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Knowing when to quit


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#16 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 17 May 2002 - 09:16 PM

Interestingly, Merrill Ashley is a dancer I deliberately stopped seeing in her final years out of respect. I couldn't watch her performances in Ballo knowing what they had been like at her prime. That was how I wanted to remember her. I think Ashley's repertory was much more exposing to an aging dancer. She was never an actress, she was a virtuoso. And if she was all about technique, what was she when the technique was no longer as reliable? Also, in her specific case, she was fighting to perform with some very debilitating injuries.

#17 Calliope

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Posted 16 May 2002 - 02:02 AM

There is an article with Helene Alexopoulos in this week's Time Out that deals with this very topic.

"I've realized that there will never be a time when I don't want to dance and inevitably there will be a time when I should not. So at what point do you finally say "It's time to leave them wanting more" (she starts to cry) You don't realize it, but being in the company is a little like being on life supports. Who pulls the plug is another matter. Are you going to pull it with dignity or are you going to be drooling in a bedpan? I had to get over the fact that to leave would be some indication that I didn't love it anymore. And the company is moving on-it is more a culture of the young. THe really young. The truly young (laughs) I don't wantto feel like I'm making excuses for my presence"

Bedpan image aside,I liked her answer. THe initial question, was why she didn't retire later as opposed to now.

#18 Helena

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Posted 14 May 2002 - 12:41 AM

I also find the POB retirement rule ludicrous. The first time I saw Elisabeth Platel (in Manchester, in Bayadere) I am fairly sure she was appearing as a guest because she had already retired. She was 40-ish, and the most perfect dancer I had seen for years. It seemed totally absurd to pension her off.

Fonteyn herself described her 30s as her "prime years", but I actually thought she was better in her 40s - certainly no worse technically, and with ever-deepening artistry.

#19 Helena

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Posted 21 May 2002 - 03:40 AM

BW, I agree. I don't care if they do something else instead of fouettes, either (which I think some dancers have done). It's a trick, and not really the point of Swan Lake, or even of Odile.

#20 rkoretzky

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Posted 16 May 2002 - 06:11 AM

Merrill Ashley waited too long to retire. I have been a great fan of hers since her corps days and I can still remember clearly a break-out performance as the blue girl in Dances at a Gathering that left me smiling for days.

But my daughter saw her husband carrying her down a short flight of stairs after her last SPAC performance and it broke my heart to hear about it. The woman could barely walk and was spending hours in chiropractic offices so that she could be on stage for a few minutes.

I miss her still but wish she had retired sooner.

Helene is my daughter's favorite and she is so sad about this retirement that we had to go to NYCB last Saturday afternoon to see her one more time. In Vienna Waltzes, which neither of us likes, no less. In a classic clash of desires, my daughter had to choose between Helene's retirement evening and her own senior prom. The prom won!
I do applaud Helene for leaving now when she is looking so exquisite.

#21 rkoretzky

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Posted 18 May 2002 - 09:43 AM

Reading these threads has reminded me that I was so fortunate to be at Merrill Ashley's first performance of Ballo at SPAC. It was a sold-out matinee on a brutally hot day and I was working in the upper corner of the theater, trying to get everyone seated, when the ballet began. I have never seen such fire and flash as I saw that day.

I also saw Merrill's last performance of Ballo at SPAC, and it was the last time I saw her dance too--at the gala in 1997? (I could be off by a year or so), and I am sorry I did. Yes I see Lilian's point and it is well-taken. I admired her so much for giving her gift to the audience one last time. But that performance is not the one that I choose to focus on when I think about her. It hurt me to see her hurting.

#22 BW

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Posted 13 May 2002 - 03:40 PM

:eek: Now this is thin ice upon which we're treading! I believe I attempted to ask q question along these lines over on the Discovering Ballet section...maybe it will get more play here. I hope so. :)

Stopping the pursuit of something one loves more than anything else, must be one of the hardest things in the world to do. I know of ballet dancers who've asked each other to promise to stop dancing before they reached a certain age...and some don't always seem to listen.

But don't you think it all depends on the individual and what kind of ballet they are dancing? I feel that contemporary ballet can offer much more flexibility when it comes to age.

I also think that there are ballet dancers who "retire" from well known, prestigious companies and yet, still continue to perform for a number of years...but when to stop completely, unless injured, must be a hard decision to make if the dancer feels they are still capable.

I imagine bad reviews have an impact. :(

I think we'd all like to think we'd quit while we were ahead and go down in a blaze of glory, rather than to sink slowly. It's especially easy for those of us who are not dancers - professionally or otherwise. ;)

#23 BW

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Posted 17 May 2002 - 07:15 PM

Ed, I think you've picked up on the duality of it all - who's life is it anyway? Is it the star wanting to perform and hold back time - or is it our collective desire to see them "one last time"?

I'm with you and Lillian on this - I definitely want to be there to see the brilliance and am more than willing to overlook just about anything. I guess that is star power at its zenith.

#24 BW

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Posted 18 May 2002 - 03:43 AM

OK, agreed - I wouldn't want to see someone so debilitated that they weren't able to perform. In the case that you describe, Lillian, of Heather Watts - if, she were in that bad shape before the performance, then she should never have gone on. This kind of story...along with Pavarotti situation.:(

But there are some things that you all might take note of, that I wouldn't even see! And, Leigh, your last post brings up an interesting juxtaposition - if someone is a technical virtuoso and not a "personality":) capable of bringing really good acting abilities to the fore, then this maybe the sticking point.

#25 BW

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Posted 21 May 2002 - 02:44 AM

If a dancer, such as Makarova, can no longer do the 36 fouettes as the Black Swan, does that mean she should no longer dance it at all? Is it always an all or nothing situation in ballet?

I just experienced "star power" this past weekend while watching Valentina Kozlova (retired NYCB '95, now in mid forties) perform Odette/Odile and she still was able to leave us asking for more. This time she did not, however, make it to 36...but I still basked in every minute.

I have also seen her perform several contemporary pieces by Margo Sappington and have found myself close to tears for her beauty, sensuality and ability to transport an audience to another plane.

If a ballet dancer, for example, can no longer handle 36 fouettes is it time to put the swan's crown away for good and go with other ballets that don't have mandatory feets of stamina like this? From my point of view, I could have cared less if there were 36, 32 or 28! Ms. Kozlova still knocked my socks off. :(

#26 Farrell Fan

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Posted 13 May 2002 - 11:45 AM

There's been quite an uproar about Luciano Pavarotti bowing out of what were expected to be his final performances at the Metropolitan Opera. A great career seems to be coming to an unhappy end. Personally, I think he should have stopped performing opera three or four years ago.

How about ballet? One thinks of Nureyev's effortful latter days. It must be said that a lot of people were glad to see Nureyev or hear Pavarotti no matter how much they'd lost from their years of glory. Are there other examples in ballet of dancers who had great careers which were marred by their hanging on too long?
Conversely, which dancers knew just when to quit? Or even quit too soon?

#27 Farrell Fan

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Posted 14 May 2002 - 12:17 PM

It seems to me that many American ballerinas know to quit while they're ahead. The impending retirement of Susan Jaffe at the end of the ABT season is but the latest example. Patricia McBride and Suzanne Farrell were among many others. I'm not sure about Cynthia Gregory, but I think she was still going at least moderately strong when she quit.

There are at least two NYCB male soloists I can think of who stopped dancing BEFORE achieving their full potential. One was Chris d'Amboise, who quit "to pursue many other interests," in 1983 at age 23, soon after publication of his book, Leap Year. The more recent example was Christopher Wheeldon, who quit dancing to become NYCB's Resident Choreographer.

#28 Morris Neighbor

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Posted 13 May 2002 - 05:59 PM

I think Baryshnikov has the right idea: don't give up altogether, but look for opportunities that suit your current talents. Of course, it helps if you're world-famous and can persuade a millionaire to create a company to your specifications. I've seen several performances by his White Oak Project and they have all been fascinating in their choreography (almost all especially commissioned from the likes of Jerome Robbins and Mark Morris) and world-class in performance.

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.

In other circumstances, a dancer can choose the appropriate works in an established repertory. Approaching 70 and nearly blind, Alicia Alonso was still dazzling in Carmen and even Giselle in productions built around her. Farrell's post-surgery appearances were chosen with her doctor's advice in mind, but no one who was there will forget her Vienna Waltzes.

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.

Obviously, time steals virtuoso technique but grants greater interpretive depth. Ideally, a dance company should have flexible retirement policies and a repertory that reflects the many materies of its members.

#29 Morris Neighbor

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Posted 15 May 2002 - 06:30 PM

This thread raises many interesting questions.

The first one that occurred to me is fairly simple: can older dancers find a constructive role? I think the answer is yes, but in a limited context. (Brief note to Estelle: I don't know the POB roster very well, but you can check the list at http://www.balletcom...ndsDansTheater/
for more details)

Then there's the financial argument. Fonteyn, as it happens, had a husband who suffered serious chronic pain after a car accident in the 60's; her income was crucial to providing him continuous care. I don't doubt that other dancers, of lesser fame, found themselves in a similar situation and continued in lesser roles.

There's also the classic Red Shoes "pull of the stage" question. Why abandon the one experience that has brought great pleasure to your life? Today, at least, few dancers choose the Red Shoes solution.

Alas and alack, there's still no easy answer, and both gifted artists and loving audiences have suffered. Now that I'm approaching 60, I've come to think that it's all part of the human condition. :(

#30 Morris Neighbor

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Posted 20 May 2002 - 07:11 PM

Thank you very much, Calliope, for the quote from Helene. She has always struck me as a dancer with a very realistic sense of how she is perceived, from Balanchine's insistence on calling her "the little Hawaiian girl" [she is, of course, of Greek ancestry] to her explanation in an interview (which I can't track down) that her promotion to Principal was delayed several years by Balanchine's death, since the company had more important things to worry about. She also took two years off to have a child -- a move few dancers would have considered when she first came on the scene. I'm sorry that other obligations kept me from her farewell Saturday night. I applaud in absentia.

As for other stars who have overstayed their welcome, Nureyev was clearly a disaster (a rocket transformed into a marshmallow), Watts was on and off (throughout her career, at least in my experience), and Ashley was always dependable, at Lord knows what cost in pain.

Then there was Makarova, who insisted on doing too many Swan Lakes. She had the technique and the style to sell the White pas de deux, but the Black requires those 36 fouettes, well beyond her endurance quotient. So she simply entered three measures late (a minor trial for the audience), performed 24 fouettes (albeit a bit sloppily), ended on the music, and got an ovation. No wonder some fans chant the count out loud.

Still and all, absent gross physical problems (like Farrell or Villella), it's really hard to make a decision, especially for men and women who have devoted their lives, from early adolescence, to dance. Ashley and Makarova had the advantage of husbands outside the dance world (the former is married to a UN interpreter, the latter to an international lawyer).

Less celebrated dancers are doing well, too. Delia Peters, who pursued a law degree in her off hours from the NYCB corps, is today a successful entertaiment lawyer. Carole Divet, once a featured member of the NYCB crops, has proved her skill as a costume designer.

And this is only the beginning. I hear that the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle even offers its dancers courses in "what to do next."

There's no easy way, buy surely we can spare 40-something dancers the necessity of making fools of themselves to pay the rent.


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