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Baryshnikov & his disdain for ballet

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Here's an excerpt from today's Times article:

Mr. Baryshnikov admittedly plays down his ballet background nowadays. Had he grown up in the United States, he told an interviewer, he never would have been a ballet dancer. "Here, classical dance is commercial theater," he said. "There's nothing really serious about it."

Here's the link to the article:


Do you agree with what he said? Also, reading from various articles, I have an impression he cut off all ties to ABT. Did he and ABT have a fall-out? I don't think ABT performs any of his stagings now. It's really a shame.

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Baryshnikov's latest comments on ballet remind me of Shakespeare's "the lady doth protest too much." I think he enjoys shocking people or perhaps, he just wants to move on. He cann't still be "the prince," so why not do other things.

I just had the pleasure of seeing White Oak tonight. I'll write more at some point on the Dance Board but I don't think any one would have been disappointed with his performance in Lucinda Childs "Concerto," it was a fabulous performance of an extraordinary piece. Before you judge what Baryshnikov is doing now,go see it.

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I don't have any problems with what Baryshnikov is DOING now, but his constant bad mouthing of ballet grew tiresome, to me, long ago. It was interesting to read our Young Dancers board around the time he got the Honors. People were very excited that ballet would be on TV, and thought of Baryshnikov as a hero, a big star. And were disappointed and didn't understand why ballet was barely mentioned. (I don't blame them.)

I agree with liebs about the protesting too much. I think he's angry at ballet because he can't dance it anymore -- I've known other dancers to feel this way, and I can't blame them. Someone who has had total control over his body, who could do practically anything physically, would very naturally feel betrayed. Maybe when he's 70 and can't do anything much anymore, he'll remember his roots.

On the other hand, I can't disagree with his comment that ballet in America is merely commercial theater. That disease has spread to Europe as well. I don't think there's any escape from it -- it's like McDonald's, and Coke.

mussel, there was a falling out with ABT, but I don't know the details. I think it was one of those situations where there was a lot of gossip, but nothing official -- but someone else may know more than I.

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What a wonderful proverb! And how apt :) Thank you, Katja.

I wonder, is Baryshnikov's anti-ballet stance known about in Russia? Is it talked about there?

Although he has been making statements that ballet isn't creative, and he never really liked it, etc. etc. for some time now, Baryshnikov also wrote a beautiful introduction for Robert Greskovic's Ballet 101. There is still love for the art there, I think.

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A couple of questions and uninformed speculations --

Regarding the "classical dance is commercial theater" here comment, I wonder if he’s thinking not only of choreography but of audience makeup and dedication, and the much more central cultural role that ballet and other arts have in the former Soviet Union and in, if I’m not mistaken, at least some Central European countries. My impression is that the average fan there is more knowledgeable about ballet and more educated in general. When it comes to the current American audience, I think, for example, of the supposed difference between the intellectuals and artists City Ballet used to attract and the more middlebrow professional crowd that apparently makes up the bulk of its current audience. Doesn't modern dance largely attract the sort of crowd Balanchine and Robbins used to pull in? And is the segment of the audience that only goes to, say, the Nutcracker, smaller overseas? I'm not knocking anyone, but I've always had the impression that Barishnikov is a real thinker, and he'd naturally want that sort of intellectualy involved audience.

And have European choreographers really been creating their own equivalents of “Dracula” and “The Pied Piper”? I don’t remember reading about new European ballets where the costumes, sets, and special effects are more interesting than the choreography.

Given his lifelong eagerness to dance new choreography, and the current lack of good ballet choreographers, I think B’s disillusionment is understandable – not that it excuses simplistic dismissals. Was his falling out with ABT at all related to the “downtown rep” he was bringing in? Didn’t Jane Herman discard it? Wondering, wondering ...

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Ken, you always go right to the heart of a political question :) I think your analysis of the audience aspect is part of it. Commercial theater by its nature is aiming at a general audience. I like to think of Balanchine as a kind of (benign) balletic Tito. He kept all those warring factions together under one Big Tent. The 12-tone people, the abstract expressionist painter fans coexisted happily with people who wanted "Swan Lake" without all that silly mime. Both could sit, side by side, watching a program of "Agon" and "Scotch Symphony," say -- and, for good measure, he'd throw on "Stars and Stripes," for Aunt Edna and little Billy who were visiting that weekend and either didn't know anything about ballet, or hated it.

The other model is Diaghilev's -- cater to a few rich patrons who'll fund you -- and I'm not sure that's better. I don't think many of those rich patrons, despite their education, were any more sensitive to art than Aunt Edna. Diaghilev had to appease them by constant novelty, something we're still paying for today.

I don't know that Europe is doing multimedia extravaganzas, but ballet there is very middlebrow, I think. Either story ballets or quasi-modern dance that really isn't new, but is marketed and bought as such. And endless productions of "updated" 19th century ballets.

I think the commercial theater problem is self-fulfilling. We need an audience! Quick! What do they like? Westerns? Okay, we can do that. The Lion King? Great idea. etc. This drives out the people who would be drawn to a more serious repertory. Now, define serious. Some of the "downtown dance" that Baryshnikov programmed for ABT was, IMHO, schlock. There was no content to it and nothing to recommend it except that it was something the company hadn't done before. He divided ABT into two companies: the 12 people he used over and over and over in the modern dance pieces and the Weekend Rep group. There were dancers who spent 10 years in that company as spear carriers -- I never could find them in a solo. The new pieces didn't develop dancers (and neither did the spear carrying).

One model I think worked, and would be possible to revive (not that it will be) is the old French division between the Opera and the boulevard theaters. Each place was a separate world, catering to a different audience. Often, the boulevard theaters would put on a knock-off of a hit at the Opera -- often mocking it. There was a definite class warfare (not something I'd want revived) and the boulevard people made as much fun of those hoighty-toighty (sp?) folk at the Opera as the Opera goers made of them. The boulevard shows were laden with special effects, and the productions were simplified -- little mime, lots of pretty girls, stories with the subtexts stripped out of them. Kinda like we get on a regular basis today! I'd like to have the choice to go to both the high brow and the middle brow, for lack of better terms.

Back to the younger Mr. B, I think a European's lament that ballet has become commercial theater may well refer to the fact that there is no time given to develop an audience, no time allowed for a ballet to find its public. Having to put on six casts to keep people coming back, or shuffle in 8 new pieces regardless of the quality so that subscribers don't get the same program two years in a row.

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It's interesting that, despite the quote, Baryshnikov has still recently taught the occasional men's class at SAB.

Regarding "Ballet is Commercial Theater" -- That aptly sums up a great deal of what I've seen presented in the past few years. What else would you call: "Pied Piper," "The Merry Widow," "The Taming of the Shrew," "La Bayadere-Act II-torn-from-its-context, and presented merely as spectacle", The programs ABT put on a City Center last fall (can't even remember the names now), some of Peter Martins' revivals of the Petipa classics, six full weeks of "The Nutcracker" at NYCB in the fall, Eliot Feld's "Organon," Peter Martins "Harmonielehre" . . .

One could go on and on. I think Baryshnikov really loves ballet, also that he loves to play the enfant terrible and to hear himself talk.

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I've already unburdened myself on this question in previous threads, so I'll just add a thing or two. The commercialization of ballet is deplorable, and probably unavoidable as long as the art form is left exposed to market forces with only unreliable private funding upon which to depend. However, Baryshnikov himself has benefited indirectly from the commercialism he criticizes; he became an international film star and hawked his own clothing line and fragrance, after all, activities made possible by the same economic system that creates the need for companies to stage Dracula and The Pied Piper (and The Nutcracker) in order to survive. I don't blame him for that. For good or ill, it's the American way. But I do wish he wouldn't blame American ballet for things it can't help.

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I get the impression from his comments over the years that he feels like he was physically and artistically held back by ballet and is bitter that he came to such a freeing for like modern SO late in his career when his body couldn't do all the things he COULD have done in modern dance in his prime.

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I pretty much agree with everything said.

I think there must be to some degree a bitterness since B can't do the classical anymore.

I also agree that he benefitted from the commercialism of ballet and probably did more to promote that than anyone (at least for my generation). But he was under a microscope, bridging those who knew ballet and those that didn't and now he can't get out of that stereotype. He's like an actor who doesn't want to get typecasted.

I bet the commercialization of ballet could be a whole other topic. I believe ballet has gone from being an art form to entertainment, but again, that might be a whole other topic.

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