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sohalia

Program IV: A Midsummer Night's Dream

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We're pretty serious about our art form, our entertainment; ballet is serious fun, important fun, right? But there's another aspect to the redesigns we see going on here and there - unnecessary redesigns, even interfering redesigns - from the point of view of the marketing mind, the mind of the marketers: It gets attention, it generates "buzz", right? Just look at this thread, for example, running three pages already.

Should that be a factor along with, or even dominating artistic factors or esthetic qualities in the mind of the AD? Should marketers have such dominance? AD's may well be glad to listen to the marketers; they know their company needs income, and they'd be disappointed - or hurt, even - if nobody came and watched.

I well remember in this connection not so many years ago - Edward was still there - a marketer who knows my face said for me to hear, "They have to put on what we can sell." Marketers would of course promote themselves and what they do, but this development - a sad development to me, when it compromises the art, as this underwater concept seems to have done - may be part of the story. Not one I like to think about. Not as much fun as an Esther Williams vehicle, right. Uh oh. When does a ballet become just a show, just a curiosity, another spectacle to churn the crowds in and out, a circus?

Unfortunately it's geo-blocked in the United States, but it would be instructive to watch the CBC program Romeos and Juliets about the staging of Ratmansky's Romeo and Juliet for the National Ballet of Canada. The program itself is heavily influenced by "reality" television and the "behind-the-scenes" segments of televised talent shows, devoting perhaps a third of the film to casting order and the burning question of who will dance on opening night. But the overall impression made is that the ballet was mounted not because there was anything wrong with the previous Cranko production of Romeo and Juliet, but because the company wanted the publicity that would accompany a new one.

Most overt and prone to hyperbole in this is artist-in-residence Rex Harrington, who declares that this is the most important production in the company's history (I think that distinction still belongs to Nureyev's 1972 production of Sleeping Beauty, which also benefitted greatly from the publicity generated by Nureyev himself, at least initially); that this production will get the company back to London (it did, but not to critical acclaim) and New York (it didn't--that happened thanks to Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland); and that it will "get the buzz back."

Artistic director Karen Kain is more circumspect. She admits to not having been especially familiar with Ratmansky's work, but that every time she opened the pages of the New York Times there seemed to be another article praising his work. But when explaining her reasons for a new production, she basically admits to wanting something that will showcase her company--something that will showcase them on the world stage, the implication being that this wouldn't happen unless international presenters were interested in a hot choreographic property. Here I am sympathetic to her. My side-by-side comparisons have convinced me that the National Ballet of Canada is a much stronger troupe than, say, American Ballet Theatre, but it does not enjoy an illustrious international reputation that would result in huge touring opportunities, forcing her to resort to other means to generate "buzz" for her troupe.

In the midst of this Ratmansky is seen hard at work and serious about the project, although he could not have been unaware that he was invited largely for the publicity he would generate, because he is much admired by Alastair Macaulay, who indeed traveled to Toronto to review the ballet, and because at the moment he's considered "hot." Harrington exults that everyone wants Ratmansky, and the National Ballet's got him. And yet I don't think any of this justified replacing a production that had served the company well for nearly 50 years--and whose sets and costumes the NBoC still rents out, recently to Ballet West. My nagging impression is that Ratmansky's Romeo and Juliet was mounted for all the wrong reasons.

BUT, it was pretty clear that these decisions were not driven by the marketing department.

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Winding down my rant, now - any other purists here?

Oh yeah. :wink: Especially when it comes a choreographer's home company. I'm the kind of purist who wonders why in the world Martins couldn't just have had the costume shop copy Karinska's original designs for Symphony in C, instead of paying for the blingy ones Marc Happel replaced them with. I'm the kind of purist who wonders what would would have been wrong with recreating Peter Harvey's original sets for Jewels. If they were good enough for Balanchine . . .

Yes, I know - marketing wants something new to sell. Ugh.

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"They have to put on what we can sell." And the AD? Dos the AD direct the artists, and the marketers direct the AD? Oh, brave new world that hath such people in't. (Starting a fresh rant…)

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Here's a question: Is "purist" a derogatory term or a compliment? People apply it to me sometimes - "You know what's wrong with you, Jack? You're a purist!" - and I always thank them for it: I want the experience pure, unadulterated, and STRONG - and I want it available to others who may also be susceptible to enjoying it as I do.

Winding down my rant, now - any other purists here?

This is the place for a rant, if that's what you need to do.

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When Pacific Northwest Ballet asked the Balanchine Trust if they could commission new sets and costumes, it was in part a desire to bring something specific and different to the work. And while this production doesn't change the setting per se (it's still a wood, they're still fairies, sprites and bugs) it did give the community a sense that these choices were special to us, and it did attract a certain amount of attention from the national press.

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I want the experience pure, unadulterated, and STRONG - and I want it available to others who may also be susceptible to enjoying it as I do.

Winding down my rant, now - any other purists here?

I am. And yes, it might be fun for some of us to try a new version of Giselle for once, now that we have spent 30 years watching a traditional staging. It could be ok for me NOW to just getting to see Odette in B's Swan Lake, for which I have already seen a gazilion Odiles and great series of Black Swan fouettes. But I am not happy that, being my first exposure to MSND, I get to be offered a confused, liberal staging. And along with me, probably hundreds of us Miamians.

Edited to add: I wonder what would had been Balanchine's reaction to the changes...

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Edited to add: I wonder what would had been Balanchine's reaction to the changes...

My guess? He'd be perfectly sanguine about changing the decor for a PR play: by most accounts, he neither shunned press nor hesitated to recostume ballets (albeit usually by stripping them down). But he would have rejected this production for the same reason that we are: it obscures the story (unlike PNB's take).

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... he neither shunned press nor hesitated to recostume ballets (albeit usually by stripping them down). But he would have rejected this production for the same reason that we are: it obscures the story (unlike PNB's take).

It depends. Importantly, it depended on where the initiative was. He re-costumed his ballets (and adjusted or revised their choreography sometimes, especially for the move from the small stage of the City Center to the large stage of the New York State Theater) when he felt the need - Theme and Variations, when I first began seeing it performed under his supervision in the '70's, emphasized the ranking of the soloists by costuming four of the couples in yellow and eight of them in red; later on, they appeared in two shades of blue instead.

Incidentally, to our subject, when the long-hidden T&V reappeared at NYCB - it wasn't seen from 1960 until 1970, according to Nancy Reynolds' valuable book, Repertory in Review - it was preceded by three new ballets made to earlier movements of Tchaikovsky's suite, "removed from the audience by a scrim" [emphasis added]! Well, look at that!

But then we turn the page and read that "the scrim was abandoned after the first performance". [My emphasis again]

So, yes, Balanchine was certainly not shy about press - among my favorite examples are the telling clips of him speaking - apparently extemporaneously - to press cameras in the two-hour documentary Balanchine - and he was frequently tinkering with his ballets, often "stripping them down" - perhaps most famously cutting away Kurt Seligmann's original, obscuring costumes for The Four Temperaments between performances?

But I have never encountered any report that he acceded to somebody else's idea to make such changes for a publicity stunt. It was always his artistic inspiration of the moment. It was always his show - just as Apollo was his ballet, and, as he said at the time he truncated it, in response to the uproar over those changes, "It's my ballet, and I can do what I want with it."

People said then, He had no right to do that, but personally, I agree with him in principle - he and no one else had the right to make that decision, while at the same time, I disagree with his actual decision that time - I think the original Apollo is much better. (As does, most significantly, Suzanne Farrell, who stages Balanchine's original version with her troupe.)

But, yes, the "story" must not be concealed, but revealed - even if there's no story, no narrative, like there is in Midsummer, which has a story and a setting, where the three groups of characters get tangled up; the dancing in the music is the "story" in a ballet often enough - and that must not be obscured.

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Whatever one thinks of this production--some of us writing haven't seen it--it sounds like something more interesting than a

"publicity stunt."

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When Pacific Northwest Ballet asked the Balanchine Trust if they could commission new sets and costumes, it was in part a desire to bring something specific and different to the work. And while this production doesn't change the setting per se (it's still a wood, they're still fairies, sprites and bugs) it did give the community a sense that these choices were special to us, and it did attract a certain amount of attention from the national press.

That's exactly how it felt to me. That this was "our" Midsummer, with our underwater world, our corals and our manatees. The music and the dancing was not changed to my knowledge - again I have not seen the original so I cannot compare but I am pretty sure they kept everything - but this new Midsummer really felt like something of our own in a way. We have the beach so close to us, and we can go diving or snorkeling in the Keys after 1h drive. I think a lot of Floridians will enjoy this production, as the sea is very dear to us.

I may have sounded a bit harsh in my original review. Yes I was bothered by the scrim and by the butterflies underwater, but in the end, I really felt like I was taken to a magical, surreal place, out of reality, and I felt very transported. I think if any of you have the opportunity to go see it, do it and make your own opinion of it.

As I said, art needs to keep evolving to stay relevant, and this production I felt had a good balance between the old (same score, same dance) and the new (new costumes, new set). Yes, there are some kinks to be worked out, but overall it was quite a surreal experience.

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I think so too, Drew, but "PR play" was choriamb's phrase. And as the few examples I gave show, Balanchine himself tried working with scrims and changes in costuming, though he usually seems to have been more satisfied in the end with simpler presentation.

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"They have to put on what we can sell." And the AD? Dos the AD direct the artists, and the marketers direct the AD?

No, I honestly don't think the marketing department is in charge. The ADs themselves feel pressure to deliver audiences. It's their reputations and their jobs that will end up on the chopping block if the audiences don't come and budgets implode.

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Okay, so it's not so extreme as I stated it, and what I was given may have been some wishful self-promotion. But the sentence I quoted makes me really nervous sometimes.

I realize different people support ballet for different reasons; Kirstein and Diaghilev were at one extreme, and others, at the other extreme, are in it for the civic benefit, as part of a local revival campaign - industry has moved out, so let's attract high-tech people, or something of the kind. Call it "love of the art" vs. "civic improvement". The latter situation may give more opening to ordinary marketers, like the one I quoted, and give a devoted AD a very hard time.

Not that Kirstein and Balanchine didn't care; of course they did: I love the old story that the two of them were watching the lobby at intermission, and Kirstein complained, "Look how many are leaving," to which Balanchine replied, "Look how many are staying!" (But it took Morton Baum to get them on their feet, and Miami is not New York or Paris.)

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The Popular Culture Association is meeting in Seattle this week, and I heard a fascinating paper yesterday about the first appearances of NYCB on television in the 1950s (a performance of La Valse on a CBS variety program, and then the two appearances of Nut) and the author reminded us the televised version of Nut was when Balanchine moved the Sugar Plum Fairy solo up in the second act, at least in part as a way to engage the viewers who might want the "real ballerina" material, and wouldn't necessarily understand the standard classical structure. Balanchine changed all kinds of things, some of them we would consider quite fundamental, depending on the situation.

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Okay, so it's not so extreme as I stated it, and what I was given may have been some wishful self-promotion. But the sentence I quoted makes me really nervous sometimes.

I realize different people support ballet for different reasons; Kirstein and Diaghilev were at one extreme, and others, at the other extreme, are in it for the civic benefit, as part of a local revival campaign - industry has moved out, so let's attract high-tech people, or something of the kind. Call it "love of the art" vs. "civic improvement". The latter situation may give more opening to ordinary marketers, like the one I quoted, and give a devoted AD a very hard time.

Not that Kirstein and Balanchine didn't care; of course they did: I love the old story that the two of them were watching the lobby at intermission, and Kirstein complained, "Look how many are leaving," to which Balanchine replied, "Look how many are staying!" (But it took Morton Baum to get them on their feet, and Miami is not New York or Paris.)

Yes, ballet is a hard sell in Florida where historically the sun always shines (although not as much as in the past ever since global warming and the weather seems totally unpredictable in Florida now......there were never all day rainy days except during hurricanes that I can remember but that happens frequently....drizzling all day).......basically, people move to and live in Florida for sunshine, warm weather, and the beach (being outside). People do not move here for the ballet or opera. So I think it makes total sense for Lourdes Lopez to try to do something new to get people talking. I think her idea was a good one ON PAPER. I think it probably doesn't quite work in reality from the reports I have read, and I will see it in West Palm Beach and report what I think. I sigh at how many of my friends know nothing about the fine arts and just want to go to a Madonna concert which to me is really just junk culture (I have liked what I have heard by her but don't really know any of her new songs, so nobody get upset). Florida audiences probably attend the ballet once or twice as something "unique".......I have taken friends and they act like, "Wow! I am going to a ballet!" as if they are going to something unusual. This is the atmosphere down here. It is a special event for most people from what I can tell. It is a once in a lifetime thing but they would rather be at a Madonna or who knows what concert. I don't really listen to any popular music so I only use Madonna as an example because I have no idea who is popular right now. So PR is probably a necessity in the ballet world in most places. Maybe not as much in NYC but everywhere else they have to use whatever they can to fill seats. So I do not think it was a bad idea on paper for Lourdes Lopez to do this, and she is using local artists supposedly, so she is trying to make it part of South Florida. I applaud the attempt in such a hard market, even if I might not like the end product. However, I will see it on April 2 (and maybe April 1 if I arrive in time and can get a last minute ticket) and will report here. Maybe I will actually love it. I do actually like the manatee head idea. I think that is cute. Manatees are an important environmental issue here in Florida.

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Besides, the choreography and dancing is the MOST IMPORTANT thing. If I like the dancing the costumes and scenery are secondary.......

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Still curious how well you can see the choreography, with the scrim in the way - or not. Macaulay reported the dancing had a quality of immediacy, which I found very encouraging, since what I (and Jordan Levin) have found disappointing is a certain "glossing over" in MCB's Balanchine under Lopez's regime. (That's Levin's phrase, but it fits what I have seen there in the last couple of seasons; her writing over the years has fit closely what I have seen in the theater, among her other virtues.)

Too late for me to come check it out myself - the seats are gone, the PR worked, although whether those buyers will come back remains to be seen, but that seems to be happening too. I will see the company when they are here in Chicago in a month, but I'll be interested to read what you and our friend bart whom we haven't heard from for a while have to say.

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I've seen hundreds of dance performances that use scrims as I have a relative who worked many years for a company famous for its use of scrims. I think that how much the scrim enhances or obscures the dancing really depends on the lighting. There are times when I've hated the scrim, and other times when I've found it sets a mood. There are times when I've been able to see faces quite well behind the scrim and times when I haven't. Different shows, different lighting.

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As a kid, while studying in a music conservatory, I was introduced to Mendelssohn's beautiful score, and was told that a ballet existed in US based on Shakespeare's text. I used to imagine the forest and all the magic that happened there...in the forest. Dancing is the base of this whole thing, yes, but you take out the forest and an essential part of the equation is gone. Midsummer's Night dream is that..a story that happens in a forest, and of THAT we were depraved of down here. I guess one can even see the whole thing in leotards, but I still firmly believe that setting and costumes in this case are as important as the dancing. This is not Agon or Symphony in Three movements.

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Right on, Cristian. This is one Balanchine ballet where it's not all "dancing to music" - although that's still a strong element. The movement establishes and develops the character of each of them (in Act I, what we're mainly talking about here), develops the situation, and carries the story.

Another situation? Another fantasy? Maybe in principle - I'm not there to see this - but from the discussion of it here, the results are weakened effects and another confusion, different from the confusions in the minds of the characters (which help to make the play such fun, and its poetry so powerful).

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This is one Balanchine ballet where it's not all "dancing to music" - although that's still a strong element. The movement establishes and develops the character of each of them (in Act I, what we're mainly talking about here), develops the situation, and carries the story.

Not to disagree - because I don't - but it's interesting that in his introduction to A Midsummer Night's Dream Night's Dream: The Story of the New York City Ballet's Production, Kirstein writes that "Balanchine made it clear from the start that this ballet was based far more on Mendelssohn's music than on Shakespeare's play." It seems that even when Balanchine was telling a story he was "see[ing] the music."

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The movement establishes and develops the character of each of them....

Really wanting to further discuss Simone Messmer’s outstanding performance, Jack’s mention of the word “character” makes for an opportune segue. Thanks, Jack.

Simone Messmer

It’s the characters that she creates that so fascinate me. She is one of the finest high theatre ballerinas that I know of. I usually watch a lead ballerina’s face with theatre glasses even from the front rows. Last week, like never before, I didn’t take my glasses off her face even at times while she was standing in the dark. I think that in these series of performances it was essential for totally appreciating what she was accomplishing. Her facial expression was brilliantly meaningful, theatrically exact and compelling. What’s even more important to us is that it carried right through to her finger tips.

Usually I focus on the upper body where I feel that most of the expression and meaning come from. When she made a statement with her face -- her shoulders, arms, hands and fingers continued the message. They dramatically reinforced the character. They were powerful and articulate statements.

I’ve only seen her in a few other performances but I was enthralled from the first. She had such a presence and such a manner of delivery.

Her most impressive role, for me, was her Gamzatti from La Bayadere. Everything, from her characterisation, to her dancing, to her eyelashes and use of costume, was definitive, intriguing and enthralling.

Her recent Titania from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was, for me, a much more subtle affair. Her dancing was fine and articulate in itself, but, as I’ve said, you really had to see her face close up to grasp where it all was coming from.

Also, from the attention that I could give, her shapes were sculpturally exquisite. Her moves were not as flowing and fluid as Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg’s Titania or Jennifer Lauren’s lovely, lovely ‘mariinskyesque’ Divertissement duet ballerina. Perhaps it was a stylistic choice because she was performing Balanchine. I don’t recall this from her Gamzatti. In any case, I don’t think that for Simone Messmer that it really matters.

She is so remarkable in so many ways. Each new character that she creates is an adventure in the highest level of dance artistry.

One other character that I forgot to mention in my first post was the Butterfly. Perhaps this performance is a given in excellence because I thought that it was the same young lady each night. Actually it was Nathalia Arja the first two nights and Ellen Grocki the last. The choreography helps in that their motion is very graceful and flowing in contrast to the other butterfly dancers. Both these young ladies were absolutely charming and delightful in their aerial fineness.

[spelling correction made]

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One other character that I forgot to mention in my first post was the Butterfly. Perhaps this performance is a given in excellence because I thought that it was the same young lady each night. Actually it was Nathalia Arja the first two nights and Ellen Grocki the last. The choreography helps in that their motion is very graceful and flowing in contrast to the other butterfly dancers. Both these young ladies were absolutely charming and delightful in their aerial fineness.

[spelling correction made]

I love watching Nathalia dance. She had a lead role in the very first MCB performance I saw, and she has been one of my favorites ever since. She always glows and seems so happy when she dances. I thought she was very charming in her role as Butterfly as well.

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I love watching Nathalia dance. She had a lead role in the very first MCB performance I saw, and she has been one of my favorites ever since. She always glows and seems so happy when she dances. I thought she was very charming in her role as Butterfly as well.

Yes...she was very good as the Butterfly. Arja, Rebello and Cerdeiro are a great Brazilian trio at MCB. BTW...I was sitting right next to the Delgado sisters, and spoke to them during intermission. They were delightful and all smiles and giggles. I asked them some particular questions, and they graciously answered them, but ...can't post them here as they are not official news.

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Yes...she was very good as the Butterfly. Arja, Rebello and Cerdeiro are a great Brazilian trio at MCB. BTW...I was sitting right next to the Delgado sisters, and spoke to them during intermission. They were delightful and all smiles and giggles. I asked them some particular questions, and they graciously answered them, but ...can't post them here as they are not official news.

I'm jealous. I saw some videos on Instagram of Patricia rehearsing Serenade for the tour, and she looked wonderful. I'm super bummed they didn't perform Serenade here in Miami this season. This ballet is probably #1 on my list of Balanchine ballets I want to see.

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