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julip

Are Petipa's Ballets Bad Bombast or Great Art?

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If you were to discuss Petipa ballets in a modern day Art School forum, I'm sure that the general attitude toward them would be that they were a bad ballet. And I must admit that if I weren't a dancer I would think that true, but I love them.

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That's an interesting thought. Julip, could you elaborate on why you think members of an art school would think Petipa's ballets are bad? I'm curious to know the reasons.

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This all comes from my experience in an Arts College. In theory classes there is a mixed group not only of dancers, but visual art, theater, and music majors. So start off by imagining a militant art major sitting next to a bunhead.

When I watch a Petipa ballet, I enjoy it and appreciate it. But it's not the choreography that I'm responding to, it's the technique and performance of the dancers. To me, if you focus on the choreography, there is neither intrest, relivence, or creativity. There is a stringing together of steps and style that is already set without it moving forward to further the art form.

Now, that said, that is me in the 21st century talking. If I were an art critic circa 1895 I might feel differently. I am also not taking into account how Petipa fit into the history of ballet.

In addition, if an individual dancer is able to put interest, relivence, and creativity into the set work by using breath, phrasing, and expression, then that dancer is creating a work of art, not the choreographer.

... I'm so going to get flamed over this...

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Oh! and what would be a good ballet?

I wish I knew. Those art theory classes were an exercise in redundency, going around and around in circles about what isn't art ... I wonder if we ever actually got to what art was.

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I won't flame you. :shake:

But I will say that I think the main reason Petipa ballets seem conventional to us today is that we've seen them all hundreds of times and they've been imitated so much--it wasn't like that when they were new. And we've seen them all hundreds of times...because they're well choreographed and fun to watch. Many dancers give great performances with perfect technique, great emotion, &c in perfectly awful ballets, and those ballets are never performed again because they are badly choreographed.

I'm a little confused by your statement that:

To me, if you focus on the choreography, there is neither intrest, relivence, or creativity.

I've always found Petipa's steps interesting, relevant to the subject matter of the ballet, and extremely creative in that he was able to use old structural dance forms in new ways, and to express such a breadth of ideas. (Admittedly, that's a personal opinion.) As someone said on a different thread, Petipa variations look conventional and easy to choreograph. But if that's the case, why have so few people (Balanchine, Ashton, maybe some Fokine ballets) been able to produce work of the same quality since?

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(oh yay! fun conversation! I have to actually put on my thinking cap this summer)

But does fun to watch equal good ballet? Simply because a movie is fun to watch, does that make it a good movie? Is Petipa done so much because he was a good choreographer, or was it because he was in the right place at the right time and the Czar liked what he did. Do we accept his choreography as great because it was, or for some other reason.

When I say that he isn't relevent, I mean he isn't to the world and our lives today. I do understand that his steps were relevant to the subject matter of ballet, but I would also say that Romantic ballets did it better and without as much obvious stopping between dancing and miming.

And why have so few people been able to produce work of the same quality since? The list of Balanchine, Ashton, and Fokine is a rather short and limited list that disregards the possability of many gifted and talented choreographers who could have been great were they in the right place at the right time and in a dance community that felt that the art form should be pressed forward instead of only clinging to traditions of the past. How many great choreographers could there be out there but who aren't able to shine through because of the need to put disneyfied, full-length ballets on stage in regional ballet companies.

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This is getting way off topic, but I would disagree that Petipa's ballets aren't relevant. The revived Kirov Sleeping Beauty showed, to me anyway, so clearly the theme of justice versus mercy, Swan Lake (in the original, anyway), the idea of man at the mercy of a malevolent nature, and the illusion of having a choice. His mini-abstract ballets (all those vision scenes, all those women with garlands, all those ballerinas being handed flowers) seem to be affirmations of the idea that beauty and perfection exist and are worth striving for. Those beautiful corps formations are visual manifestations of the idea of balance and harmony. This may be contrary to the prevailing artistic sentiment, but balance, harmony, and beauty are certainly relevant in any age. As for his actual choreography--I don't think there is much work better or more musical than those wilis, Aurora's solos (how wonderfully he shows the different types of feminity), and Raymonda's clapping solo--it was so good that Balanchine stole it! Yes, I do think that luck does have a lot to do with choreography that lasts, or rather with choreography that gets lost, because what lasts, by and large is good, I would say, thinking of Bournonville. But what is lost, thinking of Ashton (Sylvia is one we know was written off, and it is glorious) is often just as good.

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As an opera fan, I don't have a problem with convention, and, apparently, neither does the opera-going world in general, given the proliferation of recent productions of Handel operas, which were once intermittent and mostly vehicles for specific stars, like Giulio Cesare for Sills and Treigle. I find relevance in timelessness and ceremony, even if I won't get over a strong dislike of Albrecht, knowing the convention of the girl whose love redeems the hero :shake:

I don't have a problem with bombast or sentimentality or when done well. The reason I called Spartacus a bad ballet is because for me it doesn't build very well and I find it repetitive, especially in the theater. Watching it end-to-end, I find it tedious, but taking out the Vasiliev film and watching excerpts of him and Liepa is a total thrill for me.

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Editing to add: And Helene has posted in the meantime as well and made some very intelligent points. :wink:

Oops, I see cargill has posted while I'm writing, and she's right; this is very off-topic. New thread please, moderators, if necessary? :)

But does fun to watch equal good ballet?

No. But "well choreographed" does, which I also stated. :)

In terms of whether Petipa's choreography is great, I think that on some level, it has to be a personal decision. I don't mean to state that you are "wrong" for not thinking Petipa is a genius. I also think one should attempt to be as well-educated as possible on the subject before making a final decision. (I'm still debating whether I think Balanchine was great--influential, yes, but great?--and that's definitely not a popular thing to question!)

When I say that he isn't relevent, I mean he isn't to the world and our lives today. I do understand that his steps were relevant to the subject matter of ballet, but I would also say that Romantic ballets did it better and without as much obvious stopping between dancing and miming.

When was the last time you saw a Romantic ballet that had all its original choreography/mime intact? :wink: The versions of Giselle and Coppélia that we know today are based on Petipa's heavily-revised editions of them. Also, considering that Petipa choreographed in the late nineteenth century, I wouldn't expect his work to be relevant to our lives today except in the sense that there are certain universal truths (cargill's post is relevant here) but I don't think that makes him a bad choreographer.

The list of Balanchine, Ashton, and Fokine is a rather short and limited list that disregards the possability of many gifted and talented choreographers who could have been great were they in the right place at the right time and in a dance community that felt that the art form should be pressed forward instead of only clinging to traditions of the past. How many great choreographers could there be out there but who aren't able to shine through because of the need to put disneyfied, full-length ballets on stage in regional ballet companies.

In terms of choreographers who could have been great...isn't that rather useless speculation to an extent? Yes, Choreographer X might be a great choreographer given a good ballet company and a favorable audience...but then again, he might not. (Again, cargill made a good point about that.) I don't really think it serves much purpose to include that sort of thing in a discussion alongside Petipa, Balanchine, Bournonville, &c.

Also, a full-length ballet is exactly what a Petipa-like choreographer would need to display his/her gifts...although certainly not a Disneyfied version. And Christopher Wheeldon has choreographed plotless ballets that regional companies perform, so while story ballets are more popular, there is still a market for plotless ballets.

Leigh Witchel wrote an interesting review that Alexandra posted in Monday's Links section. In it, he makes the case (forgive me if I misstate this, Leigh!) that Spartacus is so concerned with its story that there are no pure-dance sections--all of the dancing actively moves the plot. I find that an interesting concept, one I don't think I've never seen used (I've never seen Spartacus, for one thing), and I find it intriguing the various ways plot and dance can be combined--plotless "pure dance," Spartacus-like "pure plot," and Petipa's mix of mime that directly moves the plot and dance that refers to the plot but doesn't actively further it--and I'm sure there are many other combinations as well.

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Art students who criticize Petipa's choreography are like those who would criticize Vermeer's paintings because they're no longer relevant and dull, and therefore not very good work. It's easiest to do when you're a student and confusing "I don't like it" with "It's not good."

If you don't like Petipa (and first, I'd ask you to properly think about what you're *calling* Petipa - is it Petipa or "after Petipa" or Ivanov, for that matter?) all well and good, but during a more than sixty year career Petipa gave us more than fifty ballets that defined a method of using the corps de ballet that would be the equivalent of how a great orchestratral composer defined the symphony. I think those who call him great are pretty safe in their pronouncements.

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Edited to add: I was writing this when Leigh was writing his comment with which I strongly agree.

In general, I agree with many things that have been posted but would put it a little differently -- and perhaps a little more combatively. As Hans says, it may be a personal decision as to whether or not one thinks Petipa is a great choreographer -- you can think whatever you want -- but I don't think it's a personal decision whether or not he is one.

In the history of ballet Petipa developed the forms he inherited and created new ones. It is true that we aren't always sure exactly what "is" Petipa in the productions we see but we have a good enough idea to understand that he gave the ballet vocabulary an entirely new, extended formal expressivity. One can dislike it--one can find it boring, uninteresting, irrelevant, just as one can dislike classical ballet and be embarassed by men in tights, but personal taste and aesthetic judgment are two different things. In the art of ballet, Petipa is a major figure.

Every major choreographer who used the classical vocabulary after Petipa is different than he or she would otherwise have been because Petipa existed. I include those choreographers who have a very different aesthetic, and I don't think one can be THAT influential in an art form without being in some sense great. (The pas de deux as we know it -- in its most extreme, contorted variants-- is a descendant of nineteenth-century Russian ballet, even with its extra men, Benno etc., doing some of the partnering work, more than it is of the Romantic ballet.)

Additionally, the ballets he created or partly created hold up to repeated viewings and allow for different interpretations, inflections, musicality etc. I have always considered it potential evidence of a choreographer's mediocrity if seeing a great ballerina in a one of his/her ballets didn't make much of a difference to how the choreography or the ballerina looked. (For me, the example is Makarova in Cranko -- I enjoyed her performance but in those acrobatic lifts it made little difference that it was Makarova being swung around the hero's head at top speed; I had seen far lesser dancers look equally "rapturous").

In fact, Petipa's variations and larger groupings have formal qualities that I would imagine an art student ca. 2005 might be especially able to see and value...Someone who can appreciate the single stroke across the canvas of a Barnett Newman is at least potentially in an excellent position to appreciate the differences between Petipa variations that may seem to string together the same steps. Similarly, an art student today might value an Ingres portrait even if still seeing it as a product of its time and wanting to do something different "today."

Mime is an important element in Petipa's full length ballets. In a good full length production the balance of mime and dance is coded to the music and the overall rhythm of the evening in a way that suggests Petipa knew how to make his conventions work to fill the stage for an evening. They may not be our conventions, but that, in itself, need not prevent one from seeing their place in the art of ballet..(Personally, I admit, I'll take the full length Sleeping Beauty over the full length Bayadere any day, and I do think the Tchaikovsky score makes a difference..)

I'll add one more point: I could be wrong.

I don't think I am wrong, but yes, of course, I could be. But that is not the same thing as saying, for example, that it's a matter of opinion whether Petipa is a great choreographer. In fact, opinions are precisely what can't be "wrong." We all do know what we "like."

More generally, I would say the question of whether Petipa -- or Balanchine -- is a great choreographer is a matter of judgment. Judgments can't be proven in the manner of an equation, say, 2+2=4, but they are not purely personal either. There are criteria that can be brought to bear on the discussion, and that should include some reference to the art form in question -- in this case, classical ballet.

What art students and the rest of us have learned, of course, is that these criteria have historical limits, that they are not as fixed as they seem, they often depend on ideological assumptions, community standards etc. I agree with those caveats, but criteria don't just dissolve into the air as a result, though it certainly becomes more difficult to talk about them or to apply them consistently.

In any case, if one begins with the assumption that ballet is a serious art form, I don't think it's easy to find the criteria that would dismiss Petipa. Ironically, it would be more consistent to say. not that Petipa wasn't great, but that ballet isn't. Actually, I don't doubt that there are people who think that, though probably not too many of them post on Ballet Talk.

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I'll add one more point: I could be wrong.

You could be, but you're not. Beautifully said.

And thank you, julip, for starting the topic. We don't do any "flaming" on this board, and courteous debate is always welcomed!

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Very well stated, Drew. :wink:

I wanted to add that when I teach ballet classes, I do say that Balanchine is a great choreographer, genius, &c because that is the opinion of the ballet world, regardless of my personal thoughts.

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I think that this discussion holds in it the aftershock of the Conventional Wisdom of the 1950s about Tchaikovsky. "All he was, was loud!" The Dolmetsch Ensemble made some people grin with their medley of Tchaikovsky played on viols, recorders, tabor, clavichord, and lute, oh and cork popguns for the 1812 Overture finale.

The thing is, that if we were to watch Petipa in the Balanchine manner, on a black set against a sky cyclorama and the costumes pared down to practice clothes, it would still retain its power.

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We don't do any "flaming" on this board, and courteous debate is always welcomed!

We're remarkably courteous around here, alright. Of course the board rules require it. But it might be all that Petipa is rubbing off on us too. :wink:

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I had a great long think in the car driving the last couple of hours, and I have a couple of thoughts to add to the conversation.

-Does anyone do truly original Petipa choreography anymore? I was going through my mental checklist and I can't remember how much of all that I've seen were Person X after Petipa, and how much of it wasn't, if any at all.

- How much of my seeing Petipa as uninteresting stemmed from my finding the music uninteresting. Not including the three Tchaikovsky ballets (though there are points during those where I want to pull my hair out), all of the music just seems to blend into one score lending the choreography to feel like it all blends into one ballet. I don't know the answer to that question at all. I'm still pondering it. Reaching back into my memory from long ago Dance History classes, I seem to remember that he did prescribe how many counts and how many different phrases to the composer, but I might be off on that.

Yes, the ballets are historicaly important and they need to be done, and they need to be done well. But, I can't see them as being innovative because they weren't too far off the mark from what story ballets that had come from before. In a more modern example, Balanchine was innovative, but Peter Martins not.

Yes, they're fun ... and I do love them! believe it or not! I just don't see them as good art, and to me good art is good ballet.

Now I feel like watching Paquita.

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Thanks,julip, for a challenging topic. You are not the only poster to feel somewhat ambivalent or mixed up about this. :wink:

I guess I think of "art" as something one develops after -- sometimes long after -- leaving art school. As for "great art," there's much disagreement. But it's probably better not to rush out and heat up the branding iron to burn those words into any creative work or aesthetic system.

Mel's idea of staging Petipa in practice clothes against a simple lighted scrim, a la Balanchine, is intriguing. And I wonder: WHICH part of WHICH Petipa ballet would make the translation best? and which worst?

My first thoughts come from Swan Lake. Best: the Act II adagio pas de deux (violin solo). Worst: the little swans.

Or would it be the opposite? :wink:

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julip - most Petipa is either "Petipa plus" or "after Petipa". The person to ask is Doug Fullington - search the board and there have been some recent good threads on the very topic. But I don't think any of the full ballets have come down to us as he made them without pretty significant alterations and interpolations.

Yes, Petipa did ask for compositions by the yard. Petipa's requests for the music in Sleeping Beauty are often included with programs, and they make fascinating reading.

I'd argue that Petipa *was* inventive. (But I can't do it right now - I have to get back to work!)

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Well, the Kirov has recently reconstructed the original Petipa Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadère, although we do know that there are sections in which the stagers did not follow the notation. I like to think it's fairly obvious which sections are Petipa and which are not, and I'd rather like to see one of the reconstructions to find out whether I'm right.

I can understand finding Minkus's music uninteresting. I like it, but one could never make a case that it's great music. One could, however, argue that it fulfills its role as musique dansant properly, however low the quality of the music itself may be.

Why don't you think Petipa's story ballets were different from what came before? I agree that they were not radically different; that is, a Petipa ballet would not cause a riot in Paris or anything, but I don't think it's fair to compare his choreography to Peter Martins's work either. :wink:

Bart, I think the Little Swans would be all right against a plain backdrop in practice clothes. When I think about it, it's only the sections of Petipa ballets that have been redone (where mime has been removed, lifts have been added, &c) that I find really wouldn't hold up.

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Well said, Drew. Especially the bit about it's easier to dismiss ballet altogether than it is to dismiss petipa.

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One question I thought of this morning: Does different = creative necessarily?

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And I wonder:  WHICH part of WHICH Petipa ballet would make the translation best?  and which worst?

My first thoughts come from Swan Lake.  Best:  the Act II adagio pas de deux (violin solo).  Worst:  the little swans.

bart,

I think SL's Act II is Lev Ivanov

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