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The Classics, Old Fashioned or Contemporary


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Nadezhda recently referred to the Classic Ballets as "so contemporary" (this was mentioned in a thread called "Why do you go to the Ballet") I thought that this was such a nice thought that it deserved a thread of its own.

So on the surface at least, the classics may seem to be old fashioned with the costumes of kings and queens and court jesters and so on. But underneath perhaps there beats a heart of youth and freshness that is very much a contemporary art form. I can think of several reasons to back up Nedezhda's remark but I wanted to open the question up to everyone else first to see what comes up.

So what do you think? Are the classics a bit old fashioned, or are they really fresh contemporary works in disguise.

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I think timeless is a better description, really, than contemporary, since what is contemporary will date so quickly. What is classic does speak to us, but also spoke to the past, and, with luck and care, will speak to the future. The accent may change a bit, but I think the words stay the same.

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Ok, I guess I will have to say a lot on this topic, mostly because it is so relevant to what I am doing in school.

I just finished reading a book by Joseph Campbell called The Power of Myth. The whole premise is that we are constantly re-living and re-evaluating ageless myths.

So that is possibly what you are getting at...I think ballet is a story with almost mythological implications. Underneath the story of Swanilda, Clara, Odette/Odile are myths that repeat themselves over and over.

So anyways, I think that is why the classics are so modern.

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Interesting question, ronny. I'd agree with Mary that they're timeless -- and a good production can seem contemporary, in that it doesn't look like that dreaded "just a museum piece!" but alive because the dancers believe in it and make it alive.

Allegro, I think your reference to Joseph Campbell's "The Power of Myth" is very apt. Many of the ballets now considered classics are based in folk lore, and they do still speak to us, and need to be revived every generation or so -- and they pick up a little bit from each generation, too.

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Yes Alexandra, I agree with your evaluation completely. Both Cargill an and Allegro are perfectly on target. Timeless is a perfect description of the classics and The Power of Myth speaks directly to this question... so these are all really wonderful responses and are exactly on the mark.

I would like to take it just a little bit more into the idea of contemporary and at the same time keep the thoughts that have already been expressed. Power of Myth goes deeply into it, but Ford Motor Company has verified that all this is completely contemporary and even fashionable.

[remark deleted by A.T.]

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I named this reply "no boundaries" because this is the moto of the Ford Motor Company right now. Why bring up Ford? Well, I have some familiarity with advertising and I know that if Ford is going to spend hundreds of millions on advertising and their main theme becomes "no boundaries" then I know for sure that they have done the research and their research has shown that the contemporary thing for them to associate themselves with is the idea of "no boundaries". So, no boundaries has to be contemporary... or heads will roll in the advertising agency headquarters!

So now, to connect this with classical ballet... well its not very hard to make the connection since it is the classic stories that have "no boundaries".

I'll give an example: Giselle.

If the story of Giselle had ordinary boundaries the story would have to end in Act 1. Giselle is dead in act 1!! If this was one of those so called "modern real life" stories, you would have to take her to the grave yard and bury her and that would be the end of the story. BUT NO... that boundary of death is broken. Not only is Giselle in Act 2, but she becomes the hero in the second act!!

It is the classics and the classic stories that continually break boundaries. Some people when confronted with a no boundary story say "its a fairytale".

These are not fairytales. These are simply stories that break the boundaries of "material" life. If a person thinks that the only real things in life are the things that we can see with our senses, then of course they will say "fairytale". But if you realize that there is more to life than what we see, then these no boundaries stories become the actual real life stories!

Classics speak to the soul. Its just that simple. And speaking to the soul requires that the boundaries of material life have to be broken. The classics do it, the more "modern" so called "real life" stories do not. So in fact, it may just be that the things that are thought to be modern today are in fact shallow and materialistic, and the stories that are thought to be old fashioned are in fact completely contemporary. It is just a matter if seeing them in the light of "no boundaries".

The Classics are contemporary stories. They know no boundaries, they speak to the soul, they are "so contemporary"... just as Nadezhda said.

I rest my case.

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Hmmm. I'd quibble with THAT libretto :) But yours would be a great hit, Mel.

"Giselle" is a Romantic ballet, and Romanticism was all about breaking boundaries. Here we get into words again. The neoclassical ballets that preceded them were all about finding ways to make the old rules work, to make art while staying firmly within boundaries. The Greeks, of course, who did the first plays had no boundaries, which is probably why the plays were so great.

There were objections in the 19th century by classicists who felt that Giselle and her sisters (there were 400 Romantic ballets, says Cyril W. Beaumont, most of them about some wan female spirit) were sentimental and not at all heroic. "Iphigenia" was a tragedy because her story was about dynasty and power and the fate of a people. "Giselle" was just a girl who fell in love blindly and couldn't deal with the consequences, too trivial a subject for a classic treatment.

To muddy the waters further, there's a school of thought today (to which I subscribe) that "Giselle" became a great classical ballet chiefly because of the intervention of Petipa, who transformed the second act into a grand ballet classique, giving the work a formal structure that elevated it from the sentimental. I'd guess, too, that it was 20th century performances that brought out the story's undercurrents and made them primary. For Gautier, "Giselle" was a story that made a pretty ballet.

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It is an interesting topic, Kate -- what are your thoughts about it? Are classics old-fashioned or contemporary -- or timeless, as some have amended?

What makes a "classic" a classic and what makes that classic look contemporary? There are many different angles from which to consider this, and we've seen a few, but what do others think?

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Look at the amount of fantasy, Science Fiction, psychic phenomenon, and other "out there" forms of movie and book themes today. I think that these represent our Neo-Romanticism, at least one side of it, the Neo-Gothic, which was a parallel development of Victorian Literature. Gothic represented untamed forces and nature and wildness, and celebrated it, even with such restrained writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Primal Force" was a large consideration to the authors of the Romantic period, and William Wordsworth describing the "spontaneous overflow of emotion" encapsulates a phase of it very neatly. Gautier himself wrote Gothic tales, Giselle being a somewhat tame example drawn from Heinrich Heine, but his "La Morte Amoreuse" is as Gothic as Poe ever got, and is a downright scary read!:eek:

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There's a theory that says that Gothic-type stories are popular in times of rapid technological change, which was true in the early 19th century (industrialization) and, God knows, is true today. The theory goes that as science and engineering pioneer new ways of doing things that are based on the logical and the scientific, people turn away from the rational and embrace the power of the imagination. Happily for us, ballet is ideally suited to express fantasy, whether it takes the form of spirits or just of divinely beautiful dancers doing things that ordinary mortals could never dream of doing.

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Thank you for those comments on the Gothic, Mel and Ari. I do think there are parallels between the 19th century Gothic and ours -- and I'd forgotten, Ari, about the point you made, that the Romantic was a rebellion against technology.

I'd also forgotten Wordsworth's "spontaneous overflow of emotion." That's the way we see the 19th century now -- all wars and rebellions, political and artistic. Then, though, there's the sense of a bottle uncorked. Now, it's spontaneous overflow of emotion 24/7.

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OK - I'll give this a try - I posted earlier because I thought it was interesteing, I don't think I'm really qualified for a good answer!

For me, the 'classics' are definitely timeless. Both La Bayadere and La Sylphide have made me cry because I am a hopeless romantic at heart and I don't think the kind of feelings ballets like that inspire have changed since they were devised, or even before!;)

I am also a student of cultural history and I am very interested in what sort of things appeal to people depending on the political situation etc. I guess this might lead me to ask, are ballets political? Do they have a satirical message? Often they have very moral messages, and some good 'advice' on love...! If they were political in a very abstract sense, we could always adapt their messages to what was happening in our world, even if they were written over 100 years ago. Let me have a think about this...

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Alexandra, this thing you mention here is the thing that has always been in the back of my mind... "what makes a classic a classic?" We already know that a classic is timeless and is therefore ALWAYS contemporary. But just what is it that makes them so great and therefore always contemporary? Just what is it?

What makes a classic a classic? It's the most important question. I already have an idea on it but I want to refine the idea a bit before posting anything. No boundaries is certainly a part of it, but that is not the whole thing of course.

And Mel, I was thinking about the british princess also... but I hadn't made the connection with the story of Giselle. So that was very interesting to see it.

Thanks so much for the encouragement Kate B. I have fun posting these kind of things, but sometimes I worry a little bit that I might be a little out of tune with the nature of this site since I like to be playful most (all) of the time. I'm not very serious, I like to play. So that comment of yours is very helpful. So now I'm thinking "play is OK"... with responsibility of course.

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There is a very contemporary saying "what goes around comes around"... its a reference to natural law saying that the things that we do come back to us. An old, old principle, but so contemporary because of the new saying "what goes around comes around".

What makes this so interesting to me is the relationship between Cinderella and La Sylphide in this regard. Both have an old woman in the plot. In one case, Cinderella is kind to the old woman... and you know the triumphal ending to the story. What goes around comes around.

And conversly, James in La Sylphide is unkind to an old woman... and you know what happens at the end of that story. What goes around comes around.

The very same principle, but shown from two different sides. These stories may seem old to some, but they are just as fresh today as the day they were first performed.

Its such a nice example of contemporary that I just had to add it to the thread.

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Ronny, your last post raises the question of whether a ballet can become a 'classic' merely because of its story. Cinderella is a timeless fairy tale/myth, etc. but as a ballet (with the Prokofiev score) is only about 60 years old. This is true, of course, for Romeo & Juliet too.

Perhaps those who are more familiar with a variety of productions can say whether these are 'classic' ballets.

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Cinderella is kind of an odd bird among the "classics". The Ashton version seems to be the Gold Standard to which most others are compared, or other productions self-consciously imitate. What makes a classic for me, is the successful blending of music, choreography, decor(if any), and story(if any). But that's just one guy's opinion!:)

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I think the problem is at this point that "classic" has several different meanings in this discussion. We've spilled much electronic ink here on the complexity of use and definitions of that word.

There's "classical" in the sense of hewing to the vocabulary and conventions of classical ballet, and the majority of productions of Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet do this. There's "classical" in the sense of the sorts of ballets out there "classical", "romantic" or other genres; Cinderella's divertissements make it slightly more classical in style than R & J, but neither is classical in the way Sleeping Beauty is classical. And then, we also seem to be using "classic" in the sense of "a classic" here; canonical or the standard. Both Cinderella and R & J have competing "standard" versions depending on where you're from (for Cinderella, Ashton's version sets the Western standard - but is Ben Stevenson's more performed? - and I think there is a different version in Russia (Lavrovsky's?). Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet is the version most could claim ancestry from, but in the west, the two versions most known, Macmillan's and Cranko's are possibly equally performed. So in neither case is there a standard predominant or "classic" version.

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