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How Companies Rehearse

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Originally posted by mbjerk

One good example:  Some smaller companies rehearse an entire cast when adding new people. as there is only one ballet master/mistress.  At Joffrey we only rehearsed the new people, one at a time, and then brought everyone together at the end.  This let the old guard work on new stuff and let the new guard work without everyone looking at them with stares that suggest they are not learning fast enough.

[mbjerk wrote this on the Training Company Directors thread, and I thought it would make an interesting topic on its own.]

mbjerk, you make a good case for rehearsing newcomers separately, but how does the company avoid making a performance look as though that's exactly what's been done?

I'm seeing it more and more lately -- the soloists are rehearsed to death in a separate room. And then lowered into the production -- in my mind's eye, I see a crane come down, lowering a little plastic bubble that opens to let out the soloists to dance their solos and then hoist them up again when it's over -- as though they have never met the other cast members. The last time I saw "Fancy Free" at ABT the pas de deux was straight out of "Romeo and Juliet" -- beautiful. But it had nothing to do with the ballet.

I once saw several performances of "Romeo and Juliet" danced by the Royal (mid-70s) when Cast 1 took the "Cut Down By Fate" approach. The curtain went up, you saw those three men and thought "Oh, how sad. By this time tomorrow, two of them will be dead." And that sense of doom pervaded the ballet. Cast 2 did the "live it on stage" approach. There was no foreshadowing of the tragedy; it was as though it happened to them fresh, that night, for the first time.

This was certainly a different approach to narrative ballet from what I had been used to watching and I've always remembered it. Whether there was a director telling them what to do or that the whole cast took its cue from the leads (my guess), it looked so blessedly adult and cohesive. And the interplay between the dancers -- I vividly remember Nureyev's Romeo and Dowell's Mercutio -- could not have come about had Dowell been rehearsed separately and only met Nureyev in a last rehearsal.

Have we gotten too efficient? Are companies rehearsing too many ballets for the staff that they have?

(If this draws more than two responses, I'll break it off to a separate thread, and I certainly don't want to discourage anyone from responding to the original topic.)

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I was thinking more of rep pieces and corps than soloist/principals. You raise an excellent point. In my experience when a ballet has been set thoroughly and the AD is around, the company has look in the ballet across the board. When there are too many cooks and the AD is not around, that is when the look changes.

Often, in big classical companies, soloists and principals have only one coach they work with on their individual repertoire. When these coaches have differing views on a ballet and the AD does not police that view(s) then each couple may have a very different interpretation. Indeed I have been in rehearsals as a dancer where my coach and my partner's coach disagreed vehemently. We went to lunch ;) while they figured out the version we were to dance - actually we excused ourselves due to illness and found another studio.

Yes companies do not spend enough time rehearsing and are spread too thin here in the States. But this is more for the fine coaching than teaching the steps or rehearsing an existing ballet. There is a tension between getting out there and performing or rehearsing until everything is perfect. This tension exists artistically, personally and financially.

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I know this may seem impossible, but I've actually seen ballets that are over-rehearsed; where the dancers have had the steps drilled into the them so often before the actual performance that the performance is correct, by rote and lifeless. As Alexandra has said in other threads, the art of the great regisseur is to make the ballets living.

We're a very tiny company and comparison with an institution or municipal company is pointless, but one thing I try to do is make it so the rehearsal process is not too far ahead of the performance dates to preserve some of that first wind of spontaneity and the excitement of the newness of the role for the dancer.

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You also have to use the mountain climbing thing. Dancers reach a level in rehearsal and need to perform at that level to gain enough understanding to reach the next level. Think of the first rehearsal period as the base camp. Climbing occurs in performance and resupplying, resting or re-establishing a new base happens in performance. All base camp leads to dull performances and all performances leads to exhaustion or worse.

Similarly all the preparation for one climb is awful as so many other things out of your control may make it a disaster (conductor, partner, illness, audience, or just a bad hair day...).

One way to keep things fresh for principals is to play with the musicality, acting or add technical difficulties. For the corps, challenge each to perform with the emotion, technique of a soloist while maintaining the discipline of the company's line, style and form. VERY HARD!

But I have just restated Leigh and Alexandra - ooops.

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I think the over-rehearsing problem does exist -- though not so much these days! -- and I agree that it's just as much a problem as under-rehearsing. In conversations about coaching, several dancers have told me that the trick to is bringing the coaching just to the edge, just before it's "perfect," so as to send the dancers into the breach, as it were, still raw -- which sounds very much like what Leigh wrote above.

Michael, I certainly can see the point in rehearsing the corps -- it must be hideously boring to stand around while the 6th and the 12th swans learn their parts!

I think it's time to have directors in ballet, in the way that plays have directors. NOT the "I am an Artiste and I will change the ballet so that people know it" kind of director, of course, but a director who has an overview of the ballet. Too often, especially in story ballets, I get a sense that the ballet is a series of numbers and that the dancers are illustrating the ballet rather than telling the story. (Fairies OFF, maids of honor ON, where are those rats???.....) There are so many things to worry about in getting a ballet onto the stage -- a big ballet, especially, that I think sometimes the directors/regisseurs/coaches forget what it looks out out front.

Michael, I think you and your partners did the right thing -- warring coaches should be sent to the gym to duke it out and leave the dancers in peace.

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I was under (over?) the impression that we do have directors for these ballets - artistic directors????

At Joffrey a ballet master or mistress was assigned with this responsibilty of director as Alexandra so aptly calls it. If others rehearsed that ballet, then they followed the director's parameters.

This may be another tangential thread - should an artistic director be focused primarily in control of everything in the studio or should the director delegate and focus less on studio day to day and more on leading the way? Or do both a la Balanchine (please note the Balanchine - Kirstein - Hogan - others collaboration that covers company, school and development).

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What does it mean to lead the way if you're not doing anything specific? I remember one such job like this: Master at a residential college (dormitory) at Yale University. The job of Master is merely to "lead the way" and contains no specifics. But the Master is also a professor and retains all the specific responsibilities of a professor.

I'd vote for the Balanchine approach. Who can argue with such success? But do try to keep the AD out of business matters. So much of "leading the way" actually means fundraising. That's best done by business and marketing staff.

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Originally posted by mbjerk

I was under (over?) the impression that we do have directors for these ballets - artistic directors????  

At Joffrey a ballet master or mistress was assigned with this responsibilty of director as Alexandra so aptly calls it.  If others rehearsed that ballet, then they followed the director's parameters.  

This may be another tangential thread - should an artistic director be focused primarily in control of everything in the studio or should the director delegate and focus less on studio day to day and more on leading the way?  Or do both a la Balanchine (please note the Balanchine - Kirstein - Hogan - others collaboration that covers company, school and development).

Another excellent point, and I think it's very related. There are several models, I suppose. A new piece is under the control of the choreographer, whether resident or guest, who may or may not have rehearsal assistants -- correct? In subsequent seasons, the in-house staff takes over, with the choreographer's assistant helping out. And perhaps, but not always, the choreographer will come back to look in on the last rehearsals.

The problems come when there's a revival. True story (from an interview with a dancer involved in these rehearsals): a major company which shall remain nameless was reviving a classic that had been out of repertory for seven years. They had seven days to rehearse it, with -- I am not making this up -- seven casts. No one could quite remember the ballet and there wasn't a clear tape. There were two people in charge -- but would it matter? And they'd danced the ballet in different eras.

It's my understanding that in Balanchine's day there were assistants who rehearsed the ballets, but he would supervise the final rehearsals -- and I agree with citibob, that's a darned good model for that company. Then you had someone overlooking the entire repertory, which, at the end at least, was predominantly made up of his own ballets. (Robbins rehearsed his own repertory; Robbins and Balanchine trusted each other. Balanchine would advise/look in on neophyte choreographers.)

Then you have the team-tag approach. Susie, you take the corps. I'll take Casts 1 and 2, Joe takes casts 3 to infinity. (Personal theory: this is the result partly of the Baby Boom and partly because dancers retire earlier. 40 years ago you could have a job through your 40s, even longer as a character dancer. And there weren't as many dancers. Now there are thousands of dancers in the 35 to 60 age group who need work, and this coincides with a ballet having 3 and 4 coaches, or a company having multiple balletmasters. Since they're all trained in different places and with different backgrounds, it makes cohesion more difficult.)

I think if everything is working, the artistic director as benevolent overseer works wonderfully This is what I observed in Copenhagen, where each ballet was staged/produced/directed as though it were a play. Roles were called back every season and the ballet was staged as if it were a new production. And that's the way it looked. Yet there was a cohesion to the repertory because you had one person teaching company class (or others teaching with him as a model) and looking over the final results.

Do artistic directors spend much time in the studio? There are some I'd rather divert to fundraising, or baking, I think. But if the artistic director is expected to do mission statements and fundraising and overlook a burgeoning administrative staff -- or try to stop the executive director from doing damage to any and all of the above :( -- how can s/he take part in the rehearsal project?

Back to overrehearsing, especially of a cllassic, I think there are times when the ballet masters don't know when to stop. I was talking with someone about Symphonic Variations the other day, and about the photographs of that ballet in its early days. There was a LIFE to it, and a freedom in the dancing that could be considered sloppiness -- arms at different angles, lines not exactly precise. Many complain that this ballet has ossified over the years and become, not as much a ballet as a Statement of the Company's Classical Manifesto. There may be a temptation to prune and spray and clilp until there's very little left.

Is this another reason for the gradual move to contemporary dance by ballet companies, by the way? That the ballets are easier to keep up?

As for the way companies are run and the division of labor -- I think that could make a good topic and will post it :)

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The idea of having directors for ballets — at least for narrative ones — occurred to me a couple of years ago when I watched the Royal do Ashton's Fille. I believe it had returned to the rep after years of retirement. At the end of the ballet there's a moment when the door of Lise's room opens to reveal Lise and Colas in an embrace, and the Widow Simone falls down the stairs in shock. It's a funny moment, but at the performance I saw it didn't work, and didn't get much laughter. The timing was off, or something. It occurred to me then that this was the sort of thing that any competent stage director could have fixed. (Of course, it could also simply have been a question of not enough rehearsal.) But I think Alexandra's point about a director's having a sense of the ballet as a whole, rather than the mechanics of putting separately rehearsed elements together, is a good one, especially in an era in which narrative ballets don't come as naturally to dancers and ballet masters as they used to. You can be a good AD (or ballet master or whoever is responsible for getting the work onstage) and not be gifted with theatrical instincts.

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I think Ari has given a good example, Ari. One sees that kind of thing often in narrative ballets. There can also be moments of raggedyness or off-musicality in abstract ballets that one would think someone would see and fix.

But I'm curious about your last sentence: "You can be a good AD (or ballet master or whoever is responsible for getting the work onstage) and not be gifted with theatrical instincts."

It could be that I"m misreading you or have a different understanding of theatrical instincts, but I'd argue that an Artistic Director MUST have theatarical instincts, in the sense of knowing whether a production "works" or not, knowing how the audience will see it.

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Originally posted by Alexandra

I'd argue that an Artistic Director MUST have theatrical instincts, in the sense of knowing whether a production "works" or not, knowing how the audience will see it.

Ideally s/he should, Alexandra, but the job of AD is so huge nowadays, and it's so hard to find people who can do every aspect of it, that it might be that someone who can fulfill the other requirements just isn't able to stage a narrative work effectively. You can look at a ballet and be able to tell that something is missing, but may not have the theatrical skills to be able to fix it. This wasn't the case in the Old Days because a) narrative works were the backbone of the repertory and anyone who got to be artistic director couldn't help but develop theatrical know-how, and B) ADs didn't have the burden of fundraising, public relations, and myriad other duties that today's directors do. These days, unfortunately, you're unlikely to be chosen as AD unless you can schmooze. That takes priority over theatrical savvy.
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I'll be a purist here :) For me, you can't have art without artistry. And it's not as though we're awash in great artists these days. There are some people who might be good artistic directors -- they serve as editors, in a way: choosing repertory, assigning dancers to it, and always with the whole in mind -- not just this season, but what are we building to. I don't think there's a substitute for this. MBAs, on the other hand, are in plentiful supply. Schmoozers are in more than plentiful supply. Why not hire the artist and find a schmoozer? If the artist is bad with people -- can't look them in the eye, mumbles and shuffles on his way to the studio, say -- there can be a cheery intermediary. If the artist is hot-tempered and likely to bite the head off certain cherished patrons, don't let him near them. I've read a lot about Balanchine but never about how he attended daily cocktail parties. What's wrong with the "Maestro would love to talk to you, but he is in the studio creating his latest masterpiece."

To me, you look at what's needed, which, to me, is an artist. Find him -- not through a search committee, either, which is the hot new trend. (A diversion: one search committee in the quite recent past began with asking questions of people in the company and connected with the company. First question: what is the biggest name in your market? I do not think we will ever have art under those circumstances.)

Regarding the AD and dancers relationship that Leigh raised -- that's a tricky one. Ideally, I think, an AD does need to be able to work with his dancers; they need to like and respect him. If he's really an ogre, there will be problems. But and on the other hand, if he caters to the dancers -- Sure you can do Apollo, or Aurora, or whatever, to the surly second soloist who knows how to pick his/her moment and pushes and pushes to get a role -- then I don't think that's good either. If the director is Ice Man, well, there are people who can work with that, and people who can't. If he's got a keen eye and can inspire the dancers artistically, maybe it's a question of shakedown time. Eventually, those who want to be cuddled will leave, and those who want to work will be drawn to the company -- if they are "fed" as I've heard dancers say.

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Maybe it's because I founded my own company, but I don't have that much sympathy for artists that need to be "protected" so they can create. Nice work if you can get it. I think it doesn't hurt for artists to learn "people skills". It's part of being an adult, and I honestly don't think it makes anyone less of an artist to be able to control one's temper or actually think about someone else's feelings. I'd even argue they're separate things entirely. Even talented artists can learn basic professionalism. Show up on time and able to do your job, don't scream at or insult your dancers. People have bad days, or tough periods in their lives or other exonerating circumstances, but I've also met people who are convinced their own character flaws are what make them artists. Consistent behavior like that is just selfishness, your own art at the expense of anyone else's. If you need to make other people insane to get the best work out of yourself. . .it's time to learn another method.

One can still have the integrity to be able to say "I'm sorry, I can't cast you in that part because you're wrong for it." without saying "I'd throw up if I had to watch you in that role" or not being able to say anything for fear of hurting someone. Actually, that's more than people skills, that's management strategy. I know from experience you can usually never tell someone they are wrong for the role because at some awful point in the future, everyone else might be injured and they may have to do it. They can't go in there knowing you never wanted them to do it in the first place. This is one reason artistic management seems so aloof to the average dancer.

[After posting, I'm adding to prevent misunderstanding that Alexandra and I are talking about different things - someone who's not socially outgoing as opposed to someone who's using their "artistic temperament" as a catch-all excuse for their character shortcomings.]

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Yes, and you get high marks in the Decent Human Being index, much as Kevin McKenzie does at ABT. (Note to readers - I've never met Peter Martins personally, so he's a "not observed" on my DHB scale) Small choreographer-driven companies, much as the old "six-dancers-in-a-station-wagon" of the fifties Robert Joffrey Ballet really have to use a different studio management module and style from larger institutional companies, and maybe our hypothetical training from which this thread sprang could include the differences between and among the different sorts and sizes of ensemble, and the strategies therefor.

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