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Stylistic Expectations when Observing a Company

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In the recent disscusions of the different styles of ballet companies, it seems that many of you attend a performance of a company and expect to see an exhibit of that company's style. For example, someone was remarking about how the Royal presented a work with Soviet style and was disappointed. Am I alone when I say that I don't care what style I see, as long as it's beautiful dancing? Would some of you be disappointed if you saw a performance that defied that companies style as you knew it?

In the discussion of Odette/Odile, I said that I didn't like the British style of the '60s. Maybe I feel this way because when I watch performances, I expect to see only beautiful dancing, not a particular style. Since the old British style didn't conform to my conception of beautiful dancing, I didn't like it. Maybe I should try to appreciate a ballet for its stylistic differences as well. Alexandra, is that what you were trying to say?


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Yes, and no. I don't think a company is dancing a ballet and exhibiting its style. It's dancing a ballet in a particular style, and each style is different. I think it's important in judging any work of art -- painting, music, dancing -- to look at what they ARE doing, and taking them on their own terms.

As always in these discussions, it's perfectly fine to like what you like. (The old line, "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like." If you don't like Madonnas, that's fine. But that doesn't mean that Raphael and Michaelangelo were bad painters.) And I don't mean to suggest there's anything wrong with that. Some people will never like the Royal, or the Bolshoi, or NYCB. And that's fine. But if one is trying to appreciate ballet beyond this, then I think it's worth looking at lots of other things than what's just happening that night, in front of your eyes.

When I first came to ballet, I spent a lot of time "unlearning" what I thought I'd learned from watching performances, because what I read, or heard, deepened my understanding of ballet -- one has to sort through all of these things, of course, and it's not easy, and, in my opinion, there is no One Truth.

So I think it's important to distinguish between TASTE and JUDGMENT. Taste is "I hate broccoli." Judgment is, "I'm not particularly fond of broccoli, but this cream of broccoli soup is excellent. The subtle undertone of cayenne pepper makes the dish." Does that make sense?

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I wanted to make a separate post, because I was thinking of putting up a thread on this, but Rachel's excellent question presents the opportunity to raise the question here.

There are, I think, two models for companies to follow on the style issue. One is the museum model (my term). When ABT was formed, it WANTED to be a museum. Richard Pleasant set it up to have an English wing, a Russian wing, an American wing -- it was to present all nationalities and all periods. Create new works, too, of course, but preserve the best of the past. Silly boy. And part of what the company tried to do was to dance each work in the style of the work. It seems like such a simple idea, but it's so hard -- but they tried. And often succeeded. Friends of mine who saw the company in its early days said that Les Sylphides looked like Fokine, and Swan Lake looked different (we can't say it looked like Petpa, because we don't know, but it didn't look like Les Sylphides with feathers).

The other model is the institutional (again, my term). It's what the great European companies did. We have this company, and we bring in balletmasters, and each one updates the works already in repertory, changing them for each generation, and we dance everything in our style, whatever that is. And each balletmaster/choreographer may have his own style (but if it diverges too much from the company one, he'll probably get the boot). This is what Petipa did -- and Ashton and Balanchine. They took old works, made them suit their company. They also created new, great works, too.

Some people expect to see the Museum model, and judge every company by that standard. If the Bolshoi dances Balanchine, then dang, it should look like Balanchine, the way NYCB does it. And if any company (including the Royal) does Ashton, then it should look like Ashton. Others say, no. The Bolshoi has its own style, and it's quite different from Balanchine's, and part of the fun is seeing those differences in a familiar work.

Again, my "rule" -- what are they trying to do? -- still works, I think. But I think the way most people react is, if it's my company, I want it to dance in its own style and every work looks best that way, so if another company tries it, I want it to look like that. On the other hand, if my company is dancing an alien ballet, then I think it looks just great.

Movies are so much easier. They just stay there. Remakes are too expensive and seldom tried. You will never go to see Gone with the Wind and see Tom Cruise as Rhett Butler, saying, "Shove it, baby" in that last scene. Nor will Clark/Rhett suddenly take it into his head one night to say, "Well, if you put it that way, Scarlett, I guess I should be a kind, caring and considerate New Man and stick around and help you get through this. Care for a sherry?" :)

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Rachel and Alexandra, some very interesting ideas, observations and thoughts! I cannot say I have an particular answers, perhaps just more pondering, but it seems to fit in with the subject at hand.

When I go to see a particular professional company or professional school perform there are many aspects of ballet or dance that I have come to expect. The first and foremost is a professional approach to the work, accomplished dancers with a certain level of mastery of the classical vocabulary and ballets being performed with the intended artistic integrity that they were originally choreographed.

I have come to realize that I no longer have any particular expectations of a style in any company. They are all dancing it all, in one way or another, which was not the case even 20 years ago.

I recently had the experience of seeing NYCB after a hiatus of 15 years (except having seen the few televised performances done in those years I did not attend NYCB). Fifteen years ago I walked out of New York State Theater stating I would never pay to see NYCB again. Well then it became even if someone gave me tickets I would not go. My expereinces had been so disappointing that I felt I could no longer support the Company. My disappointment with the training in the school was finally filtering into the performances I was seeing in front of me. IMO there was not only a lack of artistic integrity but also NYCB had lost it's professionalism in presentation of an artistic product. The corps de ballet was totally under rehearsed, the dancers were not showing a mastery of the classical vocabulary, the ballets no longer were being danced in the manner in which they were choreographed and I personally did not care for the new works being produced. In those 15 years I had students get jobs with NYCB and I just could not bring myself to see the company. I was glad they had a good job, but when I had the opportunity to be in NYC I just could never spend 2 or 3 hours watching a performance that I thought would annoy me! Well life has its' way of taking funny twists and turns...this winter I did find myself sitting once again in NY State Theater watching NYCB. I had all of the same expectations of disappointment as I had had the previous day, but somehow I sat there finding that either I had grown a bit and developed a different idea of ballet or NYCB was changing. I would have to say it is probably a combination of the two! In short I did not hate it as I assumed I would. I could gleefully and proudly look my joyous student in the eye as she walked out of the stage door apprehensively because she was terrified I hated it and what she had become in the very short year and a half since she had left the womb so to speak.

I know one of the things I learned through this experience was as companies grow and change with the times, so do the people watching. To me NYCB looked better rehearsed, more in tune with the style of Balanchine that I remembered dancing and seeing by various companies in the 1970's, the level of classical accomplishment, at least with the corps de ballet, was of an increased professional calibur and for the most part the performance was presented at a high professional level. This was not the case 15 years ago! Hats off to the artistic staff and teachers.

So, here is the case of one professional who went to the ballet with certain expectations of style and I can very pleasantly tell you that my expectations of style were met although I never expected that to be the case! :)

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It's also the case that one's eye can become accustomed to changes and diminutions -- constantly "dumbing down" expectations (the converse, during a highwater mark, one's expectaitons are constantly raised, so that performances that were perfectly acceptable at one point seem mediocre in comparison). I don't think that accepting lower standards is "growing." And I think there are still stylistic differences today -- the Kirov's "Kingdom of the Shades" still looks like the Kirov.

But I do I think people go to the ballet with different expectations, and going to watch a student's debut, going for fun, going out of curiosity, having a primary interest in choreography, or dancing, or theater, or virtuosity, whatever, all of those are different perspectives that will carry different expectations. None is more or less valid.

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I'm bringing this thread back up for some who may have missed it earlier. In many ways it ties in to the "What was your first ballet" and "Old people will save ballet, opera and other performing arts" threads.

Happy reading.

And as Alexandra wrote:

But I do I think people go to the ballet with different expectations, and going to watch a student's debut, going for fun, going out of curiosity, having a primary interesting in choreography, or dancing, or theater, or virtuosity, whatever, all of those are different perspectives that will carry different expectations. None is more or less valid.
Remember this - it's important! :)
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When I see ABT dance Sleeping Beauty, I expect it to look quite different from their La Sylphide. I do not assume that the Beauty looks like it's being danced by Petipa's dancers ca. 1890, nor do I believe their Sylphide looks much like Bournonville's, but I do expect that there are elements native to each ballet that continue to be emphasized by our generations of dancers.

When I see companies' early tries at Balanchine, it is easy to see what they got right and what they got wrong according to my understanding of Balanchinian values.

This is interesting, because linguists believe that the people whose English today sounds most like the English of Shakespeare is spoken on islands around and just south of the Chesapeake Bay, but when audiences hear English actors reciting Shakespeare's lines, those are the sounds we consider authentic.

There are so many elements to style in ballet, and style and technique, hand in hand, are always evolving. Some of us believe that even NYCB misrepresents Balanchine only 20 years after his death.

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Alexandra has written in her sticky about "Styles, attempts at definition"

I think it's also interesting to talk about what happens when a style changes -- what is changeable? what is not? -- or ossifies. How do you keep the style living without changing its essence?

Today in the Links forum there's an article by Apollinaire Scherr Lonely Swan - The confused populism of American Ballet Theater which, I think, speaks to this.

I found this piece provacative and it really got me thinking about a number of discussions that have been ongoing here on Ballet Talk - whether they've been about the "marketing" of a ballet company, the comparisons of the men of ABT vs. the men of NYCB (let alone those in all the other ballet companies!), the issues of whether one company's version of such and such ballet is really accurate, etc.

Take a look and see what you think.

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