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Ballets, "Light" and "Dark"

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[Avant-propos added by LAW - this thread is an offshoot of a discussion that began in the "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" thread. Please jump in and discuss how ballet handles "darker" topics.]

I’m not much of a ballet critic, but here are my impressions of the premiere of Sleepy Hollow, performed by CPYB. What began as a gothic tale ended as a wholesome romance which made the production suitable for the entire family, no matter how squeamish or prudish the members. Washington Irving fans may be disappointed, since it strays wildly from his story, but it was nicely choreographed and the plot was easy to follow. Instead of a tale that begins and ends in death, mystery, and suspense, the ballet started on that note, but quickly evolved into an adolescent love story.

With no one dancer dominating the production, each performer was able to showcase his or her talents, making this production especially fitting for a youth ballet. The costumes and music both complemented the story line, and the set changes were cleverly handled.

Has anyone else seen this production? I’m interested in hearing your impressions.

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As Irving portrays her, Katrina is sort of a "free agent" with regard to choosing her beaux. Brom Bones has been trying to impress her for years, and he's about the best prospect in town, so her parents approve. However, nerdy Ichabod catches her eye, with graceful society manners, and a distinctive voice at church, while singing the hymns. Her parents approve of him, too, as they like educated and cultured men!

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Obbligato -

You're raising a really interesting point, and one that can be asked more generally, as well as in the specific instance: How does ballet handle "darker" subjects?

As you noted in the original post, a realistic judgment was made here both about the people who would be viewing the ballet, and as importantly, the young dancers dancing it. But is it Irving's story? At the same time, was Petipa's Nutcracker Hoffman's or his Sleeping Beauty Perrault's? Is classical ballet's tendency to "lighten" stories a natural response in an artform which portrays ideals best?

What do people think?

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But as Leigh asks:

Is classical ballet's tendency to "lighten" stories a natural response in an art form which portrays ideals best?  

My first reaction is that I never really thought about ballet portraying "ideals" best. I must go back to my analyst's couch and ponder this.

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Your question about the lighter and darker aspects of ballet is a good one. I'm not familiar enough with ballet in general to even begin to answer it.

Having said that (and answering anyway), I'd say that part of what enables ballet to endure is its ability to portray the entire human experience, across centuries and between cultures. What little I've seen of ballet, it seems versatile enough to provoke a wide range of emotion, even more so than other dance forms, in my opinion. Otherwise it probably would have gone the way of any number of other fads. Don't you think? Or am I oversimplifying a topic I know little about?

Regarding Sleepy Hollow (and Nutcracker, and Sleeping Beauty), I wonder if the "darkness" of the original tale jeopardizes its marketability, more than its performability (if that is a word). If so, that brings up another related point about ballets in general: Is an artist/choreographer obligated (ethically, or in any other way) to maintain the integrity of the original work when translating it to another form (from legends to dance to television mini-series to whatever)?

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Obbligato -

Nothing you've said is unreasonable. Maybe we need to give examples of darker stories or ballets that have been done succesfully. The one thing of interest I think you will note is that ballet often ventures outside itself to portray a darker subject - I mean it starts incorporating vocabulary from other places (modern dance, et al.)

Classicism is almost never "dark" - if only because tradition assumes a certain optimism about outcomes. Somehow, things go on.

What are some "dark" ballets people have admired, and what made them succesful? (The first "dark" dances that pop into my head aren't ballets, but the work of Paul Taylor, dances like Last Look) I think Forsythe and works like In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated should enter into the discussion as well.

To respond to your other question, is an artist obligated to maintain the integrity of the inspiring work? Well, I'd say an artist has a right to make changes (assuming the idea is in the public domain), with the caveat that you need to take your lumps if you can't make a case for your alterations and people get in an awfully sour mood at an unsuccesful adaptation.

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What about the grand mythological ballets of the 18th century? And Bourrnonville's historical ballets -- Valdemar (everyone dies except the heroine who goes into a convent rather than marry her one true love) or the Valkyrie?

They were very popular and the plots were certainly bloodthirsty. They still had divertissements -- something for the "groundlings" which were pure dance, and the speeches were mimed. Noverre believed that dancing could express nothing except itself -- very modern, that. And Bournonville said that dancing could express only joy. Hence, dancing was saved for the weddings, whether they were of the happy peasants before they were slaughtered, or the happy soldiers after the slaughtering.

Some of Fokine's ballets were dark -- Thamar. Scheherezade isn't exactly cuddly.

Tudor tried to adapt classical language to turn inward. Ashton made twilight, if not DARK ballets -- Enigma Variations and A Month in the Country. Unless you count the nods when they're introduced to each other, there isn't any mime in "Month" but the story is told clearly, and character is developed through classical dancing -- and it's turned out, turned outward, not inward. Ashton's characters express introspection while turned out.

I think one of the mid and late 20th century problems is Romeo and Juliet syndrome. Everything has to be about love. Lots and lots of pas de deux and heroic lifts.

Back to the 18th century, where the ballets had themes touching on all other human emotions -- jealousy, betrayal, war, matricide, greed. With what has been learned in the intervening two centuries about the possibilities of classical ballet, maybe it's time to take another look at the full range of human emotions.

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I think Swan LAke is dark --

the idealism that's at hte core of it is not easy, and it's pitted against a very strong power -- it's kind of like the Lord of hte Rings , or the Ring of the Nibelungen, the forces of heaviness, fear, doom are overwhelmingly powerful in it --

I formed my taste on the Royal Ballet production, which is heavily influenced by Hamlet-- the prince is weak....the likelihood of not being able to break through the spells of the "seeming-virtuous" is great......

Rothbart, as danced by Derek Rencher, was a very powerful presence, like gravity, he could wear you down........ The swan queen could not prevail against him by herself. He was by far the greatest Rothbart I've ever seen, the only one I could take seriously -- like the Capulets in Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet, who're also incredibly powerful, HEAVY men....... That one is dark, too, very dark..... I admire Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet more than I can say. Its a very great ballet.......

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Why hasn't Kenneth Macmillan been brought up yet? If its darkness and morbidity you want, Mayerling is a real doozy. I still have a vivid image in my mind of Prince Rudolph showing skulls, guns, and such to all of his many sex partners, who react accordingly. If you get sick of all those namby-pamby lovey-dovey pas de deux, this is your ballet.:)

The Invitation is equally qualified here, with not one but two rapes, both involving youngsters being violated by both parties of a VERY dysfunctional marriage.

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Another example coming to mind is Tudor's "Dark elegies" (but, to my regret, I've never seen it) and to some extent "Lilac Garden" (it deals with love, but isn't exactly a happy story...)

Also there's Jooss' "The Green Table", but it's not really ballet (though it has often been performed by ballet companies).

There is some "darkness" in some works by Roland Petit, like in "Le jeune homme et la mort" (ending with a suicide), "Le rendez-vous" (ending with a murder), "Carmen" (a murder too- and each time it'st the fault of the "femme fatale"!)

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Let's not forget Tudor's "An Echoing of Trumpets."

I only saw bits of it on a video documentary about Tudor, but the brief excerpts were enough to make me want to slit my wrists. All I could think was that it was clear that Tudor had found his perfect milieu in Sweden (where the documentary was filmed). If anything, Tudor's work was even gloomier than Bergman's.

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Is an artist/choreographer obligated (ethically, or in any other way) to maintain the integrity of the original work when translating it to another form (from legends to dance to television mini-series to whatever)?

From my standpoint as a choreographer, Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" offers a fantastic lesson in craft. What I mean is that there are basic "rules" of classical craft that extend across literature, music, dance, painting, etc (simply put, state the point, develop the point, render a conclusion). Irving was able to use this form, but tampered with it slightly (and wildly successfully) by creating an ending that asks the reader to make his/her own choice about how the story ends. Hence, the reader gets to draw his/her own conclusions as to how the story ends - dark or light.

Now to your point...

Ballet, historically, has taken a broad license with literature. If one were to re-read "Sleepy Beauty", "Romeo and Juliet", "Manon", "Nutcracker" etc., and then view those ballets, significant differences could be noted in each. There are a myriad of reasons for this, not the least of which is the taking of a sort of "artistic license" in the adaptations from print to stage or screen. In Irving's "Sleepy Hollow" his structure actually forces a decision to be individually made by the reader, choreographer, film director, playwright. A second point about why these ballets, including mine, have veered from the original stories is that not all that is able to be understood in writing can be transferred to choreography in an easily understandable way. Portraying the essence of an idea is easy enough, an exacting detail is sometimes impossible without words. I'm certain other posters will be able to add to this list.

Finally, ethics...hmmm...

If ethics are how we should act and react based on a commonly held historical peer consensus as to what is "right" and what is "wrong", then adapting a piece of literature to ballet has ethics on its side. Broad strokes have continually been taken in both the adaptations of literature and in the restagings of these ballets. <-There's a whole can of worms right there! If ethics are, however, based upon the original intent of the artist, then I think that ethics are violated on a daily basis in dance and all of the other art forms.

Just some thoughts...


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As Paul mentioned, Swan Lake is dark, and it's the most popular ballet of all.

The examples that have been given so far have all been of narrative ballets, but many non-narrative ballets are dark. Think of Balanchine's La Valse (which, like Swan Lake, owes its popularity to—yes, a great score, but also to its luxuriating in tragedy), Davidsbündlertänze, Symphony in Three Movements (a dark ballet despite the energetic prancing of the corps), Pavane, Kammermusik #2, Metamorphosis (from what I've read of it), Variations for a Door and a Sigh, Meditation, Gaspard de la Nuit; portions of Ivesiana, Stravinsky Violin Concerto (the two pas de deux), Duo Concertante, Tchaikovsky Suite 3, as well as the narrative ballets Prodigal Son, Orpheus, La Sonnambula, and Don Quixote. And a lot of Robbins: Opus 19/The Dreamer, The Age of Anxiety, Dybbuk Variations, In Memory Of, In the Night, Ives Songs, Les Noces, and the narrative The Cage.

All of these ballets were created in the classical idiom, with no borrowings from modern dance. So I disagree with Leigh about classicism being almost never dark.

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To the question of whether a ballet has to respect the intention of the original source, I would say definitely not. Great artists have cribbed ideas and changed them all the time. Making a light comedy of Don Quixote is fine, as far as I'm concerned, as long as it is a good comedy.

In terms of dark themes or characters, I think part of the problem is the current all dancing, all the time mentality. There needs to be a contrast between the two types, and earlier ballets found it when the bad guys were mimed, it seems to me. Having Carabosse prance around on point like a Lilac Fairy in black is not nearly as impressive as having a really good mime with heavey, measured gestures. That is one of the reasons, I think, that the ABT Corsaire fails so completely to be convincing. Birbanto dances just like everyone else, and is utterly unthreatening.

Echoing of Trumpets is a staggering ballet, very powerful, but not gloatingly salacious like Macmillan's are (at least to me.) To some extent there is a triumph there, because despite everything, there are people who can work together to combat evil. It's not one I would want to see every night, but I hope it doesn't disappear.

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Echoing of trumpeets had a fantastic success here , performed by that amazing Oakland Balleet -- Ronn Guidi was a nexasperating director, but in retrospect,LOOK at hte ballets he gave his dancers and hte Oakland community -- from Les Noces, and 5 other Nijinska ballets, through Fall River Legend (which when danced by dancers who aren't ashamed to be dancing such an old-fashioned ballet noir, turns out to be the sort of thing Martha Graham would have done in the classical idiom, it was terrifying, especially hte dream-sequence where Lizzie confronted her weakling mother) --

and so on --

Joy GIm, who had a fabulous technique, a magnificent instrument, and a great power in presenting dark emotinos -- she did hte hand of fate, and the dangerous woman in Lilac Garden, and Myrtha, and many others, was just searing in Echoing of Trumpets......

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Originally posted by cargill

Echoing of Trumpets is a staggering ballet, very powerful, but not gloatingly salacious like Macmillan's are (at least to me.) ]

I just have to say that is the best description of what I feel about Macmillan I have ever come across ( including my own descriptons).

As long as I am now in this topic:About dark/light: you have to consider whether you are talking about music, events in media res, endings (you might say Macbeth has a happy ending in that order is restored, and Duncan's sons take charge), or what not. ( I think Romeo and Juliet is always dark, what with the dead teenagers littering the stage, but I suppose the romantic stuff, and god forbid the happy hooker stuff, is "light." ) Do we mean tragic/comic for light and dark? Are we talking about tone, or some qualities of movement? (Can one sylph about being tragic?) It's all very interesting to think about.The darkest works I've seen were modern dances, to be sure: Taylor's Last Look, Tharp's Fait Accompli, Bausch's Cafe Mueller, et.al. The moderns don't go in for that curtain fall apotheosis stuff--no swanboats in sight.The darkest ballet I have ever seen was Edward II (it was dark night for the entire art form), but let's not go there.

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