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Estelle

Hierarchies in ballet companies

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The present discussion about the POB competition made me think a little bit about the notion of hierarchy in ballet companies. Most ballet companies have a hierarchical system, while modern dance ones often have the same status for all dancers. The number of categories may vary: 5 for the POB (quadrille, coryphée, sujet, premier danseur, étoile), also five for the RB (artist, first artist, soloist, first soloist, principal),

three for the NYCB, the ABT and the RDB (corps de ballet, soloist, principals), I don't know about Russian companies... At the Paris Opera, the promotions depend on the annual competition (except for the principals), while in other companies it is the choice of the artistic director.

So what are your thought about hierarchies? Do you think they are useful, or that they should be modified or abolished? Are they important for ballet companies in your opinion?

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I thought I remembered that long ago, all NYCB company members were listed alphabetically. But I may be wrong, because I just came upon a program for the 1960-61 winter season which lists fourteen principal dancers and, in smaller type, six others (Patricia McBride, Conrad Ludlow, Arthur Mitchell, Francia Russell, Roland Vasquez, William Weslow). Those who were not principal dancers, or quasi-principals, went unlisted, but were included in the casts for the individual ballets.

Nowadays, as you say, Estelle, at NYCB and ABT there are three dancer categories, and three different type sizes -- and the principals get their photos in the program.

I think this hierarchy is fine because it presumably gives the dancers something to strive for, the press department something to report when someone is promoted, and us something to talk about. Occasionally, I've been puzzled by a given dancer's remaining in the corps years after she or he merited promotion to soloist or principal. I'm thinking specifically of Delia Peters, a charming and totally individual dancer who never made soloist. And that was before Peter Martins.

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Interesting question, Estelle. Does repertory dictate hierarchy? I'm sure part of it's historic -- the "if you're of this rank, you don't have to dance in a group larger than eight" idea that we talked about over on the POB thread. When all the works are small-cast, hierarchy doesn't matter. The rankings today are also a matter of salary. Farrell Fan is correct, I believe, that NYCB dancers were listed alphabetically, but they still had rankings, and they knew what that rank was.

There are always dancers who look as though they're about to be promoted and aren't. I've learned that sometimes it's because they are very good in a few roles, and we think we want to see them do everything -- but the direction knows their limitations.

The Royal Danish Ballet had only two ranks until 1992: solo dancer and ballet dancer. The star men got promoted very early, usually at 20, 21 or 22; 26 was considered a very late promotion. Women usually got promoted in their mid-twenties. There was another rank of First Solo Dancer, but it was only given five times in the company's history.

I think the hierarchy question is now part of the contemporary/classical question. If you're a small company of only 20 members, you probably aren't going to worry about titles. Can a company dance "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty" without ranked dancers? (I mean grand-scale versions of those ballets, not mini ones.) I wonder. Does hierarchy create ballerinas?

One of my disappointments with much of the contemporary (not modern) dance that I see today is that the dancers are all so anonymous. When ABT did Kylian's "Sinfonietta" here a few years ago, I was shocked during the curtain calls when I realized who was dancing -- I hadn't checked the program, and I thought they were all corps. The stage was full of principals. They danced beautifully, but there was nothing in the ballet that let any one of them look like an individual.

After much pondering, I drew the conclusion that while the lack of hiearchy makes a company LOOK as though it's more democratic, it's not, in the sense of fostering individuality. A hierachy allows people to achieve individuality.

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I've never thought of it that way. I like that.

I alway liked hierarchies for ballet companies, but the democratic listing for modern companies. That may be a double standard, but considering the differences in the forms, it makes sense.

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I thought the comment by Alexandra: "Does hierarchy creat ballerinas?" very interesting. If there is no division list for ballet-goers to see and then rank the dancers, then I think we could perhaps see an evolution of different "stars." Would the classification of 'great dancer/ballerina' be more objective, without the personal whims of a director and favorites that evolve in a company getting in the way? (The Suzanne Farrell/George Balanchine relationship comes to mind)

On the flip side, a ballet audience can be very uninformed...and mistake good stage presence/performing ability for greatness. (without fabulous techinique.)

Since I am probably being somewhat blasphemous, I would also like to say that there are, of course, dancers who would become famous no matter who are the judges. Fonteyn, Barishnykov, etc. And I beg Suzanne Farrell's pardon for the above comment. She is one of my favorite dancers, and I think fits under the aforesaid category.

Am I making any sense? I don't know if I got out what I am thinking...

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The real issue, it seems to me, is not the formal rank a person may, or may not, enjoy, but whether each dancer in the corps be given a chance to develop himself, and be given a crack at challenging roles sufficiently often, for eveyone to know "what stuff he's made of". It also makes it so much more interesting for the audience, to discover new people in quite unexpected places !

The director of a company is not God. A director keenly aware of that Fact of Life, is likely to give everyone a chance.

It also means doing away with the notion of the Jack-of-all-Trades dancer, because no-one is ever really a star, really first-class, in every single role and style.

Jean Babilée said in a recent interview - and he was the star-to-end-all-stars at the Paris Opera after the War - that he had quit the Opera in his prime because "they kept on trying to make me dance stuff that I knew I was going to be hopeless at", or something to that effect.

What can be stifling about formal hierarchies, is that the Director inherits the whole teetering edifice, and feels duty-bound to cast people by rank.

To give one example: Miteki Kudo, the exquisite daughter of Noëlla Pontois, has stagnated at the rank just under premier danseur for several years. As a "mere" sujet, we are never going to see her Sylphide, her Aurora, her Giselle, although she could probably out-sylph them all. It is a terrible pity, and a terrible waste !

At Paris, until a slew of étoiles began to retire recently, one never got a chance to see "the underlings" do anything much but lift a bit of scenery on stage. The present Vacant Room at the Top has certainly improved things from that standpoint ! When people in the corps realise that they may well find themselves doing something sparky the next week, it changes the moral "tone" throughout the troupe.

Were I a Person of Power, I would, at least so far as Paris is concerned, abolish all those ranks. I'd also abolish the notorious Concours. It's no more fair, really, than the "old" system of favouritism: first, it amounts to Trial by Nervous Breakdown and second, it fosters extreme conformism. People are so focused on the Concours year-round, because their roles and salaries depend on it, that they avoid doing ANYTHING that might rock the boat.

Two ranks are enough: soloist, and corps. "Etoile" is a title that should not be bandied about. It is deserved only by people who have something unique to communicate, and who, ghastly as they may be in some roles, have a true, independent artistic personality. I'd doubt that more than two or three men and women per decade, have that quality in any theatre in Europe.

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Farrell Fan, I think Delia Peters fell into the "demi-soloist" role that's now occupied by Rutheford.

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Thanks for the comment, Calliope. The comparison of Delia Peters to Rachel Rutherford is a good one.

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I remember Delia Peters (who's now a lawyer, I think) as being a very witty dancer -- drily witty -- and a very clean dancer, but not a beauty.

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Alexandra, what do you mean when you say a beauty? dance-wise or face-wise?

Emily Coates was another, but she left and has found great success with White Oak.

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Until quite recently (last 2-3 years) the Bolshoi & Kirov had only 'Solistki' & 'Kordebalet' ranks. So you had, for example, the Kirov's Assylmuratova and Lopatkina (true principals who never danced tiny solos once they began to dance the principal parts) at the same soloist level as, say, Tarassova, Amosova and Zhelonkina (talented & dependable soloists who, on rare occasions, are granted principal roles). Drove me nuts!! I suppose that it was part of the Soviet social-leveling mentality. Finally, the Kirov-Mariinsky & the Bolshoi have gone back to the pre-1918 system of multiple levels that reflect the true rank of the dancer. I think that it is a good change.

Some of the solists-who-remained-soloists are a tad upset, though. In the old system, they were at the highest rank (albeait the highest of only two ranks) for many years; now, some have been bumped down to plain-old 'Soloist' (below the new designations of 'Principal' and 'First Soloist')....Amosova is an example of one who went from the highest level to 'Soloist.' At least Tarassova & Zhelonkina are 'First Soloist.'

Kirov levels:

Principal (Ballerina & Premier Danseur)

First Soloist

Soloist (sometimes termed 'Second soloist')

Character Soloists .... now have their own category

Coryphee

Corps de Ballet

Bolshoi categories are the same.

This is one of several modernizing changes that have been instituted by the new Gergiev & Akimov regimes, at the Kirov & Bolshoi theaters, respectively. Jobs-by-contract is another.

[ January 29, 2002: Message edited by: Jeannie ]

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I think that for the audience, hierarchies do make things interesting- they can watch "progress" of people through the ranks. I always love going to the ABT and NYCB websites to see who has been promoted recently. It can also offer some form of protection for a dancer that dances principal roles to have to also dance in the corps, but beyond that, I don't know that the ranks really mean that much. It is interesting that in NY we hear so much about young corps members dancing principal roles over other principals (I guess this happens out of necessity, really).

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Delia Peters indeed was a witty dancer. Her girl in green remains unmatched, in my opinion. She certainly was no beauty in the way Rachel Rutherford is. But I think Calliope's linking the two had to do with their status as "special" corps members within the NYCB heirarchy -- not to any physical similarities. Nevertheless, Peters was very attractive -- and the 1980 NYCB souvenir book contains a small, stunning photograph of her by Arthur`Elgort, who apparently saw her as glamorous.

Joseph Mazo's 1974 book, Dance is a Contact Sport, has a lot in it about Peters. At that time she'd been in the corps for ten years. I think she remained in it for ten more. Mazo portrays her as someone who had a life outside the theater and whose friends mostly had nothing to do with ballet. "She is a dancer, not A DANCER," is how he puts it. Whether or not this was the case, it's a fact that for many of those years she was in the corps, she was also going to college, and then to Fordham Law School across the street from Lincoln Center. She did become a lawyer, and after she'd left the company and joined a law firm, she could sometimes be seen on the promenade in the company of men in pinstripe suits.

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I did mean to compare them as the "demi-soloist" ranking. (Peters and Rutherford) Thanks for the clarification though, I honestly couldn't remember what Peters looked like up close and personal. smile.gif

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I don't think Peters was particularly attractive, and it did her well in the role of the wife in the Concert. No one has come close to her in that role, she was just wonderful in it opposite Bart Cook. She also was one of the main stays of the corps. Over the years there have been many dancers who have lasted for years (decades?) in the corps and were its backbone. I can think of many including some who were eventually promoted to soloist. Such dancers as Florence Fitgerald, Teresa Reyes, Susan Pilar, Renee Estopinal, etc. spent many years in the corps, as well Susan Hendl, Christine Redpath who are Asst Ballet Masers now.

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Delia was a hoot, but she didn't photograph particularly well. I was surprised when I first met her, at her youth. She was always good in a funny part, like the dancer who walks around a tableau in "Donizetti Variations" as if to say, "Now, what was all that rushing about? For this?" wink.gif

And while we're remember remarkable corps members of NYCB, let's not forget Rosemary Dunleavy, and Shaun O'Brien, who for years was carried as "corps"!

[ February 01, 2002: Message edited by: Mel Johnson ]

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Call me odd, but I rather liked Peters' patrician looks.

While I understand the reasoning behind comparing Peters and Rutherford, I don't think they're really quite comparable. Not to take away from Peters' gifts (as noted, she was a great comedienne, and a very great WREN in addition to the roles already mentioned), but seldom if ever would Peters have been given principal or almost-principal roles with the frequency of Rutherford. Peters would never have danced Summer, for instance, or Liebeslieder.

Peters is a great exemplar of NYCB's unofficial demi-soloist corps dancers, who often accrue to themselves a substantial repertory of "small" but important roles. I really do think Rutherford is in a bit of a different category. Her case reminds me much more of Stephanie Saland, who for years and years was a soloist who was cast as a principal. She finally got her promotion; perhaps Rutherford will get hers soon, too.

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It seems like if you have been telling a lot about POB on this board !

I would like to give a detail : dancers are very young when they enter the POB corps : generally no more than 16, and often 15 and a half !

I think this may be a reason why there are so many ranks in POB. (and now there are only five versus 6 in the old days when there were "petits sujets" and "grands sujets" !)

But Katharina Kranker is right on this point (though very hard indeed toward our dancers !) : the issue is not the formal rank, but whether each dancer be given a chance to be given some interesting roles and develop himself.

I would point out that very promissing young dancers may be given such roles even when they "official" rank is low. Recently, in the same role of the young girl of Afternoon of a Faun (from Robbins)3 different dancers have been casted : 1 "première danseuse" (Eleonora Abbagnato), and two "coryphées" (Emilie Cozette and the 19-year-old Juliette Gernez.

Ileana from Paris

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I am in the process of clearing out a trunk in my basement. It is packed with programs that date back to the 60s and some souvenir programs that are still older. One interesting thing that I noted with respect to the Royal Danes: the high percentage of people listed in the corps (early 60s) who later became solo artists. I don't think I have ever noticed such a high percentage in any other company. Perhaps, at least in those days, there was an EXPECTATION that each young dancer had the makings of a solo artist - be his/her strength in classical or character roles.

With the Russians, it has always been clear that some graduates of either the Maryinsky or Bolshoi schools were earmarked for careers as soloists/principals in the last couple of years before graduation - and everybody (other students) knows who they are. There are some who never set foot in the back of the corps. (The most famous example was Anna Pavlova, who entered the Maryinsky company as a coryphee.)They are also clearly earmarked prior to graduation to be classical vs. character dancers. You don't see anything of someone who came to dance Odette/Odile dancing something like the Spanish dance when younger (viz. Monica Mason of the RB).

Another point about the Russians: their titles when on tour in the West are/were not necessarily the same as their titles back home. These days, and especially in the waning days of the Soviet Union, to save money only a certain number of "principal dancers" were carried on the tour. Many of the "solo artists" are/were "principals" back in Russia, but in order for them to participate in the foreign tours (always a desirable thing), they had to go as dancers of a lower rank. I think there used to be a lot of solo artists in the corps. (I remember one tour of the Bolshoi to England where the average age of the corps was probably well over 35 - dancers married and with children at home to lessen the probability of defections.)

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