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Knowing when to quit


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#1 Ed Waffle

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Posted 14 May 2002 - 09:19 AM

There may be financial reasons for an artist to stay on stage long after his career has peaked. While the POB forces dancers to retire too early in some cases, I believe it also supplies a pension for them—whether it is adequate is another question, of course.

In the more free lance world of opera, star singers can and sometimes must extend their careers. The recent Pav cancellation orgy at the Met may involve Luciano’s personal finances as much as his desire to sing “Tosca” one more time in New York City. It has been variously reported that he is wealthy and that he owes an unpayable amount of back taxes to the Italian government. Richard Tauber, one of the most loved interpreters of Mozart’s tenor roles, sang Don Ottavio, his signature role, in London several weeks before he had surgery for lung cancer. Tauber was deeply in debt and had to sing to eat.

If a dancer lives in one of the cultural capitals of the world—New York City, London, Paris—she will have large fixed expenses. It may not always be possible to think of one’s retirement income while pursuing such a demanding career. While we may know (or think we know) the fees that premiere artists get, we have no real idea what their expenses are, how much they are in debt, what investments they may have made, etc.

In addition to the pull of the stage, a dancer, singer or instrumentalist might also love the lifestyle that goes with being a star—a lifestyle possibly too grand to support on income from teaching, writing or other post-retirement jobs.

Obviously neither Nureyev nor Barishnikov needed the money. One wonders if the former was attempting to cheat death for as long as possible, continuing to work when very ill (much more so than Pavarotti was last week).

#2 Ed Waffle

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Posted 17 May 2002 - 06:49 PM

Lillian wrote: “she gave it her all; the lightning speed and star power were still there.”

and further: “I was elated -- one last chance to witness her brilliance. What a gift."

Star power. Perhaps like pornography, we can’t define it but we know it when we see it—because of the effect it has on us.

It is not only the performer who decides when to retire but also the audience. One hopes that Merrill Ashley knew there were people like Lillian in the audience when she pushed herself through one last Allegro Brillante at Saratoga that year. She must have known—why else would she make such an effort.

In 1973 Maria Callas shocked the music world by doing a recital tour. She had retired from the operatic stage eight years before and her voice was shot. However, there are pirate recordings of the concert in Hamburg that show flashes of her unique, dark timbre, her commitment, and her special way of dealing with music and words. And the response! Most of those in attendance would have known of the precariousness of her vocal estate—and most (if not all) ignored it, even when it was so horrible evident.

It is the same type of star power that had people lined up the night before the box office opened to get tickets for Horowitz, when he was playing on recalled brilliance alone and we knew he hit an astonishing number of wrong notes. Star power was why the last Sergovia recital in Chicago sold out in an instant, even though we knew he couldn’t play with anything like his former virtuosity. And it is why people paid huge sums to hear the last concerts led by Otto Klemperer, even though he was ravaged by mental illness and so weak he had to be led to the podium.

One thinks that it the performer is trying to stop time, to recapture a past that has long eluded his abilities. Whether it is the case or not, I have no idea. I do know, though, that Lillian’s point is as correct as anything I have read. We do (at least I do) want to be in the presence of a brilliant, world-stopping performer one last time and are willing to forgive that performer almost anything to get a chance to do so.

#3 Estelle

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Posted 13 May 2002 - 03:48 PM

The POB has a somewhat strict policy for retirement: at 40 for the women, 45 for the men (very recently it has been changed, and it will gradually become 40 for all, with the possibility to continue until 42 if the direction agrees). Of course that is a maximal age, some dancers choose to leave the company earlier. That often leaves some regrets concerning some dancers, as for example Elisabeth Platel who still was lovely in her last season, or Isabelle Guerin. Some dancers are invited as guests with the POB, or continue performing from time to time with other companies, but in general they dance far less...

I agree that it must be a very difficult decision. As Paquita wrote, perhaps a gradual retirement is easier. For example, last season Manuel Legris (now 37 or 38) announced that it'd be his last performances as Romeo, and he'll probably restrict or modify his repertory in the next few seasons.
But it must take much lucidity to be able to see one's flaws and to decide to stop some roles not too late...

Also, even in classical works, there are some roles which require less technique and more acting- pantomime which are well suited for senior dancers (like the Rajah and Brahmin in "La Bayadere", the Capulets in "Romeo and Juliet", etc.) I think it's a pity that such roles often are danced by very young dancers who don't look realistic in the roles and often are not very used to acting and pantomime, while it generally looks better with a dancer with a more suitable experience (but probably it's easier for corps de ballet dancers to accept such roles, than for "stars" who are used to have the main roles...)

#4 Estelle

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Posted 14 May 2002 - 12:18 AM

Originally posted by Morris Neighbor

The only other company I know which tailors its repertory to older dancers is the Netherlands Dance Theatre's NDT III company. I've only seen them once, but they also have good choreography and dancers (many of them refugees from POB's rigid age rules) with commanding stage presences.


I'm a bit surprised: I had never heard that the NDT III had some former POB dancers... Do you know which ones were there exactly?


Maybe it's because I'm American, but I'm really offended by POB's rigid retirement rules. Some dancers reach their peak at 25 and spend their careers dancing minor solos. Others stay at the peak of their powers for years. I can testify that Allegra Kent was breathtaking in La Sonnambula well into her 40's, and that Margot Fonteyn in her mid-50's needed only 30 seconds to convince an audience that she was the teen-aged Juliet.  


Actually, there are quite a lot of French people who criticize it too, and it has been an endless subject of debates... But the POB administration is something quite rigid, so any modification takes time; moreover perhaps it is necessary to have the same age of retirement for everybody because of the special status of the POB dancers as it is a state-funded institution (I'm not sure).
As I wrote, some dancers choose to leave the company earlier (sometimes to join other companies, sometimes to raise their families or to do another job), also for example Patrice Bart started being a ballet master when he was around 40, before his "official retirement" as a dancer.
It also happened (but it's quite rare) that some dancers were fired because they were out of shape and not working enough. Actually I'm not especially shocked that most dancers can be paid until 40 even if they don't dance much, because it's such a hard job, and not especially well paid when one considers how much competition it takes to get there (and it's less paid than the singers and the musicians, for example), so "job security" is a kind of compensation... What is more annoying, in my opinion, is that the dancers post-40 (or post-45) seldom get invited as guests, even though some of them could still give great performances.

#5 Estelle

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Posted 14 May 2002 - 02:46 PM

Originally posted by Ed Waffle
There may be financial reasons for an artist to stay on stage long after his career has peaked. While the POB forces dancers to retire too early in some cases, I believe it also supplies a pension for them-whether it is adequate is another question, of course.


I'm not sure, but it seems to me that they get a pension only after they turn 60, and have to find a job between 40 or 45 and 60 (but I'd have to check it).

#6 Estelle

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Posted 16 May 2002 - 01:37 AM

Thanks for the link, Morris Neighbor. But I didn't see any former POB dancer among the NDT3 dancers (the only French one, Gerard Lemaitre, danced in Petit's company and with the NDT).

I think that the question of constructive roles depends a lot of the age of the dancers: among "older" dancers, there is quite a difference between those who are barely above 40 and those who are 70...

Also a related problem is career-shortening injuries (which has already been mentioned in other threads); it's a pity to see that some dancers have to stop very early because their bodies are not in a good enough shape after repeated injuries... Of course there is also the fact that nature in unfair, and some people might be in a better shape for genetic reasons.

#7 Lillian

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Posted 17 May 2002 - 10:34 AM

I saw Merrill Ashley dance Allegro Brillante at SPAC the year before she retired. It was amazing. She obviously was in bad shape BUT she gave it her all; the lightning speed and star power were still there. I cherish the memories of that performance above all others. I had spotted her with her husband the day before limping badly down the main street in Saratoga and it I broke my heart (I adore Merrill Ashley). But when I saw her dance the next night, I was elated -- one last chance to witness her brilliance. What a gift.

#8 Lillian

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Posted 17 May 2002 - 08:31 PM

I had another experience, similar to this, seeing Karen Kain dance Juliet two years before she retired. I had never been a Kain fan before but that night she was so beautiful, I found myself weeping more than once. Again, she just poured her heart into it, and, what an actress! I walked away from that performance angry...angry at myself for having ignored this lovely dancer over the years (Kirkland and Makarova were far more glamourous than a fellow Canadian).
Funnily enough, seeing Nureyev at the end of his career did not offer the same impression. He danced Apollo and Flower Festival during one of those Nureyev and Friends tours and it was awful. At times, I actually I hid my eyes.
Ditto for Heather Watts, who I saw in her pre-retirement year on a Stars of New York City Ballet tour. At the end of a little Who Cares number they pasted together, Watts (costumed in a too-small, sparkly black outfit with hair loose) hit the final kneeling pose, and, during the black out, put her head down, both hands flat on the floor and slowly struggled into a standing postion, while the other dancers quickly and gracefully took their places to bow. I had always been a Watts fan, but that night she was just winging it, offering the bare minimum. She's another dancer who hung in there WAY too long.

#9 Lillian

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Posted 18 May 2002 - 06:16 AM

Leigh, I'll tell you, that night, exept for an obvious problem with flexibility (similar to Farrell in her last years), she was amazing: quick, sharp, and, as always with Ashley, exquisite pointe work. I had seen Kyra Nichols earlier that week in the same ballet and I far preferred Ashley. Also, she apparently only found out she was dancing late in the afternoon. I believe she was standing in for an injured Nichols.

#10 Mel Johnson

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Posted 13 May 2002 - 05:28 PM

I'm kind of reminded of Marian Anderson, who, while still in acceptable voice, retired from the Metropolitan stage, and set out on her neverending tour of "farewell" performances. Farewell to Kankakee, IL, Farewell to Oshkosh, WI, Farewell to Redlands, CA, and when in Boston, Farewell to the Tremont Street Theater, Farewell to Symphony Hall, Farewell to Boston Conservatory....

#11 Mel Johnson

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Posted 20 May 2002 - 07:27 PM

AGMA, bless them, led the way with their Dancer Career Transition program. Many similar programs are offered now, even by management, as a sort of benevolent outplacement service.

#12 Alexandra

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Posted 14 May 2002 - 09:21 AM

I think it's the pull of the stage. It's also that dancing is part of a dancer's identity, his very being. I don't fault them for that. I wish there was a way to use great dancers well into their 70s. There is, of course, and not as the leads in Giselle. It's just out of fashion now.

I'm always very torn about this -- I wish Nureyev had stopped years before he did. I understand why he kept on, I'm even sympathetic to it, but I'm sorry I saw it. On the other hand, I came to ballet through a "Nureyev and Friends" program with Margot Fonteyn, age 55. I thought she was 35. I wouldn't have wanted to miss her.

I'm seeing dancers now in their mid-30s who look old on stage -- partly because everyone else is encouraged to look 17 (nothing wrong with that, unless you're 31) and partly because the repertory is so HYPER -- jumpjumpjump turnturnturn -- that there's no room for anyone much over 17. I like seeing young dancers, I'd like to see some mature ones, too. I don't want to see another Nureyev, c. 1989.

#13 Alexandra

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Posted 18 May 2002 - 05:30 AM

Very interesting answers, all -- and a special thank you to atm for those lovely memories :)

It is a double-edged sword. I did see Nureyev a lot in his waning decade -- not always by choice! -- and what was particularly frustrating is that four nights in a row he would be so awful that it hurt to watch (and if you're reviewing, you can't close your eyes! Or at least you're not supposed to :) ) And then the next night he would get a surge of Something and be wonderful. (Not the very last years, but the Early and Middle Decline years.)

There's a very delicate passage in John Gruen's "Erik Bruhn, Danseur Noble" describing how Bruhn got to do (I think) "Theme and Variations" -- that Youskevitch aged, very suddenly. Reading between the lines, it sounded as though everyone realized this except Youskevitch. That would be difficult too -- the dancer thinks he's in a temporary slump caused by an injury, or whatever, and it's obvious to everyone else that, at 45, it's the end of the road.

Bruhn stopped relatively early -- at 44 -- when he was still in good shape (Danes generally last long) because of illness and, when he returned to the stage, did so deliberately in nonclassical roles and roles that he hadn't danced before he stopped. A model way of handling things, I think. Kronstam stopped classical roles even earlier -- James at 36, everything else at 40 -- because of a prolapsed disk and torn Achilles -- but danced character roles until there was nothing left in the repertory that interested him. And Niels Kehlet was bounding about like a kid in his mid-40s. He's over 60 now, and I think he still has a jump!

All that to say that, like stopping driving, there shouldn't be a mandatory age limit. A freelancer, like Nureyev, wil go solely on appetite for pain and box office. He was still selling out when he couldn't walk. If there's a strong company, the director can says, "No, it really is time" if the dancer doesn't know that him or herself.

#14 atm711

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Posted 17 May 2002 - 10:03 AM

I have seen many dancers past their prime---Danilova, Markova, Dolin, Ulanova--and I am grateful for these memories. But, if I had seen them in their glory days I don't know if I would be so accomodating. Having seen Nureyev and Alonso in their prime, I felt they should have stopped performing. Since Alonso is at the top of my list for favorite Giselles, I cannot watch the cuban videos of her performances--but, I am sure others who only know of her through videos can detect some of what made her great. When Danilova was performing she had a lot of trouble with supported adagios. When her extended arm held on to her partner's hand, the whole arm wavered like a flag in a breeze. Also, Markova's technique was rather blurry. I had seen her many times as Taglioni (In Pas de Quatre), but it wasn't until I saw the youthful Alonso dance the same role, when I thought "So, that's what the choreography is". I say this, not to denigrade these fine artists, but making a case for their decision to have stuck around. I was enthralled by them.

#15 Paquita

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Posted 13 May 2002 - 12:33 PM

I am not personally a witness to Baryshnikov's great career, but I think he is a dancer that knew when to quit. I think it was wise of him to move towards contemporary/modern dance, instead of quitting altogether- Karen Kain has done the same, and I think she looked great in her final performances. I think a large part of it, is knowing when to drop certain ballets ( i.e. Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Don Q). Rex Harrington is starting to realize that he is losing his line and turns, but he can still look wonderful in the right repetoire. It's very hard for ballet dancers to quit- cold turkey, and it's generally better when leaving the stage is gradual, IMO.


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