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The fell influence of Balanchine, by Sarah Kaufman

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For the record, I talked to Nicolo Fonte for several hours last year in an interview. In terms of his influences, if I recall correctly, he did mention Balanchine early on (he loved watching it and dancing it) but so would many choreographers. His main influence as a choreographer was his employer, Nacho Duato.

Wouldn't Armitage be as influenced by Cunningham as Balanchine? Mostly, she does her own thing. I think Liaang is less influenced by Balanchine in his work than Forsythe and Wheeldon. They're more immediately proximate. Interestingly at this point, I wonder if current choreographers can be said to be influenced by Balanchine except indirectly? It's now two (dance) generations passed - the last ballerina he hired is retiring this year.

There are days when I think NYCB is really a Robbins company now -- the dancers often look better and happier in his ballets -- and there's a certain strain of NYCB alumni choreography that seems to owe as much to him as Balanchine. Leotards, sharp edges, and the absence of narrative are neither necessary nor sufficient to make a Balanchine ballet, but people sometimes carry on as if they were. A lot of choreography that's alleged to be influenced by Balanchine strikes me as being only superficially like the Agon pas de deux -- i.e., alike in the leotards, in pushing the body to extremes, in complicated partnering -- but so different in rhetoric and structure as to be like Balanchine in the way that carob is like chocolate.

"Square Dance" and "Episodes" aside*, Balanchine rarely used the kind of mix-and-match score that Robbins did in all those piano ballets and even in "Glass Pieces." The whole suite of dances to a bunch of short stuff genre seems Robbinsonian to me, not Balanchinean, as does the refusal of hierarchy. In a Balanchine ballet we see each dancer and what they do in relation to a central couple (or, more likely, in relation to the central ballerina), but starting with Robbins (and maybe Kylian, too?) gets harder and harder to find the queen bee. Everybody's nobody in "Fool's Paradise" in a way that they aren't in "Agon." Liang's new work "Ballo Per Sei" is a lot more like "2 & 3 Part Inventions" than it is like "Square Dance."

* I know everyone will come up with examples that I've somehow missed ... Midsummer, for instance.

* Edited to add DUH! "Vienna Waltzes" and "Union Jack" - but maybe not "Western Symphony" and "Start & Stripes" ...

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Even with the exceptions and examples, I think there's a point here.

To me, what makes a ballet influenced by Balanchine goes deeper than speed, footwork and leotards.

Here are some other ideas of what makes something Balanchinean to throw around (or disagree with)

Balanchine was symphonic in his approach to music.

Balanchine used form as metaphor.

Balanchine was highly influenced by German expressionism as well as the danse d'ecole.

Balanchine tended to choreograph primarily for the lower body.

Balanchine's partnering tends to be very formal with few overhead lifts. (He's pre-soviet. Tschaikovsky pas de deux was done seemingly in response to a visit by the Bolshoi.)

There are of course more.

Who's been influenced by these factors?

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Kaufman's thesis resurfaces in Claudia Lo Rocca's article on new choreography for the NYCB spring season, from the NY Times.


Even as Mr. Martins cringed at the idea that American ballet is overly enthralled with Balanchine and his aesthetic (as the Washington Post critic Sarah Kaufman has suggested), he said he would like to believe that City Ballet remains at the forefront of change, as it did when Balanchine exploded ideas of what ballet could say and do. A potent symbol of experimentation, Balanchine is now also, as Mr. Wheeldon put it, “an unattainable benchmark.”

The Balanchine style can sometimes seem the “only way for ballet to develop,” Mr. Ratmansky added. “And I’m sure it’s not the only way.”

This seems like a balanced view of the nature of Balanchine's influence. More good contemporary work, please! By all means, let's learn new ways of expressing beauty and visual/emotional depth in dance. If a powerful new style develops, even better ... so long as it is expressed in good work. But don't blame Balanchine when things go wrong with an particular piece of new choreography.

Sometimes it seems to me that U.S. ballet should worry less about the "fell influence of Balanchine" and more about the unambitious recycling of the same 3 or 4 classical story ballets that just about every every sizable company engages in. Opera and opera audiences are more respectful of and interested in a wide range of opera repertoire, as opposed to ballet companies and ballet audiences, who seem stuck in a pattern of endless repetitions of Swan Lake, Giselle, and a few others, along with a few worthy but over-familiar pas de deux, while ignoring much of ballet's rich and (in the U.S.) languishing classical, romantic and 20th century heritage. Give audiences and choreographers the chance to see that kind of work, and the problem of new choreography might take care of itself.

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Balanchine tended to choreograph primarily for the lower body.

I would have had this on my list until PNB's recent "All Balanchine" rep, where though "Square Dance" and "Four Temperaments", the dancers that articulated through their torso gave the most illuminating reads on their parts. Watching the Mariinsky during the last City Center season a couple of springs ago, the quality I noticed most was how neutered many of the dancers looked, with emphasis on the upper back and leg extension and feet that made the waist through the upper thighs a bit of a no man's zone, regardless of the rep or costuming. That makes sense for tutus, but not leotard ballets or the men. With an emphasis on the entire torso, the logical place for that movement to go is the pelvis, which is what is the easiest thing to focus on. When a dancer doesn't rush and completes the entire ripple, it's a whole other story.

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