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Historical reconstructions: sense and nonsense


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#1 Marc Haegeman

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Posted 08 March 2003 - 01:43 AM

As was obvious from the comments following the performances of “La Bayadère” during the Mariinsky Festival, the historical reconstructions keep dividing opinions. Some people say they are old-fashioned, overlong, boring, and unsuited to public taste and to the style of the dancers. Others have stressed the value of the reconstructed choreography and dramatic structure of the ballets, revealing long-forgotten or overlooked aspects.

In that same thread a rather interesting point in this issue has been touched by Andrei and Alexandra, which I think can be considered typical : in a period when the Maryinsky Theatre is showing serious interest in its past and is taking great pains to revive its priceless heritage, this attitude is apparently not shared by many of its (leading) dancers and ballet masters. Most of them simply don’t seem to believe in these reconstructions, some of them even refuse to appear in the restored ballets, and those who do, frequently ignore the surroundings.

Another aspect which I find bizarre is that the Kirov soloists are allowed a great deal of what you might call 'artistic freedom' within an undertaking this ambitious. Some interpretations may seem closer to the spirit of the reconstruction (if such a thing can be achieved) than others, yet the way that Zakharova dances Aurora or Nikiya in the new-old productions for instance isn't in any way different from the way she used to dance these roles in the Soviet versions. To put it briefly: she just changed costumes and learned some new steps.

Can the reconstruction of a period piece succeed without the wholehearted participation of all concerned? Doesn't it fail when not everybody involved, believes in it a hundred percent?

Andrei has already given his answer: “all reconstructions of 'original' choreography have to be stopped immediately.”

What do others think about this?

#2 Françoise

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Posted 08 March 2003 - 02:00 AM

But could we support to see dance as the old way; even if Kirov style is lost with interpretation of Vishneva or Zakharova who could dance everywhere and are not typical russian ballerinas as Assylmouratova who is the last dancer to keep the classical style of Kirov or perhaps Aioupova too.
Could we support a very little extension especially in Rose adagio or in Shade act. I know when I saw old tapes with old dancer, we saw style which is lost, but do we are not too use of a technic more modern. I don't want an extension as Zakharova or vishneva it's too much but between the two ways.
I think it's the lonely thing in this updated production who is not updated and allows to see it. I don't understand why they make these new old production, they could try to add fourth act and shows the lost pieces as Lotus dance in Bayadere but why change other thing.
I don't like these new old production with their updated costums and stage. The only interest could be to hear the complete music of a ballet. But as I say before, why don't add only the lost scene to a "new" version as "older" dancer make with their variation.

#3 Mel Johnson

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Posted 08 March 2003 - 05:18 AM

Modern Management strikes Old Ballet!

The great challenge here for a ballet master is to get "buy-in" by the maximum number of real partners (i.e. the whole company), so that everybody feels that s/he has a real stake in the reconstructed production. It's not easy to do, as the mentality of "we've always done it this way, what's wrong with it?" is especially strong in performing arts groups. Innovation is limited to "let's see if I can pick my nose with my kneecap in this developpé" and "let's see if I can make this an entrechat-huit, who cares if it puts me on the wrong foot?!"

#4 Hans

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Posted 08 March 2003 - 08:54 AM

I find it rather amazing that artists at the Maryinsky aren't curious to see what Petipa's productions (which are the basis for their repertoire, style, and indeed, most of the reason for the Maryinsky Ballet's current existence) looked like in their original form. He was, after all, one of the greatest choreographic geniuses in the world. There is nothing wrong with 'freshening up' a production that is looking a little worn or dated, but some of the 'improvements' made over the centuries served only to confuse the dramatic action to the point of incoherence and to add needless technical virtuosity. I think it is extremely instructive to see what Petipa actually intended his ballets to look like in contrast with the modern productions of today--what has been changed, what has stayed the same, &c. Just because the original form of the ballets has been notated doesn't mean they must forever be performed the exact same old way, but they should be used as a guide to make sure the ballets don't lose their dramatic and choreographic integrity. If nothing else, think how much richer dancers' interpretations of their roles can be if they can draw from centuries of experience instead of just one production.

I'll finish this post later; I have to go teach a class.

#5 Hans

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Posted 10 March 2003 - 10:10 AM

Wow...I guess everyone was waiting for my next post! I got sidetracked over the weekend and now can't quite remember what I was going to say...except that I think less focus on extreme positions will help dancers learn to emphasize movement quality and that wearing those heavy costumes could help lead to a more stately way of moving, less athletic than is often seen. However, the dancers have to be willing to do it.

#6 Marc Haegeman

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Posted 10 March 2003 - 10:48 AM

Thank you for your reply.

Hans, I don't think it's just a matter of curiosity - they are curious to see what Petipa looks like, yet that doesn't mean that all of the sudden they want to dance it, or have the openness to move around according to the aesthetics of the day, as it was presumably intended.

The main obstacle could be that they simply don't believe in what they are served as "true Petipa". In several interviews with Kirov soloists for instance one hears the argument that this new-old productions are less musical - so how can they be real Petipa? Petipa un-musical? - That's impossible.

Any other opinions about this?

#7 Drew

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Posted 10 March 2003 - 12:38 PM

I am particularly interested by Marc Haegeman's last comments.

One understands why a dancer, having first made an impression dancing classical steps in a more 'neo' classical way, would need to be persuaded to give up some of her or his seeming strengths to achieve what might seem merely an old fashioned effect. And, therefore, as Mel Johnson wrote, a director needs to inspire them to see a productions's larger aesthetic vision. When the Kirov first brought their reconstructed Sleeping Beauty to New York, this (in my opinion) had not happened. To me, it looked almost absurd to see this particular staging, especially, given a performance in which pretty much none of the major soloists on stage seemed to be making much effort -- least of all Zakharova -- to convey an image of nineteenth-century style or decorum. Or, more precisely, since I can hardly claim to be an expert on nineteenth-century style and decorum, no-one on stage seemed entirely to 'fit' the total look of the production. (Mind you, I found Zakharova very charming at times -- and have also particularly enjoyed her in Balanchine's Nutcracker...but of course Balanchine is not Petipa.)

I gather things are a bit better with this production now, but I still wonder if it might not be better for future Petipa productions to do some informed modernizing rather than offer these peculiar hybrid -- in effect if not intention -- performances. And I remain dubious about the supposed authenticity of these productions altogether. The comments to which Marc refers suggest some dancers' skepticism and maybe if the dancers are skeptical they have reason to be. Or, too, maybe the years of accreted tradition have also enriched and extended Petipa's vision and should not be thrown out in any case.

I admired much of the Kirov's new-old Sleeping Beauty -- and certainly saw qualities in the ballet I had not seen before, but the most convincingly danced Sleeping Beauty I ever saw, the one in which the choreography's crystal geometry seemed most luminously alive, was the production the Kirov toured several years earlier. I saw three performances of it: the ballerinas were Assylmuratova, Terekhova (a real favorite of mine) and Lezhnina. Ayupova danced the first fairy's variation. Even if I saw more of Petipa's choreography in the new-old version, I'm still not sure I saw more "Petipa" than in these performances.

I strongly support the idea that the Kirov should do 'conservative' productions of the great classics, but conservative does not have to mean, in effect, reactionary (that is, pretending the last century did not occur). Do we really want Benno returned to prominence in Act II of Swan Lake? In fact, even the reconstructions presented so far haven't quite pared down the male solos as they would have had to do to be utterly authentic...and just as well. Petipa himself seems to have cut and pasted on occasion, so a careful and thoughtful adaptation of his work, one in touch with its sources, but also with a living performance tradition, need not be a desecration.

I admit that what I would most like to see when I go to the Kirov is the kind of dancing I associate with Terekhova, Semenyaka (yes...I know, she danced with the Bolshoi), Lezhnina, and Ivanova. That makes me a reactionary in my way, too, I suppose -- only I'm nostalgic for the twentieth century not the nineteenth...Still I can't help wondering if the irony of what is happening now is that we have attempts (underline: attempts) at 'authenticity' side by side with what seems to be a real break in the continuity of a style (and almost of the skill level) that has been continuous for ballet fans of *at least* my generation, and as best I can tell, of generations before...

(Edited to add: I don't mean to sound ungrateful for the wonderful Kirov performances I have seen even on their most recent tours -- including a remarkable Giselle with Vishneva a few years back. And, of course, I am speaking on the basis of seeing them very occasionally on tour.)

#8 Hans

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Posted 10 March 2003 - 01:52 PM

they are curious to see what Petipa looks like, yet that doesn't mean that all of the sudden they want to dance it

Well, if they don't want to dance Petipa, why are they at the Maryinsky?

That the reconstructions are considered less musical could be due to a number of factors: a different sense of musicality in the 19th century, illogical counting on the part of reconstructors, &c. I think it would help dancers today if they would get used to moving--many of the classics are performed these days as if they are a series of positions, not continuous movement. I can see even as late as videos from the 1960's that ballet used to be thought of as movement, not positions. The desire to impress the audience has superseded the importance of actually dancing. I would also like to state that I don't think modern productions should be thrown out in favor of historical reconstructions, however accurate. As I've written elsewhere on the board, I sometimes prefer modern choreography to what I've read of reconstructions--I'm not saying people should automatically prefer it and think it's better just because Petipa did it. However, looking at how productions have changed through the years lets one see important details that may have been lost as well as judicious editing decisions that have tightened the action and improved the ballets. Dancers could look and see if perhaps some of the older details or steps suit them better or if it's best for them to dance more of the updated choreography--they'd have more to draw on than just the current production, which probably has a lot of good in it, but at the same time might ignore some "good" in the name of progress. And as for dumbing down their technique, it's obvious that there's been a serious decline in real ballet technique in at least the past few decades if not more. I would think a return to the original choreography and style of performing would demand a higher level of technique than is commonly seen today, not to mention far better acting. Just because legs go higher now and men's jumps are more ostentatious does not mean technique has evolved at all; I would argue that it has not. [Note: I don't mean to say technique hasn't evolved at all since the 19th century; but I think there's been precious little technical progress since the '60's and '70's.] Certainly we understand the body better now, but I predict that it will be a long time before we really start seeing the results of this understanding in everyday dancing.

Also, perhaps it is just that the stagers of the reconstructed ballets are not good. No matter how excellent the ballet, a bad staging will make it look bad, and if the stagers go for a mathematically dry reconstruction, of course the performances will be boring and unmusical. Ballets need talented stagers to really bring them to life.

#9 Marc Haegeman

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Posted 10 March 2003 - 02:06 PM

I agree with Mel's and Drew's remark that the artistic direction needs to warm the dancers to go all the way in the spirit of the reconstruction - at least if they believe themselves in what they are doing. As far as I am concerned this still doesn't happen.
True, you will be seeing differences in the way the leading ballerinas tackle their roles, but these differences have always been obvious: Ayupova or Asylmuratova (well, it's too late now for her) have always been different Aurora's and Nikiya's than Zakharova or Vishneva, and this has more to do with a personal understanding of the roles, their style and manner, than with any company-wide aesthetics inspired by the management.

Hans, if you quote, please quote the complete phrase :D.
I said: "they are curious to see what Petipa looks like, yet that doesn't mean that all of the sudden they want to dance it, or have the openness to move around according to the aesthetics of the day, as it was presumably intended."
That makes it a bit different, right? They have been dancing Petipa all their lives, and that's why they are the Mariinsky, but it's still for all that the Petipa they know, as it has come down to them through a hundred years or so of tradition. And now some guys turn up and say: "From now on you skip that century and dance the 'real Petipa'".

Well, obviously not everyone buys that.

#10 doug

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Posted 10 March 2003 - 04:20 PM

Has anyone mentioned yet that perhaps the 'reconstructed' choreography does not have to be wedded to reconstructed sets and costumes, or even reconstructed style?

My interest in recovering the notated steps from the Stepanov notations is to see what steps were danced. I continually find more variety, objectively speaking here -- actual variety , in the notated dances than in later versions of the same ballets. I am interested in what was danced, but feel that is a different question from how it is danced. Sure, I don't think the highest extensions work really well in Petipa ballets, but I don't think today's dancers should look 'faux' in them either. I think it might be possible to dance Petipa-era steps in todays classical styles - Vaganova, neo-classical, English, French, etc. This certainly was done early in the 20th century as Russian ballet was disseminated to the West.

Re: the musicality issue, some of the reconstructions have suffered because of the difficulty of setting notated steps to music. The Bluebird pas de deux in the new-old Kirov BEAUTY is a good example. In the coda, Florine's first entrance is mistakenly taken at half speed. This meant the stagers ran out of music (taking cuts into account) before running out of steps. They therefore opened a cut in the music, ended up needing only half of the music in the cut, then filled the rest of the music with running around that is not notated. They were mistakenly unable to reconcile the notation and music. In Florine's variation, what is notated as the downbeat is actually the second beat in the music - Tchaikovsky often composed music in which the second beat felt like the first. Anyone listening, i.e. a notator without sufficient musical training, would be unaware of this. If a reconstructor today tries to reconcile this anamoly, he/she must have sufficient musical knowledge to understand the differences between the bars of notated choreography and bars of music in order to reconcile them.

By the way, I do support the reconstructions, generally speaking.

#11 Mel Johnson

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Posted 11 March 2003 - 03:46 AM

I'm with you, Doug, on this one. The new/old approach to a reconstructed choreography is certainly a viable approach. And the approach of making an 1890s gesamtkunstwerk of a twenty-first century "Beauty" will fall short of perfectly recreating the original, even from the standpoint of decor - after all, there is no old production of Russlan and Ludmilla back in storage that we can raid for props!;)

#12 Marc Haegeman

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Posted 11 March 2003 - 08:15 AM

Interesting remark, Doug. I guess very few people will disagree about the value of reconstructing a choreography as it was most probably danced at some point in the past. The Mariinsky (and other) examples have proven in this respect highly instructive, especially when confronted to what the choreography has become some hundred years later after several different hands have interfered.

However, as far as I understand the Mariinsky reconstructions are somewhat more ambitious than a mere reconstruction of what the steps looked like at some point in the past. They definitely want to bring back the aesthetics of the day, otherwise I don’t see the point of painstakingly reconstructing sets, costumes, pantomime, music score etc. Yet they keep approaching it all from a 21st century standpoint (can they do otherwise?), and that’s why so much of it looks ‘faux’.

#13 Paul Parish

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Posted 11 March 2003 - 09:22 AM

fascinating thread --

fascinating-- (so fascination, I'm jumping in without having read all the posts yet -- gotta run to class -- hope I'm not being too rude, I may be repeating something someone else said)

The real problem has to do with reconstructing the STYLE of the original dancing -- and it may be impossible to do without training women to jump like they used to --

For instance.... Karsavina (who could do entrechat huit, you know) complained decades ago that nobody was doing ballotte right any more -- she has a whole chapter on it in one of her books on technique -- it is a step of ELEVATION, she says -- the step is about the feet disappearing under the skirt (into double passe) at the height of the jump, and not about the extension upon landing -- the flow of the movement depends on the woman's ability to rise high, fold the feet through at the top of the jump, and to STAY IN THE AIR A LONG TIME -- this produces a completely different rhythm....

of course, sleeping beauty is much more about terre a terre work than Giselle is, but even so, there are lots of places where a soft deep fondu, such as people are rarely trained for any more, is key to the phrasing....

#14 doug

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Posted 11 March 2003 - 10:05 AM

I agree, Marc, that the Maryinsky seems to be trying to resurrect the aesthetic of the day in their reconstructions. I am not surprised that all the dancers don't want to go along with this.

#15 Alexandra

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Posted 11 March 2003 - 10:25 AM

But only partially reviving it -- as several people have mentioned. It's like meticulously recreating the Coliseum for chariot races and then bringing in race cars.

Thanks to Doug for your bluebird example and to Paul for the ballotte (the way you describe it, it sounds like a Bournonville step, and they still try to do it that way).


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