Monthly Archives: December 2011

Darcey Does Hollywood

Darcey Bussell Dances Hollywood, BBC 1, Christmas Day

On Christmas day we saw Darcey complete her latest challenge: recreating four iconic dances from the musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Era. This went a long way to promote the genre of theatre dance, but little to champion the cause of ballet.

Many people both here and previously, even Baryshnikov, have awarded to Fred Astaire’s the hypothetical accolade of greatest dancer that has ever lived. The worthiness of Astaire as title holder is difficult to assess given the breadth and depth of dance across the years, but to be acclaimed by those who themselves would surely have been featured in any debate on the topic is a strong indicator of peer-respect if nothing else. Astaire was gifted with a sense of style and theatricality that became a landmark of his era. Others possessed this to varying extents: Ginger Rogers, Vera-Ellen and Gene Kelly, for example. What made their talents truly magical was the way they made choreography that was technically and stylistically difficult look like a spontaneous expression of joy.

There was a full and candid film diary of the process Darcey went through to get from learning the choreography to performing the routines with the requisite gay abandon. The studio footage we were shown wasn’t that of a prima ballerina whipping through the steps with ease; Bussell, not exactly decrepit, but not quite at her physical peak either (at her own admittance), struggled with the work. It was open and honest. Even for someone as physically adept as Darcey, the transition between genres is tough and not as easy as programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing would lead us to believe; this was both refreshing and frustrating.

There is a fundamental difference between this programme and Strictly: here we get to see a world class ballerina at pains to attain a level as close to perfection as she can; in Strictly we see celebrities transformed into “dancers” in a couple of weeks, with a few hours rehearsal per day. One of these scenarios is a nod to the work that must go into achieving some kind of technical or artistic mastery; the other trivialises the discipline, suggesting that with a few weeks of training, anyone can do it. Reality TV has let people believe that they can be anything they want in an instant; the contestants on such dance shows always pay homage to the dancers after they get a glimpse of what the training involves – but it is just that: a glimpse. Dance is a lot more than a jazzy outfit and a stage-smile, especially when the level sought is so high, and thankfully Darcey showed us just that.

However, just like the dance of Astaire’s era, ballet is demanding in technique and artistry – probably more so than any other dance style. At the beginning of the show, we saw Bussell in an excerpt from Ashton’s Sylvia, at the height of her powers; just to hammer home how good she was within her own genre – the culmination of a lifetime of toil, God-given natural facility and the indescribable quality that made her so watchable. The journey she made here is rarely made in the opposite direction, however; we never see a celebrity, let alone a dancer from a different field, tackle the world of classical ballet: it is not a path than dared be tread in a few weeks.

What we saw here was a dancer not afraid to expose herself to criticism or hardship in her search for perfection; we saw all the seams before we got to see any of the very impressive finished product. Without doubt someone could find fault in her work, but definitely not in her work ethic. Looking between the lines here we wouldn’t be blamed for seeing the ballet dancer placed on top of the dance food-chain, able to turn to other styles with their fearless work-ethic, but I think Bussell is quite apart from the masses here. Ballet should be championed through something like this, for the work it takes to be at the top if nothing else, but once again the spangles win out. If only someone would give the return journey a serious go, maybe ballet would be acknowledged for what it is – a life’s work.

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Forgive me while I don’t compile a list of the year’s successes and failures. Once again the time is upon us for the critics to look back on what has happened over the last twelve months, and give claps on the back to those who triumphed and look witheringly upon those who floundered. With most of what happens on stage being somewhere in between these two extremes and eliciting nothing more than indifference, these yearly reports might be the stand out memories of one but are far from representative of the year’s activity. Surely a 500 word (if you’re lucky) snippet detailing the good and the bad is of very little constructive use. I could tell you that I adored English National Ballet’s Suite en Blanc (which I did), but that’s just like sharing the fact that I love blue cheese – it’s immaterial.

Many people look on critics with scorn, thinking “why should we be subjected to the opinion of one person?” Critics realise that they are just one person, and one opinion. What is expected of them is that they know their subject well enough to be able to assess whether it is worthy of people’s time and effort. Ismene Brown recently said that critics are essentially sales people; their job is to get people into the theatre, deftly adjusting their expectations along the way.

In this way, it is nice for a critic to be able to refresh people’s memories of what their highlights and dark spots were in a year of performances. Such an article is limited in its usefulness, what with the events being in the past. In its stead, perhaps a more detailed report would be appropriate; one showing trends – what worked, what didn’t. The critics aren’t by any means influential in decision making when it comes to casting, programming or funding; but they are a voice with numerous listeners.

Whether critics are agreed with is entirely out of their hands. Anyone who does read their thoughts, whether they concur with what is on the page/screen in front of them, must care what their sentiments are – on some level. Perceived as being a public voice of specific knowledge, the critic should give information that can be used to advance; there’s no good in being told how wonderful, or awful, you or your production was, unless you’re also given an insight into why – only then can we move forward and keep dance relevant.

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It’s All In The Name

Contemporary dance, by its definition, should cover all new dance currently being created. This is not the case; the term has a plasticity which sees it being used to describe not only new dance, but non-classical dance that was new a century ago. There must be a point at which “contemporary” dance is no longer contemporary – or is contemporary dance much bigger than just a single genre. Perhaps it’s all in the name: it’s new and daring, and it’s staying that way.

When choreographers such as Ted Shawn and Martha Graham were creating works in a new movement language, it was called modern, or contemporary, dance. Until then, folk, social and classical dance (including ballet) were the prevailing forms practised. Dance which is innovative, using the body in a new way is still referred to as contemporary today, but in the context of this “new” contemporary dance, surely the contemporary dance which has gone before, must go by a different name. Well it doesn’t seem to be.

Back in the time of Domenico da Piacenzo, when the steps that grew up to form the ballet alphabet were in their infancy, classical steps would have been contemporary – but they aren’t any more. We seem to have become stuck in our quest to compartmentalise. Maybe in centuries to come, dance scholars will refer to what we call ballet and contemporary dance as something entirely different.

The issue may stem from the teaching. In a classical ballet class, one is taught classical ballet. In a contemporary class, one may be taught one of many different disciplines, and most likely a unique form, influenced by several. Such a seemingly banal detail can easily change how people percieve both disciplines. The broad-reaching title may seem to do a disservice to the many individual contributors in the field, but it also allows a rich fluidity between them, mirroring the open-nature of the contemporary dance artist.

While classical ballet seems to be stuck in a rut, forever fighting against the Degas archetype, contemporary dance is flourishing; branching off in myriad directions, infiltrating every wing of the arts. The work of some contemporary artists that is still influencing the dance world today may be approaching or even exceeding  100 years of age, but it is still part of the contemporary dance lineage. Perhaps ballet died the second it assumed its classical prefix, and it really is all in the name.

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Pointe: From Trick To Trade

The pointe shoe, along with the tutu, has its place firmly in ballet iconography. One of the most common questions posed to ballet dancers, male or female, must be “do you dance on your toes?” While dancing en pointe is required of every female classical dancer, if it is to avoid becoming an artefact, new ways of employing the technique will have to be introduced.

What is now a finely-honed technique began life as a gimmick. After Charles Didelot’s contraption that allowed dancers, suspended on wires, to stand on tip-toe, choreographers began experimenting with ways of recreating the illusion in different ways. Marie Taglioni first danced on a prototype pointe show in the opera Robert Le Diable – it was no more than a satin ballet shoe, heavily darned at the tip. Today pointe shoes offer much more support, which in turn allows more freedom and variety in the choreography that can be performed in them.

Technique has always been the servant of repertoire. The technical feats and impressive control we associate with pointe work today were arrived at through ballets such as La Sylphide, Giselle and the works of Marius Petipa: the requirements of the choreography dictating the rigours of the training.

The training of pointe work is an integral part of classical ballet training, and the two have developed simultaneously. From the romantic and classical to the neo-classical of Balanchine and the de-constructionist of Forsythe, pointe work progressed in tandem with the choreographic demands.

While the pointe shoe is being largely left behind by modern ballet choreographers such as Carolyn Carlson, many choreographers, such as Christopher Wheeldon, continue to employ it in a traditional way. Given the fragile nature of ballets, those which feature the point shoe most prominently are the classics, those ballets where the pointe technique came of age. If the technique is to continue to grow and to be artistically relevant, we need to look outside the classical tradition.

Wayne McGregor, the controversial resident choreographer of The Royal Ballet, is very much from outside the classical tradition. His schooling and influences are free from the shackles of the Royal Ballet heritage; his works show little deference to the resident choreographers who have gone before him. The result of the meeting of his background and the pointe shoe-clad dancers is an entirely new movement vocabulary and the pointe show has been given a new lease of life. After looking back to move forward for so long, if we want to keep the pointe shoe from the museum shelf, we need to start looking elsewhere.

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Speaking Through Steps

The dance content in narrative ballets can sometimes be seen as purely divertive. While this sometimes holds true, choreography can be used to advance the storyline in several, limited ways.

Before we go any further, there are some dance elements in the narrative classical ballets that are purely decorative: The Bluebird pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty for example, comes from out of nowhere and says nothing, but it is a beautiful piece of dancing. These are widely acknowledged as being dance-for-dance’s-sake and are known, appropriately, as divertissements.

The work of the corps de ballet, by virtue of its attractive presentation and its secondary position on the stage, could be perceived as being filler. There is a certain impact to be made by merely filling the space with identical dancers, but the corps de ballet is integral in the storyline of the ballets that employ them: the shades in La Bayadere are multiple visions of Nikiya in Solor’s dreams and underline the importance of her character as the object of his affections.

The solos that we see performed time and again in galas and competitions are generally delivered as acts of pure virtuosity. Taken out of context they are little more than academic exercises performed with bravado. In its original setting, the ballet solo is important in establishing the mood and personality of the character: a beautiful illustration of this is in Swan Lake – Prince Seigfried’s languid, introspective soliloquy which conveys his quiet grief. Apart from telling us what kind of disposition the character is of, there is very little a solo can do to actively drive the narrative forward.

The pas de deux is always the show-piece in classical ballet. It is a dialogue between the two dancers and establishes their relationship; the male usually dominant and the female, submissive. Consisting of lifts and supported movements with the ballerina en pointe, it can seem formulaic, but the combination of steps and their execution can go a long way in displaying the dynamic between the two dancers.

One barrier in the way of the flow of the narrative is that of the “call” after a solo or duet, when the dancer(s) acknowledge the audience and receive their plaudits: this is common practice, but erases any dramatic environment or sense of character that has been created. To break down the fourth wall – that invisible barrier between what is happening on stage and the audience – is to cut the story off, only to start again when the applause stops. This is a foible of the classical story ballets that thankfully hasn’t carried over to most of the work since.

The story in a classical ballet is mainly told through mime and acting. It is through the choreography that the characters personalities and relationships are elucidated. What might just look like a combination of classroom steps, is actually be a strong statement of self-expression which tells the audience who exactly they’re dealing with.

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The Original Chorus Girls

We know them as sylphs, swans, shades, snowflakes, dryads, nymphs and wilis, but the hard-working ladies of the corps de ballet are the archetypal chorus line: well-drilled, disciplined, reliable and beautiful. The lowest rank of the ballet food-chain, the corps are the work-horses that give classical ballets their structure: they are the scaffold around which the main action is arranged. Newer ballets are focusing more on smaller ensembles of more senior dancers, rarely engaging the skills of the corps.

Originally employed to fill out the behemoth opera house stages on which early ballet troupes performed, the corps de ballet were a mere decoration, framing the action of the principal dancers and soloists. Under the eye of ballet masters and mistresses, corps de ballet work became an art in itself: the choreography not demanding too much in terms of technical proficiency, the focus came to lie on synchronicity of movement and harmony of form.

Petipa’s La Bayadère, has one of the most impressive scenes for the corps: the Kingdom of the Shades. This scene is all about the corps, and for a company that is strong in that rank, it can be mesmerising: each dancer is a vision of Nikiya, the ballet’s heroine, and as such they all must cambré, penchée and bourrée identically in order for the choreography to be effective. So testing is this scene that it has become a gold-standard for corps de ballet cohesiveness.

There is a widespread assumption that companies have a “look”, that they want every dancer in the corps to be physically similar: this is slightly outdated, and also impractical. The impact of a corps isn’t in the bodily make-up of the dancers, though it could probably go a long way in tricking our feeble minds to think that it is, but in the coaching. The companies that have the best corps de ballet work have generally been around a long time and have a history of teaching and dancing the classics: students will already be familiar with the work, slotting easily into the poker-straight lines when they join the company – the work is in the blood of every dancer.

The relative success of the corps is in the discipline. Even if you have 40 ladies all with the same height, proportions and shape, this is no guarantee that they will work together. Having a sense of group sensibility, putting your own interpretation in second place to that of the group, watching those beside/in-front/across the stage from you is what will read as a group moving as one. This is where your own idiosyncratic movement and musicality have to be somewhat stifled for the good of the herd.

While some dancers will have a brief stint as a sylph or swan before starting their meteoric rise to the top, others will serve their apprenticeship on the bottom rung for longer. Any dancers who have advanced up the ranks after having served their time here all say it has given them a good grounding, and an appreciation for the work at all levels of the company. Some dancers will remain in the corps for their entire careers, which is far from an indictment of their abilities – a reliable member of the corps is just as important to a ballets success as a flashy soloist.

However, the future of the classical corps de ballet must surely be questionable. With so few choreographers creating full-length ballets, most rarely using more than a handful of dancers at a time, the corps is increasingly unused. Yes, the large ballet companies still perform the classics, but with nowhere near the frequency that they once did, and as they say “if you don’t use it, you lose it”.

So, while we all harbour dreams of dancing the principal roles, bravura or soubrette solos, lapping up our personal plaudits, we should always appreciate the work of the corps de ballet: the beautiful work of the corps in the classics is still with us, but the glory days of the original chorus-girls may have been and gone without a chance to give them their full credit.

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Pliés Win Prizes

When, oh when, did ballet become a competitive sport? The performing arts developed from man’s in-built desire for an expressive emotional outlet and were surely never intended to make combatants out of their participants. Another facet of man’s innate needs, that of our requirement to establish hierarchy within a group, has made a battle for supremacy out of many pursuits, including classical dance: it’s big business now, with high stakes but sometimes questionable values.

On the surface, ballet competitions are marketed as platforms for young dancers to expand their performance experience while being exposed to the discerning eyes of school and company directors, with elusive scholarships and contracts up for grabs.

Scratch the surface, and the realities aren’t so straightforward. Most have a pre-selection stage, where dancers are heavily scrutinised on their physical attributes: this directly mirrors the audition scenario of most companies, but to impose this level of body-fascism on young dancers, most of whom are still in vocational training, could be detrimental. While having the requisite facility to go through a full classical schooling is important, seeking out those dancers who have something approximating the “ideal” ballet body, has, in my opinion, little to do with dance, and may, in the future, have devastating effects on the practice of ballet.

Over a short space of time, such as the timeframe under which these competitions are conducted, it is difficult to impose hierarchical structure on a group. In the setting of a company, over months and years it becomes apparent who the most consistent and reliable performers are – hallmarks of true professional dancers. These qualities are not apparent from watching a few classes and some variations, and ultimately it’s difficult not to assess the dancers based on their relative technical and physical capabilities: surely a dancer who can turn more, or with nicer feet will score higher than their peers in such situations. At this juncture I should point out that my knowledge of the scoring of ballet competitions is zilch, but the results generally speak for themselves: the males are full of slick bravura and the girls all bulging insteps and wild extensions.

Some of these competitions have professional divisions, where company members get international exposure, which is entirely appropriate. That you may see a 10 year old on one stage dancing the same Flames of Paris variation as a professional on another isn’t. I agree that it is important to get dancers on stage early, to get a feel for the craft, it really shouldn’t be about dancing principle variations from the get-go: dancing a solo from a pre-approved list admittedly makes the job of the jury easier, it can sometimes smack of kids beauty-pageants – what can a 15 year old bring to the role of Albrecht or Giselle except their technique and body?

Though there is scant evidence to support it, it is widely known that Mr. Balanchine was not a supporter of ballet competitions and didn’t want his variations to be performed in them. The Prix de Lausanne seems to be the exception. Mr. Balanchine saw ballet as a physical expression of beauty, for enjoyment on its own merits, not as an arena for an artistic tug-of-war. However, when you look at the structure of the ballet company, it’s hierarchy already suggests competition: the Paris Opera Ballet even uses adjudicated competition (the annual Concours) to promote dancers up the ranks.

With such competitive stratification evident in the oldest ballet institution in the world, the ballet competition seems like a natural rite-of-passage for young dancers hoping to break into the professional ranks. Companies support them as there are rich pickings for new talent, schools too as it is a showcase for their training, but as much competition as there is within a ballet company, we (dancers, schools and companies) would do well to remember that this art form of ours is about physical and emotional expression, not about who is number one.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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Merce: The Final Stretch

As the Merce Cunningham Dance Company approaches the last weeks of their Legacy tour, they are turning the final pages of a volume of work that has been instrumental in the development of both classical and contemporary dance for over half a century.

Rarely has a choreographer been so prolific right up until their demise: his body of work is vast, revered and always distinctly Merce. Not only is his legacy this rich library of choreography, but a widely practiced dance technique. The Cunningham technique, a most classical contemporary dance language, is lauded for both its strength and poetry.

A dancer with the Martha Graham Company in his formative years as a dance-maker, his choreographic and technical lexicon spans the divide between the heritages of the classical and contemporary disciplines. To watch his work is to see a distillation of clean, classical line merged with a modern sensibility. It is this timelessness which has bolstered its longevity within the repertoire.

Merce’s long life gave all involved with the eponymous dance company the time to adequately organise what was going to happen on his passing. The Merce Cunningham Foundation would be replaced by the Merce Cunningham Trust, which would hold and look after the rights to his work and the Company would fold after a two year, 40 city Legacy tour.

The disbanding of the company seems unnecessary from one aspect, as the company could carry on performing his works indefinitely. However, his company was borne of a true vision, and carried on with purity of purpose – trained in his technique, the dancers danced his work, his way and constantly under his watchful eye – how could they possibly carry on without his leadership. From this viewpoint, it is the most respectful way for a company to behave. With other such companies, created from such a singular view, Balanchine’s New York City Ballet for example, this might, in retrospect, have been the most suitable option after the departure of their esteemed creators: companies who find themselves suddenly without omnipotent leadership can very often falter spectacularly.

Without a company to concern themselves with, the Trust is now in a perfect position to see the advancement of the Cunningham repertoire throughout companies worldwide. His work has informed so many choreographers in both classical and contemporary dance, and everything in between: as an shining star on the dance walk-of-fame, his legacy has a worth all of its own, so long may the Trust keep his vision and beauty alive.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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Live Dance

Recording dance has always been contentious. For posterity, most choreographies are now recorded on video, but rarely made commercially available: many argue that dance doesn’t work on video and can only be fully appreciated in live performance. Those creations that are made available to the public are rarely taken from live performance, having usually been tailored in some way to optimise them for camera: one thing that cannot be immortalised on film, however, is the feeling in the auditorium when a dancer truly engages the audience and you can hear a pin drop.

Although musical recordings are more frequent that those of dance, it is difficult too to fully capture the depth and richness of an orchestra. Vinyl recordings give a fuller account, whereas more commonplace digital recordings give a “flattened” version, which diminishes the luxuriance of the original: experiencing the swell of an orchestra is a feeling unlike any other.

The filming of dance has a more recent history than the recording of music. It cannot, to date, adequately display the three-dimensional depth of movement the dance relies on. Take a piece of choreography, anything by Frederick Ashton for example: a reproduced picture on a flat screen is never going to be able to do justice to the original, nuanced torsion of the body. Chemistry is impossible to transfer from stage to celluloid too: in a film, the director will dictate where the audience looks, but on stage, the interplay between the performers must be enough to catch the viewers’ eye. Dance that is choreographed for theatre performance falls short on film as a result.

When specifically created for filming, a piece of choreography can be successful. Abstract dance, which is easier to translate as it’s context is not as important to establish, can be filmed with relative ease. Merce Cunningham’s Beach Birds is an example of non-narrative dance which works on film. So too Balanchine’s Jewels; Paris Opera Ballet made a very credible recording in recent years. Narrative dance is more difficult, as there is usually quite a lot going on and sometimes to focus on the storyline is to miss some beautiful choreography.

Recording dance is important: it is used for learning, research and entertainment and without it we would never be able to appreciate the development of dance as it is today through dancers like Rudolf Nureyev and Alla Sizova (in the attached video). With improved technologies it is giving us flawless reproductions of performances: but until it can convey the spine-tingling energy of a living dancer, it will never replace live theatre.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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The Dance Gene

Watching ballet, as I often do, I find myself wondering about how amazing dancers come into being: do they come into existence fully-equipped or are they the product of good training, discipline and mentoring? Dance, like everything other human activity, can be examined as part of the nature or nurture debate: is a Margot Fonteyn born or made?

While not in direct correlation with dancers, the best actors are those who barely do anything: they don’t actually act, they just are. Sadly you can’t just stand on stage and exude the quality of a classical variation, you need to get on and execute some actual steps. What actors and dancers of excellence do have in common is an intangible quality that has nothing to do with the lines/steps that they deliver, but something else.

A person can be brought into this world with every desirable physical attribute that a ballet dancer could wish for: if this person should end up in a ballet class, they will look like a dancer (a concept I have issues with, but that is for another time) and their journey through classical technique will be decidedly easier thanks to these innate gifts, but they are in no way a guarantee that they will make a dancer.

Equally, but slightly more conceptually abstract, no amount of teaching can ensure a dancer will be the result. Even those who can achieve technical proficiency can still fail to garner that indescribable quality that turns academic steps into dancing.

I don’t use the word dancer to describe anybody who practices dance, but that special person who exudes movement from every pore. A true dancer will dance every step they encounter: they can turn the mundane into the sublime. Being a dancer is not a prerequisite for getting a job with a dance company – sometimes those with the physical gifts or those strong-willed and schooled to the right level can get through the net: directors are looking for different things, and sometimes looking right or doing the tricks is enough to land the contract.

The more I watch and learn, the more I have to come to the realisation that dance is not so much a skill as an instinct. To get it to the upper echelons of the classical world, this instinct must be schooled and certain attributes will enable progress, but the quality that links the steps and the body, that which we call “dance”, is something that you cannot teach: it must be in the genes.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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