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Hierarchical Structure II/The difference a corps makes

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I think this is a related issue to the hierarchical structure debate that seems to be going on in European ballet, though hasn't reached America yet. But it will eventually, I'm sure. (The question being whether the traditional principal/soloist/corps rankings are still useful to ballet today, which is being discussed on another thread.)

In the 1950s in Denmark and the 1960s in America there was a related debate in companies that did not have a female corps de ballet, or ballets that required a magnificent female corps de ballet a la "Swan Lake". In Denmark, this came to a head when Vera Volkova imported the Russian classics, as well as contemporary classics like "Symphony in C," which were seen by some as necessary to keep the company at international standard, and by others as anathema to the Danisih tradition -- Bournonville's ballets, "La Sylphide" aside, do not use a unified corps de ballet; he had crowd scenes, and every character had a name. The ballets were also dominated by male action heroes, one might say today, and the critics were befuddled by having to watch "Chopninana" -- why are we watching one man with all those girls? one wrote. And why is he so melancholy!!!

In America in the mid-1960s, Lucia Chase wanted to add "Swan Lake" to the company's repertory, also in the spirit of competition, as the leading Western company was then considered by many to be the Royal Ballet, and that company's calling card was "the classics" and its well-groomed corps. Jerome Robbins and Agnes DeMille fought this fiercely, saying that it would change the company's aesthetic, which had always had an emphasis on character ballets and new work, and would damage their ballets, because dancers trained to dance in a corps would not be able to suddenly become character dancers in "Rodeo" or "Fancy Free." They also feared the expense, and what would happen to the new, large corps de ballet on non-"Swan Lake" nights.

The traditionalists lost, of course, and one of the ways that regional ballet companies in this country have sought to enter the big leagues is NOT through new ballets but through acquiring "the classics". "Swan Lake" was entry level, "Sleeping Beauty" meant you hit the big time; now it seems to be "Jewels."

Sorry for the historical background, but it's necessary to understand the question. Say you're a small company, mid-level regional ballet company, that wants to grow. What do you do? Do you raise money to acquire "the classics"? Do you gradually change from having 24, 30, 36 dancers to 50 or 60 by adding a corps?

Why I say this is part of the hierarchical debate is because the old Ballets Russes model certainly had stars, but otherwise could make a claim that they were companies of soloists. A company's nature changes when you add a corps.

(Lest I be misunderstood, some of the most beautiful moments in my life have been provided by the corps. In the big companies -- Paris, Kirov, Bolshoi now -- the corps is the soul of the company. So I have nothing against corps de ballets at all, and the greatest respect for them, in whole and dancer by dancer. But if you aim for one of those corps, you're changing the nature of your company. And your stature as a company will be judged by how well that corps performs, and whether you have enough dancers with ideal bodies to create the proper "look.")

Whew. Again, apologies for the long introduction, but:

Where does ballet go from here? Should every company go down "Swan Lake" road? Or is there room for old-style or new-style all soloist companies?

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I'm not sure that there is such a clear line of demarcation between the two kinds of companies, Alexandra. You mention the Royal (1960s era) as the leading Western company that did "the classics" (i.e. Petipa & Ivanov). That's true, but it was also famous for its character dancers at every level, not just the "principal character dancers" as in the Russian companies. One of the joys of seeing the Royal in those days (and, to a lesser extent, today) was the commitment of the entire company to bringing narrative ballets to life. The crowd scenes were enlivened by corps members who mimed convincingly, even if Ashton, Cranko, and MacMillan did not provide them with the same kind of specific characters that Bournonville and Fokine did.

And I don't think it's asking too much of dancers to wear a white tutu one night and dance in a line, and then expect them to do Rodeo the next. Today's dancers are expected to make greater artistic leaps — they do Giselle and Balanchine in the same season (I'm talking here about the technical and stylistic differences). Of course that raises a whole other issue, but for those who take the purist approach, is that realistic? Only a wealthy company can afford to specialize so rigorously, and I can't think of any that do (let alone think of any that are wealthy :) ).

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Ari, I'm sorry; I wasn't clear -- I agree with what you said about character dancing, but that wasn't what I meant. I meant that adding "Swan Lake" to ABT's repertory, just to take that case, changed the nature of the company from one that did primarily demicaractere ballets (now out of fashion, of course), and small-cast experimental works to one that would have a large corps to "feed." And different expectations from the audience, and different recruitment standards. If you have a repertory of Tudor-DeMille-Robbins ballets, you can have dancers with different body types (dresses hide a multitude of sins) and you'll look at an audition (or students in a schoo,l for companies that have one) for dancers who can do the sailors, or Hagar, or the Cowgirl -- and that's different from Siegfried and Odette. (My memory of the reviews of the Royal's character dances of the 1970s were "they sure aren't Russians!" and one review of "Petrushka" stuck in my mind: "The milkmaids couldn't have produced a pint of milk between them.")

Can dancers be versatile and do everything? Yes and no, I think. The corps in the Royal's or ABT's Romeo and Juliet to me has always looked like a corps de ballet, not characters in a drama. And generally today, dancers have no training or models in character dancing and I don't find them convincing when they do works that require it. The acting is often amateurish. This is one thing on which agree with Kisselgoff -- she wrote this awhile ago -- that dancers have been trained not to act for 20 years and you can't suddenly throw them in a story ballet and expect them to perform like the Ballets Russes generation.

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It is hard as a mid-sized regional company. Your audience knows ballet as swans in tutus and your dancers probably are not able to dance it as well as should be. You possibly augment the corps with students, which not creates a schism in ability but makes the corps ragged. But the audience clamors for what it knows.

Houston grew from a middle company with small versions of the classics. In Ben's Beauty and Swan we all did everything every night. It built the company's comraderie and technical ability tremendously. Also as Ben built the school up to feed the company it allowed talented students to see opportunities in Houston - perhaps squashing the NY wonderlust (not for me though...).

It is a difficult choice. I err on the side that if one cannot meet the standard set by the ABT, Kirov, etc. in the dancing, even with a small production, then one should not make the attempt. I also think there are wonderful small versions of Giselle, La Sylphide, van Danzig's Romeo, that enable this type of company to do some classics while building a repertoire and dancers. But I also have always lived in cities where the ABT, Kirov (and now NYCB YEAH) tour often, so I can see the classics and Balanchine rep at a world class standard. Tulsa or Indianapolis do not have this option.

Also it depends on why the company exists. Is it because the city wants art (opera, symphony or ballet) for status or development reasons? Is it because a talented person started a company with an artistry that drew audiences? Is it a school that began a company to keep its students at home? These are also stages - look at Mary Day and WSB - it has gone through this whole process.

So a long winded non-answer save to say that I find there are enough companies with the dancers, budget and production values to mount the classics fantastically. I would rather the funds are spent on new choreography, retaining better dancers and productions that are smaller (Grad Ball is a good example) and improve the circumstances of the regional companies.

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just want to say that my brain really is not up to contributing to this complex debate, inasmuch as i have never thought about this issue - but that i have learned a lot, from what i have read, already - especially from alexandra's first post, so no need to apologise for it!

thanks 'guys'. :)

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I think mbjerk summarized all the issues beautifully. It IS hard to be a midlevel regional company -- or a top level regional company! In these competitive, market-driven days, when ballet companies are being told to turn to business models for development, everything is about getting into this mythical Top Ten (Remember the former Exec of Boston Ballet about a year ago.) And boards hear that as "Swan Lake."

I totally agree with you -- if you can't do it right, don't do it. I also think that getting "Swan Lake" is the easy answer. Far more difficult, though probably less expensive in both the short and long term, is to devise an interesting repertory of smaller classics and new BALLETS (as you mentioned above) and educate the audience to appreciate it.

For the past ten years, the small company solution is to get a "classic," or something that passes as a classic for much of the repertory and then a New Works evening (which is fine, except they're not commissiong new BALLETS). And this has created a split audience -- one for funky new stuff, the other for tutus and tiaras only.

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Alexandra, I'm going to disagree just a bit with your ABT history. I was in ABT in the 60's, as you know, and I believe we were a corps de ballet well before Swan Lake (full length) was done. We did Act II in the early 60's, along with Les Sylphides, Giselle, Etudes, and La Sylphide, which all came before full length Lac. I do not remember that the company grew in size at all during those years, or even the year they had all 4 acts. We had 40 to 43 dancers throughout the time I was there. It was after Baryshnikov came that the company grew considerably larger. I could be wrong on the numbers, but that is what I remember.

As to the companies today, I agree with Ari. I do not believe it is to much to ask of a dancer to be a Swan or a Sylph one night and do Rodeo, or Billy the Kid, or even In the Middle... the next. Good heavens, we did programs with Les Noces or Billy in between Sylphides or Grand Pas Glazunov and Etudes or Theme and Variations! And then the next night we might do Pillar or Fall River with Sylphides and Etudes or Theme. Then Giselle or La Sylphide the next night.

I don't know what Kisselgoff meant by dancers NOT trained to act, because I disagree with that! I was trained that a dancer is an actress who speaks with her body instead of words. I believe that and it is certainly a part of training a dancer. And I don't feel that dancers who can do Odette/Odile cannot turn around and do a Hagar or Lizzie, although maybe not Cowgirl ;)

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Alexandra, I'm sorry, but I don't understand the distinction you're drawing. If you're not contrasting classical with character dancing, then what is classical's opposite? Demicaractere ballets like those of Tudor, de Mille, and early Robbins are, as you noted, out of fashion these days. This has had a spiralling effect, so that schools are not turning out the Nora Kayes and Sallie Wilsons of the past. And "small cast experimental" ballets these days tend to be, alas, "contemporary" stuff.

I do think it's possible to have dancers who can straddle the stylistic requirements: the Cornejos at ABT, for instance. They will continue to be in the minority, however, until demicaractere ballets become the rage again (as will surely happen eventually).

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I think you're right on your dates, Victoria -- the company did do Swan Lake Act II before they acquired the full version. The story of DeMille and Robbins fighting off the full length version is correct, though -- at least according to Charles Payne's "History of ABT." I meant to use "Swan Lake" as a symbol. It represented a crossroads for the company, moving from triple bills and new works into the full-evening ballet business.

I think in the 1960s dancers did move back and forth between character ballets and classical ones, but I'd also say (with apologies and smilies galore :) ) that ABT wasn't doing "Swan Lake" on the same level as the Royal or the Kirov; the Blair was a smaler scaled version. Nor could it be expected to. It takes a long time to build up enough depth to do that. And through the 1980s, there were criticisms, well-founded, IMO, that the company looked far better in its "native repertory." I think this is true for most companies -- and I think it should be true. I wouldn't want to see NYCB doing "Onegin" or "Spartacus" and (although I know they're doing it) I don't want to see the Bolshoi's "La Sylphide".

Kisselgoff was speaking of dancers of today, who've been dancing "abstract ballets" and then put into dramatic ones, when they came back in fashion, and expected to act.

[Editing to add, since Ari and I were posting at the same time]

I don't understand what isn't clear, I'm sorry :) [And editing again to say, ah, I think I do now and have posted about it in a separate post below; sorry!] I think there's a big difference between "Swan Lake" and that type of corps de ballet dancing and "Billy the Kid." I think we just disagree on the Royal. By the time I first saw them in the mid-1970s, I didn't think they were convincing in crowd scenes; I thought their character work was dry and perfunctory.

But the point of the debate at ABT was about turning the company from one that concentrated on new works, and the Tudor-DeMille-Robbins repertory of new classics, and changing direction to be a mini-Royal. I think that's what smaller companies are facing today. Not that they have any Tudor-DeMille-Robbins rep to worry about guarding, of course, but they're moving towards being mini-ABTs. And I think the contemporary dance fans see this as a choice between being small ensembles without hierarchies doing new work, which is contemporary dance not ballet because ballet, as we all know is dead :), or cookie cutter "classics" companies modeled on the bigger institutions.

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There seems to be a general principle here: preparing for something specific takes resources. The more variety you want, the more resources you need.

I can relate to the issue of having little training in mime or other kinds of acting. We don't do it in our repertory seasons, then we're suddenly expected to do it for The Nutcracker. I really don't know how convincing I look.

I also think that getting "Swan Lake" is the easy answer. Far more difficult, though probably less expensive in both the short and long term, is to devise an interesting repertory of smaller classics and new BALLETS (as you mentioned above) and educate the audience to appreciate it.

To a certain extent, that's what Forsythe did.

Victoria, what are the pros and cons of the new larger size of ABT?

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Thank you, Leigh :)

I think I've figured out how to say what I've been trying to say unsuccessfully. Ari, I didn't mean to contrast classical and character dancing, but repertory emphasis. And I forgot to add one important thing in my long introduction which I think will clarify my meaning.

In the terms of the day, a company followed the Diaghilev model or the Maryinsky model. DeValois took in the Diaghilev repertory, but she set her sights on being the 20th century Maryinsky, and the repertory reflected that. In contrast, ABT was a Ballets Russes-type company. Taking on the full-length "Swan Lake" meant they were switching to the Maryinsky model, and this meant they would need to develop their corps -- training, selecting dancers, rehearsing -- along that line, choose a classical dancer over a character dancer. It could not afford to have squadrons of both, a la the Bolshoi or Kirov.

Ballet Theatre did do "Giselle" and "Swan Lake Act II," and it was known for the star performances in those ballets, but not for the ballets as a whole in the way the Kirov and the Royal were. ABT's calling card were "Pillar" and "Billy" and "Fancy Free." One of the complaints about ABT for years was that "it didn't have a corps" (it had one, of course, but it was more known for its soloists and principals, the stars.) Not because the dancers were "bad" but because they hadn't been selected as "cookie cutter corps" dancers. When Baryshnikov and Tchernicheva came in and expanded the company, as Victoria noted above, they were selecting women with exactly the same length of leg, etc. And when you have that kind of corps, the character ballets that depend on having a variety of body types can't really work. So it is an either/or. You can do both, but one will always suffer.

The Royal did do new works and "the classics" (which Robbins and DeMille argued that ABT would not be able to do if they added the full length "Swan Lake"), but Ashton was the unifying force in that repertory and ABT didn't have a choreographer who would serve the same function. Ashton added choreography to Beauty and Lake so that the native repertory and "the classics" were danced in a similar style and he created ballets that used the corps. The Ballets Russes ballets in the Royal's repertory weren't their calling card, either. That was the classical ballets, the Ashton and the Ashtonized Petipa.

I don't think any company today would face the same aesthetic crisis that ABT did because no company has as strong a personality -- perhaps the Joffrey would be the closest? The Joffrey switching half its repertory over to "Swan Lake" type ballets would mean a change in the way the company chose dancers, I would think.

For the midlevel regional troupes that Michael was talking about above, it wouldn't so much be giving up something concrete -- so many companies of that type are doing the same ballets everybody else is -- but they would be facing one of the things that Robbins and DeMille were worried about: If you put all your money into Swan Lake, you won't have anything left over for experiments, nurturing new choreographers, etc.

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That's a good question, citibob. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. From a dancers standpoint, I feel that it is too big and that all the dancers do not dance enough. When I was there I was in every ballet every night, when I was in corps and as a soloist. I don't think I would like it much now, with nights off or one ballet or one act of a ballet.

From the company standpoint of course it allows them to do larger works, and have plenty of extra people to cover all the roles because there are several casts of everything. Of course with as many casts as they have in the principal roles I usually feel that no one gets to dance it enough to really have the chance to make the role their own. Being much larger, I suppose, it makes them a "Major" company, but then, I always thought it was a "Major" company :)

I loved their own repertoire too. Especially the Tudor! We did full length works, but not nearly as many as they do now of course. But, we did them.

When I was there we toured A LOT! We traveled all over this country and played in every State and also a lot of foreign countries. The company is so large now that it is much more difficult to tour, and they don't do nearly as much of that. I loved the touring. It was an education in itself, and I loved the whole experience. It was always nice to dance in NY too, but now they do much more there and very little touring. I'm glad I was dancing when I did and not now :)

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POB was huge. That's why they had all those rankings. Three quadrilles of eight dancers each, then coryphees, then sujets, premier sujets, etc. up through the ranks.

The Maryinsky was very large too -- and today, both the Kirov and Maryinsky have in the neighborhood of 200 dancers (unless this has changed recently because of economic constraints). They can take one full company on tour and leave another one at home, both doing full-lengths -- and probably have a troupe touring off in the provinces somewhere. POB has two theatres in Paris, and, as they're doing right now, can dance "Sylvia" in one of them and "Paquita" in another.

The Danes were always a small, provincial company who had a big, world-class choreographer. It's ballet's fluke.

The 19th century ballet world was totally different in so many ways, though. These companies were attached to opera companies or theaters. The dancers performed in operas (and, in Copenhagen, plays, and the actors performed in the ballets). At the Maryinsky, even though ballet was hugely popular, it was only given two nights a week. In some countries, "the season" ended with Lent. No one was dancing 6, 7, 8 nights a week 20 weeks a year.

Today, I do think clicking the Swan Lake button is part of upsizing, and, especially here, bigger is better. (What a surprise!) A company with 100 dancers must be "greater" than one with merely 60 (the size of the Royal when it was dancing "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty" in the '50s). I think that in some cases, at least, the boards are driving this -- "We want to become one of the great companies, this means we must have lots of dances and a big budget;" and that line crosses with, "We need to have a big audience and they like story ballets; Swan Lake always sells." And there we are. (I interviewed one of the directors of the RDB during the recent Troubled Decade and he reacted to the criticism that the company was no longer a world-class company with, "We are a world-class company. I have 110 dancers!")

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Alexandra, I remember ABT's history somewhat differently. They didn't get seriously into the classics business until Baryshnikov joined as a dancer. Then, since he was a short classicist, they began filling the corps with short classicists, in a desperate attempt to keep him. (And this despite his oft-repeated statement that he had left Russia not to dance the classics, but to do new work.) When, in the early '80s, Baryshnikov took over as director, he did make an effort to make the company more Maryinsky-like, but at the same time he began to hire different kinds of dancers. I remember hearing about an audition at which he rejected small girls and took in taller ones, because he wanted to give the company more variety.

When people complained about ABT "not having a corps" they were talking — at least this was always the way I heard it — about the company's lack of an identifiable style, since it's always a company's corps that announces what it is (principals being individuals).

And I don't think that cookie-cutter dancers are necessarily what makes a classical corps. Balanchine established NYCB on a rigorously Petipa-derived model, with hierarchies of dancers an essential element. And people still talk about the "Balanchine look," and yes, it does exist. But within this look there has always been room for quite a variety of body types. Think of Nina Fedorova and Elise Flagg, in the corps at the same time — hardly cookie-cutter images.

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I can confirm Ari's recollection of the Baryshnikov history, and the subsequent attempted imposed Russification of the company style. It very nearly led to a Palace Rebellion, and many who were there then recall that it was eventually instrumental in causing Mischa to resign. This is an interesting fusion post to the technique/style thread!:)

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Sorry, but you're forgetting the big full-length ballets mounted in the 1970s. The Russification may have started with Baryshnikov, but not the story ballet business, and it's a different issue. ABT staged Makarova's Kingdom of the Shades (another Royal Ballet signature piece) in 1974 , Nureyev's production of "Raymonda" in 1975, and the Skeaping/Messel production of "The Sleeping Beauty" 1976 (the Messel production was the one the Royal had brought to New York to such acclaim in 1949), as well as some now-forgotten full lengths, like Peter Darrell's "Tales of Hoffman."

But the point that I have been trying to make, and the point of the thread, is that the decision to stage "Swan Lake" was a turning point that changed the direction of the company and similar decisions are facing companies today.

In Charles Payne's "American Ballet Theatre," p 240:

When Lucia Chase chose to take full repsonsibility for the completion of Swan Lake, she was not wholly aware of the momentousness of her decision, for in doing so, she determined the nature of the company's activities and the nature fo the company itself during the next decade. She was, in the first place, opting for a super-size company...

It goes on to go through the complaints made by the advisory committee -- that the company would have trouble getting grants to do restagings of "classics" rather than new works, that the number of new commissions would go down, etc. These are issues that are just as relevant today.

As for the corps in that time, when people wrote that the company didn't have a corps I agree that partly it was that the company was said to not have a style (which I think could be argued) but also that the corps was not, as Croce put it, "the world's most sensitive choreographic instrument." It wasn't the company's strength. The anti-"Swan Lake" faction argued that ABT's new rep -- the TRdeM rep (I'm tired of writing out the names!) could stand eye to eye with any company in the world and was the company's signature; its corps at that time could not and resources would have to be used to make the corps more cohesive to be able (horrid word) to "compete" with the Royal and the Kirov and Bolshoi on that playing field.

From everything I've read, NYCB's corps was put in a separate category because the repertory has different demands. Standards change over the decades, but the standard for the full-length classics in the 1960s were the Royal, the Kirov [on very short acquaintance in the West] and the Bolshoi.

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I don't mean to suggest that it's not interesting or worthwhile to discuss the history of ABT (and the company did, indeed, change again with Baryshnikov, and with Hermann, and with McKenzie), but I'm afraid we've gotten a bit bogged down in it and away from the main question, which I raised because it will be debated at the meeting of artistic directors that will take place in 2 weeks in England. So I'm bringing forward the question from the first thread:

Say you're a small company, mid-level regional ballet company, that wants to grow. What do you do? Do you raise money to acquire "the classics"? Do you gradually change from having 24, 30, 36 dancers to 50 or 60 by adding a corps?
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