with the net result of making Suzanne seem like THE ULTIMATE BALLET STAR, on the world's most rarefied pedestal, among other things (that's okay, it was fascinating actually, but that's all over, couldn't work more than once anyway). But we have our own provincialism too, and even if MCB is producing work that is comparable or better, in some cases, than, say, NYCB, we're just not going to know about them the way we should except when they're dancing here, unless we're really following closely.

Now, when I went to see PNB last year at the Joyce, I didn't really go looking for any stars (even knowing about Korbes) so much as I just wanted to see the company. Although the program was an incredible disappointment, I still could tell what the company was capable of. But that's not really enough. In the end, MCB and PNB and some of the others are still called 'regional companies' at least by the nomenclatures, spoken or unspoken, even of BTers, so they are not household words. I wouldn't know of Deanna Seay were I not on BT, but I would definitely know about Ashley Bouder and Diana Vishneva. That's just the way it goes. So these top-quality Balanchine-star-run companies should realize that they are not running the New York City Ballet even if their products may sometimes even be better. And at least Balanchine was promoting HIS ballets against 'too much star cultism', whereas his former stars running companies largely based on his work can't really do that very effectively--they're not at the center in any way that Balanchine himself was, so they might as well realize that people in other parts of the country don't even know what 'anti-star' would be about. As if 'too many big stars' in Seattle or Miami was a serious problem???? Helloooo???? I'm afraid it is not. Therefore, some dancers who are major talents and have star quality ought to be promoted and made more so. There is hardly a worry that they are going to become seriously populated cults.

And as ksk04 and others have said, I'd go to any of these companies without looking to see specific stars, but maybe not continuously: I went to Los Angeles Ballet and PNB just to see these companies, and would do the same for MCB, SFB (both of them), without thinking at first about the particular dancers (which I would never do for ABT or Kirov), but I wouldn't keep doing it. I doubt I'd do it more than once, and if I were a visitor in one of those cities, I wouldn't go to see their companies again, if I'd already seen them in New York, if I didn't know to expect something more special, e.g., if I were in Seattle, I'd definitely want to know something about what I was going to see, demand a Balanchine, and get recommendations, after seeing that unfortunate affair last January.

#14 kfw

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Posted 29 October 2010 - 06:38 PM

Isn't Ballet Talk itself based on the phone tree of last minute casting changes at at City Ballet?

Paging Alexandra, but I think she wrote somewhere (DanceView?) that the original name of this site, Ballet Alert, derives from the Arlene Croce column of the same name on that fictional phone tree which she (and I and may other readers, I'm sure) took to be real.

#15 California

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Posted 29 October 2010 - 07:10 PM

. . . we still know there's . . . POB in 2012, etc.


POB in 2012? Is this just wishful thinking or has something been announced somewhere?


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