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Contemporary dance replacing ballet, another angle


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#16 Ari

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 09:48 AM

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.

#17 Alexandra

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 10:06 AM

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.

#18 Calliope

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 10:29 AM

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.

#19 Alexandra

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 10:33 AM

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.

#20 Alymer

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 10:42 AM

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.

#21 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 10:54 AM

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?

#22 Alexandra

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 11:27 AM

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.balletale...=&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?

#23 Ed Waffle

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 11:45 AM

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.

#24 Estelle

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 12:47 PM

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...

#25 Manhattnik

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 01:35 PM

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!

#26 dirac

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 02:27 PM

He must have felt naked without two inches of kohl eyeliner, too. :( Didn't he also dance "Meditation" with Farrell at NYCB, or was that only with Béjart?

#27 Alexandra

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Posted 09 September 2002 - 07:26 PM

I remembered a piece by Croce where she discussed Donn as a good candidate for the "man in trousers" (as opposed to "man in tights") roles in the Balanchine repertory, but couldn't find it in either "After Images" or "Going to the Dance." She did mention his debut in "Vienna Waltzes" in passing, though, calling it "tactful."

There were several good comments on this thread that I wanted to pick up. First, Ari's (that Estelle quoted, too):


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.


I think the point Ari made that often only the unusual aspects are seen is very true -- often, too, it's only the surface aspects that are noticed. Some of the quotes in Rep in Review stressed that the classicism was under the surface. I'd also agree that there aren't clean, bright lines between categories, and that the ground is always shifting. But I don't think that means one abandons trying. Skimming through Rep in Review again this afternoon, I noticed the Butler and Cullberg ballets -- the crossover dance of their day -- were in rep, and there wasn't an outcry over this, just discussion of the works on their merits, or demerits. I think this was because the core of the company was so solidly ballet -- far too conservative for many -- that it wasn't an issue. They were novelties, taken in as an experiment, or to suit a dancer.

Leigh's comment about Four Ts ("The shapes and their plastique are distorted off the classical axis") made me think about how much we consider straight lines part of classicism today, but that wasn't always so. I think this is a post-1950 phenomenon, at least in Western ballet. There are off-center solos in bits of 19th century and early 20th century choreography -- the woman's solo in "La Vivandiere," the third man's solo in "Napoli Act III" -- and it's hard to find a straight line in the earlier photos of Bournonville ballet. In a grouping from Sylphide, Act I, for example, where the Sylph, James, Gurn and Madge are standing together, they're tilted, as though bent by a strong wind, and there are many other examples of this. And Fokine's axis was off-center; in "Les Sylphides," wrote Chase in Charles Payne's book on ABT, the sylphs tilt forward a bit, the spine is curved. I think the definition of classicism has become restrictive, as though it's only "Concerto Barocco" or "Shades." There's no room for the character classicism Barnes mentioned, though that was once a huge part of ballet -- and a way for ballet to deal with darker, inward looking contemporary material.

#28 diane

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Posted 10 September 2002 - 08:51 AM

I agree wholly with the statement that the definition of classicism has become restrictive, not allowing for character classicism. (see above)

As most of my work is with children, I see how they respond so well to nuances in character portrayed by the tiniest of changes in body-weight-placement or angle.
This sensitivity to the unspoken, and to extremely subtle movement, is probably inborn in us humans, and it is a shame to disregard this "language" when doing anything theatrical. (This is an ongoing discussion with some actors I know, who put far too much emphasis on the spoken word alone; perhaps the way some would put so much emphasis on the "classical ballet vocabulary" done in straight lines alone, being of the opinion that anything else is not "classical".)

Alexandra also wrote, further up the page:

"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?"

I do not think that this model is working (here) as far as bringing in more audience and selling more tickets. On the contrary; it appears to be causing many to hand in their season-tickets in disgust or disappointment. Then it becomes much easier for the "powers that be" to decide to do away with the dance-sector of a municipal theatre entirely. ("See? No one is coming anyway!!") So, in my somewhat cynical view, perhaps this has been the motive all along for the politicians and those-who-decide.

Should there even be so many smaller ballet companies?
Personally, I would like to see it that way. Perhaps not in every city over 50,000; but at least in most cities over 100,000. They could support a smaller company which helps keep the art alive and is, to my mind, as important as music. Not all of these smaller companies can or do perform to a live orchestra. That is sad, but it is still better than not performing at all.
I have seen what happens when there is only one company (which dances classical ballet) in a large area. There ends up being NO ballet for most of the people who do not live in the main city.
The bigger companies hardly ever tour, and what family of more than two kids can afford to travel to another bigger town and pay for tickets? (besides the fact that performances are often mid-week....)

Another reason I prefer to have many smaller companies is that in this situation, there _is_ room for experimentation.
Many choreographers originated as ballet dancers in small, middle or large regional ballet companies; where they got a chance to try out their craft- often in rather different pieces than the "traditional ballets".
These so-called "young choreographer" performances are still a part of many companies, and are usually very well received by the public.
(I think someone mentioned these "workshops". The pieces are usually not taken into the regular rep., but are offered once or twice a season/year. For that amount, there is often a different audience, and sometimes there people come to the "regualar" performances as well.)

-diane-

#29 Alexandra

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Posted 10 September 2002 - 09:33 AM

Thank you for that, Diane. It's very interesting to have European perspectives, as so many who post here are Americans. I'm glad you've joined us and hope you post more :)

On the character classical issue, I think this may be partly because, as several people noted, it's often so hard to draw a clear line, and so, perhaps, we try to draw very hard and clear lines. To use Balanchine as an example, again, he used German expressionism, folk dance, modern dance, gymnastics, jazz dance -- any movement that interested him AND would suit the piece he was doing, but his works are ballet. Much contemporary dance -- almost all that I see -- picks a movement from here, and another from there, and the only purpose seems to be to be able to say "I go beyond ballet. I stand ballet on its ear," etc.

I was also interested in your comments on audience, company size and ticket sales. That is a dilemma. If the company isn't good, people won't come -- and I think people may be drawn in by whatever the marketeers sell them: it's all new! We've got a Big Star! or just good old See Swan Lake!. But if what their selling isn't good, people won't come back.

But people in small towns can't travel every weekend to see big city ballet, and if they don't see ballet, then ballet becomes more and more invisible.

The other solution is touring -- either the major companies touring the big cities, the smaller companies touring the towns in their regions. I think that's one of the things we're missing.

#30 Estelle

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Posted 10 September 2002 - 01:29 PM

Originally posted by Alexandra

But people in small towns can't travel every weekend to see big city ballet, and if they don't see ballet, then ballet becomes more and more invisible.

The other solution is  touring -- either the major companies touring the big cities, the smaller companies touring the towns in their regions. I think that's one of the things we're missing.


In fact, in many French cities, the only ballet companies that people get to see are companies from Russia, Ukraine or some other Eastern European countries. For example, the Ballet of Kiev seems to tour regularly in some middle-sized French cities, there are also various companies from Moscow but I don't know how big they are or which are their level. The production values often seem ot be not very high (taped music, old sets...) but at least people see some ballet. Probably those companies are more present because of economic factors, and also there is a large number of ballet companies in Russia; but also I remember reading some interviews of directors of French regional ballet companies complaining that for some theater directors,
ballet was associated with Russia, and so they'd rather hire any Russian company, even not very good, than hiring a French company (it was a few years ago, when there were more active ballet companies in France).


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