Jump to content
Sign in to follow this  


Recommended Posts

Is the star system good or bad for ballet?

There's an interesting article on James Kudelka (director of the National Ballet of Canada) that includes this paragraph:

"Ever since assuming NBC's top post almost five years ago, Kudelka has aimed to put the whole before the parts, focusing attention on the collective talent of his admirable troupe. The star system generates cultism with gaggles of groupies fawning pathetically over their favourites and missing the big picture. In many respects it's an unfortunate tendency that trivializes and diminishes ballet as an art."


What do you think? (We don't have to limit the discussion to Kudelka, as many of us haven't seen his company enough to have an opinion on that -- those who have, of course, are welcome to express it. But this can be discussed as a general principle, I think.)

Do stars trivialize ballet? Is it important for a director to focus on "the big picture" -- and what is "the big picture?" Comments, please!

Share this post

Link to post

Could one say, "stars," trivialize ballet, but "great artists" have quite the opposite effect? Even from a 'choreographer's' point of view...Ashton doesn't exactly seem to have been hampered by working with Fonteyn, or Balanchine with Tallchief, Farrell et. al. (I don't buy a definition of star that would EXCLUDE Balanchine ballerinas.)

Perhaps the difficulty is that sometimes a dancer is both great artist and 'star': the Baryshnikov phenomenon was, of course, fabulous for ballet as an art and as a business but some of the fallout was trivializing for the company and repertory in which he danced. "Push Comes to Shove" was, in a way, ABOUT his stardom, and very enjoyable the first season or so, but beyond that the cultivation of a repertory for him did not "feed" the company as a company...A perennial problem at ABT, but Baryshnikov's 'star' power did not help, and may have 'hurt.'

At about the same time, Tudor's first ballet for Gelsey Kirkland, "The Leaves are Fading" did "feed" the company; anyone who saw Kirkland dance it knows she was incomparable, but the choreography featured many dancers (including corps member Cynthia Harvey who went on to a career as a principal at ABT and the Royal). And, the ballet continues to be performed with great beauty and success -- both continuing the Tudor tradition at ABT while also showing a different dimension of his work. I even liked Tudor's second ballet for Kirkland, "Tiller in the Fields" -- but, in any case, Kirkland's 'stardom' didn't seem to interfere with Tudor's interest in her artistry. If anything, her real distinctiveness as a dancer seems to have inspired him. One could argue, I suppose, that Tudor deliberately took a pass on creating for the still bigger celebrity, Baryshnikov.

Nureyev is perhaps a more interesting example: at a certain point in his career Nureyev performances became primarily, and then exclusively, about the fact that he was still dancing and people were still paying money to see him...And yet, I wouldn't exactly call them trivial experiences. There was, rather, something crazed about them that was, in a way, an honoring of ballet. (And he did occasionally, a few years before the very end, produce a revelatory performance.) Nureyev also maintained a loyalty to the ballet tradition that at the Paris Opera (and elsewhere) has left a real legacy. His productions (of which I'm not a fan) HAVE fed companies -- contributing, so to speak, to the 'big picture.' And they can't really be separated out from his stardom...He didn't stage things 'despite' being a star; the two personae (director/dancer) were linked throughout his career.

Problems are more obvious when stardom gets cultivated seemingly at the expense of artistry, or at any rate, with little concern for it. You can't really manufacture a ballet 'star' with no foundation -- if you could, Leslie Browne (actually a fine dance actress) would have had a much more high profile career -- but you can, and companies often do, showcase young dancers as 'stars' before they have a chance to grow as artists (Herrera is an obvious example; but also Corella -- though I think he handles 'growing up' in the spotlight unusually well).

I still think attacking 'stars' often misses the point. It's not as if you can master Odette/Odile by having your photograph in a magazine. And, perhaps surprizingly, audiences often can tell the difference. The example that's always given is Moira Shearer and Margot Fonteyn during the Sadlers Wells (Royal) Ballet's first visit to the U.S. -- all those 'silly' Americans who were "disappointed" to learn they were going to see Fonteyn rather than Shearer (famous for the movie "The Red Shoes")caught on fast as to who was the real 'star' of the company -- and its leading artist. Actually, I have heard/read this story so often that I've come to find it a little too condescending to Shearer, who was, after all, a ballerina and Ashton's Cinderella to boot...But the point holds. Great ballet can only be enhanced by great artists, and some (not all) great artists catch the public's imagination in a way that makes them 'stars' for better or worse. Some of the resulting fall-out is fatuous or 'trivial,' --ballet isn't 'about' stars-- but I think it would be absurd to say 'stars' are the problem. Bad casting may be a problem, silly repertory may be a problem etc. And these problems may well be aggravated by the 'star' phenomenon, but 'stars' per se are not finally the problem. Presumably (The New Yorker said something like this), we owe Kevin Mckenzie's absurd Rothbart to something like the excess of male talent and 'stars' like Malakhov at ABT -- but that doesn't mean ABT isn't a better company for having a Malakhov to dance in its productions...

[ November 09, 2001: Message edited by: Drew ]

Share this post

Link to post

Interesting concept. I think opera faces this challence sometimes too.

I'm going to sit on the fence and say it depends on the ballet and probably the company.

ABT has always seemed to run on a Star system. NYCB less so. It seems to work out for both of those companies.

There are ballets that require a star to really carry it. Lets face it, Sleeping Beauty without a radiant Aurora is tedious. Same for Giselle. There are other ballets that need to be ensemble performances and if someone "sticks out" too much, the effect is ruined.

Share this post

Link to post

I believe stars can be good for ballet in general. A symphony will get patrons to come to a performance by talking up one famous work and then have the audience sit through two other, less well-known pieces before the headliner. This introduces the audience to other works but leaves them satisfied because they also heard the piece they came for. Can't ballet also do the same? What if you came to Sleeping Beauty to see the famous ballerina who was playing Aurora and found yourself really intrigued by the ballerina who danced the Lilac Fairy? In one way, isn't this what the Nutcracker is to companies everywhere? It is the "star" that gets people to come to the ballet and we all hope that they love the ballet so much that they come back and see all the other wonderful ballets we dance.

So, I guess I'm saying the stars can be good for ballet.

Share this post

Link to post

Considering you have touring groups "Stars of NYCB" et al.,

Stars present an interesting dichotomy. On one hand, they'll presumably bring in an audience, and hopefully keep an audience.

But then they also become the standard to which other dancers are measured. Which is unfortunate and why in reviews, I think most dancers prefer not to be compared to their predecessors.

All of this depends on what you consider a "star".

Is it the dancer who's got their picture in Vogue and print ads, or is the dancer who is singled out consistently in both audience applause and reviews?

A lot of times companies try to plant stars. Meaning no disrespect to her at all, I think she's a great dancer, but Deanna McBrearty of NYCB comes to mind. Here's a woman who has garnered more press (print, video, even greeting cards!) and been photographed more offstage than onstage, yet she's not really a "star" in the company. But to someone not familiar with NYCB dancers, she might be considered one based on the publicity alone.

Does anyone agree with this?

Share this post

Link to post

So I know this is a tangent, but I've always wondered why Deanna McBrearty is the cover girl for NYCB. I really can't criticize or applaud her, not ever seeing her dance, (unless The Nutcracker with McCauly Caulkin counts) but all I know is that I see her in pictures more than ANYONE else...

Share this post

Link to post

I think it depends on what you are talking about when you use the word "star". Is a star someone who is truly unique and because of great talent is making a significant contribution to the world of ballet? Is a star someone who is the principal dancer of a company who gets the most roles?

A very talented girl from the corps de ballet whom only the ardent ballet goers - and the co. director - have noticed before may give a radiant performance of Aurora. Does this make her a star? Well, for the afternoon or evening, yes, but not in general. I remember seeing Gelsey when she first joined NYCB. I had been living in London and came to NY on a visit and went to see the NYCB. I can't remember the ballet, but the role Gelsey was doing required her to spend some time standing on the side of the stage. I had no idea who she was, and at that point in the ballet she had yet to dance much, but something about her carriage and her head rang bells in my head. I just KNEW that she would be a star. And of course she did become one.

In general, I would say that a star is someone who has shown he/she can carry lots of performances and make them special. This goes hand in hand with the old tradition that one Swan Lake does not a principal dancer make. Principal dancers where promoted when it had been demonstrated that they could carry a number of principal roles in a mature manner. Now it seems like directors' darlings get promoted as soon as there is a vacancy in the ranks - or money in the budget.

There are lots of dancers who are given lots of performances and have their photos plastered all over billboards, but does this make them a star? Not to me. Some may have the potential to become stars, some are the apple of the artistic director's eye and some just have good publicists and may have found favor with the press. Some give themselves the air of a star and demand special privileges perhaps with the idea that "star" airs maketh a star. (A famous non-ballet example of this is Kathleen Battle, whose clashes with other singers and opera directors are too numerous to count.)

Fonteyn was a star because she was the right person in the right place at the right time. In today's environment she would never get the chance. But for her time she really did shine. And during the Fonteyn/Nureyeve era the houses were packed - at elevated prices (in London, at any rate). Since the passing of/or retirement of Fonteyn, Nureyev, Baryshnikov and Makarova I don't think there are any "stars" for whom a huge number of people would be willing to pay inflated prices. They were each unique in their own way - and the 3 Russians because of the unique political atmosphere in which they operated and the work that they accomplished in the West after their defections from the former Soviet Union. It was the political atmosphere that made them "rare" and the influence that each had on ballet in the West that made them greater than dancers who were merely excellent at what they did.

Dancers may be "stars" of their own company or "stars" of ballet in their own nation, but to rate that term they should at least be experienced principal dancers in a company of significance. We get all to many touring companies called "Stars of ......" that is made up mostly of soloist-level or young, inexperienced principal dancers. Once upon a time "Stars of...." programs really DID consist of stars. Those days seem to be gone for ever.

Share this post

Link to post
Sign in to follow this  
  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.