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Documentary on ABT by Ric Burns

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Loved Ratmansky's remarks about how ballet steps/choreography give one an embodied link to past. (Can't remember his exact words)

"As a dancer you do the steps that were invented by the bodies and minds of the past, so when you do the step, this is a way to talk to the past. You are actually channeling those bodies through the steps, through the choreography -- that's the wonderful thing about ballet. You are not alone. You're supported by, you can call them spirits ... (Ballet is) a beautiful system (that) doesn't really need translation."

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I wonder what those little ballet girls and the men in the Foyer of the Paris Opera Ballet would think of her insistence that ballet is all about uplifting morals and pure living.

Good point, but I don’t think the ideal is any less present because the reality never lives up to it and often falls far short. Like Homans, I love that ideal of the human spirit and human community as well as the human body that much ballet conveys – an ideal best conveyed in real time, not slo-mo (ugh).

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If you're familiar with Homans' writings you will know that she has what I'd call an idée fixe that ballet is not just about aesthetics and poetry in motion and all that, but about upholding a certain sense of morality and values that she believes were present in Louis XIV's court. (I suppose the seedier side of Louis XIV's court life like the constant stream of mistresses and the fact that Louis XIV didn't think it was necessary to install toilets as he assumed everyone would just clean up after him is ignored). For Homans, ballet really is about morality. In her book she talks as much about Balanchine's religious beliefs as she does his ballets.

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Historically, quite a few major philosophers (and otherwise) have promoted the idea that the value of art is measured by its success in communicating moral and religious ideals. Leo Tolstoy's little book What is Art? is one of the best known pushing this idea, a book he wrote after returning from a visit to Paris, disgusted by what he considered the moral decay in the French art world. But you see elements of this view in everybody from Plato to Jesse Helms (sorry) to Hitler (sorry again). I am NOT saying that Jesse Helms is like Hitler, only that the pre-eminence of moral and religious ideals as the essence of art and/or the test of good art has a long history.

So Homans believes that ballet is successful as a way of communicating those values, and she apparently thinks the values promoted by the French court are the best values to promote, even now. We might disagree about whether this is really the essence of art at all. We might disagree with her conclusions that a particular artform or work of art successfully does this. Plenty of approaches for challenging her views. I have her book but have barely skimmed it. She is a trained historian, not a philosopher. Her positions might be more defensible if she had entertained a variety of alternative analyses of the essence of art and our standards for evaluating art other than this one. I don't think you'd find many philosophers of art nowadays who would support her approach to the art form.

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California, I was kind of clarifying upthread what Homans meant by "ballet is dead." She didn't mean it's actually dead or not popular anymore, she simply believes that current choreography and dancers don't uphold the morals and values of the French royal court, the Russian Imperial Royal Court, and Balanchine's royal court (her three time periods when she considered that ballet did uphold those lofty noble values).

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California, I was kind of clarifying upthread what Homans meant by "ballet is dead." She didn't mean it's actually dead or not popular anymore, she simply believes that current choreography and dancers don't uphold the morals and values of the French royal court, the Russian Imperial Royal Court, and Balanchine's royal court (her three time periods when she considered that ballet did uphold those lofty noble values).

Well, upheld them as values, yes. I don't see any indication she thinks they always did in practice. But ideals are always things to shoot for, rarely to achieve.

ETA that any art form reflects moral values.

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A non dance friend came up to me today in $tarbux and was just bubbling over with how wonderful the PBS documentary on ABT had been and how she planned to buy it for her sister... How she had never known half the history nor realized how ephemeral dance was and how it only lives from performance to performance... And on & on about the oral tradition and how much it has changed over the years eith each era adding a new element...

I haven't seen it yet and imagine from having seen the promo that It will hit a nerve... But perhaps for the non ballet going public it has opened their eyes a little...

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My videographer husband didn't mind the slo-mo (I certainly did) but recognized all the other failings we've been talking about. All I can say is you really want to see a documentary on ABT watch Frederick Wiseman's Ballet. Yes, it's only at that particular moment of time but you get to see so much more dancing and dancers. The number of people never even mentioned (Ferri, Bocca, Leslie Browne, Ethan Stiefel, Angel Corella, Jose Manuel Carreno) really made me mad. And Homans droning on? How this was a "history of ABT" totally eludes me.

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Delighted PBS invested in a documentary on a major American Ballet Company and that Rick Burns took it on. More ballet on PBS please! On the plus side too:

I thought the film did convey something of the excitement around the creativity of ABT's early years and the contributions of Tudor, Robbins, and De Mille. I liked seeing archival footage of their works alongside more recent performances......

I would have liked: more condensation of the early (pre ABT) ballet history; more ABT footage from all eras; a bit more footage of today's dancers that included non-slow motion shots of dancing. Actually, I would have found the slow motion more interesting with at least one or two juxtapositions of the same footage shown at normal speed.

And, perhaps more imporantly, I would have liked a clearer sense of the arc of the company's history--we got the first Swan Lake and some allusions (not well explained to someone who didn't already know much about it) to Makarova's staging of Bayadere, but not a clear sense that the company increasingly became a showcase for full length ballets, both classics and 20th-century full-length ballets. (The latter I don't think were mentioned at all). And perhaps there should have been some mention of the role of "guests" in the company's history which could have been done in a relatively non-controversial, non-critical way--which did seem to be the aim tone-wise--as a tag-on to the company's "international" legacy etc.

I add my thanks to PBS. I hope everyone here takes the time to let PBS know that this documentary and dance programming generally are appreciated, whatever you may think of the final product here.

I wonder what Burns considered his brief.

I wondered, also, choriamb. My hunch is that Burns was wearing too many hats, trying to provide within a limited amount of time a history of the company; some history of ballet, which he assumes, probably rightly, that a general audience will know little about; and a celebration of today's company and the art form. It's too much. I don't expect him to preach to a choir of balletomanes and I don't expect him to give space to every important dancer ABT has ever had, but as Drew and others have noted, important aspects of the company's history and artistic approach are missing. I think some of the slow-motion sequences were effective, but the device was overused, and I pretty much tuned out over the last twenty minutes or so of slo-mo with tributes to the ineffable qualities of ballet. I appreciate the sentiment, but.

I think Homans was intended to play something of the role of commentator/guide that Shelby Foote did in big brother Ken Burns' Civil War documentary. Unfortunately she just isn't particularly engaging in that role. Clive Barnes, may he rest in peace, is a lot more fun. However, she seems to be the go-to ballet gal these days, so I guess we just have to get used to it, or her.

Among the other positive aspects already mentioned by others, I particularly liked Julie Kent's contributions. Her anecdote about receiving a note from Makarova before her first Bayadere was especially touching and apposite.

I still managed to enjoy a lot of the show, despite its failings.

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After watching the first half, I would echo comments made by other posters that Burns didn't know what kind of a documentary he wanted to make. Would it be a filmed version of the Homans books? Would it be a ballet technique video with lots of slo-mo footage? Would it be a history of ABT? Would it be an introduction to the ABT dancers of the 21st century? By not picking one and sticking with it, it ended up being a real mish-mash of ideas that didn't cohere into anything.

The Homans portion, which takes up the first 30 minutes, is excruciatingly pretentious and nearly made me pass out from boredom. (The varying quality of the current dancers' comments didn't help matters in that regard.) Things picked up somewhat when the documentary shifted back to ABT and discussions of Lucia Chase and, especially, Antony Tudor. Probably my favorite part of the first 45 minutes was seeing the footage of Dark Elegies (w/ the now-retired Isaac Stappas).

All in all, a very disappointing first 45 minutes made bearable by the rare footage/photos shown and certain interviewees (i.e. Clive Barnes saying Lucia Chase had no taste.)

More comments to come when I've watched the second half.

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Many thanks, tomorrow!

I didn't get the impression from an Ivor Guest history of Paris Opera Ballet I read that the ideals of the Sun King's court were first and foremost in the minds of the company for very long.

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Regarding Homans, Mark Franko's (Professor of Dance, University of California, if you're unfamiliar - edit: not sure he is still there actually...) review of Apollo's Angels and his criticism of her views on ballet (issues of morality, for example) is well worth the read. http://nybaroquedance.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Apollos-Angels-review.pdf

Mark Franko was formerly on the faculty at University of California, Santa Cruz, but is now at Temple University:

http://www.temple.edu/boyer/about/people/markfranko.asp

He also has a fractional (part-time) appointment at Middlesex University in London:

http://www.mdx.ac.uk/about-us/our-people/staff-directory/franko-mark

At Temple, he has organized a wonderful series of lectures on dance history and philosophy by visiting scholars, most of them live-streamed. He is the editor of Dance Research Journal and the Oxford Studies on Dance Theory.

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I watched it twice and I agree with many of the criticisms posted here. It was very unfocused and did not provide a coherent narrative of ABT's history. As most here complained, that slow motion stuff got on my nerves. And some of the background music! Ugh! If they wanted to demonstrate the excellence of the current crop of dancers, why not show it in real time and with the music they're dancing to? It drove me crazy seeing Gillian Murphy dancing black swan, for example, and none of the great and flirtatious music with it! If the aim was to appeal to the general public, the public would have been better served to see the examples as they are. And I wasn't happy with so much Homans. I could, however, listen to Ratmansky all day! All in all, very disappointing.

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maybe this is a bad analogy, but i remember thinking that when they did the ballets russes film, i couldn't imagine how they could get that much history in a relatively short amount of time and do it justice. although i'm sure there are things that could have been done differently, people generally seemed pleased with it and i certainly loved watching it. wish they could have done as well by their subject as the ones who did that film.

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This was the most depressing ballet doc I have ever seen. I remember long lectures in grad school in the 70's: " Time and the phenomonology of space in Disney's ouevre concerning mice..."

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And some of the background music! Ugh! [...] It drove me crazy seeing Gillian Murphy dancing black swan, for example, and none of the great and flirtatious music with it! I could, however, listen to Ratmansky all day! All in all, very disappointing.

I wondered if the lack of music from the ballets being shown was a budget issue. Then again, it was of a piece with the slow motion which tended to homogenize everything into a single look, even when the documentary was talking about a variety of styles.

I, too, feel I could listen to Ratmansky all day.

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macnellie: thank you for what will be the best laugh of the day!

I wonder what the contractual agreement with Homans was. It was as if they paid her to do something and so couldn't completely cut her - though they should have. Though there were some good moments in the doc, Homans pretty much sabotaged it.

I enjoyed seeing all the old clips and photos and trying to recognize the (unidentified) dancers. I was excited to see the black and white clips of The Firebird with what appeared to be Alicia Markova - but I don't think they even identified her and she was one of the great dancers of her time, (I checked the book, "The Making of Markova," by Tina Sutton and learned that Markova did dance The Firebird when Sol Hurok was affiliated with Balllet Theatre.)

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macnellie: thank you for what will be the best laugh of the day!

I wonder what the contractual agreement with Homans was. It was as if they paid her to do something and so couldn't completely cut her - though they should have. Though there were some good moments in the doc, Homans pretty much sabotaged it.

I enjoyed seeing all the old clips and photos and trying to recognize the (unidentified) dancers. I was excited to see the black and white clips of The Firebird with what appeared to be Alicia Markova - but I don't think they even identified her and she was one of the great dancers of her time, (I checked the book, "The Making of Markova," by Tina Sutton and learned that Markova did dance The Firebird when Sol Hurok was affiliated with Balllet Theatre.)

The next national PBS pledge drive is coming up. I'm guessing that we may be seeing Homans peddling her book as a premium gift for anyone who donates at the $75 level; hard copy PLUS DVD at the $150 level.

Heck, I'm not donating one cent or sending 'thanks' to PBS for this crap. I thanked them for airing the excellent Joffrey Ballet doc on American Masters two years ago. Huge difference.

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Mark Franko was formerly on the faculty at University of California, Santa Cruz, but is now at Temple University:

http://www.temple.edu/boyer/about/people/markfranko.asp

He also has a fractional (part-time) appointment at Middlesex University in London:

http://www.mdx.ac.uk/about-us/our-people/staff-directory/franko-mark

At Temple, he has organized a wonderful series of lectures on dance history and philosophy by visiting scholars, most of them live-streamed. He is the editor of Dance Research Journal and the Oxford Studies on Dance Theory.

Franko has written broadly and in depth -- well worth reading.

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This was the most depressing ballet doc I have ever seen. I remember long lectures in grad school in the 70's: " Time and the phenomonology of space in Disney's ouevre concerning mice..."

Oh dear, too true!

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Good point, but I don’t think the ideal is any less present because the reality never lives up to it and often falls far short. Like Homans, I love that ideal of the human spirit and human community as well as the human body that much ballet conveys – an ideal best conveyed in real time, not slo-mo (ugh).

I think that Kevin McK actually came closer to what I think Homans is trying to convey -- that the pursuit of any complex skill requires a kind of self-abnegation that can be seen as having a moral component. You are, in a way, an apprentice to perfection -- you will never achieve it, but the ongoing work organizes your life much as any other devotional activity does. As McK says, it takes "hubris and humility."

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Homans is definitely the go-to talking head about ballet nowadays. I attended a Q&A with Suzanne Farrell at the NYPL and she was there giving a speech in the beginning. Like it or not balletomanes are going to be stuck with her for a long time.

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