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“Why all the fuss about Balanchine?”

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In an attempt to catch up with the views expressed in the forums, I found the posts about Farrell’s company fascinating. Unfortunately I have not seen it, nor the Miami City’s Ballet. Perhaps someone who has been fortunate could comment on the differences implied in the following articles:

Oct 8, 2004 by RACHEL HOWARD in Voice of Dance

“We have entered an age of the Balanchine smorgasbord. You can walk down the buffet line and pick your favorite Jewels as Miami City Ballet’s, your favorite Stravinsky Violin Concerto as San Francisco Ballet’s; your favorite Serenade as Suzanne Farrell Ballet’s. You can make a case for preferring these renditions based not on uniformity of technique, but on subtle yet crucial shadings of interpretation, intention, and mood. Whatever your argument, the conditions for it remain the same: NYCB no longer holds the monopoly of authority on how these ballets should be danced. Whether it relinquished this authority or whether that authority was bound to fade during the Balanchine diaspora remains, to me, an open question.”

A view that I tend to share is expressed by Joan Acoccella in the 2004-07-05 New Yorker: TRIBUTE The Balanchine centennial.

“But, once the smoke cleared from the altars, it was obvious that the one tribute City Ballet owes Balanchine, that of dancing his ballets competently, is not being paid……. What they cannot manage is his pure-dance ballets—that is, the ballets that were the focus of his career and his chief contribution to twentieth-century art. Balanchine was a Platonist……Since Peter Martins took over, in 1983, the company’s technical level has steadily declined. Balanchine’s ballets are now too hard for them.”

Ms. Acoccella said, “"Critics influence each other, and move in packs," she said; "that’s a whole world in itself, being a critic." To introduce a dissenting voice, a view by Paul Ben-Itzakin the 2001 The Dance Insider. “But Arlene Croce is now more or less retired, and in her stead we have Joan Acocella, a dilettante of a dance writer who is single-handedly dragging the New Yorker's one-time reputation as the leading vehicle for serious, expert dance criticism into the gutter. I might not have put it that strongly a couple of weeks ago; every time I was about to conclude that Ms. Acocella's rapier wit masked a serious deficiency in dance knowledge,”

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Balletaime, I'm not sure what your subject is here. Is it the way NYCB dances Balanchine? Is it the varying interpretations of Balanchine's work offered by different companies? Is it the validity of critical condemnation of Martins's leadership? Is it Accocela's bona fides as a dance critic?

They're all good questions, but one at a time! :)

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Thanks Ari for the correction,

I’m too eager, want the whole bundle. But realistically “the varying interpretations of Balanchine's work offered by different companies?”, will be more than sufficient and welcome.

I attempted to put the question in a context historic opinions and caused the confusion.

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In keeping with Balletaime's wish, I've split off the discussion of whether NYCB's current standard in Balanchine has dropped over the years. Those wishing to discuss this hot topic, please go to the NYCB forum for Balanchine's Ballets -- Has Performance Quality Dropped?.

Please use this thread to discuss the different interpretations of Balanchine's works offered by various companies. Lots to talk about here! How can we tell which of the many versions of a given ballet is "right"? Or can there be several correct versions, depending on what era in Balanchine's life the stager comes from?

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Most of the Balanchine ballets performed by Pacific Northwest Ballet are staged by Francia Russell in the versions she was taught by Balanchine when she was a member of NYCB as a dancer, on staff, or as a stager in the pre-Trust days.

The versions performed by are different than those performed by NYCB. Some of the choreographic are relatively small, while others are as substantial as performing the complete Apollo compared to the truncated version. Some changes are to style and emphasis. For example, most NYCB-goers who reported on Ballet Talk were not impressed with Noelani Pantastico's guest appearance last year in the Second Movement of Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet; the ballet is performed in a more sunny, upbeat way in the PNB staging, and, in retrospect, it's not surprising that her performance appeared out of place in the NYCB staging.

As far as correctness is concerned, Balanchine trusted Russell completely. They discussed explicitly how she staged the ballets as she learned them, even when he was teaching alternate versions and steps to NYCB, and did so with his full approval. (Maria Tallchief relates the same approval in Dancing for Mr. B.) I have to conclude from this that the "real" Balanchine is a spectrum of "correct" versions. To me, whether the performances are "real" is determined by whether the dancers attack the choreography with speed, clarity, energy, and committment, and whether they breathe life into the choreography.

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“Those of us whose local companies are Balanchine influenced (passionately so, in the case of Miami) have a stake in this debate even if we can't get to NY as often as we like.” bart, March 28 in the NYCB subforum.

One of the changes that Nissinen as AD instituted in BB is a Balanchine component in the annual program mix. In ‘04-’05 Rubies and Divertimento were attempted. A choice ambitious, perhaps suicidal given the proximity of NYCB but interesting in that he seems to view such as a balancing, conservative part, to the works of Kylian, Elo, Forsythe, Morris and Childs. The ‘05-’06 season has world premieres by Mark Morris, Jorma Elo’s Carmen; and the premieres of James Kudelka’s full-length Cinderella and of Bronislava Nijinska’s rarely seen Les Noces, indicating that the changes in BB are not a single season phenomena.

Returning to Balanchine’s oevre, in Lorna Feyjoo Nissinen has a ballerina with the speed and clarity to attempt an interpretation but she’s was trained in Cuba with the tendency to over-act the role. In the ‘03 season Ballo de la Regina was attempted under the direction of Merill Ashley. While the local criticism was favorable, my reaction was intense disappointment. The dance had none of the lightness, effervescence, the variation of speed in the execution of the step that I had looked for. In the spectacular Plisetskaya jeté the dancer was so intimidated that she barely got off the ground. What was apparent was the strain in executing the steps. I had previewed the work on tape where Ashley danced the role. Was such a comparison fair?

In Dancing For Balanchine Ashley recounts, “You know, I try before, but no one could do, so now we will do.” A definitive statement that Balanchine was looking for something special in the role.

Ashley, “But I fear little Ballo won’t stand up to such punishment. Some steps, the easier ones, will of course still look wonderful, but if the tempos are slowed to accommodate dancers unable to cope with speed, then the brilliance will be lost. If the timing is not exactly right in many of the steps, the impression of clarity, the image of the step reinforced in the mind by the sound of the music will be lost. In the ballerina role, the added element of joy – not to mention musicality – is essential.

In the Ballet Talk where the program was discussed, audience is invited to ask questions and I raised the issue of the technical virtuosity necessary for the role. Ashley responded with a question, “What would you do? Not do the ballet at all? Let the work die?” I had no answer then, nor do I now. But the question is important – Isn’t it the job of the AD to preserve artistic integrity and not schedule a Balanchine work when the talent is not there?

Such a question may not be pertinent for companies like San Francisco, Miami or Pacific Northwest where the Ads are former Balanchine dancers but for the regional companies it should be.

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One way of looking at this might perhaps be in a longer term. In the same way that a director might program a program-length classic like Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake, realizing that the first set of performances might fall short of their ultimate desires, but that with time and repetition the quality will rise. I didn't see the performances that distressed you, and can't say how far short of the mark they fell, but here in Seattle where we've had the good luck to see quite alot of Balanchine, well staged, there is still a learning curve. Lik everywhere, performers are better with repetition, and grow in the role.

Perhaps I'm being unrealistic, but I'd rather see a flawed production of Ballo than none at all.

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Wouldn't Ashley have set the Boston Ballet production? It's her ballet.

I agree with Sandi, for a different reason. Even if the current cast isn't right for the ballet, at some point, a dancer will come along who is perfect for the role. You keep the ballet in rep for that day. Break the chain of performance and memory and the ballet will die.

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Wouldn't Ashley have set the Boston Ballet production?  It's her ballet.

  Even if the current cast isn't right for the ballet, at some point, a dancer will come along who is perfect for the role. 

How true, How true :) The 'La Sonnambula' sleepwalker was waiting for Allegra Kent, and the 2nd movement of the Bizet needed a Farrell or an Ananiashvilli. They were better than their predecessors.

(I still can't get those blue boxes for a quote..... :D

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(I still can't get those blue boxes for a quote..... :D

This software can be tricky with UBB Code (which is what makes the blue boxes, italics, and other formatting). For quotes, take a look at the reply box and make sure that there's only one QUOTE at the beginning of the quoted material, and only one /QUOTE at the end. If there are two QUOTEs, for instance, it won't work.

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Balletaime, Boston Ballet did Balanchine ballets long before Mikko Nissinen came there. Between 1989 and 1994, which is when I lived there, I can think of Theme and Variations, The Four Temperaments, Allegro Brillante, Apollo, Ballet Imperial, La Sonnambula and Bourree Fantasque. I know there were others between 1994 and when he came. This isn't meant as a knock against the current director but just thought I should point it out, it isn't a new thing for them at all! Not to mention how much he helped them when the company was first founded.

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Quite correct Mme. Hermine, as my view was short sighted. What I tried to say was that Nissinen has indicated that Balanchine’s works would play a more prominent role in the growth of the company’s status. We might diverge in our opinion of how and whether this can be achieved. In my opinion this would require a stronger commitment to the school and teachers. To dance Balanchine requires the commitment of the AD daily teaching the company class, so that his vision of style is imprinted on the bodies of the dancers.

In 50 years, approximately 4 generations of dancers if we assume a 8 year curriculum, BB school has produced but 2 principal dancers. The last quit the company just after her promotion because of the teacher continuity question. Such a history does not inspire confidence that the company can acquire the technique to dance Balanchine well.

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You can't really say in 50 years, though, because in those 50 years the school has been many schools; the strongest and most consistent one having produced Sarah Lamb, to whom I assume you are referring, and that is now being deconstructed, I suppose. I think they've danced Balanchine extremely well before this, though.

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Wouldn't Ashley have set the Boston Ballet production?  It's her ballet.

I agree with Sandi, for a different reason.  Even if the current cast isn't right for the ballet, at some point, a dancer will come along who is perfect for the role.  You keep the ballet in rep for that day.  Break the chain of performance and memory and the ballet will die.

Rarely if ever has criticism influenced the choreographer or inhibited the dancer. So this is a tempest in a teacup. Yet Leigh has unveiled a chasm in judgment. Is there a chrism?

Merill Ashley did stage BB’s Ballo and it’s her ballet. Balanchine left it for her. So what’s the beef? Is Balanchine’s opinion, ““You know, I try before, but no one could do, so now we will do.” an absolute and if now none can meet the criteria, shouldn’t Ballo be staged? What of Merill, the dancer’s concern that this small work can be killed by lack of technique? Well that was in 1978, we’re in a new century! As Emerson pointed out, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

So until the glorious morning of Ashley’s reincarnation, let’s stage Ballo any way we can, any way we want to. If the dancer can’t handle the speed, have the conductor slow down. It’s his job to have the ballerina look good. If the technique is sloppy, you’re too close to the stage. You’re probably a tourist who can afford the expensive seats.

The codification of vocabulary of the danse d'école is inhibiting creativity. It’s old hat. Who can afford to spend 8 years learning steps, be shut up in a ballet studio, when they can be “going out and, you know, living a bit” as Matthew Bourne incisively put it. Who according to Joan Acocella is probably the most acclaimed choreographer in England today. Would you choose Marius Petipas Swan Lake over the “deconstructions” of Bourne’s all-male masterpiece? You would! Well, he set “La Sylphide in a public toilet”. Now that’s what I call ‘au currant’, that’s creativity!

Let’s not quibble that it’s a bit out of context, I quote Ms. A.Tomalonis from Balletphobia,” It is, by its very nature, elitist, exclusionary, antidemocratic and (although this is very seldom stated so boldly) anti-American.” The once great American dance critic John Martin would agree. He was a most thoughtful critic since he took 20 years to see that there was something to Balanchine while he recognized the genius of Graham immediately.

Thus I must sadly agree that with W, we must stage no matter what. Let quality and judgement be taken care of by the next generation. Let’s above all beware of the label “elitism”. Keep in mind, “I’m all right, you’re all right” That’s where the beef is.

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You can't really say in 50 years, though, because in those 50 years the school has been many schools; the strongest and most consistent one having produced Sarah Lamb, to whom I assume you are referring, and that is now being deconstructed, I suppose.  I think they've danced Balanchine extremely well before this, though.

Mme. Hermine, do you know if Nissinen teaches the company class? Is there such at BB?

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Mme. Hermine, I'm sorry to have lapsed into obscurity (again). I only meant to make a passing comment on Post #14, where Balletaime made mention of elitism in the course of some tastily parodistic (?) observations, not to lead the discussion off topic.

Which was about the quality or lack of it in Balanchine performed by companies other than NYCB, right? Actually, I think it helps to discuss what's happened at NYCB by comparison and contrast with what we see elsewhere. Was some of that what you had in mind, Balletaime, when you brought up "the whole package"? For one thing, it would shed light on what might have happened at NYCB, if it's happening elsewhere. And I think I do sometimes see Balanchine danced Balanchine's way, which is the "correct" way and which was different every night, especially as alternate casts came out. Oops, see, I'm talking about his old NYCB, and this forum is about other companies today.

Everybody's different, I think, and will see differently when they look at the same things. That said, okay, in recent years I've seen the most - what I would call authentic - Balanchine performances from the Suzanne Farrell Ballet and from some SAB Workshop performances, especially whatever Suki Schorer prepares. Miami City Ballet always seems headed in the right direction, and in the case of Sonatine when it was newly staged, it seemed to have reached the destination, but most of the time it looks a little subdued compared to what my memories (checked against the video evidence from time to time) tell me to expect. (That may be why Ari thought they looked tired when he saw them in Washington, if I remember him correctly.)

MCB'sAgon, which is staged for them by Farrell, looked this way, so I was quite unprepared for the quality of the Agon pas de deux she presented in her pas de deux program at the Kennedy Center. carbro's remarks on the NYCB thread help to describe the qualities I have in mind. The best words I can come up with at the moment are more fully realized (made real, not left immanent) and fresh. Balanchine himself liked to compare what he did with cooking, and so maybe I can say that Farrell serves up his ballets a pointe, as the French say, not at all raw, but just done, at that peak moment before they become... overprepared.

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