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

 

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?

 

Quote of the Day – Twyla Tharp

twyla tharp“I don’t see it as pandering to the public when the work I do becomes slightly commercial in a sense, and succeeds. I always assumed that if one did quality work one would be like any other worker in our culture: able to support oneself, taking the responsibility of not being in an ivory tower.”

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In an interview to Sharon Basco in Cambridge (Creativity Forum at Lesley University), 27.04.2015.  Twyla Tharp has written extensively about knowing your audience, and creating work that connects with people.

Uffff – too many issues!

I’m having trouble feeding my blog, because I have so many issues dancing (!) around on my head… I’m writing about all of them at the same time, and nothing is ever ready to post! I’m so confused I posted  THIS before it was ready, sorry!

mess of letters

Issue #1: the recent episode of  Bolshoi x Stanislasvski conflict involving Ivan Vasiliev brought back memories of several similar conflicts, involving both him and other dance professionals, that often guest around the world. It made me reflect on the current ability of ballet companies to effectively cope with the changes in their reality: the increasing numbers of independent great stars; the cost/benefit of their productions; customer satisfaction; visible aging of their audience in live performances; globalization of information; the new ways (mostly digital and far from ideal, but THERE, their importance increasing as we speak) to access ballet/dance productions; the inadequate competitive attitude in a risk situation. I wonder if their funding agencies impose restrictions to effective management? It seems (lack of information!) they have, most of them, professional managers, so why are they so slow to adapt? Does that sound too businesslike? Well, it should!!! Dance companies, as every enterprise and institution nowadays, CANNOT ignore good business practices! Ignore them, nowadays, is to be doomed!

Issue #2: important dance professionals in UK complained about UK dancer’s training – they say contemporary dance schools do not prepare them well enough. On it’s wake, I became aware of information on UK’s Dance audience’s, agencies and training (I did not know where to find that, before). There is a LOT to think and ponder about here, and I follow the debate, and write to clear my ideas, and re-think, and get new information, and re-write… It has been highly interesting, but I’m still processing all these new data!

Issue #3: the general Prodigal Son Parable feeling about Ivan Vasiliev’s “return” to Bolshoi, and its consequences – there are very nice, really exciting consequences, and also, I foresee, some that may not be that nice. As always, Ivan Vasiliev has my interest as himself, but also as an emblematic dancer who raises issues that go far beyond him. There is a difficult, tense, even painful trade-off between an artist’s right and need of independency, and the means to realize his artistry – in Performance Arts even more than other kinds of Art. When I see dancers and choreographers potential unfulfilled, I long for them to find a “home” to fully realize them, but… which of the dance agencies available nowadays is willing to let them realize their potential to it’s full extent? Not a new question, and I don’t have an answer! I keep a keen eye on all agencies I can… there seems to be a great polarization: those “homes” that can afford to stage properly the greater ones, are the less bound to favour their individuality, and vice-versa! Either way, the artist looses, and WE loose!… that’s why I cannot but worry and wonder about solutions! This issue, obvioulsy, is related, but not the same, as Issue#1.

Issue #4: what is Dance about, nowadays? A recent interview of my amazing Natalia Osipova brought me once again to this issue. She is SO accomplished, I cannot imagine a more beautiful 2nd Act Giselle as hers, OR a more fiery Kitri, and the improbable possibility of a dancer to excel the way she excels in BOTH prooves her greatness! She is, however, haunted by doubts about herself, and seeks harder and harder for perfection, but to such an extent! it broke my heart…! Problem is, to be perfect does not mean, necessarily, to create magic, and she, sensitive as she is, KNOWS that, and fears that. Is perfection important to create an objet d’art? If at all, in what ways, and what KIND of perfection? When I reflect about this, I always feel Terpsichore – “the joy in dancing” – looking, very interested, over my shoulder…

Issue #5: I have a post to finish about overuse of strange – and ugly – movements and costumes in contemporary dance (that I love). I’m reticent about them, and try to explain why  – just a humble, but as so often here, radical personal opinion. It involves body-language, the symbolic universe of a culture, and relates the way we see and interpret movements with words, smells and music – for now. I wouldn’t dare to question their artistic value or the creator’s need of them, but I can give a feed-back on how I receive/perceive them!

… and new issues keep arising!

It strikes me as little odd that in “other lives I lived”, in business, science, human science – and for all I can see but lived not, in other kinds of Art and every other organized human activity, issues like that are deeply important and openly and fiercely discussed… but I find so little open discussion and open opinions in Dance! I want to stand up and cry BRAVO everytime I see someone dismiss platitudes and state unconformity in a loud voice! … in good time, all these voices will grace this pages! But they are few, too few…

Quote of the day – Annabelle Lopez Ochoa

“As a choreographer you always have a choice. Do you want to impress the audience with speedy movement, intricate footwork and tricks – or do you risk simplicity, and try to touch people with the facts of life and death that all of us experience?

The audience always knows if you’re going for flashiness at the expense of meaning.”  

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa - choreographer
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa – choreographer

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Oh, yes, we know! Sad thing is, even knowing, part of ballet’s public prefer empty flashiness, or pays attention only to the flashy aspects of a performance. I have seen dancers truly ripping themselves to impart the dramatic content, and being applauded in the middle of it, because of a well-done jump or something like that!  It outrightly shocks me!

But another part of the audience, where I include myself, cannot see worth in a piece that does not touch you, be it of the utmost simplicity, or include the flashiest features.  By the way, simplicity may be very hard to dance properly!

Ivan Vasiliev in Mayerling… not this time, yet!

Ivan Vasiliev decided not to perform Mayerling. Frustrating, for both audience and himself, who had told, more than once, Prince Rudolph was a role he wanted to dance. Appalled sighs from everywhere! What happened?

From Stanislavski’s Theatre letter on Facebook:

“However, on 6 April, in the midst of the rehearsal process, just five days before the performance, Ivan Vasiliev refused to perform, thus violating his commitments to both theatre and his audience. We are deeply sorry about how some of our colleagues refer to their responsibilities and the public, and we apologize to our viewers for the disappointed expectations.”

From the letter Ivan Vasiliev publicized, explaining his decision.

“I applied to the repetiteur from the Kenneth MacMillan Foundation asking to find a compromise solution and to draw up a different rehearsal schedule that would be convenient for both The Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre and the Bolshoi Theatre and to make it possible for me to perform in the ballet “Mayerling” as well as in the ballet “Ivan the Terrible”, but my inquiry was denied.”

I may not have all the facts, but seen from far away, on the available information, this is what I see:

Two ballet companies want the same dancer at the same time. The dancer, at his own health’s risk, is willing. Instead of cooperating and trying to reach a compromise at management-level, the two companies behave like spoiled children quarreling over his time. It comes down to the dancer – who, don’t forget, wanted to dance for both – to try to sort things out, and eventually make the decision of which of them he must dump…

The Victory of Intransigency!  Can you find ANY OTHER benefit from the outcome? For Stanislavski? For Ivan? For the Kenneth MacMillan Foundation? For the audience? For Ballet? A perfect loose-loose situation!