Jump to content


Which is better, narrative or abstract ballet?


  • This topic is locked This topic is locked
12 replies to this topic

Poll: Which is better, narrative or abstract ballet? (0 member(s) have cast votes)

Which is better, narrative or abstract ballet?

  1. Abstract! Story ballets are outdated and have been surpassed by the abstract ballet. (1 votes [3.23%])

    Percentage of vote: 3.23%

  2. Narrative! Dramatic content = depth; everything else is "just dancing" (0 votes [0.00%])

    Percentage of vote: 0.00%

  3. Both. They are inherently equal (8 votes [25.81%])

    Percentage of vote: 25.81%

  4. Either. It depends on the ballet. (22 votes [70.97%])

    Percentage of vote: 70.97%

  5. Other, please expound below (0 votes [0.00%])

    Percentage of vote: 0.00%

Vote

#1 Alexandra

Alexandra

    Board Founder

  • Administrators
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 9,242 posts

Posted 29 December 2002 - 07:38 AM

I'm posting a quote from Anna Kisselgoff's piece in today's New York Times for discussion:

Formal choreography (George Balanchine) can have a greater impact than any literal work. Form has its own value. Any modernist can tell you that.


While I agree that form has (or can have) its own value, I reject the notion that "formal choreography can have a greater impact than any literal work." I think this is as off the mark as its opposite, that any work without content was a divertissement and unworthy of notice.

It's a popular, perhaps even dominant notion in critic/aesthetic circles, though, and has been for several decades now. At the Ashton conference a few years ago, I was told (I didn't go) that one of the younger panelists asked one of the oldsters, who'd been watching the Royal since the late 1930s, "Tell me, when was it that you realized abstract ballet was superior to narrative ballet?" She was still sputtering in protest a month later.

What do you think about this? Is abstract superior to narrative? Is narrative superior to abstract? Or is something superior to something else? Or not superior at all? Or whatever.

#2 Mel Johnson

Mel Johnson

    Diamonds Circle

  • Moderators
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 5,311 posts

Posted 29 December 2002 - 08:04 AM

I'm looking at this, too, and am reminded of the brilliant ending scene of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's play Inherit the Wind. The Great Anti-Evolution Law has been punctured into a wet poof, the trumpeting mouthpiece for it has died, and the opposing counsel for the defense of teacher Bert Cates (read John Scopes) has sincerely extolled his former opponent's brilliant qualities. Cates leaves the stage with his fiancée, and Henry Drummond (cognate for Clarence Darrow) is left onstage at the defense table, and notices that Cates has left his copy of Darwin's The Origin of Species and the Descent of Man.

DRUMMOND: Hey, you forgot your.... (But they're gone.)

DRUMMOND holds the book in his hand, considering it, then picks up a Bible; he weighs them in either hand, and finds them pretty equal in that respect. He puts them together, and squeezes them both hard, then puts them into his briefcase together, and exits.

(CURTAIN):)

#3 Alexandra

Alexandra

    Board Founder

  • Administrators
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 9,242 posts

Posted 29 December 2002 - 08:30 AM

I'll take that as a vote for both :)

I think I'll put this as a poll. Please ring in.

#4 Calliope

Calliope

    Gold Circle

  • Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 805 posts

Posted 29 December 2002 - 08:40 AM

I think it depends on the piece and who's doing it.
Ballet is at such an in between phase, we had brilliance, and now we have what's perceived to be mediocrity (and time will tell if it is).

#5 Alexandra

Alexandra

    Board Founder

  • Administrators
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 9,242 posts

Posted 29 December 2002 - 08:54 AM

Just to clarify my intentions -- I hadn't thought of this as an "everything today is mediocre" question, but more that there is a school of thought, at least in critic/writer circles in England and America reflected in the quote from Kisselgoff's article), that in the long continuum of ballet history, we had the story ballets, and then we had the abstract ballets, and the abstract ballets are innately superior and represent an advance over narrative ballet, the way perspective represented an advance in art. (Where, for much of ballet history, until quite recently, ballets were judged by their content and, like painting, the subject matter determined ranking; heroic was highest, down to portraiture, landscape, domestic scenes. One will read that Ashton made baubles, Balanchine made "opening ballets.")

I'd say that what's being created today is generally judged mediocre whether it's narrative or abstract :) but that wasn't what I was getting at -- it was the theory behind it, the assumption that narrative ballet, in and of itself, is innately inferior.

#6 carbro

carbro

    Late Board Registrar

  • Rest in Peace
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 6,361 posts

Posted 30 December 2002 - 10:28 PM

My knee-jerk response would be "abstract." But that's not how I voted. I'm thinking of the exquisite Act II pas de deux from La Sylphide, how it advances the story as much as any mime sequence, its interweaving of dance and gesture. When recently asked which among the classics (which I define as anything up to and including Les Sylphides, but that may need to be moved forward), is my favorite ballet I immediately cited La. If I were completely wedded to abstract, I probably would have replied Beauty, whose story I see as more a pretext for the gorgeous dances than the ballet's basis.

Btw, and intending no criticism here, for myself, I really dislike the term "abstract." It is too ambiguous. Is "Dances at a Gathering" abstract? It has no story, just suggestions of feelings and relationships. Is "Serenade"? There is a difference between plotless or non-narrative on the one hand, and abstract on the other.

#7 Alexandra

Alexandra

    Board Founder

  • Administrators
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 9,242 posts

Posted 30 December 2002 - 10:52 PM

I take your point on abstract, carbro. It's always been a difficult term. I used it because it's the one most often used in articles, I think, and so would be most familiar. I wouldn't call Sleeping Beauty abstract; it's a narrative ballet. Abstract usually means without a concrete story, I think. Serenade, Agon, Leaves are Fading, Dances at a Gathering (which Robbins insisted had no plot) falls into the abstract category. And so would Les Sylphides.

There's plotless, but people object to that because of the "less." "It's not less anything! It's pure dance."

So there's "pure dance."

Each term has its advocates, and each can make a good case for it. There are probably a few others that I can't think of.

(A note about "Sleeping Beauty." I have a picture book of the 1946 Sadler's Wells production. You would think "Sleeping Beauty" was an intimate, highly-charged drama from those photos. This could reflect the photographer's sensibilities as much as the production, but the way it's shot, it could be a Ballets Russes demicaractere ballet. Today, many companies dance it as though it's "Jewels" with those annoying mime bits. I guess it's changed character each generation.)

#8 carbro

carbro

    Late Board Registrar

  • Rest in Peace
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 6,361 posts

Posted 30 December 2002 - 11:08 PM

Originally posted by Alexandra
A note about "Sleeping Beauty."  I have a picture book of the 1946 Sadler's Wells production.  You would think "Sleeping Beauty" was an intimate, highly-charged drama from those photos.


Fascinating, Alexandra! The Brits always brought something theatrically special to their ballets (eg., in R&J, the arrival of the guests to the ball seemed to pass so much more quickly when done by the RB). Are they performance shots? Or posed in the photographer's studio? Do you recall the name of the book, and do you think it might be at the Dance Collection at NYPL/Lincoln Center?

#9 Alexandra

Alexandra

    Board Founder

  • Administrators
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 9,242 posts

Posted 30 December 2002 - 11:29 PM

It's called "Sadler's Wells Ballet at Covent Garden: A Book of Photographs by Merlyn Severn" I don't know anything about that photographer -- Jane? Alymer? Anyone else?

It's a fascinating book, a record of the first Covent Garden season. In addition to "Beauty," there's a lot of attention given to Helpmann's "Adam Zero," which looks like what we'd call today a "theater piece" and a few shots of Ashton's "Symphonic Variations." And they make that ballet look quite different from the stills we're used to seeing, all harmony and calm. He found the jumps and shot them -- it looks like a protoype for "Dances at a Gathering" (!) That's why I questioned in the post above whether or not the view of Sleeping Beauty reflected the production or the photographer's bent. It seems as though Severn's primary interest is drama rather than dance -- action! excitement! Other ballets are "The Miracle in the Gorbals" and "The Rake's Progress."

A note on the dancing -- it looks so free. (As does the dancing on the few films of "Sleeping Beauty" I've seen of that time. None of this prim and small-scaled, neat dancing that I remember from the '70s (when I first saw the company.) There is a GORGEOUS photo of Fonteyn (then 27) in the grand pas doing her extraordinary back bend -- as effortless and beautiful as a sapling; nothing distorted or extreme about it, and I've never seen one so deep. When I saw Fonteyn she was 55 and still had the deepest backbend of anyone I've seen since, but it's half what she was at half that age.

#10 carbro

carbro

    Late Board Registrar

  • Rest in Peace
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 6,361 posts

Posted 30 December 2002 - 11:31 PM

Thank you.:)

#11 Jane Simpson

Jane Simpson

    Gold Circle

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 937 posts

Posted 04 January 2003 - 08:05 AM

Merlyn Severn's first, and probably best known book, was called Ballet in Action, published in 1938 - the title defines her(!) interest. She went to Arnold Haskell and persuaded him that photographic technique had advanced far enough to make a book of action photographs possible and he agreed to write a foreword and comments on the photos. She compared studio shots of dancers with photos of animals in a zoo, and said that she wanted to do the 'natural history' version. Hence, presumably the predominance of jumps and 'movement' in her photos. Ballet in Action also has a long piece by her on the techniques she used, speed of film etc. Being made in the 1930s, it naturally concentrated mostly on the various Ballets Russes, but there are some early Sadler's Wells pictures - Giselle with Fonteyn (and Ashton as Hilarion), Wedding Bouquet and Les Rendezvous so far as I remember.

I agree how different the Symphonic Variations photos in her later book are from what we see on stage today - but I happened just to find some more taken at the same period by Peggy Delius, which make the ballet look equally free and almost impassioned - SV suffers badly from over-reverence, I think.

#12 Alexandra

Alexandra

    Board Founder

  • Administrators
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 9,242 posts

Posted 04 January 2003 - 08:17 AM

Jane, I can't find it today, but I swear when I put her through Google the other day (to see if there were any of her books out there -- and there were!) I turned up three: the book you mentioned, the book I mentioned -- AND a book about Africa.

I'm sure you're right that "Symphonic" has become over-reverent today, but I thought the photographer was looking for action rather than form. (An example of an "abstract" ballet being made to look like something else.)

#13 Mel Johnson

Mel Johnson

    Diamonds Circle

  • Moderators
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 5,311 posts

Posted 04 January 2003 - 09:19 AM

If you want to see intimate, try photos of the Vic-Wells Ballet doing the Dolin/Markova Nutcracker on the stage of the Old Vic. Positively claustrophobic!;)


0 user(s) are reading this topic

0 members, 0 guests, 0 anonymous users


Help support Ballet Alert! and Ballet Talk for Dancers year round by using this search box for your amazon.com purchases (adblockers may block display):