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Jane Simpson

Balanchine is the future?

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There's an article by Alistair Macaulay in today's Financial Times, talking about NYCB in connection with their season in Edinburgh, which opens on Monday. It's at

http://timeoff.ft.com/ft/gx.cgi/ftc?pagena...gid=ZZZQ35K480C

His final sentence goes:

"For NYCB and Peter Martins, Balanchine is the past. For every other

classical ballet company today, he is the future."

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Thanks for the link, Jane. Interesting article. I think that for other companies, the future is "Dracula," actually, but the last sentence is nicely dramatic.

His point about ballets being "lit from within" is a good one -- a concrete image for something that's extremely amorphous. The complaints I've heard from former dancers about the company's current technique is that the legs and feet are not as alert and articulated.

I also think his point relative and specific criteria is a good one. Does one compare how a company looks with its peers today? (I don't know many people who would say that NYCB is currently dancing better than Paris or the Kirov.) Or, when there's a company-specific repertory, do you compare it with past standards? I think you need do both.

It will be interesting to see what the Edinburgh audience thinks. Unfortunately, criticism of the New York City Ballet in both countries has become so political it will be hard to tell.

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Alexandra, if you have time could you expand on your comment that "criticism of the New York City Ballet in both countries has become so political it will be hard to tell".

Do you mean a Farrell camp and a Martins camp? (I believe there is also a Balanchine Trust camp evolving.) Are there other politics?

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Unfortunately, I do think there is a tendency in criticism nowadays to forget we're reviewing a performance and pitch the review to larger issues. (This will get me excommunicated, I hope you realize that.) For example, if one is unhappy with one's home company, it's easy to praise, and perhaps overpraise, a visiting company. If you are "for" a certain ballet director, one may become defensive and overlook the fact that the last three ballet stank. Etc. That kind of thing.

I don't think it's a Farrell-Martins thing, but I do think there's a pro/anti-Martins thing. And on top of this, there's always the tendency to be a bit defensive of one's own home company and NOT want to praise a foreign company too much because they're seen as a threat.

Of course, there are many critics who actually write what they believe, but even the most honest of us has biases. And sometimes it's hard to separate a bias from the truth. If you really truly believe that Peter Martins is a great ballet director, then you probably like the ballets he's created/commissioned and will write about them with enthusiasm. And vice versa.

When I first started going to the ballet, I used to write, for fun, mock reviews "in the style of" several of the leading critics before their reviews came out. I guess it was a subconscious way of training myself to be a critic, although I wasn't consciously trying to become a critic. And I was pretty good at guessing what they were going to say. When you can do that, it's likely that politics is a part of the picture.

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I think Balanchine is the past, present, and future of the NYCB. If you look at their season repatory, the most prominent choreographer is surprise, surprise, Balanchine. They still exist on BAlanchine, and I think they always will. As for Balanchine being other companies future, I really think it depends on the company. There are many companies that would rather do their own stuff, like Maurice Bajart's company, and the Old old institutions, who will always and forever be dancing old as well as new pieces.

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Alexandra thanks for expanding your thoughts and for your honesty. I find that I spend a lot of time thinking about what I see as harsh criticism of Peter Martins and NYCB. Also wondering why there seems to be more anti than pro.

It’s interesting to think about how I feel about Martins as a ballet director. I don’t like most of his choreography yet I admire him for in many ways “keeping the flame” and I don’t think he gets enough credit for that.

I started to write more but I realized it was nothing more than a long defense of Martins.

As far as Balanchine being the future, I hope that his work will always be part of NYCB's present. But I have no doubt that his importance will fade. As you have pointed out look what has happened to the Royal Danish Ballet and Bournonville.

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JerryB

I'm glad you brought up the Peter Martins question. I have long been worried about the hostility displayed on this board towards him. His excellent work as both administrator and effective guardian of the Balanchine inheritance doesn't seem to count with his detractors.

The problem seems to be that he isn't Balanchine, who must surely be the hardest act in history to follow.

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Originally posted by JerryB:

I find that I spend a lot of time thinking about what I see as harsh criticism of Peter Martins and NYCB.  Also wondering why there seems to be more anti than pro.

. . .Because he has had the misfortune of being successor to a genius. Be he good or be he bad, he will always be judged on whether or not he's Balanchine. . .and he never will be.

------------------

Jeffrey E. Salzberg, Lighting Designer

portfolio: www.suncoast.quik.com/salzberg - Now featuring "This Day in Arts History"

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I haven't found any *hostility* here towards Peter Martins. There are a lot of people who see the company regularly and who have watched it for years who take issue with his artistic policies. I would encourage that, as I would encourage people who want to reason that his policies are good ones.

I really don't think it's just as simple as saying that everyone expects him to be Balanchine. I know a lot of people who understand that he's not Balanchine and don't hold that against him smile.gif The criticism I've read has not been that his ballets aren't as good as Balanchine's. (Although I think that's taken for granted, even by his defenders.) It's way he's cared for the Balanchine repertory and the dancers that has been questioned.

I do agree, Jeff, that anybody who runs that company and choreographs will be labeled "He's not Balanchine," but he didn't have to be a director-choreographer. There are other models.

I'd also say that the New York critics are very divided over Martins and that produces very balanced, if confusing, converage. The New York Times and the New York Post have been exceptionally supportive, and those voices are the ones that most ballet subscribers, and probably funders, read. The harsher criticism has come from the New Yorker, New York, and The Wall Street Journal, and though I admire those writers a great deal, and I think their voices are important ones, they aren't read by as many people.

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Ann, Jerry, Jeff, Alexandra and others--

I do think there is a great deal of hostility expressed towards Peter Martins, at this site and elsewhere. I agree that he's being blamed for not being Balanchine, and that anyone who took over his job when he did would be criticized harshly, no matter what his policies.

But what bothers me most about the “debate” (such as it is) is its polarized and emotional nature. The “antis” jump at every chance of criticizing Martins, and twist every observation of the company to make him responsible for whatever it is they dislike.

I remember when, in the mid-nineties, Tobi Tobias, a leading “anti,” criticized Martins in New York Mag for not casting the company’s talented young dancers in the Balanchine repertory. When he cast Monique Meunier (one of Tobias’s favorites) in Farrell’s role in Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet, she was on him immediately, reviling him for taking chances with a young dancer in a demanding role.

The trouble I have with this kind of criticism is that it decides in advance to hate someone and then feels obliged to carp at everything he does, no matter what. People who argue like this make it difficult to discuss the very real issues at stake—the way the Balanchine heritage is being preserved, the choice of new choreographers, the nature of the new ballets to be encouraged (i.e. plotless, practice-clothed and edgy, with no other approaches permitted), the enforced retirements of older dancers, the addition of Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake into the repertory, etc. Issues are difficult and many-layered, and it’s a lot easier to slam someone’s personality.

As for the “pros,” I don’t know of any, other than Kisselgoff and Wendy Wasserstein (and maybe Leigh Witchel smile.gif ).

[This message has been edited by Ari (edited August 17, 2000).]

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This is turning into a Peter Martins thread more than a Balanchine thread, but I think it needs to be pointed out that in the beginning the NY critics were very pro Martins, even Croce. Happy that he'd gotten the company. Acknowledging that no, he wasn't Balanchine, but who could expect him to be?

Ari, I agree with some of what you said, but not all. Sometimes there does seem to be a political tinge to the reviews, but on the pro as well as anti sides. The NYTimes has become almost an NYCB apologist, and that's no more fair or believable than someone who says, "Aha! Another bad thing Peter Martins has done."

Martins has been criticized most strongly for geting rid of some of the people recognized as good Balanchine stagers, namely Violette Verdy and Suzanne Farrell, and for the way he developed, or did not develop, dancers, and I think it is a very legitimate criticism to make, especially in a company that had a ballerina conveyor belt. They went ten years without a new ballerina. But a few seasons ago, when the new generation started coming up, this criticism stopped. So not all of the writing has been kneejerk. There's also been praise, here and elsewhere, for the new choreographic institute. And finally, among the NY critics, Clive Barnes, Jack Anderson and Jennifer Dunning are also firmly on the pro-Martins side of the great divide as well as Kisselgoff. It was Barnes, when Croce wrote that piece that the Balanchine ballets had had the hearts ripped out of them, who wrote that the company had never danced Balanchine better.

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Alexandra: Sometimes there does seem to be a political tinge to the reviews, but on the pro as well as anti sides. The NYTimes has become almost an NYCB apologist, and that's no more fair or believable than someone who says, "Aha! Another bad thing Peter Martins has done."

This was precisely my point, Alexandra. The debate has become polarized--you're either for him or agin' him, with nothing in between. Few people will admit to being biased--everyone claims to be virtuously neutral--but when the same people come out time after time on the same side of the fence, it does make you wonder.

And I'm not just talking about professional critics here, I'm talking about ordinary fans, such as me and others on this board.

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Re: Martins ability to develop ballerinas.

If you go back and read criticsm of NYCB in the early 70's after Farrell's departure, you'll find that Balanchine was criticized for failing to develop any ballerinas except Gelsey Kirkland. At that time, McBride waa considered the standard bearer. Kent and Verdy were dancing less often and Hayden was on the verge of retirement. Leland, Mazzo and Von Arnoldigen were considered less than classically and technically perfect.

Just about the time Farrell returned, we saw the advent of Ashley and then shortly there after the rise of Nichols and Calegari.

Maybe these things are cyclical? The later 80's and early 90's didn't produce many ballerinas any where it seems to me.

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liebs, that's a good point. There was a real anti-Balanchine movement in the last '60s and early 1970s from both the modern dance side (what is this old guy doing making ballets in tutus?) and the ballet side (he hasn't made a masterpiece in two years. He's over the hill). There were the Sara Leland and Kay Mazzo years. where Balanchine had to work with dancers who weren't quite top of the heap. It is interesting to speculate why these things happen. Sometimes it's that there is no model for young dancers to follow. Sometimes it's because one ballerina is so dominant that the next generation gets squelched. Sometimes, in companies that rely on their schools to fill the ranks, there's just a dearth of good talent. Sometimes there aren't good teachers. Sometimes the director doesn't know how to use the good dancers he has. I didn't follow City Ballet casting that closely ten years ago, so I can't speak to how Martins developed dancers with anywhere near the authority of someone who was watching it every night. But it's just possible that he's gotten better at casting and that's one of the reasons that Somogyi, Ringer, Kowroski and Weese are developing -- they're in the right roles most of the time. (Croce's point, I do remember, that there were squadrons of talented young dancers who never seemed to grow up. She called it "Martin's kindergarten." This was right around the time she switched from being pro to anti.)

Ari, I think sometimes, too, when there's a polarized debate, the readers become political as well. If I love what Martins is doing, then I'll see the anti-Martins stuff as pervasive. Conversely, if one thinks that he should be ridden out of town on a rail, then every time the NYTimes says, "Never has there been such an exciting season with so many ballets brilliantly danced," it will seem as though he "has the critics in his pocket." I have to say I think fans have every right to be polarized. People are passionate about what they see and what they like.

(For the record, not that it matters, I am neither pro nor con. I haven't seen the company enough in the last decade to take sides. I think the Talk magazine piece was injudicious, as was the disposing of Verdy and Farrell. I disagree with some of his casting, but I disagree with nearly everyone's casting smile.gif But I am not anti-Diamond Project; I think he is right to develop new choreographers and I don't think it's his fault that none have rained down from the clouds. I think the choreographic institute is totally positive and a very good idea. When I saw the company this spring, for the first time in three years, of the two Balanchine ballets I saw, one (Brahms-Schoenberg) was in very good shape, I thought, and the other (Symphony in C) was a bit down at heel, but still acceptable. And compared to ABT's current emphasis on virtuosity at the expense of everything else, the NYCB dancers are blessedly tasteful. It is possible to be pro- or anti-anybody situationally.)

No reason to stop this particular discussion, but please don't forget the topic of the thread, which was a British critic saying that Balanchine was NYCB's past and every other company's future.

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I don't want to try to read McCauley's mind, but I read the piece to mean that Balanchine ballets were in most companies' futures--that they hadn't danced them yet and would get the opportunity, whereas at NYCB he was now very familiar and perhaps a bit old hat with some of the dancers. I didn't think that he meant that only Balanchine would be in other companies futures.

I don't remember the Tobias article where she complained about using Meunier so much, but it may be that she saw a pattern of using one particular dancer until she was injured and out for a long time--as has happened with Koworski, Ansanelli, and others.

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McCauley's criticism makes good reading, whether you agree or disagree, because it is so detailed.

Note, though, that McCauley's criticism of Martins seems to be concentrate on Martins as "ballet master" -- of the way the company is now performing the basic elements (tendu and turn out)-- the things drilled and honed in company class. That's what McCauley concentrates on more than on Martins' role as company director, mounting new choreography, etc., including his own.

I wonder what he thought after the Edinburgh performances. Some of the British press seemed to me to have covered the festival as if they were seeing Agon for the first time.

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Michael, I think Macauley means "ballet master" in its original sense. Balanchine was the company's "ballet master." It's the person who gives the artistic guidance: casting, coaching, choosing repertory, choosing the company's mission.

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