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Contemporary dance replacing ballet, another angle


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 08 September 2002 - 07:32 AM

Estelle wrote, on the thread over in News about the Forsythe situation

It seems that unfortunately some German companies are going the same way as some French ones: the cities want to spend less money on the arts and cut the budgets, and it's less expensive to have a small modern company than a ballet company...



Now, I think the time has come where it's good to have contemporary dance companies -- there's an audience for it, and, personally, I'd much prefer that than having so many companies that try to do both genres, because I think it's not possible to do so on a high level.

Paris Opera Ballet Master Patrice Bart said, in a recent interview with Marc Haegeman in DanceView, that he thought that ballet must be excellent (I'm paraphrasing) and therefore it was good to pool a country's resources and have one ballet company at the highest classical standard, implying the rest of the country should do something else. Maguy Marin in a recent interview about her experimental choreography, liked the situation too, saying (again a paraphrase): They have to do the classical stuff and we get to do all the cool, experimental stuff.

I think there should -- must -- always be experimental companies outside the big institution. I don't think the classical institutions can be the hotbeds of experimentation. To me, they should refine what's been created in the outlying laboratories. BUT, I also see a danger in the model of having one big classical company, no matter how excellent, and a lot of smaller contemporary, nonballet companies. Doing so removes ballet from the general population. If they don't get to see it, they won't develop a taste for it and, in the French case, the POB will seem more and more remote, more and more "elitist."

Lincoln Kirstein once said about American Ballet that it was the "Dolly Dinkle" schools, all those tiny little schools dotting the country, that fed ballet. If one child is produced per year from those schools, it's worth it. (And it gives the entire country an exposure to ballet.) But that's expensive.

What are your thoughts on these issues?

#2 Estelle

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Posted 08 September 2002 - 09:11 AM

I agree that having only one big company is a problem, as not many people get exposed to it. Actually I'm likely to find Patrice Bart very representative of the way most things are centralized in France (all big institutions being in Paris), and quite "Parisianist". The people living in France far from Paris can come to Paris to see some ballets, but it's time-consuming and expensive, and only motivated people would do that (another problem is, I think, that there is very little dance on TV at "normal" hours. I've read quite a lot of interviews of dancers mentioning that what made them want to study some ballet was seeing one on TV, in the 1960s-1980s there were some cultural programs like "Le Grand Echiquier" which showed some ballet from time to time around 9 PM, now it's more around 1 AM :) ) I think that France is large enough to have more than one ballet company; the problem is that it takes time (and money) to build a good company, and a lot of regional companies disappeared rather silently. But in my opinion there should be more middle-sized ballet companies like those in Bordeaux and Toulouse.

Also, I agree that experimentation shouldn't be ballet companies' business (or only experimentation clearly rooted in the ballet vocabulary). But I suspect there are several factors, and especially media attention and the attraction of novelty (it's perhaps easier to get many articles in the newspapers with a new work than with a classical production), and also there are many modern/contemporary choreographers who are interested in working with ballet companies because ballet companies have more money and sometimes better working conditions (money for sets, costumes, an orchestra...) than small contemporary ones.

#3 Watermill

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Posted 08 September 2002 - 10:04 AM

What I've observed out here with Oregon Ballet Theatre is an interesting example of mixing these EXPERIMENTAL/POP/BALLET genres.
James Canfield's oft quoted " If ballet doesn't change it will die" has a ring of truth to it.
Who could argue that the court dances of Loius XIV would have died long ago but for the continual changes wrought by ballet masters/mistresses, composers & dancers?
But Mr. Canfield's statement belies the near financial death of his own company a few years ago, as the new audiences he sought with his rock ballets failed to show up regularly and the balletomanes headed over the Interstate Bridge to Seattle to enjoy PNB.
I'm not such a purist as to reject exploring new possibilities.
In fact, the "Money" section of Canfield's Pink Floyd rock ballet is eternally burnt into my memory as a thrilling example of how ballet technique and rock can merge.
But it's the overmixing that I object to. Look at the post-Billboards history of the Joffrey for a good example of what not to do.
As a weak metaphor I offer up the following: You order an exquisite gourmet dinner; the waiter serves it with impeccable care, then slams a blender on the table, dumps everything in and hits the frappe button, and pours the mess back on your plate.

#4 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 08 September 2002 - 10:33 AM

I'm less of the belief that "if ballet doesn't change it will die" than that every generation needs to contribute into an art form. We needed Diaghilev and Nijinska and Balanchine and Ashton and Tudor and (pick your great contributor) to find in ballet a way to speak about the place and time they lived in. So in that respect, I think the idea of centralizing ballet and avoiding experimentation is a dangerous one. It cuts ballet off from that necessary process. That being said, experimentation without access or consideration of what comes before is just myopic.

One question is, what is the right incubator for this generation's ballet artists so that they can speak about whatever subject they wish and still have ballet be their native tongue?

#5 Calliope

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 06:27 AM

"I think there should -- must -- always be experimental companies outside the big institution. I don't think the classical institutions can be the hotbeds of experimentation. To me, they should refine what's been created in the outlying laboratories"


That's what I think the probelm, too many classical institutions are becoming "too experimental". IMO, there seems to be a need to fill the seats, regardless of the name of your company.
I also think that choreographers now have a broader stimuli to choose from, they're exposed to more forms of dance, as opposed to Balanchine, who had just the structured "classical" companies, now the term "classical" has an entirely different meaning than it did 50 years ago. That would be fine, if you had the same audience, but when young people go in to see ballet for the first time and instead of tutus get black leotards, there's an adjustment that needs to be made from the audience standpoint. You need to change what you thought ballet was into what it is now, without the benefit of history.

#6 Alexandra

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 06:30 AM

Interesting angle -- that "classical" has a different meaning than it did 50 years ago. I don't think I'd agree. I think it's just being misused. It's like calling every kind of meat "hamburger." That might happen, but it wouldn't mean that veal and beef and pork and lamb no longer existed. And even the companies that are presenting crossover or modern dance are quick to say they're bashing ballet, turning it upside down, kicking it into the next century -- I guess that would have to be just "the future" now. :)

I love Watermill's metaphor:

As a weak metaphor I offer up the following: You order an exquisite gourmet dinner; the waiter serves it with impeccable care, then slams a blender on the table, dumps everything in and hits the frappe button, and pours the mess back on your plate.


Exactly. And it would be fine if you'd gone to Funky Dinners, $7.99 for all you can eat of today's Experimental Blended Spectacular. But when a company says it's America's premiere classical ballet company, and offers a season with more modern dance and crossover ballet -- much of it pop, not serious concert dance -- and charges a bit more than $7.99, then I think there's a problem.

#7 Calliope

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 06:45 AM

Maybe it should be the term "ballet" but that would be too easy :)

#8 Alexandra

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 06:47 AM

Now that, I'd agree with :) I think the word "ballet" is used to cover a multitude of sins!

#9 Ari

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 06:50 AM

Part of the problem, I think, is determining what is "modern" or "crossover." To what extent do you want to ban experimentation from ballet? Does this mean that nothing outside of what we now think of as ballet (and there are lots of different explanations) will be permitted? Every great choreographer has innovated. What if some influential, self-appointed arbiter of classicism had seen The Four Temperaments in 1947 and declared it modern dance and therefore unballetic? Would NYCB have never gotten off the ground, or have had a much harder time than it did?

#10 Calliope

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 06:52 AM

That's why when people say "contemporary" dance it's so easy, you don't have to know any history of it. It's here and now.
Ballet, IMO, really does need to educate it's audience. It's the reason many people find it intimidating to begin with, but then to go and not even have what you thought would be up on the stage, it's like finding out the Chilean Sea Bass you're eating isn't from anywhere near Chile.
I think how ballet is advertised also creates the problem.

#11 Ed Waffle

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 06:55 AM

Watermill wrote:

That's what I think the probelm, too many classical institutions are becoming "too experimental". IMO, there seems to be a need to fill the seats, regardless of the name of your company.


Which had been a failure so many times in so many venues that there must be another reason for it. Ballet, opera and music audiences generally do not flock to experimental or cutting edge evenings. They pack the house for something that is familiar.

Swan Lake, Madame Butterfly, Beethoven symphonies, Haydn string quartets, Mozart piano concertos play to full houses in the provinces.

Work that is not even experimental any more but still unfamiliar (some of which, in my not particularly humble opinion, should stay that way), such as Pina Baush, The Death of Klinghoefer or Karl-Heinz Stockhausen are not big sellers. Actually they aren't programmed very often.

Experimental works can be produced at universities, where funding for any particular production is not an issue, or by compamies in workshop type setting, which are cheap.

But please keep them off my already too short subscription season.

#12 Alexandra

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 06:58 AM

I agree with the need to educate audiences, Calliope. I've often wondered where all that money the Endowment and others have raised for educational programs goes, and what it has done. It seems that people are LESS educated about ballet, and dance in general, than they were 30 years ago, when those programs started. (I don't mean to blame the programs; the culture changed during that time radically, turning into a mass market/celebrity driven culture, but I don't think these programs have been a very big finger in the dike.)

Ari, I don't think one can define the limits of experimentation. That depends on the talent and vision of the choreographer. Classical ballet is rooted in the academic vocabulary. Balanchine (and others) grafted other influences on to that vocabulary. To me, that's the crucial difference. To use another cooking analogy, it's like a soup. You start with a chicken, and add a lot of whatever you want. You can even add clams, and possibly chocolate, but it will still be chicken soup. I think if one's native language is "ballet" (as I think Balanchine's was), then anything one does will be ballet, whether it borrows from jazz, or modern dance, or gymnastics, or rodeo.
I wouldn't think of Four Ts as modern dance -- I can't recall contemporary reviews that did -- and I didn't think Symphony in 3 Movements or Violin Concerto or Agon as modern dance, or crossover. I'm not sure I see a great deal of modern dance influence in Four Ts. But I do think that much of contemporary ballet -- the Diamond Project wing of the party -- start with Agon as though it were The Original Work and everything they do derives from it and that particular strand of Balanchine's work. But that's another issue.

Ed makes a good point, too -- although the experiments you mention, IMO, are worthwhile ones and maybe worth sneaking into a subscription season. It's the lesser experiments -- that, at this point, aren't really experiments; they're derivative popularizations of past experiments, but there's no guts to much of the contemporary dance I see -- that are clogging the works now.

#13 Ari

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 07:11 AM

These works may be unpopular not because they're experimental, Ed, but because they're unfamiliar. A new classical ballet, or a new non-experimental opera, would face a similar uphill battle in finding audiences.

As we've discussed before, an adaptation of a "known commodity" can alleviate this. I've had people tell me that Romeo & Juliet is "a classic"—no R&J in particular, just any full-length ballet to Prokofiev's score. I assume they are defining classics as conventional full-length story ballets with costumes and sets and scores that don't hurt your ear too badly and that are based on other works with an accepted cultural pedigree. That definition of classicism isn't mine, but it highlights the problem of defining classicism.

#14 Estelle

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 07:28 AM

Originally posted by Ed Waffle

Work that is not even experimental any more but still unfamiliar (some of which, in my not particularly humble opinion, should stay that way), such as Pina Baush, The Death of Klinghoefer or Karl-Heinz Stockhausen are not big sellers. Actually they aren't programmed very often.  


About Pina Bausch, I beg to differ: every time her company comes to Paris (one or two series of performances each year) it has sold out performances and is extremely successful. It's a bit the same with Cunningham, for example. So it depends probably quite a lot of the city and context, and, as Ari wrote, is probably more a question of familiarity than a question of classicism or not (for example I suspect that, since Ashton is very little known in France, an Ashton program might not sell very well...)

#15 Alexandra

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 07:35 AM

I think, for the general audience, familiarity is EVERYTHING. Bausch has never been to Washington, and I'd bet, if she ever comes here, the house will be subscribers only. One either has to be familiar with the work, or there's a celebrity factor -- Martha Graham made it to the Met because of Nureyev and Liza Minnelli.

On definitions of classicism, we have an archive of past discussions on this topic which those interested may wish to read. And one thread in particular that deals with as many definitions of "classicism" as I could think of :)

http://www.balletale...=&threadid=6852


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