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Should NYCB be a Balanchine museum?

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Gottlieb's article this week in The Observer has much food for thought in it -- Leigh has posted a thread on the ballerinas. I thought a separate one for his final paragraph would be in order.

Gottlieb writes:

All in all, things are looking up at City Ballet. Despite the erosion of detail evident throughout the Balanchine repertory (due, needless to say, to lack of appropriate coaching), there are at last enough strong ballerinas in place so that a number of Mr. B’s ballets are looking better than they were. And that’s what City Ballet is all about, pace Martins’ often-stated dictum that the company mustn’t become a museum. City Ballet is a museum, the central Balanchine museum, as the Prado is for Goya. The small Robbins wing is well run by Robbins specialists, and presumably Martins and Wheeldon control their own work to their own satisfaction. But does the world really care? Without a healthy Balanchine repertory—which necessitates a group of outstanding female principals—City Ballet is just another ballet company; with its Balanchine in place, it’s a great and unique treasure house.
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I'll play Devil's Advocate. This isn't my position, but it is the position of several people I know, and I think it's a valid one. No, NYCB should not be a Balanchine museum. After Balanchine died, Kirstein reportedly approached Paul Taylor to take over the company -- he didn't care that Taylor was a modern dance choreographer; he admired Taylor's work. His vision for the company was that it would be a living repository of great choreography. I have friends who say what the company should be looking for is another great choreographer -- Tharp is often mentioned.

While I, of course, would be on the picket lines if they turned NYCB into a modern dance house, no matter who the choreographer was (and I'd picket too, of course, if someone decided to turn Paul Tyalor Company into a classical ballet company), I think the question is an interesting one. Is NYCB an INSTITUTION -- in which case I'd argue it MUST be a Balanchine Museum. New choreographers welcome, but they don't get a wing until they're up to the Master -- or is NYCB an outpost of the avant-garde, which means it should recreate itself periodically (as the Ballet Russe had done)?

And before answering this question, imagine if there were, in the wings, a Young Balanchine -- someone that has been anointed by acclaim as A Great One, not just "best of the bunch" or "Hey, he's not bad!" And imagine further that YB is totally different from Balanchine: expressionistic, say, with a love of narrative ballets, which do not follow any formula known to us now, but are fresh, innovative, intelligent dramatic works requiring acting as well as dancing.

What would you tell Mr./Ms. YB? Welcome, or, "Gosh, you're great, but please go elsewhere, because if you stick around here, we're not going to be able to preserve the Balanchihe Museum?"

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I know this sounds odd coming from a choreographer, but I'd say that NYCB's purpose changed with time and the accumulation of a great repertory. If it isn't the best out there, it's close enough and it's rare - and nothing new that is coming up holds a candle to it - yet. It was created at City Ballet, and they have the most of it. And it's owed conservation. And inevitably when there is no one alive any longer who worked with Balanchine personally, they will come to resent this invisible monolith of accomplishment about as much as the Danes resent Bournonville. :confused:

As for YB? S/he's best off doing what other geniuses did before. Hang out their own shingle and built their own house - which became an institution.

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I think it should be a museum, with a separate wing for the new stuff. Simply b/c you never know you're a museum until time tells you that you are. At the time Mr. B created and re-created what has turned out to be timeless. His works are still the staple diet of what the audience wants to see.

Granted, back then they didn't have the long seasons that are now being done and the financial structure was different (did they have a Board in Balanchine's time?)

Did Balanchine think his dancers committment was to him or the company? Does anyone know?

As for the Next Big Thing in choreography, who knows if there ever will be one and if and when he/she shows up, then once again the company should evolve. But somehow I doubt we'll ever have that, b/c you won't know until time tells you the works survived.

I think NYCB is a direct reflection of the city that it resides in. New buildings (ballets) go up all the time. Skyline (rep) changes, some are downright gaudy (the new Westin hotel/Diamond project) but there are still the old buildings that become hidden treasures and the city makes them historical landmarks so they can never be torn down.

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I think it's the word "museum" that makes some people recoil. When you think of museums you think of old things (dinosaurs?), and everyone's aware that dance has to be of the moment in some way in order to work onstage. "In some way" can — and should — mean the way those in charge of rehearsals communicate the freshness of the ballet to the dancers. But some people think that preserving a ballet negates this possibility. Actually, it was Balanchine himself who helped propagate this idea by saying that future generations wouldn't want to dance his ballets because the dancers would be different ("they'll all have a hole, and they'll be proud of their hole").

As to your expressionistic choreographer, Alexandra, I'd say that his style was too far from the NYCB style to coexist. We've seen this with MacMillan and the Royal; the dancers began dancing Ashton in a MacMillanish sort of way, and that contributed towards the decline of the Ashton repertory. But at the same time, I think it's important for NYCB not to define their kind of ballet too narrowly, and that is I think what Martins has done. He's honed in on one aspect of Balanchine's choreography, distorted it, and claimed it as the company's style. Also, I think it's important for house choreographers to try their wings at approaches different from that of Balanchine, or else the heritage will become oppressive.

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I think that NYCB changed when it moved to Lincoln Center. It became less Kirstein's company and more Balanchine's, especially after the 1972 Stravinsky Festival. In the early ventures, Loring made Billy the Kid for Ballet Caravan, there was the Filling Station and Boris' Cakewalk. Ashton made ballets and Tudor was invited. Graham was brought in. After 1964, I don't believe there were the same invites. It became less an idea of Kirstein having a company with the best choreography and more a place (and a school) where Balanchine's ideas about choreography and ballet were put forth. Only Robbins stayed.

Afterwards 1964, the other choreographers other than Robbins were company ballet masters and dancers. I'm not sure how Balanchine felt about them. He was said to be generous and to give assignments. Did he pick them because he thought they were the best hope for new choreography or did he pick them because he knew they would follow his taste? Did he pick them because they were at hand? Was his ego so that he thought he could create a good choreographer?

Only after Mr. B died did Tharp collaborate with Robbins, Taylor and Feld were invited etc...

In addition, I think any entity has to look at itself and see what it does best. The way NYCB-SAB is setup is to perform Balanchine (and I think Robbins and Martins) ballets. If you take them away, or just schedule a 5-8 of them a season, will people come? They would be just another company.

I think it should be the central meeting place for all things Balanchine. If the person in charge finds that a burden, then the board needs to find another person who is excited about keeping these ballets alive.

However, I do think there should be new works and there should be slots in the schedule for ballets other than Balanchine and Robbins.

If the next great choreographer comes along, with a different style, they should not invade a company that can't support that style. He should do what Kirstein and Balanchine did - create a school and create a company to support those ideas.

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Personally, taking off Devil's Advocate's horns, I've always seen Balanchine as more of an institution-builder than an avant garde maverick, and so I think having a museum is fine.

Leigh, your comment on Balanchine/Bournonville squares with the views of at least some Danes. I've heard Danes say, after Balanchine's death, "Now you'll begin to understand our dilemma" -- or words to that effect.

There's a famous essay by Edvard Brandes (which I'm sure I've mentioned elsewhere on this forum) that Bournonville is like a huge marble monument built in what was once a park but is now a highway. And it's in the way and causes great frustration to modern motorists, but you can't move it because if you move it, the monument will fall apart (funky marble, I guess) and it's too darned good. There is a responsibility not to destroy it.

I think Balanchine won't be in danger of being thought of as a frustrating monument to progress as long as his aesthetic, or some recognizable vestige of it, is still alive. (I think Calliope is saying the same thing when writing "You never know you're a museum until time tells you that you are.") I don't mind the word "museum" -- I like museums. But the word has become a taboo now. In the interview I did with Bruce Sansom he said he thought companies should be "art galleries" with new as well as old work. So I think the CONCEPT is still vital, it's just that one isn't allowed to use the word "museum." (I liked Gottlieb for using it :) )

I agree with Ari -- if you bring in somebody completely opposite to the prevailing aesthetic, as MacMillan was with Ashton, whether the new choreographer is good, bad or indifferent won't matter; it's that s/he'll be DIFFERENT that will cause change, and make the dancers fight to dance in a "different style" every time they do a ballet, because the new choreographer's style will become their native one, and the older style(s) will be foreign, archaic.

I also agree with Ari that it's dangerous to define Balanchine's aesthetic too narrowly -- we can't look at Son of Agon forever. Balanchine honored Petipa and gave us after-Petipa ballets, but he didn't JUST do Petipa, and he wouldn't have been ranked as highly if he had.

Dale, I think you're right that the company changed when it moved to Lincoln Center, and I've never read anything that examines this. I was struck, when first reading "Repertory in Review," how many full-lengths Balanchine did in the first Lincoln Center years. Catering to the new audience, or doing what he'd always wanted to do? What did Balanchine really think of "Filling Station" and "Medea?" Did he like them for the opportunities that they gave to dancers? Did he think they were good ballets?

There's another factor to consider, in that the move coincided with the drying up of classical choreography -- by the 1960s, people were beginning to notice that there was Ashton, Balanchine, a quiescent Tudor, a Robbins that maybe wasn't quite fulfilling his promise, and Cranko and MacMillan, for whom everyone had crossed fingers. But the wave of Ballet Russe-esque choreographers, the DeMilles, the Borises, the Lorings, the Christensens, was beginning to dry up and there weren't new young people coming up to replace them. So perhaps Balanchine was forced to make the rep because he didn't have any alternatives. He did try out lots of choreographers -- Tanner, Lorca Massine, several others -- in the late 1960s, causing many Death of Ballet articles to be written until the 1972 Stravinsky Festival kicked sand in that face for a time.

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Why is it that people usually don't level the same charge(museum! museum!) at the great opera houses of the world, which are repositories of the great operas created through four centuries?

Just like in ballet of course, opera houses are hoping for the next great Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Strauss to come along, but that doesn't mean that they have stopped performing great operas. Great works of art in the performing arts are great because they can be re-interpreted by many artists down through the centuries. So many of Balanchine's works are great because they can be handed down from one dancer generation to the next as well as speak to a new audience.

I remember when Variations for a Gate & a Sigh was originally done, there were scattered boos and meager applause in the audience. During the recent revival -- with a new generation of dancers and audience members - it was cheered and given bravos.

My point is that New York City Ballet will never be a stuffy old museum when it performs Balanchine because they are great works of art.

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Burn the Louvre, the Uffizi and the Tate! Turn the Mall in DC back into a cow pasture -- ooops, a soybean patch!! ;) We don't want museums!!!!

More seriously, I think Bobbi's points about opera are excellent -- opera doesn't have to put up with the same nonsense that ballet does about repertory and I don't understand why.

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I don't think opera companies really are "museums" in the way that some ballet companies might elect to be. There are a couple of ways in which ballet companies differ from opera companies that may come into play here:

1. I can't think of an opera house that's been charged with the diligent conservation of the work of a single composer in the way that NYCB, the RDB etc are (by at least some) expected to preserve the work of a particular choreographer. Some might be expected to preserve the elements of a national style, but that's a different thing (and getting rarer by the minute).

2. Most opera companies aren't "companies" in the way that most ballet companies are: for lack of a better word, "specialists" are purpose-hired by opera companies from an interantional pool of singers to perform for a limited run the roles for which they are suited by voice type, performing style, training, expertise, and experience. Yes, every opera company has a "house soprano" who regularly performs "comprimario" roles and occaisionally may take on a lead role as a member of the second or third cast -- but the roster at the Met or even City Opera doesn't function in the same way as the roster at NYCB. An opera company isn't a cohesive unit that can be easily directed towards a curatorial function in the way that, say, NYCB might be.

3. Singers aren't trained in a company school for the purpose of performing the works in the company's repertory. They come from all over and while most are probably conservatory trained, a number are not. And they start late when compared to dancers.

4. There is in fact considerable disagreement in opera-land regarding the level of care with which certain core operas and performance traditions are being maintained, the ability to adequately cast the works of certain composers (e.g., Verdi and Wagner), the degree to which "historically informed" performance practice ought to be applied to older works, etc. The "museum" label might be applied to the enterpise as a whole, but not to any one company in particular. I suspect, however, that the advent of a "museum" company or two would probably be warmly applauded by at least some segments of the opera audience.

The current state of affairs in certain corners of the opera repertory, where it is almost impossible to put together a first rate cast, a gifted conductor, and a skilled production team, all of whom are completely at ease in the requisite style does suggest, I think, what can happen when the curatorial function is dsimissed or abandoned. Should NYCB become the Balanchine museum? I don't know, but some company should.

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Well, as I said above :( , I think the reason people balk at the word "museum" in the ballet context is that we recognize that in order for dance to come alive, it has to be of this moment. The notion of an old ballet painstakingly reconstructed suggests, at least at first blush, a dinosaur put together bone by bone — the closest we'll ever get to see one, but definitely dead.

Of course, it doesn't have to be that way at all; good ballet masters can make an old ballet come alive for the dancers and through them, the audience. But in answer to Bobbi's question, I think that people jump to the first conclusion.

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Very well put, Ari. The word "museum" suggests something frozen in some time distant from our own. When we see the loving vitality with which many non-NYCB companies dance Balanchine, though, it is clear that the philosophy/aesthetic can adapt to the times and the changing abilities of the dancers, and still remain true to itself.

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I think you all are right that most people think of "dead" when they think of "museum;" I've always loved museums and I've always thought of the past as part of the present, so "museum" to me means something grand.

I think Kathleen made some excellent points about the differences between opera and ballet -- I was thinking of the opera repertory in the broadest sense, not trying to associate specific composers/styles with particular companies, because I agree that changed long ago. (Not quite opera, but D'Oyly Carte is one company I can think of that exists to do one particular style. A museum, and a traveling one, at that.) I meant that people don't seem to object to watching, or singing, 18th and 19th century operas. (Although opera certainly has its fair share of drastic restagings.)

When I win the lottery, I'll earmark some funds for a PR campaign to make people think "fun" when they hear "museum"! :)

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I cannot imagine a "young Balanchine...someone that has been anointed by acclaim as A Great One..." Balanchine, himself, was not so anointed. There were not too many around touting his genius. Just consult Beaumont's 'Complete Book of Ballets' published in 1938, he only mentions 5 works: Triumph of Neptune; La Chatte; Gods Go-a-Begging; Prodigal Son and Cotillon. In Beaumonts Supplement to his Book published in 1942 HE DOESN'T EVEN MENTION BALANCHINE!! So much for recognizing young talent. In the meantime, preserve the Institution.

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Oh, as the Board was being closed for this wonderful makeover (not that I minded the previous incarnation -_- ), I was in the process of posting an observation that Beaumont's omission of "Apollo" seems an egregious oversight, even in the context of 1938. :rolleyes:

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But Beaumont did write about "Apollo" in Complete Book of the Ballets (I'm writing this from memory, but I'm reasonably certain it's in the Complete Book). He said it showed a lot of promise but is the work of youth -- too much reference to "sport" (it was the age of sport, swimmers, tennis players, etc.)

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