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The Nation on NYCB


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In the March 3 issue Diane Rafferty faults the company's technique. Sofiane Sylve has poor alignment; "practically no one can jump anymore;" Schorer advocates the "bad technique" of landing on releve or demi-point; too many men are flapping their hands; too many women have over-developed muscles; first men and now women are overcrossing in fifth position.

This criticism is followed by praise for Boal, Kowroski, Rutherford, Stafford, and Millepied.

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Thanks kfw for posting.

After searching what seemed at least 20 newstands, I finally found it.

I think Rafferty was a former dancer, right? She states she trained at SAB.

The article seems to be in line with all the latest criticisms of the company, however, she doesn't really mention Martins, actually after scanning the article again, she never mentions him.

Another point I thought was interesting in the piece was the "need for some Russian blood" in the school, as in the teachers, that were prevalent early on.

As kfw said, the piece is a criticism of the technique and how it's not being corrected

And how the company seems to look better in Robbins now than Balanchine because Robbins "relied less on classic technique".

And lastly, praise ofr coprs dancer Alina Dronova.

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I'm glad you found it, Calliope. This was a frustrating experience for me, because I'm a subscriber to The Nation, but never saw the March 3 issue. I waited for it patiently and then early this week received the March 10 issue. It could be that I inadvertently threw out the March 3 issue. The magazines pile up until, in a fit of neatness, I throw them away without looking.

At any rate, her desire for more Russian teachers at SAB harks back to the article by that other SAB alumna, Jennifer Homans, in the Times a while back. Remember how she mourned their absence? As for NYCB looking better in Robbins, there are people who feel exactly the opposite -- that it's the Robbins rep that's really in trouble at NYCB.

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What was (a little) interesting to me about this article is that even as it attacks the company as others have done, whether justifiably or not, it takes a somewhat different approach. Actually, even a few years ago, I remember reading essays attacking the company that treated the school as sacrosanct -- including Schorer and the present group of teachers that Rafferty criticizes. SAB performances staged by Schorer, were treated as an example of Balanchine done 'right' in contrast to whatever was being criticized at the State Theater.

I'm working from memory -- having also tossed my copy of the magazine -- but Rafferty seems to feel that Balanchine not only did not want his dancers to be taught a specific 'Balanchine' technique, but that it is, in a way, actively harmful to be taught that way...Ballet technique is ballet technque (the article seems to say) and it is the foundation on which Balanchine worked as a choreographer. The mistake of the present school, as I understood the argument, is that it bases its teaching on the dancers' experience of Balanchine's company and choreography, not the age old traditions that made that company and choreography possible.

She also quotes Balanchine's preface to Muriel Stuart's and Lincoln Kirstein's book on ballet technique. The quote asserts the necessary conservatism of ballet technique -- in suspiciously Kirsteinesque rhetoric, I might add, but certainly Balanchine signed his name to it. Rafferty even dismisses the idea -- that I have always heard repeated as an article of faith -- that dancers in Balanchine aren't supposed to lower their heel when landing jumps.

The tone of the whole is very much that of an 'insider.' She refers to her own work with Balanchine, and includes an anecdote in which she repeats an exchange between Von Aroldingen and Kowroski at rehearsal. I will add that the point of the anecdote is to provide more evidence of bad teaching/coaching behind the company's woes. Here too, unlike others attacking the company, she does not seem to see Martins as the exclusive villain, and indeed is ready to criticize coaches and teachers that others, equally dismayed by the company's dancing, have held up as the paragons Martins should draw on more often.

Personally, I'm always uneasy with an 'insider' tone in critical writing. And if what Rafferty says is true, then personal experience with Balanchine is no guarantee of getting him right. Von Aroldingen does not exactly lack insider credentials. It does seem, too, as if people who worked with Balanchine at different times in the company's history had different experiences, and he himself may have said different things not just at different times, but -- who knows -- even at the same time to different dancers...It's interesting to me, because I think the ongoing debates, including debates within debates, suggest that Balanchine's legacy is a more complex, varied one than institutions such as "The Balanchine Trust" or even a fully functional "Suzanne Farrell Ballet Company" can ever encompass whether for good or ill. I don't mean there is no right side or wrong side in any given case, and goodness knows I want to see a fully functional Suzanne Farrell ballet, but when it comes to tradition or, rather, traditions (plural) one can't always tease out a single best way to keep them alive and energetic, let alone accurate and intact.

For example, in the Von Aroldingen anecdote, Rafferty objects to Von Aroldingen's instructions about a developpe: Kowroski asks if it is to the side or front and she answers 'in between.' Rafferty reports there is no such thing (not in ballet) and adds that in performance Kowroski showed the distinction correctly (moving from one position to the other), and by implication did this in spite of Von Aroldingen's poor anwer. From her point of view the story shows what an instinctive understanding Kowroski has of classicism -- she rises above bad answers. I don't find this implausible. But maybe, in the context of their work together, Aroldingen's answer gave Kowroski the information she needed to produce the very effect that Rafferty admires (!) which means that maybe Von Aroldingen knew what she was doing. Or, even, maybe there is more than one way of showing someone how to dance Balanchine.

I write as someone who admires Martins much more than many on this board. But even if I acknowledge that many Balanchine ballets were better cast and better danced decades ago (not all the time though!), I don't think there is some clear cut answer about what to do with the legacy or who is responsible for what may be going wrong with it.

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Drew, I thought likewise about the von Aroldingen anecdote. It's not one or the other, it's both, and Kowroski seems to have got that. It's also interesting that Rafferty should find fault with von Aroldingen's coaching, when I recall David Daniel reporting that she had been in heated disputation with Martins on the subject. Rafferty and she might be presumed to be on the same side, but apparently she's part of the problem? :rolleyes:

I was a little bothered by Rafferty's implication – actually, I think she just said it straight out -- that Schorer doesn't know what Balanchine wanted taught because Schorer spent little time at SAB. Schorer didn't spend much studying there because Balanchine snapped her up for the company pronto shortly after she arrived from San Francisco, so I'm not sure what that has to do with anything. I would also suggest that the mere fact of having studied at SAB, even for an extended period, doesn't make someone an authority on classical technique. Don't get me wrong, it's a great background for a writer on dance to have, but it doesn't make every ex-pupil Toni Bentley.

As for the dearth of White Russians at SAB nowadays, that's life, quite literally – they couldn't live forever. You could import some more and I'm sure that couldn't hurt, but I imagine the teaching in Russia did not stand still over time, and the Russian emigres of Balanchine's generation learned and taught something different from those who came along later.

On a positive note, she did have very nice things to say about Peter Boal, as kfw mentions. Also, there is no indication that she strode backstage and requested to see his feet. And with her articles and those contributed by Ginger Danto recently, The Nation is now covering more dance events than The New Republic and The New Yorker combined. Plainly, Katrina vanden Heuvel heeded the cogent arguments I made in my letter of complaint, although not to my broad hint that Mindy Aloff was the writer of choice. :) I suggest with all seriousness that subscribers to The Nation who read this board send a letter expressing their gratitude.

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I just got around to reading this, and thought it a very strange article. She went on and on about Balanchine's teachers who were based on Vagonova, but I think she got the timing wrong. Vagonova developed her teaching after Balanchine and people like Vladimoroff and Dubrovska had left Russia. Muriel Stuart came from Pavlova's company, which was strongly Cechetti, I think. She goes on and on about how SAB can't teach, but begins her criticism by condeming Sylve, who clearly had nothing to do with SAB! The dancers she praises (other than Peter Boal, of course) are mainly the ones I see as being particularly mannered--floppy hands, weak turns, etc. I think the Nation could have done better than this.

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I have to find this article. I didn't want to write about it until I'd read it, but it really does sound like she's writing with the benefit of logic as fuzzy as her opera glasses must be.

It seems as if the Von Aroldingen quote was taken from the context of a rehearsal, not a class. So von Aroldingen wasn't teaching a class, but setting Balanchine's choreography. They're not the same thing; did it ever occur to Rafferty that perhaps a developpe somewhere between en avant and a la seconde was EXACTLY what Balanchine wanted at that point?

Or does she think she knows what Balanchine wanted better than his former dancers, or, it seems, anyone?

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Manhattnik and Cargill, those two items stuck out to me as well. I didn't like the use of Vaganova in relation to Balanchine and Pavlova. Is there a difference between the Imperial School and Vaganova's teachings? I read an article where Irina Baranova, who studied with Olga Preobrazhenskaya in Paris, said they were not the same.

And class and choreography are different, as Manhattnik said. For class, Rafferty might be right, regarding the developee, but for the Siren in Prodigal Son or Kammermusik No. 2, two ballets Von Aroldingen has coached Kowroski in is probably different. But I think you have to know the rules to break them. The writer isn't the first to question Schorer's decision to codify Balanchine's teachings.

And I, too, wondered at some of the dancers the writer singled out, both positively and negatively. Different tastes, I guess. I do think NYCB dancers are still less bunchy muscled than many other companies. And I don't agree that NYCB dancers can't jump. Just looking at the principals, Whelan, Ringer, Somogi, Weese, and Kowroski all jump well, some higher than others, but I don't think they lack a jump. Nichols and Kistler, yes, jump lower than they used to, but they are over 37 (40, I think for both of them).

However, this writer is not the first to find something missing at the State Theater, especially recently.

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There's not even a direct line from the Imperial School as managed by Petipa and Ivanov and Balanchine or Vaganova. Both sprang from the Legat reforms that followed Petipa. The Legat brothers, Nicolai and Sergei, carried on the idea of the old Imperial style, but added a few ideas of their own, including a lexicon (new names for some steps or positions that hadn't had any, or for assisting the teaching of the Russian style), and Balanchine and Vaganova were both schooled that way. Pavlova worked in the Imperial style, but had been taught for several years exclusively by Cecchetti. She had also been partnered by both Legat brothers. (Her caricature by Nicolai is a real hoot!) Her style was a synthesis of the Petipa days as updated by the Maestro.

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I was also struck by her dismissal of Von Aroldigen, who was after all as I understand it, very involved in the 1988 (?) revival of Liebeslieder, which was pretty unanimously regarded as a triumph of casting and coaching--and dancing, too of course! I wonder where the idea came from that all NYCB needs is a few Russian teachers.

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Yes, Mel, you are absolutely right. Johansson outlasted Petipa and he used to tease Petipa that he was puffing and panting whereas Johansson in very advanced years was able to gallop up the stairs. I really do think that it is madly unfair that - apart from in Russia - Johansson is so totally unrecognized. In the Western world it is a question of "Who the heck is Johansson?"

I have done my very best to promote him, but alas, to little avail.


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Update. In the June 16 issue, The Nation printed a letter from Suki Schorer, making some of the objections mentioned above (including the Vaganova timeline question). Rafferty, sounding a trifle huffy, denied making any errors of fact.

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Thanks, everyone, for your comments on the Russian teachers issue and the timeline of style from Imperial-era through Balanchine's neo-classicism (and Vaganova's Soviet style in Russia). This is a subject of real interest to me and worth discussion.

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