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story ballets vs plotless ballets

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In my readings on this board, I would say that generally speaking it appears that most posters seem to look down a bit on story ballets as though they are for "the masses"... Are they considered too "old hat"...just so much pablum for the unsophisticated? I realize there's quite a contingent who post here that are great fans of NYCB and that they generally do not stage story ballets...

Being a New Yorker, my experience is mostly with NYCB and ABT - one does tend to think of ABT as being the one who does Le Corsaire and The Merry Widow, etc... However, I have had the pleasure of seeing The Bolshoi...and I have to admit that I really like ballets with stories! Perhaps it is a help for the uninitiated to have a plot to follow... and yet, I also enjoy Symphony in C and a bunch of others who have no story at all...

Is it all just a matter of taste?

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I'm sure there will be other answers BW, but mine is, "There are story ballets and there are story ballets", meaning there is Giselle and Swan Lake and then there is Dracula or Princess and the Pea. I don't need a story to enjoy ballet, but if that's what I'm seeing, I expect it to be coherent, well-told and well-acted. And I wouldn't mind excellent choreography and a great score, thanks.

In short, the standards are high, and I think a really good story ballet is harder to do than a non-narrative ballet. It takes extra resources: training and rehearsals in acting, work on a libretto, more sets and costumes, usually a larger cast. . .

So I consider story ballets neither for the masses, nor old hat, but I have a great deal less tolerance for flaws or mediocrity in them. Especially bad storytelling. Why in heaven's name would you make a story ballet if you have no facility for narrative (and trust me, I have seen that conundrum more than once - the choreographer who only makes story ballets, but has no clue how to tell a story.)

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Surprise! I agree with Leigh :D

I do think there's a difference in taste among balletgoers, though. I know a lot of people who understand that the story is not well told, and that the ballet is thin, but who can still enjoy the ballet because of the dancing. There are others who go to ballet as they go to a play and enjoy the spectacle of it -- the production values, sets, costumes. And the dancing and the story, too, of course.

BW, thank you very much for posting this. It's an ideal "thread for the timid" -- we're trying to come up with a name that won't exclude or insult anyone and having no success whatsoever, so ideas along those lines are welcome, too.

Do you enjoy story ballets? Do you avoid them? What do you look for in a story ballet?

Everyone can answer this question! There's no right or wrong answer, just what you think, what you like. This is a great thread on which to make your debut!

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I agree that in a story ballet the story-telling has to be good to be enjoyable, and that non-story ballets (obviously) don't have this requirement.

Nevertheless, for a non-story ballet to work for me it has to excell in other areas, most importantly coreography. What might work in a story ballet when I know what the dance "is about" doesn't necessarily work for me in a ballet without the back story. The coreography (and also things like lights, costumes, sets, etc) in a non-story ballet has to work "on its own", create emotions etc outside of a story.

This makes getting non-story ballets work for me as difficult as making story ballets - only difficult in different areas. :) I can enjoy the good dancing from a technical point of view, of course, also when the ballet doesn't work otherwise, but that's a different matter altogether.

I hope I made sense. I have trouble finding the correct English dance words, since English is not my first language. :)

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Jaana - your English is excellent and I think you expressed yourself very well! You've all made interesting points that have made me think, which is always a good thing!:)

I'll write more later. I hope others will add their thoughts to this.

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I adore all ballet but, in general, I prefer the story ballets. There is one huge benefit to ballets without stories: they are shorter so several can be presented during one performance and it gives the audience a chance to see several principle dancers rather than the few allotted to a story ballet. When I see a ballet company for the first time, or for the first time in a long spell, I usually opt for a mixed bill.


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BW, when I read your first post, I thought you meant, "Are story ballets considered naive by highbrows?" :)

I think the answer to that is yes, whether the proposition is true or not. There may be several reasons for this. Stories, or at least subjects that can be explained verbally, have traditionally been what ballets were created around. When Balanchine (and others) abandoned this in the 20th century, it was different, and some people think this change is an advance and that doing story/verbal ballets is going backwards. (Personally, I think that it's not progress, just something different.) And a lot of modern story ballets encourage this thinking because they seem to be resolutely conservative, making no effort to do anything original, but instead, as Arlene Croce once said, "attempt to extort from the 19th century those ballets it never produced." Some efforts look like the makers cynically pandered to their audience's most basic tastes without trying to challenge them at all. ("Oh, they like pretty stories that don't disturb them, lots of pretty costumes and the fanciest scenery we can afford, and, of course, a pretty, tuneful, score. Give 'em that and they'll plunk down their money.") Also, some people assume that making a story ballet is easier than making a non-story ballet, because the choreographer can disguise a lack of dance-making invention by using mime or other theatrical elements.

I'm not endorsing any position here, just trying to explain why the prevailing sentiment might exist.

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But my opinion is far from surprising...

If a choreographer thinks audiences will pay more to see shiny happy story ballets with sparkling costumes, magnificent sets, handsome princes, and pretty ballerinas in pink, that's what s/he choreographs, and the end result will be a 3 1/2-hour piece of ostentatious dung. If, on the other hand, a choreographer wants a share of the disposable income of the hip, progressive, left-leaning demographic, s/he will choreograph an avant-garde, contemporary, politically correct work whose aim it is to overthrow prevailing hegemonies. This time, the final product is a fifteen minute piece of deconstructionist dung. Why? Because these hypothetical ballets are primarily more inspired by dollar signs and greed than by artistic creativity on the part of the choreographer or any director commissioning such a work.

In layman's terms: Good ballets rule, bad ballets drool.;) And the less I like a ballet, the longer my experience seems of watching it!

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Hmm, Balletnut, in rereading your last post it does sound just a bit harsh. It's agreed that if money is the only motivation involved in creating a ballet the end result will, no doubt not be good, but I think it is wrong to assume that money is every choreographer's motivating force.

I imagine you can't have meant your post to be taken this way...perhaps your wit disguised your feelings a bit? Otherwise, we might all just as well not even go to the theaters anymore! ;)

Granted, that in order to survive in out current world (as opposed to Louis XIV's), ballet companies must encourage attendance - they need the funds, they want the audiences. Economics aside, there is a place for both the story and the plotless, don't you think?

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I've just seen Cranko's Eugene Onegin for the first time in years and it illuminated for me one of the problems of story ballets ie there are some things that neither dance nor mime can convey.

In Onegin, the hero's motivation and behavior are very complex and are tied to certain specific cultural and historical trends that just cann't be conveyed in dance. For example, Onegin flirts with his best friend's fiancee, his friend challenges him to a duel and Onegin shoots him. Obivously, there are many complex emotions behind these actions but in the ballet one only sees the very simple actions. And one of the other BA members told me that there are alot complex rulings about duels that would have been known to Pushkin's audience. So we get the surface actions but not necessarily the depths and I don't think that more mime would have helped.

The other problem in many story ballets for me is all the filler required to make three acts. Onegin has two long ballroom dances for the corp in Act Three that don't advance the plot in any way nor are they particularly interesting choreographically. And remember the whores in McMillian's Romeo, those dances go on forever.

All that said, there are many story ballets I love - Giselle, Swan Lake, Beauty, Coppelia, Rodeo, Pillar of Fire, Ashton's Fille and Month in the Country. And I've always wanted to see Enigma Variations and Deux Pigeons.

But try sitting through Spartacus or Manon some day - my idea of hell.

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I did sit through Sparticus once - and I did find the soldiers and slaves quite attractive. ;)

Liebs, I understand what you're saying about cultural and historical perspectives that many of us 21st century attendees may not "get"... However, IF one can get a hold of a really good essay on the ballet and it included this information, it sure would make the experience more rewarding. Perhaps there should be a book called "The Cultural Perspective of Ballet" - as in cultural anthropology... In many ways, watching or reading a play by Shakespeare can be almost as confusing unless one learns the intricacies of the Elizabethans.

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The difficulty that Liebs discussed—showing complex motivations and situations—is true for ballets based on another source, especially a literary one. The best story ballets (The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Coppelia, Giselle, The Nutcracker) were all either original stories or taken from fairy tales, which don't have much social or psychological depth (and choreographers who have tried to introduce such things into these ballets have ended up with fiascos). So one way out of this conundrum would be to make original story ballets. The trouble is, a company that premieres a new ballet, especially one that's evening-length, relies in great part on name recognition to sell tickets. A ballet version of, say, Little Women, would enjoy a much bigger advance sale than one with a name that means nothing to potential ticket buyers.

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Good point about name recognition...maybe they could slip one into the Diamond Project's performances" ;):( Ari, did you mean that those particular fairy tales/stories/myths don't have much social or psychological depth, or did you mean that generally speaking these types of tales do not?

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I definitely agree with the analysis of what can make a good story ballet, especially the general shallowness of ballets based on literary sources. Fairy tales do not have that type of complexity, but to me the best ones have a moral depth that make the ballets rich, not just simple children's tales, like they are sometimes considered. Croce once wrote that she didn't like ballets which made her think, and I understand what she meant, but certainly Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and the wonderful Bournonville ballets do consider issues which bear thinking about.

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Oh no, I did not mean for my post to be offensive!! :) All I meant was that if a choreographer is truly inspired to make a work of art, GREAT! More power to them. The people I was referring to are the ones who attempt to gain audiences and respect by pandering to what they see as current trends in the world. Mostly, I have more respect for ballet audiences than you might think, being an audience member myself, and the reality is if word gets out that a ballet, long or short, plotless or not, is no good, it flops, no matter how much it was publicized or how big its budget. End of story.

My apologies to all I offended. :(

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Don't worry BalletNut - no apologies needed!:) Perhaps, my use of the word "harsh" should have had a little smiley face next to it. I can see I misunderstood your earlier post. :)My apologies to you! When I read the first one, I felt you were just lumping all new attempts into one vast "dung" pile ;), now I can see better what you were driving at!:(

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I absolutely agree with Cargill. Most "fairy tales" actually have quite a lot to say - that is the reason they are immortal. Many, or even most, of them were not originally aimed at children, and are more properly called "folk tales". It depends on the level you choose for interpretation. I don't mean pseudo-Freud, either, but metaphors about the great truths of life.

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Helena, thanks for bringing back up this issue about fairy tales and folk tales! This was one of the other offshoots of this discussion that I meant to follow-up on: their value as vehicles for illustrating, as you said, "The great truths of life."

It certainly seems to me that in all the different cultures we have in our world, that each country's folk tales have a universal theme...I suppose, when you get right down to it, that all fiction stems from this same universal theme. Makes me think of my husband's comment about opera when he compared it to "big time wrestling"!:( It does seem to boil down to good and evil... However, I would much prefer to watch a well done story ballet than WWF Smack Down any day!!

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I didn't mean to imply that fairy tales or folk tales have no meaning or depth, BW. Obviously they do, as cargill and Helena have pointed out (and it's for this reason that ballets based on such works can be so moving). I was just trying to distinguish them from the kinds of literature that explore motivations and situations in depth and/or deal with a social, cultural, or historical milieu that is very difficult, if not impossible, to convey through dance and gesture. These were the problems that liebs had with Onegin, and that I've had too with some other story ballets.

A good choreographer can take an ordinary moment in a story—say, a young girl meeting her suitors—and turn it into a poetic essay on growing up and a brilliant classical dance number at the same time. But I can't imagine how he'd have shown a hero with a complex personality challenging his best friend to a duel and then, defying convention, killing him.

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Ari, I've never seen Onegin, but I do believe you and Liebs when you tell me that the ballet just didn't work. I guess, I felt that you were saying in your earlier post, that the major story ballets were all pretty much "fluff" and although on some levels they may be...on other levels we could probably read a great deal into Siegfried's relationship with his mother!:D

But seriously, your point about complexities of a deeper sense are well taken... I guess this is why we don't see Dostoyevsky's novels turned into ballets...yet. ;)

Thanks for your clarification!

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But seriously, your point about complexities of a deeper sense are well taken... I guess this is why we don't see Dostoyevsky's novels turned into ballets...yet.

Oh BW, but we do. I believe it may have been Valery Panov that took "The Idiot" and turned it into a ballet two decades or so ago.

And therein lies some of the conflict between story ballets and plotless ballets. A story ballet gives the hapless choreographer one more thing to screw up. And it can really be screwed up big. If you have gone to see Eifman's season at City Center, I'd be curious to see your take on it. He does story works, and they've been hailed nationwide as Alexandra notes. And you'll forgive my prejudice, but to me they rise to the level of barely competent, barely coherent reinventions of the wheel (I'm amazed when people call his recyclings of Bejart or Mats Ek clever and daring). But others really love it. So there's another take on the issue.

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You know, Leigh, right after I posted that I thought: hmm, I wonder about Eifman... I'm too much of a neophyte to have heard of Valery Panov, but I stand corrected!:D

I thought about going to see Eifman, but although I do live right outside the city it is still an effort to get there for things that don't thrill you...at least in your expectations of them, anyway... You know, I haven't even read the articles about his works - my NYT Arts and Leisure and Weekend sections await me!

So, was ballet version of The Idiot really bad? Not too uplifting, as I recall.

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I saw "The Idiot" and even Nurevey's performance couldn't save it. I think it was done by the Berlin Ballet and also had Eva Evdokimova as the heroine and a spectacular set featuring a train. I didn't understamd the plot then and don't remember it now, so some summer I'll have to read the book.

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Liebs, I look forward to reading your synopsis!;)

Thanks all for bringing your different points of view to this discussion - you've all helped me look at these two "versions" of ballet with a new eye.

Just wondering - can anyone tell me when the birth of the plotless ballet was?

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