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The road to becoming an institution


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#1 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 12 April 2002 - 09:21 PM

When I look at older films and pictures of NYCB I find myself making a demarcation point for the company around 1960, a few years after the watershed seasons that produced Agon, Square Dance, Stars and Stripes and other major works.

The Ford Foundation was supporting the School of American Ballet, bringing the most promising students in the nation to study there. The company was about to move from City Center to a new home designed specifically for it in the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. And Balanchine was bringing in a new crop of dancers that were different than those that came before - Suzanne Farrell, Patricia McBride, Mimi Paul, Patricia Neary. The point had come where dancers could be winnowed out for facility - and the breeding program had begun, for better or worse.

I'd like to discuss that formative time in the company's history - when to me, it went from being a company to having the power of an institution.

What do people think were some of the factors in this?

For those Ballet Alertniks who were watching the company in that era, would you care to say something about what you saw in the company in the late '50s up until after the move to the State Theater? Were there changes you saw, in the company or in its dancers?

How important was the Ford Foundation or Morton Baum (the director of City Center)?

It's the conventional wisdom that Balanchine was always aiming for an institutional company much like the one he grew up in. Does anyone feel this wasn't so?

Fire away!

#2 Calliope

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Posted 17 April 2002 - 04:42 AM

Leigh, what do you mean when you say an institution?

I wasn't around for the Balanchine years, but for me the company changed after the 93 Balanchine Celebration.
After that remarkable season they seemed to try jump leaps and bound to separate themselves from their past and in a way from Balanchine.

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 17 April 2002 - 08:08 AM

Not to deflect the discussion from Calliope's assessment, but a brief response to one of Leigh's questions:

It's the conventional wisdom that Balanchine was always aiming for an institutional company much like the one he grew up in. Does anyone feel this wasn't so?


No!

#4 Farrell Fan

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Posted 17 April 2002 - 01:37 PM

The Ford Foundation grant to SAB in 1963 and the move from City Center to Lincoln Center in 1964 were, as Leigh indicates, the key events in transforming NYCB into an institution. As Lincoln Kirstein recalled, the Ford grant "provoked a storm of waspish protest, presupposing that Balanchine had been granted hegemony over world dance." The furor eventually died down. Those were the years when I really fell in love with the company and with the dancers Leigh mentions. I'd hear people grumbling that they missed City Center, or as Kirstein always called it, Mecca Temple. I don't know what they missed. The ambiance was shabby and the sight lines dreadful. (Both were later improved and I enjoy going there now to see dance, notably ABT and Paul Taylor.)

The apex of NYCB as an international artistic institution was the Stravinsky Festival of 1972. Nevertheless, my wife and I always thought of NYCB not as an institution but as a family. We continued to feel that way until Balanchine's death on April 30, 1983. I'll never forget how before the SAB Workshop that night, Kirstein, Robbins, Martins, and John Taras came in front of the curtain and Kirstein announced that Mr. B had gone to join Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky. We'd never met Balanchine, but felt such a sense of loss that we went to the funeral. So did many other NYCB fans. I don't think that feeling exists any more.

"Apres moi, le board," Balanchine is supposed to have said. Not just the board. In the old days, the only people on the administrative side of the company besides Kirstein that one ever heard of were Betty Cage, Barbara Horgan, and Eddie Bigelow. An NYCB program from the last season lists, for starters, a General Manager who has an Executive Assistant, a Chief Financial Officer with four assistants, a Company Manager, a Director of External Affairs with an Administrative Assistant, a Manager of External Affairs, and two Campaign Managers. The list goes on and on. Now that's an institution.

I found Calliope's post surprising. It seems to corroborate what the Martins detractors have been saying for years.

#5 Morris Neighbor

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Posted 18 April 2002 - 12:28 AM

I endorse, resonate, echo, and otherwise urge all to read FF's remarks.

Like him, I note the passing of "family feeling" at the NYCB and at many other non-profit institutions, in New York and elsewhere.

But survival in this age of "the bigger the numbers the better" has driven the company to place a great deal of emphasis on fund-raising goals, subscription renewals, and other statistical signs of succcess. Much of the ad budget has been devoted to Time Out, a magazine read mostly by the under-30 crowd. Special effort has been devoted to the web site, whose ticket-buyers are much younger than those who appear at other sources. And, yes, they are coming. It's become common to see African-American and even Asian-American fans on the Promenade, to cite an obvious sign of new audiences at the State Theatre.

At the same time, though, the city's sole public, non-profit radio station has dropped all of its daytime classical music programming. The apology: one extra hour of evening/overnight music (7 PM to 6 AM, when most listeners are in a concert hall or sleeping). The explanation: RATINGS. Talk radio gets higher ratings than classical music. "Only 11% of our listeners" -- that's 110,000 people in real numbers -- "chose our daytime programs," the station's president explained, as she dumped us on the trashpile of history.

In short, an "institution" today is a band of fund-raisers connected, by accident or skill, to what, with luck, remains a major artistic force. Given the odds, the NYCB is doing very well indeed.

#6 Calliope

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Posted 18 April 2002 - 04:43 AM

I think the cutback on public radio is due to the NPR's recent decision to cater to the demographics of a younger audience.

As a member of that younger audience, I found that the 93 Balanchine Celebration was my "formal introduction" to Balanchine. It was thrilling and then I found that instead of seeing to me what was "historical" (ballet-wise) I would go and see a Diamond Project piece and not enough Balanchine.
That's a whole different topic, but one of the disadvantages that my generation has (at least IMO) is everyone thinks we have audience attention deficit and we need change very quickly, but sometimes we need to understand the past before we can move on. So in a way, NYCB's ad campaign has failed with me, because I was already an audience member, who doesn't go as much b/c it's to flash-fry for me.

It still feels like family, just a dysfunctional one.

#7 Farrell Fan

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Posted 18 April 2002 - 06:38 AM

Another thought: To my mind, the cultural institution NYCB became in the 60s was dealt a blow by the terms of Balanchine's will. Instead of bequeathing his ballets to the company, he left them to individuals. Whether he was thereby demonstrating a lack of faith in NYCB's future, nobody can say. The blow was not fatal. NYCB has evolved into more of an institution than ever, but perhaps a very different institution than it otherwise might have been. As Calliope points out, after the Balanchine Celebration, NYCB has been less active in perpetuating the Balanchine legacy. That task has fallen to others, under the aegis of the Balanchine Trust.

#8 dirac

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Posted 19 April 2002 - 01:50 PM

I wasn't around then, but another thing that seems to have occurred was that Balanchine became an institution as well as his company; there were still pockets of critical resistance, but the days when he received reviews along the lines of Martin's Here's-Balanchine-with-that ballet-of-his-again were over. His name started losing any tinge of modernistic radicalism that might have been associated with it and he was becoming the Establishment.


Perhaps Balanchine did what he did in his will because he had more confidence in the individuals to whom he left his ballets than any institution, even his own. This was someone who had had the rug pulled out from under him several times in his life; he would have understood better than most that nothing lasts, at least not in its original form. In some degree NYCB would have eventually ceased to be NYCB as he knew it no matter what his will said. If it's true that Balanchine's company is not tending to his ballets, then at least this way others who know them can try.



As for the public radio stations -- I fully believe that they're doing what they have to do to survive, and that talk radio gets the ratings. I don't think ratings should determine public programming . but we don't live in a country where public television and radio have generous government funding. Thus the pledge drives, ceaseless begging, and Suze Orman specials and so forth.


The importance of the Ford grant can hardly be overstated, IMO. ( I once read somewhere that Lincoln Kirstein got a late night phone call from a totally bombed Martha Graham when the Ford Foundation grant was announced, to tell him that he was "nothing but a common thief.")

#9 Morris Neighbor

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Posted 20 April 2002 - 08:00 PM

Calliope's reference to a "dysfunctional family" has considerable resonance. For example, Mr. B could make some wildly autocratic decisions, from nearly abandoning Apollo (absent for years from the NYCB repertory, including the Stravinsky Festival!), to commissioning the notorious "shower curtain" unit set for the Tchaikovsky Festival (Philip Johnson's idea of an ice palace, executed in plastic tubing), to staging the Stravinsky Festival at enormous cost. More than one great dancer rebelled: Kirkland disastrously, Kent idiosyncratically, Ashley competitively, Farrell romantically. But others, like Patricia MacBride, who was anything by the stereotypical "Balanchine ballerina," clearly enjoyed almost every aspect of their long careers at NYCB.

I would not rank his bequests in this category, however, since they all fell under the Balanchine Trust, administered by the wise and generous Barbara Horgan. (The Robbins copyrights, by the way are controlled by the same trust.) Barbara has devoted her primary attention to encouraging productions far and wide, under the guidance of knowledgeable Balanchine dancers. Companies like the Kirov can get any ballet they want, so long as they hire a Farrell or MacBride to stage it. Companies with Balanchine connections (San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and so on) can get permissions with little red tape. NYCB has carte blanche. Ballet Unknown would have to hire a Horgan-approved teacher for several weeks of class and more weeks of rehearsal before staging any major work. Royalties are distributed to the legatees, as the primary sort of cash inheritance Mr. B could offer them.

As FF knows, the only time copyright has become an important issue in staging a ballet was when Peter Martins wanted to make Tzigane part of the Balanchine Festival. Set to Ravel's flashy homage to the gypsy spirit, it was the first ballet Mr. B created for Farrell after her return to the company, and it was to her that he willed the rights. Martins, by his own description, "shot my way into the piece," in a brief partnering role. When he told Horgan he wanted it, she said (quite properly, IMHO) that Farrell would have to stage it. She did, she and Peter had a short-lived reconciliation, but the more enduring connection between NYCB and Farrell that most balletomanes (and, most likely, Horgan herself) hoped for, did not arrive.

I largely agree with dirac about NPR and many other non-profits. Lacking governmental support, they fall back on demographics in hopes of attracting more donors. But I am not at all happy to be told that "public" and "independent" broadcasters must bend the knee to Madison Avenue. The notion that every decision in our society should be based on the crude logic of the market strikes me as a different sort of "irraltional enthusiasm."

Having come of age in an era when public funding of the arts was an unquestioned ideal, I live in hope that we will get back there soon.

Harry

#10 Paul Parish

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Posted 05 May 2002 - 03:04 PM

Much to chew on here..

But for hte nonce I'd like to get back to the original question, and ask if there wasn't some falling OFF from the era of Tallchief, Leclerc, and Kent into official big-time era? There's somethng fresh, unbelievable brilliant about the choreography of hte period 4 T's through Bugaku that doesn't seem to have stayed at quite that level afterwards....

#11 Alexandra

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Posted 05 May 2002 - 03:53 PM

Paul, I wasn't there, but I've heard the same thing you have -- starkly put, "After they moved into Lincoln Center, it was over."

Now, I realize one could quibble over "over" but, as with ABT, the first years, where there was an explosion of creativity, may well have been the best.

Marcia Siegel wrote something along these lines in the 1980s, saying that it was conventional wisdom that modern dance companies were at their best in the first few years, and perhaps the same was true of ballet companies. (I'd argue against that, with the Royal Ballet as an alternate model. They had a Golden Age of sorts during the War, but another one in the 1960s. I think, too, looking at the Danish Ballet, there have been ebbs and flows.)

#12 Manhattnik

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Posted 05 May 2002 - 04:44 PM

C'mon. Perhaps NYCB was different after City Center, but "all over?"

Can you say "Stravinsky Festival?" Davisdbundlertanze? Mozartiana? Jewels?

Balanchine came from an institution even larger and more hieratic than NYCB was to become. I think he knew what he was doing, and what he was getting into, and what he wanted NYCB to become.

#13 Dale

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Posted 06 May 2002 - 12:55 AM

As Paul wrote, lots to chew on here. So I'll start with the last few posts firsts. I agree with Manhattnik that I don't think NYCB was "over."

Re: Paul's comment on the drop off. I would say that Balanchine's style became a bit different after moving into Lincoln Center. As has often been written, the larger stage needed dancers who could move faster and bigger. So as Melissa Hayden once said whereas Balanchine once devoted an hour in class to the articulation of the foot, he focused more on these aspects that would be important in a large house. Croce has written about ballets that looked better at City Center than at NYST. Instead of smaller experimental ballets, Balanchine "experiented" with the blockbuster (Union Jack, Vienna Waltzes). I think he was still developing, but just not in the same way. To see the change, I found it interesting to watch the recently released Pas de Dix on the Maria Tallchief Bell Telephone Hour tape. Not having seen the ballet at NYCB since around the Balanchine Celebration in 1993, I could again note the differences between it and Cortege Hongrois, how Balanchine exchanged tight, brilliant turning passages with tiny beats and sharp jumps for something that was much more flowing, big...a sort of lyric but heroic style. Could he have decided that in a big house the audience wouldn't appreciate the tiny detailed things he had choreographed before?

Lots to agree with Morris Neighbor's post about the Balanchine Trust (but I think it deserves noting that Mr. B left the ballets to the individuals and they formed the trust, except Taras. I don't know if Mr. B ever envisioned that he would be a trust with copyrights etc...) and the lack of resistance to Mr. B's work later in his career. It's hard to believe that Symphony in C got bad reviews. Maybe the NYCB became an insititution when John Martin loved everything Balancine did, instead of dismiss it.

That's a part of being an insitution, along with things that had been mentioned already, such as the Ford Foundation, being a part of Lincoln Center, the success of the Stravinsky Festival.

Re: about staffing and losing that loving feeling around the State Theater. I'm don't have enough knowledge about how many people it takes to run a company the size of NYCB. But someone once noted that Balanchine's job was easier than Martins and Robbins (when he was co-director) because he could just go to the board meeting and say, "I want this. We'll do it." And because of who he was and how he was, he was able to make it work or they gave the thumbs up more easily. He definitely earned the right. It's been suggested by even Martins' detractors that it really needed two or more people to do what Mr. B did so easily. On the other hand, I've seen Martins coach Balanchine and the results are excellent. I believe he had a hand in coaching the recent performances of Symphony in C, and it looks very good. So if he needs four or five assistants to coach more, then lets start hiring.

I do think NYCB has been taking an active role in trying to find the next choreographer, as pratically all companies are. I don't think it is a sign of the company's demise that other companies are dancing Balanchine. They are looking for rep too, and for some (such as the Bolshoi, Kirov, Perm etc..) they didn't have the access to his works before. So the Kirov has a few of his works in its rep. It balances out because the Pittsburgh Ballet, which had a large amount when Patricia Wilde was in charge, now has less.

I think one of the big problems at NYCB, which may foster this "non family feeling" is that there are now so many people in the organization (not dancers, administration) that, not only weren't around pre-1983 [you can't live forever or work forever], but don't know about that era. For example, I attended, as some others on this board had, the symposium a few years ago at the State Theater with Martins and Farrell moderated by Lesley Stahl. As a journalist and a ballet fan, I was kind of annoyed by her lack of knowledge of the company and history, even as far as the two dancers she was taking with. Later in the event, she admited to starting, but not finishing the Martins' and Farrell's autobiographies while doing research for the interview. Fair enough, maybe she's just starting to get into the ballet. But then I read that she had just joined the board of the NYCB. How can we expect that the PR writer for the company will place importance on the past when the people who have a say in running things don't know any better? How many others on the board are like Ms. Stahl?

In addition, the interview with Irene Diamond in the playbill was somewhat disturbing. She basically said she gets tired of ballets such as Sylphide and Swan Lake, she wants to see new works. Not that I don't appreciate her contributions or her opinion, but if these are the sort of people surrounding the brain trust of the company, it's not surprising there might be a lack of interest in keeping older ballets alive.

#14 BW

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Posted 06 May 2002 - 02:41 AM

I just wanted to let you all know how interesting this topic is - especially for someone like myself who is a relative neophyte - it's a great mini history lesson.

Dale, I would have to think you're right about the reasons for NYCB losing "that loving feeling" for the very reasons you state.

Your description of Lesley Stahl's interview is really shocking to me. I just cannot fathom anyone's not reading their guest's autobiographies! A very telling anecdote.

#15 Morris Neighbor

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Posted 07 May 2002 - 05:15 PM

I, too, am fascinated and provoked by this dicussion.

When it comes to scale, scope, and "feeling at home," I thing a lot of the change has to do with the necessity of raising public funds and looking like a profitable corporation, the better to enduce a profitable corporation to underwrite your activities. Leslie Stahl, whose income is in the high seven figures, is simply one case in point.

When Kirstein was looking for a place to stage the first performance of "Serenade," he had only to phone a friend. I think NYCB is lucky to have Irene Diamond, who writes huge checks to be sure she doesn't see the same thing twice. Even the Schubert Organization, owner of two-thirds of all Broadway theatres, is seeking corporate sponsors. The Winter Garden Theatre, whose former tenants include the likes of Follies and West Side Story, and whose current tenant is the ABBA musical Mamma Mia, is now the "Cadillac Winter Garden," in honor of $8-million from General Motors.

So I view today's managers more with sorrow than pity, since it's exceptionally hard to raise money in a hostile environment.

P.S. When it comes to relative sizes, City Center is a midget. NYST, BAM Opera House, BAM Harvey, and even the Joyce offer almost twice as much stage room. The Joyce, however, has no fly space and no orchestra pit (though there's room for a chamber ensemble); the other spaces (including City Center) can easily accomodate live music.


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