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Careers of choreographers


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#1 Estelle

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Posted 10 September 2002 - 02:06 PM

When looking at the season's programs of some French ballet companies, I realized that several of them programmed works choreographed by their directors, who are or used to be ballet dancers (Marie-Claude Pietragalla, Charles Jude, Eric Vu-An...) and who started choreographing quite late. I must confess I'm a bit cautious about the people who seem to discover they are interested in choreography only after they have become company directors (mostly because of their fame as ballet dancers), so that they have a company and can experience what they want without much risj

It made me think about what typically is the career of a choreographer. All choreographers seem to have started their careers as dancers (does anybody know some counterexamples?), some were famous as dancers, like Petipa, Massine, Lifar or Martins (and to some extent Petit), while others had relatively short careers as dancers, like Balanchine or Béjart; also some of them were late starters, like (correct me if I'm wrong) Tudor and Ashton. I think it'd be interesting to try to list their performing careers, and also whether they
continued dancing after starting choreographing (Lifar being an example of choreographer often tailoring his ballets of his own performances...), and if they stopped, why (health reasons- limited dancing abilities- choice to spend all their time choreographing...)

Also it seemed to me that most great choreographers started choreographing quite early: from Koegler's book, Ashton's first choreography was in 1926 when he was 22 ("A tragedy of fashion"), Balanchine on the same year when he was 22 too ("Jack in the box", "Pastorale" and "Barabau"), Lifar in 1929 when he was 24 ("Les creatures de Promethee"), Petit in 1945 when he was 21 ("Les Forains"), Massine in 1915 when he was 20 ("Soleil de Nuit"), Petipa in 1838 when he was 20 in Nantes, Tudor when he was 23 ("Cross Garter'd")... Was it a sign that there were very motivated, and precociously gifted, or was it also a consequence of the circumstances (being supported by Diaghilev for Balanchine and Massine, by Kochno for Petit...)?

Which leads to a related question: what should be done to have more ballet choreographers?

I'd be interested in your thoughts about that topic. :)

#2 dirac

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Posted 10 September 2002 - 04:22 PM

Perhaps many choreographers begin as dancers because it's the dancing that seizes a young person's imagination. ( In the theatre, for example, although there are instances of actors who become playwrights, those who want to write for the stage don't necessarily have a yen to appear upon it.) Then they discover they have a knack for making dances, and with good luck there is a Rambert or Diaghilev keeping an eye peeled for talent -- especially young, cheap, malleable talent. :) Balanchine, I think, was already doing ballets in his teens. He might have danced longer, however, if health problems -- bad knees, bad lungs -- hadn't interfered.


It may be, however, that some focus on choreography because it becomes apparent that stardom as a dancer is not going to be an option, because of a late start, wrong body type, etc. (I think that was the case with Ashton, and Balanchine was not premier danseur material, either.)

Martha Graham always used to say she was a dancer first, and her choreography was a means to an end, the end being wonderful roles for her to dance.

As for more ballet choreographers, do we need more, or better, ones? I think of Stravinsky's remark about subsidizing certain composers not to compose, the way farmers are paid not to grow wheat....

#3 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 10 September 2002 - 07:58 PM

Choreographers think differently from dancers. I'm not going to say I could have been a better dancer than I was, but I will say that from early on, I didn't think like a dancer - I was always thinking about the design of the dance, not my own execution.

I also think there's a divide between the modern dance chreography tradition (you choreograph to create a repertory for yourself) and the ballet one (you choreograph on others) - needless to say, this is an overly neat division, but I think there are a lot of examples of it.

#4 Estelle

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Posted 11 September 2002 - 01:20 AM

Originally posted by dirac
Perhaps many choreographers begin as dancers because it's the dancing that seizes a young person's imagination. ( In the theatre, for example, although there are instances of actors who become playwrights, those who want to write for the stage don't necessarily have a yen to appear upon it.) Then they discover they have a knack for making dances, and with good luck there is a Rambert or Diaghilev keeping an eye peeled for talent -- especially young, cheap, malleable talent. :)  


Also I was thinking that taking dance classes is the only way one can know all the steps and the technique;
probably someone who would start choreographing without having danced him/herself would have trouble knowing which combinations are really possible to dance and which aren't... It's probably the same for music, are there examples of composers who never played any instrument themselves? (However, one can argue that for example opera composers generally aren't singers themselves).


It may be, however, that some focus on choreography because it becomes apparent that stardom as a dancer is not going to be an option, because of a late start, wrong body type, etc.  

And in the case of dancers turned company directors turned choreographers, sometimes I'm wondering if it isn't also "great, so I'll be able to have my name one more time in the season's brochure: "X's company featuring the famous dancer X in X's unforgettable choreography"...


Martha Graham always used to say she was a dancer first, and her choreography was a means to an end, the end being wonderful roles for her to dance.


Yes, I remember reading such comments in her autobiography, and also what an agony it was for her to stop dancing, and how hard it was to see other dancers in some roles she had created herself...

Such an attitude seems less common among ballet choreographers, as Leigh pointed out.
Among the "ballet choreographers choreographing for themselves", I'd list Lifar, and also to some extent Nureyev. Petit created some roles for himself in his early works, like "Les Forains" or "Carmen", but from the start he also created big roles for others ("Le Jeune homme et la mort" for Babilee...)

Alexandra, Koegler's book says that Bournonville stopped his dancing career in 1848, agred 43 (he had become the RDB's direcor in 1830), what was his career as a performer? Did he perform much in his own ballets?


As for more ballet choreographers, do we need more, or better, ones?  I think of Stravinsky's remark about subsidizing certain composers not to compose, the way farmers are paid not to grow wheat....


Well, perhaps I should have written "more good ballet choreogaphers", then. ;) I probably was thinking too much about the French situation, where they are really so scarce...

Leigh, I was going to ask you when you decided to become a choreographer, was it very shortly after becoming a dancer? You mention on your page that you were a late starter, as you started ballet only in college. Do you think it was a drawback for your choreographing career (it seems to me that having been famous as a dancer is helpful for choreographers in terms of publicity, and probably also in terms of knowing more people in the world of dance), or an advantage (more time as a child and teen-ager to pay attention to other things that ballet, and to get an academic education)?

Also, do you think there are some links between your tastes and abilities as a dancer and your choreographing style? For example, are you more likely to use some steps you used to like doing as a dancer?
Of course, if some other choreographers are reading, they are welcome to answer those questions too. :)

#5 Alexandra

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Posted 11 September 2002 - 04:02 AM

You raise so many interesting points, Estelle. Ashton is often quoted as saying that he couldn't imagine anyone wanting to be a choreographer; he wanted to be Nijinsky. And people who saw him dance when he was young thought he was a good dancer -- not a great one, but a very good one. The bits of film that exist show that, too.

Ashton and Tudor were both picked very young by Marie Rambert, who somehow knew they would be great choreographers. What would have happened to them had there not been a Rambert?

For people like Balanchine and Fokine, they grew up in a system where being a balletmaster was a job, and (I think) people were spotted very young and steered to that track -- Fokine was a good dancer, too, but was more interested in choreography. Balanchine was more interested in choreography as well. Massine was a star character dancer, and created roles for himself and others.

Bournonville danced with Taglioni at the Paris Opera during his years there, and also danced in London in a touring company. He was a star dancer -- compared to Albert and Paul. (Arthur St. Leon was a star dancer, too, as was Jules Perrot. Funny, that difference between the 19th and 20th centuries.) When he went home to Copenhagen in 1830 to take over the company, he was its First Dancer as well as choreographer, and that tradition continued through the 1980s. When there was a vacancy, the company's leading men were asked, in seniority order, if they'd take the company. Bournonivlle danced all the big male roles in his early ballets -- James in La Sylphide, Gennaro in Napoli, everything up until 1848. (He quit because his contract expired that year and, having a midlife crisis, joined the army!)

Nureyev started very early, mostly making solos for himself. I don't think he ever thought of himself as primarily a choreographer.

I agree that one is perhaps a bit...suspicoius of someone who announces, at 35, that he will now choreograph. It sounds as though s/he just wants to have a job in dance.

#6 Estelle

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Posted 11 September 2002 - 05:06 AM

Originally posted by Alexandra

Ashton and Tudor were both picked very young by Marie Rambert, who somehow knew they would be great choreographers.  What would have happened to them had there not been a Rambert?


It's hard to know if they would have had other opportunities later, or if perhaps they would have given up choreography... The same applies, to some extent, to Roland Petit and Boris Kochno (but at least Petit was a POB dancer and could have stayed there).

A company which seems to have developed quite a lot of choreographers among its dancers in the 20th century is the Stuttgart Ballet: John Neumeier, William Forsythe, Jiri Kylian, Uwe Scholz... It seems that John Cranko encouraged a lot his dancers to choreograph when he was the Stuttgart Ballet's director.


For people like Balanchine and Fokine, they grew up in a system where being a balletmaster was a job, and (I think) people were spotted very young and steered to that track --


Perhaps that's a separate debate, but it seems that it applied only to male dancers?


Bournonville danced with Taglioni at the Paris Opera during his years there, and also danced in London in a touring company.  He was a star dancer -- compared to Albert and Paul.


Who was Paul? (I had to check in Koegler's book about Albert. That's silly but at first I thought it was first names, and so wondered "Albert Whom? Paul Whom?" ;) ) So, for the people who, like me, didn't know about him: Francois Albert, 1789-1865, French dancer and choreographer, premier danseur of the Paris Opera 1817-1835, POB choreographer 1829-1842. I can't resist mentioning the title of his book "L'art de danser à la ville et à la cour, manuel à l'usage des maîtres à danser, des mères de famille et maîtresses de pension". And the list of his choreographies makes me regret that so little of that period remains...)


(Arthur St. Leon was a star dancer, too, as was Jules Perrot.  Funny, that difference between the 19th and 20th centuries.)


Hmm, was it that dancers were more encouraged to choreograph in that period, or that it was easier to have both a choreographing and performing career (or that on the other hand a not very good dancer wouldn't have been taken seriously as a choreographer)?


Nureyev started very early, mostly making solos for himself.  I don't think he ever thought of himself as primarily a choreographer.


It seems that his ballets remaining "alive" are mostly his productions of Petipa classics, and perhaps also "Cinderella". His other works, like "Manfred" or "Washington Square", haven't been danced by the POB (and probably not by other companies either) for a long while.

#7 Alexandra

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Posted 11 September 2002 - 06:12 AM

Estelle, it's Antoine Paul -- I haven't found his dates yet (I'm checking Ivor Guest's "The Romantic Ballet in Paris.") Albert and Paul were the two biggest stars of the transition period (I'm sure they didn't think of it that way) between the age of Vestris and Gardel, the neoclassical period, and the Romantic era.

I found two interesting passages about these dancers (OT for your topic about choreographic careers, but interesting, nonetheless, and that fit into other discussions here:)

The first, from p. 20 "Since the success of Albert and Paul,' commented Le Miroir in 1822, 'every dancer feels obliged to follow in their footsteps and wants to copy the superiority of these masters. All the genres are confused and converge, so to speak, towards a single style. Monotonous execution leads choreographers to monotonous composition...Confusion of the genres is so dangerous to the talent of the dancers that at times it is injurious to the two leading artists, Mm. Albert and Paul. The latter cannot wear a tunic and plumes, while Albert is too solemn in the gay genre."

(Sound familiar? I think this complaint reoccurs during transitional periods, when the dancers, and their desire to dance everything, seems to rule.)

On p. 39, writing about the hit ballet, "La Dansomania": "Albert gained a special triumph in this last ballet. 'I have seen the finest days of Vestris,' wrote one critic, 'and I have no hesitation in saying that Albert is very much superior to him, even as a mime. Albert, whose art is classical, disputes the favour of the public with Paul: the former is the Virgil of the dance, the latter the Ariosto of the dance.' The styles of these two dancers were so different than comparison was indeed impossible: 'It would be equally ridiculous to compare Isabey and David,' commented a writer of the time. But here, already, was a distinction being drawn between the classical style of dancing and a freer, Romantic style." [Virgil was the great poet of Rome, author of "The Aeneid." Ariosto was a great poet of the Italian Renaissance, late 16th century. His great work was "Orlado Furioso," about the Crusades. I had to look up Isabey; he was a French painter (1803-1886], known as a Romantic, painter of landscapes and watercolors in a free style. Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was a very important French neoclassical painter.]

#8 rg

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Posted 11 September 2002 - 07:01 AM

NYPL listing:
Paul, Antoine J., called L'aérien, ca. 1797-1871.

#9 dirac

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Posted 17 September 2002 - 02:40 PM

Totally off topic: does anyone know what drew Nureyev's attention to "Washington Square"? It's a little hard for me to see Nureyev immersing himself in the James universe, but it could just be my lack of imagination.


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