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Balanchine and emploi

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I'm curious about Balanchine and how he used emploi with his dancers and in his choreography. Violette Verdy and Patricia McBride are two dancers that because of size, and stage personality would be classified as soubrettes and Balanchine did make some lovely soubrette type roles for both. Verdy had Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux, McBride had Coppelia and Tarentella. However he also explored a different side of both dancers, a side you normally don't assume to see in a soubrette. Verdy's role in Liebleslieder Waltzer, McBride's in BS Quartet.

You can see the same thing with the men. For instance, Arthur Mitchell I would classify as a dancer noble. But Balanchine cast him as Puck. Eddie Villella seemed like a demi-character, but Balanchine cast him in Swan Lake and so on.

Did Balanchine believe in using emploi when casting dancers? Or was it simply a case of knowing what a certain dancer could do, and then wanting to stretch that dancer. Or how about the theory that he picked, nutured and advanced these wonderful dancer because they could transcend emploi? I mean good grief, what emploi would you classify Suzanne Farrell as belonging to? :unsure:

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From what I've been able to gather about Balanchine, he dismissed the whole idea of categories. He took from a dancer what he or she had to offer, given the full range of their personalities and techniques. He tried to give them roles that both flattered and extended them, and when casting a new dancer in a role, he was very quick to change a passage if it wasn't working for a particular dancer.

Oh, and Verdy has said (in the documentary "Violette and Mr. B", I think) that while she premiered Tchaikovsky pas, it was made on Diana Adams.

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Perky, we had a long and fascinating thread on emploi some years ago. I don't think it's publicly available any more, but I'll look into it.

I think Balanchine used emploi extensively -- but not mechanically or restrictively. As a balletmaster -- casting roles in existing ballets -- he had to choose those dancers who fit the part (leaving aside the matter of his adjusting steps to accomodate dancers). When Mikhail Baryshnikov joined the company, there were complaints from some quarters that Balanchine was typecasting him in demi-caractere roles (Harlequinade, Rubies -- the Villella rep -- and Apollo, which he considered a demi-caractere role), even though he also cast him in other kinds of roles.

He also used emploi a great deal in his corps casting. Watching the progress of a new member of the company (with a girl, at least), you could see how they started, and for a long time continued, in the parts most obviously suited to them. (This analysis began most obviously with height -- small girls in Second Movement Bizet, tall girls in Third Movement, etc.) Then, as they developed and their unique qualities came to the fore, he would start to cast them in roles best suited to the kind of dancer they had become.

But as a choreographer, he was able to extract from a dancer whatever he or she had to offer and create with it something new. That is, as a great choreographer, he was able to see beyond the obvious and bring out in a dancer facets of themselves that others might not have seen -- a kind of idealized vision of the dancer that the dancer then had to live up to. Farrell, I think, can be classified primarily as a lyrical ballerina, and if she'd landed in another company she probably would have spent her career doing Swan Lake and the like. But Balanchine's genius was able to show us so much more of her than that.

I've got to go find that emploi thread . . .

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Farrell? We'd call her a neoclassical, but I could make a case that she's a 20th century danseuse noble.

I think Balanchine did use emploi, and in a much more sophisticated way than the "tall boy/short boy" distinction. When we had our first discussion of emploi on this forum, a dancer who had danced leading roles in Jewels was interested in the discussion and, after reading about the genres went through all three ballets in Jewels and put each role in its proper emploi. In some ballets (the more modern or experimental ones), it wasn't appropriate, but where it was, he used it. (In an interview, Una Kai, a Balanchine stager from the '60s, spoke of Phlegmatic being a "demicaractere" role, so even in some "modernist" works he used it.) I think there's often a misunderstanding about Balanchine -- he did experiment, surely, and he loved working with American dancers because they would follow him, without saying, "I'm a soubrette; I don't do that step." BUT he also used evertything he knew about ballet, and emploi was one of the basics.

There are many shades of demicaractere -- and I don't pretend to know all of them -- just as there are different subtypes of sopranos. In ballet, soubrettes can be quite sophisticated. I think the term originated to denote a saucy chambemaid, but in ballet, the soubrette can wear a little black dress. Another thing worth mentioning is that stars almost always venture way outside their employ, and often successfully, and that even within a category, there's a range that expands as a dancer gains experience.

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Well, what about Merrill Ashley? She danced in every act of Jewels (Rubies [first ballerina] only once). She did Swan Lake, 2nd Mvt Symph in C, but also Donizetti Variations and Square Dance, and originated Ballo. Heather Watts' rep was probably as diverse. Both were of the medium-tall height -- generally considered too tall for the many soubrette roles both danced.

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Ashley would be just plain tall, wouldn't she?
I saw Merrill Ashley around SAB, and watched her teach a class, while my daughter was auditioning for different SI's there 3 years ago. I was surprised that she didn't seem that tall! 5'6" or so, I'd say.
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I just found a reference to Ashley's illusion of height in a DanceView Times (DC) review written last year by George Jackson about the Miami City Ballet.

Also, a good portion of each ballet's original purpose, something of its essence, ought to be apparent. Arguable, of course, is what constitutes essence and what accident. Balanchine made the ballerina role in Ballo della Regina for a particular dancer, Merrill Ashley. She had specific attributes. One was height; Ashley looked tall, or at least long legged.

In fact, the question of emploi is touched on here and there in the review:

From Miami, Spunky Balanchine and Villella's The Neighborhood Ballroom

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Okay, from the horse's mouth -- make that "ballerina's" mouth :FIREdevil: -- Merrill Ashley is 5'7". She states her height on the webcast of "Balanchine Teaching and Technique" filmed last year during the Balanchine 100 celebration.

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