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Applause and Curtain Calls

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Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph muses about what happened to applause, raucous audience participation, and extravagant curtain calls at the opera and ballet. In his experience, it still goes on at theater performances (he's writing about London). Why the difference?

a big hand for the old art of applause

The same is true at the Royal Opera House. Untold hours of my youth were misspent in the slips, whooping the likes of Sutherland and Vickers, Fonteyn and Nureyev, Sibley and Dowell. Ovations often lasted for 20 minutes, with the house lights up and the stars repeatedly "called before the curtain" by a rhythmic stomp that deliquesced into thunderous roars when they reappeared. Flowers were bought by the boxload from the Covent Garden market and showered on to the heads of our idols. On big nights, hordes of us would gather afterwards at the stage door for post-mortem chat and autograph-soliciting.

No more. At the end of the big dramatic ballets, star partnerships such as Alina Cojocaru and Johann Kobborg sometimes break through the house-lights barrier, but illumination always kills applause for opera within seconds, even if Domingo or Bartoli are being acclaimed. There's virtually no flower-throwing, and no visible stage-door congregation. Even booing is now predictably confined to fashionable directors on first nights. You should have been there when Montserrat Caballe got the bird for her Norma - deservedly, I fear.

I remember the same kind of displays of affection -- and the reverse. We never had it much in Washington, but it certainly went on in New York. When did it die, and why?

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I can't but think that a lot of it is cost-cutting by management (keeping union overtime down). At NYCB this season, it seemed that each ballet had been allotted enough time for two curtain calls by the principals --no more, no less. Once I think there were three -- even though the lights had begun to come up the audience insisted. And even if applause had died down usually the principals appeared for the second bow. This conditions audiences to not go crazy, since they won't get anything for it.

NYCB audiences are also a bit less demonstrative than others -- Miranda Weese got applause on her entrance in Swan Lake this season and she looked stunned, as if it had never occured to her that that might happen. The orchestra didn't adjust to it too well, either.

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Ah, money. Curse of the "real" world since time immemorial. And now it seeps into ours. It's such a shame that stars aren't being permitted to bask in the adoration the audience wants to give them simply so the management doesn't have to pay them for those few extra minutes.

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I rather doubt this is just about tight fisted managements and how they time the house lights -- though that may play a part in moderating today's already rather moderate audiences. It's about the lack of stars who are both adored by the balletomanes who fueled these displays and recognized by the general public who sustained them and gave them weight. Admitedly, a public that gets into the habit of such displays for the big stars may well be a little more primed to cheer the non-star casts as well. I saw it happen, but it was something of a trickle down effect...

Additionally, during the ballet boom (late sixties through early eighties, say) there was a larger 'excitement' about dance generally that was generated partly by media (for whom ballet meant, among other things, cold war intrigue) but also by real artistic substance in the form of the twentieth-century masters -- Balanchine, Ashton, and Tudor -- along with a slew of lesser but still historically important figures (Macmillan, Cranko) producing new work. In the absence of the really big stars and the wider artistic context, the habit of wild cheering gets lost, so even the occasional isolated 'great' moment may be received with nothing more than a respectable round of applause. (NYCB audiences have always been, as remarked by E. Johnson, more austere in their cheering habits. The company still helped to create the context in which ballet was a big deal.)

I have sometimes posted to ballettalk to defend the genuine greatness, as I see it, of today's best dancers, but that greatness, even when it recalls the best of decades past still operates in something of a vacuum. Bussell is, in my opinion, a great ballerina -- and is one of the few today who fulfills the criteria I mentioned above of appealing to ballet fans AND the general public, but since Macmillan's death she has had no choreographer to develop her uniqueness and has never had an adequate partner to frame her spacious lines and draw her out dramatically. Comparing Cojocaru and Kobburg to Sibley and Dowell or Fonteyn and Nureyev (as the article does by implication) seems faintly silly to me or, at any rate, premature -- as wonderful as she is Cojocaru is not yet a fully fledged ballerina. I suppose I am beginning to wander off topic, but I do think that when the ballet world as a whole becomes artistically energized and dancers genuinely comparable to a Sibley or a Dowell appear in a context that nurtures and develops them, the audiences will grow and resume the old habits of wild enthusiasm -- theater managements notwithstanding. I am not, of course, holding my breath.

As it happens, I would not particularly want to see the wildly rapturous curtain calls return without such developments in the ballet world. I find ersats enthusiasm depressing. The emotion of those curtain calls in the 'old days' seemed to spill over from the cumulative emotion of the performances that preceded them -- the energy on display from the audience and the artists was not (or not only) a cheesy bit of fun for the fans.

(The author of the article might feel that the situation in opera points to wider cultural currents, but I rather suspect that the situation in opera shares at least some points in common with ballet.)

[Edited a day after posting to adjust grammar.]

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If the reason is attached to money, I don't think it's the dancers who constitute the greatest expense. Stagehands and musicians used to have a clause in their contracts that said if the show went beyond midnight, they went on "Golden Time", i.e. double overtime. I haven't looked at standard contracts for IATSE or the AF of M for a long time , but I'll bet that Golden Time has been moved back to eleven PM! :angry:

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I would second everything that Drew said. I think audiences are thirsty for such moments -- not because we love demonstrative curtain calls, but because such demonstrations erupted -- genuinely -- out of the artistic climate of the time. I agree that the Ballet Boom was fueled by BOTH great stars and great choreographers. And great institutions that supported both. And until those conditions exist again, the era of the 45-minute curtain call will remain a memory.

I'd say, by that article and these standards, that in London, at least, theater is still alive, with real stars, real plays, and an audience that's drawn to them.

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I'd hate for the standards of Broadway theater audiences, who give standing ovations to virtually anything at the drop of a curtain, applied to ballet. It's ridiculous and annoying, except when truly merited, which is rarely. Last week in Saratoga a few audience members attempted a standing O at the end of Martins's "Guide to Strange Places." Thankfully, nobody joined them.

The City Ballet audience, at least in New York City, has always been, as noted, restrained. In my opinion, it's too restrained. Not even Suzanne Farrell was applauded, as a rule, when she came onstage. I can understand why Miranda Weese was startled. To the best of my recollection, the only dancer whom NYCB audiences applauded regularly at his entrance was Edward Villella.

I don't really miss the whooping and hollering of ABT audiences at the curtain calls of Eleanor D'Antuono and Ted Kivett. Not that I didn't enjoy their dancing. I think the real problem is inappropriate applause during a ballet -- in Giselle, for instance, and Davidsbundlertanze. And the author of the article might be interested to know that during the NYCB spring season, I saw a critic, whose identity I will protect, not only applaud Kyra Nichols, but shout "Brava."

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The worst inappropriate applause in my opinion is during the codas of Don Quixote and Le Corsaire, especially in Russian companies. I used to think it was logical to pause for the applause, but those codas have become too formalized and ritualistic, to the point where every sequence is treated and applauded for as if it were a variation with its own separate entrance. I think it diminishes the impact of the coda as similar to the end of a fireworks display--one sequence right after another in rapid succession.

What do people think of applause during "Chopiniana?" Between the variations, that is, not during them!

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I think the type of audience response the article seems to want is still alive, somewhat, at ABT and the Kirov-Mariinsky Ballet when it visits NY. Flowers are thrown on stage and sometimes the dancers go from side-to-side to bow for each side of the house. Sometimes, I think there is a little group-hysteria thing going on, especially during the spring when the SAB students whoop and scream for a big jump or what not. I really feel that demonstration is just a matter of the students hearing people shout "Bravo" and them thinking, "Oh great, we're allowed to scream."

At NYCB, even in the 70s, things were more austre where post-performance demonstrations were concerned. There are no flowers given every night, no ritual where the ballerina plucks one flower out to give to her cavalier. That routine now is so un-genuine. You can see the flower-to-be plucked sticking out. I'd rather see true appreciation. Like when Donald Williams got down on his knees before Kyra Nichols and kissed her hand. It wasn't choreographed and it made it that much more emotional. If you go crazy every night, what do you do when a performance is truely special.

However, I do remember veteran ballerinas getting applause for their entrance and it sometimes happens now when Nichols or Kistler enter.

Isn't a lot of the post-performance adulation brought about by plants in the audience, who start the applause?

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While inappropriate applause can be ruinous (like when Odile stops to acknowledge her public after her fouettes, and then there's a very pregnant pause -- twins if it's Russians -- as Siegried slowly paces to the center of the stage in DEAD SILENCE to prepare for his a la secondes), I would rather see an overly enthusiastic audience than one which sits on its hands.

I LIKE it when senior dancers, old friends like Kistler and Nichols, get applause just for showing up. I LOVE it that Freddie Franklin ALWAYS gets applause when makes his entrances in various character roles at ABT.

And I also love Cuban audiences. I just adore that little clip from that silly documentary on the Wild Men of ABT, where we see Alihaydee and Jose Manuel Carreno doing the end of the code from Diana and Acteon. The audience is just going berserk and screaming with every leap JM takes, and by the time Alihaydee (correct me if I'm mispelling this) finishes her rock-solid fouettes, half the house is on its feet, clapping and hollering. You think Alihaydee was cursing the crowd for upsetting her concentration? I rather doubt it. This is an audience which knows what it's seeing, and knows what it likes. More power to them. I'll never forget during one of the National Ballet of Cuba's first visits to the Met how Loipe Araujo drew cheer from the crowd with a gorgeous developpe -- and it wasn't because she was sticking her ankle behind her ear, either.

On the other hand, I'll admit it was quite jarring when ABT first performed Symphony in C (well, it was jarring for lots of reasons, actually), and the Big Stars would get cheered at their first appearances. I mean, cheers at the entrance of the man in the First Movement? Even if it is Malakhov?

While City Ballet audience can be notably undemonstrative and quick on the draw when targetting the exits, they certainly can make their feeling know at great volume. I will never forget the look on Eddie Villella's face as he would emerge for his bows after performances of Watermill to a resounding chorus of boos. I don't care what you think of the ballet, you don't boo dancers (although it's perfectly appropriate to make fun of them behind their backs). And for a City Ballet audience to boo Villella -- of all people -- well, that's like a Boston audience booing Ted Williams. Okay, that's not the greatest analogy, is it?

Given that some of the dreck we've been treated to at the State Theater lately makes Watermill look like Divertimento No. 15, perhaps there is an element of divine retribution being visited upon the NYCB audience for its hubris in booing one of the company's most heroic dancers.

Oh, and I like it when the little kiddies up in the stratosphere scream their little heads off. I'll never forget how it seemed like they were going to blow the roof off the State Theater for Ashley Bouder's debut in the soloist part of La Source. This was the most sensational debut I've ever seen, and the cries from the gods only added to its power. I even like it at SPAC when Damien Woetzal's charges at the New York State summer dance school there cheer on his every pirouette and leap.

Ballet would be dry as the Sahara without a certain amount of audience participation, wouldn't it?

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When you've finished a solo and the audience is already booing and hissing...what do you do? Do you bow once and leave? Keep going as long as there's noise (unless it is accompanied by vegetables)? It must require a great deal of courage (or something) to bow then--I hope I am never in that position!

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Could i just touch on something from the artical from the Telegraph? Even if the audience at the royal opera house wanted to throw flowers (as in days gone by and for Alina and Johan i would!) they'd have to be either sitting one of the boxes closest to the stage in which case they'd have seen very little of the performance anyway or if you sit anywhere else you'd have the be an pro shotputter to get the flowers on the the stage and not on an unsuspecting orcestra member!! :blushing:

Edited by danciegirlmaria
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Good point, Maria! I remember from the goodolddays at the Met, there were two Flower Throwers attached to the Nureyev contingent. They were both very large women who could have pitched in the Majors. They sat in front and hurled fllowers at the dancers, and they always got their man.

Manhattnik -- there are worse punishments than six months in Naples. :blushing:

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