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Russian ballet arrogance--does it exist in the US?


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arrogance: a feeling or an impression of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or presumptuous claims

In a May 15th Boston Globe article (see the links thread for that date) about the rise of the Boston Ballet under Mikko Nissinen, we read in the 3rd paragraph:

...he has slowly changed the company's personnel both behind the scenes and onstage. The coaching staff he's brought in -- especially Spanish-born Trinidad Vives -- is first-rate. Those additions have largely replaced the Russian teachers and coaches whose attitude was that their dance heritage alone made them superior.

I, for one, have witnessed this attitude to quite an extreme degree the whole of my children's 11 years of dancing, and even became a willing proponent as I saw the results in their training. Still, having been trained myself in Cecchetti, and seeing the new wave of "latin" dancers taking the spotlight over the last few years, there's no question in my mind that there is more than one way to reach the top in ballet and more than one "perfect technique".

The emerging preference in the upward-spiraling direction of ballet seems to be with the Latin contingent, no matter what their training, and granted, many have had Vaganova training. However, their inherent cultural intensity is vastly different from that of the Russians and adds a delicious complexity to the whole picture.

further in the article:

Nissinen's predecessors, Anna-Marie Holmes and Bruce Marks, tried hard to ''give the faceless Boston Ballet a face," as Marks once put it. His ''face" was built on inviting modern choreographers to work with the company. Holmes, his successor, wanted the company to be as Russian as possible in style, technique, and repertory. Neither tactic was a lasting success

Where in a ballet company in the United States has pure Russian style been a "lasting success", or is it too early to tell, given that the influx of Russian teachers, coaches, and dancers is less than 15 years old. I think Ballet Internationale under Eldar Aliev is too young yet to be considered lasting (and if they end up making the desired move to Los Angeles, I'm afraid that will be their swansong).

still further:

In terms of repertory, Nissinen is primarily in the Balanchine/Mark Morris camp, the opposite of what some ballet wags dub ''Eurotrash" -- glitzy, sensationalist, emotionally overwrought fare that clashes with Nissinen's Nordic taste. Scandinavia's classical choreography steers away from the melodramatic in favor of simplicity, integrity, and elegance, characteristics of Scandinavian design in general.

Will "Scandinavian style" have more of a lasting influence in Boston, at least, than Russian style? (It seems to be working with IKEA, worldwide :thanks: ) Will the American public prefer and help sustain a style that does not constantly wag its finger at us, saying it's better than we are, simply for its origins and long ballet history. Members of the American ballet public, as a whole, are huge Balanchine supporters, and one of the reasons may be that Balanchine did not come here to convert us, but to use Americans and build on them a new style that began where the Russian style left off for him.

So, do you agree that the arrogance is there, and if so, has it reached (or is it approaching) its surfeit?

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Marga, do you know what the article called "Scandinavian classical choreography" ? Do they mean Bournonville, Lander, or some more recent Scandinavian choreographers ? (And I think that "Nordic taste" is a kind of generalization- for example Mats Ek is Scandinavian too...)

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Interesting topic, Marga. Thanks for starting it.

I think there's little doubt that most Russian dancers and teachers consider their tradition to be not only superior to all others, but the Only True Classical Style. But they're not the only ones who have felt this way about themselves. Back in the days when the Royal Ballet was the Royal Ballet, many of its supporters felt that the company was single-handedly preserving the pure classical style. I don't believe the Danes ever felt this way -- those who are more familiar with them, please correct me if I'm wrong -- and I don't know about the French.

The Russians claim that their style is directly descended from the golden age of Petipa, but in fact it has undergone some major changes since then. (Reference here our recent discussion as to whether Vaganova's system simply codified the Petipa-era style or departed from it.) Who can blame them for wanting to be proud of their achievement? But history has shown that ballet is constantly developing. It isn't possible to dance, for instance, Balanchine's ballets -- dance them properly -- with nothing but pre-Balanchine training. And Ashton's ballets were built on a foundation of Cecchetti training.

It may or may not be true that Russian training (is this synonymous with Vaganova, or is there a school of non-Vaganova Russian training?) is the best preparation for dancing the Russian classics. But no company does nothing but that. In addition to performing the work of 20th century choreographers like Balanchine and Ashton, most companies regularly produce new ballets. And today's choreographers, like Jorma Elo (who is cited in the Globe article as a choreographer who is working with the BB), make demands on dancers that Russian training doesn't envision.

So I guess what I'm saying is that, from a practical standpoint, reliance on nothing but Russian training is impractical.

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To help me understand this, can someone given example of how

"Russian" training might differ from other approaches to a specific ballet, role, or "dance." I think I know what you are talking about, but lack the technical knowledge to "see" it. Thanks.

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To help me understand this, can someone given example of how

"Russian" training might differ from other approaches to a specific ballet, role, or "dance."  I think I know what you are talking about, but lack the technical knowledge to "see" it.  Thanks.

Bart - broadly generalizing, Balanchine training (for instance) will go for speed at the expense of alignment or placement. Vaganova training tends to the opposite. They're beautifully placed and work their backs more expressively; American dancers tend to be faster with more articulate legs.

Obviously, there are exceptions, etc.

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Really interesting topic, Marga!

I really must say that as a former student of mainly Russian stylized teachers, I would have to say that yes, they feel they have the or rather A correct style. The American teachers who have been trained in Russian pedagogy seem to be more acknowledging and understanding of other ballet techniques / styles that are in existence in today's ballet world. The actual Russian teachers with Russian origins sometimes (in my opinion) do stay sort of "stuck" on their system. Again, like Ari said, it is understandable - genius! The way the coordination relates to musicality, upper body carriage and line are amazing achievements that can make a Russian trained dancer stand out from other technical methodologies. (there are many more benefits to the training...)

But, as Ari said, no or very few companies today only perform the works of Petipa or other great choreographers from that era. There always will be some Balanchine, some new work, something far from what a dancer may have trained in. So, it is important for teachers to understand why certain techniques are done they way they are done and what the possible benefits could be from them. I notice sometimes that Russian trained teachers seem to immediately criticize other techniques before possibly thinking about the upside of them.

But, it is exceptional to be able to master a general understanding of the Russian method and why they do things the way they do. I feel like Russian training is more of a discipline than a sport; which I always appreciate. What I hate is when people immediately say "Ugh, I hate Vaganova..." This is an act of ignorance and a lack of understanding. Like I said earlier, I can always spot someone (or so I think) who has had some Russian, serious training and it is commendable. I have had teachers who will immediately dismiss these dancers because they feel that the Russian system is "dead," or "outdated..." (yes, these are direct quotes) This kind of attitude is unacceptable in any discipline. I believe all forms / styles of dance technique should be treated with equal respect and a willingfullness to be interested in learning about them.

Ok, instead of studying for my exam I am writing... I need to get back to work!!! :wink:

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Regarding the Soviet-era Russians I've encountered, I've always been reminded of Hon. Henry LaBouchere's epigram on William Ewart Gladstone: "I don't mind so much that the Old Man always has the ace of trumps up his sleeve, what I do mind is his belief that God Almighty Himself put it there."

The older generation of Russians were more mellow, but maybe that was just the seasoning of age and long life.

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Thanks, Leigh, for the very clear explanation.

And yet, I've read comments on this board suggesting that some current Russian productions of Balanchine have been danced "better" than what can be seen on some evenings at the NYCB. A puzzlement?.

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Thanks, Leigh, for the very clear explanation.

And yet, I've read comments on this board suggesting that some current Russian productions of Balanchine have been danced "better" than what can be seen on some evenings at the NYCB.  A puzzlement?.

Not that puzzling. It depends on who you're talking to - but when people do say that, they tend to be saying it about the ballets that reference a Russian ballet heritage - most specifically Diamonds.

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I like the "backbone" that Vaganova training gives a young dancer, so I've no quibble with the technique itself. What I do mind, though, is the very aggressive way in which many (though certainly not all) Vaganova teachers market themselves, particularly within the US.

But I've often wondered if this isn't simply a matter of economic survival. It behooves these teachers and studio owners, many of whom are emigrees from former Eastern Bloc or Communist countries to promote themselves as the gold standard. Many of these emigrees are also involved with the new ballet competitions which seem to be springing up yearly here. They are shrewdly appealing to many American parents' weakness for seeking out "the best" -- though usually without having to do too much research. :wink: Do we fault them for learning the rules of commercialism so quickly?

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My two cents…

I agree whole heartedly that the Russian technique asks for more technical exactness than a more American style would. I spent my first years of professional training at an institution being taught that there is more than one way to do anything in ballet. We were asked to choose the way that best suited our bodies, taught to use the Russian style as a default. I think that as a younger dancer mentally and physically this was the best way I could have been introduced to dancing at a very serious level.

I have since moved on, having had the opportunity to take classes from Danny Duell and Violette Verdy two great American teachers I have thought a lot about my previous training, I use less of it now. The conclusion I have come to in one small example is that if I had not first been taught how to use the floor in a slower and more precise Russian-esk way I never would have been able to approach the American style with such a clear understanding of the need to still work for that technical perfection even though it may be literally impossible with such quick movement or dynamicism. It kills me to see people tendu (or for that matter do anything) without ever relaxing the foot into the floor, something I either correctly or incorrectly attribute to an incomplete American based training. I think I would be doing that, the person that dances on top of the floor, without understanding at a very basic level how to use the floor to its fullest advantage if I had not first been exposed to a more Russian approach.

On a side note, am I right in thinking that the Colorado ballet is one of the only full sized ballet companies in the United States that is very Vagonova based?

Another thing; I am young and haven’t had the chance to watch any old Russian video tapes. Even when I was in a Vagonova setting in men’s classes we would poke fun of what we thought of as the classically huge Russian thighs, the extreme masculinity and the ostentatious preparations and pirouettes from second. I watch recent videos and don’t see much of this. Where these misconceptions, or has the technique continue to evolve?

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Ed-maybe what you are seeing is that dancers are thinner now than they have been in the past? The Bolshoi and Kirov ballerinas appear extremely thin. I haven't looked at their men.

Regarding Russian ballet arrogance--yes their training method is wonderful, yes to what Ed posted above, but....if those who teach Vaganova tech. feel the need to loudly proclaim that their style is the only, the best, etc., don't they sound insecure about the worth/value of Vaganova? I think that's what psychology would tell us anyway...people who are confident about their product/technique do not feel the need to win over everyone else.

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Yes, Tiffany, today's dancers of both sexes are thinner, but the men's bodies of earlier generations which Ed refers to have an almost brutish muscularity reflective of a different way of working. (You squat in plie for three counts before you releve into pirouette, you're going to get some thighs! :lol: ) I may be wrong, but I think of this as a specifically (bygone) Bolshoi characteristic.

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What interesting responses to the question I posed to start this thread last Thursday! I am sorry for my own absence since then, but as soon as I posted, I drove off to Toronto for a few days of ballet showcase watching and the morning after I arrived home I fell down the stairs injuring my back and wrist so badly that I could barely move. Hence, I'm a little embarrassed at being AWOL. :)

As soon as I can use my right hand again, I will contribute more to the discussion. Thanks, all, for the wonderful responses and ideas to ponder!

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Marga wrote:

As soon as I can use my right hand again, I will contribute more to the discussion. Thanks, all, for the wonderful responses and ideas to ponder!

I hope your hand is better soon, Marga, and thanks to you for starting such a thought-provoking topic.

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Thank you so much, carbro and dirac, for your well wishes. I'm doing better in the hand department, worse with my back today. :) I'm still typing left-handed, though, but mousework with the injured right is pretty okay! That makes it a heap easier -- mousing with the left hand is really difficult for us non-ambidextrous. At least I can scroll and read things, and that to this BTalker is a godsend.

I've been doing lots of editing in my mind of thoughts on this subject. I wonder how many of you also frame most of your ideas as articles or essays....?

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I've been doing lots of editing in my mind of thoughts on this subject. I wonder how many of you also frame most of your ideas as articles or essays....?

I have been wondering the same thing. Its one thing to lay out an opinion on BT another to really present it. Rachel Howard just mentioned a few days ago that she is thinking of creating a simple guide for wishful writers. It came up at the bottom of the piece titled "Critical Mass"

www.RachelHoward.com

Perhaps someone at BT would have an interest in sharing how they organize and present their thoughts?

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Carbro,

thank you for pointing this out. I had not considered that aspect, but I definitely agree that training has changed and should play a role in the thinness, or slightly thickerness (sp) of dancers. good point! I was thinking more of the fact that our society has thinner people now than in the past, especially models, though we have more obese as well, too.

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This might make some of you upset, but -

I feel that Russians have every right to be arrogant about thier heritage as far as ballet dancing goes. Look at how classical dance has developed in Russia; how it has evolved in the last 100 years inparticilarly. The dancers in Russia today - both artistically and technically - are the pinnacle of ballet evolution - really - ballet dancing cannot get any better. Look at some of the (what I call) SUPER ballerinas that are coming out Russia today - they are RARELY (if ever) matched anywhere. Oh! I have no words! They are the athletes of heaven!!!! There have been only random times where these dancers have been matched.

In my opinion (and of course there are exceptions) the dancers of Russia always have been and always will be better (in general). Like I stated above there are always exceptions to this. But lets be for real ok? The classical Russian dancers are the zenith of 500 years evolution of this art called ballet, and they have seen to it that has survived wars, goverments, poverty, incredible highs and incredible lows, and it will continue to survive because of this passion for it for another 500 years.

Compare, from both a technical and artistic stand point and be totally honest, the perfomance of a leading ballerina of ABT with a leading ballerina of the Mariinsky. Im pretty sure that one cannot honestly say that the ballerina from New York is anywhere near to the ballerina from Petersburg. It just never happens as far as Im concerned (mind you, I mean pretty much most of the time, but not all of the time). Now, there have been some AMAZING ballerinas to come out of the west, but the ones from Russia (The Mariinksy inparticular) - well, they hold the torch!!!

As far as male dancing goes - I have to say that it is pretty well consistant in the west and in Russia as being equal artistically and technically. It seems to me that the dancing of the men in Russia and in the west is equal, unlike (in my educated opinion of course) the ballerinas. Id rather watch a Mariinksy ballerina any day of the week if I have a choice.

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On a side note, am I right in thinking that the Colorado ballet is one of the only full sized ballet companies in the United States that is very Vagonova based?

Colorado Ballet is not the only Russian based company in the US, there also is Ballet Internationale in Indianapolis. Colorado is directed by Martin Fredmann and Jocelyn Labson. Both of their backgrounds are American, however Mr. Fredmann fully supports Vaganova training in his company classes as well as in the Academy of the CB. BI is directed by Eldar Aliev, former soloist with the Mariinsky, his staff and school are mainly Russians using the Vaganova syllabus for training purposes. Both repertoires are diverse however they use the Petipa classics as a base.

As for the subject of arrogance of the Russians, there are many misunderstandings regarding the Russian and American attitudes towards ballet. It is quite odd for Russians, when they arrive in the US, to comprehend our "system" for the study of ballet, just as it is difficult for Westerners to understand the Vaganova "system" of training (although most of us feel quite knowledgable in this area and do not want to hear that we actually know very little about the subject). There are too many misconceptions on both sides of the ocean. The Russian ballet dancer is educated in all aspects of ballet from a very young age. So much of it becomes second nature to them, like brushing their teeth. They know what they see in the US, as we know what we see in the US.

Could the posture/body language of Russian ballet dancers or the accent perhaps be misinterpreted? Could one misinterpret the employees of some of our foremost ballet companies/schools, whether dancers, administrators and artistic staff, as arrogant? Perhaps sometimes confidence can be misunderstood? :D

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This isn't entirely on topic, but it puzzles me that when Russian and/or Vaganova-trained dancers do pirouettes from second it's labeled hyper-masculine, whereas Danish dancers (male and female) perform pirouettes from second all the time and are held up (at least in the US) as models of restraint.

Regarding arrogance, I agree with VRS. And doesn't everyone think his/her system is the best? The proponents of the Balanchine style, POB, RB, as well as Kirov and Bolshoi all look down their noses at each other to a degree, and I suspect that this is one thing that helps keep the styles as intact as they are.

We could just as easily have threads regarding "Balanchine Arrogance" or "Paris Opera Arrogance" as on the Russians.

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