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Interpreting Ballet?


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#16 leibling

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Posted 06 April 2002 - 03:32 PM

There is so much to think about here that I don't know where to begin... this is very interesting though because people don't often talk about how or why they interpret things a certain way. All I can add is that as a performer, if I am performing a previously set piece, then I want to know as much background as possible. Some people may find this confusing, and I will admit to being confused, too, but it is the process of working through the confusion of historical or pschological significances that will yeild, for me, something I can bring to the stage to make the experience real. Even if I end up "throwing out" so much of what I thought about, the information was still processed and retained- perhaps for future reference. The first time i danced a leading role in Balanchine's Serenade, I went a little overboard trying to find philosophical and psychological connections between the steps, etc. The ironic thing is that all of the research and thought that I put into this led me to the simplest " interpretation" possible- everything I needed was already in the music. This was one of the most valuable lessons I ever learned, and has stayed with me for years.

#17 Lolly

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Posted 02 April 2002 - 10:43 AM

Leigh, when you said you sometimes help the audience out by explaining a title, you reminded me that when I saw Middle a few weeks ago, I read afterwards in the programme notes that the title refers to a bunch of cherries suspended above the dancers - well, I didn't notice any cherries! I felt embarrassed, I couldn't work out if this was my "fault" for not taking in the whole spectacle of the stage, or the choreographer for not making them prominent, if they were so important to the work. (Of course if they were there, they may not have been visible from my seat!) But then I realised that to me, what does that ballet have to do with cherries, or the middle of anything?! I don't think it's about anything, just light and speed, sound, movement... or cherries?? So to me it just seems like another anti-interpretation device, like although a ballet's title isn't necessarily an indication of its meaning, it does foreground certain aspects of it, leading you to think it is significant. If Middle had anything to do with cherries, I would have the dancers wearing red... It could have been grapes hanging above the stage, or oranges. Does it matter if I have missed the point? If, when there are answers, you come up with different ones? I loved it without the cherries.:)

How did you feel when the NY Times said Green was set in the woods? Did you think they hadn't paid attention to what you were trying to do (by neither reading the notes nor the ballet as you had intended)? Or they had just discovered some new aspect of it you hadn't seen or anticipated? I think I'd be a bit cross that they has missed my point, yet of course an audience can read a piece of art however they want. It seems it is hard to reconcile the need to be illuminating enough to satisfy the curious, without being totally prescriptive to those who want their art to be more open ended, to do their own thinking.

#18 Lolly

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Posted 06 April 2002 - 10:24 AM

I agree Estelle, the level of interpretation and the need to analyse depends on the work.

I've been thinking more about Forsythe and Middle in relation to this discussion, and I think maybe I'm more interested in his motivation to create the work, rather than what the finished product 'means'. After reading more about it, two things struck me, firstly that Middle is the central section of a longer work, Impressing the Csar, and secondly, that Forsythe admired Jacques Derrida.

I thought maybe I could come up with something here as I did a bit of deconstructionalism at college... but I just realised that yes I would have had something to say if only I had listened in my Critical Theory classes! (I seem to have filtered most of it out as my tutor was obsessed with psychoanalysis and brought everything back to Freud.:) Larkin wrote "I spent my second quarter-century losing what I had learned at university" Well, I'm not in my second quarter-century yet but am making good headway with forgetting everything already, oh dear!)

But I'll give it a shot! Derrida was famous for saying "The centre is not the centre", meaning that the centre only exists because it is defined by its boundaries - it is not a thing in itself. So if Middle is actually the central section of a longer work, its function differs depending on whether it is performed on it's own or inside the full length piece. I read that the title of Middle can also be interpreted as simply being the middle piece of a longer work. If it is performed on its own, it removes it from its meaning - it is no longer the middle, it is a whole thing in itself. Derrida is saying that the centre doesn't exist in itself, it is only there because of the other elements around it. But clearly Middle still exists without Impressing the Csar. I don't really know how to make conclusions from this (maybe someone else does?!) but I found a good word to describe what I mean! It's 'autotelic' and I think it means that art is it's own goal - an end in itself and therefore doesn't merit further explanation. However, this word isn't in the OED so I don't know if it is real!!

I found some interesting quotations from an exam paper too, I don't know who said them but they are thought provoking and hopefully relevant here!

"A text has to represent somebody's meaning - and who has better claim than the author to be the determiner of a text's meaning?"

"Books are like a picnic, to which the author brings the words and the reader the meaning."

"Without appropriate research into the historical context of a literary work, interpretations will only ever be impressionistic, anachronistic and irresponsible."

Which brings this back full circle to Leigh's first post about social and historical contexts! It made me think more about Middle, knowing about Impressing the Csar, and Forsythe's connection with Derrida, so maybe Forsythe has achieved his goal by making me think about his work? Even though I find the theory of the whole thing confusing, knowing what direction I'm facing does help align my thoughts with the choreographer's. Hopefully!;)

#19 Lolly

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Posted 02 April 2002 - 07:17 AM

Alexandra, I admire your gift of summing up in a few words what I struggled to do with hundreds!

Estelle, I'm interested by what you said about musical works - I love classical music and listen to it all day on the radio or CDs, and I love how my heart leaps when I hear something familiar, a piece I love. But I really do know nothing about music, my ballet teacher is constantly frustrated by me not being able to tell her time signatures or count the music! The little I know about composers is from what ballet programmes have in their notes. But I don't think all this diminishes my enjoyment - maybe I just listen on a trivial level so I don't need to know the details of a composer's life, or where that piece of music came in his body of works, that is to say I just delight in the "tune" rather than attempt to understand its motivation. When I watch a ballet I barely think about what the music means, just what the dancing means, even though the dancing is so obviously inextricable from the music. The music is almost incidental to, or in spite of the dance. (In dance without music, like Richard Alston's Soda Lake, the silence itself provides a soundtrack) I don't know where I'm going with this, i'm getting out of my depth!

About Perec, it's fascinating that he wrote a novel without using the letter 'e'. It occured to me that my response to reading it would depend on whether I noticed this as I was reading (surely I would? Maybe not) or whether I had to be told about it later. Does his foregrounding of the form distract from the content, or is it in itself the content - the content is merely a vehicle for the form? (I know, I'll have to read the novel!) That brings me back round to what Duato said about interpreting his ballets. By telling your audience what to see are you foregrounding the form thereby distracting them from the content? By picking out little parts to focus on or noting significant moments, does the whole become less meaningful? It might be like seeing a pas de deux at a gala, where it comes out of the blue, no build up or story - it's just pretty and exciting but it doesn't mean anything neccesarily, like the whole ballet does.

#20 Lolly

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Posted 01 April 2002 - 12:21 PM

This discussion is fascinating! I want to contribute, but please bear with me if my arguments are a little naive or even wrong! I'm not sure what I want to say, or how to say it. I'm sorry I can't refer to Billy the Kid, I haven't seen it.

Do we need to know the background to a ballet to enjoy it? Is it necessary to have biographical information on the choreographer, knowledge of the world at the time of the ballet's creation etc? I can't decide. I think I need to know why I want to watch the ballet. When I read a book, I don't need to know any of that background - but I read a book in order to know 'what happens' - that is, to know the story. (That's where I came unstuck at college I think - I never read the book with the idea of being able to talk about it in a seminar, once I started to read it, I just wanted to know how it ended.) That approach is fine for the ballets which are inspired by fairy tales, I don't feel the need to think about the political situation at the time of Swan Lake, for example. It's just a pretty spectacle, I watch the dancers and wish I was a ballerina. There is no reason to think "why?" - it just "is". But with more abstract ballets, there may not be a story to follow.

So if there is no story to follow, why watch the ballet? Its form becomes more important than its content. The way it is constructed and danced is highlighted over what actually happens. Without anything to hold onto, we feel the need to investigate further, into the creation of the ballet, the life of the choreographer etc. Being logical beings, we need to make sense of the world - even if what we see is not our world, ie the world of the choreographer, or the world he has chosen to represent in the work. I think I'm losing it here!

I saw RB's Duato/Forsythe bill a couple of weeks ago, including Duato's Remanso and Por Vos Muero. In the programme, Duato was interviewed and asked

"Have you any advice as to how audiences should understand your work, or any suggestions of motifs, characteristics or qualities that they could look out for in the ballets?"

He replied,

"I don't think that anyone should try and understand my work. Just as I don't think that one should try to understand visual art works, for example. What one should do is open oneself to their influence and let oneself be moved by them. To try to capture for ourselves what it is that that ballet or that work moves within us. You see, interpretations are always very personal. And that is how it should be."

Well, I was absolutely outraged when I read the first sentence of his reply. Why should I waste my time watching his ballet if he wasn't going to tell me what it is about? Why shouldn't I try and make sense of it, and why wasn't he going to give me the facility to do that? Then I tried to think of what it is that made me want to know what his works are about. I think I'm not happy with just making of it what I will, I need to have some definites, some concrete answers, no cliffhangers! I don't want to use my own frame of reference and put it onto someone else's work - I want their frame of reference, so I can see it through their eyes. I want to know WHY and HOW and all of the question words!

Okay. But is it less valid if my view of something is not what the choreographer intended? Well, I will venture a yes. Yes because either the choreographer didn't get across the "meaning" adequately, or their intention in making the work didn't match my intention in watching it. Because "feeling" something and being moved by something is all very nice but I want to know what it is that is making me feel it. I already know if I am depressed, or in love, or whatever - I don't need or want to project that onto the ballet. I want to know if the choreographer was feeling that when the ballet was made. I want to see the ballet as it was intended.

Right. And what if there are references beyond the direct experiences of the choreographer? I'll use TS Eliot's The Waste Land as an example - Cathy Marston has just choreographed a ballet inspired by it for ENB. When you read the poem, do you have to know every language that is represented in it, every cultural reference, Greek myths, in-jokes (who knows?!) etc? When I first read it, I was quite cross and felt patronised - how dare Eliot write something I didn't understand, then my copy had the audacity to provide notes on the text to provide clues? Why didn't he just say what he MEANT instead of relying on subtle and teasing indications? Well, I like the poem. But I don't understand it. What is interesting (to me!!) here is why I don't understand it - how I know. It could be because I don't know all that stuff Eliot writes about - I haven't just made up my own "truth" for it, I want to know what the "real truth" is. Okay, so does that make my reading less valid than someone who does catch the references - or less enjoyable? Well, no - or yes? I like the poem - for it's language, not for it's form. For me Eliot has highlighted form over content - I don't know what he is trying to say, it kind of bugs me still.

I can't decide if Duato had given extensive notes in the programme, would I have enjoyed the ballets more? Maybe he isn't a good example as I didn't really like either ballet! Forsythe was on the same bill, with Middle and Vertiginous Thrill. I went in knowing absolutely nothing about either ballet, or choreographer. I loved them both, particularly Middle. I didn't need to know what happened, although the audience seemed to hold its collective breath for the whole piece, waiting to see what would happen - choreographically, not in the "plot". I don't need to know about Forsythe's life and times to watch it. I'm not sure why - I can't relate the ballet to me in any way I can think of, i just enjoyed it.

Maybe being told what the point of a work is, is a bit like when you see a film adaption of a book - you end up disappointed because a character doesn't look the way you had imagined, or talk the way, or walk the way you wanted them to.

I don't know if I can make any conclusion from my ramblings, I've thought about what I wanted to say all day and I still don't know! Programme notes are generally the starting place for me in any ballet I see, and I don't know if I should read them before or after I've seen something. Estelle's post about Perec was interesting for me because it made me think, if he had hidden biographical references in his work, who had he put them there for? If writing was cathartic for him, why hadn't he said them outright - he must have meant them to be found? Or not - the details are just what makes us individual and no one else needs to know what makes us this way - your work isn't "you". I think it's nice to have some information because it does answer some of the questions some of the time. Apparently TS Eliot didn't allow any biographies of him, as he believed in poetry as an escape from personality rather than an expression of it. But can one escape from the fact that it has to be an expression as no one else could ever make the same work as we all have different 'everything'.

I apologise if this is convoluted nonsense, it's just such an interesting subject!

#21 BW

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Posted 18 April 2002 - 03:23 AM

Although I have tuned in rather late to this discussion, I wanted to say how much I've enjoyed reading everyone's posts. At times, I've had to reread sections and probably should again :) but the main thing, is that I found it thought provoking.

I think Drew's points about academic integration of the study of ballet is an excellent one. Having been a fine arts major, I had many art history courses...I also took as many English literature courses as I could...but one of my favorite courses of study was one that integrated all the arts and the politics of a certain time in order to allow us to see the connections between the different forms of expression that were going on. It was wonderful, though I have to admit it did not include dance. :)

In a broader sense, this brings us back to the importance and necessity of including all the arts in education - which is what a liberal education is all about, isn't it?

#22 Paul Parish

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Posted 25 March 2002 - 11:47 PM

Leigh, it's compltely fitting that you as a working artist should reject psychological interepretations of the work -- any artist has to. The whole world saw Balanchine's life in his works -- the way he felt about Allegra in Bugaku, the way he felt about Suzanne in Don Q, Midsummer Night['s Dream........ where he managed to be hilarious about it....... And of course he said it's not autobiographical, and people didn't flat-ourt contradict him, because what's the use?

I for one DO see a connection between Robbins's creating hte "most charming sailor-boy" role in Fancy Free for himself and his traumatic draft physical which made him 4-F on grounds of homosexuality -- in real life, he did not serve in hte military at all, they WOULD NOT HAVE HIM, but on stage he's our boy.... It's wonderful that he found a way to contribute so much in a fictitious guise, it's a kind of alternative service......

#23 Paul Parish

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Posted 26 March 2002 - 06:34 PM

Again, I'm running out the door, but htis is all such interesting stuff...

I just want to say, I really respect Leigh's sense that Billy the Kid is a great ballet and you WOULD want to try to get to hte bottom of WHY.....

Blly the Kid is VERY great ballet. It's so much greater than Filling Station, I don't know where to begin.... But start with that dance Billy does every time he kills someone... it ends with him tossing himslf onto one foot, crossing the ohter in front in a kind pf B-plus devant, and then this wave rises up his spine, upthrough the chest and spreading so his shoulders mantle, he looks dangerous, like a cobra that's spread his hood, ready to strike....

Lance James, who was coached in the role by Loring himself, told me that it's "a controlled retch" -- he's throwing up. And James was famously great in the role, Lroring thought Oakland Ballet did it the best...

But to me, this is where "overdetermined" applies -- it's somuch more suggestive and ambiguous than that.

The first time I saw it, Michael Myers had done the role, and looked like Marlon Brando....I came out of the theater doing that move, did it all the rest of hte week, like I was singing some song.... what it made me feel was glamorous -- like a cobra, or like Dracula spreading my wings -- a glamorous outlaw, separated from the rest of mankind but FAMOUS....becoming confirmed in my glamorous crime. It was incredibly poignant, to see Billy hardening in his outlawry, confirming his destiny....... and all because he killed hte man who shot his mother...

However you read it, it's one of htose places where a sequence of movements has a fantastic metaphoric power, it's like a proverb-- and it makes me think of Loring as having unique penetration, insight .....

I also would love to hear how Manhattnik's encounter with Eifman went. I was not prepared for how absorbing I'd find the Grand Inquisitor section of "the Karamazovs" -- I'm not exactly a convert, but that vision of Ivan Karamazov was righteous, and the dancer was magnificent.

Gotta run.

#24 Alexandra

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Posted 24 December 2002 - 08:01 PM

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