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National Dancers?


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#1 Ray

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Posted 15 May 2013 - 03:20 AM

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?

#2 Mashinka

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Posted 15 May 2013 - 04:24 AM

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.

#3 volcanohunter

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Posted 15 May 2013 - 06:46 AM

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.

#4 sandik

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Posted 15 May 2013 - 09:02 AM

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.

#5 Jayne

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Posted 15 May 2013 - 05:24 PM

...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?

#6 trieste

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Posted 15 May 2013 - 06:32 PM

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.

#7 volcanohunter

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Posted 15 May 2013 - 07:33 PM

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8L3l9KM9_0

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.

#8 Mashinka

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Posted 16 May 2013 - 01:30 AM

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,

#9 Ray

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Posted 16 May 2013 - 02:56 AM

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?



#10 Mashinka

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Posted 16 May 2013 - 04:06 AM

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,

#11 Ray

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Posted 16 May 2013 - 04:15 AM

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,



#12 Mashinka

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Posted 16 May 2013 - 05:20 AM

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.

#13 Ray

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Posted 16 May 2013 - 05:26 AM

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.



#14 sandik

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Posted 16 May 2013 - 07:44 AM

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.

#15 bart

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Posted 16 May 2013 - 09:09 AM

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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