Tag Archives: Balanchine

Looking Backwards And Forwards

2012 was truly a year of plenty. The Olympic and Paralympic Games, and to a somewhat lesser extent the Queen’s Jubilee seemed to rouse everyone into action and were undoubtedly the inspiration for most cultural events on the calendar. This was certainly true in the dance world, with Dance GB and Titian:Metamorphosis at the Royal Opera House being the most celebrated collaborative dance events of the year. While they garnered a lot of publicity, and were commercially successful, they were artistically forgettable for the most part.

Arguably the most important events in 2012, for dance-folk at any rate, happened off-stage. We bade farewell to Dame Monica Mason, Wayne Eagling and Ashley Page as Kevin O’Hare (Royal Ballet), Tamara Rojo (Engligh National Ballet) and Christopher Hampson (Scottish Ballet) acceded three of the most prominent artistic directorships in the country. Although yet to affect any real changes, something tells me that a sea-change is afoot, with Rojo having the most to prove, given her status as an international star.

Regarding what happened on stage during the year, two highlights stick out in the memory. Marking the 20th anniversary of his death, Kenneth MacMillan’s triple bill at the ROH in the autumn was outstanding and a huge tribute to his genius (http://wp.me/p20ZbZ-37). Up at Sadler’s Wells Helgi Tomasson’s San Francisco Ballet made a welcome return with a huge programme of various short ballets proving a wonderful showcase for the company, right across the ranks – they provided us with a surge of inspiration as we headed into the long winter with endless Nutcrackers.

As the rest of world goes into a post-2012 slump, given the changes at the top in the dance community, there should be enough to keep us excited – different repertoire, fresh faces and new creations. Among the highlights are sure to be Alexei Ratmansky’s Romeo and Juliet (National Ballet of Canada, Sadler’s Wells), Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby, Wayne McGregor’s Raven Girl (Royal Ballet) and to stop any local complacency setting in, Boston Ballet’s trip to the Coliseum in the Summer, overflowing with neoclassical treats from Balanchine and Forsythe. As always, the year will throw up surprises and disappointments, forgotten treasures and new stars – please 2013, give us your best!

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Olivia Goldhill and Sarah Marsh of the Guardian recently posed the question “where are the black dancers?” in reference to classical ballet companies. I immediately thought “well there is Carlos Acosta….and Misty Copeland…..Junor Souza…….Eric Underwood”, and my list quickly fizzled out. The black dancers are out there, they just aren’t given the roles and are thus not visible.

When Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams created the iconic pas de deux in Balanchine’s Agon in 1957, the visual impact was heightened immensely by the fact that he was black and she was caucasian. 50 or so years on, the pairing of Eric Underwood and Sarah Lamb in Wayne McGregor’s Infra seemed to hold the same allure. Why? Because we’re just not used to seeing it.

Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell in Agon

Some parties still argue that ballet developed in Europe in the latter half of the last millenium and everyone involved was white, and through the centuries we’ve become conditioned to expect a certain look, and when we’re confronted with something else we somehow, automatically, think it’s “wrong”.

In the sporting world no one raises an eyebrow when the entire field in the mens 100m sprint is of Afro-Caribbean descent – that’s because these gentlemen are simply faster than runners from a different ethnic background. This cannot be said for dance, where your place in the corps de ballet might depend on the colour of your skin and not your talent.

As I have mentioned above, some black dancers have made their mark in the classical ballet world, but the fact that companies have existed and continue to exist, like Ballet Black in London and Dance Theatre of Harlem, to employ dancers from ethnic minorities (in a dance-sense), speaks volumes.

I’m not just trying to fly the flag for racial equality here – the present situation poses problems for future generations of both dancers and audiences. Ballet already suffers from the curse of being seen as elitist. Until dancers of all backgrounds are working at a visible level in high-profile companies, ballet will remain in its Ivory Tower. That the “look” of a work might suffer because of the lack of ethnic uniformity in the corps de ballet is rubbish – and the longer ballet companies maintain this stance, the less relevant they will become. An artform can only be relevant if it is reflecting the times in which it exists – so the sooner we see more different shades of skin on stage, the sooner ballet can start it’s uphill struggle towards being a contemporary artform again.

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Choreographer’s Conundrum

Of all the new works of dance being produced around the world, surely the percentage of those falling into the category of ballet (whatever that means to you) is ever decreasing. Here in London there are several platforms for presenting new contemporary dance, and a huge number of independent choreographers and small companies working in that hemisphere of the dance world, generating innumerable exciting works. In the classical domain, there are but two companies of note in the city – English National Ballet and the Royal Ballet, which present an embarrasingly small number of new works each year, especially given the latter’s government subsidy.

Ballet has faced an uncertain future for a while now. At various points in the past it has looked extinction in the eye, but thanks to timely and innovative choreographers and directors, Balanchine and McMillan to name but two, it has lived to tell the tale. Once again it finds itself at a fork in the road, one branch veering towards the past, the other rolling towards and exciting, if uncertain, future.

Ballet companies have always depended heavily on a roster of established classical ballets, those ones that represent almost guaranteed ticket sales, and that for some reason most are keen to  disassociate themselves with as the 21st century ploughs ahead. Choreographers like Michael Corder and Christopher Wheeldon, prolific and talented though they are, create work that keeps the classicists happy, but only because it’s almost all been seen before – and while a certain demographic is politely pleased by these kind of works, it’s not going to be enough to get any new faces in the audience or send sparks flying in the arts pages.

On the other hand, the works of Wayne McGregor et al represent a new approach and forward-thinking physicality that has gotten people talking – but for most of us, it has little enough link to the classical heritage that it doesn’t warrant the ballet seal of approval. Monica Mason showed a lot of gumption when giving McGregor the coveted role of Choreographer – in – residence at the Royal Opera House, and it’s easy to see that she was trying to inject some pace into the institution. I’m certainly not alone in thinking that he was not the right choice for the job, as a company with a long heritage such as the Royal Ballet needs a sense of continuity to tie it’s present to it’s established past.

Once hives of bold creativity and invention, our extant ballet companies find themselves in a rough position. Spend their money on something safe and derivative, or splash the cash on something that will cause as many sneers as grins. Both approaches will have their detractors – that’s just what happens when you’re spending public money – but sadly it’s not just a question of numbers. The decisions choreographers and artistic directors make are driving forces not just in the survival of individual companies, but of the artform in its own creative ecosystem.

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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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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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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 Nutcracker: Ballet’s Christmas Cash-Cow

I wonder did E.T.A. Hoffman ever think that his fairytale would be immortalized in a classical ballet. More than likely not; I’m guessing most writers secretly wish for their creations to live on in their original written incarnation. Still, I’m sure he’d be glad to be credited with what must surely be the most commercially successful ballet of all time. While it may not be a work of the highest artistic merit, the box office figures aren’t to be argued with.

Choreographer Marius Petipa, with no small contributions by Lev Ivanov and composer Tchaikovsky, is responsible for three of the most well-known ballets in today’s repertoire: The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and of course, The Nutcracker. They are the ballets which provide both the archetype and stereotypes of classical ballet, and they have transcended the insular world of dance becoming our representatives in the fickle world of pop-culture. Nutcracker, more than the others, has become part of the cultural calendar: it is looked to, world-over, as the Christmas ballet, and companies, whether they like it or not, are expected to wheel it out year after year.

Some companies to resist this expectation: The Royal Ballet regularly presents alternatives such as Ashton’s Les Patineurs and The Tales of Beatrix Potter in a bid to avoid a Sugar-Plum monopoly; the fact that they run these alongside Nutcracker performances, shows the futility of going against the grain.

There is a bit of a feeling, especially among dancers, that Nutcracker is an exercise in twee-ballet, some might even call it cheesy, but looking at the list of choreographers that have revisited the Kingdom of Sweets, it reads like a roll-call of luminaries: Balanchine, Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Morris, Bejart, Ratmansky. This list is by no means exhaustive; it doesn’t even scratch the surface, but it does show the credibility the ballet carries in it’s history, the constant re-imaginings keeping it fresh and preventing it fromdescending into pastiche.

The Nutcracker has become the panto of the middle-brow: but how has it become such a favourite? Why does it work so well?

Unlike most other ballets, Nutcracker has the ability to engage children. Other ballets might catch the eye of some youngsters, but what other ballet has a giant Christmas tree? Or a fight between toy soldiers and mice? Or sprightly little dance numbers like the Chinese? There are very few ballets have content to sate the tastes of a boisterous child, and this is one of them.

For the grown-ups too, it has its allure: beautiful music – Waltz of the Flowers, and the sumptuous Waltz of the Snowflakes – to accompany some pristine, classical dancing. There’s also the Sugar-Plum fairy: the ultimate ballerina role – classy, elegant and not even a hint of tragedy (perfectly delivered by Miyako Yoshida in the below above). The ballet has the same effect as your favourite yuletide film: comforting by virtue its familiarity and dependability.

From the point of view of the choreographer, even though it has been tackled so many times before, the ballet still has a lot to offer: the score is truly wonderful for dance, although Ratmansky has commented that its familiarity hinders spontaneity, but there is plenty of scope for unapologetic dance for dance’s sake.

So, while dancers (and I’m sure directors, ballet staff, musicians, stage crew) baulk at the prospect of yet another Nutcracker season, its universal appeal gives many companies the financial freedom to present other, more interesting, work throughout the year: thank you Tchaikovsky and thank you Petipa, for giving a gift which benefits year-round – how’s that for twee!

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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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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