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Repertory Choreographers and Single-Style Choreographers

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We've been talking recently a lot about the characteristics of ballet as an institution.

One more factor I'd like to add into the discussion is the habits of choreographers to work either in a single idiom or in a repertory style.

Balanchine and Ashton are obvious examples of choreographers oriented toward repertory. They choreographed with an eye both to their own needs and to the needs of the audience for variety. Works would be in traditional and modern styles, in a variety of moods, and to fit differing positions in a program.

With the recent Eifman/Forsythe poll, I was disturbed by the idea of losing the Balanchine repertory far more than choosing between either choreographer. I respect Forsythe's work, and enjoy much of it, but I don't consider him a repertory choreographer (it would be unfair of me to judge Eifman in this way, I have not seen enough). I think it would be possible to dispute me on this though. Does a choreographer's oeuvre seem not varied enough because it isn't varied enough, or because I can't see the variations?

I'd argue that it isn't the choreographer who always gets to decide how s/he works, in this climate, if the choreographer doesn't have a home base, the marketplace decides for him/her. I give a lot of credit to Christopher Wheeldon for very clearly thinking in terms of building repertory. I also think he's one of the few who has the stability and market clout to be able to do so. Right now, "core" repertory almost does not exist as a commission. New choreographers are brought in to do two types of work - the contemporary ballet or the full-length story ballet.

Does anyone else have a different or additional take on this?

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To me, there's your institutional model (i.e., repertory, the notion of building on the past, preserving the best of it, creating new work that's passed on to the future, all within a general institutional aesthetic and style. whch has been the ballet model) or your ex-institutional model (most American modern dance companies; the style/technique comes out of the choreographer's body, it's of his time -- deliberately -- and so intended).

I also think there's the problem that there aren't that many choreographers who COULD build a repertory, not just that they're not choosing to. I think if there were such a choreographer he'd build, or take over, a company very quickly. I live in hope.

Building a repertory requires variety. I think there are some times when everything looks alike because it's new/strange (to the viewer) and the distinctions willl sort themselves out over time, if one has eyes and a brain. And there are times when you can look at it for years and then determine that it really does all look alike. I think the only determinant of that is time.

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I find the concept of "style" to be problematic.

If you try to truly define a "style" and self-consciously create in that "style", you risk becoming boring. After all, if you've made the same work once, why do it a second time? Do something different!

And yet, we can all recognize distinctive styles in choreography and music, even within disparate works of one composer who was certainly not boring (eg: Mozart).

And then sometimes, people self-consciously set out to define a new style for every piece, to make sure different pieces are not too similar. This happened in 20th Century music, in which an entire new music theory would be created for the composition of just one piece. The result was that the pieces became incomprehensible because the audience had no background in the theory (contrast to the theory of tonal music, which is used so extensively that we intuitively understand a piece of music written with that theory).

So what does it mean to do all your choreography in one style? Does it mean you were self-consciously making it all the same? Or does it mean something else?

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It means that Balanchine choreographed in one style and Ashton in another, and both were very different from Fokine, Robbins and DeMille, in the same way Hemingway's writing style differed from Fitzgerald's or Faulkner's. Except, of course, it's more complicated than that. Each represents a different mindset as well as use of the body and dancers are trained in one style or another. There's been a debate for years whether a company should dance all works in its own style, or try to dance each work in its own style.

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To elaborate, it can mean a few things.

There is style in the sense of genre. Full length ballet - character ballet, contemporary work, lyrical, pastoral, opener, closer, group work, solo, chamber work. . .you get the idea. There are choreographers who work in a limited range of genres and others who move among as many. Sometimes it's a question of resources, other times an artistic choice and sometimes it's the way they market themselves.

Though he worked in a wide range of genres in a long career, Balanchine, in one sense, had a single style - in the sense of a distinctive voice. This really is one of those "I can tell you what it is when I see it" things. Balanchine's voice (to use him as an example) is something that runs under work in each genre. It's how he approaches music, how he structures his work, his view of the world, and what was in his heart (to be maudlin). Some choreographers have shticks, some have their own style - that's partly in the eye of the beholder, partly in their track record and partly in their talent.

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Another aspect of style -- is it lost? -- is to look at ABT when it was Ballet Theatre and really, truly had Tudor, Robbins, DeMille, Loring on the premises, making works, and Fokine and Massine coming in and staging their ballets. AND ballet masters who (I take on faith from reading) could stage "Les Sylphides" and "Swan Lake Act II" so you could tell which was by Fokine and which was not!

Has any other company done that? Ashton and DeValois's styles jarred a bit, and DeValois withdrew. Ashton and MacMillan's styles clashed violently and Ashton went. Balanchine and Robbins certainly coexisted well, and there were Robbins dancers and Balanchine dancers, but I don't think one encroached on the other -- but Tudor did not fit in. So ABT remains, I think, the one company that really truly could maintain different styles and do them convincingly -- when those choreographers were around to work with the dancers.

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Just a note to say that I put up a post discussing style and technique, how those terms are used, on the Discovering Ballet thread.

Leigh, to respond to one of the points you made in your initial post:

With the recent Eifman/Forsythe poll, I was disturbed by the idea of losing the Balanchine repertory far more than choosing between either choreographer.

Isn't this at the heart of one of the great arguments -- preserve or create? Is it the job of the NYCB to preserve Balanchine, the Royal to preserve Ashton, ABT to preserve Tudor? I'd say yes, but others would disagree. The other side to this is that the point of NYCB was to create new work. If the First Creator is dead, you need to do what Kirstein did: go out and find the very best choreographer you can, give him a home, give him basically anything he wants that's in your power to give him, and let him create. That is the only way you'll get new, great art. If you keep the First Creator's work around, and spend a lot of energy in trying to keep the ballets looking as though they did in his lifetime, you'll have the effect of squelching anyone who wants to choreograph in a different style. I was told by a very reliable source that Kirstein was floating the idea of asking Paul Taylor to take over the company after Balanchine, because he wanted the best choreographer available. What would happen to Balanchine if you did this? If you do bring in Forsythe or Tharp or Morris -- aside from the question of whether or not what they're doing iis ballet -- their accent is so distinctive that soon everything in the repertory will begin to look like Second Creator.

Is the choice: One, preserve great works, have no new ones. Or two, have new works, have no past? Is there a way around this?

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I think sometimes choreographers can do very strong work when thinking about the company's needs. It helps the dancers. For example, when Balanchine wanted to improve Farrell's bourrees, he put different kinds all through Don Q. It forced Farrell to improve them, since she was going to be on stage and wouldn't want to look bad. Or when Balanchine was excited about a particular quality, such as Ashley's quickness and hops on point, he made a ballet with all sorts of hops on point and lightning fast variations. I think it also adds variety to the choreographer's work, so they don't get stuck using all the same steps, even if the style is different.

I wish choreographers would think about the company's needs more often. It makes them really see the company. For example, if a company has a lot of strong, promising corps dancers, why not make a ballet to show them off. Or a ballet that shows them how to become ballerinas and danseurs. The possibilities are endless - doing a ballet for a principal dancer that isn't doing much, a french ballet to open a program, a big company work to end the night.

I don't think ADs/choreographers think enough of what the companies need. They all want to do their vision. Many new ballets today come from choreographers who creat the ballet on their own dancers, then set it on the company for the premiere. It has nothing to do with the dancers who are actually dancing it.

Creating obsticles or putting themselves in a box to figure out can really help focus a choreographer.

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