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Ed Waffle

adulteration of classics

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On another thread, Leigh wrote: "However, one of the reasons Alexandra started this site was be a site that was not anti-modern, but was pro-classical and neoclassical ballet in an unadulterated form."

A few points, none of which may be germane to this argument.

I am not sure if it works this way in ballet but in serious music listening newer compositions often if not almost always affect the way one hears older works. While one may not think specifically of a Beethoven symphony while listening to a Handel concerto grosso, the fact that one has heard Beethoven and knows how he deals with some of the same musical issues that Handel does seems inescapable. I wonder if the same may be true of watching ballet? Does the fact that one has seen Ashton, Balanchine or Tudor and may be very familiar with them affect the way that one watches and responds to nineteenth century choreographers? This would be a personal reaction and not an adulteration, of course, but still has a significant effect on the audience.

The difficulty comes when choreographers who may be of lesser talent than Ashton or Balanchine—-Ben Stevenson, for example, condition the viewer. If the audience is waiting for the strobe lights, smoke and flying by Foy in classical ballet they will be in for a disappointing evening and may well miss the real sublimity of the what they are seeing.

Classic works have always been redone, reimagined, or newly approached. Or, to put it differently, they have always been ripped to unrecognizable pieces. The most popular works at the Paris Opera in the early nineteenth century were pastiches of Mozart—Don Giovanni marries Donna Elvira, the Commendatore didn’t really die in the duel, the overture from a long forgotten French opera is tacked on. In some cases the author was convinced to adulterate his own work—Rossini had to redo the ending of his opera “Otello” because the Roman audience wouldn’t stand for a murder on stage. Otello and Desdemona lived happily ever after in the new version.

They are also cases when geniuses approach the work of other geniuses. I am reacquainting myself with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and have come across some shocking but not surprising things. John Dryden, a poet and prose stylist of the first rank, was one of the many people who “improved” Shakespeare. In his “Preface to Troilus and Cressida” he tells us why Shakespeare’s play isn’t one of his best and goes into detail how he rewrote it to make is more stage-worthy. Dryden rewrote some scenes, changed the order of several of them and composed entire new scenes.

The seventeenth century was not an ironic age—something which I had to keep in mind while reading this preface. He was not winking at the reader and actually saying "isn't it silly that anyone would try to make Shakespeare better." By definition, Dryden was not postmodern—in fact he was not even modern according to some views. He really meant what he said in his preface, that this particular play of the greatest dramatist in the language (which he acknowledges) needed a lot of punching up and he was the person to do it.

Dryden was not a hack—this is not the Lamb’s “Tales from Shakespeare”. Whether it was successful is another story—flawed though it is “Troilus and Cressida” is known as a work by Shakespeare and is very still produced in festival settings. Dryden’s play seems mainly know by its preface, which contains some of his best thoughts on tragedy.

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Very good points, as usual, Ed :)

I think it's actually beyond the fact that we work backward when watching older works. In ballet, because of its nature (company style seeping in to everything it dances, presuming the company has a style) the Royal Ballet's "Swan Lake" or "Sleeping Beauty" was as much Ashton as Petipa. They danced the ballet "in Ashton" -- his phrasing, his musicality, as well as some additional choreography.

I agree -- a genius can get away with anything. The problem is that the Genius-10s, and on down, take this as a model and go to town. Yes, they cheapen the original work and yes, I agree there will be people who are new to ballet -- or dense to it -- who will only like the strobe lights (symbol of what's wrong) and want that in everything. In ballet, there's a history of the bad driving out the good.

Who was it who wrote reams of sentimental doggerel and dropped it into Shakespeare in the 17th century (not Dryden, a lesser light) so that for two generations people thought it was Shakespeare -- as that's how it was presented. When it was thrown out, I'm sure there were people who never thought Hamlet was the same after losing the immortal lines (I'm making this up; I don't have an actual quote to hand, but it catches the flavor) "Roses are red, violets are blue, I'd blow my head off and yours too."

Many Not Geniuses have tampered with the 19th century repertory, as we know and discuss often here, using the opera and theater model -- what I call the Eskimo Hamlet (resetting a play in another place and time). They cut lines that get in the way of their new, improved interpretation. When this started, it was defensible because the audience knew the originals and could appreciate what the restagers were doing. Of course, there would always be people whose first Hamlet was the Eskimo Hamlet and forever associated it with igloos, but who cared? It's more complicated to do this in ballet because the actual movements and blocking are part of the work's matter. Changing place and time tears the fabric. But who cares?

I think also some major revisions -- like the Stanislavsky "Swan Lake" -- are appropriate in their time (heresy, I know) because that audience knew "Swan Lake" inside and out and knew the story. So cutting the mime, for that audience, wasn't as huge a crime as it could have been -- and he didn't do it for the Kirov. Two generations of vague gesturing and flapping, though, and you have a new audience who doesn't know the story. This may be why there's an interest in trying to get back to as close to the authentic version as possible.

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This is an area where I agree completely with Alexandra. Classics are that for a reason. As an audience member I start to get offended when the director/ choreographer thinks he needs to "freshen up" a classic by changing the setting or the choreography. Is he doing this for me because he thinks I'm too stupid to be interested in classic version? As a choreographer, I am MUCH more interested in the ORIGINAL version. Show me the genious of the choreographer, not your second rate genious. ( I think what I just wrote may sound harsher than I intended.)

But sometimes I am interested in and even like classics that have been tapered with in a thoughtful fashion. Thoughtful being the operative words.

I think the trend among ADs is to "put their mark" on a particular production of a classic. I don't like this. There seems to be no apparent reason for these arbitrary changes other than ego. That is NO justification for fixing something that ain't broke.

This is probably why the Blanchine Trust exists, to avoid these issues as much as possible.

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