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Cultural Divides?

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We've come to the conclusion on several issues (choreographers, styles, tastes) that certain things are just "cultural divides" - they love it there and we don't get it here (whereever here and there are. . .)

So what are a few of those cultural divides and anyone have any thoughts about them?

I'll name a few:

Béjart and his progeny (Eifman, Ullate)

Alexandra just mentioned Grigorovich.

The way the Russians costume Albrecht (both the Kirov and the Bolshoi Albrechts have that Norma Desmond cloche with the jewel. . . It's got to be a cultural divide! biggrin.gif )

Balanchine once was. That seems to have disappeared.

Does anyone think fondness for Macmillan is a cultural divide? I don't see the supporters and detractors split by nations. . .

So, what are some "cultural divides" you've noticed and why do you think they exist?


Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

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Perhaps, at one time, Lifar...(Estelle -- if you are reading this -- you might know more about his past and present reputation; I'm under the impression he has been taken more seriously in France than elsewhere...)

Also, for some fans there is still a divide across Lincoln Center Plaza. I have sat next to NYCB subscribers -- during Martins' Swan Lake yet -- proudly telling me they would never go to ABT because the productions (of the classics presumably) are just a bunch of people walking around. Speaking for myself, I have always been puzzled as to why Russian ballerinas seem so fond of offering The Dying Swan as a gala piece...

Sometimes -- my own examples may be evidence of this -- "cultural divides" really amount to a kind of provincialism or insularity. Denby has a hilarious passage about national styles (sorry, this is from memory) in which he says that all ballet fans the world over agree that there are two "best" most wonderful styles in ballet -- one is the Russian and the other is, well, gee, that of their own national school. Denby adds that he never argues, since -- in a manner of speaking -- that's his opinion too.

[This message has been edited by Drew (edited October 07, 2000).]

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Based on the critical reaction, it looks like David Bintley marks a new cultural divide! The recent review in one of the Chicago Papers, I forget which one, was definitely tepid about the all Jazz, mostly Bintly evening. I would also add Bejart, who has never been particularly well-received in England or the US. And Neumier, who is generally panned in the US.

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San Diego once had a pretty terrific ballet season for the great companies. It featured about 6-8 companies from around the world - all ballet. They also had a modern dance season. Some brilliant person in their scheduling office decided to combine the two seasons - both modern and ballet. So - the next year - both bombed. The cultural divide between modern and ballet - was more like a canyon - never to be crossed. The ballet people were not about to buy tickets to modern dance - nor vice versa.

The cultural divide that fascinates me is the one that labels people as "cultured". When people learn that I enjoy classical music, opera and ballet - they label me cultured. I am not sure what that means - except I am quite sure it isn't me. It's just stuff I enjoy. Doesn't mean that I never listen to music from musicals or even some classical rock. Doesn't mean that I don't enjoy folk dance - which I do, very much. In August I went to a Johnny Mathis concert - and just loved it. He is a favorite of mine.

o.k. I just looked it up in the dictionary - cultured means "refined taste". Well, what is that? Liking ballet rather than hip-hop is just a matter of personal preference, no more and no less.

[This message has been edited by ORZAK (edited October 07, 2000).]

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I don't have any problem with the notion of refined versus popular taste. I don't mean to advocate categorizing people by their tastes, nor trying to be Charlie the Tuna (the TV commercial character who was always listening to classical music and wearing a beret so you'd think he was a great painting so that he'd be thought to have "good taste.") But I'll probably have a lot more in common, generally, with someone who listens to classical music than someone who listens to bluegrass. The bluegrass listener may well be a far better person than either of us and get to Heaven sooner. It's a different question. (Not meaning to imply that Orzak was saying otherwise.)

I do think Americans often have a problem with the very idea of good taste and high culture. I remember when Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition (and it made the TV news!) how much was made of it. People who usually said, "American jazz and pop music is just as good as that old-fashioned European stuff" were suddenly saying, "Yeah, so we're better. We've got better schools and soon Americans are going to be winning that competition every year." I was a young piano student at the time, and both attitudes bothered me. What was wrong with an American playing the piano? Why was it suddenly okay if he won?

I think we (in the most general terms) still have an inferiority complex about fine art. We're beginning to be more relaxed about it in literature, because we have a lot of very good writers -- though no Shakespeare. (I'm not going to stop writing because I'll never write a line 1/10th as good as Shakespeare did, but I'm not going to try to tell you that my writing is as good or better, either.)

I adored the Beatles when I was in high school -- and Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and the Stones, and some lesser lights whom I can't remember now. But I always knew it was "kid" music and not on the same level as Beethoven or even Liszt (to name an out-of-fashion classical composer)--and frankly, that was part of the pleasure. We liked it that adults hated it.

I think the cultural divide issue is fascinating, but it's very hard to pin down. It's not country: all French people don't love Bejart, all Americans don't hate him. I know Americans who love MacMillan ballets and Britons who don't. Neumeier, loved by Germans and Danes and often hated by Americans, is an American.

It's not age. I know people in their 60s who think "Sleeping Beauty" is dumb, and people in their 20s who think it's one of the great achievements of Western art.

It's not class, although it is often a matter of education (not number of years in institutions, but what one was exposed to during education). There are many great artists from extremely poor backgrounds. On an old PBS special on "China," I remember one segment where an 8-year-old boy in the poorest neighborhood in Beijing, without any previous exposure to art, was becoming a great classical painter. He saw an example in school, he loved it, he instinctively understood it, and he began to paint as though he'd been bred in a 14th century Chinese court. In ballet, as I'm sure many of you know, Nureyev, who walked on stage as though he'd been trained by Louix XIV, grew up in a hut shared by three families.

I think it's all frame of reference, what you've been exposed to and what you've seen. In dance, we're *all* provincials, even someone who's 85 and has gone to the ballet 8 times a week since he was six hasn't seen everything. Without wanting to get into postmodern gaze theory, we do develop "eyes" -- Balanchine eyes, Bolshoi eyes. We feel most comfortable with the style we see most frequently -- the look of the dancers, the structure of the choreography we see the most frequently, the way the dancers phrase music, dozens of things we don't even think about make up an image that we see, and we match new things against that image. Living in Washington, without a resident company with an insistent presence, I thought I'd avoid having company-specific eyes (ah, hubris), but I'd managed to develop half-old-Royal, half-NYCB eyes somehow. When I started studying Danish ballet, many of the Danish dance photos looked too placid, too static to me. One day, I looked at a photo, and realized I now thought it was beautiful. What I once had dismissed as static I now saw as harmonious (this took three years!) I am now "bilingual" when it comes to Danish classicism. I understand why New Yorkers think it's static, and I understand why Danes think it's beautiful.

I think we all have a natural taste -- what we bring to the party when we first come into the room. My background was in theater and film and music. I had been taught to analyze literature and music and to discuss differences in performance in film and theater. I brought those skills and prejudices with me. The first year that I saw ballet, I "naturally" loved Ashton and Bournonville and the Royal Ballet's way of dancing Petipa. I loved it so much that I assumed it was the *right* way to dance Petipa, and disliked the Kirov's Petipa productions when I first saw them -- it took me three days to adjust (intellectually I knew this was silly, but it's the way I saw). I did not love Balanchine at first sight. I liked some ballets very much -- the ones to familiar music. This was fine until I became a critic (far too early). I realized I could not write about Balanchine without making a concerted effort to understand what he was about and why so many other people thought he was a great choreogrpaher. So I went to every performance of NYCB (three weeks worth) and stood and watched, and read about the ballets before I went and read about them again when I came home. By the end of the three weeks, I still didn't love every ballet, but I understood him. (I don't mean to suggest that everyone needs to do this. Just offering it as example of the old taste/judgment dichotomy.)

Leigh, I still think Balanchine is a cultural divide. You live in New York and most of the people you know, I'll wager, know and like Balanchine. There's an article in the Arizona Republic today trying to explain Balanchine to a public who's used to Michael Uthoff. There's a cultural divide there.

Drew, I definitely think, in New York, there is a cultural divide between ABT and NYCB. I also know people who won't cross that Plaza. However, many old-time NYCBers were rabid Royal Ballet fans what Arlene Croce called "the high 60s." So it's not as simple as abstract ballet versus narrative.

[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited October 08, 2000).]

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Guest Mr. B Fan

Could the critics also play a part in this? Sometimes I read reviews and wonder whether or not the ballets were as "bad" as they were. I think critics also play a big part in what's "hot" and what's not. Which also influences people (sad to say, but it does). I always wished the newspapers would just import someone else's reviews instead of sending their own critics to the performances. I get tired of reading Kisselgoff in the NY Times and no matter who she sees, they often get compared to NYCB. It's frustrating. So I try not to read criticism, but sometimes it's hard to keep up. That's why a sight like this is precious, nobody's getting paid to write here!!!

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Sorry, but I have to intervene here. I don't know where you get your idea of what motivates critics, but I protest vigorously that money has anything to do with it. That's like saying this dancer dances better than that one because she's paid more. Whatever Kisselgoff's faults, they're not related to money, and I assure you that the critics who write on this site write what they think whether they're paid or not.

Critics are part of the climate of opinion, surely, but we only have the power you give us. If people want to study ballet appreciation seriously, then they will probably read a number of critics, as well as other sources (dancers' memoires, interviews, biographies, etc.) Put all of that together and you'll have a frame of reference in which to view the daily newspaper coverage.

As in all things, perceptions differ. In my circles, the daily critics tend to be seen as saying "everything is beautiful at the ballet" much more than "all ballets are bad."

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Guest Mr. B Fan

I don't think I said anything about money. I merely stated that Kisselgoff goes to other troupe's performances and often compares them to NYCB.

Of course you could do a bunch of research and form your own opinions.

What I was asking was do critics help to form the general publics view of culture?

If you read Kisselgoff, she loves whatever NYCB seems to do. If you read Joan Acello, she tends to be more "fair" in her criticism by backing up her opinions. I'm just suggesting that maybe some people pick up the Times and say that NYCB seems to get reviewed more often, maybe they're bettter than ABT.

Nothing more than that.

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Originally posted by Drew:

Perhaps, at one time, Lifar...(Estelle -- if you are reading this -- you might know more about his past and present reputation; I'm under the impression he has been taken more seriously in France than elsewhere...)

Well, I probably am not very competent to write about it, since I started being interested years after Lifar's death... But from what I have read, yes, as you wrote, Lifar was taken far more seriously in France than in other countries- at least, as a choreographer. As a director, I think that most people (in France and abroad) agree that the level of the company improved under his directorship, and that he developed some bright dancers (especially Chauvire). Also, for example, I read that it was him who obtained that the lights of the Paris Opera were switched off during the ballets (before, they still were on- many people seemed to attend performances just to see the rest of the audience...).

As a choreographer, in the 40s-50s-60s he seems to have been very popular in France (and gained much critical appraisal), and was "the" classical French choreographer. Now the situation is quite different, and it seems that he's sinking into oblivion (the last full Lifar program at the POB was ten years ago, and many of the dancers who worked with him passed away) - not a good thing in my opinion (I've only seen "Suite en blanc", and while I wouldn't consider him as a great genius, I found that ballet quite good, and it should be a company's duty to try to preserve its heritage). One of the only people who still seems interested in preserving his works is Claude Bessy, the director of the POB school (who danced many of his ballets when she was a POB principal),

who staged several of this ballets for the school.

Another "cultural divide" coming to my mind is musical comedies. While they seem quite popular in UK and in the US, in France all attemps to stage musical comedies were failures, except the recent success of "Starmania" and "Notre-Dame de Paris".

A way to notice such "cultural divides" is reading books about dance history written by authors from different countries. Of course sometimes it just shows the authors' particular biases or tastes, but sometimes there are differences which are quite striking. For example, in several such French books, Ashton and MacMillan aren't even mentioned (and in general, there are very few

things about the Royal Ballet). But such differences may depend on the period too (French books of the 70s were more likely to include long, enthusiastic pages about Bejart than recent ones).

Alexandra, what you wrote about your experience was very interesting.

One of the enjoyable things of this site is that there are people from many different places and backgrounds, and it's interesting to see how opinions differ sometimes (and also, for me, to compare what I read here and what I read in the French press, for example). And for example, I'm quite sure that if I hadn't read many reviews of NYCB performances on this site before seeing the company in Edinburgh last summer, my vision would have been quite different (and perhaps I would have enjoyed it less- at least, thanks to all the comments I had read, all that sounded a bit less unfamiliar to me...)

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Mr. B Fan, I was responding to your "nobody gets paid to write here" and the implications of that. I should add that newspaper critics have a fraction of the space that magazine critics have (I write for both) and it is absolutely impossible to analyze a work, comment on the dancing, AND give all of your reasons in a 12 or 15 inch review (which is luxurious, nearly 500 words).

Estelle, a few years ago there was an attempt by the European Union to write a history of Europe. The greatest historians for each country contributed material. Then they all sat down together. Napoleon was a HUGE cultural divide. The French historian wrote of a great man of the people, a hero who united France with maybe a few personality flaws here and there, but still a hero. The English had a slightly different view (I don't believe the Russians were invited). France had a different take on Bismarck than did the Germans. Et cetera.

I have a European dance encyclopedia -- published by an American publisher, but obviously written by Europeans. It's a summary of the great ballets of the 20th century. I hadn't seen, or heard of, most of them. Late Massine works (in the 1960s and '70s). Lots of Bejart -- much more than Balanchine. Ashton is barely mentioned. It's quite interesting.

The great lost French choreographer, I think, is Leo Staats. Balanchine admired him. I have a few colleagues who saw some of his ballets when they were still in repertory in the 1950s. I've only seen (on tape) Soir de Fete -- I hope that's the right name -- that the company revived a few seasons ago. I loved it. It has a totally different structure from Petipa/Balanchine, which made it very interesting to me, AND it's a similar structure to what Ashton used in Les Patineurs and Les Rendezvous, which makes me wonder if he was not influenced by Staats (remember that Ashton didn't grow up in a great academy and had no models for classical choreography.) I understand, though, that it was just seen as a cute little bauble, not a serious revival.

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Originally posted by alexandra:

Napoleon was a HUGE cultural divide.

Oh, that's a great example of cultural divide

(even though I think that opinions probably are more nuanced now than before). And for example, it's a bit odd for a French person to read Forester's "Captain Hornblower" stories (it takes place during the French Revolution and Napoleon period, and the main character is a captain in the Royal Navy)-

Napoleon is depicted as if he was almost Hitler's twin (and the French have nice boats but are incredibly messy, etc.)

I have a European dance encyclopedia -- published by an American publisher, but obviously written by Europeans.  It's a summary of the great ballets of the 20th century.  I hadn't seen, or heard of, most of them.  Late Massine works (in the 1960s and '70s).  Lots of Bejart -- much more than Balanchine.  Ashton is barely mentioned.  It's quite interesting.

That doesn't surprise me much- that seems quite close to what I often have read... Even now, Ashton still is almost unknown in France. It was partly thanks to this site that I understood how important a choreographer he was. Do you remember the names of the authors?

The great lost French choreographer, I think, is Leo Staats.

I saw that revival of "Soir de fete" when it was revived in 1997. I liked it (and the music was quite lovely), but had the feeling that I was lacking some clues to fully appreciate it. As you wrote, the revival didn't sound very "serious": I don't think that the company will dance it again soon...

To get back on topic: I agree about Neumeier being an example of "cultural divide", he seems to be far more popular and respected in France and Germany than in the US (I don't know about UK).

Some cultural divides may change with time: Leigh mentioned Balanchine, and also there are examples in modern dance (the first French tour of the Graham Dance Company in the 50s was a failure, while their tours in the late 80s and 90s were very successful...)

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I think the biggest "cultural divide" in ballet is between those audience members who love the pyrotechnical, acrobatic, circus trick side of dance performances, and those who actually dislike that element, and the crowd's surefire ecstatic response to it, intensely.

It's more than a cultural divide. It becomes an outright cultural animosity sometimes.

In support of Mr. B Fan's comment (not that he/she needs my support) I also feel that newspaper and magazine critics often have a subtle, quasi-political agenda and bias, and what I love about this web site is that this site provides the antidote - access to an informed more wide-spread opinion.

But why shouldn't critics have bias? Everyone, absolutey everyone comes at things with a bias. Even on this site, you get to know who generally likes what. About all you can expect from anyone is that the viewer/commentator actually be aware of their own bias, be out front about it, and/or try to compensate for it.

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A friend has sent me long e-mails about a British historian named Hamilton-Williams who is presently attempting to right the balance of British historiography on the subject of Napoleon -- not exactly ballet history, but meant, as it were, as thanks to Estelle for responding on the subject of Lifar (along with other reflections).

I very strongly agree with what Alexandra has written about audiences developing certain "eyes." For similar reasons, seeing a great ballerina for the first time can sometimes be almost disconcerting. It can take a few performances before you "get" what she is doing. . .(I had an English, primarily RAD trained, ballet teacher who seemed to find watching Suzanne Farrell a slightly painful experience -- even when he admired what she was doing. That may be too obvious an example, since Farrell was, in some ways the antithesis of the RAD style . . . I admit -- somewhat shamefaced -- that it took me more than one performance to "get" Assymulratova, and I'm still not sure how her name is spelled.)

[This message has been edited by Drew (edited October 09, 2000).]

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Guest Mr. B Fan

The comment of being paid was that nobody (to my knowledge) gets paid to post on this board. Not what they do for their line of work.

I however, disagree with how much print you have dictates the message that comes across. I'd guess about 70% of the audience reading the critique is trying to make the decision of whether or not to go and perhaps see a performer or company. (or in some cases, justify what they saw) It's like a movie review. Sometimes I'll see 1/2 a star and I won't bother to go see the film. Is that always the right approach? No. But when it comes to plunking down the money, most people go with what they've heard or read, unless they're knowledgable and in most cases already have an expectation.

The money comment was simply stated to say that's it's nice to read reviews and opinions on a website like this where I know a byline or a paycheck doesn't matter. The opinions are simply that, opinions.

[This message has been edited by Mr. B Fan (edited October 09, 2000).]

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In New York, there is definitely a Cultural Divide between New York City Ballet fans and ABT fans. For some reason, City Ballet people (at least when I was growing up) would go to the Royal, but not to ABT.

Heck, I'm going to go to ABT. The World Series should be over by then.

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