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The fell influence of Balanchine, by Sarah Kaufman

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Obligatory link to Sarah Kaufman's complaint about the dominance of the Balanchine aesthetic in contemporary ballet.


All of those experiences -- the high-art chic, the showbiz, the forceful physicality of Russian ballet and the broken lines and fragmentation that Picasso and Stravinsky were exploring -- surface in Balanchine's work. The bulk of his ballets are abstract, musically driven "pure dance." Even his few narrative pieces are little concerned with reality. Most of his works evoke a cool, purified, distant universe. And always, refinement: He loved tutus and tiaras ("Theme and Variations," 1947), showgirl legs on untouchable goddesses ("Concerto Barocco," 1941) and bracing simplicity. His ballets costumed only in leotards and tights ("Agon," 1957) had the angular, dramatic shock of a Mies van der Rohe house.
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It's hard to imagine that Kaufman has been watching ongoing performances of Balanchine by San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and Ballet Arizona when she writes:

We are cursed with George Balanchine, cursed with an overload of his ballets as well as with the ubiquity of the sinewy style he favored, his preference for plotless works on a naked stage, his taste for fast, skinny, emotionally guarded dancers.

That's not to say I haven't seen emotionally inscrutable performances by Natalia Magnicaballi at BA or Batkhurel Bold at PNB, for example, but time after time, I've seen anything but skinny, emotionally guarded dancers. (They are fast, though.) And I'll take the naked stage over Tony Walton's sets for SFB's "Jewels" any day of the week.

When she wrote

Gone, in new work, is theater, spectacle, satire, flesh-and-blood characters, the ache of real life, the escape offered by a sharp, piercing little story. Now more than ever, American ballet, artistically speaking, is a homogeneous entity. We are a thoroughly Balanchine nation.

I doubt she had seen Ginger Smith and Astrit Zejnati or Tzu-Chia Huang and Ross Clarke in the Kay Mazzo/Peter Martins roles in one of Balanchine's most abstract creations, "Stravinsky Violin Concerto", in which each couple painted a strikingly different portrait of a relationship through choices in phrasing and dynamics in complete service to the score. The audience met the end of Aria II by the first couple with an intense silence and by the second with audible sighs. I doubt the ache of real life escaped anyone.

These are not isolated examples that I've seen in the last decade.

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A couple of the best ballets I've seen since the death of Balanchine had his mark on them: Paul Gibson's "The Piano Ballet", and a wonderful little piece to Webern than Daniel Duell choreographed for a small group of dancers at Jacob's Pillow in the mid-80's.

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Seconding the post by Helene, above, and having seen those particular examples at Ballet Arizona -- if it is all that abstract, why do people cry? Oh yes, they do. Men, too. They laugh, they cry, they sigh, and all the rest. Recorded music and all, well-performed Balanchine allows dancers, in all their humanity and individuality, to both stimulate the intellect and resonate with the soul, plot or no plot. In fact, when dancers are emotionally guarded in Balanchine pieces, it is noticiable and unsatisfying. For instance, also at Ballet Arizona, Chelsea Wilcox, while fully physically capable, is not yet up to the level of other company principals, specifically because of this. Roman Zavarov, as Apollo, for all his physical beauty, would be little without the range of expression he provided.

I'll buy some of it, including the relationship to artists working contemporaneously -- but not the blanket condemnation.

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I take some of Kaufman’s points, but it was depressing to see her exhuming ancient criticisms of Balanchine as being abstract, remote, and lacking in good old human feeling. (“Ballet needs to get its humanity back,” etc.) It became harder to take the article seriously when Kaufman offered up the notion of hiring Matthew Bourne as “thinking outside the box.”

I will allow that I haven’t seen any gas station attendants or ranch hands on the ballet stage lately, but I don’t often meet them in real life, either, unless I’m filling up the tank at one of the rare places where full service is available or attending the rodeo.

I suppose if ballet were to reflect truly the realities of contemporary American culture, we would have ballets about life in office cubicles (“Dilbert: the Ballet”? Maybe somebody could have a go at “Office Space”?)

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Keep talking. :D

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Isn't the Balanchine Ballet a bit of a straw man for Kaufman? Dancers' limited acting skills may be, for instance, more closely related to specialization as ballet, like all arts and all sports, has become more demanding in pure physicality. One can imagine a number of other contributing societal causes, some relating to performers, some to audiences, others to the funding (which is mentioned). In other words, accepting the legitimacy of her concerns, wouldn't it be the case that the causes have societal roots ... rather than a causal connection to performing or preferring Balanchine works.

Interesting to contemplate Dirac's comment -- is urbanization itself a cause, as lack of colorful "characters" recede and the relative anonimity of the city takes over ....

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Bourne isn't the answer to anything; his work is something between the drawing of mustaches on the Mona Lisa and the self-referentiality that the article decries. Balanchine, while "dabbling" in movie choreography, produced an uproarious version of Swan Lake which a lot of people have taken for a veracious picture of what ballet actually is!

But something seems to be missing, here. Ubiquity is disparaged and yet, the realization that propinquity begets ubiquity seems to have been forgotten. Balanchine was working in America, and it's a big place! Lots of wannabes were bound to be produced simply by the process of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. What I would like to know is: Where are the Ashton wannabes? Wheeldon seems to be a natural heir apparent, but doesn't pretend to the title. The UK can't depend on getting a genius like Ashton - indeed, no place can - every quarter-century; even he came to England via Ecuador and Peru. Balanchine came to America by another sort of track, but it's largely good fortune that both ended up where they did! Americans and Britons both saw both choreographers at their best, and practically simultaneously. Perhaps it is simply because short story ballets are so much work to produce.

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I agree with dirac. While I feel Kaufman has some valid points, I disagree with her line that Balanchine favored "fast, skinny, emotionally guarded dancers." I don't doubt she sees this sometimes but it's because Balanchine choreographic followers (I'll call them post-Modern ballet creators) miss the whole, encompassing view of Balanchine's work. His work was not devoid of story (think of his famous quote - just because it's abstract doesn't mean there's no meaning. When a man and a woman are on stage together, there's already a story), not all of them were devoid of scenery, and for a man who worked so closely with Karinska and other designers, he cared about costumes too. But post-Modern choreographers just riff on Agon (without any of the skill that ballet showed) and forget all the other ballets like Steadfast Tin Soldier or rethinks of ballets such as La Source or Raymonda Variations. Not every Balanchine ballet is a slash and burn, like William Forsythe or Jarmo Elo or even some Wheeldon. In fact, it is those performances of Balanchine's works that treat Agon or 4Ts like an Elo ballet that I find unacceptable.

However, it would certainly behoove ballet makers today to explore all of the great repertoire.

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I will allow that I haven’t seen any gas station attendants or ranch hands on the ballet stage lately, but I don’t often meet them in real life, either, unless I’m filling up the tank at one of the rare places where full service is available or attending the rodeo.

Isn't this the strongest argument against ballets that "reflect the realities of contemporary American culture"? Wouldn't Office Space: The Ballet seem equally alien to audiences 25 years from now?

Haven't Balanchine's ballets "aged better" precisely because they're abstracted and more archetypal as a result?

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<<Haven't Balanchine's ballets "aged better" precisely because they're abstracted and more archetypal as a result?>>

Fancy Free and Jardin aux Lilas have help up pretty well even though they are narrative dances set in very specific times and places.

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There must be some reason why so much of Balanchine is actively performed while most of Massine, sad to say, has disappeared.

For the record, I have absolutely nothing against narrative ballets. I also believe that the narrative vs. non-narrative dichotomy is a false one. The problem isn't that today's choreographers favour abstract ballet. The problem is that there are no choreographers with the genius of a Balanchine or an Ashton or a Tudor out there. Why would shifting emphasis to short narrative ballets succeed in manufacturing that genius?

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Couselor Troi senses An Agenda. :D

Kaufman’s article is not the most internally consistent argument against House of Balanchine that I’ve encountered. There’s a lot to chew on and respond to, but four quotes struck me immediately in this regard:

Today, new ballets come in two forms, either the plotless 20-to-30-minute piece or the evening-long, three-act "story" ballet. These full-lengths treat familiar tales -- "Dracula," "Peter Pan" -- with mixed results, or rework the time-tested "Swan Lakes" and "Sleeping Beauties." Most ballet companies perform one or two a year -- they are expensive to create but they sell the most tickets. Do they really tell a story? Typically, no. If you don't already know the plot, you are sunk. (Emphasis mine.)
What's needed is the antidote to all curses: Ballet has to get its humanity back. Telling a story may be viewed as unhip in our postmodern age, but human cravings don't subside just because artistic manifestos tell them to. We'll always love stories, especially when they're about us. Look at Tudor's "Lilac Garden," in which a woman must give up the man she loves for the one she doesn't: Done right, it's not a dramatization of Edwardian society, it's a heartbreak happening now. It's so real, it hurts to watch. Choreographers ought to study the old masters, particularly Tudor and Ashton, whose entwinement of movement, drama and feeling are unmatched. (Emphasis mine.)
Balanchine's streamlining of the dancer also extended to the content and look of his productions. Gone, under Balanchine, are the folk heroes, the common men and women. Gone is any kind of story, really; his brand of "neoclassical" ballet turns on atmosphere, musical response, pattern. There may be notes of spirituality, wit or romance, but his work is more about the body, less about the person. And the body -- the dance object -- needs no fixed realm. With some exceptions -- the woods of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the drawing room of "Liebeslieder Walzer" -- Balanchine's ballets exist on a bare stage. This emptiness represented a whopping change to what had been a richly theatrical art form. (Emphasis mine.)
Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky's "Concerto DSCH," which New York City Ballet performed here in March, is the most provocative recent exemplar of human relationships explored in ballet. It was by no means a narrative, but it had true characters and a palpable sense of drama, and you believed in his jittery, dark-shadowed world the moment the curtain went up. Having just begun his tenure as ABT's artist-in-residence, perhaps Ratmansky will take a shot at refreshing that company's dramatic origins. (Emphasis mine.)

1. I defy anyone to figure out what’s going on in “Lilac Garden” without reading the plot synopsis in the program notes.

2. Yes, it happens, but how many young Americans today must give up the person they love for the one that they don’t? Kaufman is talking about something most of us learn about from stories, not from our lives. Disappointed love? We've all been there. But the kind of renunciation going on in "Lilac Garden" is different from that; which is not to say that the story doesn't move us or that it doesn't resonate with our own experience. It just doesn't do so in the way Kaufman suggests it does. At the end of the day, how different is "Lilac Garden" from "La Bayadere"?

3. Kaufman needs to be explicit about the ways in which “Concerto DSCH” is an “exemplar of human relationships explored in ballet” or “has true characters and a palpable sense of drama” in a way that “Concerto Barocco” or "Apollo" is not / does not. We can use “Central Park in the Dark” if she needs a more in-your-face example from the Balanchine canon. If Ratmansky isn't using "atmosphere, musical response, pattern" or "the body" to tell us something about "the person" then what the heck is he using, and why isn't Balanchine doing the same thing.

4. I hope her argument doesn’t hang on the presence or absence of a bare stage (surely one could to “Lilac Garden” without the trees and frankly, I don’t even remember whether “Concerto DSCH” had scenery or not) or the presence or absence of “the common men and women.”

To quote Balanchine, how much story do you need? I suspect that Kaufman and I simply answer this question differently, or perhaps are moved by different stories.

I too get weary of ballets in the "Lifecasting," "River of Light," and "The Fifth Season" mode, but I'm not inclined to blame Balanchine for them, just as I'm not inclined to blame Pollock, De Kooning, and Rothko for half-baked abstract expressionism.

PS: A thought that I haven't worked out yet. Balanchine relied on any number of formal elements to help us with the “story.” Hierarchy is one, for example: we usually get a central couple, soloists & corps to help us map out the internal organization of the onstage community. “Hierarchy” in this sense doesn’t tell us who ranks higher so much as who and what we need to pay attention to sort out the story. Many of Balanchine’s heirs have abandoned hierarchy, but Ratmansky most certainly has not.

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I will allow that I haven’t seen any gas station attendants or ranch hands on the ballet stage lately, but I don’t often meet them in real life, either, unless I’m filling up the tank at one of the rare places where full service is available or attending the rodeo.

Here in New Jersey, all gas stations are "full service". It's illegal for the driver to pump their own gas.

But the attendants are no longer recognizable as such, I haven't seen a uniform in years.

Just thought you needed to know this........... :D

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Seems to me that Kaufman's central argument is really nothing more than:

"I like some types of ballet more than others......why, oh why, isn't there more of the kind I like?"

OK, I get that you feel that way, and that you even know why you feel that way, but that doesn't make it truth or even criticism.

I, for example, don't find too much Balanchine on the program.....in fact, if anything, I wish there were more. That's me. And that's all it is. It surely doesn't mean that today's Artist Directors have lost touch with the genius of Balanchine, or that today's choreograghers are obsessed with telling a contemporary story (with too much emphasis on characterization) instead of sticking to the purity of neoclassism, or that today's dancers have lost touch with their basic art as they search for ever more challenging acting roles. It just means that I like Balanchine a lot.

I know what I like, and clearly she knows what she likes. I see nothing wrong with that. Perhaps the real issue is answering the challenge to find something to love in any ballet that has stood the test of time, or that has created a new sensation, in spite of what I happen to like.

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