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Drew

New Royal Ballet Swan Lake

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I do think Scarlett and Macfarlane have taken a late 19th-century fantasy about the middle ages and transformed it into a 21st-century fantasy about the late 19th, and that has consequences for the whole tone and resonance of the ballet. As I wrote above, I tried to absorb the production on its own terms and found much to admire in the performances I saw...but my "inner" Swan Lake is a different one.

You summed up my own feelings about the new Royal Ballet Swan Lake very well in the last paragraph of your post. Concerning your thoughts about the endings, my views differ. I don't consider the triumph of Good over Evil to be "wrong at its root" and I think Meinertz meant something entirely different when talking about what Hübbe was doing with Bournonville. For me the whole question of Swan Lake's ending is secondary, perhaps, because I saw so many of them, with endings of every kind, and the ending is usually the last things that concerns me. Of much greater concern to me is, for example, to see a well trained ballerina who knows next to nothing about what she is really enacting on the stage, or ten minutes after the "noble death" of her Odette, uploading to the Instagram selfies that will be attracting lots of smilies and silly messages. Banality is the 21-th century equivalent of Hell, whether you are a theist or atheist, and is the greatest threat to a ballet artist today, a very real threat and danger.

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14 hours ago, Laurent said:

You summed up my own feelings about the new Royal Ballet Swan Lake very well in the last paragraph of your post. Concerning your thoughts about the endings, my views differ. I don't consider the triumph of Good over Evil to be "wrong at its root"

But good triumphs over evil in the original text. That is the point. Their deaths free them and free the remaining swans.

I agree with Drew. The "happy" ending is a jarring dissonant note to the entire story. Does it ruin a good performance for me? No, but it leaves a very sour note at the end.

I mean you might as well have gone along with Prokofiev's idiotic idea of making Romeo & Juliet live happily ever after.

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I don't see many parallels between Swan Lake and the story of Romeo and Juliette, the story that established itself, and lived for centuries its own life, totally independent of ballet. The death of Romeo and Juliette is certainly not the case of Good triumphing over Evil, it is a very tragic culmination of the whole piece. In Swan Lake, the death of Odette, I don't see it as the culmination, dramatically or choreographically, it is rushed, and no canonical choreography is attached to it. The execution of the 4th Scene from the very beginning caused problems to its creators, this is a likely reason why that scene has been constantly modified and varied in subsequent versions.

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22 hours ago, Laurent said:

In Swan Lake, the death of Odette, I don't see it as the culmination, dramatically or choreographically, it is rushed, and no canonical choreography is attached to it. The execution of the 4th Scene from the very beginning caused problems to its creators, this is a likely reason why that scene has been constantly modified and varied in subsequent versions.

 I do (as clearly do a lot of other people). It loses all poignancy with a slapped on happy ending. The original ending HAS good triumphing over evil.

It was modified because people wanted a "happier" ending. This is the same reason Prokofiev wanted to tack one on R&J. That is the parallel I was making--obviously the libretti are quite different and from different types of sources.

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1 minute ago, aurora said:

It was modified because people wanted a "happier" ending.

I don't have such information.

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2 minutes ago, Laurent said:

I don't have such information.

You said yesterday:

"The 'happy ending' was introduced by Asaf Messerer and Evgeniya Dolinskaïa in their 1937 production of Swan lake at Bolchoï. If you know what has been happening in Soviet Union in 1937, you should not be surprised that this was then the only possible ending. Sergeev simply inserted that ending into his Kirov production, most likely he was forced to do that. We know that Grigorovich's version of 1969 had the tragic ending, but he was forced by the party authorities to revert to what was euphemistically called the "optimistic" ending."

 

But it wasn't because they wanted a more "optimistic" ending?

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If by "they" you mean Messerer and Dolinskaïa, then, I presume, they wanted to produce ballet Swan Lake at Bolchoï without being first put on trial as the "enemies of the people", or "Japanese spies", and then murdered by one of the most oppressive state machines in the history of humankind.

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3 minutes ago, Laurent said:

If by "they" you mean Messerer and Dolinskaïa, then, I presume, they wanted to produce ballet Swan Lake at Bolchoï without being first put on trial as the "enemies of the people", or "Japanese spies", and then murdered by one of the most oppressive state machines in the history of humankind.

Why would the original ending suggest Japanese spies?

In any case this meant they went with a "happier" ending. I'm not saying it was Messerer and Dolinskaïa's personal preference. 

Edited by aurora

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21 hours ago, Drew said:

I don't need works of art to mirror back to me exactly my own belief systems. (I would guess most of us don't..)

Some of us might not NEED it, but it is definitely quite enjoyable when it happens-(particularly with religion). Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic dogmas are quite friendly with each other. 😍

Edited by cubanmiamiboy

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Aurora,

You don't appear to have heard of the purges and show trials which took place in the Soviet Union during the 1930's. They did not only affect the political elite they affected people engaged in the arts as well. It is said that Bulgakov only escaped being purged because Stalin admired him as a writer. In general if you failed to follow the party line you were quite likely to be purged. If you were lucky you only lost your job , if you were unlucky you lost your life. What was being suggested was that if people like Messerer and Dolinskaia who staged Swan Lake during the thirties  had failed to provide the ballet with an upbeat happy ending in accordance with the party line they might well have found themselves in a great deal of trouble politically. Messerer would probably have been particularly careful to follow party diktats because members of his close family had been purged and executed. If you were purged and put on trial rather than simply being shot then you had to be charged with an offence of some sort and  being an "Enemy of the People"  or a "Japanese spy" were the sort of amorphous allegations you might face.

 

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Earlier this year the Bolshoi presented an exhibit on the history of Swan Lake at the theater. This is how the production that premiered on 29 February 1920 was described:

"The producers [ballet master Alexander Gorsky, director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko] divided the part of Odette-Odile between two dancers [and] introduced the role of the Jester, carried over to all subsequent productions. For the first time Odette and Siegfried triumphed over Rothbart."

This production was performed only five times. On 19 February 1922 a new production, based on Gorsky's previous two versions, premiered with the original "tragic" ending. However from 1923 onward the "happy" ending was used. This production was performed 177 times until 1936, after which it was replaced in 1937 by the Dolinskaya/Messerer production.

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I think I am in the minority on BA, but I find the double suicide and Siegfried and Odette reunited in Heaven a happy one, not a tragic one, and I also find the Soviet one where they defeat Rothbart and are together on Earth a happy one. I see hardly any difference, especially since there is really no ballet choreography. The ABT double suicide and apotheosis of Odette and Siegfried together in Heaven is indeed beautiful in a more spiritual way, but that's about the only beauty I find in that very kitschy, very Disney World-ish, very American (in the negative sense meaning pop trash culture) production of Swan Lake. For me the Mariinsky's Sergeyev version has the most beautiful and sophisticated and gorgeous atmosphere throughout the entire ballet, so I can be okay with a "happy ending" (although it is very unrealistic since it is Hell on Earth right now in 2018, so there is no happiness possible on Earth).  I will take a beautiful "take your breath away" production all night throughout the ballet with an adjusted ending (that involves no change in the choreography) over a very kitschy Disney production that has one beautiful moment at the very end.

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7 hours ago, Ashton Fan said:

Aurora,

You don't appear to have heard of the purges and show trials which took place in the Soviet Union during the 1930's. They did not only affect the political elite they affected people engaged in the arts as well. It is said that Bulgakov only escaped being purged because Stalin admired him as a writer. In general if you failed to follow the party line you were quite likely to be purged. If you were lucky you only lost your job , if you were unlucky you lost your life. What was being suggested was that if people like Messerer and Dolinskaia who staged Swan Lake during the thirties  had failed to provide the ballet with an upbeat happy ending in accordance with the party line they might well have found themselves in a great deal of trouble politically. Messerer would probably have been particularly careful to follow party diktats because members of his close family had been purged and executed. If you were purged and put on trial rather than simply being shot then you had to be charged with an offence of some sort and  being an "Enemy of the People"  or a "Japanese spy" were the sort of amorphous allegations you might face.

 

I believe you misunderstood.

I did indeed think it odd that "japanese spy" in particular would be the accusation made if someone didn't alter the end of a ballet (you note I didn't ask why "enemy of the people."

But I know the change was made because it was forced on Messerer and Dolinskaia by the soviet party. I never claimed M&D wanted a happy ending--the government did.

 

 

 

 

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Back to the RB SL, I was made aware yesterday that although the punters seem to love it, those in the business most certainly do not.  Interesting......

 

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6 hours ago, Mashinka said:

Back to the RB SL, I was made aware yesterday that although the punters seem to love it, those in the business most certainly do not.  Interesting......

 

Your sources?

"Punters" embraces a rather large range of the audience spectrum.......

 

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4 hours ago, Juliet said:

Your sources?

"Punters" embraces a rather large range of the audience spectrum.......

 

And “those in the business” is similarly vague.

I shared the first question.

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"Those in the business" had better mean ballet professionals, including critics, who have spoken about it publicly.

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Gorsky produced six versions of Swan Lake, some so experimental that the production of 29 February of 1920 was described by Bakhrushin in his condemning review (preserved only in the private archive of Elisaveta Surits) thus:

Quote

The 2nd and the 4th acts completely lost that deep tone of lyricism that was originally designed and constantly is audible in music of Tchaikovsky. These acts one cannot even call ballet, as they are nothing but a failed transition from ballet to cinema, a pantomime with inserted dance numbers. In the 2nd and the 4th acts one can hardly count 5 dances total !

The ending was not even mentioned in Bakhrushin's review, in view how drastic were the changes introduced by Gorsky into the text of Swan Lake. The Messerer/Dolinskaïa version of 1937 replaced the 4th act in the last Gorsky version with a new one. You can see it in the 1957 recording with Plisetskaïa and Fadeechev. I invite you take a look at the 2nd act, for example, and see how drastic, not to say, shocking, the innovations introduced by Gorsky were.

Edited by Laurent

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5 hours ago, Helene said:

"Those in the business" had better mean ballet professionals, including critics, who have spoken about it publicly.

As most of the critics I've read have been very positive, even effusive, about the production, I'd be very interested to hear what else other people in the business are saying.  
My own response to it as a punter outside the UK, via the cinema relay, was one of deep disappointment.
It seemed too dour and conceptually muddled a production for such a talented new generation of dancers to be trapped in for the next decade and more.

 

On 6/13/2018 at 5:19 PM, Drew said:

) I think Scarlett's ending -- in which Odette commits suicide, freeing the other swan maidens who (in conjunction with her death) defeat Rothbart -- doesn't quite work: some problems seem to me in conception and some in execution. For myself, taking the production on its own terms, that was its greatest weakness.

[...]

I also wonder if perhaps the timing of the whole thing is off--ABT dancers may make too much of their suicides, but in this production, I felt I barely had time to notice Odette was on the cliff before she had slipped off of it.

I had similar impressions - the action felt badly timed and confused. The moments that you noted - Rothbart's attack on Siegfried, Rothbart overcome by the power of Odette and Siegfried's love - were not at all clear to me, when they had been unmissable in the previous production. I think the swan maidens rushing about separating the lovers had something to do with it. By the time Siegfried had found his way back to Odette and she was miming 'death', Rothbart was rolling on the ground and I had no idea why. And before I could properly register the fact that Rothbart had struck Siegfried down and was himself on the verge of collapse, Odette was off the cliff and it was all over.

 

On 6/13/2018 at 5:19 PM, Drew said:

He then collapses dead on the cliff and several swan maidens step downstage to encourage Siegfried to rise--he does so, but immediately turns and heads upstage into shadow as if walking into the lake himself only to return a few seconds later with the dead Odette in his arms. I think it's a very awkward moment for Siegfried to disappear into darkness.

Also, Siegfried was knocked out before Odette made her way up the cliff, which meant he hadn't seen her die. So his reaction on being roused by the swan maidens struck me as not only dramatically awkward, as you say, but somehow unconvincing. I would have expected him to rush up the cliff first or at least spend a long moment looking up at it to let what happened sink in. 

 

On 6/13/2018 at 5:19 PM, Drew said:

In any case, I don't think Scarlett's approach makes the best sense even on its own terms. For example: if Odette's human self is freed by her death and thus her corpse has its original princess costume, why is her free soul still in swan maiden form? Not that I want her ghost looking like an ordinary princess but the conceptual dissonance got in the way of my enjoying or being moved by the scene.

Nicely observed. I agree that it's an unnecessary distinction (dress/tutu) for Scarlett to introduce in the first place - when we first see Odette in the traditional productions, she is in her maiden form and in a tutu - particularly when he does not observe it consistently. 

 

On 6/13/2018 at 5:19 PM, Drew said:

There is finally I think a real question, quite separate even from the issue of choreographic text--as to whether placing the story of Swan Lake in a more recent and in some sense more familiar historical setting, and trying to give political and psychological motives to the characters that might make sense in a historical novel but have less place in a fairy tale is really the ideal approach to Tchaikovsky's (and Petipa's and Ivanov's) Swan Lake.

Would you consider productions such as Nureyev's for the Paris Opera Ballet and Grigorovich's for the Bolshoi still "Tchaikovsky's (and Petipa's and Ivanov's) Swan Lake"? I ask because they seem to interpret the existence of Odette and the love story as reflections/manifestations of troubled aspects of Siegfried's psyche. None of the magic is real - in the Nureyev version it's all a fever dream. With these psychological approaches, "realist" settings seem feasible and perhaps quite plausible too.  

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On 6/13/2018 at 5:19 PM, Drew said:

There is finally I think a real question, quite separate even from the issue of choreographic text--as to whether placing the story of Swan Lake in a more recent and in some sense more familiar historical setting, and trying to give political and psychological motives to the characters that might make sense in a historical novel but have less place in a fairy tale is really the ideal approach to Tchaikovsky's (and Petipa's and Ivanov's) Swan Lake. At least, one can say it's an approach that may make sense at the Royal Ballet, and the company seems completely engaged by the world they are creating in this ballet.

I would add that for all its "historical" trappings, the Royal Ballet's new production isn't consistently "realist" - this conception of Rothbart feels particularly cartoony to me. I have yet to work out how, in this late 19th-century Germanic court, a palace coup can be accomplished simply by making the heir to the throne pledge to marry your daughter. Do you have any theories?

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3 hours ago, rhys said:

Would you consider productions such as Nureyev's for the Paris Opera Ballet and Grigorovich's for the Bolshoi still "Tchaikovsky's (and Petipa's and Ivanov's) Swan Lake"? I ask because they seem to interpret the existence of Odette and the love story as reflections/manifestations of troubled aspects of Siegfried's psyche. None of the magic is real - in the Nureyev version it's all a fever dream. With these psychological approaches, "realist" settings seem feasible and perhaps quite plausible too.  

That makes sense and I suppose you are right but the approach itself is not one I have much affinity for... I have questions about turning the ballet's action quite so explicitly into a personal psychodrama in which Odette is, so to speak, merely an occasion for Siegfried's angst, an approach that seems to me at odds with the music and the choreography as we have inherited it. I also fear one loses something from the story that I find very powerful when one loses, or attenuates, Odette's anguish as having its own, authentic force and, indeed, when one loses the idea of the hero's actual encounter with the numinous world of "quest romance." Siegfried's psychodrama can still be read into that story allegorically--it just becomes more of a subtext that the ballet has transformed into something that (in my judgment) has a deeper reach.  That is, I think  the Swan Lake created by Tchaikovsky, Petipa, and Ivanov is not just about a young man freaked out (much as Tchaikovsky was) by the need to marry; I think it's a story about freedom and sacrifice, and I also think the ballet's fantastical middle ages, as they created it, crystallizes or culminates an entire nineteenth-century "mood" in a peculiarly beautiful way. 

All that said, I'm not a ballet historian or professional and I'm certainly not a purist; as a ballet-goer, no more, I have come to accept that most major company productions of Swan Lake today are in some fashion, minor or major, revisionary and I usually try to "enter into" what the productions are trying to do, especially now that my opportunities to see major companies are reduced to a handful of performances a year. (In the case of Grigorovich's most recent production though...I just couldn't. Its cutting of Tchaikovsky's final measures seems almost criminal to me. I know some admire this production a lot. So, call it my loss.)

3 hours ago, rhys said:

I would add that for all its "historical" trappings, the Royal Ballet's new production isn't consistently "realist" - this conception of Rothbart feels particularly cartoony to me. I have yet to work out how, in this late 19th-century Germanic court, a palace coup can be accomplished simply by making the heir to the throne pledge to marry your daughter. Do you have any theories?

I infer that in Scarlett's production Rothbart's goal isn't getting Siegfried to marry his daughter, but rather preventing him from marrying anyone (since marriage could potentially create an alliance that would strengthen the kingdom), and bringing Siegfried to a personal crisis so that Rothbart himself can take over the court in chaos when there is no-one in fit condition to oppose the take over -- plus, while he is at it, make sure he keeps control of Odette (and her kingdom) blah, blah....but is this exactly how Scarlett is thinking of it? Does it work for most audiences? Is it really plausible? Those are different questions. Taking the production on its own terms, I personally found I could go along with this aspect of it, though the question I raised in my earliest post about those terms still stands...

Edited by Drew

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Here is an even more cogent question. If Von Rothbart is such a powerful magician and so clearly part of the royal household why does he have to go through the entire charade of conjuring up Odile and bringing her into the palace in order to seize power? Odile is a necessary character if Von Rothbart has to enter the palace in order to gain power over Siegfried and thwart Odile's hopes of freedom through Siegfried's love for her. But if he is part of the royal entourage he  does not need Odile as a means to gain  access and close proximity to Siegfried and his mother. He could simply cast a spell over the prince and his mother and have done with it.

In a staging which is set in medieval ballet land such questions do not arise as the whole narrative sits quite comfortably with what we think we  know of the nineteenth century European cultural obsession with chivalric myths and medieval poetry such as the Arthurian legends and our own recollections of the fairy stories and myths we heard as children. But the minute you employ MacMillan style "realism" by alluding consciously or unconsciously to his choreography or hint at realism by giving the ballet a period specific setting, they do. The libretto used by  Petipa and Ivanov is neither logical nor consistent but its inconsistencies are those of legend and myth and in performance they seem to contain emotional truths. The minute you set about tidying up the story to make the narrative logical and consistent you create more problems than you solve. Ashton was not consistent in his views of what was permissible when staging one of the nineteenth century classics . In the late 1930's he seemed to be very much against altering their text in any way. By the 1960's he was more liberal in his view of what was permissible but he seems to have been adamant that while you did not have to treat the original text as if it was sacred you had to retain the work's poetic truth. Unfortunately I don't see much evidence of poetry or poetic truth in this staging except in the one act in which the original choreography survives unscathed. It will be interesting to see to what extent it is revised when it is revived.

Edited by Ashton Fan

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Drew, Ashton Fan, thank you for your responses to my clumsily phrased, stupid-sounding question. They clarified some of the problems I was struggling to put my finger on. The scenario as it is does beg more questions than it answers. Perhaps Rothbart has power only over women – princesses, queens – and can’t cast a direct spell over Siegfried, but it doesn’t answer the question of why he has to bring Odile to the palace – surely if he means for Siegfried to take her for Odette, the lakeside might be a better setting… the list of questions goes on and on, which goes to show that complicating the original scenario, ostensibly to iron out logical inconsistencies, only serves to introduce more of them.

16 hours ago, Drew said:

That makes sense and I suppose you are right but the approach itself is not one I have much affinity for... I have questions about turning the ballet's action quite so explicitly into a personal psychodrama in which Odette is, so to speak, merely an occasion for Siegfried's angst, an approach that seems to me at odds with the music and the choreography as we have inherited it. I also fear one loses something from the story that I find very powerful when one loses, or attenuates, Odette's anguish as having its own, authentic force and, indeed, when one loses the idea of the hero's actual encounter with the numinous world of "quest romance." Siegfried's psychodrama can still be read into that story allegorically--it just becomes more of a subtext that the ballet has transformed into something that (in my judgment) has a deeper reach.  That is, I think  the Swan Lake created by Tchaikovsky, Petipa, and Ivanov is not just about a young man freaked out (much as Tchaikovsky was) by the need to marry; I think it's a story about freedom and sacrifice, and I also think the ballet's fantastical middle ages, as they created it, crystallizes or culminates an entire nineteenth-century "mood" in a peculiarly beautiful way. 

Drew, I confess I was proposing the plausibility of historical/realist settings if we take a psychological approach purely for the sake of argument. In fact, I agree with much of what you say. Personally, I’ve not found the productions that take this approach to be anything other than hollow and anti-climactic. A Swan Lake without a sense of romance or mythic grandeur, where the concepts of suffering, the desire for freedom, the longing to simultaneously lose and find oneself, forgiveness and redemption, have no meaning – a production like that would seem to fall far short of what the music demands. To link this back to the new Royal Ballet production, I think the problem I have with the new ending is that Siegfried doesn’t die. He doesn’t redeem himself by joining Odette in death. Here also Odette is reduced to being a catalyst for Siegfried’s self-knowledge.

 

14 hours ago, Ashton Fan said:

Ashton was not consistent in his views of what was permissible when staging one of the nineteenth century classics . In the late 1930's he seemed to be very much against altering their text in any way. By the 1960's he was more liberal in his view of what was permissible but he seems to have been adamant that while you did not have to treat the original text as if it was sacred you had to retain the work's poetic truth. Unfortunately I don't see much evidence of poetry or poetic truth in this staging except in the one act in which the original choreography survives unscathed. It will be interesting to see to what extent it is revised when it is revived.

Ashton Fan, could you point me in the direction of a current staging, or even an older one that has been recorded, that you feel has the poetry or poetic truth that this new production lacks?

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I was reading old reviews and came across this in a piece by Jann Parry on the occasion of Dowell's retirement (2001):

The ideal director, if he or she is not a creator, should be a curator, ensuring that the Royal Ballet presents the classics in the purest form. By emphasising design over direction, Dowell has taken the company out of the premier league of classical troupes. It still dances well but its productions have become secondary ones, not the definitive statements Ninette de Valois required of the Royal Ballet.

It seems to me a very sad thing that the new production has not righted the situation and the criticisms of the old one may just as well be levelled at the new.

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7 hours ago, rhys said:

could you point me in the direction of a current staging, or even an older one that has been recorded, that you feel has the poetry or poetic truth that this new production lacks?

Try the earlier RB version recorded with Makarova and Dowell in the leading roles.  There is also an even earlier Act II only with Fonteyn and Somes available, but it gives a better idea of how that act should be danced rather than Markarova's excruciating slowness.

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