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"Cookie Cutter" Corps


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On another thread, Alexandra said something about how companies for which "the classics" are important have to develop a "cookie cutter corps." I've been thinking about this, because my first reaction to this statement was that it isn't necessary to have a corps of perfectly cut cookies. :(

I'd like Alexandra to expand a bit on her definition of a cookie cutter corps. Do you mean identical in the physical sense — height, proportion, bone structure, etc. — or in training and style? Or both? (I'm assuming, from the context in which you wrote, that you weren't talking about strict precision in the way the dancers moved.) What kind of uniformity do you think is necessary?

I wonder if the notion of a group of near-identical girls (we are talking about girls here, aren't we?) isn't quite modern — perhaps the last 40 years or so. Photos and videos of earlier dancers — Russian as well as Western — certainly reveal a great many less-than-ideal physiques. It might have something to do with the more revealing costumes of the recent past: photos of the original casts in Petipa's and Ivanov's ballets show dancers so heavily draped in muslin that it's hard to see much of their bodies at all.

What do you all think? Have you seen performances in which the lack of uniformity in the corps (and please define what kind of uniformity you're talking about) detracted from the ballet for you? Or performances that were marred by too much uniformity? We're taking about 19th century white ballets here — Swan Lake, Giselle, et al.

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Obviously there was a time when the desire for uniformity was an excuse for all sorts of discrimination. I see no need for that sort of uniformity and don't think anyone would defend it today. Now...perfect uniformity brings to mind the Rockettes, and I wouldn't defend them either, not that they're asking me to. ;) There have been ABT performances I've seen in which the corps looked, well, surprisingly ragged...not dancing together. The last time I saw ABT, in Giselle last spring, they performed together absolutely beautifully, by which I mean they were dancing together but that each dancer was absolutely lovely and radiant and not like a cut cookie...

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I like to see diversity in the caorps but do want to see unity of STYLE and FORM and CHOROEGRAPHY. When I saw ABT last year there were girls in the corps who were doing completely different choreography from everyone else. But it sounds like they got it together by the time you saw them, balletmama.

I want to see all the legs the same height. I want to see all the heads at the same angle and the arms in the same shape, but I don't need to see everyone the same height or weight or color.

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This could be because I wasn't brought up in an academy, but I felt like the corps in the Kirov's Giselle was a cookie cutter not because they all looked alike, (they didn't) but because they all thought alike. There was a real uniformity of impulse that came from all having the same schooling and from the rehearsal process. A cookie-cutter corps doesn't come from having all the women of the same body type. It comes from having a company style.

I'd love to hear Alexandra's thoughts on this as well!

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I think perhaps the term "cookie cutter" is not quite what was meant in terms of a really beautiful and cohesive corps de ballet. Not sure what term would be used, but I think that the corps, as Leigh said, will be most effective if they all think alike, and have that "uniformity of impulse" which comes from the same schooling. Do they all have to be trained in the same school, as in the Kirov Academy? It makes it more efficient, of course, however I think that well trained dancers from different schools can be taught to work as a corps. The problem comes when there is no attention paid to these details and the rehearsal time found to bring them all into the same way of doing the choreography, hearing the music, placing their arabesques, and most especially the use of the upper body, arms, and head.

Some companies in this country seem to be able to achieve this to some extent, others look as if they don't even try. I have seen the corps of ABT in recent years look absolutely wonderful, and I have seen them look ragged and far too diverse in both style and size. Different sizes, as long as the range is not too extreme, do not have to be a problem as long as they are blended well in terms of placing them. They do not have to all be 5'5" for instance, but, if you have some who are 5'1" and some who are 5'9", this could rather seriously affect the overall look of the corps in a "white" ballet. If they blend from about, say 5'3 or 4" to 5'6 or 7", with the right sizes between the two extremes, it can be fine. It can be a matter of how they are used and placed and trained to move, and if it is well done one will not even notice the size differences.

In companies the size of ABT and NYCB, for instance, I don't see why they can't have a wide range of sizes in the corps, since there are enough of them to not use them all at the same time. In the regional companies large enough to do the white ballets but with 50 dancers instead of 80 or more, then they will have to have more at least similar size. In companies which perform mostly contemporary works a wide range can be effectively used as there really is no corps de ballet!

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Negatively, "cookie cutter corps" does mean that they all look alike and are regimented. In the 1980s, when ABT was trying to become Kirov West, I was told, by a school who had several excellent dancers rejected, that they simply measured the length of the leg. That's what they wanted -- 24, or whoever many it was, legs of exactly the same length. I'd argue that when that's your Number One priority, it rules out other elements, including personal style, musicality, dance intelligence, etc.

But as to what an ideal corps for the ballet blancs would be, I agree with Leigh. It's a common sense of style and community, to use a Really Modern Acceptable word :P When I first saw the Kirov in Chopiniana, it struck me that they all breathed together, that they were all sisters. I agree that there can be divergent heights -- I noticed in the Paris Opera corps, the first time I saw their Swan Lake, that there was one woman who was barely 5 feet tall. yet, I didn't notice this until the fourth act of the third performance I saw, when I was seated in about the third row. She didn't jar the eye.

Yes, I do think you need this kind of uniformity to dance 19th century ballets that have ballet blancs in them, a/k/a The Classics. You don't have to dance these ballets, but you cannot be a modern dance company five nights of the week and then try to rope in the Weekend Crowd with Swan Lake; they're two different aesthetics.

There was a Sea Change when companies in the West turned from being demicaractere companies into classical (imitating the Royal) or neoclassical (imitating NYCB); it definitely changed the types of dancers who were hired. The two genres require different skills. And smaller companies are going through this change today.

The look of the corps determines the look of the company. I still have a firm imprint of the Royal Ballet corps coming down the ramp in Shades, perfect 90 degree arabesque after perfect 90 degree arabesque. Ashton's corps was often accused by New Yorkers of being too neat, like a well-groomed lawn, but I never bought into that. I don't think Ashton was interested in looking neat and tidy as a good in itself, but in geometry. He wanted that particular shape and he got texture by varying the heights.

Back to the short-lived One Leg Length Fits All ABT corps -- and this speaks to the danger of trying to build a corps quickly -- there was a video released about this time with several of the Tharp ballets. One shot was a row of corps dancers who might have been three sets of quadruplets, each blander than the next. That kind of selection and regimentation makes the dancing look boring to me. It didn't achieve the poetry of the Kirov, or the power of the Bolshoi corps -- or the righteous neatness of the Royal Corps. It danced obediently. (I think the ABT corps is much better than this now, although it still has the problem of being a combination of dancers from many different schools, and it shows.)

We don't really know what the 19th century corps looked like -- the drawings of Paris productions make the dancers look quite similar, and the few shots of the professional dancers (not the pick up show dancers) of our own "The Black Crook" shows a group of very well-trained, small, beautifully formed Italian dancers. The Diaghilev corps looks much more robust -- but were they the best corps dancers of the Maryinsky? We don't know. I do agree that skirts hide a multitude of sins, and allowed for a wider variety of body types.

I agree that the Rockettes are the Rockettes and that's not the kind of regimentation appropriate for ballet -- unless someone does a mechanized ballet -- but I don't believe that physical diversity is a good unto itself. If you have a chorus of sopranos, you don't hire an alto, much less someone who sings contralto off-key. There are certain physical standards that must be met in the interests of uniformity of style.

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I can't help but remember an ABT Bayadere of about 2-3 years ago. The pas d'action was one of the sloppiest things I'd seen ABT do in a long time; I spent intermission dreading the Kingdom of the Shades. :eek: :mad:

:)Happy to report that it was not only fine, but it was perfect. Yes, perfect. The precision was there, the unison was impeccable, and beyond that, the entire corps seemed to float. No one struggled for balance. It was musical. And that singular underlying impulse described by Victoria was evident. Every value expressed in Petipa's choreography was on display.

I guess rehearsal time was simply allotted where it was most important.

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