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Ballet Dancers Doing Modern Dance


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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.

I cannot agree that studying modern dance repetoire weakens ballet dancers. I think it improves their ballet dancing. They might not be able to make use of that improvement in Les Sylphides, but I suspect it would even improve say the black swan pas de deux in Swan Lake. Particularly, I think it helps the men. I think it improves their ability to walk naturally on stage, for instance, and I think it informs the use of their backs. Did straying straying from the Soviet repetoire ruin Baryshnikov? Was he wrong to have defected? This is not to say that the ballet & modern repetoire is interchangeable. Certainly if one is not having the demands of the classical repetoire made on one regularly the ability to perform such work slips. I agree strongly that the future of ballet should be built upon the existing institution not grafted on from some modern institution (yes, Graham, Limon, Cunningham are certainly institutions as much as NYCB is), but I think we hurt our argument by claiming that doing any modern at all hurts ballet. I agree with Alexandra that the ballet dancers don't perform modern as well as modern dancers do, and I think that ballet companies are not the ideal institution to mount say "Appalachian Spring" (from either a balletomane's or a modern dance lover's point of view), but learning to express themselves physically through yet another aesthetic deepens any artist's expression. It's not that we're against cross fertilization, it's that we're against abandoning the core of ballet's aesthetic while we flit after commissioning whatever "hot" new modern choreographer there is.

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

and off topic...

QUOTE

...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".

And what about that directive that it doesn't matter how one gets from position to position, that it's the positions themselves that must sing out like a string of diamonds?

Simplicity is dull, isn't it?

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I cannot agree that studying modern dance repetoire weakens ballet dancers.  I think it improves their ballet dancing.  They might not be able to make use of that improvement in Les Sylphides, but I suspect it would even improve say the black swan pas de deux in Swan Lake.  Particularly, I think it helps the men.  I think it improves their ability to walk naturally on stage, for instance, and I think it informs the use of their backs.  Did straying straying from the Soviet repetoire ruin Baryshnikov? Was he wrong to have defected?

. . .

It's not that we're against cross fertilization, it's that we're against abandoning the core of ballet's aesthetic while we flit after commissioning whatever "hot" new modern choreographer there is. 

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

I would have quoted Amy's entire post, except that takes up too much space, but I think she poses several very interesting questions, most of which are central to any discussion of theatrical dance in the 20th, now 21st century.

I don't really want to discuss John Rockwell's pov here, but rather this issue of categories, and what they do and don't capture about dancing. Several years ago I wound up writing an entry for the International Dictionary of Modern Dance about the influence of MD on ballet -- no big revelations, but just the observation that people had been quietly working back and forth for many years before the big surge in "crossover" work, that the policies of arts funding agencies in the 80's-onward tended to encourage ballet directors to look beyond the "usual" sources for new choreography, that choreographer development programs like Carlisle and Pacific Northwest Ballet's Off-Stage were trying on one level to emulate the emphasis on dance making that exists in most modern dance curricula, and that these things were happening at the same time that the ballet world lost most of its long-term classically influenced choreographers.

I think we should move this discussion out of this thread on J Rockwell's initial work as the Time's chief dance critic, but I'd love to pursue it further. Could I prevail on one of the board moderators to do the linking -- I don't know how and don't have the time to experiment right now.

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I cannot agree that studying modern dance repetoire weakens ballet dancers. I think it improves their ballet dancing. They might not be able to make use of that improvement in Les Sylphides, but I suspect it would even improve say the black swan pas de deux in Swan Lake. Particularly, I think it helps the men. I think it improves their ability to walk naturally on stage, for instance,

---------------------------

Amy, sorry, but ballet artists should not walk naturally neither in "Les Sylphides" or in "Swan Lake", this is a special, artificial walk, which should be taught in ballet school. There are insurmountable obstacles between ballet and modern approach to the dance and, clearly, Mr. Rockwell don't understand it. Modern goes from natural movements of the body, ballet - from geometrical perspective. Modern is trying to earth down the presence of dancers, ballet sends them to the air. If you'll try to put chaines of reality on ballet shoulders, it will die.

Andrei.

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Andrei thank you for your post - and I love the way you've described the important differences between modern and ballet.

Not being a dancer, nor a ballet critic, but the mother of a formerly very serious ballet student who was required to take Modern once a week, I can state that for dancers who are naturally "turned out" etc., that this modern class caused untold injuries for her and for the vast majority of her classmates. Daughter's PT at West Side Dance Physical Therapy advised her not to do what the modern teacher requested and if possible to avoid having to take the class at all...

Granted this does not speak to the choreographic side of this discussion, but Andrei's post really hit home for me.

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Two observations.

1 Ballet dancers desperately want two things. They want to dance Odette Odile. But they also desperately want to dance new stuff. They don't just want to become a museum piece. However the new stuff has to be the real deal. Just listen to dancers after the premiere - no matter whether the audience was ecstatic or not, dancers want to be challenged by the steps and if they aren't they don't care for the piece.

2 There are dancers who do best in classical. There are dancers who have bodies made for contemporary pieces. And there are dancers who do well in contemporary stuff, and take that kind of expressiveness and creativity to the classic roles and do astoundin perfomances.

It's been my experience that dancers who've been through a creative process with Hans van Manen bring so much more to a Petipa or Balanchine ballet - because they've lost the museum feel. It's if they feel closer to the original dancers of those pieces, who after all were much freeer in their expression, too.

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Amy wrote:

I think we hurt our argument by claiming that doing any modern at all hurts ballet.

I didn't have the feeling that it was what was being said, but rather that the problem was that the proportion of modern/ crossover works in the repertories of some companies was becoming so high that they couldn't really keep a good enough classical ballet training. And for example, it is indeed a problem for some French companies (like the Ballet du Rhin or the Ballet de Nancy), which used to be ballet companies, but now perform mostly modern/crossover works with only one or two ballets in the season- how can the corps de ballet be properly trained ? I think there's quite a big difference in performing a few modern/ crossover works once in a while, and having a repertory including mostly such works.

And also, as BW pointed out, there seems to be an increased risk of injuries when the dancers have to use some very different styles in a short period of time.

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It's been my experience that dancers who've been through a creative process with Hans van Manen bring so much more to a Petipa or Balanchine ballet - because they've lost the museum feel. It's if they feel closer to the original dancers of those pieces, who after all were much freeer in their expression, too.

Then there's the case of Suzanne Farrell, who grew up dancing Balanchine, and after four years with Maurice Bejart's Ballet of the 20th Century, came back to NYCB and danced Balanchine better than ever.

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This is a very interestimg topic. I agree with the observations by Herman Steven. But I also am interested in the economic issue for smaller dance companies, since "best for the dancers" also includes providing them with the opportunity to work at their art. How can you attract audiences if you limit yourself to training and programming from just one genre?

Our local company (22 dancers, 40-week contract, 60+ performances) describes itself as "classical, modern, jazz" though training is ballet-based. They do Balanchine, Parsons, Forsythe, Ezralow, Stevenson, Caniparoli, Nebrada, etc., etc. -- which allow audiences to see a wide variety of choreography ordinarily not available in our area. The price is that they can't do everything at the level of highest proficiency. This shows most in the difficult classical and neo-classical, unfortunately.

My question is, what SHOULD companies that are not at the very top of the international or even national food-chain, be programming if the goals are: (a) dance at the highest level; (b) do the best for the dancers; and © (b) draw audiences and donor support to stay alive?

Edited by bart
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I didn't have the feeling that it was what was being said, but rather that the problem was that the proportion of modern/ crossover works in the repertories of some companies was becoming so high that they couldn't really keep a good enough classical ballet training. And for example, it is indeed a problem for some French companies (like the Ballet du Rhin or the Ballet de Nancy), which used to be ballet companies, but now perform mostly modern/crossover works with only one or two ballets in the season- how can the corps de ballet be properly trained ? I think there's quite a big difference in performing a few modern/ crossover works once in a while, and having a repertory including mostly such works.

Oh, absolutely. There's great pressure on classical ballet companies to do more accessible work - from part of the audience, from many critics, and from the powers that be. Companies directors need to be really strong to resist that pressure, because once you go that way there's no going back.

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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? 

Simplicity is dull, isn't it?

i totally agree with you. some of the best ballet dancers i have seen are incredibly strong modern dancers also.

Edited by Leigh Witchel
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Yes, many fine ballet dancers are also excellent in the modern style. But for most dancers, is the reverse true as well? And why or why not?

As a strategy for companies, how -- in practical terms -- does cross-over actually work? Is the content of daily company class (as oppossed to rehearsal time in particular modern dances) altered?

I remember hearing a post-performance talk by the director of a ballet-based modern company mention that half the company class time was traditional ballet. The idea seems to be that SOME on-going ballet training is good for much modern choreography. However, is training, practice, and time allocation devoted to modern technique at all beneficial to ballet?

I certainly notice a lot more difficulty maintaining center balance in turns as well as an awful lot of forward-falling at the end of big jumps. Not to mention many other problems (I'm sure) that I don't have the eye or experience to notice. Or the very common phenomenon where most of the dancer's steps are fine-- even brilliant -- but the performance does not cohere or satisfy as a whole.

Edited by bart
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In order to dance ballet qua ballet, there are so many changes the body has to make -- turnout, stretched muscles, pulling up, as just a few examples. That's what makes a ballet dancer so instantly recognizable from blocks away. So when you start training the ballet dancer to get into the earth, to turn in, it may prompt new insight into their ballet technique, and that is helpful. But as the ballet body assimilates in a second-nature kind of way, the movement qualities of modern, of necessity the capabilities it worked so hard to achieve begin to be compromised. It's not the same as the ability to speak several languages with equal fluency.

It's much easier for a modern dancer with ballet training to simply revert to the more "natural" demands of that technique.

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Then there's the case of Suzanne Farrell, who grew up dancing Balanchine, and after four years with Maurice Bejart's Ballet of the 20th Century, came back to NYCB and danced Balanchine better than ever.

Béjart's style is indeed very different from Balanchine's, and I don't know whether he is considered as a ballet choreographer in the US, but from what I've read, Béjart was trained as a ballet dancer (he started a bit late, but studied with the former Maryinsky ballerina Lubov Egorova, and also with Léo Staats, and with Mme Roussane who also trained a lot of famous people like Roland Petit, Pierre Lacotte, Violette Verdy, Leslie Caron...) and had a (short) performing career as a ballet dancer. His works use ballet technique and as far as I know, he always hired ballet-trained dancers for his companies.

So while it must have been a very different kind of ballet for Ms Farrell, I guess it wasn't as much as a change as if she had been performing with a company with a completely non-ballet technique...

Edited by carbro
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Estelle wrote....

So while it must have been a very different kind of ballet for Ms Farrell, I guess it wasn't as much as a change as if she had been performing with a company with a completely non-ballet technique...

And at that time company class chez Bejart was (probably still is) totally classical.

Edited by carbro
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Amy, sorry, but ballet artists should not walk naturally neither in "Les Sylphides" or in "Swan Lake", this is a special, artificial walk, which should be taught in ballet school.  ...... [snip] .....Modern is trying to earth down the presence of dancers, ballet sends them to the air. If you'll try to put chaines of reality on ballet shoulders, it will die.

Andrei, my apologies for not writing more precisely... I meant not that ballet artists should walk naturally (in say a heel to toe pedestrian style), but rather that they should look natural when they walked. Far too often I've seen a ballet artist walking very unconvincingly... not so much stylized, as awkwardly... as if they felt foolish...and I notice this much more often in the men than in the women... I wish I had Kshesinskaya's biography on hand, I could have sworn she began some argument about walking naturally on stage.

Not all Modern is focussed on bringing the weight down into the earth and not all ballet is about weightlessness.... one reason I mentioned "Les Sylphides" and the Black Swan pdd is that I can't say Black Swan is about weightlessness...

I'm not saying that any ballet training should be forfeited to make room for experience with modern but rather that ballet training should be supplemented with a physical acquaintance with modern training.

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Not being a dancer, nor a ballet critic, but the mother of a formerly very serious ballet student who was required to take Modern once a week, I can state that for dancers who are naturally "turned out" etc., that this modern class caused untold injuries for her and for the vast majority of her classmates. Daughter's PT at West Side Dance Physical Therapy advised her not to do what the modern teacher requested and if possible to avoid having to take the class at all...

BW, I cannot imagine what kind of modern this was... there are so many different kinds, of course... though I can easily imagine a teacher "having it in" for ballet students and not teaching them appropriately ... I can also suspect students hating the movement might injure themselves in a way that more openminded students might not... it's possible to be injured by not respecting the movement, crazy as that might seem... I've been thinking a lot about your experience, particularly as it's the first time I've heard of such a thing. Did the school where your very serious student was required to take the modern discuss it's reasons for requiring it? Did they later cancel the class as the injuries piled up? I do wish you would say what kind of modern it was.

I'm also a little mystified by the problem being caused by "natural" turn out... do you mean your daughter's hips couldn't accomodate working in parallel? In otherwords, would simple walking be dangerous as well? It keeps reminding me of how Villella once said something about how he became injured by walking his dog. And then, of course, I got to remembering how one used to be able to spot the ballet kids on the upper West Side by their "duck walk", and how that doesn't seem to be fashionable any more, and hasn't been for decades now. I can't imagine that kind of turn out is what you mean. My own feet are sort of "naturally turned out" if you will, so that if I stand with them in parallel and plie, my knees knock together, so that to work properly in parallel I have to turn my feet slightly out.

I went to school with two dancers who were required to take modern classes five days-a-week in addition to their ballet, but that didn't stop one of them from dancing with ABT under Baryshnikov and another from becoming a principal at Houston Ballet. I did hear a lot of dancers complaining at first about how much they hated having to take modern and then hearing from the same dancers a few months later how much they loved modern.

It also reminds me of how dangerous Balanchine technique seemed at the time... we used to talk about the tendonitis and the large number of the company out on injury, etc... but I can't imagine anyone nowadays complaining about being asked to dance Balanchine repetoire, and the technique is required to dance the repetoire properly, I should think.

I would very much appreciate it if Paul Parrish would post his thoughts on the issue of modern class being dangerous to ballet students.

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I think something that can happen very often is that really serious, pre-professional ballet training can actually "train out" a natural instinct for movement in a young person. The emphasis and intense focus on technique, and the incredible effort required to achieve as high a level of it as possible, can make young dancers sort of stiff, in a way.

This is another reason why ballet dancers look so different doing modern dance pieces than modern dancers do.

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I didn't have the feeling that it was what was being said, but rather that the problem was that the proportion of modern/ crossover works in the repertories of some companies was becoming so high that they couldn't really keep a good enough classical ballet training. And for example, it is indeed a problem for some French companies (like the Ballet du Rhin or the Ballet de Nancy), which used to be ballet companies, but now perform mostly modern/crossover works with only one or two ballets in the season- how can the corps de ballet be properly trained ? I think there's quite a big difference in performing a few modern/ crossover works once in a while, and having a repertory including mostly such works.

Estelle, I'm entirely in agreement with you. It's preposterous to think the classics can be maintained without proper attention... That's why I was wondering if there has been a tally done of company repetoire... I think perhaps you have it worse in Europe than we have it here in the US?

It's almost the essence of fine art that it requires an extreme amount of constant attention to bring it up to that state of refinement... post-modern glib won't sustain it. And then, of course, there are those who forget art needs life in addition to studio work... there's an understanding of what happens to a piece when it's "over rehearsed" until all the life has died in it, but what's the equivalent for the training of a dancer, who never seems to leave the ballet studio, so much so that their dancing is so devoid of personality that they're not fit for anything beyond corps work?

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We used to have this debate at School. Several things come to mind. One, do Esplanade on tour a few times and tell me that some modern dance isn't dangerous to anyone; much less ballet dancers (though it's probably my favorite piece, even without the bell bottoms). Two, ballet companies have more money than modern companies, so ballet companies get famous works of modern choreographers because they can afford them. Three, it would seem nearly impossible to have a career of any length without addressing the necessity of possessing more than a passing familiarity with modern technique. While there may be a segment of the population of professional ballet dancers who can avoid doing a single contraction, I suspect the percentage to be very very small.

There may be advantages to a homogenized tuition; however, unless we're able to recreate Children of Theatre Street, I think we're stuck with a melange of styles and genres. Even those kids had to take Character.

Long story longer: versatility = good.

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Welcome to BalletTalk, Hermes. I see you wasted no time in contributing to the site. I hope we'll be hearing from you often.

If you haven't yet visited, you might want to visit -- and maybe join BalletTalk for Dancers. http://dancers.invisionzone.com. If you wish to join that site, we only ask that you keep the same name, for consistency's sake.

You might also want to drop by our Welcome page and introduce yourself.

Thanks for your post. A good summation of the state of affairs.

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... there's an understanding of what happens to a piece when it's "over rehearsed" until all the life has died in it, but what's the equivalent for the training of a dancer, who never seems to leave the ballet studio, so much so that their dancing is so devoid of personality that they're not fit for anything beyond corps work?

That's what I mean--- and one more thing that separates the cream of the crop, so to speak. Ballet training can drive out one's natural movement instinct and impulse. It takes a person with a really driving, powerful, innate sense of movement that will refuse to be squelched by the regulated, almost machine-like nature of ballet classes, day in and day out, for years on end. When that ability to move shines through and is used in concert with that hard-won technique, you have a (ballet) dancer that can go beyond a lifetime of corps work--- and, incidentally, do justice to modern, contemporary, ethnic, etc. dances as well.

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