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Documentary on ABT by Ric Burns

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Agreed, way too much slo-mo, way too much Homans, not enough about the dancers and choreographers of ABT.

I'd rather they take out all of Homans interviews and just let Lupe Serrano talk. I love her. I could listen to her and Ratmansky talk all day and not get bored.

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I forgot it was on. So I missed that ridiculous opening of a toe shoe being flung onto the stage.

What I saw was awful. Nothing really about the company but basic stuff about ballet history. And then there would talk about what ballets ABT performed over the years, small truncated clips of ABT greats cut way too short and awful slo-mo shots of current dancers, none of them filmed to show them off in a good way.

This is a disaster. What happened?

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Well, they cut 30 minutes from the version I saw at Kennedy Center two months ago. The excised footage seems to be mainly from the Homans History-plus-Psychobabble section...so there was even more of that, if you can believe. Two positive notes, compared to the late-March Kennedy Center version:

1. We now don't have to wait 40 minutes into the film for the beginnings of ABT; they shifted three minutes (about Lucia Chase) from the middle to the top of the film, then proceeded with Homans History-and-Psychobabble about Louis 14th...picking up on ABT a long time later.

2. Cynthia Gregory & Fernando Bujones are now seen and mentioned (as well as Fracci & Bruhn) about 65 minutes into the film...in 3-second flashes of still photos but, hey, they are there. But couldn't Ric Burns have flown to Las Vegas -- or set-up a Skype session -- to film Gregory for a couple of quotes? This film is titled ABT: A HISTORY and Cynthia Gregory was its Prima for 20+ years.

I can't believe that they kept the slo-mo "Pointe Shoe Missile" at the start...and repeated it later!

Basically, a disappointing film. Major opportunity lost.

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I am still reeling from how awful this was and half thought I imagined the whole thing. There was 10 minutes or so that was worthwhile: the archival footage, Lupe Serrano's comments, the dancer with the photo album -- I missed her name -- and a glimpse at Firebird that made me want to see it.

For the most part, it was Homans droning on about nothing having to do with ABT set to slo motion of unidentified ABT dancers.

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Yes, one of the few bright lights was Ruth Ann Koesun with her amazing scrapbooks, talking about the years when ABT lived on trains, touring America. I read somewhere that she'll be participating in Monday's gala at the Met.

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I just watched it on the computer. This is one ballet documentary I will never own! I thought it would never end. It seems that ABT is in as much disarray (in their current Met season) as this documentary. Far too much slo-mo and Homans and too much of Alonso talking instead of showing more clips of her dancing. McKenzie appears to be hell-bent on promoting Seo,

Boylston and Copland and barely mentioning Makarova, Fracci or for that mattert Vishneva (forget about Part, he certainly has)

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If people haven't yet discovered this, the PBS site not only has the full film, but also lots of extras (e.g., out-takes on partnering with Murphy and Gomes): http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/american-ballet-theatre/full-film/3911/

An interesting little tidbit on Murphy's diary ("A Day in the Life of a Dancer"): meeting with a wedding planner!

It does appear that Burns was trying to come up with an approach that was different from the standard documentary, so I'll give him credit for that. We'll never know just how much was forced on him (the slo-mo? the historic approach of Homans?). Clearly he was told which current dancers to focus on (Boylston, Copeland, Seo). I'm glad they included a lot of Murphy, too.

I did not see any writing credits on the full film. Has anybody found that on the site? It does appear Homans played a major role in scripting.

On the positive side:

*interviews with legendary figures (Franklin, Barnes, Kisselgoff, Alonso, Ratmansky). Burns will do a great service to dance history if he donates the uncut interviews to the Dance Collection at NYPL so we can see everything they said.

*footage of dancers that we have far too little of otherwise (Gomes, Murphy, Cornejo)


*Some of the slow motion was interesting as you could study the positions, but way too much of it just wasted a lot of time


*So many dancers and dances went unidentified. This won't help future students of dance history. E.g., Stiefel was shown in rehearsal with Murphy (black swan) and Kent (Sleeping Beauty), but was never identified. The historic footage rarely identified either dancers or dance. I understand that might have been overwhelming, but some priceless footage should have been identified (e.g., Pavlova's Dying Swan).

*Way too much Homan in head shots. If they wanted all that commentary, at least show more dance footage while she's talking.

*Unreconciled dance history: Ratmansky said matter-of-factly that ballet started in Italy, moved to France, then to Russia. Homans never mentioned Italy. Maybe that geographical detour interfered with her reading on the importance of the French courts. Was Ratmansky talking about the origins of pointe work? Homans seemed to think that reflected the French revolution and the elevation of women in ballet.

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*Unreconciled dance history: Ratmansky said matter-of-factly that ballet started in Italy, moved to France, then to Russia. Homans never mentioned Italy. Maybe that geographical detour interfered with her reading on the importance of the French courts. Was Ratmansky talking about the origins of pointe work? Homans seemed to think that reflected the French revolution and the elevation of women in ballet.

In a nutshell -- ballet as we understand it is a descendent of the courtly social dances of Italy, which came to France through Catherine de Medici. (she also brought her chef with her) These became a significant part of the French court, and were a part of the elaborate entertainments that that were staged at the time, with the nobility as performers (that is how Louis XIV became "The Sun King" -- he danced the role of the sun) Louis directed his ballet master (Pierre Beauchamp) to codify the work that was being taught in a fairly ad-hoc manner, which led to the development of a professional, non-noble cohort of dancers who would perform for the nobility but were not of the nobility. Work at this time has been labeled the Danse d'Ecole, and was primarily formal in its presentation. It was that developing professional group that was on the rise towards the beginning of the Revolution -- the Ballet d'Action (precursor of Romantic ballet) was the shift to a more expressive style. Pointe work was a feature as early as the Ballet d'Action, but mostly as a trick -- with the refinement of the shoe, and the development of stronger technique, it became more controlled and could be used metaphorically (although at the beginning it was still primarily a special effect -- in La Sylphide, the spirits are on pointe and the earthly women are not).

Things shift to Russia toward the end of the Romantic period, following the money, as Homans describes.

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Maybe Homan's explanation of the Italian connection was in the longer 2-hour version some people report seeing and it got cut. (Whew!) I do think we had quite enough of the old history, for this audience, although I suppose their goal might have been to explain why ABT has such an eclectic mix of styles and choreographers.

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I'll echo the comments from everyone else about how disappointing this documentary was. It was like the documentary was an infomercial for Jennifer Homans' Apollo's Angels.

And not one that would have made me want to buy it.

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I wonder what Burns considered his brief.

If he was trying to create a history specifically of ABT's dance performances and dancers, he accomplished little. If he was trying to create a 10,000 foot view of the mechanics of how ballet arrived in America and progressively changed, he fared somewhat better (although in either scenario he could have afforded to lose the slow-motion voice-overs). I rather think he was less interested in ABT qua ABT than ABT as example of American dance, if that makes any sense.

(Unfortunately, we all are interested in ABT qua ABT.)

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Cannot write more now. But suffice to say, my first impression:

Less philosophy. More dance.

What is/was the purpose of this doc? A history of ballet, or a history of ABT? Neither was integrated well. Both got shortchanged.

Overall it was quite boring to watch...

a) Because of the repetition of slow-mo shots/footage, and endless abstract philosophizing obstructed the momentum and flow.

b) And if the "T" in ABT means theater - ie. drama: there were no conflicting views, or consequent interactions, or struggle of the company against: a lack of dancers/funding/audiences? In short, there was no 'drama' to attract a viewer and make them invest in the topic.
Abstract philosophizing works better with modern or neoclassical companies, --ie. even NYCB.

This is not the way to attract newer, younger audiences: Nearly all white (Copeland and Seo notwithstanding, a shot of Desmond R. in Othello might have helped), and/or older (ie. over 40) academic/admins pontificating from on high (despite some lovely quotes, most of it was pleonastic palaver) about "the meaning of it all -- ie. life/the universe/everything as exemplified by ballet" --- screams ELITIST. (Most general viewers probably tuned out after the first talking head.)

Too much Homans.

Where were Ferri & Bocca in the discussion of partnerships? Where was Paloma? Where was Angel (1sec of SL?!) ?

Glad to see the archival footage. Glad to see/hear FF and those of his generation.

At least PBS showed a documentary, (not a performance), of classical ballet.

Why am I going to see ABT, I didn't learn anything new, just a heard few nice quotes to hang on my wall.

And now I know MY doc will be better. Much better. Even if I am not Mr. Burns (or ABT, or PBS) with money to burn.

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Delighted PBS invested in a documentary on a major American Ballet Company and that Rick Burns took it on. More ballet on PBS please! On the plus side too:

I appreciated the attention to the huge importance of Lucia Chase.

I thought the film did convey something of the excitement around the creativity of ABT's early years and the contributions of Tudor, Robbins, and De Mille. I liked seeing archival footage of their works alongside more recent performances.

Loved Ratmansky's remarks about how ballet steps/choreography give one an embodied link to past. (Can't remember his exact words)--Mckenzie said something similar though less developed in expression, at least as edited.

Relieved Kirkland got a mention. Ditto Bruhn.

Enjoyed seeing and hearing today's dancers and I will make special mention of the footage of Cornejo. What a great and beautiful artist.

On the minus side, my other reactions were very similar to those already expressed above.

I would have liked: more condensation of the early (pre ABT) ballet history; more ABT footage from all eras; a bit more footage of today's dancers that included non-slow motion shots of dancing. Actually, I would have found the slow motion more interesting with at least one or two juxtapositions of the same footage shown at normal speed.

And, perhaps more imporantly, I would have liked a clearer sense of the arc of the company's history--we got the first Swan Lake and some allusions (not well explained to someone who didn't already know much about it) to Makarova's staging of Bayadere, but not a clear sense that the company increasingly became a showcase for full length ballets, both classics and 20th-century full-length ballets. (The latter I don't think were mentioned at all). And perhaps there should have been some mention of the role of "guests" in the company's history which could have been done in a relatively non-controversial, non-critical way--which did seem to be the aim tone-wise--as a tag-on to the company's "international" legacy etc.

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Title of the film is ABT: A HISTORY. That implies a history of ABT; not ballet in general.

As for Homans' book, it is so terrible that it is the only book in my 1,000-title ballet library that I've tossed in a garbage can. No mention of how ballet is so huge in Cuba and the rest of Latin America...no mention of Japan? How she got this ABT gig is inexplicable unless PBS has a plan to trot her out for pledge driving, offering copies of her book to people pledging at the $100 level.

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How she got this ABT gig . . .

The same way she got the NYU Center for Ballet and the Arts, with major start-up funding from the Mellon Foundation - impressive credentials (professional dancer + PhD from NYU) and serious connections in NYC. Her PhD is in Modern European History, which seems to account for her omission of Japan and Latin America (although it does not excuse it).



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I echo most comments on here. I thought the documentary was a huge disappointment. But then, perhaps it wasn't aimed at balletomanes....... I didn't like the constant repetitive slow motion and the concentration on just a few select dancers which I also found to be repetitive. Where were all the other dancers, both current and past who were present during the filming? What happened to the years between about 1950 and 1990? If they were represented, then I must have blinked. And while they did mention Baryshnikov’s era which was during that time frame, it was really just a snapshot. And to me it seemed that quite a bit was more of a history of ballet in general rather than Ballet Theatre specific. I especially didn't care for the narration. Could she be more boring? I couldn’t wait for the show to end, but I also kept hoping it would get better. But being a balletomane, I was obligated to see it through to the end.

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I remember from Homans' book that she basically loathed Italy and Italian dancing (not of course that she could ever have seen any) and is convinced that the only style worth watching is the French court dancing, so that I suspect is why she ignores the Italian origins of ballet in her comments. I wonder what those little ballet girls and the men in the Foyer of the Paris Opera Ballet would think of her insistence that ballet is all about uplifting morals and pure living. And oh my gosh that twaddle about Romantic point work, as if all those folk dances never existed. And that idea that ABT was the only company bringing ballet to the hinterlands. What a disappointment this whole thing was. Mary

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No mention of how ballet is so huge in Cuba and the rest of Latin America...no mention of Japan?

Presumably, Homans would say they were influenced by the French-Russian sources, just as ABT was, but they had no influence on ABT themselves. Of course, Alonso was featured prominently, Cornejo is from Argentina, and Gomes is from Brazil. Perhaps she thought that was enough.

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I thought Homans mentioned that ballet had come from Italy, but I'm out of the country and geoblocked. Hola is impossible slow, and I can't confirm.

How much do we know about what was brought from Italy? The La Scala school was founded in the early 19th century: was there a continuity in Italy, or was ballet brought back to Italy from France, and the Italian influence -- dancers, technique, emphasis -- that influenced French and Russian ballet in the 19th century a circular influence?

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I'm starting to think that for some reason a lot of archival footage was for whatever reason was unable to be aired, which would explain the endless slo-mo shots of current ABT dancers. I'm having a hard time believing that a documentary was that bad by design.

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Presumably, Homans would say they were influenced by the French-Russian sources, just as ABT was, but they had no influence on ABT themselves. Of course, Alonso was featured prominently, Cornejo is from Argentina, and Gomes is from Brazil. Perhaps she thought that was enough.

You misunderstand me. At the end of her book, Homans declared ballet dead. Of course, she thought only of her narrow world, not thinking for oneoment that ballet is wildly popular in other parts of the globe, including Latin America and Asia.

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