pherank

Who Would Be on Your All-American Ballerinas List?

85 posts in this topic

Macaulay is such a loose cannon, however, that perhaps it's better that he didn't attend Part's performance because you never know what he might have said about her left pinky. I just wish he would focus more on the positives in every dancer's performance, illuminating their virtues rather than highlighting their faults. I think part of a ballet critic's job is to spread the gospel.

Gospel implies that there's some unshakable truth about a performance and that frankly is NOT a critic's job, to either repeat praise or spout meaningless superlatives. That's the job of a press agent.

Reviews that I disagree with are some of the most informative reviews I've ever read. For instance I once read a film critic's takedown of Ginger Rogers. I didn't agree and still don't agree, but after that review I did watch the Astaire/Rogers dances with a different eye. I saw how the choreography carefully highlighted what Rogers could do and hid what she couldn't do.

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Helene, I've read [if memory serves] that Kaye was magnificent as Odette. Denby, I think, but can't say for sure.

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I can imagine that Kaye would have been a great Odette. Perhaps not one that would be recognized in Russia, but from everything I've read and heard about her, I would have paid to see her paint her toenails.

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Macaulay is such a loose cannon, however, that perhaps it's better that he didn't attend Part's performance because you never know what he might have said about her left pinky. I just wish he would focus more on the positives in every dancer's performance, illuminating their virtues rather than highlighting their faults. I think part of a ballet critic's job is to spread the gospel.

Gospel implies that there's some unshakable truth about a performance and that frankly is NOT a critic's job, to either repeat praise or spout meaningless superlatives. That's the job of a press agent.

By spreading the gospel I meant introducing the art to people who might not be aware of it, who might not consider attending a performance unless someone gives them good reasons to go.

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I almost find this more interesting: what turns a "foreign" dancer into an "American" dancer?

Great question. I'm repeating it because I don't want us to lose it. Possibly it deserves a thread of its own, Helene? The first dancer who jumped to mind is Violette Verdy.

Excellent choice, Bart. Verdy would make a great case-study. "Possibly it deserves a thread of its own, Helene?" - I believe I could actually hear Helene's eyes rolling. ;)

Here's a toughie: What kind of dancer was Tamara Toumanova? She was called an "American" dancer at the time of her death. Sure she studied with Preobrajenska in Paris, but that doesn't exactly make her an Imperial Russian dancer either. And she worked with Balanchine, but not for as long as he would have liked.

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Like bookends, to Farrell there is McBride.

I only saw Farrell live late in her career and McBride after her prime. The best I saw of Farrell is on film/video. While that's true of all of the NYCB ballerinas I mentioned, I didn't see them after their primes, and LeClercq never had a chance to be at hers.

I define my great American ballerinas as people who I remember from specific performances even decades later: Farrell as Dulcinea, Govrin as Hippolyta. Merrill Ashley in Ballo, Patricia Mcbride and Gelsey Kirkland.

Teresa Reichlen. Sarah Mearns in Serenade.

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I've been following this thread with interest, but haven't had the time to reply thoughtfully till now. As a dance writer, I've been involved in myriad discussions of what the responsibilities of a critic might be, and have heard variations of all the opinions expressed above. For me, the first responsibility anyone writing about dance has, whether they are a professional or an amateur (categories that we could argue about at length!) is to their own opinion of what they saw. Criticism is a form of witnessing -- "I was there and this is what happened" -- you may have controversial views about how things were done, but that's part of the job.

While there are people who might indeed read what you've said and think "gosh, that sounds like something I'd like," I don't think of criticism as a promotional tool. That is the role of previews and features, not critical response. While there isn't enough coverage of dance of any sort, I still believe it's valuable to think of these as separate kinds of writing. When I'm writing a preview, or a spotlight piece for a performance calendar, it's a recommendation -- this is something worth seeing. A review is altogether different.

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Is there a difference between reviewing and criticism? Is reviewing the witnessing -- this is what happened -- but the criticism the opinion? (Not that the two can't be combined in the same piece.)

I'm thinking of criticism of Macaulay for using the "I" and his own categorization. Croce and Denby didn't have to say "I," because it was understood that what they wrote was very much from their perspectives.

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Is there a difference between reviewing and criticism? Is reviewing the witnessing -- this is what happened -- but the criticism the opinion?

It gets twistier than that -- many people use "reviewer" and "critic" interchangeably, mostly to avoid sounding too repetitious. But the general rule of thumb is that a reviewer works in the daily journalism world -- their work is often turned around very quickly, and is usually (though not always) a response to a specific performance or short series of performances. Critics usually work in a longer format, at a slower pace and with a larger context to discuss. Sometimes we still find this work in a daily newspaper (like a "Sunday piece"), but more often this will go in a magazine or other periodical, where they can write longer, with more time for editing.

(which is to say that sometimes we are reviewers and sometimes we are critics)

Just to make this more complex -- I usually write for a weekly alternative newspaper, but because of their production schedule, my deadlines are almost as tight as an overnight writer for a daily. And since very few daily papers consistently run overnight reviews, sometimes those writers have fairly long deadlines.

I think what I'm trying to say is that, whether we call ourselves critics or reviewers (or dance writers, which is fast becoming the default description) when we're responding to a performance, a season, a single artist or an ensemble, it's our job to say what we think. If readers don't agree, in this internet world there is increasingly the chance for a discussion (any publication with an online presence really loves reader response). I don't want to sound pompous, but my first responsibility is to the art form, my only way to articulate it is through my own knowledge and experience.

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Is there a difference between reviewing and criticism? Is reviewing the witnessing -- this is what happened -- but the criticism the opinion? (Not that the two can't be combined in the same piece.)

I'm thinking of criticism of Macaulay for using the "I" and his own categorization. Croce and Denby didn't have to say "I," because it was understood that what they wrote was very much from their perspectives.

First person writing is another twisty bit, since most publications have style sheets that deal with voice -- some papers want you to use "I" and some don't, even if it's clear that your work is your opinion.

(and there are still some publications that like the editorial "we," which Mark Twain said should be reserved for kings and editors.)

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I'm thinking of criticism of Macaulay for using the "I" and his own categorization. Croce and Denby didn't have to say "I," because it was understood that what they wrote was very much from their perspectives.

(and there are still some publications that like the editorial "we," which Mark Twain said should be reserved for kings and editors.)

Hmmm. Does that mean "one" is dead and gone now?

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And the stuff about pointe work as the functional equivalent of foot-binding is beyond silly.

Possibly, but Macaulay is not the first to make the comparison nor will he be the last, I suspect. To cite only one such, a passage from Joan Brady's "The Unmaking of a Dancer":

"There is a coming of age in first squeezing the feet into tiny satin shoes....even the pain they cause, which can be awful, takes on a mystical significance of its own, like the first blood drawn in battle....It took years for the fruit of such footbinding to manifest themselves, but at the time I was delighted. What a toe shoe succeeds in doing is no less radical than changing the nature and function of the foot altogether..."

Peter Martins remarked in "Far From Denmark" that the two dancers he knew that were the most American were Edward Villella and Suzanne Farrell.

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I'm thinking of criticism of Macaulay for using the "I" and his own categorization. Croce and Denby didn't have to say "I," because it was understood that what they wrote was very much from their perspectives.

(and there are still some publications that like the editorial "we," which Mark Twain said should be reserved for kings and editors.)

Hmmm. Does that mean "one" is dead and gone now?

Some people are still using "one," but most of the alt-papers have a slightly more casual tone, and "one" is pretty formal.

The bottom line is that a writer may have a personal style, but a publication has a house style -- and they come out on top.

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And the stuff about pointe work as the functional equivalent of foot-binding is beyond silly.

Possibly, but Macaulay is not the first to make the comparison nor will he be the last, I suspect. To cite only one such, a passage from Joan Brady's "The Unmaking of a Dancer":

"There is a coming of age in first squeezing the feet into tiny satin shoes....even the pain they cause, which can be awful, takes on a mystical significance of its own, like the first blood drawn in battle....It took years for the fruit of such footbinding to manifest themselves, but at the time I was delighted. What a toe shoe succeeds in doing is no less radical than changing the nature and function of the foot altogether..."

Note: I suspect that what follows is in the wrong thread, but since my initial complaint about Macaulay's article started here, I'll continue here. Moderators -- feel free to move this to a more appropriate thread.

The comparison of pointe work to foot binding is worse than silly: it's lazy. It attempts to blow a superficial resemblance up into a damning critique. The thinking goes something like this: "Pointe work, like foot binding, involves the feet, requires special shoes, looks painful, isn't practiced by men, and began in a less-enlightened era, therefore it too is an example of the benighted oppression of women by a male-dominated hierarchy. It too is an example of men crippling women out of a warped sense of beauty and a perverted eroticism."
And although Macaulay isn't actively promoting the equation, he's happy to dump it into his litany of straw men and rhetorical questions to let his readers know he's hip to the issue. But the charge the comparison levies against ballet is sufficiently inflammatory to warrant a rebuttal. And if Macaulay doesn't really accept the comparison, he shouldn't have invoked it unless he was willing to challenge it head on.
[For a refresher, here's Macaulay: "The questions pile up. Does the 21st century even need ballerinas? America is one of many Western societies where women fight for equality in the workplace and can no longer expect men to stand when they enter a room; same-sex marriages are now institutionalized. Ballet had a beginning; it may have an end. In particular, the practice of dancing on point may one day seem as bizarre as the bygone Chinese practicing of binding women’s feet. Do we still need an art form whose stage worlds are almost solely heterosexual and whose principal women are shown not as workers but as divinities?"]
And the resemblance is superficial:
1) Foot binding was not an option. If you were a Han Chinese woman in any but the lowest class, your feet would have been bound to ensure your marriageability.
But no one is forced to dance on pointe. Yes, you have to dance on pointe to be a classical ballerina -- but forgoing a career as a classical ballerina is in no way the equivalent of being deprived of the ability to walk normally for the rest of one's life.
2) The structural damage done to the bound foot was extreme and irreparable. I urge everyone to go to this Wikipedia page for grim pictures of the results. But in the meantime, here's a description of the foot binding process itself, which was usually begun somewhere between ages 4 and 7.
"To enable the size of the feet to be reduced, the toes on each foot were curled under, then pressed with great force downwards and squeezed into the sole of the foot until the toes broke. The broken toes were held tightly against the sole of the foot while the foot was then drawn down straight with the leg and the arch forcibly broken. The bandages were repeatedly wound in a figure-eight movement, starting at the inside of the foot at the instep, then carried over the toes, under the foot, and around the heel, the freshly broken toes being pressed tightly into the sole of the foot. At each pass around the foot, the binding cloth was tightened, pulling the ball of the foot and the heel together, causing the broken foot to fold at the arch, and pressing the toes underneath."
Bound feet were prone to infection. Here's another paragraph from the Wikipedia article that will get your attention:
"If the infection in the feet and toes entered the bones, it could cause them to soften, which could result in toes dropping off; although, this was seen as a benefit because the feet could then be bound even more tightly. Girls whose toes were more fleshy would sometimes have shards of glass or pieces of broken tiles inserted within the binding next to her feet and between her toes to cause injury and introduce infection deliberately. Disease inevitably followed infection, meaning that death from septic shock could result from foot-binding, and a surviving girl was more at risk for medical problems as she grew older."
Women with bound feet were unable to walk normally -- they had to take mincing little steps while balanced on their heels. The wives, concubines, and daughters of wealthy men could rely on servants for help; the wives of poorer men had to work despite their pain and limited mobility.
Dancing on pointe is undeniably hard on the feet (we've all seen this Henry Leutwyler photo) but it doesn't inflict the kind of pain or do the kind of damage that foot binding did. I'd say it's more akin to the wear and tear perpetrated on the bodies of professional athletes. And in that regard whatever damage that results from dancing on pointe is surely more benign than the chronic traumatic encephalopathy suffered by the participants in football, boxing, and ice hockey.
I'm fine with the contention that pointe work was prompted by a notion of ideal womanhood that may seem ludicrous -- and disempowering -- to us now, although I'd also argue that we needn't therefore consign a whole art form to the dustbin of history. But I'm not fine with basing an argument on an invidious comparison -- and that's what the equation of pointe work and foot binding is.

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I'm sure Macaulay understands these distinctions quite well and he didn't mean that pointe work is literally equivalent to Chinese footbinding in all its ghastliness. I certainly didn't take him to mean that. It is also true that some simplistic comparisons have been made in cultural critiques of ballet. I was merely noting that the resemblance has occurred to many other people besides Macaulay. (I don't happen to find all such analyses absurd, but reasonable people who love the art form can disagree.)

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[For a refresher, here's Macaulay: "The questions pile up. Does the 21st century even need ballerinas...?"

Is he questioning-(or diminishing)- the very source of his income...?

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[For a refresher, here's Macaulay: "The questions pile up. Does the 21st century even need ballerinas...?"

Is he questioning-(or diminishing)- the very source of his income...?

No, not at all. As a dance critic, he watches and writes about all kinds of dance, not just traditional ballet.

I think this does get at a very important point -- what constitutes a ballerina role in contemporary ballet? It might be interesting to go back and take a look at Macaulay's recent essay on partnering in Christopher Wheeldon's ballets, and what he seems to perceive as a manipulative relationship between men and women (beyond the mechanical manipulation that is pretty much required for most partnering techniques). I'm paraphrasing wildly, but my impression was that he felt the lack of physical space between the two dancers undercut the sense of the woman as independent actor, which is a big part of how we see a ballerina. A ballerina is autonomous, in a way that a danseur is not -- there are many contemporary ballets that have extremely challenging roles for the lead woman that don't necessarily create this sense of independence. I think that's part of what Macaulay is trying to get at in this essay.

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If you haven't seen it yet, Dance Magazine editor Wendy Perron responded to Macaulay's essay on the DB blog here.

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If you haven't seen it yet, Dance Magazine editor Wendy Perron responded to Macaulay's essay on the DB blog here.

It's great to hear Perron talk about dancers doing exemplary work in modern ballets. But I think she inadvertently ends up criticizing more than just Macaulay's preferences when she states,

"But to me, his sense of ballerina grandeur is a bit outdated. He says that people think of ballerinas as having an “old world” quality. This is true for Swan Lake, Giselle, and Sleeping Beauty. But while the classics are still treasured, the ballet world has exploded beyond the classics..."

I find that "ballerina grandeur", and even an "old world" quality is precisely the quality that ABT fans (one obvious example) appreciate in their dancers, and Macaulay is very familiar with the ABT audience. But fans of Paul Taylor's company aren't necessarily looking for grandeur in the dancing - they've other concerns. It really is a mixed bag of expectations when you look at particular companies and their associated regional audiences.

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I find that "ballerina grandeur", and even an "old world" quality is precisely the quality that ABT fans (one obvious example) appreciate in their dancers, and Macaulay is very familiar with the ABT audience. But fans of Paul Taylor's company aren't necessarily looking for grandeur in the dancing - they've other concerns. It really is a mixed bag of expectations when you look at particular companies and their associated regional audiences.

I don't see ABT often enough to have a deep understanding of their audience, but I'm sure that they have preferences -- the company has a specific style that is part of their identity, and in general their artists exemplify that style. ABT has a larger repertory of 19th c classics than any other US company, and so naturally their dancers would have a deeper relationship with those works. But to get at a slightly larger question, since there are ballerina roles in many 20th c works that don't necessarily have the "old world" quality that Perron references, what are the qualities of a contemporary ballerina, and who is making works today that highlight those attributes?

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But to get at a slightly larger question, since there are ballerina roles in many 20th c works that don't necessarily have the "old world" quality that Perron references, what are the qualities of a contemporary ballerina, and who is making works today that highlight those attributes?

Certainly a valid question, Sandik. And a difficult one, I think, because it would be partly tied to the choreographers whose works they danced (and the choreographer's particular gestural language, which is under constant development), and partly tied to the dancer's company environment and training.

We need to know what Jiří Kylián desires in a dancer, and Wheeldon, Forsythe, Taylor, Tharp, etc. (and now-deceased modern dance choreographers like Alvin Ailey). And I think it would be difficult to identify any 'movements' at work as it seems to be part of the art of choreography to strike out on your own and not fall into place as a disciple of any one established choreographer.

The need for speed, hyper-flexibility, and Balanchine's notion of a continuous flow of steps seem to be well established in modern ballet. 'Pure dance' is popular amongst the modern dance choreographers (and cheaper to produce). But beyond that I can't say exactly what has been established. Do you think partnering has changed appreciably?

Something I didn't convey well earlier, as I fumbled for words, was that I doubt that people wanting to see great renditions of traditional story ballets are admiring the performances for their 'quaint' and 'antique' qualities. And just because the stagings and costumes depict past eras of human history, the audience doesn't necessarily feel disconnected - in fact, most of us are easily able to put ourselves in those places, times, and situations. And this brings me to the important part, something that seems unique to this artform: traditional ballets that are well staged and well danced provide the audience with a moment of living history. And if the performance is really exceptional, "transcendent" as some like to say, then for a short while, it is as if we see the unbroken chain before our very eyes: an unending ritual passed through the generations of dancers. I think that moment, for me, comes up most frequently and obviously in the procession of the Shades in La Bayadère. Watching the procession, its easy to feel as though we're seeing an ancient, but still living and still vital ritual. It's kind of eerie when the sensation hits you, but it is most definitely beautiful. This effect is much less common in modern ballets of the present day, in my opinion, but there was a time when a Martha Graham, or Isadora Duncan could evoke something deep and ancient in their dances. Modern ballets strike me as often being insular and private (as in 'your own private world'). The persepectives shown (if they can be discerened) are so often personal, interior, psychological and not communal. That is of course my own reading of the modern ballets I've seen, and I'm sure there are examples that contradict this.

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Sandik, phrank: it's wonderful to read your thoughtful and thought-provoking exchange.

When Macaulay makes what appear to be arbitrary or extreme statements, I sometimes think he is trying to stimulate just this kind of reflection and discussion. If this is true, Macaulay has succeeded here on Ballet Alert. In just the past few posts you've given us a couple of insights that might keep us discussing this topic of about balelrinas (with all its ramifications) for many months.

For example:

sandik writes, in reference to Macaulay talking about partnering in something of Wheeldon's::

I'm paraphrasing wildly, but my impression was that [Macaulay] felt the lack of physical space between the two dancers undercut the sense of the woman as independent actor, which is a big part of how we see a ballerina. A ballerina is autonomous, in a way that a danseur is not -- there are many contemporary ballets that have extremely challenging roles for the lead woman that don't necessarily create this sense of independence. I think that's part of what Macaulay is trying to get at in this essay.


And phrank:

And this brings me to the important part, something that seems unique to this artform: traditional ballets that are well staged and well danced provide the audience with a moment of living history. And if the performance is really exceptional, "transcendent" as some like to say, then for a short while, it is as if we see the unbroken chain before our very eyes: an unending ritual passed through the generations of dancers. I

[...]

This effect is much less common in modern ballets of the present day, in my opinion, but there was a time when a Martha Graham, or Isadora Duncan could evoke something deep and ancient in their dances. Modern ballets strike me as often being insular and private (as in 'your own private world'). The perspectives shown (if they can be discerned) are so often personal, psychological and not communal.

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And the stuff about pointe work as the functional equivalent of foot-binding is beyond silly.

What Macaulay said was "In particular, the practice of dancing on point may one day seem as bizarre as the bygone Chinese practicing of binding women’s feet." which I don't think is the same as calling it the functional equivalent. He may be thinking in photographic terms rather than video terms, but if people a century from now opened up the time capsule and saw the photographs side-by-side, they might think it odd.

He follows that sentence with "Do we still need an art form whose stage worlds are almost solely heterosexual and whose principal women are shown not as workers but as divinities?" which is why I'm having a hard time trying to keep the question from being a slippery target: Is the woman in Aria I of "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" a divinity? Is the women in "Costermongers"? "Is the second soloist in "Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.2"? just to name a few Balanchine roles in pointe shoes? Are any of the women in "Pillar of Fire" or "Dark Elegies"? Are the women in "Calcium Night Light," or "Ecstatic Orange"? In "2B"? In "Tide Harmonic?"

What roles are we talking about to define a ballerina? Is "grandeur" a requirement? In the Russian and French companies, that traditionally meant being cast in and excelling in certain iconic classical roles, like Odette/Odile, in the style of the school in which they were trained, although POB extended this in recent decades to being able in modern rep as well. If the definition is equally good in the classics as in neoclassical or current rep, then, when it comes to 99% of American female dancers -- i.e., those who weren't trained in Moscow or the Vaganova Institute, the Kirov Academy in DC and a handful of other schools -- they are given an eclectic stylistic education, and they aren't going to look like the dancers who are trained from childhood in the few great European institutional schools, and often it is those virtues that are used to dismiss American-trained dancers. Given the permutations of "After Petipa," those schools show a continuity of training (with inevitable blips), but this isn't Imperial training.

I first saw Patricia Barker in the "Nutcracker" movie from the mid-'80's, and although it was Stowell's neoclassical choreography, not Balanchine's, I recognized her as a Balanchine ballerina, and, she confirmed my view when I saw her Polyhymnia in the 1993 Balanchine Celebration, and after I moved to Seattle. I thought in her last few years, when, under Boal, she no longer had the responsibility of being the calling card for the company and Stowell's muse, she relaxed and became a Ballerina in other rep as well. However, for me, being a Balanchine ballerina was enough in itself for her to be a Ballerina (with the capital "B"), just as I wouldn't think of Alexandrova any less of a Ballerina if she wasn't equally stellar in Balanchine than she is in Petipa. That wouldn't fly in Russia or France.

As far as Balanchine having Russian teachers in his school, some, like Danilova and Doubrovska, were trained in the Imperial style, but they danced for Balanchine in one of his most creative periods in which he was also ballet master, and they knew what he wanted." Although they and others did, Balanchine famously told Kistler when she joined NYCB from SAB, "Now I will teach you to dance."

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You cover a lot of territory here, Helene, so let's see…

1) 'What roles are we talking about to define a ballerina? Is "grandeur" a requirement?'

Sadly, I can think of no obvious cultural reference for "grandeur" in modern day U.S. society. I suppose the word comes up when talking about the Grand Canyon, Yellow Stone National Park, the Hoover Dam - that sort of thing. But only in writing and not in everyday speech. The word "grandeur" doesn't come up much at all for the Twitter generation. It has almost been relegated to the category of 'arts jargon'. Great Britain/The United Kingdom would be different because they still have a monarchy and a direct link to the actual origins/references of this word.

The dancer's repertoire would have to include a substantial number of "grand" works for grandeur to be a requirement. I can see the need for a certain grandeur in particular Balanchine works/roles, but in Robbins or Paul Taylor? No, not really. Neo-classical ballet is the last period of ballet that often requires a sense of nobility and elegance from the dancers, and this atmosphere harkens back to the Imperial world that created it.

Given the present day examples of significant ballerinas in the U.S. (for example, Sara Mearns, Wendy Whelan, Gillian Murphy), as long as their individual repertoires have a large component of traditional and neoclassical ballets, then it's fair to expect them to have an understanding of royal/imperial aesthetics, and furthermore, they must excel at reproducing those aesthetics. But I can see a time when ballet depends very little on the philosophies and aesthetics of the Age of Empires. But what we have now is not an adequate replacement: there is no unified style or aesthetic to work with. Today's art world is a hodgepodge to be sure. We may be in a post-postmodernism phase - we know technology seems to be driving things (for better or worse), but there's no longer a credo or obvious value system to even latch onto, or denounce for that matter. We just Tweet stuff.

2) 'However, for me, being a Balanchine ballerina was enough in itself for her to be a Ballerina (with the capital "B"), just as I wouldn't think of Alexandrova any less of a Ballerina if she wasn't equally stellar in Balanchine than she is in Petipa. That wouldn't fly in Russia or France.'

Works for me too, for the simple reason that Balanchine founded an actual school of ballet with a large and significant repertoire. And he was smart enough to get the most talented living American choreographer to join in (Robbins), as well as others. So there's a lot to be learned just to handle that repertoire.

Dancers in the present day have their work cut out for them, even at the Mariinsky and Bolshoi. Most principals have to dance in a wide range of styles and works. Although in Russia, "foreign" works go to the dancers who can actually pull them off and not look too foolish (they do have pride). And not all Russian dancers have an interest in non-traditional roles. There's going to be a handful wanting to take on Forsythe, for example, but many who don't have an interest, and they won't be pushed into it in Russia. Meanwhile in the U.S., I can't imagine an SFB principal dancer saying, "I don't do Forsythe/McGregor/Scarlett". Then you don't dance as a principal.

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The exceptions to the rule for grandeur in Robbins were Stephanie Saland in "Antique Eipgraphs" (performance), and , for many interpreters, the women in the second and third pas de deux in "In the Night" (roes).

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