Tag Archives: George Balanchine

Master Craftsman

I have long been an ardent and vocal devotee of Mr. Balanchine; his ballets excite me like those of no other. However, the recent Royal Ballet triple bill of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s work is a fitting homage on the 20th anniversary of his tragic death, but more importantly, a reminder of the real extent of his genius.

More closely associated with his full length ballets – Romeo and Juliet, Manon, Mayerling – than his shorter works, it is in these less renowned one-acters that his artistic range is really evident. The strictly academic, but utterly joyous Concerto; the dark and unsettling Las Hermanas; the elegiac and uplifting Requiem. Three completely different ballets, not only in content, but in style, mood and intent. The one unifying factor is MacMillan’s thorough knowledge and reverence for the classical technique, and moreso, how it can be employed to achieve a huge range of emotional states.

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Claire Calvert in Concerto (courtesy of DanceTabs)

Concerto, with it’s wonderful military-flavoured Shostakovich score, is closely related to some of the works of  Balanchine in its minimal aesthetic. Unlike Balanchine, MacMillan savours the conventions of the classical form, rather than reinventing them. The bouyant opening and closing sections sandwich what must rank as one of the most beautiful adagio movements in the neoclassical repertoire. Las Hermanas, a distillation of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, is more traditional MacMillan territory; can any other choreographer confidently portray sexual violence or despair through the medium of classical dance? Requiem is at the far end of MacMillan’s vast repertoire – his homage to colleague and friend John Cranko, set to Fauré’s  work of the same name. While it is overtly religious, it still remains abstract – any narrative being personal to the viewer. It is one of those work sthat leaves one breathless, the interpretation of the music being so pitch-perfect.

There have been many choreographers over the decades that can match MacMillan in both popularity and work-rate, but this triple bill is just one incidence that confirms that none of his choreographer-contemporaries quite makes the mark when it comes to range. Balanchine cornered the market for abstract ballets to be sure, Tudor was the master for ballets which delve into the psyche and Ashton and Robbins were his equal for sumptuous, breathtaking beauty; but no one else can claim to be as adept at all three. And 20 years on still there is no one. All hail.

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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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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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