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National Dancers?

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The headline to this article reads "Bryony Brind: foreign ballet dancers risk loss of British quirks." Is this something we should worry about? Is this something one would ever say about a classical musician? Should classical dancers have national qualities, anyway? I doubt an expression of xenophobia was intended here, but it sure sounds like it: "The former Royal Ballet principal dancer, claimed that the company had been "infiltrated" by foreigners instead of local home grown performers."

I mean, the RB is an international company, right? I guess I understand this on some level, as the Russians have inundated all ballet companies after the fall of the wall. And I think there is certainly a point to be made about local arts education, which I'm sure has been cut back in the UK almost as much as in the US.

Thoughts?

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There used to be an English Style that was much admired and most people that remember it agree that it is now all but lost. Bryony Brind has made her point clumsily in my opinion but there is substance to what she says.

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I agree with Mashinka. A number of years ago I remember Lis Jeppesen saying almost exactly the same thing about the state of the Bournonville style now that so many dancers of Royal Danish Ballet were outsiders who'd never trained at its school. I don't think either was saying that foreigners were inherently incapable of dancing Bournonville or Ashton properly, but how could they be expected to if they haven't been thoroughly trained to do it?

Another level of Brind's point is not that different from recent discussions about ABT and its failure to develop the talent within its own ranks. It's not only that most of the Royal Ballet's principals are not British; most spent little or no time at the Royal Ballet School, and many were hired directly to principal rank, having acquired their not only their training but also their performing experience elsewhere. The Royal Ballet continues to hire RBS graduates for its corps de ballet, but do they have any chance for advancement when management continues to hire glamorous, fully developed free agents to dance lead roles?

And I don't think it's unheard of to discuss the "national" qualities of classical musicians. Whenever you read praise about a particular performance being "idiomatic" it suggests that this quality is not encountered all that frequently. Some of the best operatic performances I've heard have featured all-French, all-Russian or all-Italian casts in their "native" repertoire. They're exceedingly common in North America, but multinational casts of singers are usually too eclectic to achieve the same electrifying results.

I, too, mourn for the loss of the English style. It has really struck me that in the brouhaha surrounding the Royal Ballet's hiring of Natalia Osipova, discussion about whether she would fit in stylistically hardly seems to have come up at all. It implies that the Royal Ballet no longer has a distinct style, and that's a crying shame.

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Oh interesting -- I had the same initial response to Brind's comments -- they could so easily be interpreted as biased, especially when taken along with the current discussion in the US about increasing the numbers of visas available to tech companies who want to bring foreign nationals to the country as programmers. (sorry for the run-on sentence) We're very sensitive about bias in speech right now, and my first thought after reading that was "she's quite protectionist" And really, that's true, but as several other people here have pointed out, she's protecting something very specific about ballet in England. Volcanohunter makes a very cogent point -- even if you are populating your corps de ballet with graduates of your national school, who will embody your national style, if you're casting the leading roles with dancers who come from other styles, you run the risk of flattening out the uniqueness of the work.

Looking at it in another context, when Balanchine used to bring guest artists to NYCB, the commentary on their performances often talked about how different the work looked when it was performed by someone who was not "raised in the style." Sometimes this was an asset, showing us possibilities that we hadn't considered before, but there was never a question that the work was firmed based in a specific aesthetic, and that the style was something to be learned.

Perhaps what we're seeing now is the transformation of the "English style" into a period style, something that you learn in order to perform certain works, but not a living aesthetic that is being developed by new choreography as well as exemplified by existing ballets.

I don't see enough of the Royal to be able to say, but it does seem that their principal ranks are becoming almost as international as ABT.

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...it does seem that their principal ranks are becoming almost as international as ABT.

I say even more international if RB only has 3 principals from the 4 home nations. Even ABT has more Americans than RB has British principals.

Essentially if you have 24 British children being trained at a cost of 30,000 sterling per year over 7 years, that is over 5 million pounds of tax payer money over a 7 year period. How is that investment paying off? How many British students who trained at the Lower School (Whitehall) are being accepted into the Upper School and finally as apprentices at RB? I think with such a high level of tax payer funding, some scrutiny and requirements to train British children is going to be more acceptable.

If I were an MP - I would be quite interested in how taxpayer money is being invested, in relation to return on the investment. Further, what part does the Foreign Office play in this? In other professions, there is a great deal of scrutiny about granting work visas. Are these employees truly "geniuses" or are they taking opportunities away from Britons? The Americans are similarly scrupulous about work visas.

In the arts, ballet seems to get a free pass. SAG has advocated (on both sides of the pond) for limitations on these types of visas.

IF you read through the comments, and to the linked article comments of Luke's article - there is definitely a range of opinions on the matter.

What does it mean to be an "international ballet company" anyway? Does it mean a company is recognized as prestigious? Famous? Famously good? Does it mean a company is an All Star revue, with locals doing the backup hoofing to make the imported stars look good? Is that what ABT has become since the mid 1970's and especially since the early 1990's? Is that the future for RB?

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This is perhaps slightly off topic, but I must ask... who would be considered a quintessential Royal ballerina? And in what specific pieces? Could someone supply me with examples? I feel like I'm missing something crucial, so this is a sincere request -- please PM me with videos, if you'd rather not derail the thread for this.

Of course I've watched some clips and full length filmings from them, but to be honest, I've never been all that charmed by any RBS ballerinas I've seen. Yes, I know it's sacrilege, but this includes Margot Fonteyn for the most part...

As for contemporary talent, native dancers like Sara Lamb and Cuthbertson leave me cold. The only dancer from them that regularly excites me is Melissa Hamilton, who has had substantial Russian training.

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This telecast of The Sleeping Beauty from 1978 features a number of the Royal's outstanding ballerinas. I think it's entirely relevant to the discussion. I'm only sorry the video quality isn't better.

I believe this is the cast sheet for the performance.

http://www.rohcollec...rformance=25286

P.S. Sarah Lamb is American with Russian-school training.

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Actually Lamb is technically British as she has a English born parent, I believe there are a couple of others in the company that are in a similar position,

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I think Jayne's questions below (re defining "international company") are well taken; we absolutely should interrogate that term. I guess I am less enamored with the nostalgia of an "English style." If we look at what that has meant historically, it equates to white (i.e., the RB has only very recently allowed non-white dancers into their ranks). So to those of you who mourn its passing, I ask: can we expand "English style" to mean something that's teachable to all who go through their training academies?

What does it mean to be an "international ballet company" anyway? Does it mean a company is recognized as prestigious? Famous? Famously good? Does it mean a company is an All Star revue, with locals doing the backup hoofing to make the imported stars look good? Is that what ABT has become since the mid 1970's and especially since the early 1990's? Is that the future for RB?

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I think Jayne's questions below (re defining "international company") are well taken; we absolutely should interrogate that term. I guess I am less enamored with the nostalgia of an "English style." If we look at what that has meant historically, it equates to white (i.e., the RB has only very recently allowed non-white dancers into their ranks). So to those of you who mourn its passing, I ask: can we expand "English style" to mean something that's teachable to all who go through their training academies?

That is a dreadful slur on the Royal Ballet style to imply that it is somehow racist. The number of black people living in the UK was fairly negligible before the mid 50's so it is hardly surprising that the style developed without any non-white exponents. Working class dancers were a great rarity in the RB throughout its history too as in general only a fairly affluent middle class can either afford or has the inclination to take its children to ballet classes.

I worked with the black choreographer William Louther during the 1980's and we frequently discussed the class/race issues around classical ballet in Britain, perceived and otherwise. To the best of my knowledge only one black dancer around that time was rejected by the RB on grounds of colour and she joined the Harlem Company, she was an exception though as most black dancers at the time were late starters and often more strongly attracted to modern dance. Today no black dancer of the requisite standard would be excluded on grounds of their colour,

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Sorry, but I have to disagree here. I know several non-White Brits who were told that in no uncertain terms that their nationality (in one case, a Hong Kong native who was actually a UK citizen) would prevent them from entering the company. It was no secret, even if it may not have been printed policy. That was probably back in the 80s. It's not that anyone was hateful; it was just the norm. I am well aware that things have changed now; my question is simply can the "English style" accommodate the new diversity?

That is a dreadful slur on the Royal Ballet style to imply that it is somehow racist. The number of black people living in the UK was fairly negligible before the mid 50's so it is hardly surprising that the style developed without any non-white exponents. Working class dancers were a great rarity in the RB throughout its history too as in general only a fairly affluent middle class can either afford or has the inclination to take its children to ballet classes.

I worked with the black choreographer William Louther during the 1980's and we frequently discussed the class/race issues around classical ballet in Britain, perceived and otherwise. To the best of my knowledge only one black dancer around that time was rejected by the RB on grounds of colour and she joined the Harlem Company, she was an exception though as most black dancers at the time were late starters and often more strongly attracted to modern dance. Today no black dancer of the requisite standard would be excluded on grounds of their colour,

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Sorry, but I have to disagree here. I know several non-White Brits who were told that in no uncertain terms that their nationality (in one case, a Hong Kong native who was actually a UK citizen) would prevent them from entering the company. It was no secret, even if it may not have been printed policy. That was probably back in the 80s. It's not that anyone was hateful; it was just the norm. I am well aware that things have changed now; my question is simply can the "English style" accommodate the new diversity?

So jjust how do you account for the successful careers of the likes of Ravenna Tucker, Rashna Homji, David Yow? All of these were Asian and did extremely well in the RB companies in the 1980's. Possibly there were more, I'm not a 'stats' person so apologies if I've left someone out.

Perhaps it's easier to use race as an excuse for personal failings than to face the fact you are not up to scratch.

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I am repeating a friend's words; they told him straight out that because he was Asian he would not be considered for membership in the corps. Nothing about his skill level or ability. So perhaps exceptional dancers were allowed as soloists/principals, but not into the corps, where uniformity is valued? The exceptions that support the rule?

Yes, racism is a slur, but one better dealt with honestly than elided.

And my original question still stands, but slightly altered: do these non-white dancers represent a veering away from the "English style"?

Sorry, but I have to disagree here. I know several non-White Brits who were told that in no uncertain terms that their nationality (in one case, a Hong Kong native who was actually a UK citizen) would prevent them from entering the company. It was no secret, even if it may not have been printed policy. That was probably back in the 80s. It's not that anyone was hateful; it was just the norm. I am well aware that things have changed now; my question is simply can the "English style" accommodate the new diversity?

So jjust how do you account for the successful careers of the likes of Ravenna Tucker, Rashna Homji, David Yow? All of these were Asian and did extremely well in the RB companies in the 1980's. Possibly there were more, I'm not a 'stats' person so apologies if I've left someone out.

Perhaps it's easier to use race as an excuse for personal failings than to face the fact you are not up to scratch.

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And my original question still stands, but slightly altered: do these non-white dancers represent a veering away from the "English style"?

As I understand it, "English style" is a learned entity -- your color shouldn't have anything to do with your ability to perform that work. But in the current company, the fact that some headlining performers had a significant part of their training outside the style could be a detriment.

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Judith Mackrell's piece on this -- Royal Ballet: just how 'British' do we want it to be? -- appeared in The Guardian yesterday.

She seems rather unspecific as to what might constitute a 'British' style, and comments:

...accepting that there are failures and blindspots to address, it's also important to question how British we really want the Royal or other dance companies to be. Brind herself was performing during the 80's, at a time when foreign artists were in a minority in the Royal: yet while she and her fellow principal Fiona Chadwick were rightly hailed as examples of new British talent, I remember the overall standard of dancing as relatively lacklustre. Certainly, there has been a very different excitement attached to the Royal in the following decades, with the importation of world-class talents such as Sylvie Guillem, Tamara Rojo, Alina Cojocaru and Marianela Nunez alongside British ballerinas such as Bussell and Sarah Wildor.

And:

Critics argue that the cosmpolitan make-up of the company threatens a dilution of the British 'style.' But even that issue is moot. Dance in this country has always been a mongrel product ...
In 21st-century, multicultural Britain, surely it's less important for talent and inspiration to be seen as "purely British" (whatever that means). ... When we judge the health of a company like the Royal, the nationality of its dancers and the integrity of its style are important. But even more significant is the level of its creative buzz.

Reading this, I was reminded of Luke Jennings' rave review of Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin in Ashton's Marguerite and Armand only a few months ago.

. like Polunin's, [Rojo's] technique is all but invisible. You see it ... but only as the under-drawing on which she paints her emotions. And it's for this, ultimately, that we go to the ballet. To see the dancer become the dance.

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Brind herself was performing during the 80s, at a time when foreign artists were in a minority in the Royal: yet while she and her fellow principal Fiona Chadwick were rightly hailed as examples of new British talent, I remember the overall standard of dancing as relatively lacklustre.

This is a non-issue. The Paris Opera Ballet and the Bolshoi also went through "lacklustre" periods that had nothing to do with their French-ness or Russian-ness. Mackrell implies that the Royal Ballet pushed through this phase by importing talent, but the POB and Bolshoi managed it without internationalizing. It had more to do with company leadership and promoting young talent.

But strictly speaking she's probably correct that there isn't anything inherently "national" about a ballet style, The "Danish" style was formed by the son of a French immigrant, the "Russian" style was formed by a Frenchman, the "American" or perhaps "New York" style was formed by a Russian immigrant, and the "English" style was formed by an Englishman born in Ecuador and raised in Peru. But that doesn't mean that these styles don't exist. If it makes Mackrell happy, we can all refer to the "Royal Ballet" or "Ashton" style instead, and we'll still be left with the problem of its conspicuous deterioration.

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And I don't think it's unheard of to discuss the "national" qualities of classical musicians. Whenever you read praise about a particular performance being "idiomatic" it suggests that this quality is not encountered all that frequently. Some of the best operatic performances I've heard have featured all-French, all-Russian or all-Italian casts in their "native" repertoire. They're exceedingly common in North America, but multinational casts of singers are usually too eclectic to achieve the same electrifying results.

I agree that this could be a factor in some, usually less familiar repertoires (i.e., Polish or Czech). But in general, I disagree heartily, if only by the evidence of the diverse international cast of the recent Ring cycle at the Met. Electrifying singing (if not setting).

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Perhaps what we're seeing now is the transformation of the "English style" into a period style, something that you learn in order to perform certain works, but not a living aesthetic that is being developed by new choreography as well as exemplified by existing ballets.

I think this hits the nail on the head. The great choreographer of the English style was Ashton, and his ballets are no longer the core of the Royal Ballet rep, nor are the Sergeyev notations of the ballet classics. How many Balanchine dancers said, "You become a Balanchine dancer by dancing Balanchine ballets" and "The ballets teach you what you need to know"? The demands of Ashton ballets were more specific, with so much emphasis on the upper body, and how can dancers maintain that level of skill and style when dancing a different diet? Even if every dancer in the Royal Ballet was trained exclusively in the School, taking Ashton ballets out of the mothballs and expecting them to be infused with the proper style and technique would be a non-starter when the majority of time is spent on Macmillan and contemporary ballet with some Balanchine and Robbins thrown in.

This is perhaps slightly off topic, but I must ask... who would be considered a quintessential Royal ballerina? And in what specific pieces? Could someone supply me with examples? I feel like I'm missing something crucial, so this is a sincere request -- please PM me with videos, if you'd rather not derail the thread for this.

It depends on how you look at it historically. Alicia Markova, who was already a Ballet Russe star, was the first prima at Sadler's Wells. If you're looking at a distinct English style, you might look at Ashton dancers, of whom the primary ballerina was Fonteyn, for whom most of the major roles in his rep were choreographed, but there were other major dancers with Sadler's Wells training, like Beryl Grey, who danced during Fonteyn's "first wave", and Svetlana Beriosova, who was not British-trained. Many of the dancers in the English style had early training in Commonwealth countries, like Monica Mason and Nadia Nerina (South Africa) and Lynn Seymour (Canada), where there was a set curriculum. During Fonteyn's "second wave" -- she was talking about retirement until Nureyev defected and joined the Royal Ballet -- there was the amazing ballerina Antoinette Sibley, who danced Fonteyn's roles and on whom Ashton also made works. Although later more as a Macmillan dancer, and usually classified as a dramatic ballerina, Ashton recognized Lynn Seymour's talent and choreographed for her. Unfortunately, there's not much commercial film of many of the Royal Ballet greats.

As for contemporary talent, native dancers like Sara Lamb and Cuthbertson leave me cold. The only dancer from them that regularly excites me is Melissa Hamilton, who has had substantial Russian training.

I think quintessential implies style that neither of these dancers have, because their training is more international, even at the Royal Ballet School, and the rep doesn't support the development of the English style.

This telecast of The Sleeping Beauty from 1978 features a number of the Royal's outstanding ballerinas...

I believe this is the cast sheet for the performance.

http://www.rohcollec...rformance=25286

That also says it in a nutshell: Park, Mason, Dermon, Ellis, Collier, Porter, Conley, Penney...

At the time, though, it was very difficult, if impossible for a non-British or Commonwealth citizen to be a member of the Royal Ballet until GB joined the EU, which eliminated the restrictions for EU citizens at least. Lynn Seymour wrote about her uber-talented school-mate, Marcia Haydee (from Brazil), who could not join Royal Ballet. Between the common training curriculum and these restrictions, there wasn't much chance for a dancer with different training to join the company, unless that person was a Nureyev.

P.S. Sarah Lamb is American with Russian-school training.

Actually Lamb is technically British as she has a English born parent, I believe there are a couple of others in the company that are in a similar position,

Lamb's nationality isn't the point, apart from visa issue: training is. A Japanese citizen, for example, who was trained at the School from a young age would be a different dancer than a British citizen like Lamb who was trained elsewhere.

I think Jayne's questions below (re defining "international company") are well taken; we absolutely should interrogate that term. I guess I am less enamored with the nostalgia of an "English style." If we look at what that has meant historically, it equates to white (i.e., the RB has only very recently allowed non-white dancers into their ranks). So to those of you who mourn its passing, I ask: can we expand "English style" to mean something that's teachable to all who go through their training academies?

And my original question still stands, but slightly altered: do these non-white dancers represent a veering away from the "English style"?

As I understand it, "English style" is a learned entity -- your color shouldn't have anything to do with your ability to perform that work. But in the current company, the fact that some headlining performers had a significant part of their training outside the style could be a detriment.

Exactly, but is the "English style" even taught anymore, even at the School? Frankly, I didn't see much of a stylistic difference between the corps, which is primarily made of School graduates, and the leads and featured dancers, many of whom were foreign-trained, in the Royal Ballet's "Sleeping Beauty" and Ashton's "Sylvia" in the 2000's.

What does it mean to be an "international ballet company" anyway? Does it mean a company is recognized as prestigious? Famous? Famously good? Does it mean a company is an All Star revue, with locals doing the backup hoofing to make the imported stars look good? Is that what ABT has become since the mid 1970's and especially since the early 1990's? Is that the future for RB?

For one, there are less than ten major companies in the world, almost all of which have schools, that are primarily made from its own citizens or citizens from a related commonwealth throughout the ranks. Those are the Bolshoi, the Mariinsky, the secondary companies in Moscow and St. Petersburgh, POB, most Japanese and Chinese companies, NYCB (by sheer numbers more than anything), and a few smaller companies elsewhere in Europe and Russia. RDB has been moving away from this model, with more foreign dancers in the company, especially in the upper ranks.

"International" generally either means a company that does a wide rep and doesn't train a single style, or a modern or contemporary company with a single style and sometimes a single choreographer where dancers are chosen around the world to fulfill the artistic vision (Bausch, Maillot, Kylian).

If a company doesn't have another mantle on which to market itself, "international" is sometimes used. Pacific Northwest Ballet, for example, has hired many foreign-trained Principals and Soloists over the years with most of the corps American-born and trained. You see the same pattern at Miami City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Ballet Arizona, and Boston Ballet. (Houston Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet are the exceptions, where the vast majority of Principals and Soloists are American-born and trained.) None of these companies market themselves primarily as international companies: they market themselves on their rep primarily and then their dancers.

ABT uses "international" because they get stars and guest artists from the glittery international ranks. Whether this makes good ballet is questionable and debated here often. It's interesting to me to see Ratmansky doing more and more, getting back to the roots of the company with stand-alone shorter rep works.

And my original question still stands, but slightly altered: do these non-white dancers represent a veering away from the "English style"?

Repeating myself, what style? (Not what was, but what is now.) Since the ballets have mainly changed, and Macmillan requires none of the "English style" -- if anything, the style is a detriment in his ballets -- it's comparing apples and oranges. The style changed with the rep, when there were very few non-white dancers, so its hard to say they pushed the company in any direction.

What might be pertinent is that anyone who would be offended by a non-white dancer performing in the English style, or who thought "those bodies can't do that style" back in the day has nothing to be offended by now, since who is attempting the style? The closest I've seen was when Alexandra Ansanelli used Fonteyn as her model in the Ashton section of "Homage to the Queen" and for moments of her Aurora.

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Brind herself was performing during the 80s, at a time when foreign artists were in a minority in the Royal: yet while she and her fellow principal Fiona Chadwick were rightly hailed as examples of new British talent, I remember the overall standard of dancing as relatively lacklustre.

This is a non-issue. The Paris Opera Ballet and the Bolshoi also went through "lacklustre" periods that had nothing to do with their French-ness or Russian-ness. Mackrell implies that the Royal Ballet pushed through this phase by importing talent, but the POB and Bolshoi managed it without internationalizing. It had more to do with company leadership and promoting young talent.

Good point, volcanohunter. I wonder why i was that the English/British ballet establishment lacked the will or resources to do as Paris and Moscow-Leningrad did.

If it makes Mackrell happy, we can all refer to the "Royal Ballet" or "Ashton" style instead, ...

It does seem that this might be more accurate than "English," certainly, and even "British."

So what IS the Ashtonian-Royal Ballet style? Let me play devil's advocate here. I have had the chance to watch Act I from the 1978 television performance of Sleeping Beauty, which you have kindly linked. I can see a certain subtlety in the use of hands -- an evident concern for proper head positioning and movement -- and a general delicacy of style among the women. At its best, this is elegant and lovely. But I can also see how, without energy and concentration, it might appear "lackluster" and possibly even affected.

Has the problem at the schools and performing company of the Royal been a lack of will? inadequacy of teaching? a weakness in the "style" itself when danced other than by great dancers? a irreversible change in public taste? or what?

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So what IS the Ashtonian-Royal Ballet style? Let me play devil's advocate here. I have had the chance to watch Act I from the 1978 television performance of Sleeping Beauty, which you have kindly linked. I can see a certain subtlety in the use of hands -- an evident concern for proper head positioning and movement -- and a general delicacy of style among the women. At its best, this is elegant and lovely. But I can also see how, without energy and concentration, it might appear "lackluster" and possibly even affected.

Perhaps Clement Crisp's description of the Royal Ballet style would be helpful. It comes from the souvenir program for the company's U.S. tour in 1981, marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Vic-Wells Ballet.

For generations of dancers the image Ashton made of them is the truest, most flattering. The identity of the dancing British--lyrical, neatly musical, well-mannered and sweetly placed, with a seeming mildness to their classicism which disguises for some viewers an essential strength and a deep-running passion--is a catalogue of Ashtonian virtues...

In MacMillan's ballets we see how the academic manner which he accepted from both Ashton and Petipa, has found fresh force and impetus, and how the English style has learned to cope with some of the central problems which concern the theatre of our time: matters of identity, of psychic and emotional isolation...His achievement has been to take the ballet on journeys of psychological and technical exploration which yet retain essential links with the classic nature of the company.

Part of that nature lies in the excellence of ensemble performance. To those visitors who ask: "What should I see to get the real favour of The Royal Ballet?" I always reply: "Watch the corps de ballet".

Further, he explains that the corps' excellence was to be found in its "coherent style and sensitivity," and also notes that the "distinction of British theatrical acting needs no rehearsing here. In this fiftieth year of The Royal Ballet, though, it is worth noting that the company has accepted those standards as its own."

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