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Story ballets

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In looking over the American 2003-2004 season (companies all across the countries) it's hard not to notice that repertories are dominated by story ballets -- and not just "Swan Lake" and "Romeo and Juliet." There are a lot of new, full-length story ballets being created. MacMillan and Cranko and Ben Stevenson continue to be popular. Younger choreographers are beginning to try their hand at story ballets (Val Caniparoli's "Lady of the Camelias" is making the rounds." Some people love story ballets, some people hear the phrase "story ballet" and think "children's storybook" and won't go near them (with many in between, of course!)

What do you look for in a story ballet -- or narrative ballet, if you prefer the term? Who are your favorite choreographers, your favorite ballets, and why?

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:) Well, _I_ like story ballets.

I like stories.

What I really want to see are stories which can be understood without having to read the program. :wink:

That is what I look for in plays and operas, too, really.

I suppose it is a bit as Billy Wilder once said, when asked what is the most important thing about a film. He said, and I paraphrase, for I do not remember the exact words, "First comes the book, and then the book, and then the book."

In ballets it is the music which is next important to me.

If the music is not to my liking, then I am not going to be easily "sold" on the whole thing.

Then of course comes the dancing... of which I am probably unfairly critical at times. :)


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I like Story-Ballets too.

A story ballet gives the dancer the chance to be in the work with both, body and soul.

Non story ballets, like the Balanchine Ballets, live from music and movement but they don't touch me at all. Sure, they are hard to dance, the movements and steps are much faster than in story ballets but the dancer is not able to give all of him or her. Fine, sensitive acting, for me, belongs to a ballet.

Here you have the chance to see how different casts interprete a role. The same role might come out so very different. Also you can see how a dancer grows into a role. It is always amazing to see a dancers development.

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I love story ballets :wink: I have always thought of ballet as telling a story through movement, and dancers are actors who tell the story with their body instead of words. It is what makes it universal, like the music, and it makes the music visible. While non-story ballets are a challenge, and fun to dance, creating a role is, for me, much more of a challenge.

From an audience member standpoint, I enjoy watching a story come to life more than watching an abstract work, although there are certainly a number of those which I enjoy very much too. From a dancer standpoint, for a corps de ballet dancer the abstract works are more fun to dance because you dance more than in a story work. There is much less standing around and posing. But for soloists and principals who have major roles to create, the story and the amount of dancing can be quite different from that of the corps. But that varies too. I certainly loved dancing the corps of Giselle Act II and Swan Lake. Works like this, and Bayadere, for instance, are different from the works which are much more about the principal characters and have much less work for the corps, such as Romeo and Juliet.

Not all story ballets are full evening works, and I really love some of the one act dramatic works, such as those by Tudor. Story ballets do not have to take 3 hours to do, although I can't imagine trying to do some of them in less than two or 3 acts! If it can be told well in 30 minutes or so, though, it can often be just as effective and important a work as a full length. Sort of like a writer who takes 3 pages to explain something that could be done in half a page :)

As a dancer my favorite ballet was always Giselle, and still is, with La Sylphide a very close second. But almost every Tudor work is right up there at the top of the list too, especially Pillar of Fire! Dancing Tudor can be an education in itself, through the way he uses the music and the subletly of the way he tells the story, which is much more through the use of the body and not through pantomime or anything else which make it very obvious. I think the dancers and the audience have to work a bit harder, as his works are not simple to understand.

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Victoria, you sold me on it. We're going on November 5th and will see:

* Diversion of Angels

* Symphonic Variations

* Pillar of Fire

* Raymonda (Grand Pas Classique)

After reading this thread, as well as the various other threads about Tudor and Ashton especially, I figured this was our opportunity and I'd better grab it.

:gossip: It sounds very exciting!

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What about the dancers who can't act worth a whit? They've studied for years and are extremely accomplished, but actors they aren't. That's a heck of a problem for them as well as for the ballet world. They're out there and they're criticized for the lack of acting ability; it seems unfair that the 2nd art form is dumped on them when all they want to do it dance. You can't limit them to non-story ballets.

I prefer the story ballets. It lends a magic to the performance, and the evening is a cohesive unit rather than the sum of parts. And of course, the better the acting the better the ballet.

In truth I go to ballet to see the dancing; give me a good acting job and it's a bonus.


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Like Diane, I prefer story ballets that make sense on the stage and not in the program. Like Reinhard, I like comparing dancers in roles and watching them grow -- that was one of the great revelations when I started watching the Royal Danish Ballet regularly, and it's what I remember of the Royal Ballet as well. And like Giannina, I don't like bad acting, and I see that all too often -- for the reason Giannina mentioned, that today's dancers aren't trained to act (in America, at least) and have lost the acting tradition, and now they're asked to do it. Often it's mugging, or very superficial.

I'll add Bournonville to the list of great storytellers -- his "La Syphide" and "The Kings Volunteers on Amager," particularly, are wonderful examples of taut storytelling where the story is told through the dancing.

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Victoria mentioned Tudor -- our own "lost" story ballet maker -- and I wanted to post a link here to this week's Letter from New York in the DanceViewTimes by Mindy Aloff. She went to a "Works in Process" evening devoted to Tudor:

Mindy Aloff's Letter from New York is about Antony Tudor. Here's the ending of the piece:

So you can see that the Guggenheim evening would have been informative, even if Jaffe hadn’t also screened a portion of an interview that Martha Myers conducted decades ago with the choreographer for the television program, A Time to Dance (in which he lauded Fokine) and hadn’t gone on to include two passages of Nora Kaye demonstrating Tudor’s points for that show. In one passage of danced comparisons, Kaye articulates the difference between the rectitude of the way the spine is held in a Petipa ballet and the plastic fluency it enjoys in Fokine’s Les Sylphides. In another passage, she performs the opening moments of Pillar of Fire, when Hagar, seated on the front steps of her house, lifts her face and, in doing so, articulates by microscopic changes in her shoulders, neck, mouth, and eyes, every tension in her life. After seeing this clip, it’s remarkable that any dancer today would attempt the part. Kaye makes every tiny muscular change crystal clear and puts them in sequence, like dotted lines for the audience to connect. It bespeaks a physical and mental performance discipline on the order of Bharata Natyam dancing.

The program closed with a performance by A.B.T. principal Amanda McKerrow and former A.B.T. soloist John Gardner of the central pas de deux from Tudor’s great, last retrospective ballet, The Leaves Are Fading, made for A.B.T. in 1972. McKerrow had worked with Tudor directly in this dance, and her performance of it is an exemplary tribute to the silverpoint musical and emotional nuance of which Tudor’s late choreography was capable. A propos Leaves, which is rarely (if ever) performed by A.B.T. in its entirety now, Owen—who, with Marianna Tcherkassky, was originally cast in the third of the ballet’s bouquet of pas de deux—observed: “Each pas de deux has its own facets of love. Working with Tudor was a spiritual experience.” Mahler added: “It was an abstract ballet about people. I think all of his ballets are about love—love denied, love accomplished, love longed for. That’s why they’re so deep.”

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Giannina, in my opinion being able to act is part of being a dancer, and a dancer is not an "artist of the ballet", so to speak, without that ability. Being able to execute technique does not make a classical ballet artist. Perhaps it makes a skilled technician, but it does not make an artist. Without the art, there is no ballet, just as a fine actor without the technique will not create good ballet either.

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Alexandra thank you so much for posting that link to Mindy Aloff's piece/blog... Boy, I wish I could have attended that presentation but all it was sold out - as are the upcoming ones. :)

Reading Aloff's Letter from New York dated September 29th was extremely enlightening. Almost like having a class in ballet history, online. I especially loved the descriptions of the acting by Nora Kaye - wow! And the comments by Owens and Mahler were very interesting as well.. So much information all of which will help those of us who are attending to understand the depth of what we're hoping to see.

Excellent. I also appreciated the introduction in which Aloff questions the reasoning behind not performing various pieces by Fokine, as well.

Thank you so much and thank you to Ms. Aloff!

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Thanks, BW -- I was intrigued by the description of Kaye. Victoria, did you see her? I know atm did. One reads that Tudor is all "gesture" but this really gives you an idea of what that piece can be like.

To everyone who's responded thus far or who will -- what are your favorite ballets, choreogaphers, why? We've had some answers, but more would be nice :) Diane and Reinhard are seeing things that Americans seldom get a chance to see, so specifics will be nice!

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Sleeping Beauty :wink: is my favorite, and we all know who choreographed it. :) Besides my "secondary favorites" (Swan Lake, Giselle, Coppélia, &c) I really enjoy Fokine's Petrushka. And is Le Spectre de la Rose considered a story ballet? There are characters and a bit of a plot, but it seems as if it could almost go either way.

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I too love Sleeping Beauty. And Giselle. And Coppelia. And La Sylphide. And Cinderella, the Prokoview version. And Swan Lake; especially for the music. :)

I am going to be pretty brash here and state that I usually don't care who choreograhed the ballet.

Well, as long as it is still in the spirit of the original.

I do not like to see my favorite story ballets suddenly done barefoot or with rubber boots on the feet. :wink:

I also like it if the choreography is really musical. That is not always the case, for my tastes.

Alexandra, I seldom see anything which is not on tv, as I live in a tiny town. The local co. does modern dance, very fast and furiously. :)

If I ever _do_ get out to a big city, such as where lucky Reinhard is, then I shall report a bit more.


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:) I hope this does not voilate Alexandra's desire to confine this thread to story ballets. There are many story ballets that I love. I adore LaSylphide. A well-staged, well-danced, conventional Swan Lake can be incredibly moving. But I think one of the problems we (in the audience) encounter too often with plotless ballets is that, if it's a good ballet, it has mood and emotion beyond (between? through?) the steps. Perhaps conveying that is not quite Acting, but failing to convey it shortchanges both the work and the audience.

My point (I think) is that story or no story, the dancer's job is to communicate, not just demonstrate.

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I agree with that, Carbro. It's not mime, abstract steps, mime that makes a story ballet--it's continuity so that the story is told throughout all the action. One might liken it to aria and recitative in opera. The recitative is what really moves the plot forward; the aria is (generally speaking) when we see the inner feelings of the character. It's not that the recitative is for plot and the aria is just fancy vocal display (though that does play a very enjoyable part!)--the recitative/mime moves the action along and the aria/pas de deux, variation, &c adds depth to the characters.

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Alexandra, I did see Nora Kaye. I was never enthralled with her technically, and did not like her in classical works at all. She was very strong, but somehow just not overly pleasing in tutu roles. However, in Tudor and DeMille works she was something else. It was a very long time between stagings of Pillar for ABT, and that was because, I think, Tudor never had anyone after Nora until Sallie Wilson for Hagar. Sallie was also exceptional in the Tudor and DeMille rep. I believe she was the first to take on Lizzie Borden after Nora too, although I could be wrong about that.

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I like story ballets.

While I agree it would be nice if it can be understood without having to read the program, I can live with it.

From my own observation I have noticed that in general the audiences seems much more receptive where there

is a some sort of story to follow even if it's a bit lame.

The music can really add or detract, lately it seems that at times there seems be an attempt to try to educate the

audience with different forms that can be very grating.

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I love story ballets, IMHO there's something magical about them that really makes you think that ballet can belong in a world of its own. Ballets without a story are lovely too but well, it's just dance and that's it.

I notice that no one has mentioned La Bayadere as their favourite ballet, or one of their favourites. When I saw it, Darcey Bussell danced the principal role of Nikiya and then AB principal dancer Li Cun Xin danced the role of the golden statue. I couldn't take my eyes off either of them when they came onto the stage, they danced so beautifully and I think my memory of that also left me fond memories of the ballet itself.

Macmillan's Romeo and Juliet too is a favourite, as is Sleeping Beauty :)

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I love story ballets. Going back to the mime/dancing thing, I used to dislike Coppelia because I felt shortchanged by the fact that the main story finishes long before the dancing does. In fact the story is just lame. Then someone explained to me that the "extra" dancing usually adds to the story and the characters, like in Swan lake the variations aren't just for show, but are to represent (for example) that Odile is flirting with the prince. I really like the traditions of ballet, and I think they are best represented by the story ballets.

Would you count Apollo as a story ballet? Because I loathed that - I think that was the stylistic dancing rather than the story though.

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I personally like "story" ballets beacuse they are more entertaining to watch. As a ballerina I feel more connected and have defiently more fun in ballets like The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty ect. My favorite was when a pro company did Cinderella a few yars ago, a tale the audience is familar with (and does not result in pathetic drawn out deaths) is well, more entertaning and fun!


But bring alegebra or science and I'll gladly do it! JK

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Well, since everyone else has such positive things to say about story ballets and though I might be out of place, I mostly detest them. :) The stories are always inane, pointless, and juvenile. If I want a story that might make me think and might move me, I go to the theater, the movies, or read a book. When I go to dance, I want to see movement to music. Beautiful, wonderful movement to interesting music. I would rather see a full season of Agon rather than some of the story ballets that are being foisted on us this NYCB season.

The only sort of story ballet that I love is the Concert. Most of the others I keep wanting them to stop parading around and emoting and start dancing. :(

The only positive thing I can say about story ballets is that they are interesting to me more as spectacle than as dance. Great costumes, great music, possible some great dancing (but never enough). Ok, it isn't all bad I guess. Nevermind. :shrug:

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