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Subject: "Narrative or No" Archived thread - Read only
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Conferences What's Happening Topic #2849
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29-06-02, 07:02 AM (GMT)
Click to EMail BrynJns Click to send private message to BrynJns Click to add this user to your buddy list  
"Narrative or No"
   A question of semantics you might think, but I tend to think of narrative ballet as a particular form of theatrical ballet. Essentially, it is continuous dance drama, usually executed on a relatively small scale. It can be successful, but there are serious problems.

To begin with, such works do not lend themselves to the full range of dance spectacle that a major classical company is capable of. The number of potential roles may also be limited. Certain elements of drama, the handling of philosophical issues perhaps, or the establishment of complex motive, are very difficult to deal with.

If you are going to base your ballet on an existing art work, that may give it credence, but be prepared to be slaughtered by the critics if it doesnÕt live up to the original. As for length, by the time that you have extracted everything capable of visual expression, that proposed three act piece could be two acts at best. The addition of a ÒdivertissmentÓ is unlikely to be acceptable these days.

Needless to say, that hasnÕt prevented companies from selecting gloriously inappropriate material ( and adding divertissments!!)

Since the ballet is a specialist genre with unique features, it cries out for custom scenario writing ( or are we just some kind of second hand art form? ) A fundamental rethink of ballet structure, and the appropriate use of large dance groupings may be needed. Some sort of less continuous Òsemi narrativeÓ form seems likely.

Hells teeth, Bryn, that sounds like a Petipa classic! Not entirely, but you canÕt ignore a form that has lasted for decades. For example, it is perfectly possible for a mythological piece to have a contemporary sub text.

So are choreographers the best people to do this. IÕm not denigrating choreographers when I suggest that it is doubtful. In interpretive ballet, creating physical dance to meet the dramatic needs of the moment, and staging the work as well, requires tremendous skill and experience. ItÕs just that we sometimes expect too much.

Those choreographers who do independently create this type of work tend to be mature individuals with a broad knowledge of the arts and considerable life experience. Does a busy dancer have the time to assemble such a background? Are they encouraged to do so anyway? Furthermore, a choreographer with life experience outside of the performing arts must be pretty rare. Another reason for external input perhaps.

When people say that there are few good choreographers about, it simply isnÕt true. ItÕs just that people draw their definition of a choreographer rather too wide. If we are to have major new interpretive work ( in big companies ), the initiative has to come from the artistic directors, not isolated choreographers. Its what artistic directors are for.

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  Subject     Author     Message Date     ID  
  RE: Narrative or No Alexandra 30-06-02 1
     RE: Narrative or No katharine kanter 01-07-02 2
         RE: Narrative or No BrynJns 03-07-02 5
     RE: Narrative or No BrynJns 02-07-02 3
  RE: Narrative or No Paul A 02-07-02 4
     RE: Narrative or No alison 04-07-02 6
         RE: Narrative or No Paul A 04-07-02 7
             RE: Narrative or No Robert 04-07-02 8
             RE: Narrative or No alison 05-07-02 9
         RE: Narrative or No Steven 05-07-02 10
             RE: Narrative or No Paul A 05-07-02 11
                 RE: Narrative or No Alexandra 05-07-02 12

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30-06-02, 06:46 PM (GMT)
Click to EMail Alexandra Click to send private message to Alexandra Click to view user profileClick to add this user to your buddy list  
1. "RE: Narrative or No"
In response to message #0
   You've made a lot of interesting points there! It's been fashionable for the past 25 years or so for some to say that "abstract" ballets are, ipso facto, superior to "narrative" ballets. as though dramatic content were, by its very nature, anti-intellectual. I've never understood this argument.

I wonder if we're defining "choreographer" too narrowly? This is something I learned from the Danes. Their definition of a ballet does not begin and end with the steps; that's but one element. (Others have felt this way, too, of course. The Diaghilev formula, that decor, music, dancing and story were coequal lasted quite awhile )

The demicaractere ballets of the 19th century and early 20th century -- whether two or three acts, like "Giselle" or "Napoli," or one act, like the Fokine and Massine repertory -- were chock full of good roles. Few were His 'n' Her ballets, with a few dances for the corps thrown in. One of the glories of the Bournonville repertory, something like "Kings Volunteers on Amager" or "Kermesse in Bruges," for example, is that there were a dozen star parts. Everyone's favorite dancer had something to do.

Perhaps, like musicals, people have forgotten how to make good narrative balles. Also, the new definition of "adult" as being "the dancers must be sexually active on stage" rather than "mature" rather limits things. In the 18th century, sex and love weren't the main thing. Betrayal, power, war, honor, divine mischief and/or retribution -- there's drama for you.

The old narrative formulas -- the 19th century Romantic ballet, the early 20th century Ballets Russes ballet -- were pretty solid, too. All you had to do was be able to make steps, which nearly any good teacher can do. Bournonville lamented that ballet died when libretti were farmed out to librettists (he always wrote his own) but if a choreographer -- the step maker -- can't plot worth a darn, then bringing in someone who could doesn't seem like the end of the world, to me. Once that plot is in place, illustrating it with dances was a snap. Not much has lasted from those periods, but that's not necesarily for reasons of choreographic quality. In their day, there were dozens of good choreographers in each genre.

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katharine kanter

01-07-02, 01:41 PM (GMT)
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2. "RE: Narrative or No"
In response to message #1

Let's take a concrete example of an as-yet unchoreographed ballet.

In Shakespeare's "Henry VIII", a daring piece, I must say, there is the scene of the dream of Catherine of Aragon, a dance of angels. I cannot help but think that it was actually imagined as a ballet.

Read Noverre's "Lettres sur la Danse". They date from the 1760s or thereabouts. "Dance Books" has an English translation I believe. The subjects Noverre considers to be fitting for narrative ballet - Greek tragedy, for example.

Fine, a ballet master has got to deal with the commercial side of things, but aren't there many balletomanes who would quite willingly put up with costumes made out of old curtain material, and no sets, in favour of a worthwhile intrigue and truly original choreography ?

A work I would strongly recommend to everyone interested in this particular issue: Friedrich Schiller's "The Theatre as a Moral Institution" (around 1793 I believe). It would probably have to be ordered from a library.

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03-07-02, 06:14 AM (GMT)
Click to EMail BrynJns Click to send private message to BrynJns Click to add this user to your buddy list  
5. "RE: Narrative or No"
In response to message #2
   Katharine, I will have to do some homework to follow through your suggested references.

The arts world has much rich material which could form the base for a ballet, and long may it continue to be used. We would be much the poorer without wonderful pieces like MacMillanÕs Romeo & Juliet. Nevertheless, the problems of conversion remain, and the case for original scenario is strong.

People are different, of course. Some choreographers may feel that a third party scenario restricts their artistic expression, while others may prefer the discipline of working within a pre-defined framework. Any route is fine, providing we get good new ballets at the end.

But are we getting them at the moment?

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02-07-02, 07:47 AM (GMT)
Click to EMail BrynJns Click to send private message to BrynJns Click to add this user to your buddy list  
3. "RE: Narrative or No"
In response to message #1
   Thank you for your reply, Alexandra.

Your point concerning the supposed superiority of abstract ballets is an important one. This attitude tends to assume that because non narrative ballet has little but dance, then that dance must be more challenging, and require higher standards from the dancers. Astonishingly, supporters of this view frequently accuse narrative works of choreographic ÒpaddingÓ.

The reality is often the reverse. Abstract ballets will tend to contain more dance, but often at the expense of much repetition and mindless virtuosity. What I call Òtotal theatreÓ requires broader artistic qualities from both choreographer and dancers. We want quality, not quantity. I tend to turn off when a company brags about how many works they have in their repertoire.

And just how much guidance are our young aspiring choreographers getting. Tying bodies into impossible knots just to be different, and an excess of floor work ( which does little more than make costumes dirty ) seems to be the order of the day. Simple classical clarity in appropriate theatrical context should be the goal.

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Paul A

02-07-02, 09:53 AM (GMT)
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4. "RE: Narrative or No"
In response to message #0
>If you are going to base
>your ballet on an existing
>art work, that may give
>it credence, but be prepared
>to be slaughtered by the
>critics if it doesnÕt live
>up to the original. As
>for length, by the time
>that you have extracted everything
>capable of visual expression, that
>proposed three act piece could
>be two acts at best.
>The addition of a divertissment
>is unlikely to be acceptable
>these days.

I'll post in more detail when I get the chance but just seen Balanchine's Midsummer Night's Dream for the first time. The only redeeming feature for me was act, pure divertissement; Ashton got far more of essence into his 52 minute one-acter.

But are we to deride either because they have used a play as their source?

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04-07-02, 01:17 PM (GMT)
Click to EMail alison Click to send private message to alison Click to view user profileClick to add this user to your buddy list  
6. "RE: Narrative or No"
In response to message #4
   Paul, I couldn't agree more with you. I didn't think the first act was a patch on the Ashton version - much cruder, and doesn't distil the play nearly as well - but really liked the second. But I wouldn't deride either because they were based on a play - it's the quality of the ballet which concerns me. Unfortunately, in recent years in Britain at least there seems to have been a trend towards producing ballets based on books and plays just so the audience will recognise them (bums on seats), rather than because the stories are inherently suited to dance. This is at least in part a reaction to the conservatism of British audiences, who on the whole don't seem inclined to try anything new.

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Paul A

04-07-02, 03:34 PM (GMT)
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7. "RE: Narrative or No"
In response to message #6
> Unfortunately, in recent years
>in Britain at least there
>seems to have been a
>trend towards producing ballets based
>on books and plays just
>so the audience will recognise
>them >

I can't understand this. We used to see much more varied a rep in the mid 70s (my entry point), when LFB and SWRB toured lots of works - more triples tah we see now, and less heavily weighted to narrative works.

Why are audiences so reluctant? Or is it the companies who are so cautious?

Good luck to Mark Baldwin at Rambert - sounds as though he wants to stir up some excitement.

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04-07-02, 09:19 PM (GMT)
Click to EMail Robert Click to send private message to Robert Click to view user profileClick to add this user to your buddy list  
8. "RE: Narrative or No"
In response to message #7
   Plot-less dances were done for folk and ritualistic purposes, but theatrical dance almost always supported a narrative. Ballet was often part of an entertainment or opera. Even arts revolutionaries like Diaghilev valued a narrative. He often asked interesting writers to think up stories for the ballets. Unfortunately adapting stories for ballet is very very difficult and nowadays people seem to find it almost impossible. Maybe it is because ballet and dance has lost its link with the theatre. Ninette De Valious was extremely interested in theatre, she taught actors how to move and she incorporated movement into plays. Freddie Ashton was really a man of the theatre, he spent years producing and arranging revues and dance episode in plays. Nowadays many dance people see themselves as artists, movement is enough they are sculptors working with live material in a time sequence to arranged noises. The state of the visual arts is an unfortunate influence on these people. The arts administrators want innovation and modernity and control the finance without any great interest in the end product, so this is what we get. To make matters worse we are then told that is what we need, if we do not go it does not really matter, and we are accused of being old middle class or even conservative. It is good to see that Matthew Bourne used stories for his shows and to the annoyance of the abstract dance crowd the public flocked in. I think I am right in saying that unlike many ballet and modern dance companies he needs bums on seats as he does not get a grant.

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05-07-02, 01:22 PM (GMT)
Click to EMail alison Click to send private message to alison Click to view user profileClick to add this user to your buddy list  
9. "RE: Narrative or No"
In response to message #7
   I've been trying, in rare spare moments, to put something together about what direction ENB should take, and this is one of the questions that's been exercising me. After all, ENB only has half-a-dozen full-length ballets in its rep at present (which it has been recycling a little too frequently for my liking), but a very large back catalogue of triple-bill components which might be worth looking at again, even if they can't put on anything new. I started serious balletgoing at the end of the 80's, and like most people I was cautious at first, preferring the well-known full-evening works to triple bills, but now how I wish I'd gone to see more of those triple bills! Had I known how much of the next decade or so would be taken up by various companies recycling and recycling their blockbusters, I'm sure I'd have gone to see more of those triple bills that I gave a miss to because I didn't know all their components! Swansong, Requiem, Anastasia, Enigma Variations, Rubies, Rhapsody (before its disastrous redesign) and many others that we haven't seen enough of recently.

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05-07-02, 01:59 PM (GMT)
Click to EMail Steven Click to send private message to Steven Click to add this user to your buddy list  
10. "RE: Narrative or No"
In response to message #6
> Unfortunately, in recent years
>in Britain at least there
>seems to have been a
>trend towards producing ballets based
>on books and plays
A good point, Alison, but is the need for audiences to recognise them by title the only criterion here? In fact, precious few narrative ballets have not been based on some previous literary source. Even Sleeping Beauty is based on Perrault. Mayerling and Anastasia, while they don't rely on an obvious literary source, still use a corpus of "myths" about decadent dynasties which their original audiences would have been used to. I think, in fact, sudiences need to recognise a lot more about narrative ballets before they see them than just the title. I would like to see more people pushing the boundaries of narrative ballet, but it's hard to see where the narrative comes from.

Should it be a new narrative or an existing one from another medium? Could something like "Captain Corelli's Mandoline" be made ito a ballet? Or should choreographers be encouraged to construct their own narratives (maybe this is what Ashley Page thought he was doing in "This House Will Burn")? Or are we stuck in the world of fairy stories?

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Paul A

05-07-02, 03:21 PM (GMT)
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11. "RE: Narrative or No"
In response to message #10
   >Could something
>like "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" be
>made ito a ballet?

Now that sounds like a new David Bintley coming on. Actually I would like to see him test his mettle against established scores/ versions with his take on Romeo & Juliet or Cinderella, rather than the direction he's been heading in with Arthur say. Strong as Edward II is I remember it as the best bit of theatre I'd seen in 25 years. Parts of it do not work as dance.

>Or should choreographers be encouraged
>to construct their own narratives
>(maybe this is what Ashley
>Page thought he was doing
>in "This House Will Burn")?

Agree with the comments further up the thread about the theatrical experience and instincts of Balanchine/ Ashton/ de Valois is not so apparent these days. Remember also a comment from de Valois that you must always start with the piano score to understand the organic structure of the music: it's no use putting decoration onto the orchestration if want to get strong movement - which must be a key at least to strong narrative. With THWB I think Page understood his own logic - but that logic didn't make sense to me at least. The elements - "story", music, design, choreography all seemed with disparate.

What is it about British audiences not take to non-narrative. Are we just over literal - but what was the ingredient that made Balanchine's non-narrative hits such a success in the US?

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05-07-02, 03:59 PM (GMT)
Click to EMail Alexandra Click to send private message to Alexandra Click to view user profileClick to add this user to your buddy list  
12. "RE: Narrative or No"
In response to message #11
>What is it about British audiences
>not take to non-narrative. Are
>we just over literal -
>but what was the ingredient
>that made Balanchine's non-narrative hits
>such a success in the

A view from Balanchineland -- Americans seem to have always had a preference for nonnarrative ballets (until recently, when we've become just as gaga for them as the rest of the world). The oldest American dance review I've found is from 1832 (don't laugh, we're a young country) in a New York literary magazine. The writer, probably Washington Irving, is writing about "Le Dieu et la Bayadere" and its ballerina, Mlle. Celeste, and says in no uncertain terms that Americans don't like pantomime, don't want to see it, and vastly prefer the French rope dancers (who were basically fairground performers)! I don't think too much has changed.

But we (Americans) always read that British audiences have always preferred drama, and some find that British ballet is too tilted to the theatrical.

There's been a resurgence in narrative ballets all over the world, I think. Partly because audiences want a story, characters they can identify with, etc. (one reads this; I don't think there's ever been a survey done) and partly because we're in a very long star worshipping period, and when you have Stars you need big ballets to fit them into.

Is it possible, too, that the push to narrative ballets is part of the "we must attract new audiences" movement? It's easier to get someone who's never been to a ballet to see "Romeo and Juliet" than Artifact No. 999. And they're more likely to come to a ballet with a familiar title, like "Romeo and Juliet" than, say, "Marge and Harry".

There are many narrative ballets I love (and many abstract ones), and I'd echo those who'd like to see more one-act narrative works. Less padding, more variety to the program.

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