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June 9, 2005

Non-Balanchine and Anti-Balanchine?

The question of fidelity to the original style of dance, whether Balanchine, Ashton, Bournonville or others in one that can be discussed endlessly. It’s a side point of an interesting discussion at Ballet Talk right now and I’ve written about it myself for a while, both in an article on Agon in Ballet Review, Fall 1997, and on the web.

If the camps are divided into “originalists” and “non-originalists”, my natural sympathy usually lies with the non-originalists, if only because I think time eventually forces that on all works of art. If it lasts long enough, there is no one around to place the work into context any longer. We can only postulate how Shakespeare or Mozart was actually performed, and the matrix of the culture has changed under us enough that an “authentic” performance would not have the same effect on us as it would to the original audience. So at some point, all art becomes just a text for a future generation. Even “authentic” performances need to carefully compensate for current eyes. An example, if I were staging Le Spectre de la Rose, I would delete the bonnet from the girl’s costume. Yes, Karsavina wore one, but it doesn’t look fashionable to our audience; we think of caps as dowdy.

But how much can you depart from the original style before it’s no longer the original work, or even antithetical to it? Time changes your opinion on this; the more experience you have with a style, the more vociferously you tend to defend it. My friend Alexandra Tomalonis used as her joke example of this the well-meaning ensemble 100 years from now that decided to take Agon back to its baroque roots and re-score the Stravinsky for a consort of viols. She wondered if I might protest.

For the last two nights, I have had my Consort of Viols moment, watching the Royal Ballet do Balanchine’s Symphony in C. Symphony in C is a ballet I feel reasonably familiar with; I even learned parts of it (1st, 2nd & 3rd movement demisoloists, if I recall correctly) from Jody Fugate (Judith Fugate’s sister) during a summer workshop while I was a student.

In the Ballet Review article on Agon I said (paraphrasing myself) that there are many different ways for something to be right, but we can usually tell far more quickly when something is wrong. And oh boy, was this Symphony in C wrong. There are certain tenets of Balanchine ballets that, once violated, the ballet goes from being Non-Balanchine to Anti-Balanchine.

The Royal Ballet dances Symphony in C under themselves and firmly on their legs. That’s not non-Balanchine with a local accent, that’s anti-Balanchine. Even more egregious (because it’s easier for them not to do), they dance it as if it were Swan Lake. During the first movement reprise, Ivan Putrov and Mara Galeazzi kept adding narrative bits. On the first night Putrov greeted his demi-soloists and added a “let’s go” gesture as if they were about to enter a tavern. On the second night he and Galeazzi did a section where he crosses behind her taking her hands as a flirtation game where she removed her hand from his grasp. I only bled from the eye sockets a little.

My friend Lynette asked at lunch the following day if I thought the Royal should do the ballet at all. That was the closest I have ever come to saying no. But if the Royal didn’t do it, it would never be seen here, just as I would have not seen Symphonic Variations at all if it were not danced by ABT.

I wonder if certain styles transpose better than others, as German literature and poetry translates better into English than Russian. The French do Symphony in C with a Parisian accent (much more sculpted), but it's more non-Balanchine than anti-Balanchine. In the third movement here, Viacheslav Samodurov looked more at home than the English dancers; he’s also danced Balanchine at the Kirov (Putrov went to the Royal Ballet School as a student after winning the Prix de Lausanne in 1996). Sarah Lamb, an American originally from Boston Ballet, looked positively like Suzanne Farrell in this crowd.

I’ve seen companies that do both Ashton and Balanchine; Dutch National Ballet did both on the same program last year. Both were acceptable, neither was distinctive. Both felt stylistically flat. Perhaps that’s the tradeoff for a company that’s a “net importer” of repertory.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at June 9, 2005 4:21 AM

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I didn't see Symphony in C this time round, but they couldn't dance it before, so I see no reason why they should be able to do so now! English National Ballet under Schaufuss used to do it far, far better. But that's heresy. As for the French - remember they own it or at least in its original version.
How did you enjoy the Birmingham company? With the right programme and casting, they can be really enjoyable. I hope that was the case for you. We are due to go up on Saturday to see both performances.
It was great to meet you at last and we hope that next time you make it to London you'll get in touch beforehand.

Posted by: judith percival at June 9, 2005 5:49 PM

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