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Is NYCB Treading Water?


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#1 abatt

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Posted 12 October 2011 - 10:21 AM

I'm linking an article from the NY Times re the current state of affairs at NYCB. As you will see, the NY Times believes that the company is "treading water."


http://www.nytimes.c...s.html?ref=arts




What do you think? Is NYCB an inert company which is treading water?

I think that many of the ills referenced in the article can be traced to the fact that P. Martins is more interested in putting on new (gimmicky) works instead of focusing on preserving and training a new generation of dancers in the classic great works of the Balanchine/Robbins rep. Imagine how much rehearsal time must have been spent on Ocean's Kingdom and all the other new ballets (mostly worthless) that are trotted out every season and instantly forgotten thereafter. Ironically, P. Martins appears to believe that the new works are preventing inertia at NYCB, and are making NYCB a vibrant, creative company. That valuable time could have been spent on training the ultra talented NYCB dancers in new roles in the great NYCB rep.

#2 atm711

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Posted 12 October 2011 - 11:03 AM

Perhaps if Mr. Macaulay had to plunk down his own money for tickets he would have noticed it sooner. :angel_not:

#3 bart

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Posted 12 October 2011 - 11:22 AM

Good question, abatt. I really hope we hear more of your thoughts on this -- and also hear from others who attend NYCB regularly. Many of us on Ballet Alert have a long history with the company but have moved and can no longer follow it in live performance or at best can do so infrequently. We depend on the reviews and comments of people who, like you, live in the NYC area and can attend performances, often numerous performances.

Macaulay seems particularly critical of programming and casting.

The fall seasons of 2010 and 2011, by contrast, have felt like merely more of the same: leftovers from the spring, supplemented each time by a premiere that generated no special sense of anticipation and proved forgettable. (Last year's was by Benjamin Millepied, a recurrent choreographer whose next City Ballet premiere is in spring.)

A ballet company is forever a work in progress. Wouldn't it make all the difference to give us at least one major revival of a big, full-throttle Balanchine ballet that hasn't been seen in a while? Something to test the prowess and artistry of the company's several remarkable younger principals? Isn't it time for new casting in "Chaconne" and "Mozartiana"? When will "Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2," "Raymonda Variations" or "Harlequinade" return? Will the new production of "Symphony in C" bring new casts as well as new costumes? isn't Mr. Martins too cautious about exposing his best dancers to the highest challenges?


Of course, there is another side to the story, as expressed in the very positive reviews of specific work and individual dancers that I often read on this form. Marvelous performances continue to be performed. Also: I know from reading all NYCB posts over the past 6 or 7 years that there are many Ballet Alert members who do not agree with Macaulay's criticisms or who find them much overstated. This is a point of view that seems to have been underrepresented on Ballet Alert in the past few years. It would be good to hear from that group as well, though possibly some have moved on to other discussion boards to talk about their favorite company.

#4 Jack Reed

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Posted 12 October 2011 - 11:30 AM

(from Washington, DC) This old swimmer would tell you that treading water is better than drowning, which may not be such an inappropriate metaphor, considering the sea of red ink we've read the company is in.

And the rest of Macaulay's remarks seem as well-substantiated as ever - I can't tell for sure, because NYCB doesn't do much for me when I do see it - the last time was 9th June 2010, I think, when Scotch Symphony seemed distantly rendered and Call Me Ben, or more specifically, the resources apparently lavished on its production and preparation - made me angry - What Suzanne Farrell could have done with that, I thought - and I don't go to ballets to get angry, or just to have my expectations of disappointment confirmed, so I don't see NYCB much anymore.

Notice where this is posted from - I still live in Chicago, but this is where I must go now to get what I found was missing from my life around 1970, just before I started those many visits to New York to replenish my spirit watching Balanchine's company, which had stopped touring to Chicago. But those who wonder what I'm talking about needn't even travel this far - if there are still decent seats for her troupe's run at the Joyce Theater next week, you can go there and see what she can do with the slim resources she does get - enough to hire a couple dozen dancers for a dozen weeks a year.

Which brings me back to Macaulay's review. The one part that has me straining a little was his fourth sentence:

But only at City Ballet is the heart of the repertory about dance making music register in space.

He knows what Farrell's company looks like on stage. They certainly make music register in space, so what's he saying here? Ah! I think I've got it! At City Ballet, that's the heart of the repertory; with Farrell's troupe, it's the whole show. As a friend puts it, the music is in their bodies. (I don't even know if my friend knows Bejart's description of Farrell in the Elusive Muse documentary, but Bejart used the same words about her.)

#5 miliosr

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Posted 12 October 2011 - 01:51 PM

Macaulay has identified an effect ("treading water") without identifying its underlying cause. It appears to me that the cause stems from the company not knowing what it wants to be any more (or, to put it more politely, it's trying to be too many things to too many people):

1) NYCB is a heritage company with a responsibility to preserve and present its treasure trove of Balanchine and (to a lesser extent) Robbins classics.

2) But the company is also clinging (fecklessly, in my opinion) to its view of itself as an engine of choreographic innovation (despite a 30-year history of nearly complete failure in this regard) by continuing to commission new works from a flotilla of lackluster choreographers. (Hello Benjamin Millepied!)

3) It also has moved into the crowd-pleasing classics business with Romeo and Juliet and Swan Lake even though the company dancers are not actor-dancers and have no great aptitude in this regard.

4) Finally, you have an oddity like Ocean's Kingdom, which appears to have no discernible point other than to pry dollars out of the hands of aging, sentimental Beatles fans.

That's a lot to process let alone implement successfully. No wonder Macaulay is sensing a "treading water" effect.

#6 Drew

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Posted 12 October 2011 - 09:33 PM

I am editing to note that Macaulay really only argues that the new Fall NYCB seasons have been seasons of treading water--which is not quite the same thing as a global judgment on the company under Martins or even over the last couple of years. However the comments on Macaulay's phrase here on Ballet Talk have broached the issue as a larger one and I'm responding to that response:

Who are the top two classical ballet choreographers working today? Presumably most fans would answer: Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky. The first emerged at NYCB and did his first major works there; the second emerged elsewhere but has choreographed breakthrough ballets there, works that greatly enhanced his reputation in the States at the very least and have been re-staged elsewhere.

I also wonder whether either would have had these opportunities with NYCB if the company had not kept up its devotion to having constant premiers. I'm not saying most have not been mediocre--by all accounts (and from what I have seen too) they have been; but I'm not sure waiting around for 'a Wheeldon' works if the Wheeldon never gets opportunities to shine before anyone knows he IS a Wheeldon.

If you don't like Wheeldon or Ratmansky, fair enough. But they are widely respected...and I have not often heard people suggest the names of other choreographers supported by other companies whose work they like better.

And also: who, according to many viewers and critics, (Macaulay included) is one of the most exciting if not the most exciting American Ballerina in the world today--NYCB's Sarah Mearns. I am sure several others on this board would want to place the names of Tyler Peck and Ashley Bouder beside that of Mearns (along with ballerinas from other companies but my focus here is NYCB).

Add to the above the fact that NYCB at least dances a lot of Balanchine on a regular basis and indeed many critics (Macaulay included) very much praised the quality of their dancing in Balanchine just last spring, and I would say that "treading water" makes more sense to me as a judgment on a particular season or group of performances--which, in fact, is how Macaulay uses the phrase--than on the company's recent history as a whole. Certainly "Ocean's Kingdom" was a predictable failure (seriously: who thought it was going to be more than a trifle at best).

At the very, very least, the ups and downs of the Balanchine performances over the Martins' years rather confirm that by keeping Balanchine alive in repertory, the company has at least preserved the conditions necessary for these works to be realized in great performances whether it is an unexpectedly thrilling Chaconne with Wendy Whelan (as I saw some years back) or Mearns in Diamonds--which I have been reading about this season.

The fact is that institutions like NYCB are never going to hit it out of the ballpark every season let alone every performance. So, from my perspective, it's best to take a longer or 'big picture' view -- while of course one may also register short term disappointments. When I take the long view, I see top dancers and top ballets emerging from the company over time--and not just "in house" talents, but really major figures. I may say I'm disappointed with this or that aspect of the company's policies or performances (and the new ticket pricing system????? What the ****--uh, I don't want to be banned from this board, but...).

So I would say: maybe not Michael Phelps, but not treading water either.

#7 abatt

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Posted 13 October 2011 - 05:48 AM

I think that the number of new (and mostly awful) new works at NYCB has gotten out of control. I recall that years ago there was generally one new work presented during the winter season, and one new work during the spring season. Personally, I would prefer to wait for one excellent Wheeldon work or Ratmansky work every two years or so, rather than be bombarded with junky new ballets by Stroman, Taylor Corbett, Millepied and so on. Apart from being a waste of financial resources, these new ballets divert the talents of the Company's foremost dancers to works that are going to shortly end up in the vast garbage bin of discarded ballets, instead of employing those dancers in the pursuit of learning and performing important roles in the rep.

#8 Eileen

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Posted 13 October 2011 - 11:01 AM

I think that the number of new (and mostly awful) new works at NYCB has gotten out of control. I recall that years ago there was generally one new work presented during the winter season, and one new work during the spring season. Personally, I would prefer to wait for one excellent Wheeldon work or Ratmansky work every two years or so, rather than be bombarded with junky new ballets by Stroman, Taylor Corbett, Millepied and so on. Apart from being a waste of financial resources, these new ballets divert the talents of the Company's foremost dancers to works that are going to shortly end up in the vast garbage bin of discarded ballets, instead of employing those dancers in the pursuit of learning and performing important roles in the rep.


I totally agree. So many new ballets are immediate discards, and using Sara Mearns in the McCartney-Martins fiasco deprived us of seeing her Swan Lake as she was involved in rehearsing "underwater". I have written in another post that so many mediocre premieres are wasting money, and diluting the City Ballet brand. If you see too many flops, you will be wary of going to City Ballet in the future. It's a significant investment for the individual audience member in terms of money and time, and for me, Churchill, Eliott, Dickens, and Trollope are low cost alternatives.

#9 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 13 October 2011 - 01:21 PM

Who are the top two classical ballet choreographers working today? Presumably most fans would answer: Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky. The first emerged at NYCB and did his first major works there; the second emerged elsewhere but has choreographed breakthrough ballets there, works that greatly enhanced his reputation in the States at the very least and have been re-staged elsewhere.

I also wonder whether either would have had these opportunities with NYCB if the company had not kept up its devotion to having constant premiers. I'm not saying most have not been mediocre--by all accounts (and from what I have seen too) they have been; but I'm not sure waiting around for 'a Wheeldon' works if the Wheeldon never gets opportunities to shine before anyone knows he IS a Wheeldon.


I think that the number of new (and mostly awful) new works at NYCB has gotten out of control. I recall that years ago there was generally one new work presented during the winter season, and one new work during the spring season. Personally, I would prefer to wait for one excellent Wheeldon work or Ratmansky work every two years or so, rather than be bombarded with junky new ballets by Stroman, Taylor Corbett, Millepied and so on. Apart from being a waste of financial resources, these new ballets divert the talents of the Company's foremost dancers to works that are going to shortly end up in the vast garbage bin of discarded ballets, instead of employing those dancers in the pursuit of learning and performing important roles in the rep.


Drew - I think you're right to point out some of the good things we've seen at NYCB recently. The dancers do look terrific , the Balanchine and Robbins rep seem to be getting more time and attention, and we got delirious, delicious "Namouna." But , but ... it still feels like the company's lost its way.

Abatt -- I agree that that too much dreck has been hoisted onto the Koch theater stage of late, but I'm not convinced that the main driver is the number of new ballets in and of itself -- although shovelling six premieres into a single festival is tempting fate.

I'd happily see NYCB patiently crank out a new ballet or two a season, season in and season out, as part of its mission. And it wouldn't trouble me in the least if for every masterpiece you got a clunker, a worthy effort, and a couple of decent if not earth shattering repertory staples. I wouldn't mind them throwing money, time, and talent at evening-length story ballets either if it were done with a vision to take narrative ballet to wherever it is it needs to go now. What does trouble me is the amount of blood and treasure thrown at "event" projects -- "Ocean's Kingdom" to be sure, but also "The Seven Deadly Sins" and "The Architecture of Dance." And not because of the money per se, but because it suggests the following:

1) The board is unwilling to support the patient accretion of good repertory the hard way, work by work by work, year in year out, with honest failures along the way and no big buzz for the gala.

2) There is no overarching artistic vision fuelling the creation of new work. The company's artistic management is either so uninspired by its own artform or so unsure of its own imagination that it has to fall back on spurious links to its Blanchine / Kerstein heritage (e.g. "The Seven Deadly Sins" and "Estancia"), forced collaborations ("The Architecture of Dance"), allegedly edgy and "modern" versions of brand-name story ballets, and themed festivals to get new ballets on the stage. The only masterwork that came out of "The Architecture of Dance" was "Namouna" -- the one ballet with no connection to Calatrava and no newly commissioned score. That speaks volumes about letting talent go where its vision takes it, not where the marketing gimmick du jour needs for it to go.

3) No one's bold enough to risk real failure. They'll commission something from a brand-name hack, hand money to starry outsiders with no theater experience, or throw gigs at company alumni (the dismal new backdrop for "Scotch Symphony," e.g. -- not just choreographic commissions) only to get predictable failures. Stella McCartney doesn't know how to design costumes for dance? But she's so famous! Whoocouldanode!

4) No one seems to have figured out how to use the Choreographic Institute as a farm team for new talent.

5) The company keeps lowering buckets down into dry wells. What made them think that "Frankie and Johnny and ... Rose" was going to be any good after they'd seen "Blossom Got Kissed"? The company's artistic management needs to get out more: there are other choreographers who could hand them vernacular / musical theater style works if that's where they want to go. And I could write ten pages on what's wrong with the bone-headed instance on Per Kirkeby.

And miliosr, I agree that the company seems dazed and confused when it comes to its misson. But I also think that if it had a solid artistic vision (instead of a marketing plan), it could maintain the existing rep, mount new works -- including audience-pleasing story ballets, and toss a few money-making bon-bons out there besides and still keep its integrity intact.What they're doing now is starting to smell of desperation.

#10 stinger784

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Posted 13 October 2011 - 03:58 PM

I think Mr. Macaulay has every right to say what he said. He has probably been to more NYCB performances than all of us combined and he is probably dying for something new and fresh while maintaining the classic Balanchine instead of what people remember what Balanchine said. You can watch a video from the 70s or 60s when Mr. B was still around and boy were those ballets awesome. Now you watch the same ballet by the same company and it is terrible. Forget about the dancer finding their own interpretation, it is the stager that I think is not restaging it how Balanchine actually wanted it. And NYCB is full of wonderful dancers but possibly the artistic staff, like others have said are just not inspired and collecting paychecks. I don't know for sure, but just from what I have seen onstage myself from NYCB, has been boring and overrated.

#11 miliosr

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Posted 13 October 2011 - 04:43 PM

Who are the top two classical ballet choreographers working today? Presumably most fans would answer: Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky. The first emerged at NYCB and did his first major works there; the second emerged elsewhere but has choreographed breakthrough ballets there, works that greatly enhanced his reputation in the States at the very least and have been re-staged elsewhere.

I also wonder whether either would have had these opportunities with NYCB if the company had not kept up its devotion to having constant premiers. I'm not saying most have not been mediocre--by all accounts (and from what I have seen too) they have been; but I'm not sure waiting around for 'a Wheeldon' works if the Wheeldon never gets opportunities to shine before anyone knows he IS a Wheeldon.

If you don't like Wheeldon or Ratmansky, fair enough. But they are widely respected...and I have not often heard people suggest the names of other choreographers supported by other companies whose work they like better.

And also: who, according to many viewers and critics, (Macaulay included) is one of the most exciting if not the most exciting American Ballerina in the world today--NYCB's Sarah Mearns. I am sure several others on this board would want to place the names of Tyler Peck and Ashley Bouder beside that of Mearns (along with ballerinas from other companies but my focus here is NYCB).

So I would say: maybe not Michael Phelps, but not treading water either.

I guess I would respond to your eloquent statement for the defense by noting that neither Ratmansky nor Wheeldon stayed with City Ballet. Despite the presence of a Bouder or a Mearns or a Peck, they decamped elsewhere (Ratmansky to ABT and freelancing, and Wheeldon to Morphoses and freelancing.) So, while Martins gets full marks for giving them opportunities, the ballet world benefitted at City Ballet's expense -- the company still lacks a full-time choreographer of stature. (It should go without saying that Peter Martins isn't that choreographer.)

So, if City Ballet is neither "treading water" nor Michael Phelps perhaps it is Mark Spitz . . . on his middle-aged comeback attempt. :wink:

I agree that the company seems dazed and confused when it comes to its misson. But I also think that if it had a solid artistic vision (instead of a marketing plan), it could maintain the existing rep, mount new works -- including audience-pleasing story ballets, and toss a few money-making bon-bons out there besides and still keep its integrity intact.What they're doing now is starting to smell of desperation.

Bingo!!! Maybe it's time to look reality in the face and admit that the taste level may not be there with the current artistic staff. As you correctly point out, the absence of any kind of compelling vision reduces the company to relying on increasing desperate marketing ploys. It appears to me that City Ballet could use a jolt of new energy along the lines of what Peter Boal brought to Pacific Northwest and Nikolaj Hubbe brought to the Danes and, most memorably of all, Rudolf Nureyev brought to the Paris Opera.

#12 jerryb

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Posted 13 October 2011 - 07:19 PM

And miliosr, I agree that the company seems dazed and confused when it comes to its misson. But I also think that if it had a solid artistic vision (instead of a marketing plan), it could maintain the existing rep, mount new works -- including audience-pleasing story ballets, and toss a few money-making bon-bons out there besides and still keep its integrity intact.What they're doing now is starting to smell of desperation.


You hit the nail on the head. As a long time NYCB fan I totally agree.

#13 cinnamonswirl

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Posted 14 October 2011 - 06:04 AM

I think Kathleen's analysis is pretty spot on.

So many new ballets are immediate discards, and using Sara Mearns in the McCartney-Martins fiasco deprived us of seeing her Swan Lake as she was involved in rehearsing "underwater". I have written in another post that so many mediocre premieres are wasting money, and diluting the City Ballet brand.


No one has mentioned how important the creation of new works is for the dancers. The importance of new works for City Ballet, and City Ballet's mission is perhaps debatable, but from an artistic perspective, new choreography is important for dancers. This is particularly true for dancers like Wendy Whelan or Maria Kowroski, who have been principals for a long time and already know most of the existing rep.

Having a work created on you by a choreographer (or even having the choreographer come set his/her own existing work) is a special, very fulfilling process. Even if the end product is a clunker, for dancers the process itself is usually rewarding. It's possible Sara Mearns felt having this new work would be a more interesting process for her, rather than working on a ballet she is already very familiar with, and will almost certainly dance again in the future. (I'm not saying this is what happened - I have no idea - just that I think it's a possibility.)

#14 Andre Yew

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Posted 14 October 2011 - 03:36 PM

Speaking to cinnamonswirl's point ...

One thing I realized recently is how differently dancers regard a work or choreographer as compared to an audience member. A friend had asked me to check out a certain choreographer because she was thinking of acquiring a new piece. I did, and totally hated the choreographer's work. I told her this pretty clearly in a long email detailing exactly why I thought this choreographer wasn't any good, so she knew exactly how I'd come to my conclusion. As it turns out, they decided to engage the choreographer anyway, and a few weeks later performed that same work I didn't like.

However, talking to the dancers during the rehearsal process and afterwards, I realized that I had just valued the choreographer based on my audience member's reaction to seeing the piece, but didn't realize what working with the choreographer did for the dancers. For them, they loved working with the choreographer because of the new aspects of performance and stagecraft as well as different ways of moving they learned from the choreographer. They found it valuable because they now had new tools in their toolbox with which they could use on other pieces in the future. For them, the valuable part was not the one piece they worked on, but what they learned from the working process.

So my point is that while we, the audience, react mainly to the performance we see on stage, for the dancers and AD, there's a whole lot of other stuff going on that may not be immediately obvious to us. Clearly, one can't run a company spending money and wasting time on bad pieces all the time, but the value of a choreographer extends well beyond the one night we see a company perform. A pretty close analogy is how an orchestra will bring in different conductors because different conductors can teach an orchestra different things, and while a performance put on by the conductor on one day may not appeal to everyone, one hopes that the orchestra carries with it the lessons it learned from the conductor so it will be better in the future.

#15 bart

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Posted 14 October 2011 - 04:44 PM

I'm sure you are correct on this Andre. So many dancers speak with enthusiasm about the process of having work "created on" them, using almost identical language. Unfortunately, disposable ballets are costly. Most might benefit from workshop performances, so the can be evaluated before a bigger investment of time and money. When a big (or 'hot') name is involved, or the choreographer is a friend, the pressure to spend big must be considerable.


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