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Has ABT Replaced NYCB as America's top company?

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Here's Tobi Tobias's review in the Village Voice. What say you?

And Tobi Tobias on ABT's and NYCB's new opi, also in the Village Voice:

Dancing Saves the Day

With the provocative subhead:

The Balance of Power Shifts Between America's Top Two Ballet Troupes

NYCB and ABT, America's top two ballet troupes, have been playing rival spring seasons at Lincoln Center for more than two decades. Time was, the most profound and thrilling art lay with NYCB. Little by little, without Balanchine's galvanizing presence as chief choreographer and—this should not be underestimated—chief coach, the power of attraction shifted to ABT, with its warmer performing style, its growing complement of male virtuosi, its recent cultivation of tall, fresh, and athletic "American Girl" ballerinas (Gillian Murphy, Michele Wiles), and the occasional dazzling guest star. Overall, ABT's repertory can't compete with the stock of Balanchine and Robbins dances held by the NYCB. But with that unique heritage now unevenly performed and glutted and dulled with an excess of Martins and Wheeldon, ABT has slipped into first place. With its ingratiating performances, it's the company that offers more fun.
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I can't make a definitive decision on this because I haven't seen NYCB perform in several years, but I have seen ABT, and I hope thiey aren't the best American ballet company. I was impressed and dismayed by their sloppy technique and obvious lack of good coaching. I certainly hope there is something better than this out there in the USA.

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Here's an interpretation from the ballet competition world: No Gold Medal. America is without a first-class ballet company anymore. NYCB's gem, the Balanchine repertoire, languishes in disrepair, and ABT's full-length productions of everything save Giselle, and perhaps La Bayadère have been Newly Improved into a bunch of Gilded Turkeys. Even star turns can't save what's there now. There's nothing wrong with being second-rate, but dammit, be first-rate at being second-rate!

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I either think they're both the best or neither's the best--I think ABT is better at classical ballet; NYCB is better at Balanchine. Neither one is doing either style very well right now, as they both mangle their heritage. They should be the top two companies in the US, the ones we would be proud to show to the rest of the world, and although they may currently be the best relative to the other US companies, I do not think they are at "world-class" level right now.

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I converted a few seasons ago from NYCB to ABT.

I'd still prefer ABT to do the full lengths and the "foreign" pieces (MacMillan, Ashton...) but they're attempt at bringing in new choreographers still stunts me. To me ABT is the company that does the "successful" pieces created on other people. And I think Tobias nails it on the head, they're just more "fun". Bringing back "La Fille Mal Gardee" was the shot in the arm the company needed.

NYCB is IMO just a mess. So much time and energy to find "the next genius" in choreography, while the Balanchine just sits there, except when they pull it out for a celebration or an anniversary. And while I enjoy the dancers, there doesn't seem to be much coaching going on. And I feel as though I'm watching the same dancers over and over, I wish Martins would choreograph a piece using just corps members, I'd like to see if he actually knows the talent he has.

As a side note...It was nice to see a Tobias review. I feel as though we've been wallowing in "everything is nice" commentary sans Gottlieb :)

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I agree it's difficult to compare the two companies because they have such different natures. I don't think NYCB has deteriorated enough, though, to say it's no longer at international standard. I haven't seen the company often enough in the past five years to say that; I think its structure is still there, there are still good dancers, and the Balanchine ballets that I have seen have been recognizable. (The Diamond Project rep is another matter. Although I think the principle of commissioning new choreography has to be defended, sitting through these season after season must be dispiriting, not to mention dancing them.) But I don't think ABT is dancing the classics at Kirov or Paris level -- and I think many of their full-length classics are second-rate versions. But that's nothing new.

Callilope, your comments show how much ABT has changed. For decades, it was noted for performances in its home grown contemporary choreography -- Tudor, Robbins, DeMille, Loring, even earliy Feld. They kept ballets like "Billy the Kid" credible long after that kind of ballet was out of fashion. But, despite some wonderful stars and excellent soloists, one went elsewhere to see a first-rate "Swan Lake" or "Sleeping Beauty."

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No, ABT has not "replaced" NYCB as the top company, it has always been the top company! ;) (Sorry, had to say it, but I know that my prejudice and loyalty in regard to ABT are well known here!)

What I loved about Tobias' article is her wonderful description of Cojocaru, in terms of how she moves, but even more in terms of the things which are so hard to describe:

"The most significant thing about Cojocaru, though, is her tremendous expressive power -- the very element missing in today's typical ballet star. I wouldn't say that Cojocaru acts her roles superbly -- her performances are uncannily innocent of contrivance -- but that she embodies them. She becomes her character, reacting so spontaneously that turns in the plot seem to surprise her. The last time we saw this phenomenon, this impassioned immediacy, was with Gelsey Kirkland. The model for it in living memory is Margot Fonteyn."

Welcome back Tobi Tobias! "Impassioned immedicacy".... two words that tell us so much! Wonderful.

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I'm not going to comment one way or the other until I gather my thoughts, but I do find it interesting in an article propounding the idea that ABT, as a company, is better than NYCB, has its main focus a guest dancer (Cojocaru), who performed only two nights.

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I think comparisons are often meaningless, especially related to art, but if I ask myself which company I enjoy more on a regular basis, I would have to say ABT, and I think that was maybe what Tobi was saying. There is something more engaging about the dancers, even when they are doing second rate stuff. It is not just the tricks and turns, though it might seem so, but more that the dancers seem to be having more fun doing them. And, given a chance, like with Fille or Bayadere, the company can do a fine job on characterization and details.

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Unless NYCB has improved dramatically in the 3 years since I've lived in NY, I think their dancers just can't compete with those of the Kirov (which to judge from its last performances at the Kennedy Center is in decline) or even the Bolshoi. ABT has the dancers even when it doesn't have Cojocaru, but not the repertoire (though it could if it wanted to, IMO) or a single style. Part of the style issue lies in its structure (corps, soloist, International STAR!) and also the lack of a consistent training ground for its dancers.

In short, which company would you choose to be the American flagship ballet company? Even with its second-rate productions of the classics and incoherent corps, I'd choose ABT. I think they embody the 'melting pot' of American ballet better than NYCB with its neglected Balanchine and mannered dancers.

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Without going into what's wrong with both companies (we do that a lot around here anyway), I hate to chose because I believe that each company has its own mission and they are different.

NYCB by virtue of its Balanchine/Robbins inheritance and its school (which also provides dancers for ABT), it is placed among the top international companies. While I am sometimes the first to pick it apart, I feel maybe its like setting up the perfect drawing room, only to slightly adjust one small picture.

On the other hand, things are very uneven there. Yes, the Balanchine should be cast, coached and set better. But, at least it's scheduling Balanchine (one could argue that they have no alternative), unlike many companies who pay lip service to their heritage (ABT with Tudor and it's Americana ballets, or the Royal and Ashton [next year is an improvement for his centennial, but they could duplicate NYCB and perform an entire Ashton season or month). And as Alexandra wrote, the Balanchine ballets are recognizable, most of the dancers are recognizably from the House of Balanchine. However, there are often too many qualifiers in the performances (a technical dancer with no projection, a ballerina with soul but with the wrong body, a ballerina with the best body but no soul, a good partner who can't get through the variations, a dancer who projects but is uneven technically).

That's one aspect that puts American Ballet Theatre among the best in the world. The high quality through the entire roster, especially among the principals and soloists. There is concern that some of the male dancers are put in Danseur Noble roles that are really demi-character (or Soubrettes who dance Swan Lake), but at least they can get through them and often know where a role is going. You do want a Seigried who can actually dance his part. Performances are less likely to look like dress rehearsals than at ABT (that's something that impressed with me about the Kirov, the polish of every performance. Yet the tradeoff is less spontanity than that of a NYCB performance).

While NYCB is an "international level" company, ABT might be a national one in the most exalted sense in that it actually travels around the country and the world with more frequency than NYCB. It really does represent us, as Americans (where ever the dancers might be from), around the world and does a pretty good job of it. It also attracts world class stars from around the world, something NYCB doesn't and shouldn't.

As far as enjoyment goes, I don't like to choose :D I'm happy having both companies around.

As for NYCB, I love Balanchine and I love the values of the company as I still believe them to be. Almost nothing makes me happier to see Ringer, Weese, Nichols, Boal and many, many others weave their magic through those magical ballets.

On the other hand, two of possibly my favorite dancers (Meunier and Part) are at ABT now, so the highlight of the spring season for me was seeing the two of them dance side-by-side in La Bayadere. And La Fille was simply glorious, now about Stanton Welch and all those other pretenders....

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Perhaps it's just me, but at ABT I've always felt more of a cohesiveness as a company versus City Ballet.

Maybe it's because there is such a vast chasm between the principals/soloists and the corps at ABT. But they seem more a company. They need everyone to perform to make it work and at NYCB I sometimes get the impression that there's an effort to stand out from the person standing next to you on stage.

I think Dale, you put it very nicely. And as harsh as I am on NYCB, I have no doubts I'll go back, just when the Balanchine comes back.

Is there any reason ABT doesn't do much Robbins?

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It's not a matter of NYCB used to be the best but now ABT is better. Both companies have undergone ups and downs in the 40 years I've been watching them.

The NYCB repertory used to be much more varied. There was a time during Balanchine's life when he was thought to be through, washed up. Then came his extraordinary creativity at the 1972 Stravinsky Festival, followed by several late masterpieces.

The ABT of Gregory, Kirkland, vanHamel, Tcherkassky, Baryshnikov, and Bujones was a company as exciting as today's and somewhat more cohesive. When Baryshnikov took over as artistic director his policy of Balanchinization met with disfavor on the part of critics and public. At the end of his tenure, the only thing he was credited with was sharpening the corps. ABT entered a long period in the artistic doldrums.

For some years after Mr. B's death, many critics said that the Balanchine and Robbins repertory at NYCB had never looked better. Such a view now would be truly heretical, not to mention wrong.

In new works, I'd give the edge to NYCB because of Christopher Wheeldon. By the way, after initial lavish praise, the prevailing view now is that he is a superb second-rater. Despite its failings, I prefer the relative austerity of the Diamond Project to the grandiosity of such ABT offerings as "HereAfter." Not that NYCB is immune from that sort of thing -- remember "Organon"?

As for Peter Martins, I wish he'd choreograph new ballets only when he has something new to say.

It's incontestable that NYCB is in serious need of coaching from the great Balanchine dancers of the past.

At the present moment, I agree that going to ABT is more fun than another night at NYCB. But it seems likely that next year,

the Balanchine centennial, the pendulum will swing back. At least I hope so.

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Thank you all for such reasoned, thoughtful posts -- these have been more interesting to read than the performances I've attended lately (not at NYCB or ABT). :(

More please! (And a small whine: if there are so many people who think ABT is THE company, how come we don't have more people posting about ABT performances????? Put your reviews where your vote is!!!!)

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Originally posted by Alexandra

Although I think the principle of commissioning new choreography has to be defended, sitting through these season after season must be dispiriting, not to mention dancing them.)

I'm not so sure. (I am sure about looking at them being dispiriting.) As for dancing them--I'm often surprised at how different the experience of a work is from the watching side and the doing side. I think many dancers adore having a work made on or for them, and love interacting with a choreographer. You would hope that perfect taste went along with perfect legs or a perfect technique and the like, but it doesn't. As for the old rep--and remember, Balanchine's Centennial is next year; surely we all used to think a Centennial was about a practically pre-historical figure when we were under 30 ourselves-- if really fab Balanchine dancers were coaching the Balanchine rep, I think the experience might be more thrilling. On both sides of the curtain.

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So: It seems that we generally agree that ABT, with its inferior (to NYCB) repertory but far superior performance standard, gives a more rewarding experience. During the Met season, my problem arises when I want to see three casts of -- say-- Swan Lake, and my casts of choice are scheduled to perform consecutively. By the end of the second straight Swan, I just don't want the next thing I see to be another Swan Lake :( (especially with McKenzie's Act III).:( :rolleyes: Taking into consideration the great budgetary and rehearsal economy of assigning each ballet its own week or so tends to subvert box office. At this jaded point in my long career, the only full-length ballet I really want to see three or more times in a row is "La Sylphide" :) -- and that only due to its short running time and underexposure. ABT would benefit, I think, by cutting a full length in favor of a third mixed bill and giving each program two discreet (i.e., interrupted) performance runs.:( ;)

A word here about NYCB's home-early Tuesday nights: nice going! All other things being equal, I'll take the Tuesday over the other weeknights for its early curtain and shortened intermissions.

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I've read everyone's posts. I attend both ABT and NYCB performances when I can.... and, guess what? I like them both for different reasons - just the same as I, sometimes, dislike them both for just as different reasons!

How's that for bland diplomacy?

Yes, I love many aspects of ABT's performances but I couldn't take a steady diet all the time, I don't think... And I'll be daring and say it: I enjoy much of what I see at NYCB! Granted, there will always be certain ballets that just won't do it for me - but that's par for any ballet company course.

I don't have the historic insights that many have , nevertheless - I, too, have my likes and dislikes with both companies.

One thing I am sure about is that I'm really glad I have two major ballet companies that I can see pretty regularly all year. :(

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I'm with BW re: diplomacy. Except for the fact that, for two months each year, we need to choose which co's performance to attend, if at all, on a given night, I always wonder why there needs to be such competition. Why does one have to be better than another? It really is apples and oranges.

We each have our personal tastes. I'd take a night at NYCB over ABT most any night, as I prefer the repertory, but that doesn't mean I think NYCB is better.

I think Alexandra's point is interesting. For all the talk about ABT being better, why are more people not writing about performances. Of course, as has been mentioned, sitting through the same full-length at ABT three times in a row is rough.

NYCB seems to generate more controversy... more passion... something I discussed with a ballet talker earlier today. As a passionate person myself, I'd think NYCB is in a healthy state with all the heated discussions it generates... people are interested, and vested. ABT doesn't seem to do that, at least among ballet talkers. I find that apparent fact infinitely more interesting than which co. is better.


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For myself -- and I have been passsionate about NYCB's status -- it is based on such vivid memories of its past glory. I am not against a company changing over time. I just object to the direction those changes have taken. I loved City passionately through the '70s and well into the '80s for a vitality, a spirit of immediacy in almost every performance that made it special. These days, I see the Great Ballets in its rep being pushed aside for more Wheeldon and -- worse -- Martins, but danced for the most part with a certain lack of heart. I just want those dancers to open up some.

I am describing the company as an entity, and there are certainly exceptions among the individual dancers, but one would wish that this value would be nurtured by those responsible for the ultimate presentation.

The fact that NYCB draws more posts here than ABT may be the same phenomenon as our media not covering the expected, and bad news getting more coverage than good news. That's just a reflection of human nature.

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I didn't mean to imply anything sinister about the difference in the poll response from what one might guess from reading the board. There could be a lot of reasons, including the fact that the ABT voters are shy about posting, or don't have a lot of time to post, or don't live in New York, but have caught the company on tour (and so won't be posting about the Met season). But if there are ABT fans reading this who don't post regularly about what you're seeing -- please do!

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I was very interested by Amanda's last remark. It seems sometimes as if people just get more angry at NYCB when they see a mediocre performance of one of the company's classics (i.e. Balanchine) than, say, when they see a mediocre performance of Swan Lake or Giselle at ABT. Even more so when it comes to repertory: people seem prepared to shrug at the poor new repertory choices at ABT or even in the case of some older ballets recently acquired for the company (say, the Cranko, Stevenson, and Hynd) to agree that those works may at least suit some fans' taste. But when NYCB puts on mediocre works it arouses heartfelt cries of dismay. I once spoke to an acquaintance at a performance of Martins' Swan Lake -- this person HATED it, yet admitted at the same time how awful she found Mckenzie's version with a kind of bemused laugh.

Personally, I would rather sit through any number of new NYCB works than performance after performance of The Snow Maiden or Taming of the Shrew or even Romeo and Juliet (though I concede the last is a better ballet than the first two). And I think Christopher Wheeldon is a genuinely interesting younger choreographer, and NYCB has to be given credit for giving his work so much support. But the main point I want to make is that I think people are somehow more forgiving of ABT. That may in fact be evidence that people are having a better time at ABT, but it may also be evidence that, consciously or unconsciously, people assume that what NYCB does matters to the art of ballet in a way that only a great company can matter.

I think, moreover, that Martins' decision making at times shows a kind of awareness of what it means to be a great company that I don't always see at ABT. When Martins decided to stage Swan Lake he turned to a major, internationaly known artist -- a decision worthy of respect whether you like the results or not. (I'm unpersuaded by the designs for the first act but like the rest of it very, very much -- and some recent remarks of Leigh Witchel helped me to understand the first act somewhat.) When Mckenzie decided to stage Swan Lake he looked for ways to beef up the male dancing and feature his stars...thus the elaborate Rothbart inserts...While I certainly ENJOYED Mckenzie's Rothbart when it was danced by Malakhov, I cannot help but judge it to be an excrescence on the ballet -- a decision that I don't particularly respect -- and I also find it a huge bore when danced by anyone other than Malakhov.

When I compare the quality of dancing -- ABT in its repertory and NYCB in its repertory-- I think a case can be made that at the soloist/demi-soloist level NYCB performances are more consistenty energetic, daring, and exciting (think Van Kipnis, Rutherford, Korbes) and that with Whelan, Kowroski, Ringer, to say nothing of a senior figure like Nichols and an up and comer like Ansanelli, the ballerina roster is more impressive as well. Even comparing NYCB's dancing to, say, the Kirov -- if one focuses in each case on their *specialty* repertory (Balanchine/Petipa), I would say that City Ballet is still a world class company.

I have seen Part and Meunier in the past, and am pleased by their presence at ABT -- but when I saw them in solo roles this spring, they were not yet, in my opinion, making any kind of mark, something that may well change. In general, I find ABT much more of a gamble when it comes to the corps/soloists than NYCB and especially when it comes to ballerinas who, to sustain the company's present repertory, really should be outstanding. The New York season compensates with appearances by Ananiashvili and Ferri who, as far as I know, don't at present tour, plus even more specialized guest appearances (Cojocaru or Vishneva)...Those are great compensations of course! But I'm not sure what it says about the company as a company...That, too, has always been part of ABT's history, but the Kirkland, Tcherkassy, Gregory, Van Hamel roster mentioned above seemed stronger to me than today's Kent, Reyes, Murphy and Tuttle (still with the company?). Dvorovenko I put in a somewhat different class, and I actually have great hopes for Murphy.

Anyway, I thought someone should say something more about NYCB, and this was my try...

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Originally posted by Drew

. . .  the Kirkland, Tcherkassy, Gregory, Van Hamel roster mentioned above seemed stronger to me than today's Kent, Reyes, Murphy and Tuttle

These days, when I think of ABT, I overflow with satisfaction at the list of names: Carreno, Corrella, Steifel, Belotserkovsky, Cornejo. Their ballerinas today as a class do not measure up to the stellar level of the previous generation, :), but their danseurs make a pretty formidable group! ;) :)

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What about Herrera, Wiles, McKerrow...? And Jaffe until recently. All right, I'm not a huge fan of Herrera, but you see the point. NYCB's ballerinas don't exactly measure up to the Farrell, Ashley, McBride list of previous years, either.

I don't know why some people can forgive ABT's bad choreography more easily than they can forgive NYCB's. I can't. But I will say that ABT's productions of the classics are not as bad as NYCB's. Not only that, but the dancers at ABT understand the classics better than the NYCB dancers. They don't give you swan arms when Odette is supposed to be human or two or three incoherent mime gestures when a speech is necessary. They understand their roles.

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Originally posted by Hans

I don't know why some people can forgive ABT's bad choreography more easily than they can forgive NYCB's.

Because, Hans, NYCB employs one choreographer who, as Ballet Master in Chief, has stuffed the rep full of ballets (his own) that are angry, hostile, overtly misogynistic, and often violently misogynistic. Not one ballet or two, but a whole body of them.

Could that be an explanation?

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