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"Ballets Russes" and dancers of the past


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Lewis Segal reviewed the new film “Ballets Russes” at length for The Los Angeles Times this weekend. I was struck by the quote below.

Nobody moves like this anymore. The czarist-era Russian technique that the Ballets Russes exemplified was radically reshaped during the company's heyday into Soviet style, with these niceties pruned away in favor of a dramatically raised and elongated body sculpture. Meanwhile, American ballet focused more intently on steps, and as the Royal Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet began to be dominated by dancers from outside their own schools, they too started to lose their connection to an older, more gracious and aristocratic way of dancing.

He has other remarks to make in this vein. I’m wondering how many would agree? Disagree? And if you agree, do you think that today’s dancers have assets the dancers of the past didn’t – that we have lost, but also gained? Or not?

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IMO, it's not that difficult to see what we've lost. Asylmuratova used the phrase "singing with the body," which I haven't seen from a live ballet dancer for a long time. Training these days is much better, and we now have more physicians who specialize in dance medicine to help with injuries, and that's wonderful. However, to a large extent, dancers no longer dance. They do very pretty and impressive physical feats, but they don't dance. I think we can keep what we've gained (advances in technique, training, dance medicine) while getting back what we've lost, if we make the effort.

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I saw the film last night, and just loved it. I hope I can see it again soon -- or get a DVD if one should be available. I didn't focus on the stylistic issues, but was more interested in the personal stories and the historical view. The writers carefully untangled the strands of all the companies called Ballets Russes travelling around the world, and explained the influence all the dancers and choreographers had on our current world of ballet.

The strength of character of each dancer comes through so intensely, and how very important and formative this period was in their lives impressed me tremendously.

The story of beautiful Raven Wilkinson, and the racism she endured was sad; the incident where the KKK actually came up on stage to try to find her, and no one moved a muscle was especially powerful. (There are other posts on Raven Wilkinson here, -- I don't know how to link to them in a "quick reply" -- and the recent interviews with Aesha Ash show that the situation has not changed as much as we would hope.) Raven tired of the battle after 5 seasons with Ballets Russes and they said in the film that she was never hired again in the US, though she worked in the Dutch National Ballet for many years. (added 11/1) How sad.

The many references to how very helpful and supportive Danilova was pleased me -- too often one hears very "catty" stories about those days. The rivalries are clearly described too!

But the main thrill of the film was seeing the dancers in the present time compared with photos and actual footage of them dancing in the various Ballets Russes Companies.

There were a few factual errors (they said Massine was the first to choreograph to a Symphony, when Fyodor Lopukhov had done it in 1923; and they said that deBasil was, in fact, a Colonel, and I am not sure that G. Blanchine said "Ballet is woman" while he was still in Europe for example), but none of consequence.

And, did anyone else, when seeing the costume for the "Coq d'Or" wonder if that's where Balanchine got the idea for that unwieldly gold costume he used for (maybe) one season on Kyra Nichols in Firebird in the late 70's??

Go see it if you are in New York now....take a look at the film's website to see where else it will play. Everyone there was moved, if not a bit teary-eyed.

Edited by ViolinConcerto
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Yes, I saw it over the weekend and it was wonderful. And the theater was packed! I only live a few blocks away and I planned to come at the last minute figuring that there would be plenty of seats available. Wrong! I got there half an hour before the start of the 1:30 show on Sunday and there were only about 60 seats left. By the time the movie started there was nothing left except the first couple of rows. It's very gratifying to see so much interest in this film.

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This film just opened here in Portland, on Christmas. I found it very moving, and when they stage Giselle as older dancers, I cried. I've never seen a dancer emote so much as Nathalie Krasskova (sp?) did just using her head, shoulders, and arms. I was very impressed by the warmth that radiated from the dancers, palpable even when seen in old films. In the week of classes since seeing the movie, I've tried to find this way of moving within myself. How I wish I could have seen those productions, with that caliber of dancers, sets, and costumes!

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Asylmuratova used the phrase "singing with the body," which I haven't seen from a live ballet dancer for a long time.

Well, Hans, I feel for you -- but I wish you could have seen Sarah van Patten here in San Francisco Ballet as the Queen of the Snow last week. Her entire body sings -- as Sibley's did, though the temperaments are completely different. SFB is generally speaking a musical company -- not everybody, but most.

The Ballet Russes kind of muscality IS old-fashioned. Oakland Ballet cultivated it --they had many ballets set on them by Massine, Franklin, Beriosov, Irina Nijinska set many of her mother's ballets on them.... it's a demi-caractere mode, perhaps, with lots of emphasis on plastique, more weight than is fashionable now, and a willingness to dance through and even against the music that was ultimately very musical.

I saw ithat singing quality in class the other day, when Michael Lowe (who's now retired as an Oakland Ballet principal dancer, but who was wonderful as Albrecht in Franklin's production of Giselle and as the acrobat in Nijinska's Le Train Bleu, and in many of Massine's ballets) -- it was fascinating to see him use the upper body in every combination, even at the barre -- all this epaulement in tendus and piques (Croise derriere lke you would not BELIEVE!) and grands battements, and of course in the rondes de jambes, all these tilts in the upper body, and head positions even in frappes. My right foot is kaput for a while, so I have to just watch class, but it was entirely worth it just to watch Michael dance. He's now the director of Peninsula Ballet in San Mateo, and he's doing GOOD choreography ("Bamboo" was terrific.)

And when he teaches class, he tells you whose combination he's giving you ("This one is from Mr. Beriosov.... it's designed to make you jump from a minimal a preparation; you have to be able to do it; is good medicine.")

PS -- of all the old clips, I loved tles Sylphides the most -- and the dancer i REALLY fell in love with was Baronova. I love the way she moved -- dear lord, let me dance like that.

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I love this quality too, and also can watch class with great pleasure for long periods of time.

On the other hand -- and in another art -- Laurence Olivier was very critical of John Gielgud's "singing" of Shakespeare's lines. "I really was convinced, that I was better in Shakespeare than John Gielgud because I didn't sing it ... because I spoke Shakespeare as if that was the way I spoke, so I despised people who sang it, and of course those two schools couldn't have been more opposite." Olivier was even harsher with the more than slightly hammy (but very popular in the U.S.) Maurice Evans. (from Terry Coleman's 2005 biography)

So it's a good quality that sometimes can be taken too far. In dance too?

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I don't think a dancer can take "singing" too far, since dance is, by definition, a musical art. I do believe that "singing" does not always mean mimicking the score, though. A dancer with a fine ear can take more liberties than one less sensitive. Frank Sinatra could reshape a phrase or move an accent and make it inevitable, while hundreds of others, going for the same effect, might never pull it off.

As for Shakespeare, I think there is something to be said about both approaches, as long as the singing doesn't overwhelm the meaning.

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But even beyond the artistry necessary to make the instrument sing, there are stylistic elements that have been lost... I'm not sure we can see a convincing Les Sylphides any more... the dancers seem to mimic the style but not achieve it. There was a softness to the gestures of the midcentury dancers which seems to have been translated into lifelessness today... I've also noticed a kind of isolation between the legs and upper body which I can't say I prefer but surely took technique to achieve.

... Looking forward to seeing the film this week in CT! It premieres in Hartford on Thursday at the Wadsworth and then moves to Real Art Ways for a few days run.

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Interestingly, Les Sylphides was choreographed in the early 20th century, and the dancers were intended to imitate the style of the 1830's. I'm not totally sure what a 2006 dancer imitating a 1910's/20's dancer imitating an 1830's dancer would look like, but I think the Kirov or Royal Danish Ballet might do it best, as they both still have small traces of those soft arms (and the Kirov originally performed Les Sylphides).

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Since Fokine had only his contemporaries as dancers, and since there were no performance photos (let alone motion pictures) much before his own time, he had only the descriptions by his elders and perhaps "indications" of what that style might have been. So it was an evocation of the romantic style through the prism of late classicism. Can you just see the maestro stopping the accompanist and exasperated, crying to the women, "No, no, NO!!! You're just not getting it!!!"?

What we have today are further distillations. We do not know what the early Sylphides audiences saw. We have dozens of restatements of what Fokine did, as today's dancers can only approximate what their precedecessors did almost 100 years ago, though, which in the case of this ballet, seems, in its abstract way, completely appropriate.

I wonder, by way of analogy, whether this relates to Balanchine's Swan Lake, where he didn't really want his dancers to dance like Petipa's, but rather give a contemporary look to the choreographic style.

ABT's recent Sylphides renderings at City Center -- Fall 2004 more than Fall 2005 -- had suggestions of Art Nouveau (though more subtle than in Spectre). I wonder to what degree those beautiful stylistic details were faithful to Fokine. Historically, at least, they seem appropriate.

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Is there a readily available DVD of the Royal Danish Ballet doing Les Sylphides? Mel, was that a Joffrey production? Does it exist as video at the NYPL? I did see the Kirov do it when they returned to NYC after their 20 year break (? mid 80s?) and I've never seen dancers look so bored on stage. I'll be in for the Dance On Camera festival, perhaps I could nip over to the library.

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The library has this, Amy:

1 film reel (14 1/2 min., 349 ft.) : si., b&w. ; 16 mm. 1955

Performer Performed by artists of the Royal Danish Ballet.

Contents Nocturne (excerpt) / danced by Mona Vangsaa, Kirsten Ralov, Inge Sand and Frank Schaufuss -- Valse / danced by Inge Sand (filmed in slow motion) -- Pas de deux / danced by Mona Vangsaa and Frank Schaufuss.

Is there a readily available DVD of the Royal Danish Ballet doing Les Sylphides?  Mel, was that a Joffrey production?  Does it exist as video at the NYPL?  I did see the Kirov do it when they returned to NYC after their 20 year break (? mid 80s?) and I've never seen dancers look so bored on stage.  I'll be in for the Dance On Camera festival, perhaps I could nip over to the library.

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  There was a softness to the gestures of the midcentury dancers which seems to have been translated into lifelessness today...

Since I saw most of the dancers in 'Ballets Russe' perform live, I have been pondering the phrase "singing with the body" and wondering if the physical stature of the dancers contributed to this. Dancers of the mid-century were shorter and heavier, Baronova's 'fighting weight' was 126 lbs. (compare that to, say, Wendy Whelan, or pick your dancer.)

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I think that "singing with the body" has perhaps been interpreted several ways already in this discussion, but I'd like to add that what struck me about the footage in the film was the dancers' musicality and a fluidity of movement. With this film, I began to appreciate elements of the dancers' technique that do not come across in still photographs (especially because standards of line and physique were different than they are today).

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