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The balance between present and past

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I'm pulling this comment by GWTW from another thread (on Nora Kaye, on the Dancers Forum) because I think GWTW has hit on one of the Central Questions of Our Time:

That's also what's scary and fascinating and exciting about ballet. There is always this delicate balance between wanting to know what went before and wanting to create and interpret in a wholly new and individual way.


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I'm doing this without thinking a lot about it, so I'm sure I'll want to erase it as soon as I've posted it and start over, but a first thought is that as much as I love to see new movies or read new and exciting books, I'm constantly startled and amazed and thrilled as much, if not more, by the ones that have already been published, regardless of how old they are, as I was as a girl by a book like Jane Eyre, or by particular favorites like Dickens' novels. When I look at Balanchine's Prodigal Son it does not look old or dated to me, I just see what is human about it and there is an extra thrill of a connection to what was *because* it is so much the same and *because* I feel that we're not alone whenever I feel that. And at the same time, something old is always new when I haven't seen it yet! So the old/new idea has blurred boundaries for me.

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There are, I think, two issues inherent in what GWTW has identified: first, how do you break free of what has gone before if it is all you've ever known, and second, how do you advance into new territory without abandoning the old forever? For instance, if you've been trained in the, say, Cecchetti style (just to give an example), and you want to do something new, but everything in your body is telling you not to do this, how do you move forward? Do you have to abandon Cecchetti altogether in order to do new work? And, if you do, does that mean that you (or your dancers) can't dance in the Ceccheti style any more because they've now trained their bodies to do non-Cecchetti things?

The latter is a big issue with several major companies these days, if not all of them. The Royal, for example, abandoned — yes — the Cecchetti style because they found it too restricting; their dancers were having trouble keeping up with what was happening in the rest of the ballet world. But this meant that the old Royal Ballet style, which was based on Cecchetti, was lost, and with it the Ashton style, which was the company's glory. The same issue faces the Kirov, with its Vaganova heritage, and NYCB, with its Balanchine heritage.

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The interesting thing about the two old companies with traditions that abandoned their schooling -- the Royal [british] and the Royal Danes -- is that the dancers coming from the school trained New Style aren't as strong as their predecessors trained by that old-fashioned system. (I'll bet that much of the difference is teachers.) I can speak more about this in Copenhagen than London, but there, we've had four directors in a row talk about how they're going to revolutionize the school, raise it to international standard, put the emphasis on technique where it belonged, etc etc etc -- and that's not what you see on stage.

I think Ari got to the heart of the matter and an aspect of ballet that's not often discussed. We talk about changing repertory as though it's changing hairstyle and clothes. But it's changing how you walk, stand, and breathe, and that's a different thing. That HAS been a difficulty. There's a famous quote in Copenhagen that I can only paraphrase (by Edvard Brandes, the late 19th century intellectual who wrote a lot about theater) that Bournonville is like a big, magnificent statue that's now smack in the middle of what is the city's biggest road. It's in the way. It's dirty from all the traffic. It doesn't fit with its new surroundings. But you can't move it because it's so darned good.

I liked the way GWTW phrased it, and Mme. Hermine's approach, too. As a viewer, one likes both (or at least many of us do). The most dangerous times for a traditional repertory have been during periods of exuberant creation -- when everything new is first-rate, and wonderful, and exciting, then the old stuff looks like old stuff (even the good old stuff) unless it's polished like expensive fruit and displayed with care -- something that both Royals have done very well in the past. What's interesting about today is that there are constant cries for the new at the expense of the old, but the new isn't the new of the high Romantic era, the Diaghlev era, or the high water marks of the Royal and NYCB.

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Classicism is something that every generation ought to contribute to; I hope it's an additive process rather than one of erasing and rewriting, but that's an ideal, not a reality. One example is translations of the Iliad. The Lattimore translation of the Iliad was still available even after the Fagles was published. The problem in ballet is that when X's version of Giselle enters the repertory, Y's is usually lost. And that is like New York City. Resources are finite and to erect a new building, something else needs to be torn down.

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very interesting posts. i like Mme. Hermine's first response.

with your comment, alexandra, about RB and RDB, old & new styles of training, and the results- i would argue that the type of dancer 'we' (the general audience) expect and require and find attractive these days, must almost inevitably be 'weaker' than the old - in terms of kind of ox-like power.

individuals - then and now - may be faster, looser, bendier, jumpier, whatever-er! - BUT, the fashion now dictates

- a type of body,

- AND a range of skills,

- AND a degree of flexibility

which, together, add up to a dancer whose body is inherently weaker than the type of body that was acceptable/desirable in the 1940's and 1950's.

of course, this is a broad generalisation, but i think THAT's where the truth lies, of the point you are getting at - NOT with the adequacy of the teachers, or with the adequacy of the training methods.

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"Ox-like power" is not a term I'd associate with Fonteyn, Sibley, Dowell (the latter two complete products of the Old Royal) or Bruhn, Kronstam, Anna Laerkesen, Ib Andersen, Arne Villumsen, though. I see much more brute force -- WORK IT! WORK IT! SEE ME SWEAT! now than the past aesthetic of, as Bournonville put it (but it's certainly not his alone; Blasis shared this view, as did many of their 20th century disciples) "all effort must be concealed under cover of harmonious calm."

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sure. understood, alexandra.

that was a bad choice of words on my part.

i was trying to distinguish between some of the words used in the fitness industry, like power, strength, stamina, fitness, short-burst, fast-twitch, slow-twitch muscle fibre type 'builds', etc etc - but wanting to avoid using the wrong one (because i forget all the definitions), so i tried making up a term. mistake!

i guess i mean a kind of stable power - no, that's not much good either. hmmm...maybe later... ;)

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I think I know what you mean about the body type, Grace: long-legged, flexible people do not have as much muscular strength as shorter, less flexible people--or rather, for taller people to move as fast as shorter people, they have to use more strength (I've been re-reading "The Physics of Dance"). Alexandra Danilova said something similar in "Choura": that she thought dance was more athletic in her day, "with Pierina Legnani commanding the stage like a fire engine with her forty-eight fouettés." I rather doubt Legnani danced like an ox, but it seems that women today are expected to be smooth, clean, and very flexible, while men are expected to be athletes. The very high leg extensions are in a way athletic, of course, but not in the same way lots of fouettés are.

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