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NYCB's casting crisis


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#16 Ari

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Posted 14 July 2002 - 02:43 PM

Interesting that you think that Gottlieb's article is so historically-minded, Nanatchka. I think the opposite—that he criticized current casting policy without considering that of earlier days.

I can’t comment on Gottlieb’s evaluations of particular dancers, since I haven’t seen the company enough this past season. But I do have a problem with his tone and his arguments.

The most distressing thing about his article, to me, is its prevailing tone of hysteria. I don’t think this helps anyone and may do a good deal of harm. The hostility he evinces towards Peter Martins will surprise nobody who has followed his writing in recent years; in practical effect, however, all it’s likely to do will be to alienate those in power at NYCB, the very same people whose interest might have been piqued by reasonable, thoughtful criticism. If I were professionally associated with the company, I would glance at the article and think, “Oh, Gottlieb’s raving again,” and not even read it—thereby scotching whatever hopes the author may have had of influencing company policy.

The trouble with Gottlieb’s arguments is that they treat Martins’s casting decisions as though they occur in a vacuum, and are unrelated to other considerations an artistic director has to make. Any consideration of how dancers are cast at NYCB these days would have to take the company’s history into account—that is, to compare it to the casting situation that Martins inherited from Balanchine.

Now, nobody revers Balanchine more than me. But I’m also the first to say that the decisions he made could be very, very strange, and sometimes just plain wrong. In terms of casting, the reason for some of his decisions became clear years later, but others didn’t, and some are still indefensible 19 years after his death.

For instance, the issue of older dancers. Gottlieb complains that there are too many dancers past their prime who are hogging parts that should be given to talented youngsters. This is a problem in every ballet company, and there’s no easy solution to it. Balanchine was loyal to dancers who had served him well, and never fired anyone. He let them decide when to retire. He encouraged them to do so by seldom casting them, but did make sure to cast them at least once a season so they could receive regular paychecks, and he left them their dressing rooms. It was kindly meant—I think he wanted to give them time to work out a career transition plan—but it meant that talented young dancers who were dancing much more often as soloists than as corps members were denied the promotions they deserved. When Martins took over, one of the first things he did was to promote these de facto soloists and principals and give the older dancers their walking papers. In fact, it wasn’t so long ago that Martins was being harshly criticized for pushing out older dancers in favor of younger ones. I guess you can’t win.

Favoritism/nepotism. This, too, is a problem everywhere. In NYCB history, there was the prolonged principal career of Karin von Aroldingen, a dancer whose talents were completely unsuited to Balanchines’s ballets but who was a close personal friend of his. Conversely, Balanchine was not overly fond of Violette Verdy, and did not cast her a great deal. He also had a very annoying (to me, at least) tendency to favor a few corps members at a time and give them demi-solo roles in EVERYTHING, year after year, when there were eager, talented youngsters who would have given their eyeteeth for a chance at one of their roles. Martins has abolished this practice and doles out those prized demisolo roles much more equitably. Then there was the case of Chris d’Amboise, who was pushed forward (he danced Apollo!!!) with absolutely nothing to recommend him besides his filial relationship with Jacques. He was, IMO, a much worse dancer than Nilas Martins. The NYCB followers of the time loathed him, and many of the company’s male dancers were outraged at the favoritism he received. And if Gottlieb mentions Darci Kistler as receiving special treatment by her husband, what about Tallchief, Le Clerq, Kent, and Farrell? He also complains that Carla Korbes wasn’t cast as Titania this year. I remember when I yearned to see Stephanie Saland dance her magnificent Swanilda, but Balanchine kept giving every performance of every season to Patricia McBride. The moral is: casting peculiarities will always occur in every company. As Arlene Croce once wrote, “All ballet companies are crazy, but each is crazy in its own way.”

Gottlieb compains that Charles Askegard is “hardly a danseur noble.” Wake up, Bob: he’s tall, and the company has always needed tall men. Askegard is more watchable a classicist than many of his predecessors. ABT may be “where the boys are,” but that’s because many of their male stars are primarily interested in displaying their virtuosity, a chance that NYCB’s repertory and ethos wouldn’t offer them. Not all of these paragons perform with ABT outside of the Met; they’re more interested in being international stars. As Michael says, Stiefel “got away” from City Ballet because he was one of those men. Gottlieb’s “Mr. & Mrs. Jack Spratt” crack is simply cruel, as is his attack on Margaret Tracey. According to him, she “not only undermined her talent but betrayed it” when all she seems to have done is to have given birth and been unable to return to form. Like most of what he says here, these remarks are cheap attempts to attack without a reason other than hostility towards Martins.

Developing dancers. Gottlieb is sharply critical of the casting of Jenifer Ringer in T&V because, he says, she doesn’t have the technique for it, and having been with the company for 13 years, is probably uneducable. But at the same time he reminds Martins of the way Balanchine developed Merrill Ashley’s adagio by insisting on roles like Emeralds and Swan Lake. At the time Balanchine was doing this, Ashley had been in the company for the same period of time that Ringer has now. Casting Ringer in T&V meant that other dancers would lose out, but Gottlieb’s refusal to give his enemy the slightest credit for acting in other than a dastardly way leads him to interpret this situation as hostility to Jennie Somogyi. He accuses the company of “ghettoizing” her. As what? Gottlieb is so blinded by hatred of his former colleague that all his statements become suspect; his article is not analysis but battle. The one time he praises Martins—for pushing Kowroski early in her career—he can’t let it go without whomping him at the same time (he was right, but he was reckless). It gets tiresome after a while.

When reading this article, I couldn’t help but remember Arlene Croce’s review of Martins’s Sleeping Beauty. She was confirmedly anti-Martins by this time, but her review was thoughtful and fair—and very positive. She may have been bitterly disappointed by his stewardship of the Balanchine legacy, but she was a true critic, able to give credit where it was due. If only her admirers would emulate her in that.

Finally, lest I come across as a Martins zealot, let me say that I am far from being one. My opinion of his tenure as BMiC is very mixed. I like the way he’s handled some situations and dislike others. But I think that if we’re going to have a productive dialogue on how Balanchine’s company is to develop without him, we will need to bury personal hatchets, lower the temperature, and discuss issues in a level-headed way. Criticism like Gottlieb’s makes this impossible.

#17 Nanatchka

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Posted 14 July 2002 - 03:44 PM

[QUOTE]Originally posted by Ari
thereby scotching whatever hopes the author may have had of influencing company policy.

How do we know this is his motive?

#18 Alexandra

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Posted 14 July 2002 - 04:00 PM

I don't think critics, at least most critics, write in the hopes of influencing company policy, but to report and analyze what's going on.

Ari made a lot of interesting points (no surprise :) ) but I remember the history a bit differently. I don't remember a slew of aging ballerinas taking up dressing room space, nor do I remember Martins being a breath of fresh air. He fired Kent, and that's it, as far as I remember it. And as for the dancers who "deserved" to be promoted, I remember several people I thought were well placed as senior soloists getting promoted, while the fresh crop of demis died on the vine. (I'm sure dancers at the time would have different comments, but I've interviewed very few dancers who didn't think he or she should have had this or that role, or who didn't have a complaint about who got promoted when, or, if they're not a principal, a dozen reasons, all to do with company politics rather than talent, why they weren't leading dancers.) I think keeping dancers on because of loyalty -- well, that's the way the world worked in his day. You didn't toss people out like kleenex when you're tired of them, or when New Director 99 takes over, the way it's done now. I admire him for that -- and he used the older dancers.

I really don't think it's fair to charge Balanchine withi "nepotism" for Tallchief, LeClerq, Farrell, et al There's a difference between falling in love with your muse, and turning Talentless Wonderova into a muse, and he certainly wasn't sentimental about keeping his wives, or interests, dancing after they'd past their expiration date. (One of the charges I do remember being raised against Balanchine was that he got rid of dancers too soon, at the tender age of 35, instead of 40 or 45, as in other companies.) While I remember several discussions about "inappropriate casting" -- Linda Yourth and Nina Fedorova come to mind (I don't mean to imply there was any musing going on, just that they got a lot of principal roles that those outside the company found inappropriate) I don't think it was pervasive. Von Aroldingen was seen by some as a bad classical dancer, but she was a character ballerina, a rare species, and some of the roles Balanchine made for her were wonderful. They suited her admirably, and enriched the repertory.

#19 Ari

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Posted 14 July 2002 - 05:13 PM

Well, I was trying to avoid mentioning names, but . . .

When I referred to aging dancers, I didn't mean exclusively ballerinas. When Balanchine died, there was a lot of deadwood in the corps and soloist ranks: Frank Ohman, Robert Maiorano, Teena McConnell (among the soloists), Hermes Conde, Tracy Bennett (among the corps). The soloists never danced; the corps men, unfortunately, did. All of them were long past their expiration date. Martins got rid of them, except for Bennett, who got himself together, improved his dancing, and earned a reprieve—credit due to both men there. In the corps, there was a group of hardworking dancers who had been de facto soloists for years, but had been denied recognition as such (although some, perhaps all, were receiving soloist pay): Elyse Borne, Victor Castelli, Joe Duell, Peter Frame, perhaps Jock Soto, hard to remember them all. Not all of them deserved promotion, but they had substantial repertories and the company depended on them. Indeed, Martins soon encouraged E Borne to depart, but he saw to it that she had a couple of seasons as a recognized soloist first. (For those who don't know the story: Elyse Borne was a good corps dancer, with no promise of a higher calling, who was shanghaied into ballerina duties when Baryshnikov joined the company simply because she was short enough to dance with him. She was desperately overstretched in her assignments, and often looked miserable onstage, but she gamely perservered in what Balanchine wanted her to do.) Martins also promoted Stephanie Saland, who danced mainly principal roles, to principal; she once mentioned in an interview in Dance View that Lincoln Kirstein had said to her at the time, "It's long overdue, isn't it?" He may also have promoted Maria Calegari, but I don't remember and can't find my programs from the relevant period.

Alexandra, I wasn't charging Balanchine with nepotism for favoring his wives. What I was saying is that if Gottlieb wants to complain about Martins favoring Kistler, he's got to acknowledge that Balanchine indulged in the same behavior. Same thing with the Nilas/Chris d'A situation. I'm not saying that nepotism shouldn't be frowned on, just that it's not fair to launch an attack on one person without noting that it's happened before with other people, including the great Balanchine. One of the points I was trying to make is that any consideration of NYCB's casting policies has to be looked at in the context of its own history (as well as the policies of other companies).

As for criticism affecting company policy, I think that is a part of what it's for. As Michael said in an earlier post,

And I think that the expression of opinions, even consensus, that emeges on this Board and in the hallways of the theater about critical issues does matter in the long run. It almost becomes metaphysical but not only that. I think that people read it (including some in the company) and notice. Look at what happened at ABT, for an example -- after the deluge of criticism re Pied Piper, etc., we got Dream and Fille this year.



#20 dirac

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Posted 15 July 2002 - 10:15 AM

Gottlieb's not hysterical. He's to the point. Whether one agrees with him or not is another matter, but I hear nothing strident in his tone. Regarding Margaret Tracey, for one example: He's not "attacking" her for coming back from maternity leave in less than perfect form. From what I recall of his past comments on Tracey, he's always thought of her as someone who was in over her head -- Martins handed her the McBride repertory to carry, and it was too much.


Regarding the changing of the guard at The New Yorker: My recollection is that Condé Nast bought the magazine in 1985. Shawn retired, more or less unwillingly, a couple of years later, although I read he continued to do some top secret sub rosa editing of some writers' copy. Newhouse brought Gottlieb over from Knopf and he ran the magazine from '87 to '92, when Si, desiring something different, replaced him with Tina Brown.

Iagree with Ari that critics do try to exercise what influence they may have from time to time, and often that's a good thing.

#21 BW

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Posted 15 July 2002 - 04:47 PM

Having just reread Mr. Gottlieb's article, I have to say from my point of view his manner is, indeed, strident and often cruel. Why is it that criticism has to descend into personal attack? I don't see the purpose in his asides, nor do I agree with them.

I do, however, agree with Ari's remarks:

...that if we’re going to have a productive dialogue on how Balanchine’s company is to develop without him, we will need to bury personal hatchets, lower the temperature, and discuss issues in a level-headed way. Criticism like Gottlieb’s makes this impossible.


It is especially Gottlieb's asides that are unfortunate.:D

The world is becoming smaller and smaller, in part, due to the Internet and I expect that, as Michael pointed out, there are many more pairs of eyes reading these pages than most might think!

#22 Alexandra

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Posted 15 July 2002 - 07:50 PM

Originally posted by dirac
Gottlieb's not hysterical.  He's to the point.  Whether one agrees with him or not is another matter, but I hear nothing strident in his tone.  


I don't hear anything strident either, dirac. Nor cruel -- and Gottlieb isn't writing for a mass market daily, but a relatively small publication with a sophisticated readership that's accustomed to reading passionate criticism.

I also think the piece is also not claiming to be a history of the company, but a view of what's happening now. I don't think Gottlieb is saying that, minute by minute, ballet by ballet, everything in this or that decade was perfect -- it never is. (I remember wondering why some of the dancers Ari mentioned were still around when I started watching, too, but, then, I never saw them younger; and at least two of those dancers were, I was told, Robbins dancers. Balanchine didn't act unilaterally on hires and fires. On the other hand, I never forgave him for promoting Heather Watts :) ) He's saying this is what he thinks is happening now.

I'm still pondering what seems to be a general feeling that critics write to give advice. I disagree -- to a point. I don't think if a critic writes, "What are they doing giving that role to Kickerina when Modestina is obviously suited to the role?" s/he expects Maestro to slap himself on the forehad and say, "Of course! What was I thinking?!!!" and make the change. On the other hand, when eight out of eight critics write, say, "That new guy is not going to get away with American marketing ideas in our town. Putting three too-alike ballets on the same bill and giving them a cute name is not goiing to fly," they could be said to be sending a message that there will be a stand against a particular policy.

A personal story: an early review of mine made me very wary of writing anything that could be taken as advice. I wrote of a young modern dancer, performing in a large, converted movie theater, that he and his partner seemed rather pale onstage. (This was intended to be an observation, not a prescription.) When next I sawhim -- in a church basement about the size of 16 pews -- he had more makeup than I've ever seen on a human being. I crawled out of there, imagining that he was explaining to all the friends that went backstage -- in a manner of speaking -- saying, "Why are you wearing three bottles of green gunk on your eyelids?" that he was just taking a critic's advice :D

#23 BW

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Posted 16 July 2002 - 04:38 AM

Well, I don't know Alexandra, I read a lot of reviews both of ballet and other performing arts and I still think Gottlieb makes some unnecessary asides as in "teach what?" in regard to Margaret Tracey; and his comment re Yvonne Borree, "but then why is she there in the first place?" to name only two.

Perhaps, it is a matter of style? In this article Gottlieb reminds me of Clement Crisp who, although he makes me laugh at times, is even more severe with his acerbic comments.

This aside, your story about the excess make up and "green gunk" is a good one! You critics had better watch yourselves! ;)

#24 Michael

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Posted 16 July 2002 - 06:32 AM

[QUOTE]Originally posted by Alexandra
[B]

and Gottlieb isn't writing for a mass market daily, but a Arelatively small publication with a sophisticated readership that's accustomed to reading passionate criticism.


The New York Observer is a weekly Newspaper sold on Newstands in New York, founded by Graydon Carter (now editor of Vanity Fair) which sets up as the Enfant Terrible of the New York scene -- It's "shtick" is the flaming exposees of anything -- It's readers expect and buy it for those flaming exposees. Everything must thus be presented very black and white and the unwritten supposition underlying everything is that all things in New York invariably stem from a corrupt conspiracy somewhere or someplace and that in the Observer you will see this all exposed. I remember when they almost single handedly trashed the career of a State politician who was firing a lot of competent long-term people to give jobs to his contributor's children, until the Observer and the NY times went too far and published some rumours which turned out to be untrue.

I suspect that many of the blunter, more extreme (but snappy and witty) statements in Gottlieb's article owe their tone directly to the publication's style. If he had been making the same points in, say, his old magazine, the New Yorker, he might easily have made them more urbanely.

Alll the same -- and this is important -- The Observer is a serious publication and it's articles are seriously researched and seriously presented. They have done some very important exposees. And in fact, the underlying assumption is itself fairly sound -- many things that happen in New York are unfortunately the result of a cabal of a small group of mediocre people clanning themselves together to divi up the good things of this world amongst themselves and their mediocre friends. By dint of its very size and the astronomical sums of money involved, I can think of nowhere I've ever been where who you know and who is pulling the strings will get you more mileage than it will here. Everything is political here (perhaps everywhere else too?) and the Observer plays a greatly constructive role as an antidote to this.

#25 Alexandra

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Posted 16 July 2002 - 06:48 AM

I don't think critics are supposed to mince words and tiippytoe around and say, well, gosh, she must be such a nice person but her stage presence, well, it's a bit bland. One has to use clear language to get across points -- and even reviews that, to me, are very clear are often misinterpreted -- and the shorter the space, the stronger the language.

I also think that, at its base, criticism is WRITING. It's meant to be read, not as a judgment delivered from on high, or a report from a doctor ("Bad news. it's cancer. I give you about a week," which could perhaps be better phrased) but the reaction of an individual, who, one hopes and expects, has seen more ballet than the one night he or she is reviewing, although that's not always the case these days. One may pull punches when writing about a student workshop, but it's not necessary to do so when writing about a major company.

I liked the asides. I viewed them as a way to get across an opinion using very few words, and those opinions are very consistent with Gottlieb's past writings (and, on those two particular dancers, of many others.)

This is obviously a biased view from a critic, but I think critics have a right to get angry. If I were one of the British critics who'd watched the Royal Ballet grow from six girls in a church basement to the powerhouse it was in what Croce called "the high sixties" and had to watch what has been allowed to happen to it over the past two decades, I'd be foaming at the mouth more often than Crisp, I think. When you love something, it's very painful to see it destroyed. And it doesn't help a bit that those who didn't see the company during those high periods think that everything is just fine.

Michael, I can think of at least one other place where "who you know and who is pulling the strings will get you more mileage than it will here. Everything is political here." I think it can be worse in small places, where there's no alternative and no escape -- and no Observer, because all of the newspapers have been corrupted, too. :)

#26 BW

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Posted 16 July 2002 - 07:26 AM

Michael and Alexandra, thanks for the background info on The Observer and the glimpse into the "underworld" of conspiracy theories ;).

I suppose I just need to put aside my Emily Post when I'm reading these things. :)

#27 Nanatchka

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Posted 16 July 2002 - 08:08 AM

The writer's proper relationship is with the reader. (All kinds of things come into play in the seduction required to hold the reader. Wait! Don't scroll down. I'l be witty, I'll engage in conversational asides that will seem as if I am whispering in your ear...)(And what I am whispering is that the writer's first reader, the one who's really enchanted and charmed by every word, is the writer himself. Or herself, as the case might be.) As Bob Gottlieb's reader--and I get the Observer to read Mr. Gottlieb--I get to, in essence, have a little relationship with him whenever he publishes. I find it extremely satisfactory. If he has to break a few hearts on his way to my door, so be it. Faint heart never won fair reader.

#28 Calliope

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Posted 16 July 2002 - 08:54 AM

The Observer has never been my "end all" newspaper, after all they were the ones that carried "Sex & The City" for years, but aside from my relationship with the paper, the writer, the ballet company, Gottlieb's article struck a chord with me and obviously most others here and to me, that is sometimes the role of the critic. To bring attention to things you might not be aware of and then it's up to you the viewer to decide.

#29 Alexandra

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Posted 16 July 2002 - 09:27 AM

Originally posted by Calliope
that is sometimes the role of the critic.  To bring attention to things you might not be aware of and then it's up to you the viewer to decide.


Thank you for that, Calliope. I hadn't thought of it that way, but I agree. If there's any point to criticism (besides the main one, to me, which is of recording an event for history, acknowledging that it happened, and giving some flavor of what you thought of it) it is that.

This thread has gotten more into criticism than any "casting crisis" at NYCB, but I'd like one more slightly OT word on that. BW, I don't think you're at all alone in disliking harsh criticism. I think this, like all things, is a matter of sensibilities. Some people ONLY like "mean reviews" and some would prefer that only, or mostly, pleasant things be said.

There's a piece (with permission!) on the main site by Joan Acocella called "What's Good About Bad Reviews" which gives one critic's view of things and which might be interesting to readers. Here's the link to that --
http://www.balletale...s/acocella1.htm

There's a companion piece "What Critics Do" that also may be of interest.

Sorry for the diversion :)

#30 BW

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Posted 16 July 2002 - 10:05 AM

Two very interesting and well written articles - many thanks for the link.:) It would be interesting to read people's reactions to them, but perhaps this is not the place. She makes some great points, and explains her perspective well.


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