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Background material?

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In a different thread, Mikhail wrote:

Originally posted by Mikhail

The main feature I want to point out in Maria Alexandrova is her devotion to ballet, her eagerness to dance..... At the same time she is intelligent enough to learn not only the steps but also  any materials concerning the ballet she is preparing to dance in.

I have wondered about this since hearing an interview with Natalia Makarova in which she talked about reading the Pushkin translation of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" as a way to get more profoundly involved with the character she was dancing. I believe that part of the impetus behind this was that it gave the divine Miss NM the chance to say of younger (than her) dancers that they couldn't accomplish the same depths of characterization that she did.

Leaving aside opinions of Makarova as Juliet for a moment, I wonder if dancers consulting the "source documents" is widespread and if it is helpful.

In this case, the dancer is not doing Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet". She is doing the ballet as imagined by the choreographer who may have been influenced by a lot of other things besides the play. So perhaps one could be too influenced by aspects of the tragedy that the choreograhper didn't think were important.

The opposite way of looking at this type of preparation is the way that some opera singers learn and perform a role. In some cases the singer may not know even the entire libretto of the work in question, having concentrated on and been coached in her role and how to sing it. And she may never know its nuances, being unable to read it in the language it was written. Once a singer becomes more famous in a particular set of roles she often presents "her" interpretation of it,no matter what the director or other artists are doing. This can be exciting and fulfilling for the audience, star power being what it is, but also quite frustrating.

An example of this was a performance of "Lucia di Lammermoor" with Sumi Jo. Opening night with Sumi Jo was like going to an opera and having a recital break out. She was in glorious voice and nailed the mad scene as well as any could, but was not really part of the ensemble. The next day, with Young Ok Shin in the title role, was much more dramatic and true to the libretto.

This may be less a problem in ballet, since opera singers are free-lancers (at least in the U.S.) and are hired for particular productions which are put together in a few weeks of rehearsals. In a ballet company with its continuity of personnel and artisitic vision, it seems it would be much less an issue.

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Ballet has had its share of peripatetic stars parachuting into roles also – does anyone have a particular recollection of such an instance that was especially good or bad?

Antoinette Sibley says in the interview she gave to Barbara Newman for "Striking a Balance," that going to the text, when it was available, was very important and helpful to her; she mentioned the role of Juliet in this context also.

However, the text of the ballet is by Prokofiev, not Shakespeare, as we've discussed before, and it's also true that, as Ed says above, all kinds of other influences may have been at work apart from Shakespeare. Lubovitch's Othello, for example, is based on Cinthio, not Shakespeare (yes, Shakespeare worked from Cinthio also, but there are some major differences).

For me, the answer is: Whatever works for the dancer. It didn't help Suzanne Farrell to read Cervantes to prepare for "Don Quixote" and she certainly doesn't appear to have needed to do so; for her it was all in the ballet, and Balanchine provided all the text required. But it might have helped another dancer with a different approach in trying to get a handle on the role.

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I remember reading an interview with Antoinette Sibley where she said that at the end of one season Kenneth MacMillan gave her a copy of Manon Lescaut (the novel) for her summer reading, and teh following season MacMillan choreographed it.

I would assume that reading any background material would help (or at least, not harm) the dancer's perforamnce, even if the chorographer has departed from the original text, as it could help the dancer understand the choreographer's choices.

This is probably subject to the dancer receiving excellent and extensive coaching during which s/he would be encouraged to ask lots of questions and there would be time to have indepth discussions about the ballet being rehearsed.:)

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