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NYCB's casting crisis


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 10 July 2002 - 04:11 PM

[Ari has already posted this in today's Links, but I thought it might draw a coment or two.]

A pulls-no-punches piece in The NY Observer by Robert Gottlieb -- a long time observer of the company -- on the New York City Ballet's current roster.

City Ballet's Casting Crisis A Key to the Company's Values

The biggest story at City Ballet this season wasn't the Diamond Project'that was the saddest story; the biggest story was casting. An entire generation of dancers is fading or phasing out: Margaret Tracey into retirement (there's a rumor that she may teach; teach what?); Miranda Weese still out with a serious injury; Kyra Nichols only slowly coming back after an extended maternity leave; Yvonne Borree gone for the first weeks (but then why is she there in the first place?); Darci Kistler less and less like her former wonderful self. And halfway through the season, Heléne Alexopoulos followed Tracey into retirement?but with what a difference! Tracey long ago not only undermined her talent but betrayed it, while Alexopoulos is a textbook example of a dancer who understood her talent, never overextended herself, and made a singular contribution in the dramatic roles that were right for her. On her final night, she danced both an icy Siren in Prodigal Son, radiating antiseptic viciousness, and a ravishing "Gold and Silver" waltz in Vienna Waltzes . Alexopoulos, with the company 24 years, is one of its last dancers to have worked under Balanchine, who died in 1983. Seeing them vanish one by one is like watching Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians.



#2 Alexandra

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Posted 10 July 2002 - 09:31 PM

Thanks for stepping into the fray, sneds!

I didn't think Gottlieb was wanting things to be exactly like they were once upon a time; just insisting on the same quality. He was quite willing and able to recognize that when he saw it (the comments on Kowroski in Midsummer, for example).

I also think it's more than just a generational difference. I know people in their late 20s and early 30s who are just as exacting about dancers, and the way ballets are "supposed" to look as Gottlieb and other like-minded souls. I think it's more how long one has been watching, when one started, who one's seen, etc. (including on video and films). I know in my first few years -- well, decade! -- of ballet watching, I was constantly being told by someone with a good eye who'd been watching longer than I had, when I said I liked this or that dancer, or made a comment about a ballet, "Well, you never saw X in the role." It was frustrating, but I learned from it, and there are very few times that I'd now disagree.

Gottlieb has been watching NYCB since at least the early '50s, and perhaps since the Ballet Society days, and knows it very well, having once served on its board. I don't mean to suggest that one has to agree with every assessment he makes, but I don't think he can be dismissed, either.

I think sneds' point that if one constantly looks at the negatives, there's no point in going to the ballet is an interesting one, and one I'm very sympathetic too. I think one's attitude to that question may depend on whether one goes primarily to see the dancers, or the ballets. If you're addicted to ballets, you have to go, unless the standard sinks to such a level that it becomes totally unbearable, but you want to see the ballets well lit, and cleaned and dusted and loved. If you go primarily to see dancers, you'll probably always be happy and see the positive, because there is something admirable and enjoyable to watch about nearly everyone who dances at that level.

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 11 July 2002 - 11:35 AM

Not to discourage others who agree with Mr. Gottlieb, but since Kate was so brave as to disagree -- and I'm sure there are others who are quite happy with the current generation of NYCB dancers -- please feel free to weigh in :P

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 14 July 2002 - 04:00 PM

I don't think critics, at least most critics, write in the hopes of influencing company policy, but to report and analyze what's going on.

Ari made a lot of interesting points (no surprise :) ) but I remember the history a bit differently. I don't remember a slew of aging ballerinas taking up dressing room space, nor do I remember Martins being a breath of fresh air. He fired Kent, and that's it, as far as I remember it. And as for the dancers who "deserved" to be promoted, I remember several people I thought were well placed as senior soloists getting promoted, while the fresh crop of demis died on the vine. (I'm sure dancers at the time would have different comments, but I've interviewed very few dancers who didn't think he or she should have had this or that role, or who didn't have a complaint about who got promoted when, or, if they're not a principal, a dozen reasons, all to do with company politics rather than talent, why they weren't leading dancers.) I think keeping dancers on because of loyalty -- well, that's the way the world worked in his day. You didn't toss people out like kleenex when you're tired of them, or when New Director 99 takes over, the way it's done now. I admire him for that -- and he used the older dancers.

I really don't think it's fair to charge Balanchine withi "nepotism" for Tallchief, LeClerq, Farrell, et al There's a difference between falling in love with your muse, and turning Talentless Wonderova into a muse, and he certainly wasn't sentimental about keeping his wives, or interests, dancing after they'd past their expiration date. (One of the charges I do remember being raised against Balanchine was that he got rid of dancers too soon, at the tender age of 35, instead of 40 or 45, as in other companies.) While I remember several discussions about "inappropriate casting" -- Linda Yourth and Nina Fedorova come to mind (I don't mean to imply there was any musing going on, just that they got a lot of principal roles that those outside the company found inappropriate) I don't think it was pervasive. Von Aroldingen was seen by some as a bad classical dancer, but she was a character ballerina, a rare species, and some of the roles Balanchine made for her were wonderful. They suited her admirably, and enriched the repertory.

#5 Alexandra

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Posted 15 July 2002 - 07:50 PM

Originally posted by dirac
Gottlieb's not hysterical.  He's to the point.  Whether one agrees with him or not is another matter, but I hear nothing strident in his tone.  


I don't hear anything strident either, dirac. Nor cruel -- and Gottlieb isn't writing for a mass market daily, but a relatively small publication with a sophisticated readership that's accustomed to reading passionate criticism.

I also think the piece is also not claiming to be a history of the company, but a view of what's happening now. I don't think Gottlieb is saying that, minute by minute, ballet by ballet, everything in this or that decade was perfect -- it never is. (I remember wondering why some of the dancers Ari mentioned were still around when I started watching, too, but, then, I never saw them younger; and at least two of those dancers were, I was told, Robbins dancers. Balanchine didn't act unilaterally on hires and fires. On the other hand, I never forgave him for promoting Heather Watts :) ) He's saying this is what he thinks is happening now.

I'm still pondering what seems to be a general feeling that critics write to give advice. I disagree -- to a point. I don't think if a critic writes, "What are they doing giving that role to Kickerina when Modestina is obviously suited to the role?" s/he expects Maestro to slap himself on the forehad and say, "Of course! What was I thinking?!!!" and make the change. On the other hand, when eight out of eight critics write, say, "That new guy is not going to get away with American marketing ideas in our town. Putting three too-alike ballets on the same bill and giving them a cute name is not goiing to fly," they could be said to be sending a message that there will be a stand against a particular policy.

A personal story: an early review of mine made me very wary of writing anything that could be taken as advice. I wrote of a young modern dancer, performing in a large, converted movie theater, that he and his partner seemed rather pale onstage. (This was intended to be an observation, not a prescription.) When next I sawhim -- in a church basement about the size of 16 pews -- he had more makeup than I've ever seen on a human being. I crawled out of there, imagining that he was explaining to all the friends that went backstage -- in a manner of speaking -- saying, "Why are you wearing three bottles of green gunk on your eyelids?" that he was just taking a critic's advice :)

#6 Alexandra

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Posted 16 July 2002 - 06:48 AM

I don't think critics are supposed to mince words and tiippytoe around and say, well, gosh, she must be such a nice person but her stage presence, well, it's a bit bland. One has to use clear language to get across points -- and even reviews that, to me, are very clear are often misinterpreted -- and the shorter the space, the stronger the language.

I also think that, at its base, criticism is WRITING. It's meant to be read, not as a judgment delivered from on high, or a report from a doctor ("Bad news. it's cancer. I give you about a week," which could perhaps be better phrased) but the reaction of an individual, who, one hopes and expects, has seen more ballet than the one night he or she is reviewing, although that's not always the case these days. One may pull punches when writing about a student workshop, but it's not necessary to do so when writing about a major company.

I liked the asides. I viewed them as a way to get across an opinion using very few words, and those opinions are very consistent with Gottlieb's past writings (and, on those two particular dancers, of many others.)

This is obviously a biased view from a critic, but I think critics have a right to get angry. If I were one of the British critics who'd watched the Royal Ballet grow from six girls in a church basement to the powerhouse it was in what Croce called "the high sixties" and had to watch what has been allowed to happen to it over the past two decades, I'd be foaming at the mouth more often than Crisp, I think. When you love something, it's very painful to see it destroyed. And it doesn't help a bit that those who didn't see the company during those high periods think that everything is just fine.

Michael, I can think of at least one other place where "who you know and who is pulling the strings will get you more mileage than it will here. Everything is political here." I think it can be worse in small places, where there's no alternative and no escape -- and no Observer, because all of the newspapers have been corrupted, too. :)

#7 Alexandra

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Posted 16 July 2002 - 09:27 AM

Originally posted by Calliope
that is sometimes the role of the critic.  To bring attention to things you might not be aware of and then it's up to you the viewer to decide.


Thank you for that, Calliope. I hadn't thought of it that way, but I agree. If there's any point to criticism (besides the main one, to me, which is of recording an event for history, acknowledging that it happened, and giving some flavor of what you thought of it) it is that.

This thread has gotten more into criticism than any "casting crisis" at NYCB, but I'd like one more slightly OT word on that. BW, I don't think you're at all alone in disliking harsh criticism. I think this, like all things, is a matter of sensibilities. Some people ONLY like "mean reviews" and some would prefer that only, or mostly, pleasant things be said.

There's a piece (with permission!) on the main site by Joan Acocella called "What's Good About Bad Reviews" which gives one critic's view of things and which might be interesting to readers. Here's the link to that --
http://www.balletale...s/acocella1.htm

There's a companion piece "What Critics Do" that also may be of interest.

Sorry for the diversion :)

#8 Alexandra

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Posted 20 July 2002 - 03:01 PM

Welcome, tempusfugit -- and thank you for jumping right in :) We love "fanatics" here -- hope to be reading more of you :)

#9 cargill

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Posted 11 July 2002 - 01:55 PM

I don't agree with everyone of Mr. Gottlieb's judgements, but I think it is obvious that there is something unusual going on in casting, and by extention, I expect, in coaching. Contanstly shoving young corps girls on in important roles and then putting them back in the corps, not developing soloists, leaving people in roles (Somogyi is by far the best person in Hypolita, but she is a principal for heaven's sake and has been dancing it for years), working a dancer until injury takes them out for a long period (as has happened to a number of dancers over the years). I know people, even some in the company, have said that the company does too many ballets, and I think that is part of the problem. If a ballet is danced 4 times a season, and two people dance the leads, that isn't much time to develop an interpretation or any depth.

I don't think pointing this out means someone should just stay home and not watch the ballet--for many people NYCB and Balanchine were so much more than just a pleasant hobby, and something that meant so much cannot just be shrugged off.

#10 dirac

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Posted 15 July 2002 - 10:15 AM

Gottlieb's not hysterical. He's to the point. Whether one agrees with him or not is another matter, but I hear nothing strident in his tone. Regarding Margaret Tracey, for one example: He's not "attacking" her for coming back from maternity leave in less than perfect form. From what I recall of his past comments on Tracey, he's always thought of her as someone who was in over her head -- Martins handed her the McBride repertory to carry, and it was too much.


Regarding the changing of the guard at The New Yorker: My recollection is that Condé Nast bought the magazine in 1985. Shawn retired, more or less unwillingly, a couple of years later, although I read he continued to do some top secret sub rosa editing of some writers' copy. Newhouse brought Gottlieb over from Knopf and he ran the magazine from '87 to '92, when Si, desiring something different, replaced him with Tina Brown.

Iagree with Ari that critics do try to exercise what influence they may have from time to time, and often that's a good thing.

#11 dirac

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Posted 17 July 2002 - 09:46 AM

Another fusillade from Robert Gottlieb in the Observer:

http://www.observer....pages/dance.asp



I don't have much to say about this piece, which is more of the same (although Gottlieb does sound increasingly hot under the collar), except to say that I doubt that the Times was "undercutting" Kisselgoff by printing the piece by Homans in the Sunday edition. The Times goes out of its way to use writers other than the regular daily critics on Sunday, precisely in order to avoid the "amen chorus" effect.
Has Gottlieb read Homans' other pieces? Doesn't sound like it. I'm not so sure he'd be quite as eager to enlist her in the Cause if he had.

#12 Nanatchka

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Posted 14 July 2002 - 05:56 AM

[QUOTE]Originally posted by Michael
[B]....Arlene Croce's criticisms in the New Yorker of the Martins' regime (and of Heather Watts and Margaret Tracey in particular, if I remember correctly) when Gottlieb was an editor there or was editing Croce's books at his publishing house

Bob Gottlieb was actually editor-in-chief of the New Yorker.

#13 Nanatchka

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Posted 14 July 2002 - 09:46 AM

Mr. Gottlieb did not leave The New Yorker upon its purchase by Conde Nast. He arrived there from another outfit also owned at the time by the Newhouse family--Knopf, a division of Random House (the uber-publisher, not "little Random House," a subsidiary of big Random House, as is Knopf), at the behest of Sy Newhouse, head of Conde Nast. As for my admiring Mr. Gottlieb, it's true. I do. As far as I'm concerned, he could have edited Joe Heller's "Catch-22" and gone straight to heaven....

#14 Nanatchka

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Posted 14 July 2002 - 01:57 PM

[QUOTE]Originally posted by sneds
[B]Ok...I'll step into the arena :))
Well, I tend to think that Gottlieb, like some critics is somewhat stuck in the past and far too negative. We can't stop time-Balachine has been dead for nearly two decades, and his hand-picked dancers are retiring. Face it-things are going to change (as they always have) and we can't just constantly compare today to the past. ...
So, Mr. Gottlieb, lighten up and look for the good in life. NYCB will never be the NYCB of 10 or 20 years ago, and that's good in many ways. My generation is different from yours, and thus so is the ballets. {END QUOTE}


Every young generation feels its differentness in the same way, and one can only be delighted you are having such a good time at the ballet. Nonetheless, context is always helpful, and there is no better contextualizer --in particular vis a vis NYCB--writing today than Bob Gottlieb, is there? Now excuse me, dear, but why may we not compare today with the past? Particularly Robert Gottlieb, who was there? (As far as I am concerned, he is in a kind of continual aesthetic present. ) And why must we "lighten up?" Is it not the nature of criticism to be critical? We all start out as tabula rasa, and indeed seeing freshly each night is a fine accomplishment, hard as it becomes. Yet old correspondences assert themselves. How else can it be?

#15 Nanatchka

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Posted 14 July 2002 - 03:44 PM

[QUOTE]Originally posted by Ari
thereby scotching whatever hopes the author may have had of influencing company policy.

How do we know this is his motive?


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