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Lewis Segal in the LA Times on what's wrong with ballet

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Why is it not okay to discover and mount the equivalents of these classics in ways relevant to this century as former ballets were relevant to those centuries? If not, we are condemned to risk forever appearing to be an inaccessible effete pursuit to outsiders, while we preach endlessly and vociferously to the choir.

Remountings would be contributions if there were talented choreographers moved to take on the task. In the meantime, accessibility works both ways. To translate things into pop terms, today's teenagers can't relate to the Beatles or the Stones. Give them time and, as Tony Bennett's popularity among Beatles and Stones fans shows, they'll learn. 19th century ballets remain acccessible on formal aesthetic terms. The unenlightened and prejudicial elements of their stories remain accessible to all human beings in touch with their own faults and complexities.

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"The problematic "Sleeping Beauty" that the Kirov Ballet danced at the Music Center last season credited 19th century master choreographer Marius Petipa, but it dates from 1952.” Wrong, Mr. Segal and on two counts. Firstly the re-creation was based on period archive material and secondly the educated audience (yes there are levels of education need to fully appreciate ballet as there are in baseball to fully appreciate that game) and most critics admired what was a highly successful attempt to re-instate historical accuracy to the production.

The Kirov performed the Sergeyev version of SB in LA.

--Andre

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"The problematic "Sleeping Beauty" that the Kirov Ballet danced at the Music Center last season credited 19th century master choreographer Marius Petipa, but it dates from 1952.” Wrong, Mr. Segal and on two counts. Firstly the re-creation was based on period archive material and secondly the educated audience (yes there are levels of education need to fully appreciate ballet as there are in baseball to fully appreciate that game) and most critics admired what was a highly successful attempt to re-instate historical accuracy to the production.

The Kirov performed the Sergeyev version of SB in LA.

--Andre

I thought so -- thanks.

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Who is Lewis Segal and what does he have to do with ballet?

Regardless of the answers to those questions, what is the point of that article?

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Mel (and others)--I'd like to know something about the LA Ballet's problems you referred to.

This current iteration of the Los Angeles Ballet is only the latest in a long string of variously-named companies usually headed by John Clifford, which were all either a-borning or a-dying from 1974 to the present. In 1984, Robert Joffrey attempted to make Los Angeles the home of the first American bicoastal company, but his failing energy from AIDS also sapped the strength out of that project. I wish this company luck, I really do, but they've got their hands full, as Segal's review is not constructive criticism, it is the voice of the LA Babbittry that helped kill all the others. It is not a remedy, it is a symptom. This Los Angeles Ballet has yet to give its first performance -- MERDE!!!

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Mel--thanks so much. I still would have thought the Pasadena people would have wanted to get this together, since the LAOpera is superb (I saw their 'Vanessa' in 2004 and 'Parsifal' in 2005), as is the LA Philharmonic, which I heard do some gorgeous Elgar a few years ago, as well as the Bernstein piece with Joshua Bell. NYTimes recently wrote about the innovative new music programming Salonen has been so involved with. In 2004, I also saw a wonderful 'School for Scandal' at the Mark Taper Forum.

I'd imagine they will finally pull this together, although the history you related is very strange. But conspicuous consumption in culture is pretty strong there, and they first started 'catching up' with many fine arts museums and have even reopened the old Malibu part of the Getty, which I'm sure you know (I've even sometimes thought they built the downtown skyscrapers in the reverse order because it wasn't becoming for a big city not to have a proper downtown business district). So that the ballet problems are strangely isolated. I also think what Paul says about the LATimes pressures could have produced a Segal and a tiresome article like that. One of the old Chandlers or Valley Hunt Club people needs to get on the ballet issue and take the bull by the horns.

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Progress in the arts depends on great artists and great patrons-- for ballet, not just dancers but choreographers and impresarios, a la Balanchine/Kirstein for much of the last century. The question raised by this article for me is: who are those great artists today? It's entirely possible that they are with us and we just don't recognize them yet.

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I think excitement, innovation, art, whatever you want to call it in dance is not happening in ballet, and I see more of it in modern dance, and, of all things, hip-hop and other street-derived dances. When a classical ballet really works, it's an experience like no other. But it's a double-edged sword: it's easy to become ossified and complacent with what has been passed down because when it works, it works very well. A lot of newer, non-ballet dance forms are interesting because the dancers and dancemakers are still exploring the art form and finding new forms of expression within the art form.

Hans, Lewis Segal has been the dance critic for the LA Times for a very long time now, and there are many people in LA who wish he would retire. I find his writing often to be thoughtful, thought-provoking, though not always agreeable. I'm glad the LA Times still has a decent dance critic around who isn't afraid to take a stand. Before everyone piles on the scrum, doesn't anyone remember his article on Ballet Pacifica's implosion earlier this year? The article's not online anymore, but here're a few choice quotations:

If a reigning star at American Ballet Theatre — recently (if unofficially) crowned one of the kings of dance — can't inspire enough support to launch even a midsize ballet company in Southern California, who can?

...

And rather than repeating them and clucking sadly yet again, how about considering a radical proposal? How about forbidding anyone to start yet another new local penniless ballet company until we've doubled our dance audience through a host of development strategies?

Let's use whatever capital the dance community can generate to subsidize free tickets for every teenager; to get dance each week on KCET-TV (perhaps something modeled on the "Eye on Dance" series that ran on two PBS stations in New York); to open a dance space where local artists can afford to present themselves; to offer every kind of in-school program, including ballet classes.

...

He also won hearts (and respect) by becoming perhaps the only artistic director in Anglo American ballet not to commission a world premiere from Christopher Wheeldon (emerging as the Wal-Mart of choreography)

I don't remember which AD he's referring to in that last sentence.

--Andre

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Andre - I think what you mention is part of the danger of the maturity of an art form. It's easier to innovate in a wide open field - because sometimes innovation is simply that people haven't seen it before. Petipa went to Russia, Balanchine to the US, Ashton worked in a nascent English Ballet. I'm not sure we can have another Balanchine because the field's already been plowed.

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I'm still having a problem getting my head around the concept that the great classical standards are not something to which each generation should aspire to master and perform.

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The Kirov performed the Sergeyev version of SB in LA.

--Andre

Thanks Andre I assumed the Kirov had toured their latest production and Mr Segal's text confused me.

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Leigh Witchel Posted Yesterday, 10:28 PM

Andre - I think what you mention is part of the danger of the maturity of an art form. It's easier to innovate in a wide open field - because sometimes innovation is simply that people haven't seen it before. Petipa went to Russia, Balanchine to the US, Ashton worked in a nascent English Ballet. I'm not sure we can have another Balanchine because the field's already been plowed.

While I tend to agree with Leigh's statement, it also bears reiterating that Balanchine drew his inspiration, as well as ideas on structure, rhythm, harmony, etc., from the music he chose. Stravinsky, his long-time collaborator, wrote (in his Autobiography), "... I found that the absence of many colored effects and of all superfluities produced a wonderful freshness... ", referring to writing his Apollon Musagete. That same concept surely contributed towards Balanchine creating his masterpiece to that music at the tender age of 24.

That is not to say that today's choreographers are not attentive to the music they work with. However, in a recent program viewed of Balanchine's Serenade paired with yet another contemporary version of Carmen, Balanchine's work appeared the more relevant, timeless, and contemporary, in spite of the 72 years since its premiere. Of course, that speaks to his genius, as well as to the lessons he learned from Stravinsky's music regarding simplicity, as well as inevitability. Those lessons tend to negate the propensity towards sheer athleticism for its own sake of many of today's choreographers.

Creativity in the arts seems to very cyclical, & today's times bears some resemblance to the same period that ultimately produced Diaghilev, who nurtured choreographers such as Fokine, Nijinsky, Nijinska, Massine, & Balanchine, all of whom innovated and reinvigorated the rather stagnant and predictable ballet choreography of its day. Undoubtedly, it was the collaboration of so many brilliant and young artists from various disciplines, like Picasso, Stravinsky, Ravel, Bakst, Cocteau etc., with Diaghilev and his choreographers that kicked these changes into being. Diaghilev's broad vision and impeccable taste was the catalyst that made it all happen.

Sorry for being so wordy... So we need a Diaghilev?

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Sorry for being so wordy... So we need a Diaghilev?

This exactly what I was implying in my earlier post when I said. " There is much more to the creation of important works of ‘high art’ than bringing people of talent together. It is the right people at the right time, with the right visionary authority to oversee and encourage such an event as a new successful ballet being created."

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This is just my opinion, but I did not read Segal's piece as a wholesale attack on ballet, but rather one of those lists that you make up from time to time about what's really bothering you about a loved one. He hasn't couched his thoughts in a very warm and fuzzy way, but I find myself agreeing with many of them, and what is more, some of them echo thoughts that are posted on this board (and often). Many of us sigh when we see another season of "Swan Lake" and "Giselle" scheduled, shake our heads at the pirates and slave girls in "Le Corsaire" and whisper just a little more when Dancer X's collar bones become extra prominent this year. I think Segal has just voiced concerns that many of us have, albeit more volcanically than may be comfortable for many.

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This is just my opinion, but I did not read Segal's piece as a wholesale attack on ballet, but rather one of those lists that you make up from time to time about what's really bothering you about a loved one. He hasn't couched his thoughts in a very warm and fuzzy way, but I find myself agreeing with many of them, and what is more, some of them echo thoughts that are posted on this board (and often). Many of us sigh when we see another season of "Swan Lake" and "Giselle" scheduled, shake our heads at the pirates and slave girls in "Le Corsaire" and whisper just a little more when Dancer X's collar bones become extra prominent this year. I think Segal has just voiced concerns that many of us have, albeit more volcanically than may be comfortable for many.

Where I live the local "ballet" company doesn't do much ballet at all. While I enjoy the diet of "crossover" of Kylian, Duato, etc. that this troupe serves up and like quite a few of the many contemporary dance groups here, I long to see Giselle and Swan Lake. To do so, I must hope for touring companies or go out of town.

As far as Segal's article is concerned, I too agreed with some of his points. Nonetheless, ballet in general is having such a tough time as it. I thought his tone inappropiate and of no help to the general public or those in the ballet world.

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I am thrilled that your NYTimes John Rockwell has responded to the Segal piece in today's NYTimes. Thank you Mr. Rockwell!

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Oh, dear. It seems as though Mr. Rockwell is riding his favorite hobby horses again. One correction:

Although I disagree with him on almost every count, there is something salutary about his position. There are so many ballet magazines and ballet Web sites out there now that simply assume the superiority of ballet to all other forms of dance that it is nice to have a corrective.

THE FACT THAT A WEB SITE HAS THE NAME "BALLET" IN ITS TITLE DOES NOT MEAN IT ASSUMES THE SUPERIORITY OF BALLET ANY MORE THAN A RESTAURANT WITH THE WORD "ITALIAN" IN ITS NAME ASSUMES THE SUPERIORITY OF ITALIAN FOOD.

This really isn't as complex a distinction as Mr. Rockwell seems to think, but it is a rather basic one.

Much more importantly, I have to say that anyone who could write this --

Fanatic balletomanes resist such change on the very grounds Mr. Segal uses to chide all of ballet. For them anything but classroom ballet technique degrades the form, and a search for relevance is a descent into gimmickry and perversion.

-- shows a very curious understanding of the nature of ballet. This isn't an issue of superiority and I'm perplexed how "is" is sometimes read as "is better." Call it the silly little inferior art form of ballet if that helps, but understand its nature.

Edited by Alexandra

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Someone sent me a quote of Sir Frederick Ashton's, from an old TV interview, that bears on this subject. One must understand how he's using the words, of course :blush:, but the thought is relevant to this discussion:

There's a lot of kind of dancing now that I really have no sympathy for, not that I mind, I mean, let anybody do whatever they like. I'm not one of those people who say dancing has to be one style only, not at all. So long as I don't have to see it, I don't mind, that's the really great thing. I fight to preserve the classical idiom, because that's my language, so to speak, and so I fight for that.

I kept thinking of that while thinking of Mr. Segal's article. Ballet is a language. Modern dance is a different language, tap another, etc. Each has different things to which it is particularly suited. A tap "Sleeping Beauty" might be charming, but is unlikely to be infinitely durable (although a tap genius may well disprove this!). In the same way, a ballet about the situation in Lebanon is going to be thin. A modern dance/contemporary dance/ballet on the same subject would have more tools at its disposal.

What disturbs me about these articles is that, unlike Ashton, who simply didn't go to see work he didn't like but didn't insist that his work was The Only Thing Out There, the people who constantly attack ballet by either calling on it to be something it's not, or condescending to it, or dismissing it utterly, or damning it with faint praise really do want classical ballet to become something different, and kick it for being what it is. And they do it ENDLESSLY. How many of these articles have we read? How many more do we have to read?

We've gone back to the Forties, when John Martin scorned Balanchine and urged him to go back to Europe where he belonged. But Martin kept looking, and finally saw that Balanchine's ballets weren't "just classroom steps" (the usual charge against any work that actually uses the ballet vocabulary in which its dancers are trained). He came to understand ballet. This did not make him turn against Modern Dance; he continiued to be its champion (and there was much to champion). But he took a long, hard look at what was there instead of taking a half-glance and pontificating about what was not there. There ARE some ballets that don't move beyond classroom steps, but if one looks hard enough one can tell the difference between "Divertimento No. 15" and the ballets made in its image but without its subtexts, and without Balanchine's genius.

The idea that the only way to "save ballet" is to make it "relevant" is so misguided. We joke on this forum a lot about new versions of the 19th century classics where Giselle is a hooker or Odette is in love with Odile (the affair between Wilfrid and Albrecht having been consummated long ago) but can anyone seriously believe that would save anything? Dancers, especially late career dancers, often sound off on what they don't like in their repertory. Sick of dancing Princes, are you? Choreograph something else. Okay, that's not fair. When Ashton and Balanchine were working, there were a lot of backkstage complaints about them, but dancers didn't leave in droves to go dance somewhere else. The problem is that there are very few good ballet choreographers, and the perplex is that one of the reasons for this is that ballet companies have been looking to modern dancers for the past 40 years for its new repertory and not developing classical choreographers. Fix that, and you fix the problem. To me, it's the faux classics and desperate attempts to be "relevant" that are damaging ballet. Not to mention all those new works that the press releases tell me "are thoroughly grounded in the classical tradition" and turn out to be thoroughly grounded in contact improv with a soupcon of Mashed Potato.

I agree with Ashton. I don't think that dancing has to be one style and that anything I don't like is "bad." And I definitely don't believe that anything beyond the handful of choreographers in ballet or modern dance I admire shouldn't exist. But I'm damned sick of reading people who want to change everything into what they like and mock everything else. (I actually don't think Segal is doing that. I think he's writing a provocative summer piece, like the "Is New York REALLY the center of the dance world these days" pieces that often appear at this time of year, intended to throw some ideas out there and see what people think.)

Edited by Alexandra

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I also thinks it's a perverse understanding of an audience that has been crushed by the lack of at least one choreographic genius successor to Balanchine.

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Helene, we were posting at the same time. Yours is an excellent point. I think many would take a couple of nice second-rate geniuses :blush: But pretending that the fifth-rate stuff that keeps getting served up is groundbreaking and wonderful just won't do.

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I think many would take a couple of nice second-rate geniuses :blush:
Amen.

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All right, I'm going to jump in here, caution to the wind. I'm not good at putting things into words. But it almost seems to me that when you're more occupied with doing something well than you are with doing something new, you're more likely to get something good. Does that make sense?

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Perfect sense :blush: How many geniuses jumped out of bed in the morning and cried to the sun, "Another day! I must Break Boundaries, make something that even They will think is new, and, above all, Be Relevant To Our Times." Short list, I would think.

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