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Ed Waffle

The importance of "substandard" ballet

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This is based on some of the posts in the thread that started as "taped music" and became a much more wide ranging discussion. I want to add just a few points, but they don't belong under the original thread.

Touring, boring music, costs, audience response--lots of things are covered, all important.

One point, however, that has been made tangentially in some of the posts and which I think is quite important is that compromises like taped music, sparse sets, small corps and other things may allow a company to bring ballet to areas or people that might not otherwise get it.

Keep in mind just how powerful ballet can be to those who have never seen it live--who have never been in the same room with a ballerina as she seems to float forever in a jete or as she turns and turns AND TURNS. It can be an astonishing experience to someone on the south side of Chicago or in West Virginia or anywhere else for whom live ballet has been just a rumor.

And I am speaking as a ballet civilian--think of the effect on a young lady in a local possibly not very good dance school. It doesn't have to be the ABT at City Center or the NYCB at the New York State Theatre. It doesn't even have to be a regional company at their usual venue. It can be the local arts center where the bus pulls up a few hours before the performance.

Which is not to gainsay the difficulties of touring--odd sized stages, floors that just don't work, terrible sound systems, inadequate dressing rooms, lots of other problems.

But magic can happen if it is possible to overcome those things and get dancers in front of an audience that is seeing ballet for the first time in a theatre.

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ABT was doing this a couple of years ago. They would send a small group of dancers to do one-and-two night stands of repertory pieces with recorded music at venues that could not support a full touring production. The idea was to give the people in these small towns an opportunity to see some of the stars of the company, as well as a group of professional dancers.

I don't know if "ABT Lite" still tours, but I liked the idea. Those of us who live close to Kennedy Center or the Orange County Performing Arts Center may sneer at recorded music, but if you're living in Melbourne, FL, this is likely to be the high point of your year.


[This message has been edited by Steve Keeley (edited 02-09-99).]

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I agree. There's a place for all kinds of ballet.

I'd like to write something that might explain my rather harsh position on matters of standards, and that is from having watched ballet now for 25 years and seen things which were considered appalling when they were first done now be considered standard. I do NOT mean this in the cliche'd sense of what was once avant garde is now run of the mill, but the way style has eroded, the haphazard casting that is now all too common, etc.

Nothing at all is wrong with a small company, or group of dancers, touring and playing missionary to small towns. (Although this, too, can be done with honor. Read about Fanny Elssler's tours through an unpaved America in the 1840s, or Pavlova. Part of the experience was to bring what was first-rate in every way, like "Birgit's Feast," if anyone saw that film. It doesn't matter that we're in the ugliest, dreariest, most desolate town in the world; we're going to have table cloths and silver and good food if we're going to call it a feast.

A lot of my reaction to "substandard" ballet, in any sense of the word is also based on my observations of ballet politics, and particularly the role critics play -- and particularly either uninformed or sometimes, I'm afraid to say, rather unscrupulous critics can do harm. When the Down at Heel Ballet swirls through the Ozarks bringing joy wherever it goes -- that's great. When it comes with a press kit heralding it as "Perhaps our nation's premiere small troupe," or "What ballet should be," or "The ballet of the future," I see skulls and crossbones. Make sense?

Related to the question of expectations, another problem is what happened to "Stars of New York Ballet," or whatever they ended up calling themselves in London last summer. To the dancers, this was a small pick up company, something to do on summer vacation. Dozens like them. But they were billed as Stars of the New York City Ballet, and Londoners took that seriously. When they turned out not to be all stars, or even dancers currently with NYCB, there was, shall we say, confusion and disgruntlement.

A few more thoughts to put into the mix.

One of the most gracious performances I ever saw was Merle Park dancing with the Metropolitan Ballet of Washington, a now very defunct company. Audience of maybe 12. Lisner Auditorium, taped music. She danced three solos. It was quite odd. I was new to ballet and couldn't figure out what was going on -- a bunch of kids earnestly clunking through "classical" numbers and then this Royal Ballet ballerina coming on and doing Aurora, and two other things I've forgotten. You didn't get to see real ballet, but you got to see a real ballerina, and that would give people a standard against which to measure subsequent performances.


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I think Ed has hit the mark regarding what had previously caused me to want to respond somewhat contrarily to the discussion of taped music vs live, and the extension of that "compromise" into compromises in other areas of a ballet performing company that came under discussion elsewhere. The discussion seemed to ignore what I felt were more than compensating benefits to such compromises. Ed has pointed out some of those benefits clearly.

I'm still not sure I can march to what seems to be the final "tune" ,sorry :-), of the discussion (ie., the idea that "once you've heard full orchestration of a ballet score by one of the select few acknowledged "great" orchestras, playing it right, you will always feel somewhat let-down by less than the best after that"). Ballet presentations of the calibre being described seem quite rare!! As Alexandra says, the standards have been lowered during recent decades. Does anyone have an experience of such ballet performances more than a few times in their lifetime? I hope not to achieve such a critical eye (and ear) that I will diminish the excitement that I currently experience , though I do want to have the chance to see the best , if it can be seen, and to recognize it.

This condition of lowered standards seems not properly attributable to the majority of ballet companies which are not well-endowed, not in large cities, and not blessed with many experienced principal dancers. It seems more properly laid at the feet of the MAJOR ballet companies (who aren't seen in the boonies and whose role it MUST BE to uphold and even advance the standards). When standards are lowered, it is not because companies who never achieved these standards are lowering them, it is because the companies who set the standards in the first place let them slide. OK, that's my last word trying to defend all those really small-city ballet companies who admittedly cannot match the three or four companies universally acknowledged as the best, though they still bring a new exciting perspective to many.

What I really wanted to say in response to Ed's new thread here is that what he describes is exactly what caused me to become interested in ballet. Ed said:

"Keep in mind just how powerful ballet can be to those who have never seen it live--who have never been in the same room with a ballerina as she seems to float forever in a jete or as she turns and turns AND TURNS."

For years my wife talked about ballet. I listened politely, and planned the next visit to a concert or the theatre. When my niece began dancing seriously, I went, and... end of story. I have become hooked on ballet. I can't distinguish an entrechat four from a six, nor probably even a fouette from a pirouette yet , but I like them all. I started watching a small-city ballet company and thought what they were doing was magnificent. I've now seen one of the top world-class ballet companies, and I recognize that it was much better. A place for everything, everything in its place. Magic can happen.

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Well said, Paul. I absolutely agree that the slip in standards has started at the top. And I think the world was a much better place when the great companies toured.

I would like to comment on something you wrote, though. You asked: "Does anyone have an experience of such ballet performances more than a few times in their lifetime?"

Yes. Yes. Yes. That's what's so maddening about the current situation. Three, four, five nights in a row. Several times in my life, an entire week of absolutely top of the line, everything working, performances. I can remember when I was so excited about upcoming performances that my heart would be pounding -- and this is not rosy memories of youth, or the fact that I was naive at the time. They were scattered throughout my ballet going. It's not that the first two years I remember as perfect, and everything has been downhill since, by any means. It's been up and down; just many more ups 15 and 20 years ago, and many more downs in the past five to ten.

It is very true, thought, what you say, that the magic can happen anywhere. It's like books. I don't think "The Poky Little Puppy" rivals Shakespeare now, but it sure was great at the time!


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