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Is classical ballet almost extinct

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I suppose we need someone to define classical ballet first.

So I'll let the "experts" do that :)

With the "neo-classical" ballet/modern mix forms somewhat dominating company repertoires, is the art evolving classical into extinction.

I have to rephrase, because classical ballet will always be taught, but will it always be performed?

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Yes and no :)

It's still quite alive in the classrooms -- at least below the professional level. There is a theory (Croce wrote about it very well about 10 years ago) that in times of choreographic drought the pedants take over and iron every ounce of life and interest out of the classical vocabulary in the interests of perfection. STRETCH IT, kick it higher, more turns, more more more more more.

And if history is any guide, some brave boy will come along and say CUT IT OUT YOU IDIOTS! LESS LESS LESS and it will be alive and everything will be fine again :)

There are still some performances where I think that I'm watching something alive.

I think it would be very hard to make a case that classical ballet is alive and will as a living, breathing entity from watching new choreography, though.

I think it's too early to tell if it's extinct, truthfully. It's certainly on its way there! (One of the reasons I started this site.) Also, what disturbs me are that there seem to be people who want it to be extinct, whom classical ballet seems to make angry. I've heard some dancers say it's got five years to turn around, others more generously give it 20. But if it doesn't, as Rachel said on another thread, it will end up being like Latin. Still there, still taught in schools, but not alive.

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I don't think classical ballet is extinct. If I did, what would be the point of teaching? It is not really very alive in many places, to be sure, but I would say it could stay like this for far more than twenty years (not that I want it to). It has been pushed and pulled and stretched out of shape lately, and there is too much of an emphasis on glossy gymnastics. I can honestly say that I have not been to many performances in which the dancers really "danced." Part of this is the way ballet is often taught, and part of it is that choreographers use more and more contemporary dance. I think some of this is because choreographers don't realize that ballet doesn't necessarily have a fixed vocabulary--classroom exercises don't dictate the possibilities of the stage. Ballet steps can be adapted to express many different ideas. To paraphrase Valdimir Angelov, look at Swan Lake--the port de bras is not purely classical; it is an example of ballet being modified for expressive purposes. Not to mention that the "fixed vocabularly" charge could be leveled at other dance forms, too. Graham has a fixed vocabulary as well, for example. Nobody complains about it being out-of-date or old-fashioned, even though it was developed almost a century ago. (Actually, I am writing an essay about this very topic for college admissions, so this thread is pretty interesting to me!)

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Don't think we've run out of ideas yet, gang.

Have often looked at those 1967 films of Bournonville classes, with dancers who say that "don't recognise" many of the steps. Or that they couldn't do them.

I remember talking to Michel de Lutry in 1986 - he was then teaching at the Heinz Bosl Institute in Munich - who said that it had become horribly difficult to teach, because as soon as he gave a complicated "Bournonville- style" combination with a lot of jumps and beats, people would, so to speak, "sit down and wait for the problem to to go away".

He said we've got out of the habit of "usin' our little noggin" (as he put it) to dance.

Might that have something to do with it ?

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Not extinct!

It is in trouble, as are many other forms of life on the planet, mainly for lack of habitat.

If it does go extinct, then it will be because of this lack of proliferation.

If people do not see it - often - then they will be less and less likely to want to learn it well.

It will be forgotten.

The dancers and most choreographers are not, I hope, entirely to blame.

There are some who are, of course, but at least over here it appears that it is the theatre directors who decide that they need to have something NEW and EXCITING.

This cannot be classical ballet, of course.

And certainly nothing like a story-ballet.

That would be old-fashioned, and what politically-minded theatre director can afford to be called _that_?

There are a few brave souls who try to go against the trend.

They are often dismissed as... you guessed it: old fashioned.

They are hardly ever recognised more than just locally.

As someone said on another thread, (I think it was Major Johnson?) many newer choreographers simply do not "speak the language" of classical ballet.

It is really hard to choreograph anything in a language in which you possess few capabilities.

It is so much easier to "make up your own", and call it --- whatever.

That is always impressive. ;-)

Ms. Kanter, I love that story about how the kids would sort of "sit down and wait for the problem to go away"!

I remember being challenged by "tricky" combinations, and loving that challenge.

Many of my own students seem to not have the patience for them.

It may well be one of the problems, this "need" for instant gratification.


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In response to Alexandra's remark about Latin, which was thought-provoking:

Are there not parallels between the present, apparent decay of classical dance, and ancient Greek, or rather the type of method of thinking, for which ancient Greek was, and is, the vehicle ?

When the Roman Empire fell, ancient Greek was forgot (not that there was anything good about the Roman Empire, but that's another story).

Only the Arabs kept it up, and they launched the Renascence.

Then the Italians cottoned on to it, with not-unknown results.

And then the Germans cottoned onto it, and the world got Leibniz, and so forth.

So, do not despair. He laughs best, who laughs last, n'est-ce- pas ?

Post Scriptum: As our American friends will recall, your Edgar Allan Poe, not exactly a fool he, was quite a Greek scholar...

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Interesting that on the new PBS documentary "Born to Be Wild: The Leading Men of ABT" (airing first week of Feb.), Mark Morris says "My take on classical ballet is that it's a fabulous *Latin* for being able to dance anything . . ." And of course he and other modern-crossover choreographers are creating the bulk of ABT's new rep.

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Hello, Rachel -- it's good to read you again! Yes, the new works at ABT are either crossover (short ones) or full-lengths. And ABT still bills itself as "America's premiere classical ballet company." There's a disconnect here somewhere....

I've been thinking about Diane and Mel's comment, that young choreographers "don't speak ballet," and I think one of the things that might be happening isn't political, or even overtly artistic, but simply the current incarnation of the Derivative Problem. A large percentage of dance works have always been derivative. The leader of the day sets the model, and others imitate it. There can be very interesting imitations, and there can be hack imitations, but what happens is that people look to the models to create a work. Interested in a piece of music? We're likely to get a "Son of Balanchine" or a "Son of Mark Morris" ballet. Want to tell a dark story? We might get a Pina Bausch ballet. Want to create something exciting and trendy? Turn to Forsythe and his "high energy" version.

I think we need new forms rather than new movements (in ballet; modern dance is a different animal. I do think there are those who think Graham's vocabulary is passe, though. It's got steps in it.) I wrote something when I was young and rash, but I still believe in it. "What the world needs is a new Fokine, not a dozen Ivanovs." Fokine shook the world, but he spoke ballet.

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What exactly does "extinct" mean?

The classics will always be performed because they are wonderful works. Afterall, Petipa has been matched by few choreographers. All great works, whether they are Petipa, Ashton, McMillan, or Balanchine, WILL remain in the repertoire.

"Will the classics be preserved with their original splendor?" is another question. It seems to me that there isn't the interest to focus on the classics. Therefore, the classicals will gradually be performed with less depth that they had been in previous generations. As time progresses and ballerinas who are "professors" of the classics pass, interpretations will become less authentic as our ties with the past are broken. The quality of these works will deteriorate unless we work to preserve them.

"Will there be new choreography that is classic?" Probably not, as no modern choreographers seem to be interested in competing with those classical geniuses. Maybe modern choreographers feel that their creativity is limited when it comes to using strict ballet terminology. Whatever the reason, nobody seems interested in trying to be the next Petipa. Besides, one can think of many more important things to use as choreographic ideas than fairy tales.

In short, the classics will forever remain in the repertoire. Whether these classics become tarnished over time depends on the dancers who dance them and pass them on. And there's nothing we can do about choreographers who feel that classical ballet limits them.


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Originally posted by Rachel

What exactly does "extinct" mean?  

The classics will always be performed because they are wonderful works. Afterall, Petipa has been matched by few choreographers. All great works, whether they are Petipa, Ashton, McMillan, or Balanchine, WILL remain in the repertoire.

Well, considering what happened with the Bournonville heritage at the Royal Danish Ballet, and the way some works (which surely were wonderful) have been gradually forgotten (Alexandra, what's the link to your online article), unfortunately there are some reasons to be pessimistic... And for example there are quite a lot of Ashton works which haven't been danced in a while.

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I think Ashton is in great danger of being extinct. Diane, I love your habitat analogy. To follow up on it, making Ashton a "heritage work" is the equivalent of putting a wild thing in a zoo. You save a few "representative" ballets. For Ashton, this is down to the comedies or the "pure dance" works. And "Marguerite and Armand" which, from everything I read, Does Not Look Like Itself. The Ashton works that I've seen have become MacMillanized -- i.e., adding the overt sexuality that Ashton was, it seems to be now thought, too shy to put in -- and the subtlety and attention to classical style -- epaulement in particular -- is gone. When I saw "Symphonic Variations" here, the dancers had trouble with it technically -- they didn't have the stamina. And the ending, where good quietly triumphs, gently riding the crest of the music as the ballerina takes over the ballet, the stage and the world, was just an ending, with the dancers like the back of the pack in a marathon, happy to have crossed the finish line.

The Royal Danish Ballet would love to revive Bournonivlle now, I think. But the stagings are coarse, and so far from what they were at their most recent peak, only 15 years ago, that people at the last mini-festival were beginning to say, "So sad. They really are past their time."

It's often said that Balanchine is dancer proof (meaning that since they're "just steps" if you dance the steps, you'll see the ballet) but I've seen several versions of Balanchine ballets recently -- not danced by NYCB -- where they look do not look like themselves either. The girders show -- one is conscious of the repeats, for example; I've seen two Allegro Brillantes that looked interminable -- or the atmosphere is completely gone -- two Serenades where the dancers were going one, two, three, extend your arms, that's nice, now run off, what the hell did we just do.

Tudor has become a Once a Year Event, Thank God That's Over With. And then there's Fokine and Massine.

So that's a different kind of extinction -- specific classical ballets that have become extinct. And it's a part of ballet becoming extinct, too, because without a repertory, what do we have?

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I think the notion of Balanchine "dancer-proofing" his ballets is somewhat ridiculous. It seems to imply that if a Balanchine variation is danced without personality, there's still something to see in terms of choreography, but that if a Petipa variation is similarly performed, it just falls apart. Hardly.

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As long as there are GOOD teachers that truly understand what classical ballet is, and as long as there are dancers who are willing to work to try to understand what they are doing, then classical ballet will exist- it may lie dormant for a while, but then it will make a comeback. It seems to me, though, that those two links I mentioned are sometimes the weakest, as ballets are taught as steps- steps that are polished and may sparkle on their own, but show little or no breath, life or even connection to the total picture in the ballet they are presented in. I think it takes alot of time and patience for this to happen- patience on the part of both teacher and dancer. Afterall, we all acknowledge that "Rome was not built in a day"... but these days I think that the contract to build Rome would be awarded to the bidder able to do it the fastest and for the least amount of money, therefore ending up with a "Rome" that may (or may not) be a good imitation, and one that would be forgotten as soon as the next project came up.

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Originally posted by Alexandra

the pedants take over and iron every ounce of life and interest out of the classical vocabulary in the interests of perfection.  STRETCH IT, kick it higher, more turns, more more more more more.

This is one of the reasons my daughter [a 16 year old student] wants to quit ballet. She has lovely technique, musicality, and carriage, but feels that outside of class it doesn't matter. She admits her turns are average, and though her extension is pretty good, she feels it's not good enough and says that's all that artistic directors look for.

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Can anyone tell me why opera and music and theatre do notseem to have the same traumas with doing old work that ballet does? I go to these various things and I have to say that I think you ballet people really make such a meal about "old-fashioned" and "the past". An opera singer trains to know the different styles - maybe he or she prefers to do Mozart or baroque, or her friend likes to do 19t century Italian or German repertoire. There is Shakespeare style and there is Harold Pinter. Orchestras have changed how they play Beethoven because of the early music movement. I find where I lose interest in ballet companies is that I have this feeling that they are all dong Giselle or Sleeping Beauty or Manon in one style, Company Style about which they go on and on as if it's something holy. And they don't show me at all that these ballets were all done centuries apart. I'm learning singing and I know you don't treat Wagnern like Rossini or Verdi ---- I mean you really do not actually WANT to. Whydon't balletdancers just enjoy the differences more? I think I would go out to classical ballet with more enmoyment and it might make dancers' training life more interesting for them, sounds like. why should be any more boring for them to study something of a certain time than it is for me to learn an old opera? I'm crazy about old opera!!! BTW before someone tells me ballet has to be new, and so it is unlike opera etc, well I believe most of the operas and plays I go to were new in their day too. And they're still being written now. Is this a good question?!! Sorry this is so long.

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Hello laureyj, welcome to Ballet Talk on Ballet Alert! Online :)

I think you are preaching mostly to the choir here! Most of us feel very much as you do, but the problem is that many of the company directors, the boards, and maybe even the regular audience members don't seem to agree. They all want new and different, which is fine, as long as there are also classics and as long as the new and different are not garbage, which, unfortunately, so many of them are. There has been a lot of discussion about this here, in various forums and threads, but I think we all truly respect and love the classics. And the dancers, teachers, and critics do, for sure!

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Thanks Victoria but no thanks. you missed what I meant. It's so boring just to say it's about the classics or the new, that was NOT what I said. Forget it, no surprise ballet is in such a mess when nobody discusses anything interesting tho I notice there are a 1001 things to say about pointe shoes. In music we never stop thinking about how what's right for Schubert is wrong for Schumann.That's why the whole process is so great to study AND to listen to. And that's why singing a new composer is different from doing Britten or Tippett. So knowing about past stuff gives you more interest in new stuff. Obvious really . :rolleyes::D :D

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Welcome, Laura. As Victoria said, you are preaching to the choir here. We continually have discussions about these issues -- about stylistic differences, employ, what I'm beginning to think of as the "lost repertory" -- which seems to be anything created in the 20th century before 1970.

I think one of the reasons for this, as well as the stylistic similarities among ballets, is that ballet is different from singing and acting. Actors don't have to use the same blocking that they used in the 18th century, nor try to keep exactly the same inflection or accent. Ballets seem to be their best when the choreographer is alive and working at his peak with the dancers in a company -- and there are directors (Frederick Ashton was one) who can get the dancers to make stylistic differences. "Les Sylphides" did not look like "Swan Lake," and certainly didn't look like "Les Noces."

I also think, unfortunately, that contemporary dancers and audiences aren't educated about stylistic differences. We're coming to a place where there is "ballet" and then all the other really cool stuff, and many people only see differences among, say, Morris, Forsythe, Tharp and Ek. To change this would take a considerable effort on the part of balletmasters and artistic directors, and as long as critics and, especially, audiences don't indicate that this is what they expect, I don't think we'll get it. Unfortunately, I think many people who come to ballet expecting a level of stylistic sophistication will leave if they don't find it.

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I think opera/music have the historical advantage, in that Bach, Mozart, Chopin... all got to write down what they did. The notes are not very disputable.

It was also more flexible in performance. You can sing, play in your house, outside, in a hall, in your neighbor's house. You can quite do the Rose adagio in any of those places.

And since ballet is a such a physically demanding art, it would be virtually impossible to learn all the styles.

A port de bras at NYC Ballet is far different than the Royal Ballet's.

And because of these company styles, the dancers are not as interchangeable. Nor are the ballets. Not every company can do a Manon, Sleeping Beauty or Giselle.

And as for "knowing the past stuff so you can enjoy the new" is precisely the reason so many of us are concerned about certain aspects of ballet. Some of these companies are losing that "past stuff".

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I'd like to add, since lauraj is new to the board -- and there are new posters and lurkers every day -- that we have sections of the board that are intended primarily for students and others studying or actually doing ballet, and sections of the board that are intended to discuss watching, thinking about and reading ballet.

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Calliope, why is a port de bras different at NYCB than at the Royal? or do I mean how? Do you mean that a RB dancer CAN'T do a NYCB port de bras? or that they DON'T. Y ou can change arms more easily surely than you can change your voice on a G between French vowels and German ones. :confused: PS it's LauREY not LauRA

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