Balanchine Versus Muhammad Ali's Daughter, Ballet's Continuing Relevance, Alastair Macaulay, and Great Dance Writing From the Past

Yesterday, in the New York Times, our new chief dance critic there Alastair Macaulay wrote an article about New York City Ballet’s new season, which officially kicked off on Tuesday. Because this Monday marks the 24th Anniversary of George Balanchine’s death, it is only fitting, he noted, that NYCB open with a week’s worth of Balanchine ballets, created between 1928 and 1975. The first night’s rep included a ballet that is obviously a favorite of Macaulay’s, “The Four Temperaments,” created in 1946. He says of this ballet, “Balanchine’s pared-down conception of ballet became a brave-new-world breakthrough.” He goes on to talk specifically about the movement employed, wherein the transfer of body weight — from the standing leg to the lifted leg but before the lifted leg has reached the ground — was somewhat revolutionary, combining as it did a fundamentally jazzy American style with classical ballet, and thereby “offending the European sense of propriety.” He continues, suggesting that Balanchine’s power is lost on the company’s younger dancers, who can’t for some reason adequately convey the beauty and meaning of “the master.” He opens this thought with:

“When people who have come to Balanchine choreography in the last 20 years ask me what makes me miss New York City Ballet in his lifetime (though I caught only the tail end of that golden age), I find myself saying that the company’s dancing in those days blazed with a kind of energy that was positively disturbing: it shook you by the shoulders as if to say, “This matters.” “The Four Temperaments” is one of many Balanchine ballets so extraordinary in their architecture and its conception that many new dance-goers must surely feel that they still matter now; I can only say it mattered more.”

Though it’s not tremendously profound or long, the article has turned heads, especially in the ballet world, and for good reason: it takes a solid point of view and makes a serious statement about the art’s current “state” (Matt’s term!) that is not off the cuff but based in knowledge and passion, and perhaps unwittingly, opens debate.

I have to say, of all the times I’ve gone to NYCB, I’ve never been able to understand Balanchine’s genius. I go to NYCB to see the Jermone Robbins pieces, the Peter Martins, those by new choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, and the company’s Diamond Project series, in which they showcase new ballets by contemporary choreographers. I, as I think most of the public, know Balanchine as the man who starved his ballerinas into his ideal of feminine perfection, most notably Maria Tallchief, while insisting that he was exalting womanhood. “Ballet is woman,” he proclaimed. I’m sorry, but for a socially concious woman today, that behavior, and the resultant image as well, border on the repulsive: indeed, his ballets are filled mostly with emaciated-looking, very frail, very thin young women fluttering about the stage almost angelically, as if they’re not of this world, and very few men.

If you examine what today’s audiences watch, and want to see in dance, this image of woman doesn’t resonate. As I blogged about in my last post, all of the female contestants on Dancing With the Stars — and if you care about ballet’s future you must care about that show because like it or not that is the pulse of dance in this country right now — have been booted — all of the uber thin supermodels, beauty queens and TV celebrities, that is. Leaving as the sole woman Laila Ali, the boxer, and former heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali’s daughter. I believe a large part of the reason many go to see a dance performance is for the sensual experience, and I believe the concept of what is sexy and sensual in both men and women has changed drastically over the years, and this change is partly responsible for many young people today not “getting” ballet. Sexy today is — well, first of all, to at least half of dance-goers sexy is man, not woman :) And regarding women, sexy is strong, unexpected (Ali lifts men after all!), grounded and earthly, and muscular, not frail, not ethereal, not succumbing to men’s standards and expectations.

When I attended The Nothing Festival last weekend and this week at Dance Theater Workshop (which I will definitely blog about later this weekend), post-modern choreographer Walter Dundervill bemoaned that there are no contemporary dance writers like Arlene Croce, the former critic for The New Yorker, sending me straight to the bookstore to check out her work. So far, I’ve just skimmed through, but I am overwhelmed at her uncanny ability to pinpoint a thought so clearly and thoroughly yet succinctly. Here is what she had to say about American Ballet Theater in a January 1975 review of their opening night gala:

“Back to the Forties

If the number of fine ballets that American Ballet Theater had to show for its thirty-five years of existence equaled the number of fine dancers it currently has under contract, its anniversary gala, on January 11, would have been a night to remember. But numerically and stylistically the equation is unbalanced. The handful of illustrious ballets that made the company’s name can’t support dancers like Baryshnikov and Kirkland and Makarova and Nagy and Gregory and Bujones, and even if it could, it’s patently impossible to build a gala retrospective around “Fancy Free” and “Pillar of Fire” and “Romeo and Juliet” and “Three Virgins and a Devil,” all but the last created between 1941 and 1944. The creativity of that first decade had no sequel in the fifties, the sixties, the seventies. When you are seeing Ballet Theater choreography at its best, you are almost always seeing a picture of the forties. The dancers of the seventies don’t fit into that picture. The ballets are still interesting and they’re a challenge to perform, but their aesthetic is dead. Often the sentiment is dead, too. Audiences can’t get excited about them in the old way because the life of the period that produced them has receded and they’re insulated from the way we think and move today. When they are presented as they were at the gala … it’s hard not to see their position in a contemporary repertory as an extended irrelevance…” (WRITING IN THE DARK, DANCING IN THE NEW YORKER, pgs 86-87).

First, I find it rather funny that these are exactly the same ballets that ABT is putting on today, thirty-two years after she wrote this. And it’s true that “Fancy Free,” while a cute and fun ballet for its time, is largely lost on contemporary audiences. I recently took friends to see ABT and this was on the rep. They mostly thought it was mildly cute and engaging, but mainly silly and somewhat sexist. I said, well yeah, it was created in the 40s, but I mean, what about Marcelo — isn’t he so great with his hip-swaying “Rhumba”, didn’t you love Craig‘s splitting jumps off of the bar!?” They laughed — they didn’t know the dancers like I did but thought it was cute that I attached to them so. I think Robbins, Balanchine and all of that great choreography of yore is lost on today’s audience, and not because today’s audiences are stupid philistines, but because, to use Croce’s words, these ballets’ “aesthetic is dead. Often the sentiment is dead too. Audiences can’t get excited about them in the old way because the life of the period that produced them has receded and they’re insulated from the way we think and move today.”

I think Macaulay’s pointing out the revolutionary quality of Balanchine’s work is tremendously important if younger audiences are going to understand and value his work. But that still doesn’t mean they’re going to be moved by him. American Jazz is a hundred years old now; seeing it combined with ballet doesn’t do much to the average dance goer; it certainly doesn’t, as Macaulay hopes, “make many new dance-goers … surely feel that [his ballets] still matter now.”

Hip hop, ballroom, and other social and ethnic forms of dance are the most living, breathing dance styles right now because they mean something to viewers. Hip hop emanates from ghetto life and much of the moves are a kind of recognizable street vocabulary of movement, ballroom is about two people working together and connecting with one another — which everyone can relate to (I don’t think Dancing With the Stars would be popular if it showcased solitary dancing), and a lot of social dance today in the U.S. comes out of Latin American and African countries — they’re fun and rhythmic and contain cultural lessons of strong interest in today’s global world. I feel that contemporary ballet choreographers need to merge these forms of dance with ballet to create something new, original, and beautiful whose meaning and movement resonates with contemporary audiences, the way that Balanchine and Robbins did nearly a century ago. I also think there need to be more writers like Macaulay to point out the historical import of the former greats, and he seems, at least thus far, like a positive return to the Croce style of writing. But, while everyone needs to read a classic once in a while as an historical lesson and an example of true literary genius, if there weren’t contemporary novelists pushing the art form further, the novel would have died long ago. Obviously, Balanchine and Robbins should be kept in the rep of the big companies, but they can’t be the main focus if this art form is to be kept alive as well.

30 Comments

  1. tonya, i agree with you…i don’t see balanchine’s genius at nycb. and thankfully, we are not the only ones who think that way…i had a random meeting with mark morris at the opera a few months ago; he told me he feels very strongly that nycb doesn’t rehearse enough for their super long season, and as a result, balanchine’s works suffer.

    morris reflects his very frank sentiments here:

    “Morris continues: “For example I will never work with New York City Ballet because Peter Martins has ruined the company. … And if they can’t take care of [George] Balanchine’s work, they’re sure not going to get a piece from me!””

    http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/artsentertainment/2002959980_morris01.html

    I can’t help but agree with morris…the only pieces I liked of Balanchine’s were “Serenade” and “Agon”. hopefully we’ll see more balanchine elsewhere :)

  2. Thanks, Jennifer! I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels that way! I remember reading that conversation you had with Morris on your blog — I think it was one of the ones I tried to comment on but something weird happened with Blogger… Thanks for linking to that Seattle times article — it’s really well written. It’s interesting about NYCB’s long season. I remember Miranda Weese saying she was leaving the company for that reason, and the lack of rehearsal time. On one hand, I love that they have such a long season, becasue I feel like there’s almost always a ballet to go see whenever I feel like going, but it does seem like they need some kind of change in the structure of the company, or they way things are done…

  3. I never really got into NYCB. I’m not sure if its that I don’t love the rep, or if it is something else.

    I know that they do things radically differently in many ways. the year I spent at NYCB was quite an adjustment. You DO force your turnout (ok so most kids did anyway, but teachers elsewhere yelled at us for doing it), you prepare for pirouettes totally differently (straight arms and straight back leg vs rounded and in plie’), your arms in turns are brought totally into the body. I never liked it as well. Nor did i like Susan Pillarre’s coathanger arms.

    I did the 4th ring circle so i’m going to try to go this year for the first time ever (with any regularity). I just know that while i’m dying to see Christopher Wheeldon’s new piece I have NO interest in seeing Peter Martin’s choreography. How can he be so determined to choreograph when the best reviews his work ever gets is “this isnt awful”. How about keeping the great ballets in the rep (and they are great, whether they suit my taste or not) in good condition instead of producing increasing quantities of crap?

    I saw sleeping beauty this winter. I loved the sets, and I thought ashley bouder was one of the most phenomenal things I’d seen in years. Well worth seeing. But the rest of it was totally mediocre. The fairys were too much all the same, there was sloppiness throughout, etc. I don’t see how nycb gets on the ballettalk best companies list much more than ABT, when ABT gets ocasionally criticized for sloppiness, but everything i’ve seen says NYCB is MUCH MUCH MUCH more sloppy (and ABT has improved drastically in that arena in recent years).

    I did buy tix to R&J for the last performance–just to see it. are you going?

  4. Oh wow, you were in NYCB! I didn’t know that — that’s awesome!

    Yeah, I’m going to the first R&J and then if I like it and feel compelled to see it again, I’ll go again. I just love MacMillan’s version so much, and I love Alessandra in the role, so it’s going to be hard for me to look past that! Personally, I’d rather see new contemporary ballets than see an old classic remade, that, to my mind anyway, has already been done the best it can be by MacMillan, but I guess these do tend to draw larger crowds than the contemporary pieces. And everyone is making a big deal out of it, which is good press for the ballet world in general — I just saw a picture of Fairchild and and Callie Bachman in Vogue of all places … and they look gorgeous, the photographer took a stunning picture!

    I’ve heard great things about Bouder. Everytime I go to see something she’s in, it seems to be re-cast, so I haven’t seen much of her. I’m going to make an effort though to see her this season.

  5. argh! NO SAB!!!

    sorry I was so tired when i wrote that i mistyped. I was NEVER that good!

    I wish i could edit that mistake. OOOPS!

  6. I like how my response is also flawed. studying is melting my poor brain

    I should have said, no, i didn’t mean nycb, i meant SAB. etc etc

    Mostly I studied at the Joffrey. And I was never a professional dancer. Though I did get to be a super for ABT for 3 or so years, which was really fun (but not dancing)

  7. That’s still so impressive though just to get into those schools — they are really prestigious! No wonder your pointe work is so good!

    I know how you feel about studying … no matter how much I ever have to do at work now (which I often bring home with me), being in school was always so much harder — especially studying for huge exams; studying never ends until the actual exam…

  8. I’ve never been through anything like this. And I have my masters.
    this is never ending torment. But from what I’ve heard so are the exams in law school. And I can’t imagine the bar exam was a piece of cake either 😉

    I plan to spend weekend after next constantly drunk (and since we have a family party in LI during the day on sat it should be pretty easy to do). Either way, I have a lot of steam to blow off. And the days immediately subsequent to the exam will instead be filled with grading tests and papers. oh JOY!!!

    And thanks! :)

  9. I hated studying for the bar — but mostly I think because I hated the subject so much… Before law school I was in grad school, in a PhD program, but left after I got my masters and so never had to take those comps! I just can’t imagine how hard you have to study for those things. Well, it sounds like it’ll all be over soon — so, we’ll have to celebrate at Bayadere!

  10. whaat were you in grad school for?
    I don’t think ive studied enough. The more you know the more you realize you DONT know. It is so incredibly humbling. I feel very stupid and helpless. It will be over soon. Celebrating sounds fantastic. I’d also like to talk with you more about burlesque and why I like it, and about something in it that happened recently that makes me very upset (you would SO agree! I would tell you here, but I don’t want my opinions about it a matter of public record as it would be very hurtful to some people I adore).

    Do you do 4th ring society or whatever its called? I am and want to go alot this spring, so if you ever want to go, drop me a line. My husband is tolerant of ballet but not exactly an enthusiast!

  11. I was in grad school for European intellectual and cultural history — studying mainly 19th and 20th Century England and France. I left for a variety of reasons, but mainly because there were absolutely no jobs at that time. We’ll definitely have to talk about grad school — I assumed you were in for art or art history since you seem to know a lot about that? It’s always that way — that the more you know the more you realize you don’t — that’s kind of what education is all about! If you’re at that point, I think it means you’re doing well — I’m sure you’ll pass with flying colors! And, yes, let’s definitely talk about burlesque! I do have the 4th ring society thing at NYCB — sitting all the way up there may be part of the reason I don’t connect as well with the dancers and choreography but I feel like I can see fine from up there and I cant afford expensive tickets to both ABT and NYCB. I often decide to go last minute, but I’ll definitely email you the next time I go and see if you want to join. Email me when you go as well!

  12. Yup, Italian renaissance 1250-1550.
    I will definitely let you know when I’m going. Right now I’m not planning ahead at all (just got tix to the final R&J as its the only time I can go). But I’ll go to a few balanchine things.
    I would love to see the new wheeldon, but i think jeu de cartes might make me ill. 😛

  13. Speaking of fusing styles, Big Boi (from Outkast) is joining up with the Atlanta Ballet next year.

    http://www.thefader.com/blog/articles/2007/04/30/big-bois-ballet

    I am looking forward to this.

  14. I’m a little put off by some of the NYCB and Martins bashing that came through in some of these comments. George Balanchine is still regarded by most people in the ballet world as the greatest ballet choreographer of the last 100 years; the company, in my opinion, is still capturing and conveying the beauty and meaning of Mr. B’s ballets (though, as Mr. B approvingly predicted, some of them naturally look a little different than they did 30 or 40 or 50 years ago); Peter Martins, while he may have made some mistakes (what ballet director hasn’t?) has, on the whole, done a pretty marvelous job of maintaining the world-class excellence of NYCB – balancing the preservation of the Balanchine and Robbins repertories with the creation and commissioning of
    new, innovative works; the young dancers who currently make up the soloist and corps ranks at NYCB are on the whole better dancers than the ones at those ranks that I saw when I first started attending City Ballet performances in the mid-1970s; let’s stop comparing NYCB and ABT with a view toward picking a winner and loser – they are America’s two greatest ballet companies and among the five or six greatest in the world, but they have very different artistic missions and visions – let’s just enjoy them both and be grateful that we live in New York where we can see both of them so often (and naturally, we will each have a favorite company but let’s not exalt one at the expense of the other); and finally, since when did Mark Morris become an authority on classical ballet? NYCB can live quite happily without his choreographic contributions. What a terrible thing artistic jealousy is! Oh yes – just for the record, there is one comment above that I strongly agree with – Ashley Bouder is indeed something special! People going to the ballet 25 or 30 years from now will be mourning the fact that they never got to see Ashley Bouder dance live. So enjoy her while she’s here and still so young and with still so many wonderful years of dancing ahead of her.

  15. Well I didn’t mean to compare ballet companies, Bob! I was just saying I didn’t really understand Balanchine; I haven’t seen his work performed by anyone else so I have nothing to compare NYCB to. It is kind of funny though how everyone seems to favor one or the other of the two big companies here — kind of like the Yankees versus the Mets! Oh if only ballet was as popular as baseball…

    Benita, that is going to be a trip!!

  16. I’m probably the one who did the comparing (though I have to say at this point i hardly know what I’m writing).
    For the record. I do not dislike NYCB, but I’ve always favored ABT. that is partly because I’ve seen them a LOT more, and am more familiar with the company. And overall (based on my limited knowledge of nycb) I prefer their rep. But I don’t dislike NYCB at all–I wouldnt be doing the 4th ring society if I did.

    My experience at the school was not a happy one, and I don’t like the deviation from traditional ballet “form” on some movements (you’d laugh at my biggest pet peeve–their curtseys–that bent back foot is SO UGLY. I know I know, its so trivial, but it drives me nuts, especially when they are doing something “traditional” like Sleeping Beauty!). that said i understand the reasons Balanchine made a lot of the changes he did–generally for speed and movement, and I can appreciate that (but not the bent back foot!)

    😉

  17. Hi Tonya,

    It’s been awhile since I’ve posted here. I have been studying for my board exam, and I hate it, too. I have a shrink, and he was like, well, maybe you don’t want to be a doctor then. No, that’s not it at all! I discovered something about myself that has always been a problem. I have problems staying focused when I study. I only like to study from things with nice pictures that are colorful or through video or audio tapes. Reading black & white study material is hard for me b/c my mind wanders, and I can’t slow it down or stop it even if the subject is interesting. I do better in a structured class where a teacher lectures for 45 minutes followed by a 15 minute break. I was always one of the smartest kids in class, but not by studying but by listening closely to what was being taught, asking lots of questions and remembering it. I would rather be giving birth without anesthesia than studying for this exam. At least I know it is not b/c I am lazy or stupid, which I originally thought, but b/c I have something like Adult Attention Deficit Disorder that began in early childhood.

    Re: Balanchine, I have only seen NYCB on DVD doing Mr B.’s “Nutcracker” from the 1980’s and I totally loved Wendy Whalen and the male lead. It took me 3 months just to watch POB perform “Jewels” on DVD, which I thought was kinda boring and way too long so I kept stopping the DVD. Some of it was delightful but too lengthy. I saw the Joffrey perform “Apollo”, which I loved; however, it wasn’t a long ballet, and it starred the male God. I could see the genius is Mr. B’s linear work and ingenuity in the cor., which is not classical ballet. As far as seeing the NYCB, I missed them here in Chicago last year, but I don’t really have a desire to see them for some reason. It bothers me that NYCB has no real DVDs of their work. A diehard ABT fan from NYC recently told me flat out that the men of NYCB were boring and in no way compared to the men of ABT. If someone loves NYCB and Mr B. then more power to you, everyone is allowed to feel however they want about it.

    Best

  18. My comments were not directed towards you or your observations, Tonya, but rather towards those other comments about Peter Martins’s choreography being “crap” and about him “ruining” the company as well as the comments about NYCB’s “mediocrity” and “sloppiness” (ironically Macauley in the Times recently criticized the company’s corps for dancing “in unison” – unlike the Balanchine years, when the corps was notorious for never being in unison, which now apparently is the new ideal). But you’re right – with many New York ballet fans, the NYCB-ABT rivalry is just like the Yankees-Mets thing; if you love one, you must hate the other. What I’m suggesting is that we all try to get over that. It might be OK in baseball, but it shoudn’t have any place in the Arts. NYCB’s R & J will in fact be different than ABT’s, reflecting a different ballet aesthetic, but the reality is that they will both be wonderful in their own distinctive ways. I know you already understand that but judging from some of the above comments, which reflect a larger ballet population out there, there are still many people who don’t or at least don’t want to. Hey, in what city in the world can you get two world-class productions of R & J in the same season? Enjoy tonight!!

  19. Bob,

    Since I’m the one who said Martin’s choreography was crap and that I thought the dancing in Sleeping Beauty was sloppy, I thought I would pipe up again.

    The “ruin” comment (not mine) was a quotation. Its not quite fair to criticize someone for that.

    As for Martins’ choreography, perhaps my wording was offensive, but it is a pretty widely held opinion and I’m not ashamed of holding it. Nothing he choreographs is acclaimed. This has nothing to do with a dislike of modern ballet choreography, other current choreographers do work which is acclaimed by critics and audiences alike (Wheeldon for ex) and to his Immense credit, Martins does invite such choreographers in to work with and on the company.

    There is a wide range of opinions on the state of NYCB even within those who adore the company–questions of merit of some of the new works when much of the balanchine rep is seen as being underrehearsed and underutilized. It is a question which faces many artistic institutions–what is the mission?
    Is the mission to do the best they can by the fabulous rep they have–making it sparkle to the best of its abilities? or is it to focus on the creation of a new growing living legacy? The company tries (to their credit) to do both bt there are debates as to how can they best balance the two tendencies.

    I don’t think it is totally fair to dismiss the variety of opinions over ABT and NYCB as a mere sports team-like rivalry. Its based on aesthetic values, and preferences. Now to say NYCB is a terrible company would be grossly inaccurate and stupid. But to say I much prefer ABT for these reasons, and dislike these things about NYCB is not invalid. My opinion is based on experience, and if you think it was a popular opinion at SAB when I was there, you’d be horribly mistaken, so it isn’t like I’m just following the herd here

    Plus, both Tonya and I are members of the 4th ring society and trying to see NYCB as much as possible. we’re not close minded about it. we’re trying to broaden our horizons. Scolding me is less likely to help than say a defense of what you think is good about Martins’ choreography (hell, I’d really be interested in hearing that! I would LIKE to learn more).

    Best (and please do realize this was meant in all politeness. Any curtness is due to outside stress)

    Delirium

  20. Delirium, I appreciate your response and your explanations of what you said. Believe me, it was not my intent to “scold” you – I was just offering a strong, heartfelt expression of my own views on this whole subject. My point with regard to Martins is not that he is a great choregrapher or has produced great ballets but rather that his work is not “crap.” What Martins is is a solid, competent choregrapher who has created some genuinely “good” ballets. I feel that he should not be condemned (as he has been by many critics) for NOT being Balanchine. Many people have never forgiven him for that or for the fact that he had the “audacity” to take over BAlanchine’s company. When he became Balanchine’s “successor” at NYCB, he took on an almost impossible burden, one which you yourself have succinctly and accurately stated: “how does one balance the obligation to preserve the Balanchine legacy and keep his ballets sparking with the obligation to create and support the creation of new works that will keep the art of ballet fresh and alive and evolving in ever new directions? It’s a perilous tightrope – if he focuses too much attention on the “preservation” mission, NYCB becomes a museum (which Balanchine would have hated); if he leans more towards the creation of a new aesthetic, he will be accused of abandoning or destroying the Balancine legacy. Martins has tried his best to maintain that delicate balance. If he has not always succeeded, I would honestly ask if anyone could have done better. All I can say is that for my money, he has done an admirable job because I still love watching NYCB perform – in fact, after 30 years, I love the company more than ever, as do many others. So all I’m asking is that Martins be given just a little credit.

    I know you didn’t use the “ruin” word – my comments were not directed exclusively towards you.

    As for the “preference” issue, I actually agree with you 100%. I know that I will always prefer NYCB over ABT, just as you most likely will always prefer ABT over NYCB. That is perfectly natural and reasonable. We are dealing with two different artistic visions and philosophies and I’m not suggesting that they are pefectly equal. What I am trying to say is that just because I prefer NYCB, that doesn’t mean I should then proceed to trash ABT as a mediocre or terrible company. And I don’t mean to imply that you were doing that (in reverse). However, I do have some ABT friends (people with a strong ABT preference) who do exactly that. Their way of exalting ABT is by putting down NYCB. My point is that there’s no need for that kind of thing.

    I think it’s great that you are joining the 4th ring society and I hope to meet you sometime at the New York State theater (and even talk about what I think IS good in Martin’s choreography). And in the same spirit, I will also be attending some ABT performances this seaon, starting with La Bayadere on May 17.

    Again, if I came on too strong in my “rebuttal” and said anything that might have offended you, I apologize.

  21. No apology needed. I do understand your point. I just didn’t think what I’d said deserved that response. I didn’t actually criticize his running of the company on the whole–just his choreography. And I think it is quite obvious that we agree on the difficulties of running a company like NYCB, one founded on new choreography and yet now having a rich rep of works which are classics.

    So no hard feelings! and i’m looking fwd to hearing about R&J (i cant go until the final performance)

  22. i think we need to realize there can be differences of opinion, many people hold Mr. B to such a high standard, there is such a reaction when someone says otherwise. we have every right to say “crap”…and trust me, i’ve seen some choreography that i would classify as crap. we are all (including mark morris) to have an opinion. i hold mark morris in the highest regard; and i was delighted to see we shared the same opinion. in morris’ defense, he told me mr. b is a fabulous choreographer and i should watch more of it, not in nyc.

    not everyone reveres mr. b (including some professional dancers) and we should be allowed to express that opinion. furthermore, just because i don’t like martins’ choreography, doesn’t automatically mean that i prefer mr. b’s pieces….i prefer mcmillan’s, morris, lianng’s…more than martins. the dichotomy of martins vs mr. b isn’t so obvious in my mind. but maybe this is because i am an abt/sf ballet/royal ballet/pnb fan, not a die-hard nycb fan (but i do enjoy me some nycb often as well!).

    perhaps the dichotomy (nycb vs. abt, martins vs. balanchine) is more apparent in others’ perceptions, so please give us the shadow of the doubt.

  23. I swear Balanchine’s a genius – somehow multiple people who have seen NYCB dance Balanchine have walked away sometimes a little disappointed (not always, sometimes, and this is just one opinion!). We studied him extensively in my dance history class and got to analyze the many things he contributed to the ballet repertoire; his musicality and his innovation is monumental. My favorites: Serenade and Concerto Barocco. I’ve never seen NYCB dance live, so I can’t say what this company does with Balanchine.

    Strange, Suzanne Farrell was very self conscious about her thighs – perhaps it was influenced by Balanchine, but in one of her pictures she released to the press, she had eerily drawn on her pictures to make her thighs look thinner. I don’t think she was the epitome of thinness. But I’m not an expert in this, so I may be wrong.

    In the spirit of long comments…

    I’m more familiar with the SF Ballet, and one thing that I notice is that Helgi Tomasson also stages his ballets on his company as well. I guess it’s the executive right of a director to do so, as Peter Martins does, and I never enjoy them quite as much as when they dance, for instance, Mark Morris’ Sylvia (which in my opinion, was brilliant). The talent of the director really has to be to be able to view good choreography that showcases the company as much as possible, whether it be at the expense of his ego and/or to really be able to view their own creative choreography in an objective manner.

    Great discussion! Some interesting points. Thanks – oh and Chimene, good luck on your boards!! I took Step 1 two years ago, I’m sure it’ll be fine.

  24. People have this misconception that Balanchine forced his dancers to starve…which is untrue. If you actually look at the dancers Mr. B used, there is a range of body types and weights. It is no secret that his greatest Muses were built more like Racehorses than Waifs . Tallchief, Diana Adams, Tanny LeClercq and Suzanne Farrell immediately come to mind to support my example – and you can see the thumbprints of their physical power in the works created for them. Of course, there were also petite girls like Kent, Verdy and Mazzo. Under Balanchine’s rule there was no standard body “type”, this is just a myth. What Balanchine did was exploit the energy and athletism he saw in the American dancer – their bodies became more athletic as more was demanded in class and in the ballets Mr. B created.

    As for the current state of affairs at NYCB – Mr. Martins has made no secret of dismissing most of Balanchine’s muses from the NYCB and SAB roster. Most famously dismissing Suzanne Farrell in the early 90’s. Most of these dancers now work out of the Balanchine Trust, staging works for other companies rather than work with Martins. Unfortunately, there are few places where the Balanchine energy is alive in the dance: Miami City Ballet run by Eddy Vilella and Pacific Northwest Ballet are probably the two top companies where one can watch an as close to authentic Live Balanchine performance in the 21st century.

    This past weekend I visited Boston and caught Boston Ballet’s Balanchine Celebration:
    Ballo della Regina – staged by Merrill Ashley
    LaValse – staged by Francia Russell
    The Four Temperments – staged by Bart Cook

    Without going into a longwinded diatribe, I can say after this performance it became quite obvious that Balanchine’s work suffers from being danced by companies not trained in his technique. It shows mostly in his leotard ballets (Agon, 4 T’s, Monumentum/Movements, etc.) where the dancers don’t understand how to thrust their hips, or turn from that wide 4th position or step off-balance. But above basic technique, most of Balanchine’s ballets are haunted by the ghosts of their former dancers and now Balanchine himself. Without him, we can’t change Tchaik Pas de Duex as danced by Verdy to fit Patty McBride. How do you recast the Principal Ballerina in Diamonds? Even Balanchine had a hard time with that one – and he’s not here to consult. Mere mortals must make godlike decisions…and here we are.

  25. Well, regarding the thinness, I was just going by what I’ve read about him in books and heard in movies, particularly with respect to Maria Tallchief. Tallchief did have a really beautifully athletic body, which is why I found it so disturbing to learn that he tried to prevent her from eating since he felt she was too large. I would be very happy if it wasn’t true! I also know it was noticed by critics and others that Suzanne Farrell suddenly became very thin, but that certainly could have been her own doing rather than his. … it’s not like every female dancer doesn’t at some point obsess over weight…

    I would SO love to Miami City and PNB, Griffin — particularly PNB — have heard many good things! It’s also interesting what you say about his ballets being haunted by the ghosts of the former dancers — I hadn’t thought of it that way. Like people have to be open to artistic reinterpretation and that reinterpretation has to be accepted as such and not judged by the past…

  26. Tonya,

    I had read Tallchief’s autobiography about 5 years ago. I cannot recall a specific section where she claims Balanchine kept her from food or told her to starve. In the documentary,”Balanchine’s Ballerinas” Tallchief does claim dancing the repertoire changes your body. That her body became longer and leaner through dancing Mr. B’s choreography. While both Farrell (Holding onto the Air) and Tallchief’s autobiographies mention Balanchine would make references about weight to some degree, he also did not like his dancers too thin. In Farrell’s book, she relays a story which you may be referencing in your post:

    Farrell had left NYCB with her husband Paul Mejia for 5 years, starting in 1969, and lived/worked in Brussels. During that time, Farrell became very thin. She had also aged from 22 to 27…which accounts for some noticable fat loss in her face. In Ellusive Muse, the Farrell documentary, video of her and Jorge Donn in Bejart’s Romeo and Julliet show Farrell at her thinnest, IMO. Also, pictures of her in Bejart ballets show a Farrell much thinner than she ever was during her NYCB days of the 60’s. When she returned to NYCB, Balanchine told her to gain weight. When Dance in America was filmed in the late 70’s, Farrell is in amazing shape…not starved at all.

    As a young dancer, Farrell was probably a bit concerned over her body. Balanchine did compose that poem to her while on tour in 63, saying something along the lines of “When I return, I hope you are thin and beautiful and light to lift”. At one point, Farrell requested the leotards in Movements for Piano and Orchestra be changed from white to black – to create a more slimming line. She soon realized her mistake and the leotards went back to white after one performance.

    The most notorious book on the “evils” of Balanchine was Gelsey Kirkland’s “Dancing on My Grave”, where she claims Balanchine gave her diet pills and caused her to have an eating disorder. From all accounts, Ms. Kirkland was a brilliant dancer, but disturbed person in her youth. Her weight dropped significantly after she left NYCB for ABT – she obviously was very ill regardless where or for whom, she was dancing. Unfortunately, most anti-ballet or anti-Balanchine have taken Kirkland’s book as the total gospel on what causes eating disorders in dancers. When in truth, the answer is much more complicated than that.

    As far as being open to reinterpretation – when Balanchine was alive, he would often tweak and sometimes completely alter his ballets to suit new dancers. Near the end of his career, he altered not only his ballet, Apollo but Stravinksy’s score as well! It’s possible his illness was beginning to affect his judgement at that point in time or he really felt Apollo needed a facelift after 50 years. But Balanchine is no longer here to consult and he was right, they are no longer his Ballets you see on stage. His ballets are archived on Dance in America footage, and in other archival tapes. That is where the energy lives on – and trust me, there is more energy in my Dance in America video of 4 Temperments than there was on the Boston Ballet stage 5 nights ago. It goes beyond interpretation…because there are not just steps that make a ballet, but life and energy of the dancer who inhabits it. To understand Balanchine, one really must first research the dancers he created his ballets for and which dancers he chose to take over the roles. Unfortunately, there is limited video available unless you visit NYpublic Library. This is the fault of NYCB and the Balanchine Trust IMO, for limiting availability of archival footage to the general public. I wont even go into the KGBalanchine police on Youtube…for another post!

  27. Wow, thanks so much for all of that, Griffin — you know so much! I really didn’t know why I’ve never understood Balanchine very well from seeing what I’ve seen of his work performed, and now I have a much better idea. And a lot of what you say is similar to what Macaulay was saying in his article, although his was in abbreviated form for the newspaper. Everyone is deeply annoyed at the Balanchine Trust — why do they keep that so under lock and key?… Anyway, thanks again for all your insights!

  28. Hi Tonya,

    I’m a classical musician who came to love Balanchine after watching the 1997 documentary on Suzanne Farrell, “Elusive Muse”. So, you can say I first fell in love with Farrell’s dancing above all, and then came to love Balanchine. If you have never seen Farrell dance, this is a great place to start, as there is footage from the early 60’s up to the late 70’s. After this, I read just about every Balanchine bio, Muse autobiography (including Farrell, Tallchief, Kent, Vilella and Zorina) and found as much footage of his work – concentrating on original casts if possible.

    I’m only 30, so I have no first hand accounts to share of the “golden age” of NYCB, but have had the fortune to visit NYPL and study archival footage. Once you do this research and then visit NYCB, there is a sad feeling that overcomes you…at least in my experience. I have to wonder if keeping Balanchine’s work under lock and key has a two fold purpose:

    1.) Certain copyright issues exist, be it due to the AFM (musicians union) which prevented “Elusive Muse” from showing Farrell in Mozartiana footage from a Great Performances broadcast in the 80’s, or 2.)the cost to release the Ballets on video. However, PoB has released Jewels on DVD, PNB has Midsummer Night’s Dream and there are other European performances on video of Agon, Apollo, and Serenade…as I’ve seen video snippets online, so exuse #2 doesn’t hold up.

    There are tons of video archived, from CBC tapings of the 50’s and 60’s, including Farrell with D’Amboise in Apollo and Mediation, and Farrell in Concerto Barrocco. There is also film of Diana Adams and Tanny LeClerq in Barrocco with the old Black leotards. There are 4 versions of Agon on record – 3 with Arthur Mitchell with Diana Adams (oringal cast), Allegra Kent and Farrell…plus Farrell with Martins (which is on the Peter Martins Dancer VHS along with a better Chaconne pas with Farrell). Then of course, we have the Dance in America footage, which is something at least. However, the recent transfer to DVD was a hack job, with terrible syncronization between the video and audio. Finally, there is the interesting documentary on Balanchine from 84 out on DVD – it is high quality.

    2.) In my opinion, the Balanchine Trust are a bunch of Elitist who don’t understand business or marketing and in some ways, don’t care about spreading Balanchine to the masses, just preserving him. On the positive, they are preserving Balanchine by archiving “how to” videos – Farrell teaching Monumentum/Movements, Tallchief teaching Firebird, etc. This has tremendous value, however they keep these items under lock and key as well. Many balletomanes would be interested in viewing this footage, but there is so much red tape.

    The negative is that they don’t realize the value of the archived videos. While Farrell herself said watching video of her dancing was not a true representation of what she did on stage, I have to call her on bias. As a musician, hearing yourself on recording is never enjoyable and you never feel that recording is a true represenation of your art. However, once you can no longer play or dance, it is all that one has to get some idea of who you were as an artists. One reason why we don’t have Rubies footage on Dance in America is because Patty McBride was not happy with her performance during the taping. As a viewer, I must then accept what I see at NYCB or on the PoB DVD as what Balanchine intended….but is it?

    Agon, by the 1993 Balachine celebration had deteriorated, but one would only know this if they had seen the original. One could easily argue that Darci Bussell is a better dancer than Diana Adams was – but why change the steps? Yes, basic movements were changed from how it was performed in the 50’s and 60’s to how it is performed now. I have a snippet of Farrell and Mitchell on my computer and compared it to the Bussell version posted on Dailymotion.com. So, I believe that by not releasing archival video, NYCB (ahem, Martins) is spared informed critism on the deterioration of Balanchine’s works as performed by NYCB.

    Sorry this is so long..

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