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Roles for men in story ballets?

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avant-propos - This thread was spun off from a discussion in "Anything Goes" about writing libretti for story ballets. The original thread is titled "Rewriting stories for ballets" and BalletNYC made a very interesting post about the process:

Secondly, as a male in ballet, a had been keenly aware that the majority of the full length ballets female-centric (a new word, but you get the idea) in their base. I wanted to create a work which would not only give the principal male (Ichabod) the spotlight, but would also be a work that young boys would be interested in going to see, and ideally, encourage a new crop of young male dancers.

There's a lot of discussion material here. One of the reasons I think that older classical ballets get tweaked so often is to accommodate male dancers' natural desire to display their technique. How do people feel about this? I recall a brief solo for Junker Ove in "A Folk Tale" that to me was pretty obviously cobbled from music meant for a mime passage. But then again, when you were watching a dancer as interesting as Kenneth Greve, you wanted to get to see him dance. When have people seen good examples of incorporating advanced male technique into a classic and when has it crossed the line? For me, Nureyev's '92 Sleeping Beauty for POB crossed the line and then some. The Lilac Fairy was banished from Act III and even from the awakening - it was All Prince, All the Time.

Alan touches on an issue that particularly resonates with dancers in smaller companies with fewer performances. If you're a man in Giselle, and you're not Albrecht, Hilarion or in the peasant pas, you're carrying wheat and maybe doing a mazurka in the first act. There isn't much for the men to dance. Add to that only doing 3-4 performances, and the creeping defensive trend towards more and more full length ballets and you've got some miserable, stifled men in your company. One solution, which Alan is trying, is new repertory. New repertory is always risky - look at Pied Piper, which I think was created for exactly the same reason, to afford opportunities for ABT's ever expanding roster of virtuoso demi-caractere men.

It's interesting to think of ballet as "female-centric" - I yearnnd for more male corps de ballets roles to dance (and that's what I think Alan meant, richer roles for men) but hey, who's doing the choreographing? Whose vision is out there on stage? Women haven't had all that much input into ballet choreography yet. How female-centric can an art form be that's more or less run by men? (But that's another can of worms, isn't it!)

So let's wade into the thicket of gender. Have at it!

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Whenever this issue comes up I wrack my brains for the articles about how there really isn't much for women to do in Shakespeare. (There isn't, and there are reasons.) And how many Ophelias have rewritten their parts so that there is "more" to do? Does Lady Macbeth get to add four soliloquys? On the other hand, are men out there, carrying picket signs because there aren't any male Madonnas in Renaissance paintings? No. Once again, it's only ballet that has to deal with this issue.

Perhaps it's my own gender bias, but the notion of looking at a work of art and saying, "There's not enough in it for ME to do and so I'll just have to fix that" or "and so it's worthless and needs to be changed" is foreign to me.

I think the new repertory solution is the best. I haven't quite given up the notion that there may again, some day, be people who will look at Junker Ove and see that what he is given to do is dancing. I think if we have very forceful Princes it would help. The irony of Nureyev's step gluttony is that he didn't need to dance a step to hold the stage.

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When Arlene Croce reviewed Julie Kavanagh's Ashton bio, she pointed out that, although Balanchine and Ashton had different approaches and different sexual orientations, both of them focused their chief creative energies on women, not on men. She adduced this as evidence of the centrality of women's dancing to the classical tradition. This sounds right to me, and while I'm all in favor of the guys getting more to do, it should not be at the expense of the women or by distorting the classics.

That said, a little reinterpretation, or the insertion of a solo or two, isn't out of bounds, as long as it doesn't go too far. Things like the meditative solo Nureyev inserted into Act One of Swan Lake don't bother me; overassertive jesters and dancing von Rothbarts do. I'm sorry if this means dancers are sitting around the week the company does Swan Lake with nothing to do, but that's showbiz.

I'd also suggest that it's not entirely true that other works aren't subject to this kind of tinkering. In Shakespearean productions, while actual new verse doesn't get inserted into the text, cuts, sometimes vast ones, are frequently made. And an actor can impose an interpretation of a role that alters the balance of the play. For example, the women's parts get beefed up, not by adding more lines, but by pushing that character forward in various scenes, or making the character more assertive. ( In two recent film versions of Hamlet, both the Queen and Ophelia got this kind of treatment -- Glenn Close's Gertrude, for example, seemed to pop up everywhere, and she was all over her son like a tent, while Kate Winslet's Ophelia was so strong she overpowered Shakespeare's frail flower completely, and what happened to the character no longer made any sense.) Obviously that 's not the same thing as taking Raymonda's entrance away from her, but it does happen. And it's not always bad -- just an adjustment to changing times, which probably has to happen.

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WHy not see if you cvan get some Robbins into your repertory? FAncy Free has great roles for men, -- great roles -- as do the dances from Fiddler on hte ROof, which -- from having seen JRobbins' Broadway -- I think are certainly worth a staging by a strong ballet company......

Of course, it may not be easy to get permission to dance those ballets -- much harder to get than Balanchine ances, I gather -- but Glass Pieces, wow, WONDERFUL roles for a male corps..... Interplay...

I wonder if it would be any easier to get permissoin to do the Boradway stuff than to do the "ballets" --

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Clive Barnes, on a panel in DC last spring when the Royal did it's Ashton week, asked if it ever had occurred to anyone that the reason Balanchine and Ashton didn't have more men in their ballets was because there WEREN'T enough men and if they were choreographing now, they might do some very different works.

Re Paul's comments about Robbins, there are good roles for men in his works, of course, and your comment made me think of (surprise) the Danish way of collecting ballets. This was the last male-centric company in the world (that's gone too now) and Larsen, Flindt and Kronstam, when they were choosing repertory, all seemed to look at ballets from that view -- were there good parts for men? Only those ballets chosen by Volkova in the 1950s (Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, a revival of Chopiniana) were what we generally think of as ballet -- with one, or, at most, a few leading men and a corps of women. The critics pointed out how foreign these were to the repertory. Why do we have one man surrounded by all those girls in white skirts when we are used to seeing lots of men on stage? they'd ask.

Massine and Fokine ballets had good roles for men, too -- just not good in the same way that we think of good roles. They were character, rather than strictly dancing parts.

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There are male roles in Lifar's works, mostly because he wanted to cast himself in it...

Petit has quite a lot of male roles too- for example, his "Notre-Dame de Paris" has three main male characters (Phebus, Frollo and Quasimodo), and only one female character (Esmeralda). I wonder if one of the reasons hiw works were programmed often at the POB in the last seasons was that it was an opportunity to cast many male dancers.

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