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Leigh Witchel

Boston, Boston, Boston. . .

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The Boston Ballet has issued a press release naming principal conductor Johnathan McPhee as Interim Artistic Coordinator.

I'm sure Mr. McPhee is good at what he does, but has anyone up there considered the fact that this is a ballet company whose main product is dance? I'm beginning to worry more and more about The Talented Mr. Babcock.

With all the political machinations that seem to be going on, Boston looks to be turning into Copenhagen-on-the-Charles. frown.gif

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Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

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Here is a link describing an extra-curricular project of Jonathan McPhee.

http://www.bostonballet.org/mediainfo/Laser.htm

It seems the idea is to accompany the best bits of ballet music with a laser light show. Is this dumbing down or is it popularizing? I don't know.

The Bolshoi also recently decided to put a conductor in charge. The Boston Ballet management indicated this was a temporary thing, but maybe they got their inspiration from the goings-on at the Bolshoi.

Who said they were anti-Russian at the Boston Ballet?

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Leigh - Why, didn't you know that it's perfectly "normal" for a ballet troupe to be headed by a conductor? Look at the Kirov (Valery Gergiev) and the Bolshoi (Gennadi Rozhdesventsky). Funny how Boston has opted to follow the "Russian" model in this particular decision! wink.gif

What's next? Hugo Fiorato replacing Peter Martins as head of NYCB? - Jeannie

[This message has been edited by Jeannie (edited March 09, 2001).]

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Stagehands are much too practical to run a ballet company! Besides they often have taste.

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I realize people are kidding around a bit, but since the issue has been raised seriously elsewhere, I think one should clarify a bit...The Bolshoi and Kirov ballet companies are directed by dancers -- it's just that the ballet companies are contained/subordinated within a larger structure. Someone has to head that larger structure, and if it's a ballet dancer then, for example, the opera company can cry 'foul.' I assume, that -- one way or another -- the head of the theater as a whole is supposed to be committed to all of its parts. I well believe it doesn't always happen that way...but many big European opera house ballets run on a similar principal, and there's nothing scandalous or ludicrous about it. Presumably, it is partly because those ballet companies are part of larger institutional structures that they have so much of the great history that they do have -- along with the disadvantages that accompany that. (I know nothing about the Boston situation other than what I have read on Ballet Alert, but appointing a conductor to head the company is, one takes it, a stop gap measure, not an institutional reform.)

[This message has been edited by Drew (edited March 09, 2001).]

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Drew, your points about the conductors at the Bolshoi and Kirov being more theatre chief than balletmaster is well taken (although we don't really know what the power structure is, and how "hands on" they are. Early reports at the Bolshoi, especially, were that the conductor was setting repertory.) But I think it's quite likely that, if Boston is looking there for guidance or a model, they're not looking at the subtleties.

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Well, folks, to be truthful, there are some musicians who are quite knowledgeable about dance and whom I would trust to select repertory (Leigh, you know at least one of the people I'm thinking of), but not many.

I think it's dangerous to generalize about people (but I'm gonna do it anyway). I think Boston's making a mistake -- a bad one.

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Originally posted by salzberg:

Well, folks, to be truthful, there are some musicians who are quite knowledgeable about dance and whom I would trust to select repertory.

I think this is one of the problems -- everyone on this board could select a repertory. Many might be very interesting, very good repertories. That's why the Babcocks of the world think they can do it -- cast it, too. We all have our likes and dislikes.

But there's so much more to it than just choosing the repertory. Of course, there's how do you find the choreographers -- pick from some Top Ten list? -- and the people to stage existing repertory -- lots of snake oil salesmen out there. But far beyond that, there's how do you build a season. You can't start off with, say, Balanchine's Symphony in 3 Movements if the company's strength hasn't been built up to do it, no matter how good the music, or the ballet, is.

Building a season (beyond, of course, clever marketing and seducing subscribers) is one thing that really needs a balletmaster, someone who knows ballet from the inside. What dancers are suited to what roles? What about a long-term plan. These two dancers could go very far, but how do you bring them along? Throwing them into star parts the first season may not be the best thing; there are stepping stone roles.

There's so much to building a season beyond personal taste or curiosity.

If the new wave of conductor-managers produces good, new danceable music -- 21st century music -- then that will be a blessing beyond price, for one of the things that is holding back ballet is the lack of good, serious music that reflects our own time. Because of its lack, choreographers have had to rely on music of other eras or today's pop and movie music, and neither is completely satisfactory.

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Dancers do not look to conductors nor executive directors for artistic development, inspiration and leadership. Although both musicians and ED have given me much, the thought of having that type of person direct my artistry on a daily/career basis is painful.

I think it is the same for choreographers, ballet masters and teachers.

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In view of all the upcoming vacancies in orchestral artistic directorships, I think Anna Marie Holmes should be appointed as the Artistic Director of one of our great orchestras. After all, I'm sure she has impeccable artistic taste and probably knows more about music than McPhee knows about ballet (other than the music). wink.gif

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My impression from BB friends is that McPhee's role as artistic coordinator is to help finish pulling the 2001-2002 season repertoire together in a very short time. The BB marketing department has deadlines in early April for renewals and season announcements. The staff is working together to complete the budget and McPhee is overseeing the communication among the various constituencies. Given the very limited time in which they have to do this job and keep their heads above water, following last month's period of paralyzing stasis, I think they are probably doing the best they can at the moment. McPhee is one of the artists at the center of BB. He may not have experience as a dancer, but he knows how to work with people and he is trusted, and those characteristics might be the most important at the immediate present.

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Doug Fullington

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In all fairness to McPhee, I have a feeling he has little to do with the situation that gave rise to his appointment. I also think that the right person for the job is the right person for the job, whether they were a dancer, a musician or a janitor. But the whole thing makes me wonder more and more about who's in charge at Boston Ballet and what their goals are.

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Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

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I don't think anyone was blaming McPhee, and I can see the utility of using the expertise of someone who's dealt with contracts, and the other messy paperwork of repertory setting. I'm not so worried about who's running Boston Ballet as that this will be a trend. I'm afraid more and more ballet institutions will think they can just run things themselves, without the messy assistance, or interference, of artists.

Sorta like the people who think all you have to do is stand up in front of an orchestra and wave a little stick and the music just happens.

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A few thoughts while stuck at work on Saturday evening:

Felursus wrote: “In view of all the upcoming vacancies in orchestral artistic directorships, I think Anna Marie Holmes should be appointed as the Artistic Director of one of our great orchestras.”

She does have at least two of the qualifications necessary for such an appointment, according to her biography on the Boston Ballet web site. One is that she was not born in the United States. If the great orchestras are (in this case) the big five—New York, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia—she will fit comfortably into the tradition of hiring European music directors, with the occasional American (Bernstein) or Asian (Ozawa).

More importantly, though, is she has the proper attitude concerning her own importance, not only as a leader of the Boston Ballet but in the larger scheme of things. Quoting from the ballet’s site, she was not simply promoted to Artist Director but “ascended to that position in 1997”. Ascended is not a verb often associated with mere mortals, and music directors of symphony orchestras do not consider themselves such.

Conductors remain the stars of “classical” music—they are the ones who ultimately control things. Valery Gergiev is becoming the most powerful musician in the serious music world. If there were a scramble similar to the one at the Ballet at the top of the Boston Symphony Orchestra it would resonate far beyond the Hub and would be front-page news in New York and other music capitals.

From his PR biography, McPhee seems like an excellent interim choice. While he can’t create dance and doesn’t know it from the inside, if he has been in the pit for a few years the dancers will know and trust him. He obviously knows the music and knows about creativity, as a conductor himself.

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"Happy are the fiery natures which burn themselves out,

and glory in the sword which wears away the scabbard:

CAMILLE SAINT-SAENS

Writing of Pauline Viardot

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oh ed, that phrase wouldn't have been hers, but the ballet's, in describing the fact that she came to the boston ballet as a ballet mistress, then had various posts as assistant and then associate to bruce marks and then became artistic director. she has never been known as a pretentious person!

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Mme. Hermine--I realized that Anna Marie Holmes probably wouldn't have written her official biography for the Boston Ballet and (one hopes) didn't even look at it on the web site.

Perhaps it is the season--Lent with Easter (and spring) finally coming that caused the term "ascended" to catch my eye. My understanding is only god (God) or her annointed, such as royalty, can move upward by ascending. Such locomotion is not available to the rest of us. Conductors, of course, see themselves very much capable it, since they consider themselves gods.

No disrespect meant to Ms. Holmes.

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"Happy are the fiery natures which burn themselves out,

and glory in the sword which wears away the scabbard:

CAMILLE SAINT-SAENS

Writing of Pauline Viardot

[This message has been edited by Ed Waffle (edited March 11, 2001).]

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If you want to have an idea of what's behind all that has been happening at the Boston Ballet, I suggest you go to the Boston Globe's archives (as I did) and look at an article published on January 16,2000. The article was written by Maureen Dezell. It is rather lengthy. It is basically about Babcock, his background (bio)and his attitudes toward the Boston Ballet and ballet in general. It is also rather nasty about Holmes - in a way that implies that at least some of the expressed sentiments against her were Babcock's while giving him the chance to say that those nasty sentiments are NOT his. Nevertheless, a lot of negativity against her administration IS present in the article, and it leaves you to wonder where all that negativity came from. There is even an interesting quote from an official at the Bank of Boston, which sponsors a cultural festival, who says that while there is an audience for DANCE in Boston, she doubts there is one for classical ballet. This fits right in with other statements in the article that imply that Babcock a)approved of the idea of making ballet more "accessible" to a younger, hipper audience - which it was felt that Holmes had done with "Dracula"; B) felt there had been no carry-through because the rest of Holmes' programming was all "traditional, classical story ballets" (i.e. "Don Quixote", "Le Corsaire," and the then-projected "La Bayadere"); and c) then complained indirectly that "Dracula" didn't have enough artistic merit. There seems to be a complaint about Holmes' emphasis on Russian classical ballets and the classical style in general - as evinced by her not using Daniel Pelzig (described as a "popular, local choreographer") but instead hiring Christopher Wheeldon to do new choreography for the company. Per Dezell, Babcock was not "overwhelmed" by "choreographer-driven" dance. (I'm not sure what is meant by that - perhaps it was clearer in the interview, and the article left out some important, clarifying statements.) (Perhaps he was obliquely saying that he didn't approve of the way the NYCB (eg.)was so driven by one choreographer's, Balanchine's, vision - or by the way the company was run during Balanchine's life time??? - merely a wild guess on my part.) Babcock also expressed the opinion that one of the problems with the BB was that "the artistic and operational management...have been kept pretty separate for a long time." He goes on to say that he feels that a more team-based approach was necessary. (Yet he ALSO said he didn't want to "upset the applecart.") The article winds up with a quote (referring to why ballets like "Cinderella" and "Romeo and Juliet" survive - i.e. because of their "great music") "The link," he said, "is music."

Go read it for yourselves. I had read it and even made a hard copy of it last year, because I was so incensed. Alas, I couldn't find my copy, so I had to pay $3 for the privilege of reading it again. This time I've saved it among my emails, so I always have a handy reference. I think it is an extremely telling article - and Babcock's intentions are even clearer now - given the events of the past year. So let's see: he wants ballets that will appeal to a young, hip audience, have good music, are definitely NOT Russian classics - but perhaps use the MUSIC from the "better" Russian composers (obviously Prokofiev is ok - judging by the quote). I bet he'd just LOVE something with a "European" flavor (remember our discussions about "Euro-trash" rolleyes.gif - oooh, naughty me redface.gif - I mean "Euro-style" like the two pas-de-deux I saw at the International Ballet Gala in NY - one of which was the "Balcony PDD" from Maillot's "Romeo and Juliet." Let's see: the music's on the "approved list", it's NOT Russian, it's "modern", the choreography that I saw made the dancers look like 8-year-olds (but perhaps Babcock would think that that would appeal to a young, hip audience), the choreography isn't too "classical" - although Juliet wore pointe shoes, and so this might appease everyone. What do you think?

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I found the article confusing in exactly the same ways. Good for Holmes to have brought in "Dracula" for the young (why do they always think young people are dumb?) but bad because it was schlock. And very very bad for dancing classical ballets. (But don't forget, we want to be in the world's top ten.) The statement that, essentially, "the age of the choregrapher is over!!!" is very scary, but I'm really afraid what's happening in Boston is a bellwether.

I was especially struck by the crack about hiring Christopher Wheeldon. I found that very revealing. For the past decade or so, the explanation of why there aren't new classical ballets is because there aren't any choreographers interested in doing them. This isn't true, and I know several choreographers who have wanted to create a classical ballet for a company and been told, no, we want something "contemporary." (In one instance, my favorite, the director said that it wouldn't be possible because the dancers that were assigned to the choreographer weren't really that good at pointe work. This was a ballet company, and not a negligible one.) BUT Wheeldon -- thanks to Martins and NYCB -- has gotten visibility as a classical choreographer; one exists who can't be ignored. For someone in charge of a company to imply that this man is a liability says as much about his "aesthetic" as anything.

American companies are becoming big businesses, and big businesses, with big budgets, attract people who are not artists. The same thing has been happening in Europe for years (read "The Theatre Crisis" in Bournonville's "My Theatre Life." It's a long wail, from a choreographer's point of view, of how the theater's bureaucracy stands in the way of art.) The artists are only a small component of the whole now, not the central point.

I think one of the reasons for this is that the average age of dancers is so much younger. Fifty years ago, in Europe, at least, you had a goodly portion of the company over 35. It's harder to push around grownups, especially those with families. It's much easier to push around 18 to 25-year-olds. (Yet another reason to bring back mime smile.gif )

What interested me about that article (thank you, felursus) was how much of the current situation it explained.

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If the age of the choreographer is over, what's next? The age of the administrator? I'm an arts administrator and even I don't want to contemplate that.

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No, no, Salzberg and Liebs, you are going to run things TOGETHER - by committee. You will decide on a piece of music "of artistic merit". Salzberg will design an exquisitely artistic lighting plot. You will then hire a choreographer who will "fulfil" that lighting plot. Et voila! A ballet on which the artistic and administrative staff have been in complete cooperation. rolleyes.gif

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Diaghilev all but pulled that sort of thing off, and even managed to replace one interesting choreographer after another (more or less) while he remained in charge. Come to think of it, Salzberg -- or perhaps you WERE thinking of it -- when asked just what he did for the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev's answer was "je regle les lumieres" [imagine accents] -- that is, "I do the lighting."

For the record: I share this board's skepticism (ahem) as to whether the Boston Ballet is about to initiate a whole new era in balletic creativity.

(There were complaints about Holmes bringing in Wheeldon? Wheeldon may or may not be over hyped -- I liked the one substantive work I've seen -- but most people would consider getting Wheeldon a coup, especially in any attempt to become one of "the top ten" ballet companies. Royal Ballet credits anyone? NYCB artist in residence? For the next couple of years, Wheeldon premiers almost guarantee some national press coverage. And wouldn't the big bucks audience that supports the Boston Symphony be more appreciative of a ballet company that the national papers felt they had to cover?

That came out a bit of a rant...Oh well, whatever my Boris Kochno fantasies, I'm not in charge either...)

[This message has been edited by Drew (edited March 13, 2001).]

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Ah, Drew, methinks Mr. Babcock DOES indeed fancy himself either as Lincoln Kirstein or as Diaghlev. Alas, he hasn't the genius of either or the geniuses either of them had to work with. Furthermore, the times they do change, and I don't think any CEO (or whatever title such an individual may give himself) can get away with doing the things either Diaghlev or Kirstein could do.

Re: Wheeldon - you made my point for me. I think that Babcock (and perhaps his board) have no idea of who Wheeldon is or what he represents. As the statement in the article was made in conjunction with complaints about AM Holmes having replaced "popular local choreographer Daniel Pelzig" with Wheeldon, it could be taken as a person rooting for the home-grown product OR as a plaint about more "classically-oriented" choreography. As I have never seen any of Pelzig's works, I can't comment. I guess if you are a member of the anti-pointe shoe brigade you might dislike Wheeldon's ballets - even assming that Babcock had actually SEEN one of Wheeldon's ballets when he made the statement. Or do we lay the plaint at Maureen Dezell's door? I would LOVE to have been a fly on the wall during the interview, or - that being impossible - talk to her about it now.

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I think people all over are wondering who is in charge thereand what the company is going to look like next year.It is an interesting thing...When Bruce Marks was the director,he had a platform."Diversity" was a big issue with him,not only with who was onstage,but with what was being danced. The company did Twyla Tharp and Paul Taylor as well as they did Swan Lake and Giselle and he seemed to make it clear that his company reflected the city of Boston.All of that seemed to go away as soon as he left.Under AnnaMarie Holmes',direction things have been clearly Russian influnced and while that style can be beautiful to watch and it is clearly "classical" it doesn't always do the company and the comunity justice.What happened to diversity?Why is it that the company seems to be purging itself of things and ballets that are not Anglo-european?A ballet company should do its community the service of representing all it has to offer. Boston Ballet has dancers capable of dancing great works,but nobody seems to see that. Boston Ballet also has talented dancers of several ethnic origins,but they are not always seen. Why is it that so many Russian dancers were let go and that in the "list of hired and fireds,there was an Asian girl(who by the way is a fantastic dancer)and the two black women the company has.Johnathan McPhee might do a good job of filling in and choosing the repertiore for the company,but who has control of who(in the meantime)will decide what the company looks like?To be honest,I think Johnathan McPhee, or Jeffrey Babcocks'"dumbing down" the ballet could be an attempt to attract the people in the community who don't go to the ballet because they don't think there is anyone there who is like them.People relate to what they know.(or think they know)It is like going to a movie to see your favorite actor,or going to the Symphony to hear your favorite conductor. Ballet is difficult for some because there are no words . It is important to let the "common man "identify with someone in the company so they'll want to go and see that person....Boston Ballet has not done a good job of letting the city identify with its dancers.People go to the Pops or the Symphony because they see Keith Lockhart at the mall or Seiji Ozawa on the television,but one ever sees Boston Ballet dancers.(I'm sorry if I'm beginning to ramble.It has been a while since I last wrote and I feel as though I have missed alot, or the opportunity to say anything without being out of date).Ok,I have looked at this reply and I suppose the questions about the"look" of the company must be the "aesthetic"values of whomever is in charge.I don't know, it is difficult to speculate.It just seemed really obvious to me that the company has been looking homogenous.I don't remember if the Asian girl and the two black girls kept their jobs,but it will be a "different" look for the company if they are not there next year.I think the "dumbing down" really does coincide with the attempt to broaden the audience profile. Unfortunately,it doesn;t seem to be a really genuine way to lure people in.Oh well,hopefully Maestro McPhee will choose a repertoire that will show that Boston has a talented ballet company and hopefully,the people in charge will have the sense to leave the company with who it has now and let the next artistic director decide who should stay next year..

Originally posted by Leigh Witchel:

In all fairness to McPhee, I have a feeling he has little to do with the situation that gave rise to his appointment.  I also think that the right person for the job is the right person for the job, whether they were a dancer, a musician or a janitor.  But the whole thing makes me wonder more and more about who's in charge at Boston Ballet and what their goals are.

[This message has been edited by bijoux (edited March 24, 2001).]

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