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Alexandra

Contemporary dance replacing ballet, another angle

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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?

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"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.

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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.

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

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

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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...)

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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.balletalert.com/forum/showthrea...=&threadid=6852

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About The Four Temperaments—while it was admired by many critics who were primarily ballet-oriented (as opposed to modern), the assumption that Balanchine was working in an idiom more modern than classical was quite prevalent both at the time of the premiere and for years afterwards. Read Repertory in Review.

I don't think it's possible for many new works of art to be fairly judged at the time of their premiere. Arthur Miller, who often writes about politics on one level or another, recently responded to the critical drubbing of his latest play by saying that he's always had this problem—when the play is new, all that people can see is its political stance, and it isn't until some time has passed that the aesthetic merits of the piece can be appreciated and all the elements viewed as a whole. By the same token, when an innovative choreographer premieres a new ballet, it's easy to see only its unusual aspects, and that may equate to "unclassical" in some people's eyes. So I get very uneasy when people start pigeonholing works of art as though there were clean, bright lines between categories that are always obvious.

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I agree it's difficult to judge a work in its time, but not impossible. I happened to be reading Rep in Review this afternoon, researching something else, and turned to the Four Ts page and could not find any critics complaining, or worried, that Four Ts was modern dance. Modern -- which I take to be in the sense of "of our time," "contemporary" -- certainly, but not modern dance. In fact, John Martin wished it had been and said the ballet was "not very advanced." "The music is neo-Gothic and though Balanching has put the danse d'ecole thorugh all sorts of imaginative deviations, they all fall quite within the classic frame."

Since the critics Reynolds quotes all do classify this ballet, I think it interesting to see how they do it. They all use different phrases, of course, but all are related to the discussion here, far beyond Four Temperaments.

Denby: "Novel aspects of classic ballet technique -- aspects apparently contrary to those one is accustomed to -- are emphasized without ever breaking the classic look of the dance continuity."

Terry: "The effect is quite modern dance in quality, for fluid torsos, archaic arm patterns and brfeath rhythms (as opposed to purely jusical rhythms) are apparent, yet a closer search will show that the fundamental structure is balletic..."

Barnes, writing in 1965, discusses the modern dance influences; a German critic thought it influenced by Dalcroze and reminiscent of dressage; and in France, "He uses the purest classical language, which yet becomes an entirely new idiom."

There are other critics quoted (Anatole Chujoy and Doris Hering) who don't address this question, and someone named Miller in the Boston Globe who writes about classical ballet and modern dance using the language analogy and then says "Balanchine grafts certain traditional movemetns onto one another. He is also one to borrow from other dance movements, even nondance sources. He makes a kind of dance bestiary and like the great draughtsman he is, he doesn't show the sutures."

I think when a great or disturbing work appears, all critics, at any rate, rush to pigeonhole it, and generally don't do a bad job.

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But wasn't Balanchine considered "revolutionary" at the time?

After 100 + years of the same "storybook" ballets, he came to America and did plotless, tutu-less ballets.

I think because it's a "moving" art form (not like a painting where you could go to an entire exhibit and track an artist's path) it's tough to "pigeonhole" it.

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I think Balanchine was considered revolutionary -- as was Fokine, in his day, who did do "story ballets" . And I'd agree it's difficult to pigeonhole, and that pigeonholes expand, but it's possible.

I think the discussion is getting caught up in different definitions perhaps - revolutionary and modern with modern dance as opposed to ballet.

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Both Bausch and Cunningham sell out in London also, Estelle, as fast as the tickets can physically be distributed. But I was amused by your comment about Ashton which has a great deal of truth. When some years ago the Royal Ballet showed his Symphonic Variations, - generally considered to be one of his greatest works - in Paris the French critics dismissed it as "watered-down Lifar". Interestingly, many, many years ago, Bejart asked Ashton if he could have it for the Ballet du XXeme Siecle. I wonder how 'classical' it would have looked on those dancers.

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Some of what you see in 4T's can also depend on what you're looking for. The shapes and their plastique are distorted off the classical axis, but the structure isn't. Sanguinic, for instance, is a grand pas de deux, with an entree, short variations and a coda.

Restating an earlier question, I don't think a Diaghilev or a Balanchine can be artificially incubated, but if you cut the Mariinskys and Paris Opera's off from the main flow of culture, the task becomes that much harder. What can we do to assure that ballet continues to produce repertory?

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Alymer, I love your Symphonic Variations story (I have several friends who consider Bejart quite classical, and very misunderstood). And it raises an interesting point, too, about how much performance has to deal with this. I can think of several classical ballets that look rather different danced by companies with a more eclectic style, and, conversely, several modern or crossover pieces that look very classical when danced by a classical company. I think that all has to do with language -- dance language -- too.

I think Leigh's question is a very good one, and perhaps it could have a thread of its own: http://www.balletalert.com/forum/showthrea...=&threadid=6854

What about the original question, about the model that seems to be emerging in Europe of having one central classical ballet company and, rather than regional or satellite classical companies, the rest of the country being contemporary dance, for economic (production and ticket sales) as well as artistic reasons? Is that a good model?

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Estelle wrote:

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.

I should have made myself more clear--I was referring to performances in the provinces--for example Detroit--not centers of culture like Paris, London or New York. One would expect more cutting edge works to do well in these areas for a few reasons.

One, of course, is that there is a much greater choice of what to see and hear in the cultural capitals. Another the density of population of active artists is much greater--they would most likely want to see new works.

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In the case of Pina Bausch (or Forsythe, for example) I think there's also a "fashion" phenomenon, there are some people who are not especially interested in dance but who rush to see their performances because it's fashionable.

Ari wrote:

By the same token, when an innovative choreographer premieres a new ballet, it's easy to see only its unusual aspects, and that may equate to "unclassical" in some people's eyes. So I get very uneasy when people start pigeonholing works of art as though there were clean, bright lines between categories that are always obvious.

Well, there are sometimes when they are quite obvious. When looking at most of the works premiered at the POB in recent years,

I think that even with a very large definition of "classical", by no means works like Gallotta's "Les variations d'Ulysse" and "Nosferatu", Mats Ek's "Appartement", José Montalvo's "Le rire de la lyre", Blanca Li's "Scheherazade", or Odile Duboc's "Rhapsody in blue" can be considered as classical. Those choreographers have had no ballet training, and use a vocabulary which is very different from ballet, with only a few cosmetic elements here and there (pointes for Montalvo and Li- used in a very bland way), it really is a different world.

Alymer, I wonder too how Ashton would have looked on Bejart's dancers (but similarly I wonder what Jorge Donn looked like when he danced as a guest with the NYCB...) However, all Bejart dancers have had a ballet training, so there is probably less difference than between, for example, Gallotta's own modern company and the POB. And who knows, perhaps it would have made Ashton's works better known in France! I'm not surprised by the critics' reaction (how long ago was it?), there was a period when ballet life in France was very much centered on Lifar and so it probably influenced the critics. Now I don't know why the POB doesn't dance any of his works (they only danced "Rhapsody", and for one season): is it because the direction thinks that it wouldn't be suited to the POB's style (which doesn't seem very likely, as they don't seem to care much about indigenous style when choosing choreographers like Lock or Tehigawara for the next season...)? It is because they think it wouldn't sell much?

Or they just don't like Ashton? Or is it because of copyrights? That's puzzling. That's a kind of "experimentation" that I'd much better see than much of what was done in recent seasons...

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I wonder what Jorge Donn looked like when he danced as a guest with the NYCB

Well, if you'd have blinked, you'd have missed him.

He did look great in that tux in Vienna Waltzes, but given Bejart's proclivity for the barechested look, it must've been all Donn could do to keep from tearing it off once the lights came up!

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