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.
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!
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”
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!
“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?
(…) 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.”
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.
It happens I greatly admire a dancer that some (great experts, I suppose) “accuse” of having poor turn-out. I did not care, because it does not impair the beauty of his dancing at all. But then, I read some western reviewers that saw a causal connection between “faulty” turn-out and height of jumps. When I was a dancer myself, a long time ago, I did not hear a single word about this, and it triggered my curiosity now.
I have not found (yet?) objective information on this connection. Those reviewers used it to explain why Russian dancers jump higher: they would also have “poor” turn-out more often than western dancers, and there would reside their ability to reach greater heights. The connection may be just one of those myths that grow, who knows how, in every community, but… may Russian dancers jump higher or not, may their turn-out be perfect or not… I must say: it makes sense!
But I also found out some disturbing objective, REAL facts about turn-out: it is responsible for shortening the active career of many dancers, because it wears out all articulations, ligaments and tendons from hips down to toes! Of course! It is logical, isn’t it? It’s an unnatural position, constantly exerting strain on them!
My teachers used to say turn-out was needed for balance. I recently asked some gymnastics physical trainers (not ballet teachers this time) how exactly it helped me stay still on point. They laughed… and I felt cheated! It’s just how, or where, you place the weight of your hip bones and head above your feet, one said, and to a lesser degree, on the strength of your calf and back bones to keep them there. You may be in the craziest position, the other one said, just find your center of gravity and place it in a vertical line above your foot and you are in balance. Hm.
Please, don’t think I would wish to wipe turn-out out of ballet! There is no way an arabesque will look beautiful with a heel protruding skyward! And an attitude would cease to be an attitude, to become just… a foot pointing up behind your back. An entrechat would be impossible (just think! what a mess!)… and it certainly helps you place your hips correctly and not look like a duck in pliés (it helps, but is not indispensable).
But on the other hand… running through the stage with your feet turned-out is NOT beautiful, it looks, BE TRUTHFUL NOW!… ridiculous!!! We dancers and ballet lovers, including myself, just became used to this strange aesthetic, and do not question it anymore. When I allowed myself to see its oddness, I remembered that Juliet running down the stairs with turned-out knees and feet always made me cringe, and vaguely wish something was different… BE TRUTHFUL AGAIN: it looks NOT graceful!
If it depended on me. I would ask female dancers to walk and run keeping 12h in their mind, instead of 14:45h, and male dancers to walk/run using their feet in the most comfortable way…
I analyzed a lot of steps and positions, and came to the conclusion that several of them would be more graceful if legs and feet were in a more natural position… and that turn-out is not needed for several others – the taking-off and landing in big jumps being just one of the examples. How things came to be the way they are? How did ballet become so unnatural? Why?
Would it not be wiser to use full turn-out only where it is really needed, and keep dancers dancing for a longer time?
Oh, my goodness, this sounds as anarchism in my own ears, but maybe it IS being questioned nowadays, and I just don’t know – after all, my technical knowledge is not extensive or up to date. I hope so: why not question standards that are unhealthy and/or ungraceful?
I doubt, anyway, Petipa was half as keen on full, perfect turn-out as ballet experts are nowadays…
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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…
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?
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)…
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.
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!
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?
Dance was the first great passion in my life, but even when I was part of our Dance community, little information about what was going on “there, where it matters” reached us – if at all, with great delay. We were just too far away, and Communication Age had not yet begun. I was lucky, I had teachers that were ex-dancers that had gone abroad and eventually came back with solid knowledge and great technical skill, but this happened so seldom, less than once in a decade! All I knew by then was pure classical (the most contained, severe English style!) and Martha Graham. When I gave up dancing, I kept the greatest possible distance between me and all that concerned Ballet, by my own choice – a kind of Dance “coma”…
I awakened to a “new” world, a world I had not been aware existed.
I was searching YouTube for classical Music works that had never graced the shelves of my city’s stores, when I linked to a piece that was just score to a ballet. BALLET! I realized, for the first time, that I could now see ballets, performances, dancers I had only heard about before – and was suddenly overcome by an urgent longing for Dance. I started with Martha Graham, and went on on suggested links, Paul Taylor, Pina Bausch, Twyla Tharp… Awesome! I remember clearly my amazement, as I realized all that had happened during the time I had been “away”.
Eventually I clicked on Lar Lubovitch’s “Othello” staged by San Francisco Ballet, Desmond Richardson and Yuan Yuan Tan as principals. I was mesmerized! So beautiful this blend of classical and contemporary, so different from all I had known, the richer choreography, the amazing male roles – these men were REALLY dancing! And choreography and dancers were all so deeply expressive! I watched it three times in a row before I could go on.
I went on to Othello’s PDD danced by Marcelo Gomes and Alessandra Ferri. WOW…! Until that moment, all I knew about him was that he is a Brazilian ballet dancer who succeded abroad. I searched more.
Two more days with my eyes glued to the screen, and I knew ALL about him and Alessandra I could get on the web: clips, interviews, pictures, reviews. Marcelo Gomes led me next to the Kings of the Dance.
I clicked on Labyrinth of Solitude.
I had never seen anything so beautiful and heartbreaking before. It was so overwhelming I stopped all I was doing , and went for a walk to think about what I had seen. My life had suffered a division: there is a before and an after Labyrinth.
THIS much meaning, feeling, power could be conveyed through Dance!! I knew, back from my days, that for those who dance, it can be a deep sensorial and emotional experience, but I had been also sadly aware that this experience was not extended to our audience! A Ballet evening was just a sophisticated event that people with cultured tastes felt obliged to attend, but the moment the curtains closed, they started talking about where to have dinner, the stock market… – had that evening existed or not, nothing was changed.
But THIS! this was something else. Labyrinth had blowed me off my feet! Not as a dancer, but as audience. And not in a theatre, seated in the dark, magic flowing from a lighted stage, but at home, my pets fooling around me, phone ringing, – on a 14″ notebook with awful sound quality…
It became my favourite work, and a sort of standard. I like everything about Labyrinth. The theme; the music (Vitali, strange composer, who created this one sweeping, emotional score 150 years ahead of his time…); the way it is danced by Vasiliev, believable and intense; the absence of settings and costume; De Bana’s expressive choreography, and how he blended all of it into something that was more than the sum of parts.
After gathering my wits back, I searched further (my ethernal gratitude to YouTube’s inventor!), and started to identify which choreographers and dancers had been – and are now – responsible for this new (for me) richness. I knew several by name or a rare photo, but had never SEEN the real dancing, believe it or not! My personal “hall of fame” became a mix of active and retired professionals, even some long passed away – problem is, they jumped into my life all at once, it took me some time to correctly locate them in space and time – they were all very “here and now” in my mind – they still are, and I like it that way.
I fell deeply in love with Dance again, more than before. I saw, at last, Dance becoming an Art like her sisters. THIS was what Dance should be, anyone could appreciate, could love it now, men and women, young and old, expert or not. Anyone should be given the opportunity to experience its power, everyone should be exposed to its magic: I had a Quest!
My other projects (I always have too many, anyway) became less important, as my knowledge and awareness grew steadily. I’m fortunate that I can now, as never before in a too busy life, open my door and let Dance and Music come in and make themselves really comfortable in me. (only problem is, I suffer from fits of goose-bumps at an alarming rate nowadays).
The Quest means no hard work at all: I use it as an excuse to write about beauty and art gifted people create for us – giving Dance some thought while I write – not as an expert, but as the grateful receiving end, and then throw it in the wind/web, hoping it makes a difference, even the tiniest one, in bringing Dance closer to a wider audience. The other task is to win people around me over… making them some pleasure, too, when I succeed. Is that nice or what?