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Guest stars vs. homegrown talent

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With Cojocaru and possibly Vishneva guesting in its next summer season at the MET, American Ballet Theatre appears to be revisiting (a little bit) its days when it regularly featured guest stars as a company policy. Two guest stars (and a few here and there over the past few years) does not mean ABT is going back to the glittering 70s, when they always imported stars, but it brings up the question: which way do people prefer?

Although I spent most of my time at NYCB during the 70s, I remember that with the company's parade of guest stars, anytime you went to ABT it felt like a gala. There was a lot of excitment in the air to have the best dancers in the world come to town. On the other hand, I remember interviews with the homegrown principals feeling they didn't get enough respect or their share of roles because of the imports. And the morale of the company through the ranks were poor because there didn't seem to be any belief they could work their way towards leading parts. The malaise showed on stage.

I guess when Baryshnikov took over, having just come from a "no-stars" policy company NYCB, he sacked some older dancers and tried to breed his own ballerinas. (anybody, feel free to add and expand in his Reader's Digest account) According to critics, the company, with the possibility of upward mobility, began to look like a company. And even though the company has had stars dancers from all of the globe in the last 12 years, they are part of the company. Even Ananiashvili, listed as a "guest principal" until recently, has become a regular member of ABT.

Personally, I think a guest dancer once and awhile gives a company a bit of a kick in the pants and the audience a boost of fresh blood. However, too many guest dancers creates frustration and divides the company (we've seen this a little bit at Britain's Royal Ballet). I'm also pleased that companies such as the Kirov Ballet can allow their dancers to guest a bit and not lose them.

What do people think?

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I like the guest stars at ABT. It does add a bit of excitement, plus for those of us in NY lucky enough to catch a City Center season, I feel like I get to see more of the "home team".

I like the breath of fresh air, to compliment the current roster. For a while I felt like Kent had to dance every role.

But I think ABT's rep is a bit more flexible for allowing dancers with different technique and training to fit in more easily, as opposed to say NYCB, where I've personally, come to resent the outside guest. Either b/c they make it look as though there's not enough talent in NYCB's rank or why aren't these dancers (NYCB)getting enough opportunity to develop that talent to be in these roles.

I wish NYCB would allow their dancers to guest more with other companies.

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I think ABT needs guest stars. Most companies can benefit from them -- a change of pace for the audience, of course, but also a model for the dancers. Talk to any woman at ABT during the Makarova era and I think you'll hear (or read, in their interviews) how important it was to have that refined a technique, day after day, in class to watch.

I'd quibble a bit with Dale's history -- which I think is an accurate reflection of one point of view. But I think there was a period where anything Baryshnikov did, including his directorship, went unquestioned by some. There were others who saw what he did with ABT was trying to turn it into the Kirov (which, apaprently, is what the board wanted) and turning it away from ITS heritage. Nobody screamed about that, oddly. (And, an old argument, NYCB did have stars. They just didn't promote them as STARS!!!!!.)

During the Luciia Chase era, ABT did have a lot of stars, but one also always reads of the family atmosphere of the company. The stars, I've read, were generous. They worked with the dancers, they appeared in the triple bills, not just Prince and Princess roles. And again, they were a model. Yes, dancers did complain (more, I think, in the post-Makarova and Baryshnikov late '70s than the '60s and early '70s) that they should have gotten this or that role that had gone to a star, but I remember at the time disagreeing with that -- I think there are some dancers who do not have an adequate understanding of their role in the firmament :D They may have danced a leading role in the absence of Star Dancers 1-25, which is why the company needed Star Dancers 1-25 there in the first place! (It was fun to look at the advance casting for "Push Comes to Shove" and see how many people dropped out before showtime.)

Since Victoria Leigh was there during the Star Era, and worked with people like Carla Fracci, Toni Lander and Erik Bruhn, I'll bow to her on that part of the story if she has a different perception :( )

This will not be a popular statement, but I don't think ABT has produced a ballerina on the level of Gregory and Van Hamel since Gregory and Van Hamel, and, despite their technical facility, I don't think Corella and Stiefel are on the level of Bruhn or Baryshnikov (or what Patrick Bissell may have become had he lived). I don't know why -- whether it's coaching or repertory or our pop culture times, or that ballet is aesthetically leaderless, or some combination of all of these and more. I think the guests will be good for competition -- not only for the dancers, but also for the audience. I wish Malakhov would dance more roles. He's been there, but he hasn't been there enough to serve as a consistent model.

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I think, that when it's done in moderation, guest stars can do wonders for company moral. Last year the Bolshoi invited Carreno, Kobborg, and Malakhov for two perfomances each (although, Carreno might have gotten just one), and what I heard from people afterwards was how much better the Bolshoi's male roster was suddenely dancing :D.

I agree, Alexandra, Malakhov with his "it's not how many, it's how" is ceratainly an example worth emulating. I almost wish he was a "guest star" with ABT;)

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I can't speak for what ABT's dancers thought, but the audience (at least the balletomane audience) was irritated by the company's obsession with signing guest stars during the 70s. Yes, they attracted some stars of genuine quality and value like Makarova and Baryshnikov, but they also went after people who were Names rather than artists, and they've had a consistent problem differentiating qualities that make a dancer a short-term wonder from genuine excellence. I remember attending a non-ABT gala at which some unknown European dancer tore the house down with spectacular tricks, and the woman sitting next to me remarked, "You realize that ABT is running backstage now to sign him up."

This was a period when the company had no conception of itself as an artistic entity, no sense of its own style. I think things have improved quite a bit since then. Although it's still pretty much the Ballet From Nowhere, it's a more cohesive Nowhere :( . And since other companies with a history of real stylistic distinction are looking pretty bland these days, perhaps ABT has improved as much as it can.

I, too, would rather see Cojocaru and Vishneva than Kent, McKerrow, Tuttle, and I think Alexandra's remark about their homegrown ballerinas is well taken. But I don't want them to give up trying to develop their own stars, either. I think the question they have to ask themselves is, Will this dancer we're thinking of engaging as a guest fit in with what we want our company to be, and can our dancers learn from her/him? If so, fine. I don't think there's any danger of their being overrun with guests. :D

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Here is my recollection of ABT from mid 1960's to mid-1970's. This is before Makarova and Barishnikov. I remember Bruhn and Fracci as the main guest stars, usually appearing in Sylphide or Giselle. I remember Carmen deLavallade for one season and one particular ballet. But it seemed to me that one of ABT's strengths was its crop of home grown talent. Toni Lander, Lupe Serrano, Eleanor D'Antuono, Cynthia Gregory; Royes Fernandez, Bruce Marks, Ted Kivitt, Paul Sutherland; and solosits who could do just about anything. The repertory was fun - de Mille, Robbins, Tudor, Lander, with works by Enrique Martinez and Eliot Feld, some of which vanished and some (I personally love At Midnight) lurking about in repertory somewhere. People I knew were fiercely loyal to ABT - and some of the best dancing cmae from both non-principals and non-guests.

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I'd count Toni Lander as a resident guest star, as Bruhn. She was trained completely in Denmark and danced as a principal at London Festival Ballet before coming to NY -- and if Paris Opera had admitted foreigners then, she would have gone there, where her husband was a ballet master.

Were any of those principals really home grown? Gregory came -- young -- from San Francisco Ballet and danced principal roles quite young, so it's not like picking a kid off the street, as it were, and nurturing her through the ranks; she was a ballerina when she got there. D'Antuono was Ballets Russes. I don't know the others.

I remember seeing one ABT program in the 1980s that brought the contrast between the old and the new rep home -- "Theme and Variations," "Miss Julie," "Fancy Free." That would have been standard fare in the 1960s, but seemed several lifetimes away 20 years later. (I always enjoyed ABT in their "native rep")

With ABT, though, it's hard to sort out "home grown talent" from "guest stars," because the HGT is imported -- Bujones from SAB, Kirkland from NYCB, Van Hamel from NBoC -- and the guests were foreigners who made ABT their primary home, or at least their base. I was trying to remember the guest stars from the 1970s, but I don't, except for the various partners acquired for Gregory and Van Hamel (Vladimir Gelvan, Jonas Kage, John Meehan, Alexander Godunov). This is when ABT performed in DC 7 weeks a year and the roster we got was Makarova, Kirkland, Gregory, Van Hamel, D'Antuono, Baryshnikov, Nagy, Bujones -- and a succession of young men who were jumped to principal very young and didn't last, for a variety of reasons (Charles Ward, Clark Tippett, George de la Pena). Nureyev popped in from time to time, but that was when he was dancing 24/7, as they'd say today.

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It's never had a school in the sense that NYCB, the Royal, Paris, RDB, the Kirov, the Bolshoi, have a school. I remember complaints about the "homegrown" claims from the 1970s -- take a dancer like Van Hamel, obviously a ballerina when she got there, and start her in the corps, if only for a year, so she's "home grown."

But Lander was Bruhn's equal in stature when she came to ABT. Bruhn, actually, spent SIX YEARS AS A SECOND SOLOIST at ABT before he danced his Giselle with Markova and they had to promote him. But I wouldn't call him home grown.

But I agree, with this company, the definition is hard to nail down.

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My recollection with Gregory was that she was in the corps for about ten minutes. The funny thing is, during that ten minutes, I acquired one of my favorite memories of Gregory, dancing one of the non-ballerina solos in Raymonda Variations. I don't think I ever saw anyone phrase the hand behind the head/attitude as well as she did. But she graduated out of that solo in performance pretty fast.

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I think the Royal Ballet had more than it's fill of guest stars last season - I think I counted 9 men: Corella, Stiefel, Cooper, Tewsley, Bolle, Le Riche, Murru, Acosta, Lambiotti...have I missed anyone? :) ... and one lonely ballerina Yseult Lendvai. It's been exciting to see so many dancers that I would never otherwise have seen (I count my chances of ABT ever touring Europe as extremely low) and it can't do anything but help bolster the standards in the company. But I've felt a little bad for the dancers here. I think I was most disappointed when Murru stepped in to replace an injured Romeo which he hadn't otherwise been cast for. I knew that a couple of the male soloists were understudying the part of Romeo (one was "home-grown") which I would have loved to have seen. I know it's partly down to the fact that the RB are stronger on the female side than male side at the moment but I was thinking why even bother rehearse them if management was going to draft in another guest artist. Another example I can think of is Apollo next spring, for which Acosta is cast but Tewsley (having joined the RB) was not despite having danced the role in Stuttgart. It makes me a little sad to think of the performances that we may never get to see. It went overboard last year but I guess it had a lot to do with injuries and finding appropriate partners for Bussell and Guillem. I don't think we have quite so many planned for this season. I am disappointed though that Corella isn't coming back!

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This issue seems very difficult to debate because of the problem of defining 'home grown' vs. 'guest star'.

Can any company that doesn't have a school actually have 'home grown' ballerinas? Probably, but that depends not only on the artistic direction of the company, but also on the dancer him/herself. Paradoxically, if a young dancer is a mature performer and is ready for solo/principal roles immediately, then perhaps he or she will never be defined as 'home grown'. As some of you have pointed out about Cynthia Gregory. And as even more of you have pointed out (on other threads) about dancers at NYCB who have had most of their training outside NY, and went to SAB for 'finishing'. The same is true, I think, of Cojocaru, and the RB.

Regarding guest stars, Adam Cooper and Sylvie Guillem, for instance, were first 'home grown' and then became 'guest stars'. Where do they fit in? This kind of guest star may have the most impact on the morale of the company - for better or for worse.

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I think "guest star" means someone who appears for a few performances only and then flies back to wherever he or she came from. Zakharova's appearances with POB last year would be a good one.

But there are also "regular guest stars" -- they don't go on tour, they are booked for only certain ballets, not the entire repertory: Ananiashvili and Malakhov at ABT, for example.

And then there are the "foreigners" -- those who didn't grow up in the company's school, if there is a school, or who came into the company as mature dancers.

To me, it's the reason for the guests that matter. If the school isn't producing enough good dancers, enough potential stars, that they have to be imported, that's a problem. If the management doesn't have any artistic ideas and brings in guests to rev things up at the box office, that's a problem. If the guest is brought in (gasp) because there's a ballet in the rep that really suits him/her, or as a spice -- that can be good.

It's always interested me that when the Royal Ballet starts importing men for leading roles it's a National Shame, and everyone looks to the school and wonders why it can't produce male stars (a reasonable question), yet New York City Ballet imported its male stars from 1970 through the mid-'90s, and that caused, and causes, very little comment. (Jean Pierre Bonnefoux, Peter Martins, Helgi Tomasson, Ib Andersen, Adam Luders, Nikolaj Hubbe, etc etc etc)

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By the way, Zakharova will be invited again to dance "Paquita" in January. I wonder if the fact that the POB has started inviting again some guest stars means that there really is a problem in the female principals department, or if it's just that the direction thinks that it's a good opportunity for the audience to see dancers from other companies (after all, there will be at least four other Paquitas from the company).

I think guest stars also are an issue for smaller companies. On one hand, inviting guest stars to dance the main role of their productions is more likely to attract a wide audience, but on the other hand, it's not good to develop the local dancers (and to attract good dancers in the company). And for example, a major change in the Ballet de Toulouse when Nanette Glushak became its director a few years ago was that she decided to stop inviting guest stars (generally from POB) for their main productions, and gave the roles to local dancers (well, some new dancers were hired too, and the repertory of the company was changed). I don't know how the local audience reacted then, but now the level of the company seems to have improved quite a lot, and they seem to have many talented soloists able to dance the main roles. But probably making such a decision must be a bit hard sometimes, because it takes some time to grow good dancers, and the transitional period can be a bit difficult (especially with a small budget).

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