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So what is an American ballet?

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What better time to ask that question than near independence day?

Ninette de Valois's formula for a National Ballet company prescribes 1/4 works of a national character among the mix of repertory. Some choices (like Rodeo) are obvious, but I'd argue that Agon is as American (or at least as New York) as Rodeo is American.

What makes a ballet American to you? Non-Americans welcome in the discussion! :D

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If it's programmatic, American stories certainly don't hurt in making a ballet American. In the case of Stars & Stripes, there is a central theme (definitely American) that unifies the whole. Funny thing about S & S, it's American, but in the same way that the composer was: Sousa had been a cello player in Jacques Offenbach's tour of the US, and his music shows off in the Offenbach manner right to the end of his life, but it's been Americanized, with a lot of energy that even Offenbach at his can-canniest couldn't maintain. The music drives the "American" qualities.

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I think the Americana ballets are obvious, the American music (jazz included) makes it American.

And pretty much all of Robbins I find to be very American (especially The Concert)

I think most of Balanchine's pieces were created during very political years in American history, and I think that's subtly underlined in his pieces (like Agon and 4 T's)

I think in order to see the American you have to look at pieces that are very un-American (like Bayadere or even Theme) to appreciate it.

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I agree with Calliope, the music has a major influence. Who Cares? could not be set anywhere but NY.......

one of the hallmarks of "American" for me is also realism........sylphs, fantastical beings , folklore, et al. figure more prominently in other cultural depictions than they do in American ballet....with the exception of a good deal of Alvin Ailey's work.....

Interestingly, I don't think of Mark Morris as particularly "American" in his body of work....

(I'm trying to stick to ballet as a focus...)

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I was an American studies major as an undergraduate and we used to kick "what is American about..." around a lot. I don't think it's just the music, because Robbins' ballets to Chopin and Tchaikovsky look American, and Balanchine's Western Symphony is Americana, to me, but is a son-of-Petipa ballet.

I think Juliet's point about realism is a good one. (As an aside that may not be uninteresting, our first gothic novel, the name of which I forget, had to have scientific underpinnings. No statues with bloody noses here -- a la Walpole -- but spontaneous combustion, with a footnote as to its possibility. We don't do fantasy well.)

I think any ballet by an American will have some American footprint in it (any modern dance, too; I don't think Morris's works would be mistaken for Russian or French).

Balanchine's works, even the jazzy ones, remain European, to me. An outsider's view of a culture he knew well, although I think Who Cares? is 95% American :D Tudor remained an Englishman. I don't think you can change your background. And DeMille is an American even when her subject matter is not -- Three Virgins and a Devil. (Cheekiness, a slangy quality to the movement.)



Fancy Free

Stars and Stripes

Since Balanchine programmed "Stars and Stripes" on the 4th of July, or other patriotic moments (when the hostages were freed, I believe), even during the decade when patriotism was Absolutely Out, I'd have to let it be on a National Fourth program, but I still think it's Russian, an idealization of America :)

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I don't have my copy of Repertory in Review here, but when Who Cares? had its premiere, wasn't it rather panned by most critics, who thought Balanchine totally missed the point of the Gerswhin music, and his jazzy chorines and majorettes existed more in his own Russian fantasies than in any "real" America?

I think time has shown who knew better.

So Balanchine wasn't born here. So what? America's culture has always been built on assimilating "foreign" influences -- or at least it has been in some places. It wasn't for nothing that Balanchine's company is the New York City Ballet, which is not quite the same as the American National Ballet, is it?

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I think many of Balanchine's ballets are very American, not in terms of "subject matter" (which is often unclear), but in the style. In Agon, for instance, the Americanness lies in the notion of competition as a life force and a joy. Similarly, the cocky, street-smart boys of Rubies always look Brooklyn to me, even when they're danced by Russians or Frenchmen, and there's something brave-new-worldish about 4 Ts.

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I think some of that might be the influence of jazz on the movement style and the movement timing. Agon, for instance, has both a jazzy timing to it (which has been diluted as time goes by because it isn't in the bodies of the dancers of the present) and a soft-shoe style to the movement (ditto). Both are part of the American vernacular of music and dance. Agon has always felt very urban to me - very New York. I can see the twelve dancers running and switching places at the end of the opening dodging traffic and hailing cabs. The reentry of all the principals after the pas de deux has always reminded me of West Side Story! It has New York's pulse written into it. New York may not be all of America, but it is certainly a part of it!

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Two "Americana" ballets I wouldn't mind seeing again: DeMille's Texas Fourth (Rebecca Wright's big role at ABT), and, dare I say it, Arpino's Drums, Dreams and Banjos. At the time I thought the idea of a ballet to the wildly sentimental and somewhat hokey Stephen Foster was beyond silly. And silly it may have been, but I've grown fond of Foster, and I'd like to see the ballet again with somewhat more grown-up eyes.

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Manhattnik, John Neumeier created a ballet, "Yondering", on some songs by Stephen C. Foster. It had been created for the National Ballet School of Canada in 1996, and I saw it danced by the Paris Opera Ballet School. I was not entirely convinced by the choreography (much ensemble work and little individuality for the dancers), but I really loved the songs (I had never heard it before). But I think that the style of the POB school might not have been well-suited to the kind of "boyish" style required by that work.

Would "Fall River Legend" qualify as typically American too? At least because of its plot...

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I always thought of Tudor as an American choreographer although his nationality was British. Perhaps it is because the core of his repertory was performed in the US, some of it made in the US using American themes, and performed by American dancers. I also feel that Balanchine's repertory was determined by the type of dancers he developed and choreographed upon. (Imagine if Balanchine had stayed in Paris after Ballet Russes, or South America!) When I danced in Holland at NDT I felt that Kylian's work was American because 50% of the company were Americans. Forsythe's work looks so right on American dancers. I guess what I'm saying is that American dancers and American vision determine American ballet. Anyway, to take that a step further, I feel that the old Joffrey Ballet of New York (1967- until the move to Chicago) personified for me American ballet. American dancers, American director, American repertory, American vision.


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