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Gottlieb on "the French"

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I'm copying this over from Links (thanks, Ari, for finding this) thinking it might attract comments:

Robert Gottlieb goes to Paris and does not like what he sees of French ballet: reviews of POB, Béjart, and Les Ballets de Monte Carlo.

The French have a lot to answer for, and I’m not talking about Iraq. Despite the rigid classicism of the famous Paris Opéra school and company, the French have done more than their share to unmoor la Danse from its traditions and standards. Indeed, it was the Opéra, under Nureyev, that unleashed Sylvie Guillem on European ballet, a dancer with the fatal combination of tremendous ability, a ruthless determination to do it her way and a total lack of sensibility. I hate to think of the number of ballerinas whose classicism has been corrupted by her extravagant ways.
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I loved this graph:

"Which is more than you can say for the excrescence I took in at B.A.M. the night I got back from Paris. It was the Ballets de Monte-Carlo’s Cinderella, directed and choreographed by Jean-Christophe Maillot, whose works, we’re told, have been performed in London, Rome, Madrid, Paris, Brussels, Lisbon, Cairo, Mexico, Rio de Janeiro, São Paolo, Hong Kong, Seoul, Manila, Tokyo, Brisbane, Beijing, Shanghai "and more." Not every plague, apparently, can be contained by the World Health Organization."

I don't agree with his conclusion at the end of the article. For one, even from my Balanchine-centric position, I don't think it's fair to insist that Balanchine is the cure-all for all companies all around the world. Other companies have their own heritages. Secondly, I don't know how he connects that conclusion considering the ballet he saw at POB. It seems unfair to make such a judgement after seeing just one ballet. And one ballet performed by Monte Carlo.

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Far be it from me to run to Guillem's defense, but I was struck by Gottlieb's list of her attributes: " the fatal combination of tremendous ability, a ruthless determination to do it her way and a total lack of sensibility."

The first two elements are shared by those whom we call "artists." Whether Guillem is afflicted by a lack of sensibility (or merely good taste) is an issue for debate. Seems to me that she has a definite -- if misguided -- sensibility, in fact.


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My tastes run similar to Gottlieb's in this article, but it reminds me of a conversation I had in Paris in 1999. I was speaking to a few Parisians about dance, who were not balletomanes, but were certainly culturally literate. They had seen Bejart, and they thought he was a genius. I don't need to drop my beliefs; I'm not going to convert them and they're not going to convert me (I loathe Bejart), but I do need to accept theirs. People might have a conversation like this on the promenade or in the Green Room at the State Theater, but in a magazine article perhaps it's best to recognize we're talking about two schools of thought at this point, not one school of thought and one diseased heresy. At this point, there's a style of ballet (Bejart, Eifman, etc) that recognizes theatrical effect over classical abstraction. It's not going away.

I think Gottlieb tries to give the contributions of French ballet training its due, but he's giving more weight to choreographic product. I also think he put in his final point more as lip service than anything else. I get the feeling that he does think Balanchine is a cure-all. Everyone here knows my position on Balanchine's works, but in the same way I don't believe that Shakespeare is one-size-fits-all-cultures classicism, I don't think it about Balanchine either. It's a sort of cultural imperialism. Let the French look to their own heritage for their foundation.

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His last paragraph is offensive. Is Balanchine the only good choreographer in the world? Or perhaps he thinks there's something wrong with people who don't believe Balanchine was the greatest choreographer ever. The idea that Balanchine would "fix" what is "wrong" with French ballet is small-minded and short-sighted.

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I also am baffled by the characterization of Guillem as without sensibility. I also think it is silly to describe her as a kind of biological weapon launched against an unsuspecting ballet world. One might well keep in mind that critics frequently accused Balanchine's ballerinas of "lack of sensibility" and overemphasis on high extensions with too little attention to 'classical' line. (Guillem, as it happens, actually can get her leg way up there without distorting the classical line.)

In fact, arguably Balanchine's choreography, in its international impact, is as 'responsible' for the present emphasis on long, flashily flexible bodies as Guillem's individual stardom -- in BOTH cases, what has seemingly been 'learned' from the originals has been, in my opinion, radically misunderstood and distorted and, in any case, there are doubtless other influences at work as well. But if Guillem is not a virus, Balanchine is not a cure. (Leigh Witchel already said something similar.) And, by the by, Balanchine is, in my judgment, the greatest ballet choreographer of the twentieth century as well as my personal favorite.

It's not that Gottlieb doesn't have a right to present his view of the matter, but keeping a fuller historical picture in mind might conceivably lead to more thoughtful formulations...I admit, too, that I am prepared to defend Guillem -- which may be why I sound a little irritable. (I do understand that Gottlieb has a job as a professional journalist, and part of that job is coming up with catchy and provocative formulations.) In my opinion, American critics and fans underrate Guillem. I've only seen her twice, both times in full length roles -- one contemporary (The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastien), one classical (Swan Lake), but I thought both performances were simply impeccable -- commanding in two radically different styles. Both evenings she was totally at one with the style in which she was performing, yet still able to infuse the performances with her own, um, sensibility. I'm sorry not to have seen her dance more...

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He did sound rather in a bad mood about the French, I must say. Anyone for Freedom fries? The POB did have major choreographers and a style back in the 19th century, it is just that they lost it, and no, I don't think that Balanchine is their solution. But certainly selective performances are a great tonic. I would love to see their Liebeslieder next season. And of course their jewels. And Palais de Crystal, which really is a French ballet. But again, I think it is clear that the review is his opinion, an informed one and one that is vividly expressed, but designed in part to be provocative. I enjoy reading those kinds of reviews, even when I disagree, much more than carefully worded non-committal Hildegarde Mushmouth types.

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Originally posted by Dale

It seems unfair to make such a judgement after seeing just one ballet.  And one ballet performed by Monte Carlo.

I disagree, having seen two ballets by Monte Carlo, including "Cinderella" which was a disgusting excrescence on the face of ballet by Malliot and a terrible misuse of his dancers.

His "Romeo and Juliet" was not bad.

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But was the company bad or was the ballet bad? I think it is important to make that distinction.

I agree with you, cargill. I enjoy reading reviews like this because they amuse me. I hate gushing reviews, they tell me nothing useful, whereas bad reviews do. I may not agree with any critic but I will read their review (espcially the disparaging ones) and keep it in the back of my ming the next time I see the company.

I also disagree with the last paragraph. It's a little too NYC-centric for my West Coast sensibilities. I don't think the French need anything American to fix them. Their antidote will have to come from within.

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I've always considered the Monte Carlo Ballet to be a small gem of a company. Good dancers and (in my opinion) a good varied rep. When I saw them dance Balanchine's Who Cares? it was danced with very obvious enjoyment and enthusiasm. They are also able to present an historically accurate Scherherazade mercifully free of Isabel Fokine's revisionism.

That Bejart is over the top and down the other side, is a view shared by just about everyone in the English speaking ballet world and if you go to watch one of his ballets, in the main you get what you deserve. All the same it should be remembered that his ballets eclipse those of almost everyone else for popularity in continental Europe. Some of his smaller scale work I have actually enjoyed. His beautiful Songs of a Wayfarer created for Nureyev and Bortoluzzi was a hugely memorable work and I also have warm memories of Sonate danced by Suzanne Farrell and Jorge Donn.

To judge the Paris Opera Ballet on just one generally unliked new work is absurd. This is arguably the finest company in the world, though one would never think so from reading this very ill judged review.

Finally I have to say that I find the use of the word "Eurotrash" deeply offensive. American reviewers won't achieve any credibility on this side of the Atlantic if they persist in using that term.

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Originally posted by Leigh Witchel

[but in a magazine article perhaps it's best to recognize we're talking about two schools of thought at this point, not one school of thought and one diseased heresy. At this point, there's a style of ballet (Bejart, Eifman, etc) that recognizes theatrical effect over classical abstraction. It's not going away.

Well, maybe not. Probably not. But that doesn't mean it isn't diseased heresy, a remarkable description that was your invention, not mine....! I don't feel required to pretend to think something is acceptable merely because a lot of people endorse it. (Take Riverdance, for instance, just so we aren't considering Bejart and Eifman, for a change.) Concerning Gottlieb's pieces--I sincerely doubt he is devising "catchy formulations" for journalistic purposes .(Which was not suggested by Leigh , but elsewhere in the thread.)

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"Catchy and provocative formulations" was my phrase, but Nanatchka is probably right that Gottlieb intended his overall argument quite seriously...but I also think people writing in prominent publications see it as part of their job, even as a serious part of their job, to be provocative, and I don't particularly object to that. (Though the opening joke about the French and Iraq skirts what I would consider a proper tone for any article -- admitedly a matter of taste.)

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Originally posted by LMCtech

But was the company bad or was the ballet bad? I think it is important to make that distinction.

The Company was quite good; some members were wonderful. Bernice Coppieters was sublime far beyond my abilties to describe.

The ballet ("Cinderella") was trash. And not even good trash.

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Gottlieb is for me one of the best critics, doing what he sets out to do, stimulating - okay, provocative sometimes - animating my perceptions of what I see. If not so rewardingly rich or deep as Croce, Tobias, and Acocella, say, neither does he come on as such a big deal - there's plenty of pretense in other "criticism" - and his panache is an integral part of it, not for show. He really cares about what's on his mind, and his writing is as energized by passion as it is contained by reason.

But mainly I want to put in a word for Bejart. I can only recall seeing about three and a half of his works - the half was the "Romeo and Juliet" excerpt Farrell presented at the New Victory Theatre a few years ago - but I've long felt that if someone makes one good thing and a mountain of mediocrity, they're to be judged by the good piece, because after all when we're experiencing the good work we're not experiencing the other stuff, and in Bejart's case the good work in my experience is his "Les Sacre du Printemps". And I will add that I wouldn't even have seen it had I not learned that Balanchine had said of it, in his characteristic way, "You can't do it, but it's the best one." (But this thread is about Gottlieb, so I'll leave it at that.)

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