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Interpreting the dances in Narrative Ballets

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This thread grows out of the discussion on same-sex partnering:

A comment was made on movement as specific metaphor - a dip in Swan Lake would be understood by both Petipa and his audience to have been a kiss. I responded that I didn't need the metaphor, the abstraction gave me what I needed to know - and Alexandra commented that part of that was a function of my background (what I had studied, et al.)

Thinking about that larger issue, in narrative ballets, I think I'm a stickler for narrative (If you're going to tell a story, I insist it be told clearly and cogently) but what do we expect from or see in the dances?

Though there are instances where I look as the dance as a pas d'action, a dance that propels the narrative. The first example that pops to mind - but it's a very complex one - is there's a piece of choreography in one of Giselle and Albrecht's Act II dances that looks abstract to us today, but I recall similarly to the "dip" in Swan Lake that she's trying to get Albrecht away from the cross at Myrtha's command. Even though I've read that's what it meant, and that's what I think of when it's done, I've never seen it actually danced like that. And now I better figure out where I read that. . .A better example may be the dance of James and the Sylph in Act II of La Sylphide which is a very clear and straightforward pas d'action. The Sylph leads James to the forest and he sees the wonders of her domain.

In other instances I look at the dances in Swan Lake or Giselle as a distillation of the narrative. The wili's dance in Giselle shows me who these women are - how they cover ground, how they slash through space - and that this space is theirs. Giselle's first spinning solo shows me her character in the lofty jumps and her desperation in her wild spins to begin it. It connects importantly to the narrative and completes it, but in a different way than a pas d'action. It's not the narrative, it's almost a parallel commentary.

There's more than one way to look at a blackbird and we can interpret each dance in a different way suitable to it, but what do you think of or see when you watch the dances of a narrative ballet? Do you think about the plot? The themes? The dancing itself?

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Okay. I'll go first :(

I look at plot and characterization first. I often will not read the libretto the first time I see a narrative ballet new to me -- not always wise; the first time I saw "Manon" I thought Des Grieux and Manon were brother and sister-- to see if the ballet makes sense on its own. It almost never does, but it's great fun to find out later who all the characters were supposed to be.

I should look at costume and set first, I know, but I seldom do unless they're either breathtakingly beautiful or hideous.

It's on the second or third viewing that I'll pick up subtexts, or worry about how the ballet is structured below a superficial level - again, unless something is so off that it smacks you in the face at first viewing. I think the more skillful something is assembled, the longer it takes to see its bones. Of course, if I'm reviewing I have to concentrate on analyzing what I'm seeing; I'm writing here as a civilian :(

What about you? What do you "see" first? What's important to you? To repeat Leigih's questions:

There's more than one way to look at a blackbird and we can interpret each dance in a different way suitable to it, but what do you think of or see when you watch the dances of a narrative ballet? Do you think about the plot? The themes? The dancing itself?
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If I hadn't known the story of Manon beforehand, I might have thought the same thing. I thought it was because the pas de deux were undercharacterized -- neat and pretty, but you didn't know who these people were. It could have been me.

I actually think it can be a good idea not to know the story beforehand -- it forces you to concentrate on how and if the choreographer is telling the story. I didn't bother to refresh myself with a review of the Medea story before seeing Possokhov's "Damned," for example, and there were a couple of places where I was wondering what happened. If I had just re-read the story, I might have filled in the blanks for myself without thinking about it.

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A further part of my question -

Do you find that in a narrative ballet you separate the dances from the plot sections at all?

Be honest ;) I recall our discussions of Bayadere a while back where everyone found it didn't have enough dancing, while swearing up and down on another thread how important mime was!

I think I look at the dances as parrallel to the plot sometimes, and intergral at others.

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i 'believe in' NOT reading a story or explanation first, because i want the dance to speak to me of its own accord/to stand on its own feet.

also, as a reviewer, this is valuable, because it enables more objective assessment, IMO. (i also prefer not to know who choreograohed which ballet - on a triple bill, for instance - for the same reasons, of objectivity. but advance publicity usually makes this almost impossible.)

i believe i see everything that happens onstage as part of one thing - in other words, i expect the dances to blend in with any 'acting' sections, and the whole to make sense, and nothing to be superfluous...but then, i DO have high standards... ;)

on first viewing of a narrative ballet, i am certainly feeling a need to follow the story, more or less - but not to pick up every detail of it. just enough for it to make sense. but more than anything, i think i am 'seeing' choreography/shapes/dynamics/relation to music...

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I used to think that if a dance needed a program note to "explain" what it was all about, it was a failure. But the more I see dance, the more I realize that what we bring to it is often as important as what's "there" onstage. That doesn't necessarily excuse the rococco (if amusing) program notes of, say, an Eifman (surely there should be a special Bulwer-Lytton award for any program note which beings with "The great composer is dying...."), but it's not for nothing that most dance fans I know take a somewhat perverse glee in counting off on their fingers the exceptions to Balanchine's oft-quoted law about there being no mothers-in-law in ballet. Well, of course there are -- or there would be, if one or both of the afianced didn't have the nasty, albeit picturesque, habit of dying before (or during) the nuptials.

The works of Merce Cunningham, while free of explicatory program notes, are, for me, the most extreme example of works where the viewers own act of observing and internalizing the dance is almost as much "the work" as the choreography itself. While, ultimately, that's the heart of any experienced work of art (that is to say, all of them), it's seldom expressed so poignantly as in Cunningham's Zen-gardenish creations.

I'll never forget my first Giselle (not likely with its Makarova/Baryshnikov/van Hamel casting!). I was so busy yakking with some folks sitting next to me that I didn't get around to reading the program, and, while I had no problem following the story of Act I, I was certainly rather shocked that the heroine seemed to die by the end of the act. As the curtian fell on Baryshnikov's histrionics over the supine Makarova (this was back when he was still doing his "nice-guy" Albrecht) I asked myself, "Well, now what? She's dead!" Little did I know what was in store for me in Act II, or at least I didn't know until I dug up my program. "Aha, ghosts. Of course. I knew that."

Was my naive first viewing of Giselle somehow more valid or true or useful because I was reacting to every moment in Act I without the benefit of having a clue beforehand what might be going on? While certainly it made for interesting viewing, I'm not as certain as I once was that this was a good or useful way of exposing one's self to an unfamiliar dance (especially when I decided my narratives of this event were usually more about how clever I was to "follow" the story without benefit of reading the program). I remember trying to present this viewpoint to a certain critic of a major metropolitan newspaper here who's well-known for the detailed historical explications she inserts, wherever possible, into her reviews, and cringing at her rather unsympathetic response to my attempt to lionize my own ignorance.

So what was the question again? Oh, I think every dance is a narrative (sometimes they're just dull narratives, but that's another kettle of worms). I have no problem with dancers expressing themselves at one moment with mime, either "realistic" or stylized, and at another with more-or-less "abstract" movement. It's no more odd than that Broadway-musical world where people alternately talk and sing, after all. And, really, mime and "pure" dance are just different steps on the same path to enlightenment, or, rather, different paths towards the same destination. The whole idea that the serres in White Swan, for instance, can mean, well, a "climax," or that a dancer sweeping his fingertips around the circumference of his face (and then, God forbid, kissing them, sometimes) can mean "beautiful," if you've been taught, or learned, to see that meaning, speaks a bit to my pet theory of the sublimation and abstraction of sexuality in ballet as a kind of calculus. (This is also why James Canfield's ballets really stink, but that's another story.)

So what do I think about when I see the dancey bits in a narrative ballet? "... the plot? The themes? The dancing itself?" For me, the cute, but nevertheless true answer is simply "yes," just because they're not simply inextricably entwined, but because they're really all one and the same. A cigar is always just a cigar, except when it's not, which is always and never. Same goes for those serres, which always send me into transports of rapture (except when they don't, or when they're not there -- Mr. B, what were you thinking?).

The things a guy will do to put off cleaning up his apartment.....

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hope the vacuuming got done...

manhattnik writes: "It's no more odd than that Broadway-musical world where people alternately talk and sing..."

i somehow can't agree that "it's no more odd".

not for rational reasons, but only because i can't STAND musicals, on account of that very perversity, of bursting into song innappropriately (it IS innappropriate, to me)...yet i don't have this feeling with most narrative dance.

please don't ask me to explain - i'd rather clean the house...am feeling intellectually lazy, these days.

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Let me try to explain that. It's a much-quoted line here, but I don't know that Balanchine ever said it that exact way. What he did say, however, was printed in the first edition of Balanchine's Stories of the Great Ballets, He said, "It is very difficult to express, say, your mother-in-law in classical mime." He could have said it another way at another time and place, but I just have never run across it. Most people who quote this bon mot tend to quote it the way Manhattnik did.

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Re mothers-in-law: Balanchine wasn't saying there aren't any, as Mel pointed out, just that it's difficult to express anything that's not simple and direct through classical mime.

There's nothing wrong, though, or "cheating," to me, about showing that a character is a mother-in-law through having her look down her nose at the daughter-in-law's poor excuse for a cake while being overly attentive to the son. That's what drama is. To make it more contemporary, two men face each other over a body. One is the murderer, one the victim's father. How can we tell? One is holding the gun, the other is about to rip his face off. That's how.

One of the things that's gotten lost is stage irony -- I'm sure there's a technical term for it in theater, but I don't know it. I mean showing one thing through reaction, not action: showing that the earth moves because the person's body moves in such a way that we know that the earth has moved, rather than bringing in the special effects team and heaving the stage around.

DeMille used this -- and I can't remember the specifics, just that when I saw "The Informer" I recognized the technique. And from the bits we have of 19th century repertory -- and Ballets Russes repertory it was the way stories were told.

A performer can do it, too. One of my clearest memories of Anthony Dowell in "Swan Lake" is that you saw Odette change from bird into woman before you ever saw her, because you saw it in his face. Saw the desire to shoot change to puzzlement and then to astonishment and wonder.

It was a mainstay of 19th century ballet (and earlier, I'm sure) and one of the clearest examples I know is in the first act of "Napoli". The two lovers (Teresina and Gennaro) have gone out in a boat; a storm has come up. The boat washes ashore. In it is Gennaro, but not Teresina. She is presumed drowned.

Her mother comes out of the house, not knowing this. She pulls her shawl tighter around her shoulders so that you know it is now cold. She looks across the square and sees her two friends (we know they're friends from earlier in the act). They quickly look away; they cannot face her.

There's no mime speech saying, "Your daughter dead is, drowned in sea." Just a glance, but it tells the story. (The mime speech comes later, when she shakes Gennaro and curses him for treating her daughter negligently; later still, there's his penitent rage at the gods and the stars, which was known as a mimed monologue.) So 19th century choreographers used a palette of dramatic techniques to suit the scene and the rhythm of the ballet. Sometimes it's a mime speech, sometimes it's a glance.

I've written about Bournonville's mother-in-law scene before, but I'll drag it up again. In the first act of "La Sylphide," there's a mother. You know she's not the maid, she's too old to be the wife, and there's a wedding going on. She's got to be either the groom's mother or the bride's. The program tells you which, of course, [Anna Reuben, mother of James Reuben] but it also is shown on stage through the costumes.

The ballet is set in Scotland, and before the wedding, the mother is wearing the same kilt as the son (groom) and the bride is wearing a different kilt. The bride goes upstairs to change, and comes down wearing the same kilt as the son and mother (about to be mother-in-law). Things go badly. In the second act, there's a wedding procession -- the bride, now married to her fiance's rival, walks on wearing a different kilt. And so we've seen not a mother-in-law, but a mother-in-law to be, and a mother-in-law that never was.

The "There are no mothers-in-law in ballet" line is often thrown out as a squelch to mean "narrative ballet is silly and old-fashioned; only abstract ballet is intellectually sound and worthy of our attention." But I don't think that's what Balanchine meant. Only that it's hard. The more direct you can be, the clearer your story is to the audience. Don't drag in unnecessary characters; keep it simple.

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Another quote attributed to Balanchine is "Family relations are impossible to dance." I got this from a 32-page pamphlet published in 1984 by San Marco Press called "By George Balanchine," which was available for a time at the gift shop of NYCB on the State Theater Promenade. The cover has a caricature of Balanchine by G. B. himself.

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