Monthly Archives: November 2011

Decisions, decisions……

In matters of funding, Ballet is included the Dance sector. On the surface, this seems both obvious and acceptable – but how can a highly developed and established artform compete with emerging and experimental contemporary work, when funding decisions are based on artistic merit?

The value of new work and established practice are unquestionable; but they are very different disciplines. Ballet companies are presenting work which is a distillation of centuries of development; admittedly, the work isn’t always new and when it is, it rarely represents a daring step in artistic progress. Regardless, is the presentation of high-quality dance not enough to merit public funding? Contemporary dance represents a different aspect of the art, with the focus on exploration of practice and creation, with the performance component being largely incidental. So can these two disparate wings of dance be fairly assessed side-by-side; one being a performance art and one being focused on the creative process and investigation.

I do not mean to diminish the merit of investigating contemporary dance as an act of creative achievement; it is a very important activity in the furthering of dance practice and the very concept of what dance is. Neither do I intend to say that ballet is a stagnant and anachronistic artform; most companies will engage new work, but as avant-garde as contemporary ballet is, it is generally entrenched in classical technique to a greater or lesser extent, so there is only so far the boundaries can be pushed.

In a different, albeit closely related corner of the artistic realm, we have Music and Opera. A parallel may be seen between their relationship and that of Dance and Ballet; the latter being a subsection of the former. However Opera is always regarded as a separate entity, a luxury not afforded to ballet. Opera has always had the upper hand over ballet, indeed the first instance of dancing en pointe was in the opera Robert Le Diable; but surely both have advanced far enough from their respective beginnings to give them autonomy from their parent disciplines.

Under the economic circumstances in which we find ourselves, funding is becoming more of a contentious issue for dance companies and dance artists. Sadly we don’t have the same culture of arts patronage as they have in the USA for example, where companies can rely heavily on the generosity of individuals; we have to live by the decisions of others who assess the worthiness of our various causes, and in competition with those from every stratum of the dance spectrum.

I do not aim to make any recommendations here, neither do I want to extoll the merits of one area of dance practice over another: but I would like to see the different areas of dance treated with respect to both their aims and heritage – it would make it fairer for all involved.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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Can you tell a story through ballet alone?

Sure, most of our most popular ballets fall into the narrative ballet bracket, in that they tell a story, but is the storyline conveyed through the actual ballet steps? Or is it through the other dramatic devices that go to making up a “Ballet”?

Let’s look at the ballets of Marius Petipa, unquestionably the most successful ballet choreographer since the accepted inception of the dance form, as we know it. His work in the classical idiom is undeniably beautiful; corps de ballet, pas de deux and solo work of such purity that it has managed to survive being handed down through generations in a more intact condition than the work of most choreographers since. This classical ballet technique, does not however tell a story all by itself. The dramatic dynamo behind these narrative ballets was mime – naturalistic gesture which was intended to inform the audience of the story; when it is done with the correct intention and clarity (as it rarely is) it can fulfill it’s brief and advance the plot towards the next piece of choreography. So, rather than a Ballet being a story told through the technique of classical ballet, it was, and is, primarily advanced through mime, with the dance a frequent, ornate diversion (hence the term divertissement).

Some steps from the classical technique are often employed to express a particular emotion; none moreso, or with more versatility, than the classical arabesque. A shape of such simplicity, the arabesque has been used to convey longing (Prince Florimund in his Act 2 soliloquy in Sleeping Beauty), joy (Lise in La Fille Mal Gardeé) and even the tortured purgatory of a scorned woman (the Wilis in Giselle Act 2): but how much of the meaning is pregnant in the step and how much is the acting that accompanies it?

It’s not too often that a step by itself will translate drama to the audience: it’s in the acting too. There’s not a whole lot of drama training at ballet school, but most dancers pick it up along the way, watching, learning and emulating. The steps are the scaffold around which the dramatic facade is draped.

Classical steps can speak by themselves, but it takes a master craftsman to know how and when to employ them. For example, Balanchine managed it in his Apollo: three women performing chassé arabesque while linked to the man’s arm and you have a chariot being pulled by three horses – it’s a simple step and it’s readable. Ashton too has achieved this; the idiosyncratic choreography in Enigma Variations gives an unambiguous account of the characters, without resorting to pantomime.

There are a limited number of steps in the classical repertoire, but the permutations and combinations are endless. Ballet alone can tell a story, convey an emotion and establish a mood; it’s all in the hands of the dance-makers – sometimes the simplest of steps can speak volumes.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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2011: Year of the Black Swan

Since The Red Shoes sent battalions of girls (and boys I’m sure) running to their local dance school, films set in the mysterious world of ballet have held dance fans in thrall. These films supply every generation of dancers with cultural references for many a situation (it was Centre Stage in my time, really not a great film, but it still puts a smile on my face). Occasionally, a “ballet film” will penetrate popular culture, the obvious example being Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which had those inside and outside the ballet community wide-eyed and wondering what the effects of such an extreme film would be.

Ultimately, Black Swan was a film about obsession and its deleterious effects. It happened to be set in the backstage world of a high-profile ballet company. I’m sure it could have been set within various other industries, but the ballet stage offered a visually arresting setting and it’s a world that is preceded largely by its social mythology and thus had plenty of recognisable clichés to play off: still, those who focused on this a film about ballet really missed the point. Admittedly, it is hard for a dancer to go and see all the old chestnuts trotted out without having a knee-jerk reaction, focusing on the obvious flaws; in the scheme of the film, Natalie Portman’s rigid ports de bras is pretty inconsequential.

Films that are actually about dance, with proficient dancing by professionals so as not to insult the sensitive dancers in the audience, don’t hold much interest for the general public – if they did, surely dance performances would be fully-attended. So, it is generally films with a dance setting that broadly represent dance on film, like Black Swan.

So, after all the consternation, what was the lasting effect of this film? Aside from the fact that it is a fantastic film, showcasing a superb performance by Portman, any effects seem to have been transient. While there may have been a spike of interest in beginners ballet classes, an equal amount of people were surely turned off by the extreme world portrayed in the film. Outside of the dance world, there was a brief love-affair between ballet and fashion, with labels like Chloé cashing in with tulle skirts and ribboned pumps. Since the film, I have lost count of the amount of times I’ve been asked (of the ballet world) “is it like Black Swan?”: my answer has to be no, personally speaking, but maybe in a different mind-set and environment (and with different parents), I would be equally as troubled as Portman’s frail character.

We love to stereotype; it’s easy to just make sweeping generalisations and then not bother to learn any more about a topic – if you have the basic gist, why bother? While a film can briefly throw the spotlight on a certain area, making it a hot topic for 5 minutes, the lasting effect might not always be desirable. Yes, Black Swan raised some issues about the torrid life of a ballet dancer and the pressures faced by those in the upper echelon of a renowned dance company; it also sent out a pretty clear message about the fragile psyche of the dancer, sadly it is this which people have grasped onto. We know that this is a film about one person – a piece of fiction, but the imagination is a dangerous piece of equipment; for the time being anyone who has seen this film and hasn’t a working knowledge of the ballet world is going to see the word Ballet as being synonymous with another word : Crazy.

Maybe someday a film-maker will create something which shows ballet up for what it really is: a competitive industry filled with people who like hard work. I’m sure it wouldn’t generate half as much interest as a psychotic lipstick-lesbian ballerina.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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Notation: writing ballet

For most musicians, particularly those of a classical bent, reading and interpreting a score is one of the first things they will have learned. The written manuscript is our only detailed way of recording instruction for how the composer intended the music to be performed. A system of recording also exists in dance, called dance notation; if you don’t recognise what is going on in the schematic below, fear not, neither do most of us. For anyone that’s interested, it is a fouetté (obvious, no?)

Source: http://linus.it.uts.ed.au

Dance has traditionally been passed on through those dancers who learned the steps from the choreographer, to their students and so on: it is essentially an oral history. In recent years, video has been employed to record dance. However, video cannot guarantee the fidelity of the performance; who’s to say that their every step, gesture or angle of the head is exactly how the choreographer intended? If there was a notated movement score, the exactitude of the work could be scrutinised, not just from scrutiny’s sake, but to ensure that the clarity of the original work doesn’t become vague.

There has always been a problem in the dance world with choreography, indeed entire ballets, being lost. If the steps are living only in the memories of the dancers on whom they were created, a ballet can become extinct in the space of a generation. Videos of performances or rehearsals, while useful, can never fully capture a work, getting hold of execution rather than intention in most cases.

Having been through the ordeal of ballet school, with all its trappings, I can honestly say that I have never encountered a notated score. Sure, the resources were there if I were taken with a desire to learn more about it (which I wasn’t), but learning to work with a score or even create one, wasn’t on the syllabus.

Aside from the fact that most institutions don’t teach notation, there’s the issue of there being no unifying format for it either. When Nicholas Sergeyev brought the classics out of Imperial Russia early in the 20th century, they were in some manner of sketchy notation which was particular to the theatre from whence they came, with surely very few possible interpreters around today. Labanotation and Benesh Notation are the two most obvious ones in use today, but most of their employment seems to be as an academic exercise than an archival resource.

People love to refer to the ephemeral nature of dance, that it exists for the moment it is being danced and then it is gone. But why should it be like this? Video and word-of-mouth can get a ballet on stage, for a while at least, but maybe the toil of notating a ballet is the only way we have of recording not just what the ballet looks like, but what it was intended to look like.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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Homage à Mr. Balanchine

Next season, The Royal Ballet will once again dance Balanchine’s Ballo Della Regina, an 18-minute whirlwind of virtuosity. The ballerina role is probably one of the hardest in the entire repertoire, and to be approached with grit and determination. The steps for the rest of the ensemble aren’t the easiest either. The score is a divertimento from Verdi’s Don Carlo – this exemplifies one of Balanchine’s talents; mining the classical repertoire for passages that spoke to him, that he could assemble dances to.

Since Balanchine’s demise in 1983, his works have been carefully looked after by the Balanchine Trust. Merrill Ashley has looked after Ballo; apt, as the ballerina role was created on her, and she has overseen its various stagings. The Balanchine bloodline is transmitted through her to the dancers she teaches, every nuance being generously handed down. His ballets are notoriously difficult; they are, for the most part, purely steps, and their impact depends on the choreography being performed with precision and clarity. They are the archetypal abstract ballets and represent a hugely important gateway from his classical past.

In and of themselves, the Balanchine repertoire is one of the most important bodies of 20th century choreography; it represents the birth of neoclassical ballet and it’s resultant development and his work was the launching pad for most ballet choreographers since. The direct effect of his work is obvious in those who worked directly with him or his company (New York City Ballet), for example Jerome Robbins, Peter Martins, Christopher Wheeldon and Benjamin Millepied. Looking further afield, his work is felt in the more contemporary ballets of Jorma Elo and Alexei Ratmansky. Even in those choreographers where there is no discernible link to Balanchine’s work, we can thank him for setting the journey of ballet on a new course, opening up a mine of opportunity for those wishing to express their choreographic identities through non-narrative work.

So the next time you see a ballet that has been choreographed sometime since the middle of the last century, give a nod to Mr. Balanchine, somewhere along the line he probably had something to do with it.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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Do we all have our price?

The recent move of Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev from the Bolshoi to the Mikhailovsky caused consternation within the ballet world. Why? The Bolshoi is one of the oldest, largest and arguably best, companies in the world. The Mikhailovsky, while still a good company, is not quite in the same league. What was the catalyst behind such a move? They say it was artistic freedom. The facts indicate there may have been more to it than that.

It was during their time at the Bolshoi Theatre that the two young stars made their name, wowing with their virtuosity and lively stage personae in such Soviet warhorses as Spartacus and The Flames of Paris. Some, including the pair themselves, might say the two were pigeonholed; type-cast in these bravura roles, but there are many excellent companies around the world who would welcome them with open arms and their choice of repertoire should they have fancied. Departing a company like the Bolshoi for a company with which it is on par would probably raise a murmur, but the fact that it was a vertical move in what most would see as the wrong direction is what makes this newsworthy.

The General Director of the Mikhailovsky Theatre is Mr. Vladimir Kekhman, a billionaire, who I’m informed made his money in the importation of fruit. With no background in dance, his credentials are flimsy, but with that amount of money ($40 million of his personal fortune), credentials are gratefully overlooked. He ingratiated himself among the cognoscenti of the dance world and garnered enough surface knowledge to know who the movers and shakers were: last year he appointed Nacho Duato as Artistic Director of the Mikhailovsky Ballet, which had eyebrows raising and jaws dropping simultaneously.

Ballet companies have always operated in a hand-to-mouth financial state and have typically depended on the kindness of others to keep them afloat, whether those others be benefactors, arts councils, or now filthy-rich fruit vendors it seems. They have generally survived thanks to the hard work and vision of the founders, carried on by their successors who built on what has gone before, ultimately moulding a company of integrity and depth. With this move, which happened to involve two of the most visible dancers in ballet today, the moral fibre of the ballet world is called into question: why toil for a company when you can just buy yourself a better one?

The implications of this event won’t be felt overnight. In fact, they may never be; it might just be a one off. (However, Mr. Kekhman did say he’d be going after new Bolshoi recruit David Hallberg in a couple of years.) What it goes to show is that you don’t need pedigree, taste, tenacity, connections or a keen eye for talent to get your ballet company to the top fast: you need full pockets, and generous hands.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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What they don’t teach at school, and were they right?

There are precious few people who can negotiate a stint at ballet school without being straightened out, but there will always be few hardened souls who manage to escape unscathed. What you hopefully do get at school is an understanding and appreciation of technique, stagecraft and heritage: all things which will serve one well as a member of a dance company. There’s the glitch. Ballet school grooms students for a career as a company member; a future as a freelance dancer, teacher, choreographer, any of the other jobs allied to dance or otherwise aren’t exactly catered for.

Admittedly, a career with a dance company is the desired outcome for practically every dance student; the reality is for the most-part otherwise. As a freelancer myself, and I’m not so naïve as to think I’m alone here, there have been many bumps along the road since I left the safe confines of the ballet school regime: almost all of which I was ill-prepared for. How to operate as a freelancer was the one for which I was least. With a majority of companies working on a short-contract basis, being freelance is the only option for most dancers: with that come issues such as personal finance management, tax-returns, continued training – none of which I can remember being made aware of.

I’ll be the first to put up my hand and say that I probably wouldn’t have been interested if someone had arrived to show us the potential pitfalls of a jobbing dancer in the real world; I was far too interested in what was going on in my direct, insular surroundings – there was plenty of time to address what really went on in the big, bad, ballet world when I actually got out into it. (Wasn’t I silly!)

So, whenever I encounter an issue that wasn’t in Ballet 101, my knee-jerk reaction is to blame my schooling for not preparing my adequately. Being put in these situations, while initially disconcerting, are amazing opportunities for learning and professional progress. So maybe instead of passing the buck, I should just get on with it and take the responsibility. Some lessons have to be learned rather than taught!

Diarmaid O’Meara

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Strange Bedfellows: Ballet and Contemporary Dance in Ireland

Ballet and contemporary dance in Ireland operate as two distinct entities, having two very different audience cohorts: the former has a loyal following of those who grew up with the established classical ballets and the latter a more curious breed, interested in broader artistic enrichment. Can these two disciplines operate and even interact? Or has the chasm between them widened to such an extent that both groups are effectively alienated and on very different paths?

Ballet has a rich history in Ireland, reaching back to the Abbey Ballet School in the 1920’s, led by Ninette de Valois, a Wicklow native who toiled her way to establishing what is now The Royal Ballet. There have been many bumps in the road which now sees two companies, the National Ballet of Ireland (formerly Ballet Ireland) and Cork City Ballet, operating in a professional, if part-time capacity. The intervening years saw companies such as Dublin City Ballet and Irish National Ballet grow and flourish, only to be met with successive funding cuts, ultimately spelling the end. At one point Irish National Ballet even graced the stage of Sadler’s Wells. The legacy of the various growth spurts in Irish ballet is a wide network of ballet schools, which produce a plethora of young talented dancers, further fostered by Arts Council-funded youth companies such as Irish National Youth Ballet and Youth Ballet West. The net effect of these various enterprises is a loyal audience for ballet in Ireland. The lack of a permanent professional ballet presence in the country means the drop off between enthusiastic hobbyist and aspiring professional is drastic.

Contemporary dance too has a long back-story, from pioneers such as Erina Brady promoting an innovative dance voice in Dublin. The movement has since been there, taking influence from imported and homegrown talent. The main voices in today’s contemporary dance scene were borne of the 1980’s obliteration of funding for the various ballet companies: John Scott, David Bolger, Michael Keegan-Dolan, Liz Roche to name but a few. In the wasteland that was the aftermath of a funding haven, these fertile young minds set in motion what is now a mature modern dance community. Ballet’s loss was contemporary’s gain.

Somewhere along this timeline ballet and modern dance in Ireland diverged. Many of the protagonists were from similar training backgrounds, but in the tumult of the late 80’s and early 90’s, these two communities drifted. While contemporary dance flourished, ballet once again floundered: between the end of the Dublin City Ballet and Irish National Ballet and the arrival of Ballet Ireland as it was at the time,  Alan Foley’s Cork City Ballet bridged the gap for part of the time. Once ballet found its footing again, the contemporary dance bandwagon was well on its way.

Both disciplines have suffered equally at the lack of vocational training offered here. Historically, any dancer with aspirations of a professional career have travelled abroad and, given the lack of opportunities, many have stayed away, career advancement being easier to achieve elsewhere. That is not to say that Irish companies must have national talent to stay afloat; the prevailing attitude among dancers is “have job, will travel”.  This is one area where the two communities could work together – the furthering of a national dance training centre: no dancer or teacher could nowadays contemplate a balanced training without voices from both classical and contemporary ends of the spectrum.

Public funding is indispensable in a situation where there’s no culture of private arts patronage; as is the case in Ireland. After the contemporary dance boom, it was very hard for ballet to attract funding because in order to guarantee audiences they had to stage productions of established, recognisable works; for funding decision makers, established and recognisable aren’t exactly buzz-words.

In the wake of such brave moves forward by our contemporary dance companies, for example Coiscéim Dance Theatre and Fabulous Beast, ballet might seem to some an anachromism, but the two will always inform and reference each other, even if it’s not deliberate. The cross-over between the disciplines isn’t much in Ireland. Look back half a century and Martha Graham and George Balanchine were collaborating on Episodes – although artistically poles apart, the pair recognised and honoured their common background: dance. This broad interest and crossover needs to be encouraged and actively promoted, the result may prove more symbiotic than the idea might suggest.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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