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Joan Acocella on "Jewels"


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 15 July 2002 - 10:17 AM

This is an odd piece for the New Yorker -- an extended review (of the Kirov-Mariinsky's production of "Jewels" as seen in Washington DC last winter) that serves as a preview (of the company's performance of the same work that's still to come in New York).

But it's a very interesting piece, I think. I'd be especially curious as to what our Russian posters (and lurkers :D ) think of Acocella's take on the respective Kirovian and Balanchinian virtues.

http://www.newyorker...crte_television

There's more to the article than this, but these are some of the comments on differences in style:

Russia's dancers look different from ours. For one thing, their teachers spend as much time on port de bras?the carriage of the arms, shoulders, and head?as they do on steps, with the result that there is almost as much action in a Russian dancer's upper body as in the lower. Russian ballet also has a great deliberateness. When the dancers are about to go into a pirouette, they do a big, squatty preparation. When they hit a pose, they often hold it, so that you'll have time to admire it. (They don't mind taking bows in the middle of a number.) Finally, Russian dancers see acting as part of their job. In St. Petersburg, when people describe a dancer's performance as "artistic," what they are saying is that it was dramatic. Anyone who has seen Mikhail Baryshnikov onstage will know what this means, and, of course, it is consistent with the fact that most Russian ballets have been story ballets.

None of these traits would be so clear to us if Balanchine, when he left the Soviet Union and came to the United States?where he basically created our national ballet style?had not set himself against them. Actually, he had no quarrel with port de bras; he taught it. But, at least in his later years, he didn't spend a lot of time on arms. He was too busy with legs, which he was training to maximum speed and virtuosity (forget Russian deliberateness) and to a kind of musical responsiveness that would be the vehicle of meaning (forget Russian acting). "Don't worry about your soul," he said. "I want to see your foot." It's not that he didn't care about the soul. He just thought that the soul was in the feet. He was a mid-century American abstractionist.



#2 vrsfanatic

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Posted 16 July 2002 - 01:15 PM

Although I am not in NYC to see the Kirov (unfortunately), I do find the article quite interesting. I suppose I am a Russian lurker of some sort, so I will give it a try. I comment as an American teacher of a high level background in American Schooling as I experienced it, but I cannot comment for American Schooling in general for this is a vast subject.

There are many differences in Russian training from American training as I know it. Ms. Acocella seems to be either very observant or else has knowledge of Russian pedagogy and experience with various American schools of thought. She has hit on very key issues which do make the difference in the dancer's approach to movement. The training of the back, port de bras and poses are a very large part of the difference in the overall movement quality of the dancers. To be a little more specific I would also like to add the focus. Where they look, how they look, when they look and why they look is clearly defined and studied as a child. These are things that I know were not trained in me as a young student. It all was wanted from the dancer by the teachers and various directors, but it was never thoroughly trained as a student thus making artistic expession more of a challenge than it needed to be. Russian dancers are trained from the beginning about focus and it continues to develop as the years of study increase.

As for the discussion of Balanchine and his effect upon our training and standards, I think there was an attempt at some point to discuss this issue on this site. Ms. Acocella's has made some very interesting observations. I do not agree with her statement regarding musicality. Am I to assume that her feeling is that the Russian "deliberateness" of movement takes away from the musicality of the movements and that it is only the acting/dramatic ability of the schooling that encourages musicality? I can discuss Russian musicality vs the musicality I was trained with as an American student/professional and indeed it is very different. The basic difference, without going into too much technical mumbo jumbo is the movement being defined, whether it is on the upbeat or the downbeat, it is defined. Whether it is in the depth of the demi-plie or the height of the jump, it is hanging/floating using the full musical value of the note. Speed, the Russians have incredible speed, Balanchine did not invent this. He devised his way of moving quickly which is just different from the Russian way. To watch the examination class of the graduating class, 8th year, is to see lightening fast jetes, ronde jambes par terre and en lair, petit battements, petit allegro and pointe work. I have never seen non-Russian trained students work this quickly, in this way. It is different, but it is something that is trained extremely slowly, methodically and relentlessly. They do have more time with their students and it does make a difference. Maybe if we teachers in the US had the time too we could develop some of this type of musicality as well, if that is what is required. I do not have an answer.

I do not know if it was in this article or E. Kendall's excellent article, but one of them made the observation that the Students of the Russian Academies study with two or three ballet teachers over the course of their studies. This is true, and in my opinion makes a huge difference in the product but they also work with 2 different historic dance teachers, 1 character teacher, 1 acting teacher, 1 duet (pas de deux) teacher as well as a rehearsal mistress/master for the rehearsals for school productions and company children's roles, bring the total number of teachers to 8-10 over the course of study. These teachers are important to the students developement for various reasons. Of course the subject matter is important but also they are exposed to other ideas and different ways of working. No, I do not mean in methodology, but definely in personality types and emphasis of importance. In America, we tend to approach this issue of exposure to various teachers/ways of doing things through changing ballet teachers quite often, perhaps in the case of some SI offering more than 1 technique class a day, even 2 teachers in a day. Generally it is divided between 2-3 teachers a week. This has its good points but also gives less consistency in training. We have discussed this in the Teacher's Forum I believe, and have come to a general consensus that at a certain level students must have more than one teacher, but I am never quite convinced that there is the consistency in training because teachers generally do not discuss what, when, how and why they are doing something so that there is a coordination, so as not to contradict ideas. I think to a certain extent I know more of how Ms. Leigh and Mr. Johnson approach their work and I have never met either one of them. We do have an open dialogue regarding the hows, whens wheres and whys here, but I do not find this amongst my collegues in general. I do not mean in my job in particular, just that it is difficult to find teachers who are willing to sit down to openly and honestly discuss how they do something, when and why! Some people/schools just are not as open to discussing these issues as BA. In the pedagogy program in St. Petersburg, at least for a foreigner, that was the point/purpose to the course. I know that my Russian friends doing the course at the same time also had these discussions. It is not a bad thing to contradict ideas, there just should be a way to prepare the students for the various ways of doing things. I am drifting, I know, so I will stop here.

I gave it a shot and hopefully it is understood that I am not making a stab at non-Russian training vs Russian training because I truly do believe the bottomline is good teachers/teaching vs bad. There are good and bad no matter what method or school of thought, but is a fact that various schools do produce various looks!

#3 Nanatchka

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Posted 16 July 2002 - 06:48 PM

Another reason to see this article is for the interesting quote from Alexandra Tomalonis!

#4 Michael

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Posted 16 July 2002 - 06:59 PM

What a wonderful response, VRS --

I read Acocella's piece today and found the dichotomy she set up, that Balanchine equals musicality and that the Russians have to "get the lead out of their pants" simplistic and something that didn't resonate with me. I usually like Acocella a lot, but not on this one. VRSFanatic has I think hit the various nails on the head.

I'd add one thing, which has to do with a general cultural difference. I may be way off, but it's been my experience of Europeans in general, and East Europeans/Russians in particular, that they are bred up with a much greater and more serious respect for the Arts and for things of Culture and of the Intellect in general than Americans are. There is, even among the Russian/Polish/Bulgarian/Lithuanaian teenagers I've come to know, a general level of respect for the Classical Arts and for Intellectual achievement that amazes me in contrast to even my own children. That difference also extends, I think, to the prestige and acceptance that Classical Ballet has in Russia (or in France, think of POB) as a mainstreem art form, in contrast with the U.S.A. where it still fights a kind of "pansy" image in the hinterlands and where Ballet certainly is not a mainstream art form. I wouldn't be surprised if that difference didn't also play a large role in the shaping the differences of how the Russian and indeed the European companies look, and approach their training, in contrast with the American ones. And it's not just a Russian thing. Of the companies I've seen, Paris Opera Ballet and the Russian Companies have more in common in this way, as to discipline and hierarchy and look, than they do with the American companies. I'm not sure what the exact mechanism is, but I intuitively feel that the general cultural thing has a lot to do with it.


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