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Subject: "For Scottish Ballet - an Open Letter " Archived thread - Read only
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katharine Kanter

28-09-01, 07:24 AM (GMT)
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"For Scottish Ballet - an Open Letter "
   This is a piece from our October Ballet.co Magazine (out next Thursday) that I'm posting up soonest given the Scottish Ballet position and the discussions now ongoing. BM

We also have some threads for SB discussions with a current entry point at:

We hope you will contribute to the debate - whats happening at SB could well get repeated elsewhere..


Scotland is a small country, relative, say, to India, or China. Being a small country, as Ninette de Valois so aptly remarked about Denmark, does not, however, mean thinking small thoughts.

The Board of Scottish Ballet has apparently decided that Scotland can no longer afford a classical troupe. Its classical dancers will be sacked, or recycled like so much used Fax paper, into a "modern" troupe.

But "modern" dance is no longer modern. It is, like Eric Satie and Antonin Artaud, a shop-soiled relic of the jazz age of the 1920s. The turned-in feet, the stuck-out elbows and arses, the falling, the writhing, the eructating, the erotics... We have seen it all, and far too much of it at that.

Classical ballet, the child of music, will never be old. Its basic technical features, the turn-out, épaulement, and the mime gestures, are several thousand years old, older than Homer or Aeschylus. These features have survived in the Indian sub-continent, and they have come down to us in the West in the form of what we call classical dance. It has survived, because it is extremely good.

Classical dance may be good, but it is, like many good things, not cheap. And it will be expensive even if we do away with décor and costumes, and hold concert programmes draped in old curtain materials, with faded tutus and squashed pointe shoes, whilst the men don cast-off cycling shorts. Sprung floors are expensive. Dancing shoes are expensive. Heating and ventilating rehearsal rooms properly is expensive. Neither do lighting specialists, stagehands, and safety arrangements for the artists and the public come free.

According to the Glasgow Herald, Allan Wilson, Scottish Arts Minister, has just described the Scottish film industry as

"the fastest growing industrial cluster in Scotland in terms of employment opportunities..."

And he added,

"We need to sustain film productions in the development stage, when the challenge is at its greatest. In doing that, when we have a developed script, the infrastructure is there.

"The film studio comes in at the end of the process. I am supportive of a studio and have set aside about £2m from our budget to sustain that or to support it in conjunction with Scottish Enterprise and the private sector. The level of private sector interest is critical..."

Here we have a Minister who finds it a matter for rejoicing that the "fastest growing industrial cluster in Scotland" be the film industry. Quid shipbuilding ? Quid steel ? Quid public works ? Film is NOT an industry. It produces nothing. And it is certainly not an art form. It is a skill, a craft that involves manipulating images and thereby, the mind. It is entertainment, generally of the most feral variety. The fact that many Americans initially thought they were "just" watching a film on television, when the events of September 11th broke, tells you everything you need to know about the movies.

Secondly, if we are to go by the Minister's own words, there does seem to be money about, indeed, millions, for celluloid. Goodie ! Over the last thirty years, the number one industry in the United States, both export and domestic, has become, not steel, not ships, not machine tools, but the entertainment industry. Now look at the state of the American population ! Its mind ! Shot ! Is that where Scotland's political leaders would like the people to go?

Rather than wrecking Scottish Ballet, the Scots Ministers were better advised to look to rebuilding Scotland's heavy industry, and facing down the Thatcherites who have strangled the country.

Remember England before Thatcher. Remember when a few pence took one into the classical theatre, when miners and railwaymen's sons read books, real books, and went to plays, and I do mean Shakespeare's plays. I remember that time, because I was there, and knew men like that. The last thirty years have destroyed the work of two centuries, the work and political ideals of men like Keats and Shelley. That is the background to the battle over Scottish Ballet today.

Nothing is too good for the people. Classical ballet, which is a branch of classical music, is an art form. Its exponents are among the most highly-trained and idealistic people in Western society. It must be defended, in every nook and cranny of the country.

Last month, in an article on dance for an American publication, I wrote the following, which I would ask the reader to take to heart,

"The importance of the issue, is that like a fish, society rots from the head down. Destroy classical music, destroy the ballet, destroy speech as poetry, and that process will radiate down and out through an entire people, and turn us into slaves. Therefore, to save these art forms is not a matter of taste, but a necessity."

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  Subject     Author     Message Date     ID  
  RE: For Scottish Ballet - an Open Letter pmeja 28-09-01 1
     RE: For Scottish Ballet - an Open Letter pmeja 28-09-01 2
  RE: For Scottish Ballet - an Open Letter Carly Gillies 28-09-01 3
     RE: For Scottish Ballet - an Open Letter pmeja 29-09-01 4
         RE: For Scottish Ballet - an Open Letter Carly Gillies 29-09-01 5

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28-09-01, 11:47 AM (GMT)
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1. "RE: For Scottish Ballet - an Open Letter "
In response to message #0
   brilliant, katherine, very good. umm, but i feel constrained to point out that i have lived all my life in america (minus a few months here and there) and don't feel that the state of my mind is shot because of the entertainment industry...

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28-09-01, 11:51 AM (GMT)
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2. "RE: For Scottish Ballet - an Open Letter "
In response to message #1
   that said, however, here is the text of a letter i sent yesterday to the scottish parliament and to the dancers' board. on reflection, i might want to change it, as i was just letting it all pour out, but here it is (note, with capital letters!)

Let me first say that I listened to and watched the recent broadcast of your meeting on this issue and was very impressed by its availability and the idea that the proceeding was open to anyone with interest.

As I have been told that you are still gathering information and that no decision has been made, let me offer the following, which may be of interest to you. I am well aware, of course, that I am speaking of American companies and cities; however, I do believe that the parallels are relevant to the current situation.

America does of course have larger companies that could be said to be comparable to companies like the Royal Ballet, such as the New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theater. These have some funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the closest thing we have to a government funding body. But for the most part, these companies, some of whom have over 80 dancers, and the next 'tier' in size, companies with 35-50 dancers (generally) survive on a combination of local (state) government funding, private contributions, corporate funding and ticket sales, as well as ancillary products such as souvenirs and program books. They work hard to make sure they are visible to the public in more ways than just at the theatres. And for a great number of them, they exist and thrive in cities of less than 1 million people.

I was struck by the person in your meeting (unfortunately I cannot remember who said it) who speculated that perhaps Scotland wasn't able to support a classical ballet company. It not only can be done, it is being done all over the world, not just in the U.S.

However, I believe that there is a problem in a number of areas simply in definition of terms. Firstly, calling a company "classical" in many people's eyes specifies a company that does only classics in the nature of "Swan Lake" and "Giselle", large, 19th-century story ballets. One could argue that such a company couldn't be a bad thing; you need only to look to the example of large theatre companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Comedie Francaise. I don't see anyone arguing that these companies shouldn't exist because they perform only the works of Shakespeare or Moliere and his contemporaries. But the word "classical" has become, when applied to ballet, an epithet. I put to you that it is possible that when looking for a scapegoat for a problem, "classical" has become an easy one to use.

In ballet, the word "classical" encompasses more than just that. No one could argue that the Royal Ballet is not classical, it is indeed. But even at its beginning, its repertory was more than just large 19th-centory story ballets. The ballets of Ashton, Tudor and deValois, along with many others, were new creations on a smaller scale with the same language. They had the same framework. An analogy might be the metre of a sonnet or other poetic framework, where the poet has the complete freedom to say what he wishes within that framework. It is not restricting, but gives form to what the poet creates. In addition, a dancer who works within a classical framework is equipped physically, with coaching, to handle the challenge of a very large range of styles, *because* of the classical performing he or she does, because of how rigorous it is, because it demands so much. However, the contemporary or "modern" dancer, who may take ballet classes but does not perform dances in that style, cannot translate his or her experience into a ballet performance. It does not mean that the contemporary/modern training and performing is not rigorous or demanding. It simply does not translate. It cannot be done.

Therefore the statements made by Mr. Barron and Mr. McGhie reveal a serious fundamental defect in their approach to their subject, and in my view render them unable to properly care for the Scottish Ballet's welfare. It is perhaps for this reason, whether consciously or not, that they are endeavoring to so completely decimate and discount everything that has come before in this company's long list of accomplishments. Please keep in mind that we have all heard more times than I care to elaborate, from their own statements, reassurances that all they think of is the company's well-being. I put to you that they have demonstrated only that they are thinking only in the financial short-term and not in the artistic or financial long-term. They are business people with only vaguely related experience in charge of a very profound situation.

I must also mention what I see as a tendency to discount the word of artists such as Mr. North when that artist is in a situation such as the hearing of the other day. It is as though the artist is being viewed as someone with a flawed understanding or as incapable of fathoming such complex issues as business, cash flows or projections. This can only be an outgrowth of an attitude which I thought had been outgrown long ago, that an artist is a child and must be treated like a child. That is not the case and was never the case. Today's artist is painfully aware of budgeting and cost accounting. A case in point could be the Boston Ballet, whose recent full-length production of "La Bayadere", a very popular 19th-century ballet which is rarely seen in a 2nd-tier market (i.e. other than New York), cost just under 300,000 dollars, whereas it cannot usually be brought in for less than one million! The company's director, Anna-Marie Holmes (who by the way, some years ago danced for Scottish Ballet), was the person who kept the costs down by having costumes and sets built in the Ukraine, as well as other cost-cutting methods of presenting the ballet, and the product was magnificent. Additionally, although the company had less than 50 dancers, by using well-trained and coached upper-level students, (because they had a magnificent school) the company looked every bit as large as the Kirov or Royal Ballets. It can be done. And the person who did it was the artist, not the administrator. In addition, when the Boston Ballet does a mixed-bill of newer contemporary ballets, they can no longer use their larger venue; ticket sales did not keep pace with the sales for the large story ballets. They have to go to a smaller theater for that. They are not able to cover the costs of the larger venue.

It seems painfully obvious that the people who are being short-sighted are the ones who are trying to somehow "put one over" on both the government and the public by saying they are trying to do the best for the Scottish Ballet.

I might mention also that it struck me greatly how many times mention was made of the letter from the Edinburgh Festival about the quality of the company's presentations and that this was given as a reason for not having them. This point is well-covered in Peg Beveridge's recent letter to you and I can only say that I heartily agree with her assessment of the situation. The public likes what it has been getting. They are to be applauded for doing so well when the company with whom they are in a figurative "partnership", the Opera, has so much more to work with and doesn't have to spend precious time and resources arguing for its very existence.

In closing, might I say that the situation is being watched closely here; you will undoubtedly hear from many others like myself. Because we are not there does not mean that we are not aware of what is happening and the possible implications for dance not only in Scotland but everywhere.


Patricia Meja

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Carly Gillies

28-09-01, 05:02 PM (GMT)
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3. "RE: For Scottish Ballet - an Open Letter "
In response to message #0

>? Film is NOT
>an industry. It produces
>nothing. And it is
>certainly not an art form.
> It is a skill,
>a craft that involves manipulating
>images and thereby, the mind.
> It is entertainment, generally
>of the most feral variety.
> The fact that many
>Americans initially thought they were
>"just" watching a film on
>television, when the events of
>September 11th broke, tells you
>everything you need to know
>about the movies.

But film making surely IS an art form. And it produces at least something more tangible and lasting than dance. I suspect that the Scottish film industry is and will be rather different to Hollywood and I'm delighted to hear of the financial support for it.

>Remember England before Thatcher. Remember
>when a few pence took
>one into the classical theatre,
>when miners and railwaymen's sons
>read books, real books, and
>went to plays, and I
>do mean Shakespeare's plays.

Well, miners sons may have been reading books and aspiring to careers in whatever would take them away from mining, but I doubt many of them were attending the ballet.

>Nothing is too good for the
>people. Classical ballet, which
>is a branch of classical
>music, is an art form.
> Its exponents are among
>the most highly-trained and idealistic
>people in Western society.
>It must be defended, in
>every nook and cranny of
>the country

Classical ballet should be not just preserved but cherished.
Which leads me to my problem with the current debacle at Scottish Ballet.

No-one is addressing the central paradox:-

Do the board want to attract bigger audiences by "dumbing down" the kind of productions SB offers. This seems to me to be just what Robert North has been doing for 2 years with his more "middle-of-the-road" creations - 'Carmen', 'Offenbach' and his various shorter pieces. If so, why get rid of him now ?

Or are the Board worried about quality and want to improve the quality of SB dancers and performances, and see a "different direction" as a way of doing this (and an excuse to replace Robert North) If they do they will fail as their best dancers have already left, and their audiences will follow.
Certainly talk of the company being too small for a classical repertoire seems flawed. Last year SB did Giselle and La Sylphide. La Sylphide had guest principal artists and was a great success, Giseele didn't and wasn't. Certainly though the company was capable not too long ago of staging high quality classical ballet with guest dancers for principal roles.

I am fearful of the quality of both dancers and prospective ADs who will want to join New Scottish Ballet - now being descibed as "a national classical modern dance company performing a contemporary repertoire" - Whatever that means!

One last note. The current SB program of pieces by North and Van Manen sounds exactly what the board want the New SB to do. I understand that Theatre Royal was only 1/3 full last night - an indication of the potential popularity of this kind of dance perhaps ? I'll see tonight whether audience numbers have swelled at all.

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29-09-01, 05:04 PM (GMT)
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4. "RE: For Scottish Ballet - an Open Letter "
In response to message #3
   thank you carly. this would be very interesting. it seems to me (i would love to know if you agree) at any rate that when an argument for or against any proposal in the arts is advanced on the basis of any level of emotion (love and commitment to a form of art whether by the artist or the audience), it is quite likely to be shot down as unworthy of consideration or as coming from someone who is incapable of considering an important business matter clearly because emotions have interfered, and that typically an argument for something's continued existence can only be won with people the likes of the two gentlemen we saw in the parliamentary hearing if it is without that emotion. don't get me wrong! i am as emotional as someone can get about a subject i love. but that has just been scratching at the back of my mind and i would be interested to see what people think. (and sorry for the length of that sentence!)

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Carly Gillies

29-09-01, 08:06 PM (GMT)
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5. "RE: For Scottish Ballet - an Open Letter "
In response to message #4
   I too watched the parliamentary proceedings with fascination.
I felt very sorry for Robert North - there doing his best (and speaking very well) for a company he obviously cares about despite having already been told that he's effectively not good enough, in the Boards view. - And getting repeatedly compared to a football manager.

Like you Patricia I get really angry when arguments that display any emotion are devalued. These days we seem to increasingly hear politicians dismiss arguments on the grounds that they are "naive" - usually just because the argument displays a little human emotion such as compassion. I feel it's just a cheap way of avoiding having to make a well constructed counter-argument.

Last night's Scottish Ballet evening was excellent. A well constructed evening of 2 older works by Hans van Manen - 'In and Out' and 'Sarcasms', followed by 2 older works by Robert North - 'Death and the Maiden' and 'Troy Game'.
The company looks pretty good doing this kind of dance, although I think some of them will take a short while to relax into the Van Manen stuff.
This kind of Euro modern dance is presumably what the Board want the future to be.
The problem? Glasgow Theatre Royal looked to be about half full last night.
The future's not bright.

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