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"Lost" Balanchine Ballets

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While I'm not one of those "Everything has gone to hell since Peter took over" types like Arlene Croce, there are some things about Peter that really annoy me. His casting (haven't seen Monique Meunier all season), his curious obsession with the music of Peter Torke. Most of all, his repertory decisions.

Last night I was listening to Jellinek who was featuring Chabrier's Le Roi malgre lui. When they got to the Fete Polonaise, I said that's terrific ballet music. My friend said that she thought Balanchine had used it. Some slight research revealed that Bouree Fantasque had been done in 1949 for Tallchief, LeClerq and Robbins. It was also revived for a few performances in the Balanchine Festival in 1993. Since then, to my knowledge, it has not been done.

Another story. In one of my other chat groups, the discussion for some reason turned to favorite ballet music. Someone said that his favorite score was Delibes Sylvia. As the so-called ballet "expert" in the group, I knowledgeably remarked that Delibes was one of Balanchine's favorite composers and that that were a few Delibes pieces in the current repertoire but not Sylvia. What I had forgotten was that Balanchine had in fact done a Sylvia pas de deux (again for Tallchief) that was likewise revived for the festival and likewise forgotten.

My question is: why go to the trouble and expense of reviving (and perhaps reconstructing) these ballets and then forget about them? And it's not just "lost" ballets. When's the last time we've seen Bournonville Divertissements? Is there some logical reason for this or is Peter just being perverse, as to to say "I have some wonderful Balanchine ballets in my repertory but you're not going to see them; instead I'm going to make you sit through my latest collaboration with Torke.

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I think the standard response to this (the Royal would say the same for Ashton and the Danes for Bournonville) is something along the lines of "We're not a museum company!" -- said proudly, in the tone one would use for "We don't eat babies here!"

[ 06-22-2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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But if NYCB doesn't do these ballets, no one else is going to, and they do become "lost". Besides how many more "Prodigal Sons" am I going to have to sit thru when there is a huge repertory out there to choose from? I'm young there is so much Balanchine choreography I haven't seen. I'd like to see it revived before the first generation (Dancers who actually worked with Mr. B) is no longer able to teach it.

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Actually, some companies do venture into Balanchine ballets that are not presented at NYCB anymore. We dance the Sylvia pas de deux quite frequently in Miami City Ballet, as well as an early version of his Valse Fantasie (three girls, one guy), and a few virtoso pas de trois's (Glinka is the one that comes to mind). In fact, this has worked to our advantage- these pieces not being regular rep in NY- as it attracts special attention. I hope other ballet companies don't limit their rep to only what is popular in NY.

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Aren't a lot of the "lost" ballets lost b/c there were no notes, photos, film taken?

I have to say my favorite season at NYCB was the Balanchine Celebration. It was just amazing, but I do like to see other companies performing Balanchine, especially when they're taught by dancers who were originally cast in it and in some cases those dancers don't even coach City Ballet anymore (i.e. Scotch Symphony a few years back at the Kirov, Suzanne Farrell teaching it to Larissa Lezhnina).

Miami, SF, PNB all have put on some amazing performances.

Personally I'd rather see two weeks of Balanchine ballets that I've never seen than be tormented by 2 weeks of Diamond Project.

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Lots of interesting points here. LMTech, I wish company directors would listen to you on this one :) Balanchine ballets do tend to be repetitively performed. (Miami is the exception, I think; you're right, of coures, liebs. MCB does have a more varied Balanchine rep than many.)

The ballets vary, though. Five years ago, Serenade, Concerto Barocco and 4 Ts were the standard. Now, all of a sudden, Slaughter seems to be a staple, and Divertimento No. 15! (That's a surprise because, according to Repertory in Review, this was not at all popular when it was first danced -- too tutu -- and only lasted "because the dancers fought for it.") I think partly this may be which stagers are available and partly the size of the companies.

One of the problems, even if there are notes, videos, etc., is that if the dancers get too far away from the ballets (if they don't see them on a regular basis) the performances are a little "off." (Could you bake a chocolate layer cake if you had never seen or tasted chocolate or a cake, even if you had Julia Child's best repertory?)

To me, this was obvious with the Royal's Ashton program. The stagings were good, I thought, but most of these dancers had probably never seen "Les Rendezvous," and seemed to be trying to be decorous, small-scaled, cute, "bright" -- all the things one reads about Ashton, except he's not. I keep thinking of this every time that commercial for the film "Artificial Intelligence" comes on. There's a scene when the little boy/robot is being touched in the pool by other kids, and they say, gosh, how amazing, he almost feels real, and he takes a minute to look at them and then .... laughs. But it's an artificial laugh, by someone who doesn't know what laughing is but is trying to imitate it. It's the best analogy from outside the dance world I've seen lately to what is wrong with many restagings.

This will eventually happen at City Ballet too, I think -- it happens everywhere. They either ossify the ballets, turn them into little gems of technique and polish and stretch and polish until there's no life left (as Croce wrote in 1980 that out the Kirov did with the Petipa staples) or they push them into a "drag out when we absolutely have to" bin, as the Danes and the Royal have done with Bournonville and Ashton (and ABT has done with the Tudor-Robbins-DeMille rep). They're not part of the lifeblood of the company any more.

Say what you will about Martins' direction, but this has not yet happened to Balanchine at NYCB. Perhaps ballets aren't ideally cast and rehearsed, or they're not enough of them in any given rep to suit Balanchine lovers (or good choreography lovers), but they're not relegated to the basement.

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Far be it from me to think that Balanchine was anything less than a choreographic genius, but it begs to be said: some of his ballets were "lost" because they were not terribly good. Two that come to mind are Don Quixote and PAMTGG. I'm curious if anyone here has seen them, and can testify as to whether or not they were worth preserving, from an aesthetic standpoint.

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Don Quixote was "lost" because people found the musical score difficult -- interesting to see how it would seem now -- and also because it was so associated with Balanchine (who did the Don) and Farrell. It was not a bad ballet. (I didn't see it, and that's based on reports of several friends who did.) As for PAMTGG, it's often said that if we saw it today.....

[ 06-23-2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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That's funny, I also never saw it, but no one I talked to called the Nabokov score difficult (this was a time when the audience was weaned on Stravinsky) People pretty much said the score was bad, so I'm not sure how close this mimics the situation with the Henze score in Ondine. I'd be interested in seeing the ballet. It does exist on film.

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It is a bit mouth gaping though that NYCB is not bringing any Balanchine to the Edinburgh Festival this year.

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I think the problem with the Don Q was that the music was just plain dull. It kind of killed the ballet dead before it even had a chance to get off the ground. And speaking of which, I have vague memories of PAMTTGG, which is probably better forgotten. There are a few Balanchine ballets like that -- I don't think I'd rush to see a revival of Gaspard de la Nuit, either. But I don't think those are the ballets we're talking about when we bemoan "lost" Balanchine. His ratio of hits to misses was very, very high. It's also interesting how posterity has been much kinder to many of his ballets than critics were at the time. Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, for instance, while much-loved today, was roundly panned by critics at its premiere.

Speaking of PAMTGG, I suspect Balanchine didn't particularly care if it ever saw the light of day again. I recall a dancer who was once in the cast saying that, for its final performance, Balanchine told the dancers to wear whatever costume they liked and just have fun with it.

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Re PAMTGG: the old timers used to call it PAM-TA-GAGA which pretty much summarized their memories of it.

One "lost" ballet, though not by Balanchine,that I remember with some fondness is John Taras's black leather version of Daphnis & Chloe, done for the Ravel festival and never seen since. The fabulous cast included the two Peters (Martins and Schaufuss), Karin von Aroldingen and my all-time favorite member of the corps who never made it, Nina Fedorova.

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Diana...

The non-Balanchine rep for the Edinborough Festival was a request of the festival organizers, NOT a decision by anyone at NYCB. Apparently, they wanted something different from last year, when NYCB did mostly Balanchine (??).

Also, only half the company is going to Scotland, which limits the ballets that can be performed. The whole company is going to Greece and Italy though.

Kate

P.S. I remember seeing Houston Ballet doing Daphnis and Chloe, but with chereography by Glen Tetley.

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There are several stories going around about the reasons behind the Edinburgh Festival rep. I'm not aware that there's been any announcement or statement, by either the company or the festival organizers, as to who chose what and why.

Leigh, I know several passionate defenders of "Don Quixote," who said that the audience simply didn't "get" the music -- as Mel wrote, most people thought it was boring. It may be an interesting parallel to Henze's score for "Ondine." People thought that was boring, nondanceable music as well.

Manhattnik, I think you've made a very good point that some of Balanchine's ballets that were -- if not actually panned, certainly pointed to as less than top drawer -- at the time are now seen as masterpieces (conversely some that were seen as masterpieces are now seen as minor works. In the latter instances, I think it's either because they're underperformed or have been so ripped off by subsequent derivative works that they, themselves, look derivative).

The problem with putting Suite No. 3 in the Masterpieces drawer is that it can serve as a model and a standard. As I remember it, Croce wrote that Balanchine was putting steps to music and calling it a ballet -- something that could be said of much "son of Balanchine" ballet today.

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The problem with putting Suite No. 3 in the Masterpieces drawer is that it can serve as a model and a standard. As I remember it, Croce wrote that Balanchine was putting steps to music and calling it a ballet -- something that could be said of much "son of Balanchine" ballet today.

I'm not sure what Croce's point was -- I'd consider most ballets to have "steps to music." Some just have better steps and music than others. I certainly don't think of Suite No. 3 as a "steps-to-music" ballet. There's so much loose, free-form, running-and-emoting, especially in the Elegie, which I've come to think of as a little masterpiece (even though critics thought of it as over-the-top kitsch when it was premiered).

Anyway, I'm digressing.

I'd really love to see The Figure in the Carpet.

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Years ago, I learned a ballet called "Card Game" was going to be danced in Boston, and, thinking the lost Balanchine ballet had been found, I went there to see it, breathless with naive excitement. It turned out to be a non-ballet by nobody, and I fled the scene of my disappointment, arriving on the planned New York leg of my trip ahead of schedule. Practically running to the sanctuary of the New York State Theatre, I saw - "Don Quixote", every moment of which seemed to my eye to be the work of a master, if overall not his best, but all of which seemed to my ear to be unbearably ugly. (Croce's term for the score by Nicholas Nobakov, the novelist Vladimir's brother and Balanchine's friend, was "earsore", as apt an expression as any she's used.) But even with that, I felt at home again because of the quality of the movement I saw onstage.

PAMTGG (for "Pan Am Makes the Going Great", the airline-commercial theme (!) its composer, Roger Kellaway, expanded for the ballet) I looked at a couple of times at Ravinnia, the Chicago Symphony's summer season site north of Chicago, when I had a fever. I mention that in charity to the ballet, but I don't think the fact of my fever fully accounts for how thin PAMTGG seemed at the time, with the corps lined up across the stage to "fly" dancers in body-surfer poses across on their outstretched arms, and other "flight" motifs. Friends in New York told me the cost of all the clear Lucite "luggage" piled up on stage meant that this was not merely a mistake, it was an expensive mistake.

If a ballet is on videotape or kinescope film, it can't really be lost, but when we think about the Balanchine-Stravinsky collaborations, one we usually forget is "The Flood", which I saw in its original televsion version around 1960 and many years later in another version on stage at the NY State Theatre. Short as it was, it had only one short dance number, which was pretty effective. Otherwise, it caught up the hapless corps this time under a huge blue tarp which they were supposed to animate in wave motions, and in another scene dealing with Eden I recall a huge Serpent, animated by a dancer inside.

These recollections lead to the question whether Balanchine, who easily produced lots of vibrant choreography, could only devise other stage business that creaked, but I remember seeing a "kinescope" of an NBC Opera Theatre production of Mozart's "Magic Flute", directed by him, that seemed to me to make fine use of the little screen to present an enlivened staging of that opera, without dance. And of course there are the superb early scenes of "The Nutcracker". But that's another story for another time.

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In defense of "Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3", let's remember that its last movement, nearly as long as the first three together, is "Theme and Variations", to superior music, and absolutely top drawer, in my view; and in support of the remark about "Elegie", I think it is better than good enough to put on by itself, as MCB has done. It draws me in.

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Originally posted by Manhattnik:

I'm not sure what Croce's point was -- I'd consider most ballets to have "steps to music." Some just have better steps and music than others. I certainly don't think of Suite No. 3 as a "steps-to-music" ballet. There's so much loose, free-form, running-and-emoting, especially in the Elegie, which I've come to think of as a little masterpiece (even though critics thought of it as over-the-top kitsch when it was premiered).

I remember being very puzzled by the "just setting steps to music" comment when I first read it, as I did much of what Croce wrote. I generally liked what I saw, wanted to think that what I was seeing was "as good" or better than what had come before, etc. The ballets were certainly better than anything else I was seeing. What's the problem?

I think she meant that the fourth movement ("Theme and Variations") was a ballet, a distinct, concrete work within a frame, while the rest was filler. I like the first movement too, and can remember almost nothing about the second and third. But the point was that although this section or that might be nice to watch, it was a bolt of very fine silk that hadn't been made into a dress or waistcoat yet.

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I know I saw Don Quixote twice, once with Luders as the Don. It was a long, complicated ballet and even the twice that I saw it had different dances in it. Balanchine seemed to be tinkering with it up to the end. I don't remember the score being painful but I don't remember the score either. The dances for Farrell were extraordinary as was her performance and some of the imagery (the over sized books, the scenes of the Don in the Court) was also beautiful. It was not a masterpiece but it was clearly the work of a master choreographer.

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Yes, I think he tinkered with it a lot. I had a friend who was a little pig in it! (I never asked for details.)

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I remember coming home on leave once, and going to meet Lourdes Lopez before she was in the company up at SAB. I asked her what had happened to Don Q this season. She replied, "Well, he's put a snake lady in the palace divertissement." I said, "Oh, goodie, a snake lady - just what it needed!" :rolleyes:

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One ballet I would love to see again, which is still listed on the NYCB web site's repertoire, is the Haieff Divertimento. It was revived for the Balanchine Celebration, and danced the season after than, and then jsut disappeared. It was a leotard ballet, and I guess people thought it too similar to 4Ts, but it had some wonderful choreography, especially, as I remember, for the men. And the music was very good. If it's not done soon, I supposed it will be lost again, which is a shame. It had a small cast, and seems like it would suit a smaller company perfectly.

The Sylvia pas de deux was danced at NYCB for a year or so after the Balanchine Festival, but except for Kyra Nichols and Judith Fugate, it didn't seem to be danced very well. I think they have dancers now who would look very good in it, and it would make a nice change from some of the other pas de deux they keep doing, like Romeo and Juliet and Zaklousiki!

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