Eileen

Balanchine and Giselle

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I am throwing out this question - why did Balanchine reject Giselle as a ballet for his company?

I recently saw a 1969 film version of the ballet with the amazing Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn. I have seen it on stage as well. In the first act, for much of the time the corps is animated wallpaper. In the second act, the corps stand, arms crossed in the distinctive posture, for long periods of time. The second act especially has its longeurs, even in the solo of Myrtha, danced by Eleanor D'Antuono. Again, you have the wallpaper of the corps, standing in position for lengthy periods.

This is, as any Balanchine afficionado knows, contrary to everything Balanchine conceived of. Balanchine's corps is integral to the ballet. There is no standing in pretty poses. Also, Giselle depends a great deal on mime, when the dancing comes to a stop and the story is told. Balanchine's choreography requires minimal, often no, story telling through mime. Think of the innovations of Symphony in C and Concerto Barocco - the corps dances throughout, and they are "storyless". So is Jewels. So many examples.

I'd like to inquire of those with more knowledge of Balanchine and Giselle, as to whether my theories are correct, or if there is more to Balanchine's rejection of Giselle.

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I'm going to hand the discussion of your main question to those who might know better than I but will point out that in the film you are speaking of, Myrtha is danced by Toni Lander. Eleanor d'Antuono may be in the peasant pas de deux, I don't recall right away. flowers.gif

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Thank you for the correction, Mme. Hermine.

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This is just a wild guess, but didn't he once say something disparaging about the music to some of the classics - something to the effect that it wasn't up to his standards?

Anyhow, searching the George Balanchine Catalogue, I see that in 1946 he staged Act II, traditionally, for Ballet Theatre with Alonso, Youskevitch and Kaye. I hadn't known that!

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That's right. He knew Giselle that well. An important point.

Just informally, from what I've picked up according to my interest in the ideas of the artist whose work got me hooked into enjoying that art form so many years ago - in the mid-'60s - and without citing "chapter and verse" - published sources, and all that: Balanchine actually liked Giselle and The Sleeping Beauty, too, and considered them the best of the 19th-Century ballets, but he didn't think his company should attempt everything - other companies could do those.

And maybe he had in mind that other companies could do them in the appropriate, traditional ways of moving - he was onto different ways, appropriate to the ballets he was making - so that the old ballets would look their best performed elsewhere, too. (Discussing staging S B, he complained that he couldn't put a fountain onstage, because his theater wouldn't accommodate it. I take this partly as metaphor for his concern that S B be done right.) Meanwhile, while other companies did their thing, he would concentrate on exploring his own vision of what ballet could be, or become.

The activity of the corps you've noted startled European audiences when Balanchine's company toured there the first time - they were accustomed to dancers "standing in pretty poses," when what they saw watching Balanchine's dancers was a corps very often echoing movement that the solo performers had just shown, movement through poses (depending on the musical structure). That is, they saw that if they were quick of eye, and paid attention. The poses were there, clearly, in the flow, the through-line.

And, yes, he wanted to abandon most pantomime, observing that contemporary audiences wouldn't understand it. Basically, his ballets look like he was taking advice from his chosen composer of the moment - even explaining, in response to a question about why he made some movement for a certain moment, "Tchaikovsky told me to." (But he could tell a story when that was his project. I love to watch the first scene of his Nutcracker - only his - for what it shows of his taking his composer's advice.)

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This is just a wild guess, but didn't he once say something disparaging about the music to some of the classics - something to the effect that it wasn't up to his standards?

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More than once, I'd imagine. Somewhere, maybe in that two-hour documentary Balanchine, made for PBS and issued on DVD, I've heard him say, slowly, disdainfully, "Min-kus," about the composer of the music for the "traditional" Petipa Don Quixote. (I agree. The prospect of all that "Min-kus" has kept me from watching that ballet. A few excerpts are plenty. As we know, Balanchine eventually made his own treatment, to commissioned music.)

What has often delighted me is how he could take a piece from the concert repertory which doesn't need to accompany something else, as music for ballet often does, like effective movie music, which doesn't completely satisfy if it's heard without that something, and make something incorporating that music without looking silly, as other choreographers sometimes do.

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Yes, that was part of his genius. Concerto Barocco is perhaps the clearest and best example of how he could take classical music and create ballet steps so perfectly musical that the viewer might think the music was specifically created for the ballet. See the music, hear the dance.

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In the one of the video series of Balanchine dancers (of the 1940s-60s) coaching more recent dancers (which seems to be available to libraries mostly) Maria Tallchief mentions that although he did not produce Giselle, Balanchine knew every part in it and taught it to her and other dancers. I don't recall what the time period was. As Jack Reed says. and Solomon Volkov reports, he would have done Sleeping Beauty if the funds and time were available to do it right.

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the single GISELLE entry in CHOREOGRAPHY BY BALANCHINE, item no. 234, concerns a scene in Ballet Theatre's '46 staging, which Balanchine himself set.

Balanchine was seeming of more than one mind about the 'old' ballet: on one hand if Volkov is to be completely trusted, and no recordings of Balanchine's saying what Volkov says he said to him exist as far as is known, Balanchine called GISELLE one of the 'great' ballets; on the other, he was said to have more or less sniffed when certain of his dancers said they might be leaving NYCB because they wanted to dance other ballets, GISELLE, per se: Ah! Giselle-itis!

as an aside, it might be noted that Nancy Goldner has an essay in, or at least soon to be published by, RARITAN about GISELLE, largely w/ regard to Violette Verdy's performance in it, about which she writes most enthusiastically. she expresses quite definite opinions about Fracci's Giselle, which are hardly positive.

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Balanchine's being of different minds about a subject strikes me as a manifestation of a great virtue - his extremely lively mind, never really settled, producing fresh thoughts and, sometimes, seemingly contradictory statements at different times, his thoughts of the moment. (Not that I think rg and I are in much disagreement about this.)

But a dancer's leaving him - that introduces another aspect: I can imagine his disappointment, even hurt or anger, at the idea that someone is no longer an enthusiastic partner in his projects, especially after he may have spent many hours in the studio developing their unique talents. (If I remember correctly, he was reported to be such when Gelsey Kirkland left his NYCB to dance with Baryshnikov at ABT. Speaking of Giselles.)

Good to have the heads up about the Goldner article. She's always well worth reading, although I would have loved to read Verdy's ideas about Fracci's Giselle, the way I had misread that at first.

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RG, is it possible you could provide a link to Nancy Goldner's article in Raritan when it comes out? If this is allowed? I'd love to read it, and have no access to Raritan. Thank you.

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There are quite beautiful parts of the Don Q score that we rarely hear, since the "excerpts" usually heard are for the Act III PDD, which I think is the most hackneyed part of the score.

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What impresses me about Balanchine and music, if he did feel negatively toward traditional ballet scores, is that he used serious classical music for his ballets. He used the Bach Double Violin Concerto for Concerto Barocco, Symphony in C by Bizet for the eponymous ballet, and of course, he introduced Stravinsky to many musical neophytes (like me). Then he used Mozart in Divertimento No. 15, and excerpts from Tchaikovsky scores, as in Allegro Brillante. His music is always serious classical, so of course he may have felt the light music of Adolph Adam was not in that league, and it is not.

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i have no info at this point re: Goldner's RARITAN essay and it's availability on line.

if i learn it can be linked, i'll post about it.

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So far, I see they're giving away some other material from the current issue, where Goldner's article appears, but not hers. But the magazine may be available in shops that try to carry everything, including such "little" magazines. (I suppose the term refers to their circulation numbers, like 10,000, instead of millions.)

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(I suppose the term refers to their circulation numbers, like 10,000, instead of millions.)

Jack, Raritan's circulation is around 3500-4000 in 1999. I don't expect this number to have increased much, though I'm not sure how they count institutional and digital subscriptions to academic journal repositories that would contain Raritan such as Jstor, Ebscohost, etc ad infinitum. Edit: That's the only concrete circulation figure that I could find. Neither the magazine's website nor Ulrich's Periodicals Directory list a current circulation figure.

Anyway, if you are affiliated with a university, the article should be accessible through your institution's subscription to these fine repositories.

Interesting fact from said article: Violette Verdy once danced Giselle with Edward Villella at Boston Ballet in 1968.

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Okay, I was mainly trying to distinguish between Raritan and Time! I knew I was overestimating their circulation. Maybe The New Republic or The Nation gets up to my number? Yours are more typical for the genre, like The Hudson Review, where the excellent music critic who signed himself "B. H. Haggin" wrote his ballet criticism, decades ago.

More to the point, Bernard Haggin, a great admirer of Verdy, among others of Balanchine's dancers, put several images of those performances in his 1970 book, Ballet Chronicle (long o.p.), on pp. 198-199, and on pp. 201-209 a series of isolated moments and movement sequences from "the film made by Gerald Fitzgerald of the Boston Ballet's 1969 production." (A little Googling turns up almost nothing except for a couple of images on Boston Ballet's web site I find much less exciting, but knowing something exists may help in its discovery.)

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I agree with Jack Reed about Balanchine being of different minds about a subject – like most artists he seemed to be throwing people off the track, or reposition the past to meet present needs. In a documentary somewhere he winkingly says this is the step we do when we do Giselle, when of course they didn't do Giselle at the time (except perhaps for Serenade).

The NY Times review of the production of Giselle that abatt cites doesn't credit Balanchine with the actual choreography but instead says:

The production would have more unity, and greater justice would have been done Mr. Berman, if Balanchine were called in to revise the choreography and Stravinsky to fix up the music...

Quite clearly everybody was out of step last night but Mr Berman despite a superb cast … As it was [Miss Alonso] might have been dancing it on the back of an elephant in Ringling’s circus… Stanley Herbetter, who has previously done an excellent Hilarion, was completely smotherd in his red flounces, which cut through the blue scenery and blue tutus (Mr. Berman had transformed the work into a “ballet bleu”) like a knife...

GISELLE IS DANCED IN STRANGE DECOR, NYT Oct 16, 1946

Balanchine did a short Sleeping Beauty for Ballet Theatre which was triple billed with Giselle (Nana Gollner, Igor Yoskevich, and Diana Adams) and Jerome Robbins' Interplay:

The evening opened with the second presentation of Balanchine’s new arrangement of Princess Aurora with Nora Kaye, serene, scintillating and elegant in the title role; John Kriza again, as Prince Charming, and Janet Reed dong a charming first “Bluebird” pas de deux with the assistance (if that is the word) of Eric Braun, who has excellent elevation even when his is nervous.

GOLLNER AT BEST IN ROLE OF GISELLE, NYT April 23, 1949

But Tim Scholl writes a complicated argument in From Petipa to Balanchine that Balanchine was always doing Sleeping Beauty, that the precious stones of SB also figure in colored costumed original Symphony in C and in Jewels. Which is how painters and writers work – anxiety of influence or whatever. As Cezanne was redone by Matisse and Picasso, so was Petipa by Balanchine.

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The NY Times review of the production of Giselle that abatt cites doesn't credit Balanchine with the actual choreography

That was me, and I should have been more specific than "traditional." Here's what the description at that link says:

Balanchine, working with Romanoff, arranged the traditional Maryinsky staging of Giselle's grave scene in Act II: Albrecht prevents Giselle from disappearing into her grave and lays her on a bed of flowers; but Giselle sinks away, and only the flowers remain. This interpolation lasted in repertory for only a brief time.

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If Balanchine wasn't all that fond of the music of Giselle, he did always speak VERY fondly of two very famous Giselles, Olga Spessivtseva and Tamara Karsavina, and his memories of watching them when he was a student at the Mariinsky. I think he respected the "classics" more than he cared to say. Of course he wanted to promote his vision of classical ballet but his memories of watching the Mariinsky when he was young seemed sacred to him.

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The NY Times review of the production of Giselle that abatt cites doesn't credit Balanchine with the actual choreography

That was me, and I should have been more specific than "traditional": Here's what the description at that link says:

Balanchine, working with Romanoff, arranged the traditional Maryinsky staging of Giselle's grave scene in Act II: Albrecht prevents Giselle from disappearing into her grave and lays her on a bed of flowers; but Giselle sinks away, and only the flowers remain. This interpolation lasted in repertory for only a brief time.

Sorry kfw,I was reading the thread upside down down while trying to post. The Oct 16, 1946 NYT review characterizes the grave scene like this -

In the last act however the old and impressive ending in which Giselle sinks into the tomb has been replaced by a bit of bathos in which Albrecht now tucks her awkwardly into a waiting grave and pulls the hinged grass over her…

Interesting that John Martin thought that Stravinsky should be called in to spruce up the music. "The orchestra played quite badly, no doubt embarrassed by the inappropriateness of the late Mr. Adam's music," he says.

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More to the point, Bernard Haggin, a great admirer of Verdy, among others of Balanchine's dancers, put several images of those performances in his 1970 book, Ballet Chronicle (long o.p.), on pp. 198-199, and on pp. 201-209 a series of isolated moments and movement sequences from "the film made by Gerald Fitzgerald of the Boston Ballet's 1969 production." (A little Googling turns up almost nothing except for a couple of images on Boston Ballet's web site I find much less exciting, but knowing something exists may help in its discovery.)

Of which I'm assuming that the following may be a segment (from a fundraising program of 1991).

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So far, I see they're giving away some other material from the current issue, where Goldner's article appears, but not hers. But the magazine may be available in shops that try to carry everything, including such "little" magazines. (I suppose the term refers to their circulation numbers, like 10,000, instead of millions.)

You can order a copy of the current issue ($10 plus postage) using the form at this URL: http://raritanquarterly.rutgers.edu/files/Raritan-Subscription-Order-Form.pdf Note that Raritan isn't set up to take online orders -- you'll have to mail in the form with a check. There's a number to call for details re availability and P&H charges.

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As I understand it, Adam's score for Giselle includes one of the first examples of the character leitmotif, and that music historians would consider it a significant work for that element alone.

With the notable exception of works like Nutcracker, Swan Lake act 2, and Coppelia, Balanchine was much more interested in creating new work than in staging older ballets. I don't know if it was a specific lack of regard for Giselle as Giselle, or just his general predilection to look forward rather than back, but I hesitate to read more into it than is already established.

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Also, as we learned when PNB did its first Giselle a few seasons ago, the modern, heavy orchestrations obscure the subtle and atmospheric nature of the score, much the way the Stokowski Bach arrangements change the character of the music, even if the notes stay the same.

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