Tag Archives: Jerome Robbins

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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Artistic Temperament

How often has the erratic behaviour of “artists” been condoned on the grounds that it is a result of their artistic temperament? Far too often, I reckon. Though more typically associated with musicians and visual artists, this can sometimes seep into the genteel world of ballet; but is this a genuine side-effect of artistic greatness, or just an indulged affectation which we hungrily lap up? Either way, the best can get away with it.

Rudolf Nureyev, Gelsey Kirkland, Jerome Robbins: names so synonymous with ballet brilliance that they hardly need introduction, and with talent that continues to outshine whatever personal foibles they may have had. Nureyev, who single-handedly merged classical ballet and pop-culture, led a life of excess that is legendary – he was raucous, blunt and overtly sexual, apologising for none of it. Gelsey Kirkland, it may be said, met her downfall from drugs through naivety, but her public and private search for perfection spilled over from stage to personal life. Robbins, also seeking perfection, garnered himself a reputation for being over-the-top in his demands of dancers in his efforts to get there. All these idiosyncrasies were taken, embraced even, because the talent that went with it was luminous.

On the other side of the coin, we have the likes of Margot Fonteyn: a very British sense of duty at all times, but no less wondrous a performer for it. Fonteyn didn’t take her mantle of prima ballerina lightly, providing a shining example for those upstage of her. Privately, her life may have been somewhat tumultuous given what she married into, but this was never in evidence, as she always conducted herself pristinely: why should her troubles be the concern of the ballet-going public?

Ballet is an art-form for the pragmatic: it takes a high-level of personal organisation and discipline. The Margot’s of this world would probably find it easier to survive in the ballet world, but it is the Rudi’s that provide the spark that gets people fired-up. Both personalities have a place in the ranks – indeed it was the tempering of the two that made Margot and Rudi’s own relationship so perfect.

The whole idea of artistic temperament has an air of mythology about it: artists and admirers alike are prone to the romantic notion of creative genius, with all its impassioned abandon, but we all know that any artistic endeavour takes hard work – I believe someone once said that genius was “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”; anyone can have a good idea, but taking it to fruition is the testing part.

While there may be those out there who have a façade in keeping with our wild and lusty archetype (and we tend to love them all the more for it), in the studio/practice room/on stage, the artists who make it to the top, indeed those at the pinnacle of every profession, are fearless and dedicated to their craft, regardless of the personal behaviour that goes along with it.

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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