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John Rockwell's article in the NYT


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I find it interesting that, in two opinion pieces and reviews, all of Rockwell's dance references are to Mark Morris. Yes, Morris has done interesting work for ballet companies and I hope that is something he continues to explore, but he is a special case (as is Tharp). What about all the "dance lite" works we've had to endure by crossover choreographers (I use tha word loosely), whose work does nothing for the ballet dancers' art, uses nothing of their talent (except dancing very slowly and being contorted) and then drops out of rep. as uselessly as it came in. What did Rockwell think of "Hereafter" or "Artemis?" Did those work shake up ballet? Or Duato's works, or "Vespro?"

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I think John Rockwell's article does have a good point: that what's "cutting edge" often becomes ossified in a few years. For insstance, Balanchine was "cutting edge" but now he's "classic." The Balanchine Trust promotes the myth that there's some magical, special "Balanchine technique" that only SAB-trained dancers can perfect, when in fact other classical ballet companies have been dancing Balanchine for years with a lot of verve and unique panache. (And let's not forget Sofiane Sylve, who is not "Balanchine"-trained at all but now has a huge fanbase at the NYCB.)

But everything that is "classic" was once "cutting edge." This includes Ivanov's "white act" choreography to Beethoven's more complex symphonic structures. I mean, let's not forget that Nijinsky was booted from the Maryinsky because he wore a jacket and tights, which is now standard danseur getup :)

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Balanchine technique is an extension of classic Vaganova technique though, and Balanchine was the first to say so. It isn't a different kettle of fish, like Martha Graham technique.

Wouldn't it be great if the cross-over ballets were cutting edge instead of fluff or recycling from the 70's?

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Balanchine technique is an extension of classic Vaganova technique though, and Balanchine was the first to say so. 

No, it isn't, and he didn't. He said it was based on the Russian School in which he had been trained, which was dominated by Nicholas Legat. Both Balanchine and Vaganova spring from the Legat period. Vaganova didn't begin teaching until 1923, the year that Balanchine left Russia.

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Balanchine technique is an extension of classic Vaganova technique though, and Balanchine was the first to say so. 

No, it isn't, and he didn't. He said it was based on the Russian School in which he had been trained, which was dominated by Nicholas Legat. Both Balanchine and Vaganova spring from the Legat period. Vaganova didn't begin teaching until 1923, the year that Balanchine left Russia.

Isn't "Vaganova technique" the codification of the Russian school that she and Balanchine were taught?

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to the best of knowledge balanchine made a distinct separation between russian and soviet ballet as it was being shown in the 'west' in the latter half of the 20th c. he was quoted as saying at one of his teaching seminars in the '60s that after he left he russia, 'all that refined' (or some similar word) dancing stopped' and he added something like: i don't want to tell you what happened after that, implying that the pedagogy after the 20s was not to his liking and/or in line w/ what he understood russian imperial dancing to be.

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It's an easy switch -- Balanchine and Vaganova were "joined at the hip" by their earlier training, and both went their separate ways, Vaganova even going so far as to invent a new lexicon, the "dictionary" by which positions and steps are called. The Balanchine nomenclature remains truer, I think, to the Franco-Italo-Russian medley that was the standard for the Imperial school, but he developed different ways of doing things. Even Legat himself didn't mature his own school until he became established in England. He was still working with the Petipa-Johansson-Gerdt-Cecchetti mix that he'd inherited.

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But there's now parts of "Balanchine style" that are nowhere to be found in any pedagology of ballet. For instance, when did Balanchine ever dictate an entirely different port-te-bras that makes NYCB dancers stick out so distinctly from dancers of different companies (even if they too are SAB trained)? I'm talking about the knife-like movements and jutting elbows. (Remembering Dudlinskaya's dictum in that documentary: "Arms must be tough, but soft at the bottom.")

This wasnt even part of NYCB style during Balanchine's time, judging from the videos. Clearly, the "style" has evolved.

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Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but I think there's a clear difference between Balanchine technique and Vaganova (or any other classic) technique, in that classic technique is based on showing the positions as seperate units, whereas Balanchine wanted his dancers to stop thinking in positions and picture their steps in lines of continuous movements.

Those are two clearly different styles.

Look at the Kirov dancing Apollo and you'll see the difference in a minute.

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I wasn't trying to argue that Balanchine technique is the same as classical Russian School technique (now that I understand the difference between Vaganova and Russian School), but that it is an extension of that technique.

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Going back to Rockwell, Balanchine broke rules, yes, but he knew what the rules were. So did Robbins, Masine, Nijinsky, Nijinska, Ashton, Tudor. They could teach class. They understood pointe work completely. And partnering. The feeling I get from watching the crossover works is that these "dance makers" don't understand the foundation of classical ballet enough to skew it or turn it on its side. Rockwell doesn't make their case.

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I have to make a brief comment at this point -- thank you, Jeff! This is all bright side, as far as I'm concerned. Repertory is one of the central issues in ballet today, and these issues should be discussed -- and they're being discussed! Please keep on talking, pro or con. There have been a lot of very cogent and interesting comments on this thread and we have a pretty good idea that they're being read.

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:dry:

...Balanchine technique and Vaganova (or any other classic) technique, in that classic technique is based on showing the positions as seperate units, whereas Balanchine wanted his dancers to stop thinking in positions and picture their steps in lines of continuous movements...

I know this is not the forum, however this statement is not exactly true. It is a complicated issue which could be interesting for Ballet Talk for Dancers though. Vaganova ideology is also a system of teaching that aims to have the dancers "picture their steps in lines of continuous movement".

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Call for papers.

I've gotten a few emails this morning that are formal comments about the issues raised in John Rockwell's Sunday pieces and the letters (not written in collusion) by Alexandra Tomalonis and Leigh Witchel. These were formal comments, intended for publication and we will print them in DanceView Times (a site that is not linked to Ballet Talk) next week.

I'd like to invite anyone reading this thread to also submit comments -- on any side of this issue, and I mean that. Please make them comments about the dance issues rather than individuals. We'll print a comments section in next week's issue. I can't promise to print all letters, but I will contact you and let you know. We reserve the right to edit or shorten.

Send comments to: (I'm not putting put up a clickable URL to avoid spam bots)

comments at danceviewtimes.com

Thank you.

Alexandra Tomalonis, Editor

DanceView Times

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I think Mel sums it up perfectly.

I give Rockwell two cheers for acknowledging Leigh and Alexandra (and the site) and taking the time to respond, which, as kfw notes, he didn’t have to do and many in his place would not have done. I don’t much care for the way his paraphrases misrepresent their arguments – here come those straw men again – and I’m disturbed by what seems to be a penchant for oversimplification of very complex issues. It’s not so much that he disagrees; it’s his apparent lack of understanding of what’s at stake.

Now I must scurry back to my fetid hut.......

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Having considered this state of affairs for some two+ weeks now, I dare say that I sense a return to the aesthetics of Allen Hughes, the Times' senior dance critic before Clive Barnes. Hughes was primarily a music critic, and while it was lovely to have the NYCB Orchestra considered concert-worthy, and Robert Irving's conducting first-rate, both of which statements were true, Hughes' reviews tended to wander off somewhere into the world of music, and the dance was neglected. He was a skilled writer, but no dance critic.

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The Times used to considered that a critic well-versed in one art was qualified to review any art. Remember that Barnes was also the Times' theatre critic; he brought a dance aesthetic to his Broadway reviews. This was both good and bad.

William Goldman's The Season has a wonderful chapter on critics, with special attention paid to Mr. Barnes.

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Housekeeping note:

This thread spawned an interesting discussion about whether dancing modern technique is harmful to ballet dancers. Since it is a separate issue from the Rockwell article, it now has its very own thread in Anything Goes:

Ballet Dancers Doing Modern Dance

The original posts from this thread have been moved over there.

Take a look! :)

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re Balanchine and Vaganova -- with respect to rg, i had it from one of my teachers (who was a soloist at City Ballet when the Kirov brought Sleeping Beauty to New York) that Balanchine, at least sometimes, greatly admired the way the Kirov dancers were dancing. It was NOT the way NYCB dancers moved -- but she (Barbara Adams) was crazy about Sleeping Beauty, all hte dancers were beside themselves wanting to dance it, and Balanchine said "No, we won't do it until you can dance like THAT."

She understood him to be saying NYCB couldn't pull it off.

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Ari? Can I return back into this thread the bits of my post that were perhaps more Rockwell oriented?

Is this a first in the NY Times arts coverage where an internet forum ("chat room", shame on you Rockwell!) commentary became the subject of the article? And in the Sunday Times too? Congratulations Leigh & Alexandra for taking us to a new level. And Thank You, John Rockwell, for taking the time to respond..

even if those who are ever alert try to block it out.
... though I thought this little dig wholly undeserved.

Has anyone here done a tally of new ballet-choreographer works vs. new modern-choreographer works in ballet company repetoires? I'd love to see the results.

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Has anyone here done a tally of new ballet-choreographer works vs. new modern-choreographer works in ballet company repetoires? I'd love to see the results.

I imagine that Dance/USA might have some statistics like these, but I cn offer a quick and dirty look at Pacific Northwest Ballet's commissioning during Kent Stowell and Francia Russell's directorship.

Altogether they've commissioned around 46 new ballets from 33 choreographers. (this does not count the works that Stowell has made for the company, and the pre-existing works they've had staged). Of those, a fast breakdown:

18 choreographers who would easily be identified as "ballet" -- 23 ballets

7 choreographers who would easily be identified as "modern" -- 12 ballets

8 choreographers who work in a variety of setting (you could id them as "crossover" artists") -- 11 ballets

And, for those who like details, 10 of those artists were asked back to make another work (doesn't count choreographers who might have staged and existing work and made a new one)

There are two choreographers who have made three works each, one "ballet" (Val Caniparoli) and one "modern (Mark Dendy)

You can twist numbers in many directions, but just in terms of bulk, the majority of new works at PNB have been by people whose artistic heritage is in the ballet world.

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There's going to be a section on crossover dance on WNYC radio's "Soundcheck" hosted by John Schaefer on Monday at about 2:30 pm. I don't know much more about it except that I've been asked to participate with John Rockwell. It's live, so I guess we'll all find out what the discussion will be at the same time.

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That's great! 'Soundcheck' is a good program and Schaeffer a calm and collected host who knows enough about ballet so as not to make a fool of himself. Incidentally, the second half-hour of yesterday's show was an interview with Pierre Boulez and concentrated on "The Rite of Spring." In his role as music critic, Rockwell has been on "Soundcheck"before, but I'm sure Leigh can hold his own.

I should note that crossover music and its practitioners are frequent subjects on the show. The host is always kind and polite to his guests.

More and more, it seems to me that Rockwell's original column, the Ballet Alert responses to it, and Rockwell's counter-response were the best things that have happened to Ballet Alert in a long time.

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