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Macaulay on Balanchine at NYCB


bart

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I'm confused. This afternoon I read the following in an article by Alistair Macaulay, ballet critic for the NY Times:

[ ... ] City Ballet, though the world's most freaquent and facile exponent of [balancine's] repertoryo, is no longer the most serious. Balanchine is now a global phenomenon, City Ballet's version of him -- of his ballets -- has b ecome less incisive, more lightweight, less disturbing.

Huh? On Ballet Talk I continuously read glowing reviews of NYCB Balanchine performances from fans and/or experts whom I respect. The company seems to be a huge success and a constant source of fascination. Macaulay's is merely the most recent and the most prominent.

On the other hand, I also read many criticisms -- often quite acerbic -- of what Balanchine ballets have become at the NYCB at least since the mid-90s.

I've been a worshipper of Balanchine's work since I first saw his ballets as an adolescent during the 1957-58 season. But I haven't seen NYCB perform in quite a while. So I'm confused by these apparent contradictions.

What IS going on?

What in YOUR opinioin is the status of Balanchine at NYCB today? Excellent? Mezzo-mezzo? Disappointing? Downright embarrassing for the House that Balanchine Built?

I think that many of us who now live away from the NYC area are confused. But only those who are NYCB regulars can really address -- and, one hopes, bring some resolution to -- this issue.

______________________________________

Here's another quote from Macaulay's article which might help put my inquiry in a kind of context. Also, Macaulay agrees that there have been significant improvements in the dancing of a number of Balanchine ballets. He singles out several dancers as being especially good with Balanchine. But here's the crux of his article:

Though no company dances nearly so many Balanchine ballets as City Ballet, the main Balanchine story is now happening elsewhere. It’s scarcely a matter of contention that American Ballet Theater, Miami City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet (attached to the Kennedy Center in Washington) and the Kirov Ballet of St. Petersburg have all danced several Balanchine ballets better than the mother company; or that even the Royal Ballet of London is occasionally better in individual Balanchine ballets.

During the last 18 months I have seen Balanchine’s “Agon” and “Square Dance” danced better by the Miami and Seattle companies; “Bugaku” and “Liebeslieder Walzer” by the Suzanne Farrell Ballet; “The Four Temperaments” by the San Francisco and Miami companies; and “Ballo Della Regina” by American Ballet Theater. What were once the secrets of City Ballet alone — degrees of speed, precision and daring that ballet had never seen before — are now becoming world property. It will be fascinating to see the still young Miami company dance five Balanchine ballets at City Center (City Ballet’s home until 1964) in January.

To watch American Ballet Theater, the Kirov and the Royal Ballet — none of them Balanchine specialists — is, at least sometimes, to see how great individual dancers can still illumine Balanchine ballets. In October and November at City Center, David Hallberg of Ballet Theater brought to the male role of “Ballo Della Regina” (1978) a blaze and finesse that give the role new dimensions. We do not have to hug our memories of yesteryear. Balanchine is as much ballet’s future as its past.

The complete article is here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/16/arts/dance/16maca.html

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He's good when talking about the specifics of NYCB, and esp. things like the descriptions of Von Aroldingen and Whelan in 'Union Jack'. Others will have been to NYCB more over the years, but I've been enough to see that he's characterized the evolution pretty well; it's Martins's company and it looks like it, tamer and tighter and paler. I liked the subtlety of the '4 years following Balanchine's death' as well, because I think of those years as having been especially inspired as well and went pretty frequently--in fact, the best performances (except one or two in the 70s as with Melissa in 'Swan Lake') I saw were in 1985, 1986, and 1987.

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I can see how Macaulay's comments led to some confusion... I thought it was an unfinished article....

For starters, Macaulay has his favorite dancers, and I'll just make one comment re that.

Macaulay loved Hallberg (ABT) in Ballo this past October. So did I--- But ABT does not (on the whole) dance Ballo better than NYCB does/did when first created. Macaulay also (I recall) loved Bouder (NYCB) in the female lead of Ballo, and Scheller (NYCB) in the same lead, and also DeLuz (import to NYCB) in the male lead.

The corps/soloists of ABT's Ballo seemed more mature. And, yes, NYCB has a young, lighter, less classically trained approach. One was not better than the other, just different. So was one company better than the other in Ballo? I don't think so. Again, just different. And at this point the ballerinas of NYCB have danced the leads better. Ballo is not about the guy. He dances much less than the female lead. Loving Hallberg does not justify saying that the entire ballet of Ballo was better danced by ABT. Not one female lead yet, at ABT, has come close to the excitement, brightness, cleanliness and risk-taking fun, attack that Bouder brings/brought to the Ballo lead. Ditto Merrill Ashley, or Scheller.

I also saw San Fran's 4Ts. Some casting (imports) of the leads (Sylve/Domitro) were much more excellent in comparison to NYCB's recent casting of leads after (import) Sylve was exported from NYCB.

I could go into other examples too..... but.... I'll let others have a chance.

The point I'm trying to make is that ABT and other major companies do have a lot of very fine imports who dance anything brilliantly, while NYCB has only two or three home-grown beauties for all the major Balanchine leads. Macaulay should have addressed that.... And why is NYCB holding on to senior dancers that have long stopped dancing well.... Paying them principal/soloist salaries while the import possibilities go elsewhere... That's why you can see Balanchine ballets danced well by some, even many, other dancers in other companies, while not at NYCB.

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The point I'm trying to make is that ABT and other major companies do have a lot of very fine imports who dance anything brilliantly, while NYCB has only two or three home-grown beauties for all the major Balanchine leads. Macaulay should have addressed that.... And why is NYCB holding on to senior dancers that have long stopped dancing well.... Paying them enormous salaries while the import possibilities go elsewhere... That's why you can see Balanchine ballets danced well by some, even many, other dancers in other companies, while not at NYCB.

Thanks for an interesting point, sz, but I'm interested in what you and other longtime observers think of this paragraph:

Major features of Balanchine style began to erode. His dancers had arrived in position with the beat; now they responded to that beat, so dance and music ceased to reach the audience as one. He had built his technique out of the drastic contrast between tightly closed positions and stretched open ones; now this became softened, blurred. Dancers had stepped off balance with full-toned audacity (startling to European eyes and an embodiment of American character); now they made the transfer of weight more mild and polite. The corps de ballet in those years began to dance more tidily and in better unison but with a less blazing energy.

We've read this sort of thing over and over from Croce and Grescovic and others.

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I'd answer that it started to happen while Balanchine was alive. Melissa Hayden was complaining to him about those changes in Agon by the '72 Stravinsky Festival.

Some of it isn't Martins. Some of that musicality can't be recaptured without huge, intensive amounts of rehearsal. It's not a conscious choice, but the effects of standardization.

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It's not a conscious choice, but the effects of standardization.

That's a good point. And the 'growth industry', even when it has good results in MCB and PNB and the Kirov and others, reminds me of when there was only one Saks Fifth Avenue and one Bloomingdale's. NYCB actually has to compete with all those other companies, doesn't it? although I think that there's still some kind of aura around NYCB, it's pretty tarnished and will disappear in time as a result of that 'growth industry'. Because none of these more-performed Balanchine works are new; but when they were new, it was more exciting by a long shot.

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Thanks for your responses so far. Please, NYCB aficionados, keep them coming.

If possible, it would be wonderful to keep the focus on the issue of how Balanchine is now performed at NYCB and perhaps start another thread for the other aspects of the article.

Leigh, can you develop a bit on what you mean by "standardization"? The term is usually used so perjoratively when talking about the arts. Also, although it may describe the apprpoach taken within a single, vast company, it doesn't describe the way Balanchine ballets are danced around the world. Nor does it describe the way the Company in the 60s-80s danced them. The ballets were so strong they supported interpretation by dancers who were often strikingly different, especially in the early days, but also -- though less frequently -- right into the late 80s. At least it seemed so to me at the time.

sz, I appreciate your observations about individual dancers. As you mention, Macaulay does indeed have his favorites and lists some of them in this article. He also seems to have favorite qualities when it comes to dancing Balanchine. For Balanchine, he LIKES qualities like the ones I list below, all taken from this article. He also makes the point that these are not appropriate for all Balanchine ballets:

-- Speed/ attack/ "sharp"/ precise but not cookie-cutter.

-- Clearly defined and often dramatic contrasts in movement, even "wildness."

-- Risk-takers: "audacity"/ "daring"/ willingness to go "off balance"

-- "Theatricality"/ Dancers who seize the stage -- who "impress" -- who convey their sexuality -- who command the space they occupy.

All of these are compatible with great technique. They go beyond it, however. They also make technically weak dancers (Aroldingen is his example) a great deal more interesting on stage than you might predict.

How many dancers at NYCB exhibit -- or are encouraged to develop -- the kinds of qualities Macaulays' associates with Balanchine? I say "encouraged" because management plays an important role here. An example: Villella's third-cast Melancholic in MCB's current Program I was Daniel Baker, who entered the company as an Apprentice in 2006 (his first job,I believe). Baker is an astonishingly talented young dancer. But how many AD's would give him a chance at Melancholic? Compared to 1st cast Alex Wong (himself only a few years out of school) and the more senior Jeremy Cox, who danced the role after having opened the weekend with Phlegmatic, Baker still has a way to go. But his start in this challenging and iconic role was thrilling. No one in the audience during the matinee was cheated. Something's going on in MCB that's urging dancers on to develop -- indeed to seize -- the very qualitise that Macaulay likes.

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I can only be a spectator in this conversation since I haven't been to NYC in over 20 years. But what I'm curious about is why such an article (especially of this length) is being written now. What do you suppose prompted Macaulay's decision to publish such sweeping statements right now. Surely these ideas have been in his mind for a long, long time. As far as I can tell such ideas have been in the minds of other "knowledgable ones" too. So why now?

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Great dancers nowadays can dance Balanchine. But what of the dancers at the Suzanne Farrell Ballet? I'm almost embarrassed to say that critics regularly point out that they are not world-class artists. Yet their performances of Balanchine are generally well-received, to say the least. How do you explain that?

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I can only be a spectator in this conversation since I haven't been to NYC in over 20 years. But what I'm curious about is why such an article (especially of this length) is being written now. What do you suppose prompted Macaulay's decision to publish such sweeping statements right now. Surely these ideas have been in his mind for a long, long time. As far as I can tell such ideas have been in the minds of other "knowledgable ones" too. So why now?

I think it was prompted by the fact that San Francisco Ballet and ABT recently performed Balanchine works in NYC (in Oct. 2008). Moreover, Macaulay recently went to see Miami City Ballet this fall, and he was apparently very impressed by their performances of Balanchine. Also, the dance scene is a bit slow now in NYC, so he probably had to fill up space with something controversial.

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Surely these ideas have been in his mind for a long, long time. As far as I can tell such ideas have been in the minds of other "knowledgable ones" too. So why now?

Very interesting question. Maybe he thinks that Balanchine's work -- spreading throughout the world and being performed amazingly well -- is no longer dependent on what NYCB does or doesn't do. Years ago, an inadeqate NYCB Jewels, Agon or 4 T's would be been a threat to the survival of the work itself. This is no longer the case. The Balanchine canon no longer needs NYCB the way it once did. Maybe Macaulay is writing as a member of the local New York audience and asking: Why can't WE have the Balanchine that other companies are now capable of performing?

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I have only been attending performances of NYCB since the mid 90s, so I am not able to compare today's company with the golden age when Balanchine led his company. However, I think Macaulay's dismissive comments about the current state of affairs at NYCB lack merit. I attended numerous performances of Rubies performed by the Kirov in April 2008. Most of those performances were, in my opinion, poor. In most instances, the Kirov's Rubies had none of the angularity, attack or wit that NYCB regularly brings to that work. Moreover, focusing on the fact that David Hallberg did a great job in Ballo misses the point. The real focus should be on the lead ballerina. In my opinion, none of ABT's ladies in the principal role this season measured up as compared to the NYCB ladies. Even Gillian Murphy's performances last year, while pretty good, were not remarkable. There are certainly many problems at NYCB, including the fact that their rep. every season is so vast that rehearsal time for each work is limited. However, they certainly don't deserve the severe negative comments that Macaulay made in this article.

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>Something's going on in MCB that's urging dancers

>on to develop -- indeed to seize --

>the very qualitise that Macaulay likes.

I think MCB is dancing the way Eddie is coaching them to dance. I think he is also importing like crazy the dancers who dance the way Eddie likes. I have tickets for every performance of MCB's upcoming visit to City Center, so I'll soon get a very good impression of what's going on there.

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Great dancers nowadays can dance Balanchine. But what of the dancers at the Suzanne Farrell Ballet? I'm almost embarrassed to say that critics regularly point out that they are not world-class artists. Yet their performances of Balanchine are generally well-received, to say the least. How do you explain that?

Because her company has Balanchine "live", and "she" is forbidden to help NYCB's dancers.

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sz - some of it's Villella, but as you could guess, some of it's Roma Sosenko and the other ballet masters/mistresses.

That's also what I meant by standardization. These ballets are no longer rehearsed by the original choreographer or dancers so that irregularities that were the spice of the ballet often get lost. They can't always be retrieved; and often even if the original dancer is coaching the role s/he can't impart to the next dancer something that was second nature - that's why casting matters so much. Sometimes the best substitute is for the new dancer to bring his/her own flavor and quirks to the role.

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I can only be a spectator in this conversation since I haven't been to NYC in over 20 years. But what I'm curious about is why such an article (especially of this length) is being written now. What do you suppose prompted Macaulay's decision to publish such sweeping statements right now. Surely these ideas have been in his mind for a long, long time. As far as I can tell such ideas have been in the minds of other "knowledgable ones" too. So why now?

"So why now?"

Perhaps because he cares.

I have similar concerns about the Royal Ballet.

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I can only be a spectator in this conversation since I haven't been to NYC in over 20 years. But what I'm curious about is why such an article (especially of this length) is being written now. What do you suppose prompted Macaulay's decision to publish such sweeping statements right now. Surely these ideas have been in his mind for a long, long time. As far as I can tell such ideas have been in the minds of other "knowledgable ones" too. So why now?

"So why now?"

Perhaps because he cares.

Should I conclude that he didn't care last month or last year?

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For starters, Macaulay has his favorite dancers, and I'll just make one comment re that.

Macaulay loved Hallberg (ABT) in Ballo this past October. So did I--- But ABT does not (on the whole) dance Ballo better than NYCB does/did when first created. Macaulay also (I recall) loved Bouder (NYCB) in the female lead of Ballo, and Scheller (NYCB) in the same lead, and also DeLuz (import to NYCB) in the male lead.

The point I'm trying to make is that ABT and other major companies do have a lot of very fine imports who dance anything brilliantly, while NYCB has only two or three home-grown beauties for all the major Balanchine leads. Macaulay should have addressed that.... And why is NYCB holding on to senior dancers that have long stopped dancing well.... Paying them principal/soloist salaries while the import possibilities go elsewhere... That's why you can see Balanchine ballets danced well by some, even many, other dancers in other companies, while not at NYCB.

Thank you for that. Speaking of imports, when watching ABT's Ballo I wished that Bouder or Scheller had been imported, but I guess that's not possible.

2 things I wanted to add for consideration. 1. Peter Martins was not named in the article, but the implication was that others (Suzanne, Eddy V etc) provide better coaching. 2. My thought that is that at NYCB something can be lost in attack and a musical attitude because pieces choreographed on the company make different demands (than Mr. B) Other companies have Balanchine works as the new things they are dealing with.

One more question. What does one make of the Macaulay statement that the things learned at SAB are untaught at NYCB?

Thank you all.

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One more question. What does one make of the Macaulay statement that the things learned at SAB are untaught at NYCB?

Acocella has said essentially the same thing, quoting a company member to the effect that Martins gives an easier class, and concluding that "we are seeing the results." Greskovic, in a 2002 piece on the same subject wrote that

the Balanchine stagings at the annual School of American Ballet workshops still look like Balanchine-they're stamped by clarity, propulsion, expression through relation to the music, not pasted on as punctuation. But these are not the qualities the company seems to encourage-or maybe it doesn't know how to.
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I'm beginning to understand what might happen between the SAB years and the Company years. Thanks, kfw and Mr. Greskovic.

[O]ften even if the original dancer is coaching the role s/he can't impart to the next dancer something that was second nature - that's why casting matters so much [boldface added]. Sometimes the best substitute is for the new dancer to bring his/her own flavor and quirks to the role.
This is very helpful Leigh. Coaching can only go so far. A coach needs the right people to work with. Good casting -- and I believe that MCB excels in this, both for their higher ranked dancers and for those in the corps who get a shot at major roles -- can also be a corrective to to the tendency towards "standardization" that you mentioned.

Who is responsible for NYCB's casting -- and for KEEPING dancers in the cast of a particular ballet -- at NYCB? How much of what one sees on stage is produced by circumstances and accidents -- injuries, the resultant need for cast-juggling, and so on? Are dancers tried out in certain roles and then dropped if they are found to be in appropriate?

"So why now?"

Perhaps because he cares.

Should I conclude that he didn't care last month or last year?

Macaulay's been doing his research, travelling extensively for over a year. He's made multiple visits to a Balanchine programs outside NYC. Perhaps he feels that his basic research is now concluded and that it's time to start publishing the results.

I have the feeling that this discussion will be ongoing. I would actually like to see him write about what's "right" about NYCB's dancing of Balanchine. Among the younger generation at City Ballet, Macaulay praises Ashley Bouder and Teresa Reichlen. He also writes that

It was exciting this spring to watch many dancers show Balanchine's off-balance principle in practice.

So things are looking up? Can some of you mention individual dancers who are doing things "right" -- along with their roles? Maybe a "WHAT'S RIGHT?" LIST could serve as a king of signpost, indicating the direction in which the Ballet Talk fans think the Company should be moving.

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"So why now?"

Should I conclude that he didn't care last month or last year?

Macaulay's been doing his research, travelling extensively for over a year. He's made multiple visits to a Balanchine programs outside NYC. Perhaps he feels that his basic research is now concluded and that it's time to start publishing the results.

This makes sense to me. Your thought also provides a potential explanation of why the article was so long and so prominent. Thanks for the insight bart.

P.S. One of those "outside NYC" visits was to PNB not so long ago.

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>...I'm beginning to understand what might happen between

>the SAB years and the Company years.

SAB teaches dancers how to dance a class and, at times, adding a variation or two while in a classroom environment. Company experience should (and often does) teaches dancers how to move/dance on stage. Rehearsal time permitting, I rarely think that SAB performs anything better at their annual workshops than NYCB does. Only difference is that SAB dancers are fierce with competition, hoping to get a job at NYCB so the one or two performances they get at the annual workshop can be a do or die situation. Unlike Macaulay, I did not like, at all, how Concerto Barocco was coached and performed at the last SAB workshop. Hard-hitting attacks were eye catching but had nothing to do with the refined, beautiful music.

>...Often even if the original dancer is coaching the role s/he

> can't impart to the next dancer something that was second

> nature - that's why casting matters so much. Sometimes

>the best substitute is for the new dancer to bring his/her

>own flavor and quirks to the role.

All very true. Still coaching could, and should, further bring out an individual dancer's personal flavor and "quirks," improving their different approaches to different performances. Many dancers have a strong sense of who they are and what they bring to a role. Most others need some guidance as to what is expected of them.

>Who is responsible for NYCB's casting -- and for dancers

>in the cast of a particular ballet -- at NYCB?

They have ballet mistresses and masters who have input.... but ultimately Peter Martins is responsible.

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I think it was Croce who was first said that the technique and spirit was what somehow got lost in the trip between the School of American Ballet and the State Theater. She also wrote that some greater degree of freedom in restaging Balanchine might be worth trying. That's maybe why the Cuban and Spanish dancers (such as Taras Domitro and Gonzalo Garcia and Lorena Freijoo) are more successful, they push the stuffing out of the parts--even the ragged Theme and Variations on You Tube a few weeks ago with Joel Carreno and Vingsay Valdes [?] seemed so fresh. If they drifted apart at some points, they delicately buttoned things together at others. They have the wit and torsioning necessary to bring off the Balanchine constructions which go off in one direction and the other at once.

When Time does pick up her skirts and her toys and blindly--and rather blandly today--sets up shop elsewhere, all the little social and cultural cues that built the personalites who once danced are swept away. No new Melissa Haydens or Mary Ann Moylens--dancers instead dance Melissa Hayden dancing Balanchine. (With Cunningham no more Viola Farber and Douglas Dunn and Jeff Slayton and their droll and goofy moves.)

Yes, as Macaulay says, the freeze frame of something already in progress (for which you’ll have to catch up) when the curtain opens is essential to Balanchine. It tells whether all the elements are set to be in play.

And more Shakespearean than Shakespeare (is Ashton Pinter?). I think Balanchine should also be compared with his modernist near contemporaries: Cezanne and Braque, maybe Le Corbusier, maybe late modernists painters like Guston and Robert Ryman who worked the same few things over and over. Tim Scholl suggests Anna Akmohtava. But still Shakespearean in that Balanchine seemed to contain the whole world in his works.

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>Something's going on in MCB that's urging dancers

>on to develop -- indeed to seize --

>the very qualitise that Macaulay likes.

I think MCB is dancing the way Eddie is coaching them to dance. I think he is also importing like crazy the dancers who dance the way Eddie likes. I have tickets for every performance of MCB's upcoming visit to City Center, so I'll soon get a very good impression of what's going on there.

This is completely accurate.

I think Miami City Ballet circa three or four years ago was the closest thing this nation had to a true "BALANCHINE" company. Now-a-days, not so much... a lot of classically trained dancers that are aesthetically unable to pull off the Balanchine nuances, in my opinion. But there are still so many beautiful dancers that have been at MCB for over a decade, that really do have an idea of what they're doing with Balanchine ballets, and this is a good thing, because it will definitely show in New York on their tour.... in any rate...

A lot of my problem with New York City Ballet is that the dancers are under-rehearsed, and I think this is the root of the problem concerning their idea of continuing Balanchine's legacy. The corps de ballet gets sloppy, people go through the motions, and nuances that should be present from hours of thought out rehearsals with capable, knowledgeable coaches are NOT THERE, hence, the "lack" of New York City Ballet's "Balanchine" presence. Granted, there ARE a few dancers who don't need the rehearsals... they've danced the roles a thousand times and know it like the back of their hands, and can just pull out the stops the second they step on stage; but for most dancers, tedious hours of rehearsals are needed.

Because of the size of the company, I also feel that the company treats itself as a "corps de ballet of soloist potential" and people have the wrong idea when they get on the stage. They would rather "stick out" and be noticed, than worry about being in line, and executing steps musically with other dancers around them. This is where Miami City Ballet, and many other companies in the nation have New York City Ballet outwitted. Why else would Miami City Ballet get a times review saying that they dance Balanchine better than Balanchine's own company? And in any rate, I would like to make a prediction:

Miami City Ballet's tour to City Center in January, is going to open a lot of eyes in New York City, both critics, and City Ballet's audience as well. I know that right now the company is very concerned with how the ballet's they are bringing will fare with the "vulture" critics of New York City, but in all honesty, the critics are only vultures because they are seeing mediocre ballet every night they review. I think MCB is going to bring a much needed breath of fresh air to New York, the ballets, and maybe even give City Ballet some ideas on how to better run their company. :wink:

Just a thought, though.

:thanks:

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Thanks, figurante. Your knowledge of how Balanchine is actually prepared and danced is very valuable.

The concept of "under-rehearsal" is one that arises constantly in accounts of life in the New York City Ballet. I wonder, however: wasn't this also the case (though perhaps not to the same extent) in Balanchine's day. Memoi4s of that time, from the 50s right through to the 80s suggest that everyone was always running, running, getting injured, having to go on stage at the last minute as a replacement, etc. etc.

For example, take Balanchine's famous hostility to publicising cast lists before the performance -- a practice continued by Villella. This was more than a wish to force audiences to focus on the work rather than on the interpreter. I have heard that it was also a practical necessity considering the frequent, often last-minute, shifts in who danced what. Stories of underprepared dancers being pushed onstage and talked through their role are common.

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