IN DEFENSE OF THE “LIGHTER”  BALLETS

Scene 1, several years ago: Alastair MacAuley mourns Alessandra Ferri’s career development. He calls her the Lolita of ballet, and wistfully remembers the purity of her dancing in a plotless piece I think in her graduation exam, or in some ballet contest.
If it depended on him, he would throw away her amazing acting skill, and keep just the technical excellence – we would not have the gift of her lovely, unbeatable Juliet, for example. Or her Carmen.

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Alessandra Ferri and Wayne Eagling in Romeo and Juliet by Kenneth MacMillan.

Scene 2,  a few days ago: I give a try to any video of ballet that shows up in my FB timeline.  Watching one of them, I’m thinking oh my, how booooring! I skip to scene after scene, the lavish costums change, but the boredom level does not change.  Curious that someone would bother to stage such a ballet, I consult the credits. It was a Balanchine work. I am not surprised. Yes, sorry, I’m not a big fan of Balanchine.

Scene 3, today: Alastair MacAuley is retiring, and as a last pompous message, calls Don Quixote and Le Corsaire trashy ballets, and tells us soviets (you feel the bleeergh between the lines) are to blame for their popularity.  I quote:

I draw attention to two very unalike trends: one heartening, one dismaying. The first is the increasing penetration of George Balanchine’s choreography into national and international repertory. For those of us who remember how radical he often was in his lifetime (even in this city and far more often elsewhere), and how difficult many of his ballets were when young, this vindication is deeply satisfying; moving, too. Balanchine achieved a high water mark for the art. That dozens of one-act Balanchine ballets, like “Divertimento No. 15” and “Symphony in Three Movements,” are now regularly danced from Phoenix to Miami, from Vienna to Vancouver, is a victory of superlative modernism.

Against that, however, please observe the ghastly and ever-increasing popularity of such formulaic 19th-century ballets as “Le Corsaire” and “Don Quixote.” These war horses — trashily circusy, composed to minor-league music — abound in clichés. When I discovered dance in the 1970s, they were the specialties of Soviet companies alone: They exemplified the tosh that Diaghilev had banished to the past, and which all sophisticated Western companies rightly chose to avoid. Today, however, they’re frequently danced in New York (alas, here too Ballet Theater leads the way), London and many other cities. They demean ballet.”

Scene 4, also today: I come upon an article entitled Where has the joy gone?. Where is the joy of dancing? Why is it that the uncountable different feelings we experience are mostly absent in ballet? When did acting skill become such a low priority in dancing? 


Circusy?

He doesn’t dwell long on the reasons for his opinion. Circusy, he says. Maybe he means the variations in these ballets, specially the male ones, that require big jumps and tours. In what sense are big jumps more show-offing than 32 fouettés or intrincate small allegros? Or perfect, absolutely P-E-R-F-E-C-T lines? They just show-off different skills. Or maybe he is bothered that these ballets give the male roles more relevance? Holy Balanchine said “ballet is a woman”,  so please don’t display gross masculinity on stage, men should keep nicely in the background, hidden by the tutus.  Or is it because you can laugh in these ballets? NOOO, please don’t, ballet is a serious affair, we cannot condone with joy on stage. Of all the unwished for heartfelt reactions ballet can bring, mirth is maybe the worst!

Formulaic?

Oh, as if Swan Lake,  Sleeping Beauty, Giselle were not formulaic… Plots rely on the same elements, variations and corps dynamics have the same structure and steps, body-language and expression is kept to a minimum (in it’s stead loads of mime), lavish scenery and costumes. Balanchine is formulaic TOO in plotless work after plotless work with the same kind of stiff, contained steps, his corps in endless geometric forms – and you learn the much praised “Balachine style” or be prepared to scathing criticism.

Given MacAuley disdains of plots and acting skill, maybe he doesn’t like the plots of DQ and Corsaire? Yes, their plots are kind of trashy, absolutely not grand or affected, often more of the parody kind, and to make things worse, they have a happy ending! EVERYONE knows art must be tragic to be art. Don’t you?

Self-styled judges

There were always self-styled judges of what art is. And loads of art expressions they  consider(ed) unworthy. Tchaikowsky received much criticism because of the unbridled passion in his music. Michelangelo was criticized by the scandalous display of flesh. Byron was untastefully over-romantic. Some wrinkle their noses over operettas.
Really? So let’s face the truth: Giselle is just a typical gothic saved as high art by the white tutus, and the score is bizarre, with bright, lively tunes as background to tragic eerie scenes. And Bayadére, pure kitsch?

But ALL the ballets mentioned above require good classical technique and lines – may they be Balanchine styled, English, French or Russian styled. All styles are equally worthy,  Mr. MacAuley, but you seem unable to appreciate anything outside your bubble.  Modernism? Balanchine is already dated. Anyway, would you evaluate Andy Warhol higher than Rembrandt because of his modernism?  Or Shakespeare lower than Tennessee Williams?
Also, the ballets above, with the exception of Balanchine’s, all require good acting. In other words, Don Quixote and Le Corsaire require MORE skills than most of Balanchine ballets. They also depend more on the performer, who – not bound by strict rules – will add a new layer of creativity, which I find refreshing in any scenic art.

Opinions or universal truths? 

I can have my favorites, of course: but my taste is not an universal truth. No, no, sorry: if I’m conservative, my Weltanshauung will be fulll of “universal truths”, usually dismissive of everything and everyone that does not please me…

I’m glad MacAuley is retiring. I’m glad a whole older generation of deeply conservative ballet lovers and funders is slowly being replaced by younger, less biased ones (or so I hope). The former ones imposed their values on ballet for too long, and turned away a potential younger public that does not share their pomposity, smugness and why not say with all letters: repressed sensuality. Enough of people that don’t want to be stirred by what happens on stage – that want ballet as pure aesthetic pleasure – while in their private lives they are often… well, quite different.

It is NOT a coincidence that MacAuley, when he concedes there may be life after Balanchine, forgets to mention Crystal Pite, for example, with their deeply stirring, critical works on contemporary issues (and groudbreaking use of corps). She indeed is  modern. Ballet has been for too long the last bastian of shared hyprocisy in art.

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The Season’s Canon by Crystal Pite

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As a last note: don’t tell me you need deep knowledge and very refined aesthetic taste to know  a “good” ballet from a “bad” one. Art is art. Anyone with some degree of sensitivity and love for beauty can appreciate Johann Strauss as well as Beethoven, a naif painter as well as Rembrandt, Swan Lake as well as Le Corsaire, a Wilde comedy as well as a Shakespeare play. I refuse to let conservatives full of prejudice define the rules: I’m able to respect and appreciate different forms of art, different styles, different epochs. What is really hard for me to accept as art is Form without Content. 

Four Keys to the Future

I hardly have time to write, nowadays, but what will become of Dance, and more specifically about Ballet, is always in mind. I worry, as you know, about their vitality and future.

I was reading this blog of Greg Sandow on the future of classical music (a passion, but I do not follow and study like Dance), and came upon this, that… could have been written for Dance, just by replacing the word music!

Since the link doesn’t embed in the text, I quote:

“We’re in a new era. To adapt to it, and build a new audience, here are four things you should do:

Understand and respect the culture outside classical music. 

Your new audience will come from the world outside classical music. Where else could it come from? And to reach these new people, you of course have to know them. Who are they? What kind of culture do they already have? You have to respect them, because if you don’t, they won’t respect you.

Work actively to find your audience.

The people you want to reach may not yet care about classical music. So they won’t respond to conventional PR and marketing. They won’t come to you on their own. And so you have to actively go out and find them. You have to talk to them where they live, where they work, and where they go for entertainment and for inspiration. You have to inhabit their world.

Be yourself.

Your urgency, your joy, and your passion will draw people to you. But you can’t be joyful if you don’t love the music that you perform. So never pander. Never struggle to be relevant. Perform music that makes your heart sing. Trust your new audience. Trust it to be smart, to be curious, and to respond with joy when it sees how joyful you are.

Make music vividly.

The people you reach will want to love the music you bring them. But can you meet them halfway? Are you bringing them something they really can love? Your performances should be entirely yours, performances nobody else could give. Your music should breathe. Contrasts should feel like they’re contrasts. Climaxes should feel like climaxes. Are you doing everything you can to bring your music alive?”

I’m grateful for Greg Sandow, prolixe me would never be able to write such a splendid resume!

Link to full text

 

On the Novosibirsk Theatre Affair

I have a long-term acquaintance in Novosibirsk. Many of our point of views are different, sometimes opposite, despite our friendship. Since I’m all for a free debate, I agreed in publishing here this friend’s opinion on what is happening in NOVAT, or Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre. It has a new management, lead by Vladimir Kekhman, a former business man with a passion for art. The new direction renovated the building, made changes in repertoire, brought great artists as guests, encouraged social groups like young people, renters, students and so on to fill the theatre with extra low prices. 

The text does not (NOT!) feature my own ideas, I just translated the best I could.

What happens in the “Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre” offends me! Our beautiful legacy must be cherished and carefully kept. Historical legacy must ALWAYS be kept, this should be a guiding principle in any Culture policy.

I really wish old theaters would go back to to candle lights, and to grass covered floors… to female roles being played by young men in wigs! Comfort for the audience is a small price to pay, when you have design and performances preserved forever as they were in the beginning!

I wish audiences to chat and eat while they watch the show, and freely enter and leave the room. I want them to use again porcellain chamber-pots, instead of modern toilets, to preserve the original mood!

It is true  “Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre” is not that old, but you must agree that the former toilets were hardly more comfortable than chamber-pots, and should not be replaced by incongruous, hardly fitting novelties.

If you care about preservation, magic may not flow from stage so easily, and great performers may not be as appreciated as they are in other theaters and countries… but this is a trifle, compared with the magnificent feat of preserving architecture  in all its original glory!  People would be proud of a whole evening sacrifice of their comfort for the sake of High Art!

Artists come and go… great performances may be lost or not appreciated, or even impossible to enjoy because of discomfort, aching backs, bad acoustics, seats without stage perspective – none of this matters, compared to preserving  “Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre” in its original amazing beauty and architectural uniqueness and glory.

The company members whose time and effort are dedicated to us must understand that their living Art is far less important than the Engineering Art made ethernal in cement, and not be despondent because I refuse to see them in more comfortable surroundings!

And the prices!!! I was proud that we never had to pay as much as in other cities to see the “Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre” artists – and refuse to be treated with less respect now!

Maybe artists of other houses in other cities are better, and deserve what is paid to see them. I doubt it – our company is VERY good!  But our company did not get suddenly better than it was – so why should I pay more to see a level of artistry that was available for a lesser price?

I heard that our artists are sad and disappointed, because we don’t want to see them in the new circumstances. As they are citizens of Novosibirsk too, they should be happy to perform to an empty house – empty of proud theatre goers that do not give in to senseless changes!

And guests artists, they may be great, even the greatest, but they must be aware that, if they accept to perform in the current bad taste decoration of “Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre”, they cannot expect US to accept their Art as a good enough compensation.

More! they surely are not surprised with our lack of interest  in their Art, when they know we don’t accept Vladimir Kekhman, the criminal that hired them!!! Lax, rotten capitalist West may not see his personal bankrupcy as a crime, but we know better, nobody fools us about capitalism logic and and international law!!

May this be a lesson to tyrannical authorities! If changes were wanted in “Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre”, all citizens had to be called in to give their opinions – and in a democratic way, colours, materials, interior design, lightning, furniture – all decisions about comfort, upholstery, acoustics, toilets, etc, and also about repertoire, casting, costumes, settings and choreography, had to be made with agreement of all citizens, and in a way that EVERY single one of them could agree!

Instead of wasting money in “modernizing”  the Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre  infrastructure, we should be staging OUR own performances, even if it means having just a handful of them.

The simple notion of renting the staging of another theatre is demeaning, and just the possibility that the sweat of “Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre”‘s troupe may have contact with sweat lingering in Mikhailovsky’s rented costumes is simply disgusting!!

Don’t tell ME that renting a staging is less expensive, I am not naive! Provided the production is completely OURS, a rare premiere is far better than having a whole selection of performances –  since the quantiy is OBVIOUSLY meant to enrich Mikhailovsky and Kekhman at our expenses, I can find no other logical reason! What is the point of so many productions, anyway? I don’t need more than one selfie in the lobby every season, I wouldn’t want to bore my followers in Instagram!

Finally: do you really expect me to remember one more ill-sounding bunch of letters every time I want to mention our beloved “Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre“? I refuse to use NOVAT instead – what a lack of respect for its grand, good sounding name.
Let other theatres use abbreviations… it’s their problem, they will have to face the inevitable, sad consequences of this kind of misguided modernization.

As with the unbelievable new site – provided there should be one at all! The traditional site of  “State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre” was replaced by a new one following standards used by several other theatres in Russia – its former originality traded for what amounts to just more information and ease of use in a so called “modern” look.

Images speak for themselves: the disgusting outcome of restoration in “NOVAT”

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Emploi and double-standards

How can you explain that dancers that don’t fit certain visual standards are considered unsuited for Ballets where Form is privileged,  while dancers without any acting skill are considered suitable for ballets where Content is more important?

Has Ballet definitely given up on being a performance Art?

Is any flawed performance accepted, as long as physical standards are obeyed?

Absurdity… you see performances that, if not for the costume, could be of any ballet! Solor undistinguishable from Ali, Desire identical to Franz, Colas plus a guitar becoming Basilio… Aurora with feathers in Swan Lake, clad in red in Don Quixote…

Even this, however, is not so bad as having Giselle identical to Juliet and Margherite… or Franz as unpleasant as Prinz Rudolph!

Oh, come on, spare me!!!

emoticon-raising-eyebrow

 

 

 

Who should be allowed to dance?

Take a peek into this:

Isn’t the luscious, graceful Odetta a pleasure to watch in this video? I loved the dancer, I kept skipping to her scenes, and wish I had been there to see this performance.  Unfortunately, I don’t know who she is.
In the whole video you can’t see her doing any fouettés or great jumps, so there are probably none.

Of course, you will say, this is not (bold-lettered) ballet!

Sem título
Fine example of reverently bold-lettered ballet

This is were I snort and count to ten, because I don’t even know where to begin answering you –  there are so many interconnected issues here… I try to write about them one at a time, but never achieve less then 1.500 words!!
It’s about what concert DANCE really is – Ballet being just one kind of it, one corner of the whole picture. It’s about what-is-ballet rules and their uncountable (negative) consequences  –  to us as audience, and to Ballet dancers.

Of course, I know there are several kinds of “us” in the public of Ballet, but I don’t see any reason why the rule-loving kind should be taken more seriously that mine.

MY kind knows that Dance (Ballet INCLUDED) is, in its very groundstones, about gracefulness and creating magic – more than anything else. We also know, through boring experiences, that rules don’t  guarantee either one. Both groundstones are very singular, each dancer has its own way, depending on who he is: physical build, psyche, soul. These two qualities, gracefulness, and being able to create magic, is what turns performers into dancers, and movement into Art.
120 fouettés in 24 seconds, 2 meter high jumps, technical precision, a certain weight, a certain height, colour, age, looks, not one of them, and not all of them bundled together with a golden bow on top,  guarantee we will see… Dance!

Sorry to say (at this point you are squinting at my pointed finger), if Ballet does not have these two qualities, it is not Dance! Call it Fancy Gymnastics, or something like that, but NOT Dance. (Fist on the table!)

I’m making fun, but the truth is, this couldn’t be more serious. It seems, looking the Dance millieu from the outside, that the hard work needed ends up making people forget the forest and see only the next tree.
The consequences of forgetting about what Dance really is, are far reaching and sad.  It means female dancers having bodies as spindly as an insect’s leg. It means male dancers with busted spines. It means dancers with busted joints, bones and tendons. It means the average age of retirement is 35. It means 30% of retirements are due to injuries. It means dancers believing they are done at 40. It means dancers believing they are not dancers if they don’t overextend. It means dancers seeing themselves more as performers of dangerous or exotic feats (those pics of contortionism are so popular now… aargh!) than artists.

It also means a certain kind of public, as well as many companies, agents, choreographers and ballet schools believing these absurdities are normal, unavoidable and correct.  It seems a kind of mass delusion! Beware!!!

REALLY! I’m deeply disappointed every time I see a bland, perfect display of technical precision performed by correctly looking and emploi-ed dancers, so keen in achieving outstanding feats they forget why, after all, they are on stage…  They may win an ISO 9000 Ballet Quality Control Certificate… but if they don’t give me what I came for, what’s  the point?

A little scared by my frown, you say that good technique, the right looks, age, etc, are not opposed to artistry… on the contrary, they enhance it…

Wonderful Tamara Rojo as Manon
Wonderful Tamara Rojo as Manon

Yes! you are right! Sometimes those gifted with my necessary qualities come with a plus…  and I’m very grateful when it happens!

Only…  overvalued rules end up establishing a trend: the exclusion of non-complying dancers, gifted or not,  from school on, no matter what… and the poor remaining creatures are beaten out of their individuality as much as possible! And the rules keep coming, ever more strict and more demanding! If dancers are born with what it takes, they must be REALLY, fiercely driven by their talent, not to forget what they knew instinctively. Because, you see, gracefulness, and acting skills, seem nowadays invisible (I wonder if some times even negative?) to decision makers – the Guardians of Rules in the Sacred Temples – the big companies.

Still on your remark: I don’t need a complete package! give me gracefulness and magic, and I will be happy – it is what really counts. Anything else is unexpected profit – it enhances their worth, but is by far not so valuable as the capital…

If dancers are graceful, and create magic, they may be old or young, white, black, yellow or green, have too big boobs or feet, or a belly, be bald, tall or small… I will love them.

Odetta is an example. Dancers over 40 that refuse to stop, like Alessandra Ferri – who created Cheri with, by the way, not-built-by-the-rule Hernan Cornejo, is another.  I would not want to miss this:

or this

But, you say, these are exceptional dancers… 

Yes, they are, in that they did not accept labels!

ON YOUNG PRODIGIES… AND GROWING UP!

Young prodigies… unexpected skills

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - first composition at the age of 5, died when 35 years old.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – first composition at the age of 5, died when 35 years old.

There are nowadays so many kids with incredible skills, considering their age! In my FB Timeline, a pretty quiet one, I see several a year. They all, surely, have an unexpected skill… but will they all become great artists?

Every time I see one of them, usually with hundreds of thousands views, I feel pity: brought under  spotlights by their proud parents, they are now under the scrutiny of the world.

They will become very aware of themselves, freedom and innocence about their work fading away before they are ready to deal with flatter and the limitations of every human being. They stand out amazingly against the average in the beginning, we cannot help by cheering them… there is unanimity, because their youth makes us forgive them for not being “perfect” (whatever our particular definition of perfection) –  oh, they have time, one day they will be all we wish!

Barbara Follet
Barbara Newhall Follet – published her first acclaimed novel at the age of 12. At 25, deeply depressed, she walked away from home and was never seen again.

The bubble.

With great expectations coming from far and near, the child’s own expectations will grow.

They are at an impressionable age, and their identity develops tied to their skill and the decurring success …  and may be badly shaken when they grow up, when their age is no more out of sync with skill level – the high winds of success turning into a sedated breeze… or vanishing for good.

Young prodigies are very often overexposed – now with Internet, an extreme exposure – and live in a bubble of success doomed to burst when entering adulthood, or, better said, THIS component of their success is doomed.

I wonder if they, their parents and their eventual agents realize it is a bubble…  I have seen, far more often, a naïve belief that the child’s success is a small sample of all the acclaim that will surely keep  increasing as age increases too.

Artists and success…

Now forget early talents. Any great artist may have success, but will seldom be unanimity – one feature that distinguishes a mere artisan from the artist, is that the latter is unique, individuality is always fierce – dividing people’s opinion.

Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh

Some will love, some will find impossible to like.  Praise may increase during his lifetime, as his work matures – but if he is of the rule-breaking kind, critics will come along praise, and they may be as sharp as praise is warm.

Great success may come or not, and may or not depend on actual talent – more often than not, nowadays, it depends on luck, on shifting fashion, on the degree of exposure.  Great success never was, is, or will be an adequate measure of real artistry.

Now add the two…
… and we have bad news!!

Oh, not necessarily, but in most cases! Well known artists, especially in Performance Arts, and especially when young, come to rely on their audience’s response…

Joshua Bell, despite his US$ 3.000.000,00 Stradivarius, didn't live up to MY expectations.. for all they worth
Joshua Bell, despite his 3 million dollars Stradivarius, didn’t live up to MY expectations… for all its worth – not when I compare his interpretative power with my beloved Heifetz!

Only, there is a massive withdrawal of praise when a gifted kid grows up – just because the out-of-sync component is gone – now he/she is an artist as any other artist, that will not be forgiven anything more because of age – now he is expected to come up to “my” expectations (whatever they are). If he does not, “I” will be VERY disappointed, I may turn from an admirer into a critic – if I had never been interested and idealizing, it would be different!

The young talented adult sees himself  no more in the top of the mountain – even if it was not easy to keep balance there, he had felt it as his own already.  He slides down to some place he is not used to, where he is definitely not comfortable – the change in one or two years is so great, it may take away his drive, and balance, and self-esteem, make him doubt himself.

Shirley Temple - last movie at the age of
Shirley Temple – last movie at the age of 21

He may try to come up to all the multiple expectations and idealizations, and loose himself and his creativity while seeking to regain former levels of acclaim – not realizing it may never be reached again, and should not even be further sought.  He may receive unexpected attacks, scorn, and dismissal, and be utterly unprepared to deal with them. He may feel as the victim of an unfair world. He may enter in denial. He may simply give up.

The change is too great for some, they never recover, and their Art is lost in drugs, unbalanced behavior, in aggressive attitudes that turn away fellow professionals and public, in neurotic disorders. I have seen too many young prodigies that were unable to unfold as adult talents – such a loss for all of us!

On the other hand…

The first years of adulthood may be hard, and suffering inevitable, but some, fortunately,

Jasha Heifetz -
Jasha Heifetz – “God’s Fiddler”

survive to be greater than ever – those that don’t feel sorry for themselves, that learn to respect their inner voice more than any external opinion,  that learn to deal both with bad critics and unreasonable idealizations – if they are graced with any level of empathy, comprehension of what happened to us and to themselves will just enrich their work.

Anyway, it is now that their real artistic life can begin, because paradoxically, now they will have more freedom and will be able to reach new depths…  now, having got ridden  of the youth label and all that came in its wake. Now they are just, and at last, what they are… and this is MORE, not less!

All in all…

Sometimes it is inevitable, some talents are so great they stand out at a tender age already, no matter what. But all in all, I wish parents were wiser, and more aware of the consequences of bringing their talented children under the spotlights – or, if it can’t be helped, that they would be wise enough to prepare them for the bubble bursting process.

Saint-Saëns

 In Ballet!

Everything in Ballet must happen so fast! Dancers have nowadays a terribly short active life, in average, less than 20 years of actual dancing! So all are in a hurry.  Dance competitions bring us a few precocious talents every year. A few of THESE  rise meteorically, and are just 19, 20 years old when they arrive “at the top”:  a principal in a big company – by that time, they are already world famous! And then what? They have suffered/will suffer incredible, ever increasing demands from their public, and are even more prone to early injuries than the average dancer.  AND also grow up, no matter what.

Sergei Polunin
Sergei Polunin – soloist at Royal Ballet at the age of 19, principal at the age of 20.

Right now, we have several young prodigies at some stage of their transition period: choreographer Justin Peck, dancers like Misty Copeland, Ivan Vasiliev, Sergei Polunin are well known examples,. I hope they all grace us with long active, fruitful lives – in the History of Ballet, you find pretty few like them before.

Ivan Vasiliev
Ivan Vasiliev- Bolshoi soloist at 17, principal at 21.

To be a ballet professional was never as hard as it is nowadays, and even so, I have big hopes in some of them – in some… more than in others! Future will show if I got them right!

Quote of the Day – Ismene Brown

“No dancer should be unconfident enough to need to read their reviews. What would they do? Try to adjust their performance? As Tamara Rojo once pointed out to me, which critic should she try to please?

Tamara Rojo
Tamara Rojo

(…)
The memorable interpreters and creators are those who burn us with the heat of the flame that propels them, they’re not asking us to help bring their hesitant little glow to life with our paper cuttings. They know when they felt they’d done well, got it right – and very likely there were no critics there at the time.”

Read the complete original

 

As to the point as Ms.Brown article, is the first comment made by a reader:
“I agree with the sentiment of the comment and it does not in the least bother me if I do not agree with what critics have written but … too many critics can make personal and unnecessary comments about the people they are reviewing and that is reprehensible doing a disservice to the artists, audience and readers.” JanMcN

I agree again!!

Ms. Brown writes: “As they [reviewers] write, they have no feelings about the performer at all, only a selfish interest in whether the interpreter delivered them, as spectators, what they sought, what they wanted to feel as a result of experiencing this work of art.”
We are often “graced”, however, with the reviewer’s opinion on the performer behind the role, on his character and private motivations… the work of art just a misty background! A missed opportunity to inform, educate and share appreciation of Art.

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I agree!! See  The Tower of Babel – Opinions on a Performance.

Dance and the Acting Challenge

One of my recent posts was about the wildly different expectations that different kinds of audience have when attending a ballet evening – that explain why so many leave necessarily disappointed.  Now, I’m addressing a certain kind of audience, MY kind, most of all – the premises being: good acting is important, body-language is important, meaning is necessary – technique must be subordinated to them.

Different from theatre and movies, where natural, life-like acting is used almost 100% of the time, in dance there are many choices.

Believable Acting
“Suspension of disbelief”: Vanessa Redgrave – Heath Ledger – Johny Depp – Adrian Ross Magenty, Emma Thompson, Helene Bonham-Carter

No acting at all is the first of them – and the strangest one for me: that a performance art should give up meaning, that dance should give up body-language, and become just pure form!

Then there is formalistic acting, more than one kind. The traditional one is grounded on century-old mime, and looks very strange to me, but has fierce fans. More modern kinds are used mostly in contemporary dance, usually a choice made by the choreographer himself, and I can see their value, even if it is not the kind I like most.

Traditional mime
Giselle’s mother warns her of her weak heart, and the risk of death.

And finally believable acting, of course, the kind that “suspends your disbelief” – the only kind I consider GOOD acting, and the most difficult one.

So there are choices to be made by the choreographer, or even the artistic director, and then by the dancers themselves. I always hope they choose the kind I prefer – that theatre and movie actors prefer -, but there are so many obstacles to see my wish fulfilled!

The training

In the great Ballet Schools acting is part of the program, but not a central one, it remains far, far, very far behind all-important physical technique – with special care to traditional formalistic mime.  A dancer with natural acting skill is always in danger of having to un-learn intellectually what he already knew instinctively…

The training in Contemporary Dance Schools and in Performance Arts courses in universities is a lot better, but aimed mostly… at Contemporary Dance, of course! And for all I have seen, emphasis is on expressive choreography (a good, very good thing, by the way!). So what about the classical trained dancers?

Needs x requirements

There are so many dramatic ballets, by so many important choreographers: Tudor, Ashton, Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, MacMillan, Neumeier, Liam Scarlett, Grigorovitch, Ratmansky, and on it goes… These ballets deserve good acting! These ballets NEED good acting!

Marcia Acting
Marcia Haydée – Lady of Camelies (Neumeier)

But acting skill, and I mean GOOD acting, is NOT a real requirement when selecting, promoting or hiring a dancer – again, physical technique is far more valued!

When it comes the moment to perform, however, all expect (at least the audience does!) the dancer will know his acting! What do dancers do, then? Try to be the best they can, learning maybe from his fellow-dancers or by themselves… not an easy task, either way – his fellows are at a loss just as he/she is, and learning alone has limited efficacy and is time-consuming.

The traditional Standards

Many dancers complain of the tight acting standards they must obey in the big companies, that go from a prescribed way of acting to an open disapproval of any display of individuality.

Type-casting

This is a tough one, that wastes the rare natural acting talents in roles that do not require acting, and also the contrary, using in dramatic roles dancers that do not have (“my” kind of!) acting skill.  A real shame!

Alina Somova as Juliet
Alina Somova – Romeo and Juliet

The audience…s

There are several kinds of audiences, with different expectations on acting. Choreographers, coachers, dancers, artistic directors, when they make a choice, are also choosing the kind of audience they will be addressing – it is impossible – read that again, I beg you: it is IMPOSSIBLE – to please all of them at the same time! It means that, if we ALL keep attending ALL kinds of performance, THEY must know they will certainly displease many of us… an uncomfortable trap!

Acting Itself

When a dancer is cast in a dramatic role, and willing to make a good job, he/she has challenges to win that are intrinsic to acting.
To make a character believable, it must be coherent throughout the play, and, at the same time, full of nuances – no matter what kind of character.  This requires a deep understanding of the human being, and great empathy, to perform even someone the dancer is not, or does not feel like.

Alina - Giselle 1
Alina Cojocaru – Giselle Mad Scene

He must also grasp what the choreographer, and the artistic director, intended from his character, and incorporate these intentions to his own interpretation.

The role he creates cannot exist alone, it must interact believably with the other roles in the play – may the other dancers be good actors, too, or not!

The dancer is not acting in front of a camera that can show the slightest tremor of the lid – he must reach down to the last rows – and THIS requires great skill!

He/she must be able to create on-the-run empathy, to feel how we-seated-there-in-the-dark are reacting, and make us follow, feel with he wants.

And last but not least, he/she cannot be self-conscious! On stage, an actor cannot be Mr. X making a careful performance of Macbeth… he must be Macbeth himself – as a dancer cannot be Mr. Z performing Armand, he must BE Armand. When acting is good, you forget about X and Z, and see only the role. Not an easy feat… careful, self-conscious performers as most dancers are!

While dancing!

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Alessandra Ferri and Hernan Cornejo – Cheri

All this challenges, of course, must be faced while making a great display of balletic technique, caring for the partner, finding his cues and place on stage, following the music…
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Is it not incredible that the acting of some dancers, despite all that, is able to blow me off my feet? More than that, is it not incredible that some of them blow me off my feet, not at the expense, but while displaying great dancing?

Awesome creatures!

Some of them are as good in dramatic as in comic roles, like amazing Alessandra Ferri, or great Manuel Legris… Some of them are as good seen from afar as in a close-up, in fact good enough for an Oscar (now I’m thinking of Alina Cojocaru)…

Manuel Legris - Die Fledermaus
Ketevan Papava and Manuel Legris – Die Fledermaus – Click on image to link to video, it is delicious!

They are ALMOST inexistent in the triangle USA/Russia/England (I’m sorry to say that, but it’s true!), most dancers who are also good actors come from France, Germany, Spain, Latin America… a handful of them nowadays, no more – with so much obstacles, if the dancer hasn’t natural skill, and a persistent drive to use it, he is doomed.

 In the newest generation they are even rarer, especially in classical ballet. It is not surprising – nowadays Form and perfect physical technique are valued much higher – overrated, I would say – and not only in Dance, it is a wide-spread characteristic of modern society! Content? meaning? well, so long it does not overshadow technique, it may receive some attention…

The greatest exception between the younger ones in Triangle of Bermudas of acting is Ivan Vasiliev, the only one of his generation to cope with the whole array of acting challenges from the start, with flying colours. He is able to bring life and meaning to any role, tragical or comical, from Czar Ivan, The Terrible to Colas in La Fille Mal Gardée – besides having a wealth of other qualities.

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He must make deliberate choices about each of his perfomances, because the outcome is always unique and specific, deeply coherent in both the dramatic and technical dimensions of the role.

Ivan Vasiliev, of course, is not unanimity in the audience, as no other dancer is – one could not expect THAT with so different kinds of public. Maybe he is aware that the choices he makes will please many of us, but not all – those like me, luckily, seem to be priority number one in his book!

02ivan-vasiliev
Le Jeune Homme et La Mort

 

I wish more of the classical trained younger dancers were like him…

After all, concert dance is a Performance Art! Or is it possible to disagree even on that?

Spartacus? Sleeping Beauty? Jewels? N.N.N.N.? or… What makes us tick!

jewles x NNNN

Dance as Form+Content – meaning imparted through dance, the importance of body-language, good acting – is this blog’s theme, my theme.

Now I believe, however, that the way I was taking is unfair: I must not fight other kinds of performance. Most of my former posts fighted fiercely anything different from what I value.

ReproachfulEventually I realized what we all need – we, belonging to the several kinds of public that dance has – is to have a clearer understanding of what we want from a performance, and a clearer understanding of what each choreographer’s, director’s or dancer’s style and premises and goals are…  so we can attend those performances that make us happy, instead of complaining and criticizing those that fail us (mea culpa, I’m included here)!

Performances may fail to please us NOT because of incompetence or bad taste or poor quality, but just because what they are bringing us – what they on stage priorize – is not what WE put more value on. To begin with, we must be able to grasp how diverse WE are. A few examples.

During VERY stressful times, I may want to defend myself from any additional stir -good or bad, it may shake my balance even more.  This might explain why so many love Pure Form dance (ballet and/or contemporary alike): they want an intellectual or aesthetic experience, a predictable one, and no more – they want to be able to see something beautiful that does not immediately remind them that… life sucks! we do not live in easy times! Pure Form dance is one of the last strongholds of Art where you can see beauty with no demands on your emotion! There are certainly several in the audience feeling that way!

There are those that need to sublimate their pleasures – for them dance must be pure and idealized, nothing that reminds of individuality, sensuality, physicality and feelings, must be visible. If you think they must be few, remember how prude classical ballet is… in fact the only prude kind of Art nowadays!

The do-not-disturb-me and the sublimating kinds of audience will welcome and value the beauty of staging and costumes, the purity of lines, whatever physical feats their knowledge enables them to recognize, beautiful dancers with idealized looks, no plot (or a plot far away from reality).  A very expressive choreography, or very impressive acting – too much meaning – will truly spoil their pleasure! They prefer works where no acting is needed, or a formalistic one is used. For them, dance must bring peace of mind and heart!

Than there are those who were dancers themselves, maybe successful, maybe in a life-long struggle… these will have little patience with novelties – they are there to remember and revive, to envy, admire or reproach new performances of the same pieces they loved to dance themselves.

Aurora x Spartacus

There are those who are competitive active professionals, who attend to evaluate and rank, positively or negatively, those on stage with other performers and themselves… it is not their intention, but they are almost hoping for flaws! They are the ones with keen, bright evaluating eyes and wrinkled noses…

Dancers and ex-dancers are not a small part of public, they may be up to 60% of the audience!

There are those who seek Art because it gives them a way to connect with great truths and deep questions about being human, to be reminded again of what life is really about. For these, Dance must have meaning, more than anything else – for them, physical technique should, and must be subordinated to Content, all they ask is the necessary and sufficient level needed to impart Content, and they value good, believable acting, expressive choreography  and body-language very high. For them, dance is one of the most powerful kinds of Art.

There are those that don’t know the first thing about dance, but attend the performances because it sounds so sophisticated when you tell your friends…

There is the great-show-loving kind, who comes for easy emotion, a lush staging, impressive music, outrageous, easily to recognize feats, special effects, gold and sparks, in short, great entertainment. They don’t care about meaning or if there is acting at all.

I could go on, but I believe I already made my point. Of course, I exaggerated and oversimplified these characteristics, but even so, you recognized yourself and others you know, didn’t you? And remember, critics are not gods, they belong to some kind of audience too!

The big problem is, we ALL go to ALL kinds of performance, probably because there are so few of them (dance productions ARE so few, compared to other Performance Arts!), and a great part of us leaves disappointed… if not angry!

And that’s my point, you know? Let’s fill our glasses again and think together:  if your priority is Form, whatever the reason you have for that, why don’t you stay away from performances where you KNOW this is NOT a priority?  there is no NEED to go see them, is there? As I MUST not go see what, for me, is just pretty-but-bland technique display, if it is not the kind of performance I like (if I would go, I would, out of pure boredom, search, obviously, for the kind of flaws that bother ME! mea culpa, again!). It makes no sense, and anyone of us who likes theatre, movies, opera, music knows how to choose! So why don’t we choose when it comes to dance.

ReproachfulThis is true even if I’m critic! Then I will not have to write texts that are a long sequence of good-but-bad phrases like “Her … was gorgeous, but, disappointingly, she…”, and have, in the end, my readers more confused than before: was it worthwhile or not?!!?? Or worse, when feeling acutely uncomfortable with a staging or performance, and not being conscious of mine/their disparate premises and goals (so out of objective arguments), I will not be reduced to criticize the performer’s (assumed) personality or feelings, or gossip about his private life… leaving my anyway not very motivated readers – more than ever – wishing distance from such a messed up dance community!

Dance deserves a wider audience, and can please all kinds of audience – just not all of them at once! We should not attend, and then harshly criticize, productions we know have different premises and goals than ours. I realized I must treat them more kindly… respect difference!. Let us treat OURSELVES more kindly and respectful, and attend the kind of show, and see the kind of performer, we know intends to address US, that tries to come up to OUR standards…  we will know better, then, how to evaluate them (or at least to criticize fairly)!

It brings us no credit that we like A, go see performances that strive for B, and then criticize them for not achieving A!  WE are being unfair and… making a public statement about our short-sightedness! Let us be more aware, and happier?

 

The beauty (or not) of contemporary dance!

Evolution of Mankind
Evolution of Mankind 

 Edited one day after first publishing: it’s an awful long post, again. If you’re not patient enough, just go to the to examples in the end – they speak for themselves.
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I have a problem with overuse of weird and ugly movements in contemporary dance.

I know it sounds unsophisticated and simple-minded, but am I just a traditional ballet lover with an idealized view of dancing? I believe not, I have a few arguments, and they may be not that naive (although I love this little figure, I stitched it together myself!).

To begin with – and this is important: my problem is NOT with ridiculous, weird, strange or ugly movements used to impart the wealth of negative emotions and ideas that are part of life – just when they are used for other reasons and in other contexts. Some of them:

# 1: “I want to shock, I want to push you out of your comfort zone!”

Reality is not a nice place to live, but classical ballet refused the notion and presented us with an idealized view of human being.  In this context, the use of ugly and weird movements in contemporary is a way to give a good push on ballet’s complacent audience, as a shocking device to make them again aware of the real facts of life. I subscribe to that! BUT…

… nowadays they became overused. It’s like these American B-films, where the characters use FUCK as their every fifth word. It should show how the character is bad, or messed up, but fails, nowadays, to have the desired effect. You see, I’m a clumsy person, and this puts me in frequent situations when swearing is needed…  and heartily done!!!  It would not be THAT satisfying, though, if I used swearing in every sentence. Overuse kills the effect of trespassing, of rebellion, of a striking-back reaction. It becomes just bad manners, and does not make us jump in our seats anymore, or even uncomfortable.

If ugly movements are used to shock us, or to remind us of the ugly side of reality, well… it’s not working anymore, they are, nowadays, just… boringly ugly!

# 2:  “Contemporary dance is not falsely prude, or falsely nice”.

And there comes bottoms facing audience, or held up high facing the sky, or the common lift where the female dancer is held high, back against her partner’s chest, horizontally not-fully extended, half-open legs, crotch facing the public.  I used to look for the sex act key of that movement, since a woman in that position, in all our minds, with legs tensed that way, is a powerful and beautiful image of sexual desire, very rarely seen in other contexts, if any – I would welcome that, by the way, sex is still taboo in ballet, even in contemporary, and many choreographers and dancers are still uncomfortable in acknowledging even that sex exists – as Theatre, for example, has been doing for a long time. But… no, it is mostly just a slightly out-of-tune movement that, more often than not, has nothing to do with sexual drive.  So what does it mean, this position that, taken out of its context, is not exactly graceful? The same applies, for example,  when dancers crawl on all their fours…  in my body-language lexicon, this is about very little children (the child inside us?), or about a very desperate, in sheer terror human being, that turns animal-like for lack of options. So I look for hints either way, but more often than not… they are not there! Made by an adult, and without the archaic corresponding meaning, this kind of movement is not graceful or makes sense anywhere in the world… So?!??

# 3: It is original!

In a world with too many people, ideas and images, originality is an important way to stand out. For the sake of originality, people go to any lengths, pushing boundaries of aesthetics to ultimate extremes. If it comes from a deep understanding of hidden possibilities we common people are not aware yet, I love it. But sometimes weird, ugly dancing does not seem to have any meaning, or belong to an intended aesthetic statement, they come and go in the dancing, and you can’t make any sense out them.

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We, social beings as we are, live inside a symbolic universe, which allows us to communicate. We share words, concepts, tastes, ideas. Even if I see blue were you see green, even if Thai food feels so hot for me I have a hard time identifying the other ingredients  through my tears, even if my fragmented notion of time is different from my Arab neighbour’s flowing one… even so, we have more in common than we have differences.  Every social group shares a symbolic universe, deeply grounded on its language, and part of these diverse universes is common to all mankind. It is not different with body language. Different cultures have different conventions about the meaning of movements, and some of this meaning is common to all humankind.

The common aspects are rooted mostly in archaic fears and needs. So if you are standing up and stretch yourself completely,  as far as you can, your eyes not on someone else, but focused far away, or unfocused – what does it mean? Here? In China? In Iceland? You see what I mean? INSIDE a specific culture, it is even easier, because all body-language – partly deeply rooted, partly convention – is understandable, is a language like the spoken one.

Our ears, our eyes, our nose, our tongue, all our senses, are trained since early childhood, so we can share images and colours, flavours and smells, sounds… and concepts related to them, and ever more abstract ideas construed using these as ground-stones.

Now, coming back to Art. Art is part of our symbolic universe, both the specific one, and the general one.  I may have trouble understanding a Japanese Opera, or Indian music, when I’m seeing it for the first time and without preparing myself. But I can learn! I can learn its aesthetic criteria, the difficulties of performance, the concepts that are imbedded there, the culture where they came from, and then… THEN I will be exposed to the full power of that kind of Art. What I mean is: Art exists INSIDE a symbolic universe, and can only reach me if I share this universe.

There are artists that have an instinctive knowledge of our symbolic universe, but so a deep and great one, they are able to show us things we are not aware, that are in the boundaries of, or hidden from our “Weltanschauung”. And still, they share our symbolic universe, or they would be just psychopaths, living in a world of their own…  It is my belief that this kind of Art, even if you can’t understand it rationally, will get at you anyway. Provided it is Art, provided it comes from a knowledge that includes mine and exceeds it in some way, and brings me a new truth I will recognize once seen, and then not be able to dismiss again. Problem is, this is not the kind of artist we are discussing here. This kind of artist is Beethoven, is Isadora Duncan, is Van Gogh, they are rare, so, SO rare!  Most artists are not so far away from our everyday reality, and share our symbolic universe as it is. There is nothing less valuable about them, because Art must not throw our symbolic universe upside down, everytime, to be Art –in fact it rarely does, for it is, most of all, a way for us… just to live! Nietzsche said: “We have art in order not to die of the truth!”. We need Art in order to cope with what being human is, just IS!

Many artists strive, nowadays, to be boundary breakers, but if they resource to artificial means to become that, it is of no avail – this kind of issue should not even worry them – in fact, articialism gets in the way of creation! The points I enumerated above about the use of strange movements ARE artificial ways some choreographers are using, and do not convince me. At all.

To be original guarantees… originality, not that the work will be Art! To unveil hypocrisy and false moral values is always good, but does not guarantee the work will be Art (but a valuable socio-political statement, maybe?), and so on.

Our culture shares an immensurable knowledge on body-language and concepts of body beauty and body-movements beauty… and their corresponding ugliness.  This wealth of meaning is just beginning to be explored by Dance. I wonder why so many choreographers are dismissive about our shared language, and try to create something that is not really new, just weird – to create something that is just…  not understandable!

How many writers you know that use as much words they create from scratch as existing ones? How many perfumists do you know that create perfumes that smell like rotten eggs, or a car’s exhaustion?  What happens when you hear music  that uses not the kind of “hamony” your culture shares? even if it is Art, will it reach you?

I will a give an example, and a counter-example.

My example of weird, not understandable dancing is Ohad Naharin’s Passo. Passo is part of a larger work, and was presented, out of context, in Solo For Two, with Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, where I saw it the first time. Despite being performed by outstanding and expressive dancers, it was a shot off the mark, if I, in the audience, was the intended target. Even seeing the whole work, I doubt I would get what was to be imparted through the choreography.  It was lost on me, I did not understand the body-language, and could not see, also, a possible internal coherence or consistency of Form, some aesthetic proposition I could recognize.  Was it necessary to know about Gaga-technique? Well… Naharin could not expect that from me, could he? I must say:  simple-minded me did not get it at all… I wonder if someone else did!
(The strange thing is, there are several choreographies of Naharin that I like  – and, I believe,  understand…  so what is the matter with THIS one?

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Small excerpt of Passo by Ohad Naharin, performed by Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev

The counter-example is Mats Ek’s (he is Swedish) work, based on a play of Garcia Lorca (he is Spanish), using music from Bach (he is German), Villa-Lobos (he is Brazilian), Albeniz and Tarraga (they are Spanish): Bernardas Hus, or La Casa de Bernarda Alba. An extraordinary work, “readable” by anyone, despite the multicultural aspects… at least by any occidental one (due to Catholic religion references). But then,  Mats Ek is an extraordinary choreographer, I’m fascinated by his work!  Even if you do not know the original play (I did not), you get it, both emotion and plot, through the cleverest use of body-language in – and this is what I like the most – IN the dancing,  THROUGH the dancing!

bernardas hus
Small excerpt of Bernardas Hus by Mats Ek – link to complete work below

Link to complete work: << https://youtu.be/l2Sxi7USgzw>>.