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Care and Feeding of ABT's Dancers

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Moderator's Note:

This post and beck hen's (directly below), were broken from the Swan Lake thread, deserving a separate discussion.

My contention is that an emphasis on bravura technique at the higher ranks means we are not developing as many naturally lyrical dancers, though some of our favorites at the lower ranks do have this quality, like Fang, Lane or Hamrick. ... and our dancers are not immune to the temper of the times, so it seems to take them longer to access certain emotions... Amanda McKerrow reached a quiet, yet sublime depth that often went unappreciated.

Thank you Beck Hen for this very thoughtful post. While it was all interesting, the portion quoted brought back to mind a Washington Post interview with Amanda McKerrow just before her retirement Giselle, and they've kindly kept it available on line:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/conte...71201561_4.html

It would seem "the temper of the times" is also the temper of the Company's leadership. That may explain why those corps dancers we love that you mention, with the courage to be lyric, are still in the corps. After ABT's Baryshnikov and MacMillan years, to quote the article:

...when tastes changed at ABT and McKerrow's nuanced, dramatically sensitive dancing lost points to a more dynamic, extroverted, all-purpose style that had always been popular in the company but grew increasingly evident under current ABT Director Kevin McKenzie.
Edited by carbro

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The question of Kevin McKenzie's development of dancers is an interesting issue (and thank goodness it does not provoke as much bloodshed as discussions of Martins, Gottlieb et al).

I do see some important pluses. He has fully appreciated the value of Gomes and Hallberg and I have read many accounts where Hallberg describes McKenzie's painstaking mentorship of him, particularly in terms of partnering. He clearly has much to share in this regard. Tall danseurs nobles: check.

He seems to promote a healthy culture in the company in terms of body issues, not enforcing an anorexic standard and offering help to dancers who need it.

I think Gillian Murphy is a splendid find and she is growing, though ABT's repertoire perhaps does not show her off fully. Someone once wrote that a ballet should be choreographed with her as Queen Elizabeth. I agree. (At least the Diamond Project provides vehicles for Whelan, Weese, Sylve, etc.) However, I suspect Sylvia and Kudelka's Cinderella were acquired predominantly with her in mind. Isn't it great that I have magic mind-reading capabilities? :jawdrop:

He has put a lot into the Cornejos and they deserve it. I was wondering if Erica would be promoted to principal if she had stayed, since she seems to be hitting some sort of personal peak, where she is always fantastic. But oh well. I think he hired Reyes to be Herman's partner even though that partnership hasn't really worked out. Sarah Lane?

He tries out all our favorite youngsters in soloist roles, but there is nowhere for them to go and last year's sensation edges closer to "near the water" status. But what could he do about that, unless he fires other people? The level of the corps is just incredible now—the Studio Company pipeline. I do feel like many of those we discuss have more potential than the current soloists. I had a new find this week: I thought Cory Stearns showed much elegance and flair in the Spanish Dance. Bo Busby jumped beautifully as an aristocrat in Act I. They are all too good! There is no way they can all be absorbed.

The biggest black marks against McKenzie are the sidelining of McKerrow and Meunier... I'm not sure Ashley Tuttle was treated as graciously as she might have merited, and whatever happened to Yan Chen? But that was before my time. I am willing to reserve judgment, but clearly a new lyrical ballerina should be his next priority.

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It's not just McKerrow who felt this push away from artistic emphasis and toward technical emphasis. This is what Julie Kent said in Round About the Ballet:

Q: What direction do you think ballet needs to take in the twenty-first century?

A: I hesitate to say what I think--the focus should be more on artistic performance, and less on technique. ...

Now Kent wasn't talking about anyone in particular, but I think this quote is a sign that she senses a shift toward rewarding technical bravura, perhaps at ABT in particular, perhaps in ballet in general.

Given the recent pattern of promotions, I have to wonder if Julie Kent would ever have been promoted to principal under McKenzie, despite her beautiful line and wonderful lyricism. She has never been a powerhouse dancer, but she offers something that many of those powerhouses don't.

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Here is a post that I wrote on the thread about the Swan Lake broadcast that has some relevance to this topic:

I don't think it's mere coincidence that the powers that be (maybe McKenzie, maybe PBS, maybe the sponsors of the program) cast the dancers who are the most technically awe-inspiring at ABT. It's easy to impress people unfamiliar with ballet with triple fouettes or high jetes. It's less easy to impress them with gorgeous extension, great chemistry, or elegant subtlety.

People here like the pairing to different degrees, but I think almost everyone agrees that Murphy and Corella do not have the greatest chemistry among ABT couples, and that neither of them are the best conveyors of emotion. What they do have, though, is athletic prowess and flashiness.

I totally understand this casting choice, and any pairing would have been vulnerable to criticisms and would have made some people dissatisfied. But an important issue needs to be thought about, and that's the way ballet wants to market itself in the future. If highlighting technical prowess supercedes other considerations, will the artistic goals be altered, and if so, is it necessarily a bad thing? Is this just the natural evolution of an art form? Although almost everyone agrees that commissioning new works is a good thing, and many new works emphasize this athleticism, should the classics also be kneaded to do the same?

Moreover, how do you balance between doing what's necessary to stay financially stable (and thus preserve ballet for future generations) and doing what's necessary to stay true to the art when those things might work against each other?

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...Given the recent pattern of promotions, I have to wonder if Julie Kent would ever have been promoted to principal under McKenzie, despite her beautiful line and wonderful lyricism. She has never been a powerhouse dancer, but she offers something that many of those powerhouses don't.

Point well taken, yet given that in recent years she has so often been first-casted by McKenzie in so many ballets, I kind of think he would have promoted her.

Edited to add: Whoops! He became AD in 1992 and she was promoted in 1993...

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Whoops! I didn't realize that he was the one who promoted her. Which makes it all the more puzzling why his recent emphasis seems to have shifted to technical bravura.

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. . . especially when you consider who the artistic staff and ballet masters are: McKenzie, Barbee, Kolpakova, Parkinson, Susan Jones & Kirk Peterson. Not a one of them famous for sacrificing content for form.

This is a huge company with a corps full of potential soloists and principals. Perhaps they need to expand the staff so the balletmasters can devote more individual time to dancers? Frankly, when I start counting fouettes, I know I haven't gotten what I came for. And I've been counting more than I like these days.

I didn't count Ms. Part's, though. :jawdrop:

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... And I've been counting more than I like these days.

I didn't count Ms. Part's, though....

I did count Veronika's rotations, as that confident look suggested she was going to vanquish that demon. Alas, if she'd finished with a quad instead of floating that seductive double feather, she might have been upped to two matinees next year. And a quint might have alerted the Times, and then maybe an evening... Also did Irina's, to see if her prior change toward holding place and form, in Corsaire, would continue. It was so again in Swan. Not so long ago there was an arena football score in a City Center season PdD battle: 50-48. The math mind slows with age, score-keeping fatigues. I hope there will be a turn toward artistry. Across the plaza the divine Sara Mearns bothered with 12 in a youthful O/O all in beauty, and the crowd roared. Perhaps our cutting edge company is signalling a turn toward poetics.

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..this push away from artistic emphasis and toward technical emphasis.

The push to virtuosity can start at an early age, and not only in our time. Maria Tallchief, in her autobigraphy, writes:

[at the age of 5]

In 1930 Mrs. Sabin, an itinerant ballet teacher from Tulsa, visited Fairfax looking for students. Before long, Mrs. Sabin had me dancing on pointe and giving recitals...

But I don't look back on her with gratitude. She was a wretched instructor who never taught the basics, and it's a miracle I wasn't permanently harmed. And my frugal mother was no help. She always bought my toe shoes a size too big so she wouldn't have to buy them too often. Then she'd stuff them with cloth pads so they'd fit and I'd be able to perform the double and triple turns on pointe that seemed to thrill everybody. Of course, Mother didn't really understand the finer points of ballet technique, and I simply did what she asked. I showed an aptitude for dancing and wanted to please. It never occurred to me to say, "It hurts to do that."

(italics added for emphasis)

Fortunately she, and artistry, were saved by Mme. Nijinska. The whole story, up to her arrival at Ballet Russe and Ballet Theatre, a great read, courtesy of the New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/t/kapla...r=1&oref=slogin

But as Carbro pointed out, the help is there at ABT to perform Nijinska's role for their current dancers

. . especially when you consider who the artistic staff and ballet masters are: McKenzie, Barbee, Kolpakova, Parkinson, Susan Jones & Kirk Peterson. Not a one of them famous for sacrificing content for form.

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Could McKenzie and company just be thinking of commercial appeal? New York audiences must have a relatively high balletomane to casual fan ratio, but even at the Met does Part's lyricism garner as much enthusiasm as Herrera's technical power? I also wonder, given ABT's current abundance of male powerhouses, if McKenzie is trying to match his women to his men dancers in that respect. I don't say that's a good reason, but is there precedent for that type of casting?

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... but even at the Met does Part's lyricism garner as much enthusiasm as Herrera's technical power?

Oh yes, Part sells tickets. Last year the Met even had a good-sized audience for her 4th of July Swan Lake. And this season the generally quieter, elderly Wednesday matinee crowd roared for her lyric Odette, and gave six curtain calls. In seasons where I've attended both Part and Herrera Swans, I'd say Part's reception was even the wilder of the two, and Paloma is getting to be quite a good O/O.

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Gennady Smakov's The Great Russian Dancers came in the mail this past weekend, and it opens with a chapter on "The Lyrical Ballerinas": Pavlova, Egorova, Ulanova, and Makarova. In Smakov's telling, bravura technicians trumped the lyricists, even those with superb technique, at least early in their careers. Quoting Egovora, he describes how Kchessinskaya inadvertently gave Pavlova her big break by agreeing to let Pavlova replace her in La Bayadere when she had a baby, so sure was she that Pavlova would have a failure. Even dancers with superb technique but more subdued -- some might say tasteful and/or classical -- personalities were set aside in favor of the bravura technicians, including by the critics Smakov cites.

Also according to Smakov's narrative, Petipa coached Pavlova personally in roles in his ballets despite her technical deficiencies, although it was toward the end of his life when he had less power. Amanda McKerrow had the support of Tudor toward the end of his. A number of NYCB dancers were "Robbins' dancers," cast by him in his ballets and promoted during Robbins' tenure as Co-Ballet-Master-in-Chief. MacMillan had his at the beginning of his career, when Ashton and deValois were the powers at Royal Ballet. Kent has had no such equivalent: what current choreographers are associated with the company? I'm not sure how much influence the coaches have with regard to the traditional classics at ABT.

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Interestingly, the audiences I've been in recently seem to have appreciated our lyrical favorites. At the Part performance, I heard one woman say, "That was the best performance I've ever seen" and another say "She is a real ballerina—I must find out more about her." And the women I sat next to for David Hallberg's Siegfried thought he was gorgeous, full of soul and the best person onstage. Part of the enjoyment of these performances for me was everyone else's palpable enjoyment and satisfaction.

Leonid wrote in "Dancers who may have been lacking in technique, but who still commanded the stage and captured the eye": "To take control of an audience so that it becomes a single massed response in theatres across the world is an achievement that very few ballet dancers can attain. Some achieve through their perfection and control of their technique, their musicality, physical beauty, dramatic skills a recognized high level of performance, but few dancers have the universality of appeal that perhaps only fifteen or twenty in the history of classical ballet have achieved." Obviously something extra is required of either a soubrette or a sylph, to make her truly great. It would be interesting to compare them to past greats, i.e. Part to Makarova and Herrera to Plisetskaya or Danilova to take the true measure of their achievement.

I do concede (as discussed in the recent Ballet as Sport thread) that bravura feats initially wow audiences and drive their appreciation of the art. But such feats become boring, repetitive and shallow as one's appreciation matures, and I don't think overemphasizing them is the way to build a devoted public. NYCB, with all its flaws, comes to seem a more meaningful enterprise, with a real mission of pushing the art form in new ways (though I find Martins' Friandises as great an offender as Le Corsaire in terms of empty virtuosity).

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I was thinking the same thing, beck hen, in terms of the truly memorable dancers such as Pavlova, Fonteyn, Kirkland, Jeppesen. They were heartbreakers, according to those who saw them. (I saw only three -- but Fonteyn was at the tail end of her career).

Then there's Taglioni, whose "toe-dancing" was seen by some as outright vulgarity -- until it quickly caught on as the norm. But just because she had the strength to redefine the technique didn't mean she lacked poetry. In fact, it could be that her artistry propelled her to find new ways to achieve otherworldliness.

The same seems to have applied to Nijinsky. His abilities were unprecedented, from all I've read, but whatever role he danced, he became that character.

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I'm not sure this is the right place to post this, but there is an article/review by Joan Acocella in the New Yorker I received today. Informed review and high praise of the Vishneva/Corella Giselle. Also some very favorable comments about the level of talent at ABT, and some not-too-favorable comments about the general artistic direction that ABT is taking, especially during the Met season, and including the new Cinderella. Perhaps someone more technologically accomplished than I am can post a link.

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Here's a link to the article:

http://www.newyorker.com/critics/dancing/

Judging from the generic name of the link, it will probably expire when the next dance article comes along. I'm not sure how to get their archives.

--Andre

edit:

Thanks to drb, here's direct link to their archives that shouldn't expire for a while:

http://www.newyorker.com/critics/dancing/a...710crda_dancing

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Re: Acocella's comments on the Vishneva/Corella Giselle.

As expected, a perceptive and great read. A minor correction: Diana is not yet 30. Her birthday is July 13.

Her description of Diana's need to transcend beauty by finding her own "secret" in a ballet is nicely integrated into Acocella's view of what made the performance both original and great. Responses to questions on the prima ballerina's site may help to amplify Acocella's remarks.

When asked what her favorite ballet was, she answered "I receive the greater pleasure from dramatic ballets, good partners and sensual spectators." (And her performances do often make us feel that we count! As has been emphasized on another recent thread, audience responses do matter to dancers.). A few months ago she responded more specifically "Manon." As to Acocella's question whether Vishneva reads to research ballets, Diana responded recently, regarding Manon, that yes, she'd read Prevost, "but the dramatic ballet should reflect our life today, I think." In both her two Giselles and two Manons, each performance of each was a vibrantly different, living story. Joan Acocella's article helps explain why.

As to ABT's fetish for new full-lengthers for the Met, and their greater success with one act revivals at City Center, who can disagree with her assessment? Her favorable reviews for David Hallberg (Green Table) and Michele Wiles (Dark Elegies) are also illuminating.

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She also had the musical responsiveness that is required for Balanchine, and which is not a hallmark of Russian dancing. Some people therefore described her as a soubrette, a perky-miss type. This was not an unreasonable conclusion; it was how her company was casting her. But her new “Giselle” should put the lie to that. Her versatility is huge. So is her scale. She has the hundred-and-eighty-degree extension that ballerinas, worldwide, now cultivate, but she uses it for dance purposes—to carve the air, broaden the arc—rather than for the merely visual purpose, so strange and fundamentally vulgar, of raising the foot to the ear. Also, she has the celebrated Kirov back. When she turns around, you can see all the movement emanating from the lumbar spine. But you don’t have to see it. Always, you can feel that generator working, and this gives the movement force and unity, which read as spiritual qualities—the body as soul.

Great article. I thought Vishneva was a charming, headstrong Giselle in Act 1, but it was Act 2 that really stands out in my mind. Vishneva's Giselle, even in the most exposed adagio moments, has this incredible, almost manic energy. Her turns when she first meets Myrtha were almost demonically possessed in their speed. When she jumps she does so with such force I felt she was going to grande jete straight into the pit. Her elevation is incredible. Also, Acocella is right -- Diana's Giselle is stern, fearsome, and Michele Wiles' milquetoast Myrtha didn't stand a chance against this force of nature. I felt that at the end of the ballet Giselle had not only saved Albrecht, but she had saved herself as well. Her dancing was cathartic, as if she had excorcised her personal demons, and could descend back into the grave not as a Wili. After all the frenzied dancing, I felt Giselle's incredible serenity as she handed a last flower to Albrecht.

When I watched her I felt personally energized. I always love to see performers give their all, and I always get the feeling that Diana is giving her all. In my best Dianglish: incredible you are. Thank for great performances.

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Interestingly, the audiences I've been in recently seem to have appreciated our lyrical favorites. .

So too, Joan Acocella. In her outstanding New Yorker article, she calls attention to Caity (Caitlin) Seither:

In the Vishneva/Corella Giselle

... you look down the line of Giselle’s “friends,” basically her backup crew, and suddenly your eye stops. There is a new young person, Caity Seither—I had to ask someone her name—dancing as if this were her last night on earth. It is to see such performances that one goes to A.B.T.

In a Times review back in 2003 when she danced in Tudor's Continuo for ABT's Studio Company, Jennifer Dunning wrote of Ms. Seither

...easy perfection of body line and the liquid arms...

Another name to add to that list of lyric dancers still in ABT's Corps ('though only for a little over two years, so far)?

For those wishing to spot her (frequently one of the four small swans) in the corps, Gene Schiavone provides a perhaps more useful photo than ABT's site:

http://www.geneschiavone.com/gallery/Indiv...l-Dancers/140_G

Caitlins, or Kaitlyns, seem to get noticed quicker by Mr. Martins than by Mr. McKenzie.

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I mostly agree with Acocella... But, I think McKenzie's strategy is pretty savvy.

Acocella: "For the annual spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House, Kevin McKenzie, the company’s artistic director, seems to feel that he must always provide a new full-evening narrative ballet, with splashy sets and a plummy old score, to please A.B.T.’s largely conservative subscribers."

Is he wrong? The Met is gigantic. Can you fill it with works that aren't operatic in scale? He is selling the grand history and tradition of the theater; it works from a marketing point of view. And yes, he is poaching works from everywhere to do it, but that reflects ABT's own mushy choreographic tradition.

Acocella: "I have a solution to propose—not for McKenzie but for ballet fans. Go to A.B.T.’s three-week fall season, at City Center, rather than its long spring season, at the Met. The tickets are cheaper, and you get to sit closer to the stage. The international superstars, like Vishneva, sometimes don’t show up for the City Center gig, but without them A.B.T. looks more like a unified company, working toward a common goal. Most important is the fact that McKenzie seems to view the fall season as the sideshow, the “fringe” show."

Doesn't he get credit for creating and developing the City Center season into the showcase for dancers and choreography that it is? It's the Joffrey influence. The works she praises look better there than on the big stage of the Met. I don't think he treats it as a fringe show, he just knows it has a different audience. Us!

What specifically do we propose that he do differently? I've been browsing old threads and I believe it was Alexandra who mentioned that the practice of putting a different dancer in a role each night is insidious. One Swan Lake a year is ridiculous. It stunts artistic growth and the public doesn't get the chance to see a dancer who gets a good review if they weren't there in the first place.

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Another plus: feeding the corps through the Studio Company and the JKO School, which should ultimately have the effect of improving the character dances and unifying the style a bit.

The devil's in the details: my problems are more with his casting and promotions than with his big picture strategy.

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Doesn't he get credit for creating and developing the City Center season into the showcase for dancers and choreography that it is? It's the Joffrey influence. The works she praises look better there than on the big stage of the Met. I don't think he treats it as a fringe show, he just knows it has a different audience. Us!
Sure, as long as he gets the blame for turning the Met season into an almost all full-length festival. For many years, ABT had a fall and spring season. During the Baryshnikov era (and possibly the Hermann era? I don't remember), the spring rep was a mixture of mixed bills and full-lengths. In September, they'd have a two-week "Encore" season. There was no need to present two different faces of the company, because throughout the spring we'd have a nice mixture of programs.
Acocella: I have a solution to propose—not for McKenzie but for ballet fans. Go to A.B.T.’s three-week fall season, at City Center, rather than its long spring season, at the Met. The tickets are cheaper, and you get to sit closer to the stage.
That may be the case for prime orchestra, but the "cheap seats" (frequent flyers tend to favor these) are roughly equivalent, and even if you are closer to the stage, your sightlines are likely to be less than ideal. But I will be there -- for exactly the programming and casting reasons she mentions!

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The box office may be to blame for this set up. McKenzie started out with a balance of Mixed Programs and Full-Lengths in the Spring Season. There was no Encore season in September that I remember in NYC - that started about ten years ago at City Center. From about 1991 when I moved to New York to the late nineties, there was no Fall season, ABT just had the Summer season at the Met which was longer.

However, Kevin started to notice that the box office for the mixed programs was disappointing in comparison with the full-length shows. So naturally, ABT started shopping around for more full-length shows. The problem with this programming is that it limits the number of leading roles to go around. In a mixed bill you might see well over half the principals in one evening plus many of the soloists. Maybe the corps doesn't have as much to do in these smaller ballets but such is life. The other thing is that full-length ballets are star driven where as short ballets tend to show off a company or choreographer. The Boccas and Ferris and Ananiashvili's need the big story ballets to work their full magic and ABT acquired a roster of stars who needed vehicles. The soloists and corps have started to suffer from this since they get cast similarly year after year without opportunities to show their potential or follow up those star-making turns. It might have been nice to have Danny Tidwell and Misty Copeland do "Coppelia" rather than Max and Irina or Ethan and Gillian. Or the much talked about Fang "Giselle" rather than a Paloma or Irina retread.

Another problem with the mixed bills was a certain tiredness in the programming. Year after year we got a "Tchaikovsky Triple Bill" or "Tchaikovsky Spectacular" with bits of Balanchine, Swan Lake, Nutcracker or Sleeping Beauty mixed in together. The programming got repetitive. I didn't need to see "Petrouchka" or "Apollo" again but at least I was spared "Theme and Variations" yet again.

I have a friend who I take to ABT (she takes me to NYCB) and I usually take her to the new full-length and one mixed bill. This year she just saw "Manon" because the Mixed Bill had too many repetitions from prior seasons.

Kevin might do well to shop around for a really interesting and innovative mixed bill for next season - preferably two. He should also cast Fang, Part, Liceica, Copeland, Radetsky, Lane and Bystrova in leading parts in these short ballets. He might then find his next generation of stars when Julie, Irina, Paloma et al. eventually move on in ten years or so.

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This older thread seems relevant: Wish list for ABT Repertory. I would definitely like to see Monotones.

Reading about ABT's history, I always come up against Miss Julie and Fall River Legend as repertory staples. Should these be revived or are they chestnuts?

I suppose I am too young to have a full perspective on how well McKenzie runs the company. The only regimes I've watched under are Martins' and McKenzie's. Given that Martins is so often excoriated, I figured no news was good news with Kevin.

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It's not just McKerrow who felt this push away from artistic emphasis and toward technical emphasis. This is what Julie Kent said in Round About the Ballet:

Q: What direction do you think ballet needs to take in the twenty-first century?

A: I hesitate to say what I think--the focus should be more on artistic performance, and less on technique. ...

Now Kent wasn't talking about anyone in particular, but I think this quote is a sign that she senses a shift toward rewarding technical bravura, perhaps at ABT in particular, perhaps in ballet in general.

A quote from Susan Jaffe (full interview ):

SS: Why retire now?

SJ: One of the biggest reasons I decided to leave ABT so soon — not that I am that young, but a lot of ballerinas have gone at least another five years — is that I love dramatic work. It turns me on so much. I love to work with characters. I feel there is not enough of that kind of work here (ABT). It is nice to do “Nutcracker” and “Sleeping Beauty,” but I have been doing them for so long. There are other dramatic ballets out there I’d like to do but they cost a lot of money to bring in. I just feel I can no longer wait around hoping that someday a few of them will be brought in. I need to take control of my life and do something creative, something new. I guess people may see me as being really spoiled for leaving, but if you don’t have creativity in your life, what do you really have?

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