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"Thoroughly Grounded in Classical Technique"

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This was Leigh's contribution, I believe, to the Hit List of phrases one never wishes to hear again. One reads it, usually in preview pieces of crossover works. A made up example: "John Q. Maestro is perhaps the most exciting choreographer of our time. His works push the boundaries, he lives on the edge. Yet his new "Let's Bop the Night Away," a high energy work for eight men and two terriers that fuses '50s popular music with fresh, contemporary street savvy moves is thoroughly grounded in classical technique."

I thought I'd raise this question since the PBS show on ABT's men, intended to showcase men in BALLET, used a work by Mark Morris. (Note bene: I'm not questioning the level of Morris's choreography at all, just what to call it. I'd second Ari's superb analysis of him on the thread discussing this show in the ABT forum.)

One critic (I believe it was Marcia Siegel, but I couldn't find the quote and am not positive of this) wrote of this a few days ago that it was "rigorously classical." Anna Kisselgoff wrote yesterday:

Commissioned by the producers, Mark Morris choreographs a seven-minute trifle to Schumann wisely called "Non Troppo." He is funny, but both he and his assistant Tina Fehlandt regard ballet as a foreign language.  

Jacques d'Amboise, the former New York City Ballet star, is dragged in as a visiting sage and rightly notes that Mr. Morris is a modern-dance choreographer, not a ballet choreographer. Is this what a close-up of great ballet dancers needs?

Yes, Morris studied ballet (along with every other type of dance imaginable). Yes, unlike some other modern dance choreographers, he understands the difference between what a ballet dancer can do/does and what one of his own dancers can do/does. But I'm with Kisselgoff. He's a modern dance choreographer who is making a lot of works for ballet companies.

I'm at a loss to understand why those who champion crossover dance are at such pains to convince us that it's really classical. I do think that some confuse "classicism" and "formalism" and use the term "classical" to mean something that has a sound structure, good form. But to me, Kisselgoff gets at the truth of it -- it's a language. And it's either your native language, or a foreign one.

I'm curious what "thoroughly grounded in classical technique" means to you?

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"Grounded" seems to me a key word for the discussion. A work that is grounded in classical technique has classical ballet (principles and technique -- which means, too, vocabulary) as its foundation, and not as decoration or even one element among others. Balanchine uses turned-in positions, but he uses them within the framework of a turned-out technique. He does not (with a very few exceptions) choreograph works that simply ignore or have nothing to do with turn-out or the basic ballet positions (literally, first, second...fourth, fifth) founded on turn-out, and the movements and movement possibilities that grow from those positions

I think the choreography for the man in Variations Pour Un Port et Un Soupir is about as close to "modern dance" choreography as Balanchine gets and, interestingly, it's not eclectic or pseudo-ballet at all but really something entirely different. Yet, of course, in that ballet the man's role is still constantly set in precise relation to the figure of a ballerina, a figure definitely grounded in classical technique.

If a work occasionally alludes to or includes a ballet step or even a sequence of ballet steps, that is not enough to ground it in that technique. It is merely using Ballet as decoration. Conversely, modern dance choreographers who genuinely try to work with a ballet vocabulary in a more foundational way, often show a limited range. In my opinion, even Tharp's more balletic work expose some of these limitations. One of the most balletic Tharp works that I ever saw was a kind of demi-character ballet about a boxer and his girlfriend set in the 1920's/30's. It used pantomime, popular dance, and classical technique... I no longer remember the name, but I mention it as an interesting and illustrative 'failure' -- one I wouldn't mind seeing again. Done for ABT under Baryshnikov, it used the full resources of the company, but the bottom line for many audience members (myself included) was that it's many clever ideas found no fully adequate imagery in the "classical technique."

Being "grounded in classical technique" may or may not make someone an interesting choreographer, but a choreographer grounded in the technique inevitably has a greater range, literally a bigger vocabulary, than a modern dance choreographer working with ballet -- at least such has been my experience. It's not necessarily a question of quality. To take a less exalted example than Balanchine, Martins' choreography often uses ballet vocabulary not just in the service of big effects or general development of an idea, but to develop more intricate, complex moments as well. Even if Martins' attitude to classical ballet is ironic, as was suggested by another balletalert poster recently, he remains a classical ballet choreographer.

Though I'm moving a little beyond Alexandra's original question, I would add that, at least on stage, classical ballet is not just a "technique" but a body of work, and I do think that part of being grounded in classical ballet is being grounded in its history. I believe that a genuinely grounded classical choreographer must be grounded in other classical choreographers. For an example beyond Balanchine and Petipa, think of Ashton's Cinderella, which is not just modeled on, but offers a kind of choreographic translation of, Petipa's Sleeping Beauty. I don't think it is a coincidence that the great choreography often has this 'intertextual' quality -- and I suspect we miss many effects of this type because so many ballets have been lost.

Modern dance choreography can, though, also allude to and comment on classical ballet choreography. This kind of intertextuality does not stop with ballet choreographers. And I suspect that part of what critics sometimes mean when they say a modern dance choreographer is classical, is that the choreographer puts her or his works into dialogue with classical tradition to the point of establishing a kind of continuity with it despite the very different techniques. Some of Croce's writing on Morris makes this kind of argument, and so does the way Tharp talks about her own relation to Balanchine.

This usage can lead to the word classical being thrown around a bit too easily -- as when it is equated, as Alexandra notes, with having a strong structure. But some of that ambiguity is built into the history of the word 'classical' itself. For arts other than ballet, the word tends to hover between historical, descriptive, and evaluate associations, and with ballet one has to add to those associations, the specific association with "classical" technique. If it's a losing battle (not ignoble, just losing) to try to keep the word/concept ballet distinct from modern dance, it is probably hopeless to try to keep any control at all over the word classical...

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Well, I think it's sad, really, that the main exemplars of grounded classical technique--and I'm using Drew's excellent description of it, as well as Kisselgoff's--are being dismissed across the board, and that includes this one;), as drab, unoriginal, and of the Heezno/Sheezno variety. Unfortunately, my experience has led me to agree with this. it's sad when people interpret "classical technique" as "rigid rules," as Alexandra said.

As to the phrase itself...the way it gets tossed around these days, if it were truly retired to the dustbin, I wouldn't mourn the loss. It seems to be the complementary clause to "cutting edge choreography" tossed in as a palliative for those old sticks-in-the-mud who would get all shook-up from the turning-on-its-ear of hegemonic classical rigidity. After all, "Dabbling occasionally in ballet-flavored dances" doesn't really have that box-office ring, does it? The sad thing is that many of the purveyors of this phrase DO support the idea of grounded classical backbone, but for some reason or another, can't quite pull it off. Or--no names--it could be a company or choreographer trying to be all things to all people all of the time. In defense of those who truly are "thoroughly grounded in classical technique", though: it speaks for itself. I hate to sound like Dubya, but either you are classical or you aren't. You can't be classical some of the time and still do justice to it, and you can't be modern or jazzy or hip-hop some of the time and do justice to that, either. This is, to me, one of those things that Speaks For Itself.

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I think she's referring to Drew's post which uses what I also believe is "Everlast" as an example.

Also from Drew's post, this sentence

but the bottom line for many audience members (myself included) was that its many clever ideas found no fully adequate imagery in the "classical technique."
describes a problem I didn't articulate as well in my review of Chiaroscuro. It's essential to know the vocabulary of classical ballet, but classical ballet is more than steps and pointe shoes. Does the imagery it conjures up best suit what the choreographer is trying to say? Can the choreographer get the fact that s/he's using classical ballet to work for him or her rather than against?
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