Tag Archives: Petipa

Playing It Safe

Programming is an issue for ballet companies of all sizes; but the choice between running work that will guarantee an audience and an unfamiliar ballet is more than an economic decision – it brings into question the purpose of a company’s existence. To avoid becoming yet another irrelevant vehicle for diluted versions of the Petipa classics, companies must take the unmarked path: a little bravery can go a long way.

The basic purpose of a ballet company is to entertain; this is by no means an attempt to undermine the art of ballet – a majority of the audience are there for the escapism and have no academic interest in what is happening on stage. In a competitive field, such as that of theatre, ensuring quality is paramount – in ballet, this means engaging the services of trained professionals, and paying them commensurately.

Once money becomes involved, art loses its purity of purpose and takes on a commercial edge. Regardless of the funding status of companies – in Europe, many are lucky enough to be state subsidised, unlike in the U.S. or Japan, for instance, where private sponsorship and philanthropy is big business – box office numbers are the most important statistic; if seats aren’t being filled, the operation isn’t viable. Those audience members looking for some escapism courtesy of what is widely known as ballet – that magical land full of swans, sylphs and sugar plums – will come to see a production they’ve seen before or at least heard of: to get full theatres, companies are under pressure to mount recognisable, respected work. Respect and recognition from within and from without the ballet community mean very different things.

Repeatedly sold out performances of the classics are hard evidence of what draws in the crowds. However, ballet companies must present new work if they are to retain any artistic relevance. Commissioning a brand new ballet represents a huge financial risk – not only will sales for the period of programming suffer, but sets and costumes will remain unused. The Royal Ballet presented Twyla Tharp’s Mr. Worldly Wise in 1995 and such was its commercial failure that no new full-length narrative ballets were created again until Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland in 2011 – the latter, which drew rave reviews, was indeed a success at the box office, if not offering much novelty with its choreography. Generally new work comprises a third of a triple bill – almost as if the other two older works are being used as bait to lure the apprehensive audience.

Decision makers in companies have a difficult job. In order to mount work and employ dancers of high quality, they need to generate sufficient revenue. To develop new audiences, however, they need to get people talking: maybe Mr. Worldly Wise wasn’t the best ballet of ’95, but it certainly got a reaction.

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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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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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