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The Goldberg Variations

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Though I've not seen it in a long time, I was thinking about The Goldberg Variations, recently.

If I'm correct, this ballet is longer than Dances at a Gathering, which I also adore.

The question for all of you is: The Goldberg Variations, too long or too short?

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A very biased answer -- TOO LONG! I haven't seen this ballet in years, and my memories are from my standing room days. When City Ballet used to come here 15, 20 years ago, they came iin February and it was always unseasonably warm for those two weeks. My memories of Goldberg are inextricably linked with standing for 90 minutes, with all the latecomers crowding behind us, the line eventually oozing down the side of the house. At least three people fainted every year.

Nothing to do with the choreographic worth of the ballet :)

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I happen to adore the Goldbergs, I listen to them very very often (Glenn Gould, early and late, and a fabulous Wanda Landowska harpsichord version, my current passion).I cannot understand how the ballet manages to make them seem so tedious. Next time you go, close your eyes and listen to the music. The whole experience improves.

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Well, Nanatchka, I think you've hit on a very important, neglected category of ballet: those that are best experienced with one's eyes closed.

I'm sure we all have our favorites. In addition to Goldberg, I'd add the perennial leader in this category, Stabat Mater.

Any others?

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Well, this actually brings me to some more favorite categories:

Ballets best experienced from the Starbuck's on Columbus Avenue (or, if it's July, while having a drink at the Adelphi), and...

Ballets best experienced while walking home from Lincoln Center.

Stabat Mater and Oraganon figure prominently in each category, actually.

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Personally, I wouldn't want Goldberg cut because I think the music itself is an integral whole and shouldn't be fragmented. I'll cheerfully sit through a few tedious bits of ballet to get Bach's work whole. Admittedly, Bach wrote the Goldberg variations for the private consumption of his patron, and not to be heard in a concert setting. Nonetheless, I think it has an overall structural integrity that I for one would be loathe to undermine -- e.g., the methodical placement and construction of the canons. I'd put it on the "all or nothing" category -- either you're willing to do the whole thing or you pick different music. It's not as if there's a shortage of good, danceable music out there. One of the (many) things I dislike about Robbins' Brandenberg is the way the various Brandenberg Concertos got broken up and re-assembled. Baroque concertos do have a clearly defined structure, even though we might be immune to the charms of that structure today.

Obviously, one shouldn't take an all or nothing approach and assume that ALL music is inviolable and can't be tinkered with for the purposes of creating an effective ballet. Some works suffer less (or not at all or are even improved) when re-assembled. (Ahem, but not Serenade, IMO.) But there are some that can't be tinkered with, and I'd put Goldberg in that category.

As to Dances at a Gathering: I always like Arlene Croce's assessment, which was that she'd like to see it cut by 15 minutes but not the same 15 minutes every time.

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At an NYCB seminar one year, Gordon Boelzner, the original pianist, told of hearing a remark from the audience loud and clear one night toward the end of the performance: "Oh no Murray, he's going to play another one!"

I can't imagine anyone thinking Goldberg is too short. But I think it's a better ballet than is indicated here. I find it a very satisfying experience. For the first few seasons, an annoucement used to be made requesting the audience to refrain from applauding until the final curtain. Sometimes applause would break out in the second section no matter. Nowadays applause is heard throughout the piece, growing steadily more tepid, even though the dancing grows steadily more interesting. So I guess Robbins' original instinct to hold the applause was wise.

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I can certainly understand how hard it would be to watch from the standing room point of view, but I didn't expect so many people to think Goldberg is too long.

In the late 70s and 80s, it was the kind of ballet that I lost track of time while watching. The same thing would happen when I watched Gelsey perform Giselle.

Maybe that's a new thread. Ballets that make you forget time and place.

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Robbins' "Goldberg," is almost 20 minutes longer than Glenn Gould's recorded version, which omits most repeats. Which raises the question of "artistic integrity." Myself, I like both Gould and Robbins, each of whom has a different goal.

Choreographically, I admire Robbins' ability to introduce constant novelty to music created within narrow confines of style. I always feel a sense of melancholy when I hear the final Chaconne -- as I do at the last waltz of "Liebeslieder Walzer," another major audience commitment.

I will concede, however, that people who need a martini every twenty minutes should avoid longer works by Robbins, Balanchine, Bournonville, Petipas, and others.

In short, I don't think it's too long. I think it's precisely long enough to serve the composer's vision, which has always been the rule at City Ballet.

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Well, Nanatchka & Manhattnik, there have been many a moment at the NY State Theatre that I have enjoyed a ballet with my eyes closed. The only problem is the accompanying 'head snap'. It's always a tad embarrassing but then again the guy behind me in the fourth ring is probably a tourist trying to get some culture or a 'ballet alertist' sympathizer. This past winter little Shesno helped out the conductor with 'Dances at a Gathering' with some petite battements de snores. If I ever accidently bought tickets

for Dances and Goldbergs I'd probably have to lay down in front

of the water fountain located just outside of standing room.

Manhattnik, I don't know why you like the Starbucks at 67th and Columbus--it's really gloomy and I really hate paying $3 for a jigger of coffee with a pound of milk foam. Better a cup of joe

or a small chardonnay at Peter's at 68th & Columbus.

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I think he just goes for the gingerbread lattes.

Myself, I have been known to run out to Balducci's and get soup and a biscuit...depending on what shoes I'm wearing....(sometimes I just stagger out to the lobby and listen in my head to the music....you can get a lot of beading done on a bodice in 83 minutes of Goldberg.)

When I was at school outside of Chicago, many is the fourth act of an opera which was sacrificed to The Last Train....

Back to Goldberg, I like the music. Sitting in the theatre for the ballet fulfills it's initial purpose: sound sleep. ;)

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In all fairness, I bet people who saw casts closer to the original ones found it more gripping. I saw the ballet first when it was going on two decades old - and they weren't bad dancers, just farther removed from the original source of inspiration. A great cast can make hours seem like minutes. Glebb, I wish I had seen in Goldberg what you had - I always liked it, but liked part I better than part II. It's so true that one of the joys of something we truly love is finding others who love it as much as we do.

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I've been watching Goldberg, and other NYCB staples for long enough to see the entire company turn over, and I have two comments on changing casts.

On the one hand, a part is often so clearly built on one individual's style and gifts that any replacement seems inept and out of place. The most obvious example is Mozartiana, a bouquet from Mr. B to Suzanne Farrell. The concluding "Theme and Variations," in particular, is a virtual encyclopedia of Farrell steps and gestures. After her retirement, the company avoided the work for a few seasons, then tried one or two top-flight ballerinas in the role. They just looked like bad imitations of the original, despite their considerable efforts. Finally, Kyra Nichols came along and showed how to make it her own. She explained in an interview that she only studied the tape long enough to learn the steps, then put it away, working on the part just with a mirror. As a result, there is an homage to the original in the high splits and off-balance turns, but the performance is all Kyra.

Sometimes, though, it's just a matter of experience. Darci Kistler, for instance, is a dancer who just keeps getting better the more often she performs a role. I remember her first Sonnambula only because I wish I could forget it: competent but without passion. When I saw her do it recently, she was ravishing, almost reminiscent of Allegra Kent's evanescent performance.

There's an extra problem with the Robbins ballets, since he preferred to stage revivals with the company's younger members, who would do his bidding in every detail. He was a fanatic for re-creating precisely the image he wanted, and more experienced dancers, confronted with a step they find awkward, tend to say, "Gee, Jerry, don't you think it looks better this way?" while demonstrating an alternative. As a result, Robbins gave us a chance to see rising stars in demanding parts, but they didn't always have the chance to mature in them.

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