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Americana - uncouth?

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In todays New York Times, Jack Anderson writes about the lack of American themes in ballet. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/12/arts/dan...nce/12ANDE.html

In Ballet World, America Is Still a Distant Shore

On Oct. 16, 1942, cowboys rode bucking broncos across the stage of the old Metropolitan Opera House. The cowboys were really dancers of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and the broncos were invisible. But their buckings could be sensed in Agnes de Mille's choreography for "Rodeo," and the ballet, to a score by Aaron Copland, created a sensation...

Other observers might be puzzled that ballet repertories today do not have more works on American themes at a time when American companies and dancers are respected all over the world...  

Could it be that some dancers and dancegoers still secretly regard ballet as essentially foreign?

For them, Americana may seem uncouth. Reviewing "Rodeo" in 1948, S. Morgan-Powell, the knowledgeable but conservative critic of The Montreal Daily Star, complained, "The subject of a rodeo is about as suitable for expression in ballet form as a herd of elephants in flight through the jungle."  

Do all too many people continue to share that view? If so, that's a pity, for there's a wide world of balletic subjects awaiting exploration. And America should certainly be part of the territory.

Rather than posting this in the Links section, which I'm sure it will hit later today, I thought this might be a subject that would combine a number of issues that have been brought up...a combination thread of sorts about trends, marketing, and even Mel's friends the Eutic fellers...Hermeneutic...;)

If some indeed do consider American themes to be "uncouth"...do you think, on the other hand, that if new ballets were produced with more American themes that these naysayers might be proven wrong? Just wondering... So much has been written about the lack of younger audience members at the ballet, in general, that I can't help but wonder if sometimes it is because the unlearned think its all about castles and men in tights? :)

What do you think?

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I think they'd already done the herd of elephants long before 1948, in Jean Borlin's "Création du Monde", but that ballet apparently stunk, even though I'd love to see the decor in full execution, and the costumes in motion.

Ballet is an expansive language, and while it ought not to lose the swans and sylphs, it can encompass plenty of themes and libretti, not all of which have to be from the western European past. After all, didn't Diaghilev act as a sort of Peter the Great in reverse, and introduce Russian folklorica into the west? There were people who disapproved of that, too!

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I think Mel makes a good point. Why should Russian -- or English or Italian -- folk dance material be ok for ballet but American folk material not? Not meaning to offend our Russian friends :) but 100 years ago, those barrel turns were considered just as "uncouth" as square dance moves.

The culture differences are fascinating. You'll often read Americans bemoaning the French love of John Wayne and Jerry Lewis because they're "uncouth." Do French critics who write admiringly of these bits of Americana do it because they see something we can't see, or are they just mocking us? :)

Is it because America lacks the same richness of folk material as other cultures -- not only Europe, of course, but Asia and Africa -- that we turn to our pop culture so often? Why does America have such a bifurcated view of high culture: on the one hand, denying that it exists; on the other hand, feeling inferior that we don't measure up?

Lots of interesting questions here.

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Oh, Hans, someone can complain about anything !!! :)

Why are there no Americana ballets made today? Was it just a fad -- that's one theory, that when American imported ballet it had to find an American voice, and at first did that literally, with costumes and stories, and then, when we began to dance ballet with an American accent, we had American-inflected abstract ballet.

But we haven't looked to American literature often -- the late Philip Jerry did a few years ago, doing a ballet "Our Town." It didn't completely work, but I admired him so much for trying it.

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The ballets that Anderson mentions are demi-caractère ballets, which are not in fashion right now.

Another reason may be that since the sixties, anything celebrating America has a negative implication. When NYCB first performed Stars & Stripes in Paris, the audience booed.

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Ari, your suggestion about anything celebrating America being out of favor is probably all too true...especially given our curre3nt situation. :) Yet, it hasn't always been so, has it?

Alexandra, I've always wondered especially about the French love of Jerry Lewis...and yet, there are some who might say that the - stereotypical - French humor, that we Americans note, is quite slapstick and unlike what some of us might consider witty.

But on to American Lit.! I think this vein is worth exploration... or perhaps film adaptations? Any folklore, Mel? Paul Bunyon comes to mind...but somehow doesn't seem to strike quite the right chord.

P.S. Hans, when I first saw Stars and Stripes, I was almost embarrassed! :eek: Then I read about Balanchine's love of America and felt a wave of patriotism - a la George Cohan.:)

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I first saw "Stars and Stripes" at the very end of the Vietnam War and it seemed very out of time!

Balanchine's great lost (in the sense of never made) ballet is "Birds in America," the Johnny Appleseed saga -- I've always imagined it would have been a kind of American "Jewels" with birds instead of gems.

Kirstein, I've read, always wanted to do a full-evening ballet to something by Henry James....

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I was just having a lovely conversation with Alexandra, and in the course of things the idea of The Song of Hiawatha came up. Now Longfellow is out, he's so out, he might be the next wave back in! And there is at least one score, was it by John Alden Carpenter(?), of considerable length that might afford a platform for dancing. Of all poems, "Hiawatha" is probably the most like a European tale, in that it's a saga - a conscious imitation, even to the meter, of Finland's Kalevala. There's lots of mystical stuff going on too about the "spirits of the fenlands" and a lot of things suitable for interpretation on pointe. Otherworldlies.

Evangeline might work too, if Manon has obviously made the transition to the ballet stage.

There are many American folklorics still untouched, and they certainly all aren't cowboys! Some are even partly true, as the legendary character of the Benedict Arnold treason, which is, by the way on the tube tomorrow night. It could be a kind of 18th-century "Lilac Garden" the characters are so complex and involving, and Arnold himself being the most complex of all. And besides, Peggy Arnold might get to rip her clothes off in front of whoever is playing George Washington - actually happened! She could have a mad scene that we haven't seen in a long time!

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Mel, I think you're on to something. Now all you need is a choreographer and a composer! The Benedict Arnold story is perfect'; an anti-hero for our time. Hiawatha might not pass the PC test, but Evangeline -- ethnic discrimination! unrequited love! government oppression! how topical can you get?

(And Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton might be interesting, too....)

We have had a new ballet that some have seen here, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Maybe the next generation will be interested in our past.

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I always considered "Square Dance" to be very Americana. And Robbins ballets always had that youth that was so representative of the times (Fancy, West Side, Interplay)

Aside from sports, the only thing else that really seems to give people American pride is war. Perhaps it's the short history, but...

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I think it was George Templeton Strong, the New York diarist, who observed that America was such a young country that we tend to hold tight and keep for ourselves the few traditions we have accumulated to date (he was writing during the Civil War). And as far as war is concerned, a lot happens in war, very fast. That's why historians tend to work on them so much. After all, "West Side" is a love story set against a gang war/blood feud, and "Fancy Free" is sailors on leave during WWII, when Fleet Week happened every day at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

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Could it be that the themes of our young but ambitious country don't lend themselves to the more poetic, lyrical lines of ballet? I am thinking of the PBS show on Chicago that aired (part 1 of 3) last night. Such rawness! Chicago sprang up out of nothing -- it went from mostly uninhabited marshland to booming metropolis in 40 years -- due to the raw greed and capitalism of some very ambitious men. I suppose there are some themes to be explored there, but at the least I would see them as modern dance -- very angular and abrupt, at that -- and not ballet.

Now, I suppose one could explore the curious juxtaposition in our country that noble community goals -- justice, democracy, freedom from government intrusion -- are supposed to achieved and maintained by individual action. THAT certainly should satisfy the abstract-ballet lovers.

My vote, however, for turning a piece of American literature into ballet would be Willa Cather's O Pioneers! It taps the American expansionist dream in an unusual way, with a woman lead. This also lets it explore the relationships between men and women in an emerging society governed by multiple immigrant social codes. Its great theme is The Land -- the sweeping prairies that fed, first, individual settlers and eventually the country.

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I thought this excerpt from a review of PNB's Silver Lining, from the Autumn 2002 Dance Now, mght be interesting/relevant here.

"The temptation for ballet - especially American ballet - to borrow from Broadway is considerable. At first sight that whole bitter-sweet Manhattan thing looks so easy. The orchestra strikes up, the skyscraper backdrop illuminates, and there are the cast, all sass and knife-sharp pleats. And, for the doubters, those who wonder if the lemon-peel in that particular cocktail might just have been sucked dry, there is the validating example of Balanchine.

The fact is, however, that this material lends itself best to classical ballet when it is stripped to the raw. Balanchine, for all that he refused to draw a line between ballet and more demotic styles, was well aware of this. Who Cares?, his 1970 setting of a Gershwin song-cycle, was first performed (to rapturous reviews) on a bare stage to a single piano. The trap into which productions like Silver Lining fall is that they succumb to a kind of cross-disciplinary envy. Avid for the glamorous refulgence of Broadway, but locked at the same time into ballet's instinctive puritanism, they shake down into a mutant form which plays to the strengths of neither."

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Treefrog, I must have read O Pioneers, however it's My Antonia that remains in my mind's eye! I wonder if the difficulty with some novels is that the sense of place is too important?

Perhaps, if we made a list of American novels, etc., we might come up with a viable story upon which to base a ballet... I, for one, am sure that I am thinking much too concretely about the whole idea.

Lolly, are you saying that PNB's "Silver Lining" had too much Broadway in it in the sense of sets? And if so, that this is what took away from the success of the ballet? I'm sorry that I'm not familiar with this piece. :(

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Originally posted by BW

Lolly, are you saying that PNB's "Silver Lining" had too much Broadway in it in the sense of sets? And if so, that this is what took away from the success of the ballet? I'm sorry that I'm not familiar with this piece. :(

I am not saying that as I haven't seen it! And I am not American either. I just read the review and thought it was relevant. The ballet was not well received here though. I think the critics thought it too American to appeal to British tastes.:confused:

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