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"Progress" and Ballet

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During the recent broadcast of the Diamond Project, Peter Martin mentioned that... there must be progress in ballet. That comment caused me to wonder, just WHAT IS PROGRESS in terms of ballet? Do you have any ideas on it?

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I think this is a good question, but I don't even have a bad answer :) I honestly don't think one can predict progress, because great artists aren't predictable. The only thing I think one can be sure of is that the next artistic leader will be doing something that no one predicts :) Either something completely different, or (as Balanchine and Ashton did) reinventing something very old into something that looks of its time, i.e., now.

One of the problems inherent in classical ballet is that nearly every narrative work in other fields (literature, theater) created after World War II looks inward, explores the inner life of its characters, and often the dark side of life. Classical ballet, by its nature, doesn't do that. It looks out of the body (turn out); contractions were for modern dance. Several choreographers, from the great (Tudor, say) to the less than great have tried to use this in ballet, but I don't think this dichotomy has ever been satisfactorily resolved. Balanchine did it by skipping narrative and going straight to the soul/mind; Ashton did it by, mostly, telling stories from other times and plotless ballets that dealt with ideals.

Perhaps when a contemporary choreographer says "we must progress" that can be taken to mean "we must accept my works and not that old guy's that everybody compares me to." :)

What I see in new ballets is either A) people trying to do the opposite of what has been done (the "stand classicism on its ear" schtick) or, more usually, B) making derivations of what has been done.

If anyone is braver than I am, though, and would like to make predictions, please do!!! :)

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Okay, I'll be brave. :)

I think that a really big change in ballet will be when a female choreographer of genuine talent is courageous enough to make a ballet from a woman's point of view. That is, focusing on the male dancers as the objects of love/desire rather than the female ones, and using the female dancers as surrogates for themselves. (That's a huge generalization about the way choreographers use the sexes; I know there's much more to it than that.) Female choreographers working with men might be able to look at them afresh and see physical and dramatic possibilities that male choreographers haven't. They might well be able to expand the ballet vocabulary for men, too. There hasn't been a lot of movement in this area beyond virtuoso tricks.

Until now, female choreographers working in classical ballet have usually followed the male model. I'd like to see them break it. :)

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ARI, your answer was quite a surprise!! Having a typical male point of view, I thought that the female side was already being expressed in Ballet! But surely you have to be right here since choreography has been dominated by males in the past and if a female does choreography, she usually has to have it accepted by a male.

I surely want to see a ballet that shows the female point of view. That would be essential to a balanced view of life. We must see both sides. Very interesting answer Ari.

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I don't know that ballet needs "progress". I think the audience is just different now.

Suzanne Farell said in an interview once ..“It seems to me that now audiences sit there judging,” she says. “What I want is that your performance is so exciting that they’re on the edge of their seats and participating instead of scrutinizing. I think we lost that edge; we got more technical, but maybe not more interesting.”

Interestingly enough, in the new Ballet Review, there's an interview with Peter Boal and he talks about working with Suzanne and how she would dance the male role, he said most others just tell you. (on a sidenote there's a nice nod to our own Leigh)

I think progress might come from revisiting the past. Much like the Kirov is doing going back to the "original" versions of ballets.

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Beethoven dealt with this question throughout his life, and with ever-increasing intensity, and density, in his later works.

Today, his Missa Solemnis still seems wildly inventive. People still have not figured out everything that is going on there. For example, the use of ancient Greek modes (forward to the past, jadies and lentilmen !) integrated into our own well-tempered tonal system, so as to create what a friend of mine has just described as "hitherto unknown keys", which I think does express the concept.

Our friend Beethoven could do that, because he was a master of the laws of composition. You can see a note written in his own hand, "Bach, der Urvater der Harmonie" - Bach, the true and original father of harmony. He never said, nor thought, that he would get rid of all that, the advances made by the musical scientists before him.

Classical ballet is, in a way, the child of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. It is still in its infancy, as a dramatic form. In terms of its technique, the thrilling breakthroughs Gaetano Vestris made teaching at the Paris Opera in the 1810s and 20s have never, never been fully exploited, and certainly never surpassed, notably his work on épaulement, and the steps of great elevation.

To see a Bournonville enchaînement is for me at least, a moment of the keenest artistic excitement, my head spins - I am projected back to that very moment in time, when Vestris and his co-thinkers, forced technique ahead and thereby heaved classical ballet up onto the path that had been carved out by Leonardo.

We have only just begun. To move forward, we have got to master what Vestris was teaching then. There's no way round it.

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Katharine, seriously, how can we go back to the time of Vestris, even if we wanted to? Great artists never go back -- Beethoven didn't "go back" to Bach. Often great artists examine the ideals, and even the forms, of past great movements in art, yes, but in dance that's nigh well impossible since we do not know what those ballets looked like. We can read, we can imagine, but we will never know.

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Perhaps Peter Martins wants ballets to be created today that you can just tell will continue to be danced long into the future. New classics need to be choreographed. Opera has the same problem. There are a lot of new works being done but getting them on stage for a second run or even third run is almost impossible. Companies and audiences are willing to create new work but no one seems to be willing to keep the creation alive.

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As much as I and many, many people would love to see a renaissance of brilliant choreography being created in the presence for posterity, what I see happening is the creation of second- and third-rate works, only for those to be trumpeted as "modern classics"--often by the same people who commission them, or even by the choreographers themselves. (No names.) Frankly, I'd rather wait out the current drought than have posterity be inundated with these so-called masterpieces. Calling something--or someone--the torchbearer for a new generation of ballets and choreographers does not make it automatically true. There is simply no way to pick out what the true progress of ballet is right in the moment that it is happening. Hindsight, as they say, is 20-20.

To be brutally honest, I would rest easier knowing that none of the works in the Diamond Project broadcast, especially those by Martins, would be danced very far into the future. If that's truly what constitutes progress, I'll pass.:)

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