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Balanchine, Shakespeare and narrative


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If there is a better place to tack on my question, I hope the moderators will move it there.

 

The other day critic Judith Mackrell tweeted this observation about Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream:

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It's the oddest ballet isn't it. I don't think Balanchine had the narrative gene & I don't much care for his Nutcracker either

 

Since I always thought of myself as having been brought up on Anglo-American ballet values, sometimes I'm taken aback by how my own views differ from those of British critics. For example, I don't share the enthusiasm most of them have for Peter Wright's Nutcracker, primarily on musical grounds. But to fault Balanchine for his treatment of the narrative of A Midsummer Night's Dream is really surprising to me. I am familiar with several balletic incarnations of the play: Balanchine's, Ashton's, Neumeier's and Wheeldon's (although I remember Wheeldon's the least well), as well as John Alleyne's The Faerie Queen, which uses entirely different music. (Neumeier also does not limit himself to Mendelssohn, which allows him to include "The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby." In his version Thisby is the en travesti role on pointe, and it's pretty damn funny.) I can honestly say that I find Balanchine's narrative the clearest by far.

 

In my third year of university I did two semesters of Shakespeare, which naturally included studying this play. I've seen multiple stage versions of it, different films, a couple of operatic incarnations and the above-mentioned ballets, and I still have trouble keeping the lovers straight, except when watching Balanchine's version. Am I alone in this?

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I find Balanchine's narrative entirely clear and there is nineteenth-century precedent for having the last act be (more or less) a celebratory divertissement rather than more story. (That's the main criticism I have heard of Balanchine's version--all the story over in Act I.)

 

I suppose one might find it "odd" that the most glorious, moving pas de deux in Balanchine's ballet goes to the "divertissement" couple--though perhaps a little less odd if you do a careful reading of the play in which none of the loving couples exactly comes off as a representative idyllic pair and also perhaps less odd still if you think of the divertissement couple as a kind of symbol of what all the lovers supposedly desire. So, the entertainment for the wedding offers a serious tribute to love rather than the Mechanicals' goofy attempt at one with Pyramus and Thisbe. Still I can understand finding that pas de deux in particular unbalances the ballet as a narrative. Especially since those dancers don't appear elsewhere as part of the divertissement celebration. It may sort of feel as if it springs up out of nowhere. (It's not as if we see the lovers watching the pas de deux qua divertissement either: it just sort of "is.") But I wouldn't exactly prefer the ballet without it!

 

I enjoy Balanchine's version and on the right night, with the right cast I find it entirely enchanting. I feel the same about Ashton's very different version -- though I've seen both of them on nights when the the comedy seemed too cutesy and the magic just a tad too thin -- which may have been a problem with the performances those nights or even just my own mood.  I remember finding Neumeier's quite interesting when I saw it some decades ago but unfortunately remember very little else about it except the sort of "alien" quality of the music for the fairies (not Mendelssohn and also not nineteenth-century romantic) and of the choreography/costumes for them as well.

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Neumeier uses Mendelssohn for the aristocrats, 19th-century Italian opera played by an organ grinder for the rustics and Ligeti for the fairies, which certainly underscores the toxic relationship between Titania and Oberon. I last saw the ballet about two years ago and found that the shiny unitards and sparkly swimming caps worn by the fairies didn't look that dated. The big romantic pas de deux in that version is reserved for Hippolyta and Theseus, not Titania and Oberon, although the roles are performed by the same dancers. Philostrate and Puck are also portrayed by the same dancer. Neumeier doesn't play up the scenes with the transfigured Bottom, choosing to focus the comedy on Pyramus and Thisby in the final act.

 

I find his telling of the story clear also. If anything throws me, it is that Helena, because the choreography literally has her being tossed back and forth between Demetrius and Lysander, is played by a small dancer, while Hermia, whose pas de deux choreography is lyrical, is often played by a tall dancer. For example, when the Bolshoi staged the ballet, Helena was danced by the likes of Nina Kaptsova and Anastasia Goryacheva, while Hermia was performed by dancers such as Maria Alexandrova and Ekaterina Shipulina.

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3 hours ago, volcanohunter said:

Since I always thought of myself as having been brought up on Anglo-American ballet values, sometimes I'm taken aback by how my own views differ from those of British critics. For example, I don't share the enthusiasm most of them have for Peter Wright's Nutcracker, primarily on musical grounds. But to fault Balanchine for his treatment of the narrative of A Midsummer Night's Dream is really surprising to me. I am familiar with several balletic incarnations of the play: Balanchine's, Ashton's, Neumeier's and Wheeldon's (although I remember Wheeldon's the least well), as well as John Alleyne's The Faerie Queen, which uses entirely different music. (Neumeier also does not limit himself to Mendelssohn, which allows him to include "The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby." In his version Thisby is the en travesti role on pointe, and it's pretty damn funny.) I can honestly say that I find Balanchine's narrative the clearest by far.

 

 

I was just reading the Hanna Wellbye review of ENB, which includes statements such as, "This is a sensible furrow for Tamara Rojo to plough when presenting 20th-century choreography in the English ballet market: the two Royal companies (London and Birmingham) have the Ashton/MacMillan British heritage repertoire more or less stitched up between them, and American greats like Balanchine and Robbins are – for both practical and stylistic reasons – probably still out of the company's reach in its current form. But by offering this European repertoire, Rojo opens herself up to the risk that her company might not perform it as well as their iconic originators on the Continent did (a particular danger in the case of Forsythe and Bausch), and to the potential hostility of London audiences, who have not always taken well to European choreographers like van Manen and Kylián."

This reminded me again of the long-running issues British critics have had with Balanchine ballets. There just seems to be a cultural preference for certain approaches, themes and aesthetics, and Balanchine's works are not, to them, British. Speaking in general terms, the British character does not naturally gravitate towards Balanchine movements/aesthetics. Ironic that his choreography and techniques came to be regarded as so American, given that Balanchine came from Imperial Russia. But he and Danilova both quickly came to love the characteristics of American culture. Also ironic that Balanchine's American nemesis, writer John Martin, talked up American homegrown ballet, but really seemed to be stuck in a very Anglo-American aesthetic - emphasis on the Anglo part.


From an article on Ashton that relates to this situation:

"…when Kirstein invited Ashton to choreograph for the fledgling New York City Ballet in 1950 -- the result was the extraordinary "Illuminations," which, at the time, the New York critics loved and the British pundits disdained."

"It's not easy to summarize Ashton's genius, but perhaps the citation for his Dance Magazine Award of 1970 gets to the heart of the matter: "A choreographer who rounds the corners of classic austerity with a romanticism so tender and so completely British in its good manners that we all proudly deem it international." [Uhhhh, no. "A romanticism so tender and so completely British in its good manners" would not be the part that makes it International. And I'm guessing an English writer made that statement.]

"John Martin, who told him, as Ashton has recounted, that there was no place for classical ballet in the United States, which was at least close to the truth at the time. And so, the very year that Balanchine made his first ballet ("Serenade") for the company he and Kirstein had formed here, Ashton returned to England for good." [Thanks goes to John Martin for all his "helping" in building American ballet. I think Balanchine was happy with the way things turned out.]

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/style/1984/12/02/an-ashton-sampler/f87c3695-aa81-4faf-ac83-31d9118e598a/?utm_term=.5f5bea59f7a2
 

 

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For me there are wonderful things in Balanchine's Midsummer, but as a cohesive work of art, I think Ashton's is better.  It is certainly tighter, with the drama seamlessly taking place in one location, as the characters come and go.  (For me, Balanchine's story can be summarized as "meanwhile, in another part of the forest, Oberon too was dancing.")  There are so many little things that frustrate me about Balanchine's telling the story--for a start, why does Oberon have to mime the same words twice, with no variation?  Who is the male dancer Titania does that wonderful dance with, and why is he there?  Balanchine has Oberon dance a phenomenal scherzo, but it really has no relation to the plot, while Ashton's scherzo for Oberon is propels the story.  Ashton's Bottom is so much richer than Balanchine's comic one, with that amazing scene when he remembers what happened--Grant used to make me cry.  I think Ashton's dance for Bottom and Titania is more magical too.  Balanchine goes for the comedy, with Titania and Bottom staring deadpan at the audience, very funny, yes, but Ashton has us see Bottom through Titania's eyes, and it's such a rueful, bittersweet moment--as I wrote about it once, who of us hasn't looked at a donkey and seen a prince.  And wonderful though Balanchine's second act is, it really has no relation with the first one.  It could be danced on its own and would make perfect sense.  And I am probably a party of one, but I find that the little bugs rapidly exceed my cute quota.

'

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I wonder if Titania's cavalier may have some 19th-century precedent. I'm thinking of the cavalier in the Ratmansky/Burlaka Pas des Eventails in their reconstructed Corsaire. (At least when I saw it, he had no connection to the rest of the ballet.) But the episode is not 'tight' dramatically -- like the final act, it is perhaps more in the spirit of a 19th-century story ballet.

 

I do feel with the right Titania in the Balanchine version, you can get a feeling for how she sees Bottom, for example when she tenderly leads him off the stage - which is not just a funny moment. Balanchine's Hermia also has that extraordinary solo when she has been abandoned which brings a different layer to the characterization.

 

The moment when Bottom awakens in Ashton's version is one of the most moving. Bottom's speech on awakening from his 'dream' is also my favorite moment in the play, so I love the fact that Ashton found a way to portray something like that in the ballet.

 

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Balanchine seems to have viewed the divertissement pas a manifestation of Bottom's dream conflated with his personal views as a member of the Russian Orthodox church, i.e., Bottom's dream of Titania as the ideal women coalesced with Balanchine's religious views of the Virgin Mary as the ideal woman. He told Jonathan Cott (as well as Darci Kistler) that he wanted to depict John's vision in Revelation of the woman (often thought to be Mary) standing in the moon surrounded by twelve stars, etc. He didn't do this overtly because he apparently felt people wouldn't understand, thought he'd gone too far, etc. So the divert pas isn't as far removed from the plot as it may seem on the face of it.

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23 hours ago, Drew said:

 

 Still I can understand finding that pas de deux in particular unbalances the ballet as a narrative. Especially since those dancers don't appear elsewhere as part of the divertissement celebration. It may sort of feel as if it springs up out of nowhere. (It's not as if we see the lovers watching the pas de deux qua divertissement either: it just sort of "is.") But I wouldn't exactly prefer the ballet without it!

 

 

In the 1966 film version, the Divertissement pas takes place in front of Theseus' whole court.

 

I prefer it as we see it at NYCB now, with the Divertissement couple dancing alone in whatever Empyrean realm is their true home. I'd lose all of the rest of Balanchine just to keep the Divertissement pas-de-deux, frankly.

 

I have never been able to warm to Ashton's version, but I think that's mostly because I hate how he sliced and diced Mendelssohn's score up into leitmotifs.

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1 hour ago, Kathleen O'Connell said:

 

In the 1966 film version, the Divertissement pas takes place in front of Theseus' whole court.

 

I prefer it as we see it at NYCB now, with the Divertissement couple dancing alone in whatever Empyrean realm is their true home. I'd lose all of the rest of Balanchine just to keep the Divertissement pas-de-deux, frankly.

 

 I didn't know that about the pas de deux (in 1966) though it makes sense. (I'm pretty sure my mother took me to see the ballet around that time, but have no memory of it.) It is wonderful . . .

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On 3/25/2017 at 4:57 PM, volcanohunter said:

Neumeier uses Mendelssohn for the aristocrats, 19th-century Italian opera played by an organ grinder for the rustics and Ligeti for the fairies, which certainly underscores the toxic relationship between Titania and Oberon.

(I'm late to the party on this thread, and so I'm just going to reply to several posts in one go.)  I've never seen the Neumeier, but this collection of music sounds very interesting.  I've been very intrigued by the video of Alexander Eckman's version of the ballet -- it's set on the Joffrey now, and I'm scheming to see it. 

 

And about keeping track -- I stage managed a production in college, and so I always see those faces in front of me when I hear the text!

 

On 3/25/2017 at 6:44 PM, cargill said:

There are so many little things that frustrate me about Balanchine's telling the story--for a start, why does Oberon have to mime the same words twice, with no variation?  Who is the male dancer Titania does that wonderful dance with, and why is he there? 

'

I've wondered the same thing about Oberon.  Sometimes it seems to me that the dancers give everything more emphasis on the repeat, like an argument that is stalled at the same thing, but I think I'm reading in.  And when I see the Cavalier, I think Benno.

 

On 3/26/2017 at 11:07 AM, doug said:

Balanchine seems to have viewed the divertissement pas a manifestation of Bottom's dream conflated with his personal views as a member of the Russian Orthodox church, i.e., Bottom's dream of Titania as the ideal women coalesced with Balanchine's religious views of the Virgin Mary as the ideal woman. He told Jonathan Cott (as well as Darci Kistler) that he wanted to depict John's vision in Revelation of the woman (often thought to be Mary) standing in the moon surrounded by twelve stars, etc. He didn't do this overtly because he apparently felt people wouldn't understand, thought he'd gone too far, etc. So the divert pas isn't as far removed from the plot as it may seem on the face of it.

I didn't know this -- how fascinating!

 

On 3/26/2017 at 1:55 PM, Kathleen O'Connell said:

I prefer it as we see it at NYCB now, with the Divertissement couple dancing alone in whatever Empyrean realm is their true home. I'd lose all of the rest of Balanchine just to keep the Divertissement pas-de-deux, frankly.

I'm not sure I'd make that bargain altogether, but it is one of the loveliest things I know.

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I've been so interested in all these comments. Thank you everyone.

 

Personally, I've never been taken with Ashton's version. I view Balanchine's first act as perfect story telling in that I've taken 10 year olds to see it who delight in the story, know what is going in and never get bored.  Maybe that's different than wanting a purer Shakespeare narrative.

 

In terms of the second act, I believe that pas is the portrayal of pure love. IMO it is one of the most amazing works of choreography ever, but I can see the objection to leaving the linear narrative for a more emotive realm. In a way it has a connection to Liebeslieder Waltzer in which one act represent the people and the other their souls. 

 

An earlier quote from a review stating that Balanchine didn't have the narrative gene is something I strongly disagree with. Prodigal Son, La Sonambula, Nutcracker, Coppelia represent fine story telling. Balanchine's Broadway works that remain such Slaughter on Tenth Avenue - are other examples. Personally my favorites are narratives (if you choose to call them that) that entice the imagination. The last movement of Vienna Waltzes is one example. 

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On 3/26/2017 at 2:07 PM, doug said:

Balanchine seems to have viewed the divertissement pas a manifestation of Bottom's dream conflated with his personal views as a member of the Russian Orthodox church, i.e., Bottom's dream of Titania as the ideal women coalesced with Balanchine's religious views of the Virgin Mary as the ideal woman. He told Jonathan Cott (as well as Darci Kistler) that he wanted to depict John's vision in Revelation of the woman (often thought to be Mary) standing in the moon surrounded by twelve stars, etc. He didn't do this overtly because he apparently felt people wouldn't understand, thought he'd gone too far, etc. So the divert pas isn't as far removed from the plot as it may seem on the face of it.

 

I somehow missed this when it was first posted--thank you. I did not know Balanchine's thoughts on the divertissement pas de deux. In the play (as you and others probably know) Bottom's speech alludes in a 'comic' way, that is, misquoting, to Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians--so there is a distant/indirect relation to the source material in Balanchine's way of thinking about it. 

 

2 hours ago, vipa said:

An earlier quote from a review stating that Balanchine didn't have the narrative gene is something I strongly disagree with. Prodigal Son, La Sonambula, Nutcracker, Coppelia represent fine story telling. Balanchine's Broadway works that remain such Slaughter on Tenth Avenue - are other examples. Personally my favorites are narratives (if you choose to call them that) that entice the imagination. The last movement of Vienna Waltzes is one example. 

 

Like Vipa I disagree that Balanchine simply lacked the narrative gene, though perhaps he wasn't as driven by an interest in direct story telling as other choreographers for whom that was central. (I think Ashton's Month in the Country is about as great a piece of ballet 'story telling' or drama as I have ever seen--or could ever imagine.) 

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10 hours ago, vipa said:

I've been so interested in all these comments. Thank you everyone.

 

Personally, I've never been taken with Ashton's version. I view Balanchine's first act as perfect story telling in that I've taken 10 year olds to see it who delight in the story, know what is going in and never get bored.  Maybe that's different than wanting a purer Shakespeare narrative.

 

In terms of the second act, I believe that pas is the portrayal of pure love. IMO it is one of the most amazing works of choreography ever, but I can see the objection to leaving the linear narrative for a more emotive realm. In a way it has a connection to Liebeslieder Waltzer in which one act represent the people and the other their souls. 

 

An earlier quote from a review stating that Balanchine didn't have the narrative gene is something I strongly disagree with. Prodigal Son, La Sonambula, Nutcracker, Coppelia represent fine story telling. Balanchine's Broadway works that remain such Slaughter on Tenth Avenue - are other examples. Personally my favorites are narratives (if you choose to call them that) that entice the imagination. The last movement of Vienna Waltzes is one example. 

I agree that Prodigal Son, Sonambula, etc. are good stories, but Balanchine didn't come up with them--he was given the libretti, and for Prodigal Son and Sonambula, also given the designs.  I think he was much better at suggesting stories (or emotions), like the Rosenkavalier section or Liebeslieder than an actual story.  Scotch Symphony, lovely though it is, really only makes poetic sense--who is the Scotch girl and why does she disappear, why do the male corps separate the sylph and the man who isn't called James at one moment and dance around with them another?  

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Without getting fussy, I do want to say that Ashton didn't make up Midsummer out of whole cloth either.

 

But the issue here isn't whether a choreographer can create a narrative from scratch, but whether they can tell a story with movement.  My two cents on this one is that Balanchine was more than capable of telling a story, but I think he was happiest when it was just him and the music.  Ashton could create abstract dance (and indeed some of his most beautiful work is non-narrative) but he seems to have been particularly inspired when there was a narrative or a set of characters involved.  Which makes the times where we can look at the two of them side by side (like their individual versions of Midsummer) so interesting.

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