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August Bournonville was a greater choreographer than George Balanchine

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That got your attention.

Actually, I don't think the greatness of the two are comparable, here's the real question:

Looking at music, it's easy enough to say that Beethoven was a greater composer than, say, Jean Sibelius (and that's no slight to Sibelius), but things get tougher when comparing Beethoven and Bach or Mozart. Is such a comparison possible, is it even useful?

So, what do you need to look at or know to legitimately compare two choreographers? If you were going to say "Bournonville was greater than Balanchine" or "Balanchine was greater than Ashton", how would you back up that assertion? (Please note the preceding are examples, not my opinion)

Being a relativist, I'd be especially interested to hear a good argument for absolutism, i.e. "Yes, there's a quantative way to compare two choreographers and if they meet these conditions, you can legitimately say one is better than the other." Anyone care to step up to the plate and take a whack at it?

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hmm...YOU know ME!... ;) anyway, you and i, leigh, are the only ones on the board at the moment....(what are you doing posting at 3 am, leigh?! at least it's daytime for ME. :o )

i believe that someone venturing such an opinion would NOT need to have seen ALL of the two choreographers' works - but WOULD need to have seen ALL OF the 'best' ones, and a LOT of the rest...

they would need a good knowledge of ballet in general, and the values of ballet.

they would need to be able to articulate what they value in (a) ballet or a choreographer, so that their final judgement on the matter might be able to be understood according to their own standards.

what else?...

i'll leave room for others...

ultimately AN element of the decision MUST be subjective, to allow for differences in personal taste.

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I think Grace has pretty much nailed it (and thank you, Leigh, for finally giving Bournonville his due. What a range......)

I don't think you can have one, single objective criteria. (I took a course in Kant's Aesthetics once. He thought you could, a sort of aesthetic categorical imperative. I disagreed.)

I think all of us have different criteria. How many points do you give structure? Steps? Use of music? Theme? Decor? People who give structure 5 points, steps 3, music 2 and don't care about the rest will always choose Balanchine over Bejart. People who give theatrical values an 8 and divide the remaining 2 points among the remaining characteristics will choose Bejart over Balanchine. So in that sense, I don't think there can be a universal rule, and discussions between Balanchine and Bejart admirers will never be resolved, because the view of the world is so different.

There's also accident of history. Bournonville's work survived. Perrot's did not. Nor Taglioni's, nor much of Saint Leon's, Coralli, etc. Because his work survived it's isolated, and we can analyze it. I think many of his works are perfect -- structure, storytelling, ingenious use of mime and dance. But they might well seem small and unsophisticated compared to the big ballets Perrot and Saint Leon made for bigger companies. So if he weren't the only pie on the plate, our view of his place in history might be different.

I think it's possible to be an absolutist and a relativist at the same time :)

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I'm breaking this up into two posts so they'll be of readable length.

I had two conversations this month with ballet people (one an interview, one an informal conversation) that bear on this question, and how complicated it is. The question of who was the greatest choreographer came up in both. Person A thought Ashton was The Greatest choreographer; Person B said the same about Balanchine. Both gave the same reason -- range. Balanchine had the greatest range. No, Ashton did.

I could say they're both right. Both were defining range differently. To Person A, range meant styles of ballets. Ashton did great neoclassical, narrative, atmospheric ballets, small ones, pas de deux, two act, three act. Huge range. Can't top that! To Person B, range meant knowledge of choreography -- different styles of dance -- and music. Balanchine had so many different styles to draw upon that this gave his work the greatest range. He was all encompassing.

I'd have to say I'd agree with both of them (I rank Ashton and Balanchine as equals), but I thought the contrast was interesting. Even when we use the same words -- "range" -- we can mean different things.

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Originally posted by grace

i believe that someone venturing such an opinion would NOT  need to have seen ALL of the two choreographers' works - but WOULD need to have seen ALL OF the 'best' ones, and a LOT of the rest...

I think that this sums up the difficulty in comparing choreographers--although we want to do it. Choreographers' work must be performed to be studied--has to be seen on stage. So even though Leigh would like a good argument for an absolute comparison, I think it is an impossible task.

The same is not true for composers or dramatists, even though they write works that are performed. One can look at a score of (for example) Beethoven's Op. 127, one of the late string quartets, and see that it is denser, more complex, more filled with musical ideas regarding melody, harmony, rhythm, development and overall structure than anything written by Sibelius.

To use the same method with dramatists, one could say that Shakespeare is superior to Richard Brinsley Sheridan. And once again the evidence is there on the page. Sheridan wrote comedies that are witty, wise, have great roles for actors and are still in the repertory. Shakespeare wrote comedies that can change your life.

In the cases of both Beethoven and Shakespeare it is somewhere between very difficult and impossible for a performance to rise to the level of the music or the play. Which is fine, since the material is so rich and complex that any one performance could never encompass its entirety.

Performance is ephereral. Whatever it was on stage, we can be sure it will be different in our memory.

A performance can be moving. It can open up parts of a work that we haven't seen before. It can make us think of the work (or other things) in new ways. But it will never bring out everything that Shakespeare or Beethoven put on the page.

Since ballet has to be seen--there is no universally accepted language in which the works of Balanchine or Bournonville have been written down--it isn't possible to compare them in the same way that other works can be.

When one gets to comparisons of the truly great, though, it does come down to a matter of taste. Part of the greatness of Beethoven was that he redefined many of the forms in which he worked, large orchestral works especially. While it is simplistic to look at symphonies as "pre" or "post" Beethoven, it is a good starting point.

Mozart didn't stretch and change any of the many musical forms in which he worked. Opera, chamber music, symphonies and concertos, sonatas for individual instruments were all the same both before and after Mozart--although he did come toward the end of the period in which opera seria flourished and wrote one the last successful ones. Mozart simply wrote using these forms in unimaginably creative and sublime ways.

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I think we need a little historical perspective to put a definitive answer on any such comparison. Inevitably, each artist's influence on subsequent artists will tell part of the tale. There is also the question of how well each absorbs from and throws back into the zeitgeist. My first Apollo (Baryshnikov, Watts, et al.) was so deeply stamped with Art Deco, that despite all the dozens of photos I'd seen of it, it was a complete and wonderful surprise. An epiphany, in fact. On this count, I think Ashton spoke eloquently for England, Balanchine for the U.S. And in the next generation, we see both of their influences in Wheeldon, a sort of MacAshtochine.

Another test would be to compare failed works of two artists. There is no question that when Balanchine succeeded, when Ashton succeeded, they did so in a big way. Conversely, Balanchine's failures were bigger bombs (but more intriguing for having been so) than Martins' bombs (which are only incrementally worse than his "successes" to my eye). I would think that the greater artist is the one with the bigger bomb. The problem would be reviving a bomb. Anyone volunteering to mount PAMTTG? Where are the Bournonville bombs? I'd really love to see one!:)

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just a note to thank ed waffle for a fascinating post, which teaches me something i'd never thought about before. about Shakespeare and Beethoven, ed says -

it is somewhere between very difficult and impossible for a performance to rise to the level of the music or the play. Which is fine, since the material is so rich and complex ...
in response to the end of your post, ed: you seem to be implying that greatness requires having a revolutionary (or 'changing') impact. might someone not feel that mozart was greater, simply because he "moves" them more? (that's not a challenge, but rather a suggestion of another point of view - that 'greatness' and 'impact on the art form' MIGHT be different things (alexandra - i like your 'range' example) .
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Originally posted by grace

in response to the end of your post, ed: you seem to be implying that greatness requires having a revolutionary (or 'changing') impact. might someone not feel that mozart was greater, simply because he "moves" them more

I didn't mean to imply that it was necessary for an artist to revolutionize the forms in which he works to be great.

Mozart wrote music using the form he found-- symphonies, piano concertos, string quartets, operas, etc. etc. In the "Haydn" quartets, for example, there is mucis that is is extremely emotional and expressive but is presented in a detached manner. One in particular (which I happen to be listening to now), the A Major, K. 464 has very little melodic material as such--it is made up of movements between extremely complex fugues made up of themes that are developed and then abandoned. Haydn, to whom it and the other five that make up this set of quartets, said that this piece shows "the most profound knowledge of music".

I will agree with old Franz Joseph on this--and it is correct of so much more of Mozart's work.

One way to look at the greatness of Mozart is to take one of his works that you love and know best--whether by listening to a favorite performance over and over, studying the score, playing it, whatever. Now take a portion of that work--one page of the score, for example--and try to improve it. Find the flaws in it and fix them. Change one one bar, one cadence, even one note and make it better than it is. Split a quarter note into triplets. Mark a chord to be played arpeggio. Change a short phrase marked glissando to staccato.

Since we are trying to improve on perfection, it doesn't work. Which is one of the marks of greatness in Mozart.

I realize I have hijacked the original thread, which is how (if at all) one can compare "greatness" in choreographers and decide if one is greater than other. Which is beyond me.

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ed waffle - what you are saying is most interesting and informative (at least, to me).

Now take a portion of that work--one page of the score, for example--and try to improve it. Find the flaws in it and fix them.
THAT was a scary moment! thank you for the compliment (hahah), but even THINKING like that "is beyond me." :)
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There seem to be a great many people who think they can improve on Petipa. I think Balanchine said, as an excuse for changing around the classics, that old paintings have their cracks fixed (or something to that effect). It seems to me that people disagree with what the "cracks" in Petipa's ballets are just as much as they disagree on how to "fix" them.

I don't think the test of a choreographer is his "range," whatever one means by it. One might choreograph good ballets in many styles but never once produce something as perfect as "Sleeping Beauty" whether they took two minutes or four acts.

I agree that people all have different criteria for judging choreography--ie, that they will give more "points" to different aspects of a ballet. But what if we didn't "weight" each aspect and instead allotted each one the same number of points? We would probably have to exclude such qualities as decor because a choreographer cannot necessarily always control them, and they can be changed over time. The other aspects, though, like musicality, are too vague. Whether or not a choreographer is musical is a matter of opinion.

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I thought Alexandra pretty much nailed it. :-) but also wanted to say vis-a-vis Balanchine/Ashton, Balanchine/Bejart, or any other invidious comparison.....:D

not only are the criteria different in terms of the viewer (as A. said, what percentages matter of steps, structure, design, drama, etc), they are vastly different and often diametrically opposed in terms of the creator, and that is an AESTHETIC difference. To Balanchine, steps were un question morale (lol) in the way that styles of ballet (one might say) were to Ashton. They both had muses (Farrell and Fonteyn) who inspired them for many years (not to say that either choreographer didn't have other great dancers/muses), but there the similarity ends. even in somewhat atypical ballets such as Balanchine's Don Quixote or Ashton's Symphonic Variations (well, I said SOMEWHAT atypical....)

one sees the utterly individual and special touch of the master in less familiar territory. Balanchine never cast Farrell in a full-length nineteenth-century ballet (though she did dance Swan Lake in his idiosyncratic and wonderful one-act version), for various reasons of exigency, availability, and chronology, but also because it was not his first love or idea for the use of her gifts; conversely, Ashton never cast Fonteyn in a one-act like Tzigane, Walpurgisnacht Ballet, or even Chaconne or Mozartiana. it wasn't that Fonteyn had no technique to display (her Sylvia in the fifties was apparently dazzling) but that he was far too busy making Daphnis and Chloe, Marguerite and Armand, and his marvelous Sleeping Beauty. Monotones could never be Balanchine; The Steadfast Tin Soldier could never be Ashton. :-)

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Grace-- was a bit of an aside, but come to think of it-- :-)

I believe there's no practical way to compare two artists who have different sensibilities and different aesthetic concerns. (Ashton and Balanchine, for example) seems to me that these two choreographers' concerns were shown partially through their choice of Muse: Fonteyn, an ivory goddess with superb placement, epaulement, and deportment, and Farrell, an ivory goddess who broke every rule and took astounding chances. That the two choreographers found inspiration in such different dancers exemplifies the futility of comparison, if you see what I mean. the two dancers' white skin and physical beauty were just about their only point of similarity. :-)

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Here, here, tempusfugit!

Grace, Bournonville had at least one -- Juliette Price. She reminded him of Taglioni -- and, I think, she did pretty much everything he told her to. I don't think she was a Fonteyn/Farrell, though -- THAT creature was Lucile Grahn, who created "La Sylphide" and Astrid in "Valdemar" and then fled the coop. In a way he was his own muse, since he created the leading roles in Sylphide, Napoli, Valdemar, pretty much everything until he retired as a dancer in 1848.

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No, the film/Little Mermaid Price is her niece, Ellen Price de Plane.

There were three dancing Price sisters (he made a pas de trois for them) who were fairgrounds dancers, and Bournonville saw them and thought they had promise and took them into the school. Juliette was the most talented of them. There were several boys, too, but I'd have to look up whether they were brothers or cousins -- Carl, who ended up in Vienna, and Valdemar, who was a big star in Copenhagen at the turn of the last century, even though he never got out of the corps. (Looks/acting: 10, dancing ability: 4)

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Thanks Alexandra. Your comment about Valdemar reminds me in a round about way of the song from A CHORUS LINE - Dance Ten, Looks Three. :)

If Ellen Price de Plane (Juliette's niece) is filmed, it means that Juliette and Lucille were doing their muse thing just a few years before moving picture technology came about.

What a shame. I so wish to see Lucille Grahn in motion and I still want you to write the book about all of this for us!

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Grahn was 16 in the 1836, so she missed movies by a good bit! Just think if someone had smuggled a camcorder in to catch Taglioni, Elssler, Cerrito, the entire Price family -- not to mention Kschessinska, Brianza, Legnani.


On the other hand, maybe it's a good thing. At least we don't have to endure "Ew. Pavlova couldn't dance. Look at those icky feet -- and she has no turnout!" comments :)

(BTW, I can't resist this. The Price -- pronounced Pree-sah in Danish -- was an English family that's been on the stage for more than 400 years! Glebb, see if you can find Marian Hanna Winter's "The Pre-Romantic Ballet." She spent her life combing the graveyards of Europe and putting together the family trees of itinerant dancers. The Prices started out in England and ended up in Copenhagen, where they still are today. Not in the ballet company, but in the drama department.)

As for books about the Romantics (and thank you for your comments) -- I'm now delving into a slightly later period, the Italians in New York in the 1860s and '70s. I'll be posting a thread with comments by Maria Bonfanti -- many relevant to our discussions -- the next time I have time to breathe :)

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Grahn lived on until 1907, however, but I doubt she was doing much dancing by then. Practical motion pictures were around before 1897, but it was the Spanish-American War of 1898 that really gave them a boost, with "special effects" that appear to modern audiences to be what they were, photos of ships floated in a bathtub on weighted corks and the movie crew blowing cigar smoke over the picture to create part of "the fog of war". Period audiences ate it up, though!

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Re Pamela's comment above, and of interest only to Bournonville people: I think the stories about Grahn leaving to avoid Bournonville's unwanted attentions are wrong -- they started around the time that people, at least some of them, had to read sex into everything. What I've read from 19th century sources is that Grahn and Bournonville fought over Grahn's high extensions -- Bournonville insisted on a low arabesque. (And later made the women sew threads from front to back of the underskirt so that their leg could only go so high.) I've read descriptions of Bournonville's home studio -- and how his wife hovered about -- and how unlikely it is that he would have done anything untoward. How out of character it was, how there's no other record of a wandering eye, much less a wandering hand.

Aside from the quarrels about style, Grahn also wanted to be a star -- understandably; she could dance at Paris level, and she wanted Paris/international recognition.

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