Marc Haegeman

Casting (and typecasting)

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The Winter 1999 Issue of "Ballet Review" contains an interesting article (by Joel Lobenthal) on Agrippina Vaganova, the great Russian pedagogue of this century, who formed some of the most famous names in the history of the Kirov and Russian Ballet (Ulanova, Dudinskaya, Shelest, Moiseyeva, Kurgapkina, Kolpakova, Osipenko to name but a few).

As is stated Vaganova attached great importance to emploi. Her ballerinas were only doing these roles they were suited to do, by physique, temperament and manner. As is made clear by the example given by one of her pupils, Ninella Kurgapkina, now herself a respected pedagogue for the Kirov Ballet: “She didn’t believe in the same ballerina jumping from ‘Paquita’ one night to ‘Swan Lake’ the next.”

Things have certainly changed. In the Kirov Ballet nowadays there seems to be very little trace of care for emploi. Fairies are dancing swans the next day, Kitri is the same ballerina as Odette, and tall girls are selected for brilliant allegro parts. Also among the male dancers princes, toreadors, and slaves are now continually mixed, with often curious but almost always disappointing results.

What could be the reasons for this relaxation of the rules of emploi? How is the situation in other companies nowadays? Is there a similar development?

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Ah, Vaganova. What a woman.

Marc, I think it's partly ignorance and partly dancer pressure. No one likes to be typed and I doubt there are many dancers who would accept the notion that they're a fairy and not a swan. When star dancers dance roles out of their emploi -- and were not only applauded for it by the audience, but called "definitive in the role" by critics -- naturally, other dancers wanted the same chances. And they've been given them. Denmark held on to emploi until about 15 years ago; it's now completely gone. ABT never had a sense of emploi, IMO, and that's another reason why it's gone elsewhere. NYCB had a very strong sense of emploi, under Balanchine. I haven't seen enough of the Royal Ballet lately to be able to tell, with certainty, what's gone on there, but I haven't read anyone accuse the company of typecasting dancers, so I'd be surprised if it's still active there, either.

Emploi in dance is analogous to voice in opera. Certain "types" once had a vocabulary specific to their type; it was that strict. I agree with Vaganova that it makes a huge difference.

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It was in a way surprising to hear Larissa Lezhnina admit freely before she danced the lead in the Dutch National Ballet's "Swan Lake" that she wouldn't be very good in the role, because she is "not a swan."

But then again, Larissa Lezhnina belongs definitely to the old school.

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I like that you've started this thread, Marc. I look forward to reading others' opinions, and I know that I don't have nearly the experience of many on this board, but I do have some basic thoughts on the matter.

First, I think that there has definitely been a relaxation of emploi and that ABT provides a good example in Paloma Herrera. Herrera fans, please don't throw things at me! She's just someone I've had the opportunity to see on several occasions. I've now seen her live in Theme and Variations and as Gamzatti in La Bayadere and on tape in the ABT Now video and Le Corsaire. I can't complain TOO much about the taped performances, especially as Kitri in the ABT Now tape, but I would have to say that the live performances were almost painful to watch. The broken wrists and flailing arms in Theme and Variations almost had me screaming, and as Gamzatti, she seemed completely unprepared to the point that she seemed to be inventing her variations as she went along; even her turns were uncharacteristically awful. From ABT's cast listing for the Met performances, it looks like she'll be dancing the lead in virually every ballet this spring, but in my opinion, her performances would be much stronger if she really focused on the details in a few roles that suit her (like Kitri) instead of trying to learn everything out there. She's a dancer with talent and charisma to spare (I had actually been looking forward to seeing her as Gamzatti--I had thought she would be wonderful, with her expressive feet), but I can't bear to watch her in these underrehearsed and incomplete characterizations.

I suspect that the reasons for casting her so much are twofold: (1) she's extremely popular and sells tickets; and (2) I assume that being so young, she probably thinks that more is better.

Just my 2 cents' worth. Please feel free to agree or disagree as you will. I realize that I've twisted the specific topic of "emploi" more into a complaint against "too much too soon," but I think the two concepts are interrelated. I don't want to stifle anyone's artistic development, but I don't think that every dancer was meant to dance every role, especially not all at the same time!

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My opinion on this issue, is based not so much on having seen performances of a particular dancer when not used in her/his best "emploi", but more on a sense of what has changed for companies over the years (based on discussions on this board). I'm still somewhat ignorant of what specific emploi leading parts demand in most ballets.

In general, I agree with Alexandra (stars get what they want) and with Bard's Ballerina (tickets will be sold if a star dances, even if out of her/his best emploi). I'm interpreting that the concern over "emploi" is directed mostly at the leading roles in well-known ballets. I would think that occasionally a company has to experiment and give a new dancer a few different roles to discover "who she/he is, or can be".

It seems that in the contemporary world the "star" performer is more important than the "team" so to speak. This has happened on most professional sports teams. I suspect it is happening with most ballet companies. I've an impression that in the past the really world class ballet companies were more concerned with and dedicated to the artistic purity of the ballet being danced (vs giving emerging stars almost continuous exposure) and employed an entire company to support this ideal.

In the go-go climate of today, individual dancers (just as high priced position players in sports determine strategies) seem to have more overall influence on how a ballet is cast, perhaps because the companies rely heavily (as do certain sports teams) on these star individuals to carry them financially.

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At a time when ballet companies are dancing the works of Martha Graham, I suppose it's not surprising that much more subtle issues of emploi have fallen by the wayside.

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I don't think Herrera's only problem is emploi--flailing wrists are a sign of poor training or coaching, and would be out of place in Kitri, which she is certainly temperamentally suited for. I think it is more a problem of stars, and audiences thinking that they have to see them in everything. Barishnikov, from what I understand, wanted to leave Russia because he didn't want to dance the peasant pas de deux for the rest of his life (since in Russia he wasn't considered princely material); his technique got him everything in the west, and I think we are living with the consequences.

Of course ABT was casting against type long before Barishnykov--van Hamel and Gregory would have been astounding Myrtas, but because they were "stars", they were usually (mis)cast as Giselle and never really owned Myrtha.

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Thanks for your mention of Giselle, cargill. It reminded me of San Francisco Ballet and the casting of Muriel Maffre as Myrtha rather than as Giselle. I understand she was absolutely riveting (unfortunately, I saw a different cast with one of those Myrthas who look like they're waving a stick around on stage and feeling really silly doing it). One example of emploi in the ballet world today!

Perhaps someone more familiar with SFB can comment on whether the company as a whole may be a last bastion of emploi, or whether Maffre just has an excellent sense of her own strengths. Apparently, she's also outstanding as the queen bug in The Cage -- sorry, can't remember the official name of that role at the moment. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see her in that either...

[This message has been edited by The Bard's Ballerina (edited February 19, 2000).]

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Aren't things like bad coaching and the trend of "stars getting what they want" ultimately attributable to bad or weak company direction? It takes a strong ballet master who knows what he wants to say no. For example, I remember after Balanchine's death Merrill Ashley saying something in an interview to the effect that "Peter's one of us" as opposed to an authority figure. She knew whereof she spoke, since she was dancing ballets like Chaconne and Concerto Barocco in which Balanchine had not cast her. I never saw her in either ballet, but I can't imagine that she would have been right for either one, not on technical grounds but stylistic ones.

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Of course ABT was casting against type long before Barishnykov--van Hamel and Gregory would have been astounding Myrtas, but because they were "stars", they were usually (mis)cast as Giselle and never really owned Myrtha.

I am a little puzzled by this statement.

I watched ABT dance scads of Giselles back in the seventies and eighties, and, while Martine was frequently Myrtha, she was only given one Giselle that I recall -- and it wasn't a particularly successful preformance, and I don't believe she ever was given the role again, at least not in New York. Whether it was "emploi" or "type-casting," Martine pretty much did "own" Myrtha at ABT. That was part of the problem with her Giselle. I couldn't help but thinking, "Why is Myrtha trying to save Albrecht?"

She's the standard by which I've judged all other Myrthas I've seen, at least the tall statuesque Myrthas as opposed to short, jumpy Myrthas.

On the other hand, I don't recall that Gregory ever danced Myrtha with ABT, although she may have early in her career.

But as far as Martine's Myrtha is concerned, she was indeed astounding. No "would have been" about it.

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I agree with what's being said here, but at the same time it's not at all bad for a ballet master to do a certain amount of casting against type in order to develop a dancer, for example a famous story is that Balanchine made the later version of Valse Fantaisie on Mimi Paul because she was convinced she couldn't jump.

This certainly doesn't prove prior statements wrong though, in order to cast against type, you actually have to know what type of dancer someone is in the first place!

I also think that employ is slightly different in each repertory - I think Balanchine had his "types", but they were somewhat different from Petipa's, and Soviet typing is a different affair too. That typing than affects prior repertory; if your leading men in current ballets are short and powerful, than your princes will be too, even though the roles were developed on tall danseurs nobles.

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Re Myrtha, as I remember it, Van Hamel did do Myrtha (quite wonderfully) but before stardom descended upon her. At that point, the role was surrendered to soloists -- Jolinda Menendez, Nanette Glushak. Yes, she only did one Giselle, but she didn't return to Myrtha after it.ASBT's ide aof emploi was ranking. Myrtha, Effy, Lilac were all "junior ballerina" roles. Gregory danced both Giselle and the Sylph. Lots. And lots and lots and lots and lots. One of Alan M. Kriegsman's greatest lines was that when Gregory's Giselle makes her entrance, she "bounds out of her cottage, looking all the world as though she's ready for Wimbledon."

Leigh, re emploi, although I agree that there are differences among companies, I would add that some of those differences are due to misunderstandings or corruptions of employ. I would very much disagree that just because your leading men are short and muscular, that that is what the company's Princes must become. You wait until you have a suitable Prince. The great companies have retired ballets for several years because there wasn't anyone suitable to dance them. If the situation is really bleak (the Danes didn't have a great James for ten years, for example) you can put the "wrong" dancer in the role if he has other charms, and you start grooming the successor Now. And the directors know the difference and cast correctly when able.

Alexandra

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I'm continuing the comments from the thread on Soloviev here because I think there more germane here than in a discussion of an individual dancer.

Marc mentions Soloviev's rep, which went from Bluebird to Desire and Solor to Soviet ballets like the Stone Flower. Again, my viewing of Soloviev is limited to that video, but it seems that the Soviet characterization of leading roles went from "The Prince" to "The Hero" and Sleeping Beauty and The Stone Flower would be danced by the same dancer. I'm less mentioning this as a judgment here (and certainly not a cut on Soloviev, again, my viewing is limited to that single tape) than an observation. There definitely seemed to be a change in employ, and that's what I was referring to in my previous comment. Did their concept of what makes a Prince or a leading male change?

[This message has been edited by Leigh Witchel (edited February 20, 2000).]

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Leigh, I don’t know of you can take the development/career of Soloviev as representative for the whole Soviet conception of emploi and typecasting. Simply because Soloviev was such an exceptional case. It seems that the Kirov never managed to figure out properly what to do with this extraordinary talent of his. In a way he was “tried out” in various kinds of roles. This caused his eternal discomfort and eventually his untimely end (in fact the same can be said about other outstanding talents like Nureyev or Baryshnikov, who have luckily chosen another way to get out of the dead-end street.)

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I think that's a very good point. Every dancer doesn't fit perfectly into 18th or 19th century employ, and Baryshnikov and Soloviev seem to be prime examples. They needed 20th century ballets that used their gifts. Baryshnikov was, one reads, really only suited to Basil -- not much of a career.

To muddy the waters further, there's a "middle genre" that doesn't show up in the danseur noble - demicaracter -- caracter/grotesque trio. Its formal name is "semicharacter-classical" and it's often shortened to "classique" or "classical" -- and since the latter is the most overused term in ballet, it causes a lot of confusion. The history of this genre is that it came about at the beginning of the 19th century for the new breed of dancer who both danced and mimed [in the 18th century, dance and mime were quite separate; Noverre didn't believe that dancing could express anything but itself], had the fleetness of the demicaractere dancer as well as the grace of the noble genre. James and Albrecht are "semicharacter classical."

I've also noticed that some demicaractere male dancers are starting to call themselves "virtuoso" dancers, as the term "demicaractere" is so often misunderstood to mean something second rate, which it's not.

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ABT may not be known for using Emploi, however, certain choreographers were, namely one Mr. Tudor! smile.gif Pillar was out of the rep from the time of Nora Kaye until Sallie Wilson, which was quite a long period of time. My understanding was that he would not re-stage it until he had the right person for Hagar. Tudor was very, very fussy about casting, and often spent a long time working with people before casting them. I do believe that he definitely used Emploi smile.gif

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With respect to women dancers, and it is not really to do with character so much as with type of dancing, but is there a similar problem with being classed as either an adagio or an allegro dancer and being in trouble if you fall in between? What would you call someone who was purely neither one but good at both?

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Sorry, guys, I'm jumping in a little bit late.

It's not any special Soviet casting in emploi. It came from French theatre and it has the same category: tragic, comic, hero, lover, fool.

Alexandra was absolutely right, not Baryshnikov, not Soloviev feet well in one of these categories and so they had a troubles to find they own repertoire. By the way, Baryshnikov could dance anything he wanted in time of his defection, but he was smart enough not asking for Siegfrid. The same as Lezhnina never asked Odette. It's not old school, it's just smart people.

Andrei.

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Fact remains that there was more obvious care of emploi (whatever it's origin) in Russian ballet before than there is now.

Andrei, by giving the example of Larissa Lezhnina I only wanted to show that somebody of her generation still recognizes emploi. And besides: she readily admits she is not suited for it, and maybe she never asked for it, but she DOES dance Odette/Odile.

That's really clever.

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By the way, how was her performamce?

I don't think now Artistic directors care less about emploi then decades ago, but today their artistic decision have to compromise with politics and money more often.

Andrei.

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Andrei, I had the misfortune to witness Baryshnikov's Siegfried, twice. He must have been more clever when he was young.

I think there are balletmasters today who don't know what employ is, and, even if they did know, would scorn it. Perhaps this is the American influence? Employ is not an American democratic concept.

Your putting it in prince, lover, fool terms makes good sense. Part of it is character, but part of it is also body type. (And for the Danes, a good bit of it is the nose. I'm not kidding. Turned up noses are demis, long, straight noses are nobles, tragedy.)

Michael, I think allegro/adagio makes a lot of sense too as a category. A languid dancer probably won't look her best in a role calling for quick footwork, and speed queens don't know how to take the time to unfurl their limbs in supported adagios. There are also other divisions, like "classical/romantic." I think a lot of this is lost. I'm comfortable only with 18th century and early 19th century because dear Noverre wrote it down, and historians quote dancers and balletmasters about how it evolved in the 50 years after Noverre's Letters. After that, I'm trying to glue feathers together to make a duck.

I also think there are lots of subtle distinctions within the genres that have gotten lost. Each of the fairies in Sleeping Beauty seems different, to me, and look best when danced by women who suit the role physically. I just don't know the names.

Victoria, I think Tudor was very careful about casting, too (except for his Leslie Browne period smile.gif ) I don't know enough about Tudor to comment on how he used employ.

When the Stanislavsky Ballet came to DC, I thought they used employ better than most larger companies today. They knew who was the Prince and who the Jester, and those two dancers looked as different as night and day. But in the contemporary ballets (contemporary classical ballets) the same two men danced side by side and the distinctions were blurred. One was slightly taller; that's all. So a lot of it is how the body is used.

Alexandra

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It’s good that you mention the fairies in “The Sleeping Beauty”, Alexandra, because their variations may count as supreme examples of emploi. They need to be danced by girls who are physically suited, and what’s more, according to Karsavina, they were even tailored to the exact personalities of the dancers who created them.

And what happens now, in one of the first casts of the new/old “Sleeping Beauty” at the Maryinsky Theatre last year the second variation in the Prologue (Coulante, which is an allegro variation with many jumps and turns) was danced by Maya Dumchenko, one of the tallest dancers in the company, who is anything but suited for allegro parts. While the third variation (the Breadcrumb Fairy, which is softer and more gentle) was danced by Yulia Kassenkova, who is short and solid, and an ideal allegro dancer. Had they wanted to do it wrong intentionally, they wouldn’t have done it differently. But then again, a lyrical dancer like Dumchenko is cast as Gamzatti and Kitri, so who is still surprised about what they going to find next?

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Well, I for one am happy that Makarova did not subscribe to this "emploi" or "employ" (a term that is new to me), or we might never have seen her Swan Lake(!!) since she danced mostly the Romantic repertoire.

I have always found it interesting to watch any great artist perform roles that are supposedly not suited to them---a case in point---I saw Nora Kaye dance Odette/Odile many times while the purists croaked --"but she doesn't have classical line" -- sure enough, she didn't have classic line but her interpretations and technique carried her through.

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As I stated earlier, I'm all for casting against type to develop a talented dancer.

What makes employ useful in such cases is knowing what sort of dancer is most physically and tempermentally suited to Odette means that you also know to give the other dancer you want to groom the extra coaching she needs to get there. And the they get a matinee, not first cast the first time they do it.

It helps to comprehend employ also as a tool of the balletmaster, not a pigeonholing device for dancers. What if the balletmaster thinks Odette/Odile is the one who can do fouettes, or James is the guy in the company with the best beats?

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