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Abstract Ballet

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I was introduced to abstract ballet by Peter Martins and PBS when Peter described the dancing playing cards in the recent telecast production of the Diamond Project.

Peter was saying that people asked him if the playing cards represented anything (like a royal flush or whatever) and he said "no", and that the performance was an "abstract". So then I thought to myself, oh, I get it, abstract means NO CONTENT as far as meaning, it just doesn't mean anything in particular... I guess it means just whatever you want.

So what do you think of the abstract ballets? Do they seem to have any content to you?

I suppose this idea of abstract comes from the world of art (You know, taking a subject and reducing it to its simplest form and color). Personally, I don't think that this idea of abstract is transferable from art to ballet. After all, in painting it is one canvas to another canvas, both are objects. Both the complex canvas and the simple canvas are objects that represent something. But in Ballet, these are live HUMAN BEINGS dancing. If you make something abstract out of humans, aren't you stripping them of their human qualities? Sounds like a loss to me.

Now, abstract art, yes, that seems to make sense... but abstract ballet??... it may work to some extent, but it seems like a loss to me to turn human beings into objects??

Aren't human beings a lot more interesting than objects?

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All art is more or less an abstraction from "real life", to go back to an earlier thread, even when it is at its most representational. It is a transfer from one state of reality to another, and is on one level, a means of communication. It forms a symbolic "language" by which ideas, if only about color or shape, are transmitted by the artist to his audience.

Peter's problem in "Jeu des Cartes" was that he mixed his media in despite of the strong programmatic aspect of the score. Turning that particular score into a presentational choreography-driven work makes an unhappy marriage of style.

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Or, as Major Mel is too polite to say, Cranko did it more effectively. His Jeux de Cartes was about human idiosyncracies as portrayed by the characters of the cards; rank and suit.

Somewhere there must be a video, as no company performs it anymore......

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I think you need to see a few more abstract ballets before you try and make a judgement on the form ;) Why not start with Serenade, by George Balanchine, which is just about as unabstract and human an abstraction as is possible.

Something to remember: One reason choreographers tend toward abstraction (at least in this era) is that dance gives itself to multiple meanings rather than specific ones. Just because it isn't about anything specific doesn't mean it's about nothing at all.

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Because people do it, dance can never be abstract. It can be narrative--tells a story--or non-narrative, which allows you to project meaning onto it, if you like. (I don't think we can help it. At least I can't.) Dance by its nature is so inherently rich, it doesn't--to me--need a story added in. It can have one, but it doesnt need one.

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My impression is that the term "abstract ballet" fell into disfavor quite a long time ago and was supplanted by "plotless ballet" In this past August's Dance Magazine, Clive Barnes recalled the time around 1950: "In those days people referred--usually unkindly--to 'abstract ballet.' Denying the possibility of abstraction, (I wrote, 'Show me an abstract man and I'll perhaps show you an abstract ballet'), I made what I think was my one and only contribution to the vocabulary of dance criticism, suggesting the use of the word 'plotless' in place of 'abstract.'"

Both the terms "abstract ballet" and "plotless ballet" were used to describe some works of Balanchine. But Balanchine (before the days of political correctness) said, "Put a man and a girl on the stage and there is already a story; a man and two girls, there's already a plot."

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In reading all these replys I was wanting to come to some general idea on what "abstract" means to the ballet expert. Would it be something like "OPEN TO INTERPRETATION". Would that be general enough to take most of these responses into account?

Does "open to interpretation" sound like "abstract ballet" to you? Does it sound right or not?

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Unfortunately, EVERYTHING is open to interpretation, as John Dewey and the Pragmatists would point out. We all have different backgrounds and intellectual/emotional sets that we bring to bear on any given subject, and a plotless ballet is no exception. Even Swan Lake or Nutcracker is "subject to interpretation", no matter how densely plotted they may be! Maybe we could move to Marshall McLuhan and observe that The Medium is the Message. ;)

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Yes Mel, I'll have to give you that one. All of the ballets are "open to interpretation"... I think you are right there.

One thing sticks in my mind that you mentioned on your first post and that is this thing about "communication" and "symbolic language". That sounds very right also, and in that context of ballet being a method of communication from the artist to the audience it then becomes important that the artist HAS a message to give!! This is really what prompted this post to begin with. I just had the feeling that Peter Martins didn't really have any kind of particular message in mind and that it then becomes convenient to say "this is an abstract" when confronted with someone who asks the question "what are you talking about here"? Abstract seems to be a kind of term that sounds deep, but in fact may just be a coverup for the artist having no particular message to give.

If it is true that Ballet is communication, then the artist should know about the message that is being sent. He should be able to express that intent. If he knows there is no message, then the term "abstract" is a nice way to wiggle out of the situation. I am being hard on Peter Martins, and that is not fair because I saw only two of his works. I am certain that many of his works do have great content. I just don't like that way this term "abstract" is being used.

To me, the classic ballets are loaded with abstracts... real live "human being" abstracts... like innocence, brilliance, love, beauty, etc. etc. These are all abstracts... what's wrong with them? Those seem to be the REAL abstracts in my mind.

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You're certainly right, there, Ronny, about "abstract" being a convenient catch-all for something without a strong enough central theme to bind it together. One could say that "Symphonic Variations" was Ashton saying, "This is what I have to say about the spacial relationships among six people." His genius makes the simple idea stick. Or Balanchine in, say, "Agon" making it a statement about the extension of the classical line and vocabulary into the future using dance forms which date back before Louis XIV!

Abstract is perfectly good aesthetic terminology - there's just the abstractions which work, and those which don't!

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Isn't it interesting that ballet was one of the last arts to become "plotless" and it's wedded to the first; music. I think the problem comes from people who think that going to a theater means going to a play. I don't think anyone was shocked that Well Tempered Clavier had no plot line. And that sort of goes back to the discussion of the relationship of libretto, music, and choreographic ideas.

I suppose the anthorpologists out there would have something to say about it. The music as a spiritual content and the dance as the more human physical aspect of the process. By imitating human and earthly situations in the dance we are binding heaven and earth. And of course it's easier to sell something with a plot that the powers that be can either approve of or excoriate.

The Balanchine quote "God creates, man assembles"....

When I'm exploring a piece of music by dancing it I feel very close to the generations of our ancestors who lived in jungles and survived by responding skillfully to the music of the spheres. A "plotless" ballet clears a lot of cultural claptrap off the stage and helps us to experience the moment.

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I like your comment pumukau:

A "plotless" ballet clears a lot of cultural claptrap off the stage and helps us to experience the moment.

Initially I preferred, generally speaking, "story" ballets...however, I can't say that anymore at all. :)

ronny, although I think I understand your comment:

Abstract seems to be a kind of term that sounds deep, but in fact may just be a cover-up for the artist having no particular message to give.
- that is in the sense of why you might say that, I'm afraid there are many "abstract" artists who have much to say in their work -whether they be painters, musicians or choreographers.

One man's poison is another's passion...beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and all that, eh? :)

If one hasn't seen Balanchine's "Symphony in C" performed well, and in real life, you haven't experienced the energy, the vitality, the excitement of "an abstract ballet"... I have to reiterate that watching a video or a CD cannot compare to being there, in person - in flesh and blood - to hear the music and see the dance, together.

Does "Serenade" have a plot? Some might say so, some might not. To me, seeing it performed and listening to the music as it was performed, live, in the night at SPAC in Saratoga Springs, was one of the most compelling experiences that I have ever had.

I am certainly no expert - far from it in fact - nevertheless since ballet is an art, I have to think that the choreographer designs his or her piece with more than just a passing thought or two. Just as when a painter - whether it be Georgia O'Keefe with her "flowers" or Picasso with his paint splatters - creates and presents their work, I believe there is always a "raison d'être". Each person who views these paintings or watches the ballets will draw their own conclusions....but whether or not I think something is "successful" or not does not negate it. Just my humble;) opinion, of course!

P.S. I actually enjoyed Martin's "Jeux de Cartes"! :D:)

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These are great replys, so diverse and intelligent. Thanks Mel for your comment.

It is so nice to hear from a dancer in Milwaukee and the post is so brilliant that it is cracking my illusions about some forms of plotless dance.

And BW, I am really happy that you made this comment on Martins "Jeux de Cartes". I really wanted the other side to come out. Sometimes I say things that are a little extreme so that these kinds of things WILL come out on the other side. I am just a learner and I want to hear the other side of it.

So I think I have a better appreciation now for the plotless ballet. Really and truely I knew there had to be something great there or people wouldn't be buying tickets.

Maybe it is just the term "abstract" that is causing the confusion. It seems to mean different things to different people. I'm going to read all the resposes again to see if there is some kind of common thread in the whole thing.

Mel's very clear statement on art as "communication" seems to be a really nice summary of what ballet should be doing. Sounds to me that communication can take place nicely in both plot and plotless ballet. After all, if people like something, there must be some kind of communication going on, whether seen or unseen.

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I think that ballet stories just get in the way. They are at best trite, at worst insulting in their simplicity and stupidity. What is the "story" of Beethoven's 5th symphony? I presume you think that great music can stand on its own. Why not dance. :) The wonder of ballet is not the telling of a simplistic story but the beautiful, evocotive, enthralling, captivating, exhilarating, athletic, mesmerizing, movement of the human body to great music. I list Agon as one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of mankind. I can't imagine a story ballet that has anywhere near its power. It is the essence of ballet. It is just magnificent. Words cannot describe it. It has to be seen in person with great dancers, good musicians, and rapt attention to comprehend its power.

If you go to see a ballet performance to enjoy a story, you are mostly missing the point of it all IMHO. Most comic books have better stories and are a lot cheaper and are faster to read. By removing the simplistic story from the ballet, it is not lessened but greatly enhanced if done well. There is nothing to distract from the power of the dancing and the music.

If I thought I would never ever see Swan Lake, Giselle, et.al. again in my lifetime it would not phase me in the least. But if I thought I would never ever see Agon again it would break my hear. Fortunately, I have tickets for it this coming season.

My most humble opinion.

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However, music, like ballet, can be either "programmatic" i.e. representational, or "pure" i.e. presentational. "Agon" is a wonderful work, it does not have an overt story, except maybe the story of the progress of classicism from the seventeenth century to the twentieth and then on into the future. The variety of choices in what to view gives a richness to the balletgoing experience, and the contrast between and among works gives depth to the art as a whole. After all, what would a "plotless" ballet be if all ballet were plotless? Just another of more of the same! Having a variety to choose from is part of what makes ballet enjoyable as a performing art.

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After all, what would a "plotless" ballet be if all ballet were plotless? Just another of more of the same! Having a variety to choose from is part of what makes ballet enjoyable as a performing art.

I personally find enough variety in plotless/abstract works that I almost think of the story ballets as another less interesting artform. There are more than enough plotless/abstract works to keep me going to the ballet for more than the rest of my life. And I don't plan on dying soon. :(

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