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Ballet Libretti

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This is a perennial discussion here, and one worth having perennially.

Do you have a favorite story ballet?

What, in your opinion, makes a successful story ballet?

What makes a story adapt well to a ballet? Which adaptations do you consider successful and why? Which aren't, and why?

There are many genres of story ballets as well, maybe we should take a whack at trying to identify the types out there, and as importantly, how they relate to ballet. Mayerling uses ballet for a different purpose than Swan Lake. . .or does it? What you you think?

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Okay, there are so many... but I'll keep it to just three. I like ballets that I can get lost in.

Sleeping Beauty because it is just so "big" and beautiful and I love Tchaikovsky -- Swan Lake because I find it always makes me cry when done well (and I love Tchaikovsky) --and Rodeo because its just fun (and I like Copeland!)

Least favorite...I don't know why, but I've never been a big fan of Coppellia. I don't dislike it, but if I didn't know someone dancing in the performance, I probably wouldn't go. It just doesn't move me.

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It's easy to spot the story ballets that crowds love (and I love, too): Giselle, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Balanchine's Midsummer Night's Dream and Nutcracker.

But if we're wondering where the future will go, we ought to look at the pattern of these beloved libretti to see what a successful ballet includes -- and what it excludes. Balanchine once once issued a useful ukase: "There are no mothers-in-law in ballet." Journalists call it the "KISS principle" -- Keep It Simple, Stupid. All the ballets I mentioned above have accessible, direct plots, involving the most powerful human emotions: love lost and love redeemed. (Though it's worth noting that Mr. B did manage to compress Shakespeare's entire play, subplots and all, into about 50 minutes of gorgeous classical dance. Not all rules apply to geniuses.)

Without doubt the worst exercise in theatrical dance I have ever seen was a "new interpretation" of Romeo and Juliet by an achingly pretentious Frenchman whose name I have blissfully forgotten. Set to a "sound collage" of Prokofiev and acid rock, it was set in an authoritarian future world where sex was forbidden. The young lovers, we were told by a program note, were leaders in a neo-Marxist revolution....

The only reason I came back after intermission was my firm belief that it could not get worse. It did. I was there because a friend was intrigued by the description and the photos, which implied high art with erotic overtones. The work proved how sexless a lot of nudity can be, especially in the absence of art.

On the other hand, we have one of the fall's most intriguing Broadway debuts. Twyla Tharp is staging a show based on Billie Joel songs, which have been strung together to create a sort of libretto. A similar effort with ABBA songs has given us Mamma Mia, a less sophisticated effort that's proved enormously popular at the box office. Tharp, who staged another loosely structured, evening-length work on Broadway -- The Catherine Wheel -- has always worked to connect the world of popular music to the world of dance. She failed with Singing in the Rain. but she has the chops (as jazzmen say) to make it work. This may be it, and a new generation of dance dramas could follow. Contact, another Broadway show created by a choreographer (Susan Stroman), ran for nearly three years. And it was just supposed to be an experiment!

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It is difficult, but easier to do with costume changes. In "La Sylphide," Bournonville shows that James's mother is a mother-in-law to be, a mother-in-law (almost), and a mother-in-law again by changing the tartans which indicate clan -- and by the mime, not in the sense of classical mime speeches, but in the way the characters relate to each other. When done well, there's no question who is who.

The 18th century ballets, and some 19th century ballets -- all lost, as far as I know -- dealt with very complicated stories, far beyond the love story, of war and betrayal and all the riches that classical mythology offers.

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One thing I look for in a ballet libretto is no different than I'd look for in any good writing - internal logic. It's not that the piece needs to be "true" (you mean the heroine dies of a broken heart?); it needs to make sense on its own terms. If you set up situations, they need to be followed through. As a negative example, in Nureyev's production of Sleeping Beauty for Paris Opera, Nureyev added several dances to Act II to beef up the Prince's role. When the Lilac Fairy enters before the vision scene, she does the traditional mime, saying "I saw you crying." All well and good, but when? Just before he was leading a dance.

Two of my favorite libretti are those for Giselle and La Sylphide, and I think time (and the good productions of both along the way) have made them even more durable and potent in their narratives.

What these share with other good ballet libretti is clarity, pacing and logical premises for dancing. Thinking about it right now, what some of the best loved libretti in ballet (add to this list Swan Lake and versions of Midsummer) share is the story of man's intersection with the supernatural and its consequences. I don't know if that is a coincidence.

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But there are mother-in-law in ballet, which can be understood if the story is clear. Nobody has a problem with Sleeping Beauty, which has a MIL and Fille where Simone will clearly be Colas' mother in law, and, in ballet heaven, when Albrecht marries Giselle, we know who his MIL will be!

As for good stories, I think it helps if there is a logical pretext for dancing, a festival or a wedding. So many of the good ones have that and it makes the story flow, not like so many of the Macmillan pieces, where things just stop so the corps can prance around. A nice exotic setting helps, so there can be real character dancing.

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My thanks to Mel for his welcome clarification (I think I got the stripped-down version from Clive Barnes, but it's so easy to blame everything on him) and to Cargill, Leigh, and Alexandra for comments on the mother-in-law question. I only wish I could come up with another topic that brought so many fascinating responses!

First of all, let me stress (as I mentioned before) that a great artist can break all the rules and still create a memorable work. Just compare the ballets of Balanchine's acolytes to those of the master.

But to keep the conversation going ... What is the role of the score in a narrative ballet? Should a choreographer take an existing musical work (with or without an explicit program) and build on it, or is it better for the dance-maker to create a narrative framework and commission a composer to meet his or her narrative needs?

In other words, should a choreographer risk "trivializing a great work of music" [e.g., any dance set to the Mozart Clarinet Concerto], or commissioning what music critics might call "a trivial work"?

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Morris Neighbor, I think you've zeroed in on not only one of the crucial elements in a narrative ballet, but one of the main problems today: the score.

In the heyday of narrative ballets, there were house composers who could turn out, or churn out, scores as needed. Also the episodic structure of 19th century ballet, based on opera (mixing aria -- dance numbers -- and recitative -- mime) was something of a formula.

What does one do today, when serious concert music is nonprogrammatic? Choreographers often turn to the past, and have their musical director chop up and piece together bits of Tchaikovsky. There are new commissions (surely, some of the Dracula ballets have been to new music?) but nothing yet has announced itself as The Next New Thing.

One hope I have for this is the new trend for universities to have ballet departments. I did an interview with Violette Verdy (that's now in the Archives on the main site) about the program at Indiana University. There, students get a lot of performance opportunities, dancing in operas and musicals as well as their own programs, AND young composition students have the opportunity to create short pieces for dance. Might that not be a laboratory?

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