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The Critics: Everything you ever wanted to know

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Guest Paul W

In Monday July 5th's NY Times, Anna Kisselgoff does a review of Giselle which was generally favorable (pointing out strengths more than weaknesses) but a bit tepid. At the end though she makes the statement that interests me:


"Like the company's newly reconstructed 'Sleeping Beauty', this 'Giselle' shows no point of view toward production. Layers of restored or reinvented passages were laid out in 'Beauty' but not justified as part of a stylistic whole. In 'Giselle', essential detail is discarded without explanation. The Kirov is obviously a company in transition."


I can understand the Kirov is in transition, but what is one to make of this?? It seems to cast a NEGATIVE stamp on the productions. Is this a view those posting on this board have? And is it important? It's all too cerebral for me.

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Paul, I think it seems obscure because most of us don't think about what production we're watching; we're there to watch the ballet, which usually means the dancing.


To some (definitely me) it matters a great deal which production of the ballet I'm seeing, and how well or ill it has been staged. (When you see "Theme and Variations," you expect to see a principal couple, four demisolist couples, and a corps of twelve couples. You expect certain steps. You expect that the costumes may vary, but will not likely be tank tops and blue jeans. Same for "Giselle," except there are production details -- props, mime, gesture, etc. -- that need to be taken into account as well.

To me, this was instinctive; don't know why. The first time I saw "Sleeping Beauty," (Nureyev, National Ballet of Canada) I wanted to know if I was seeing a "real" Sleeping Beauty and was very interested that the reviews pointed out that Nureyev had added several solos for the Prince, and why the Prince hadn't danced them in the first place, and what music he had used, and what had happened to the dances that had once been danced to that music. Maybe because I live in a city that has no home company (pace Washington Ballet), and so didn't "settle in" with any particular production of any particular ballet, I got used to seeing different productions of the same ballet done by different companies, and I definitely think it's the critic's job to know when something has been changed and to point it out and pass a judgment on the effect. Just as a music critic should notice if someone drops the second movement of a Mozart concerto, played on a synthesizer and played backwards, into Beethoven's Fifth, or if an actress decides to juice up Ophelia's part by adding a few lovely lines she penned herself.


The state of a production is a reflection of the state of balletmastering in the company -- a situation about which I have posted incessantly, because when something is wrong with a company, or about to go wrong with it, the first cracks show in the balletmastering -- in the rehearsing, in the care of a production, in the way a production is directed. If the action isn't clear in a ballet like "Giselle," that's a problem.


For what it's worth, the reports I've gotten on "Giselle" (about a dozen) are split down the middle. Half have admired the young ballerinas, and for some that is quite enough; but half have found the production soggy and boring.


I would be very interested to know whether people care about the production -- or, perhaps better, how important it is to you. Do you all think that it doesn't matter?



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Guest Manhattnik

Did she list the details?


I was struck that the Kirov leaves out the mime where Giselle's mother describes the graveyard, and wilis. Here she just points to the stage, as if to say, "If you keep on dancing, you will go to the orchestra pit!"


It makes no sense.


So there was no time for Giselle's mother to do that very important bit of mime, but there was plenty of time for the Duke to repeatedly and at great length demonstrate to his entourage exactly how one holds and blows a horn. As if nobody back then knew this?


And when Hilarion does blow that horn, the returning call has been cut. Now the nobles immediately come in from the wings, as if they'd been standing just out of view all this time. So you no longer have that delicious look of panic on Albrecht's face when he hears the replying horn, 'cause there isn't any.


Also, Samadurov never went for the sword that wasn't there, to drive away Hilarion. That certainly removes a lot of the motivation for Hilarion's breaking to Albrecht's hut.


The Peasant Pas couple arrive immediately after Giselle, her mother, the Duke and Bathilde vanish into Giselle's house. Everyone leaves, then all of a sudden there are these happy peasants dancing for nobody in particular.


In the pas d'action, the business with counting the daisy petals was often very fuzzy and ill-defined. I mean, Giselle would pluck her daisy down to the last petal, run off in tears, and Albrecht would pick up a different daisy and run with it to her. At least Samadurov had the sense to do the always entertaining plucking off of one petal, to change the result from "he loves me not" to "he loves me." The others botched this badly, I thought. And, for God's sake, how hard is it for Zelensky or Fadeyev to master the art of daisy-petal-plucking? Do they need a master class in this in St. Petersburg?


And Myrtha made the mime gesture for dancing many times, but never, ever the crossed-fists one for death. Was death not considered an appropriate subject for Soviet mime, back when?


A lot of the mime in Giselle was fuzzy, or just plain silly, I thought. Too much slapping of one's sides in consternation, and snapping of one's fingers when one has an idea. If this is typical of the level of mime these dancers are used to performing, no wonder some found their classical mime in Sleeping Beauty to be lacking


And then there was Fadeyev's absurd hat in the second act. But I can't bring myself to that tonight....

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Thanks for the specifics, Manhattnik. It sounds as though there isn't any direction, at least of this particular production. That it's a production that's been in repertory so long that nobody thinks about what s/he is doing. I especially liked your contrasting the cutting of Giselle's mother's mime speech about the Wilis with the leaving in of other extraneous mime speeches. (Makarova did something similar in ABT's "Swan Lake" that used to drive me crazy. She wouldn't do the beautiful mime passage of "my mother's tears filled this lake," etc, but kept taking an arabesque and miming "don't shoot the swans" over and over. Except, of course, they weren't swans by that time. This has become "standard" now.


There are a couple of things that you mentioned that may be a result of the Kirov's having an alternate version, though. The gesture of Albrecht going for his sword, I have read, is Western tradition, not Russian/Soviet. (In Erik Bruhn's biography, he is quoted as saying he learned that gesture from Igor Youskevitch, at ABT. Whether Youskevitch was the first to perform it, I don't know.) Also, I've seen the double daisy trick before. It can work if it's done well (usually done in the Albrecht the Cad interpretation, as opposed to the Albrecht in Love one). I think the point is that he doesn't believe in peasant superstitions, plucks another daisy to show her that it's the luck of the draw. Well, at least that's the way it looked when Rudi did it.



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Guest Manhattnik

Regarding the daisies, Fadeyev and Zelensky didn't pluck another one. Giselle plucks two, then does the "he lovees me" bit with one of them, until there's only one petal left. Then she runs off, understandably upset. Albrecht then picks up the OTHER daisy, takes it to her, and suddenly she's happy again. Is Giselle supposed to be so dense that she can't tell the difference between a daisy with one petal, and a daisy with several? I just don't get what point was being made here.


Regarding the sword, Zelensky and Fadeyev reached for it, and Samadurov didn't, at least on his second performance. I didn't specifically see what he did on his first performance, but I think he omitted it there, too.


I'm thinking more about that ridiculous hat Fadeyev wore, and left onstage, in Act II. Has anyone else ever seen Albrecht with headwear in Act II? Is this another Russian tradition?

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I think the concern with production is a perfectly legitimate and something that marks this century off from previous eras in which the performer dominated and could pretty much interpolate and/or eliminate as he wished. Recall that we have the music for "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" because a ballerina wanted to put in another composer's pas de deux and the only way Tchaikovsky could head her off at the pass was to compose a new one. In opera, there is the celebrated,or notorious, example of Jean de Reszke eliminating "Celeste Aida" because he felt he wasn't warmed up enough to sing it. I think it's safe to say this could not happen today.

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I don't think I've ever seen Giselle pluck both daisies; I have seen the two daisies -- another silly thing, actually. You have a, usually, bare naked flower bed with TWO DAISIES in it. Same in the second act, when Myrtha heads straight for the only two flowers growing out of an otherwise fallow tree limb.


Re hats, headgear was part of the costume well into this century -- not just for Albrecht, but for characters generally. They thought of these as story ballets, silly things, and so the dancers dressed like the characters they portray. I don't know when the ballet Princes started "dancing in their underwear," as critics used to write when the practice was still new. I know by the time of Nureyev, hats, wigs and pants were out.


Re the reaching for the sword, btw, I could make a case that a real danseur noble doesn't need to go for a sword to show that he's noble; I'd guess that is a later interpolation. Maybe it's optional at the Kirov. Although it sounds like a lot of things are optional -- which is what Kisselgoff was saying. There's no director, there's no one supervising the production. It's a train running on autopilot.



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Guest Paul W

These replies are very very helpful, particularly your pointing out the specific instances of changes, with the flower petals and the sword; these might be difficult to notice for someone who is seeing Giselle for the first time obviously. I have only seen Giselle once but I recall very vividly the daisy petal part of the Giselle I saw at Hartford a couple years ago. Manhattnik, it was done as you indicated it most logically and dramatically should be done, with Albrecht taking the SAME flower after Giselle has realized it's remaining petals count to "loves me not", and with obvious and delightful deliberation, removing one more petal before giving it back to Giselle, and her then glowing happiness at seeing the result of this touchingly simple action. These are the moments in story ballets which have to be sacred! So, that it wasn't done this way, would also make me feel there was something absolutely necessary which was missing.


My question has one more aspect however, aside from the particulars which were "left out" or "changed", either by design or perhaps by sloppy portrayals due to the dancers not being coached adequately. I was actually more interested in the contrast between, let's say Jeannie's obviously ecstatic and delightful response which declares "Beauty" (the production) being finally awakened after a 109 year slumber; and Kisselgoff's apparent hesitancy to christine this the NEW "old Beauty", because of apparent lack of thematic accuracy and focus in these production aspects. My question is perhaps really rhetorical and not really answerable one way or the other, but I was kind of seeking an opinion as to whether others thought this Kirov production will now stand the test of time and become the standard "Beauty" for the future. If not, isn't it just another attempt at recovering the old "Beauty" along with all the rest.

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Guest Manhattnik

Alexandra, yes, Giselle pulled two daisies out out of a bunch of flowers next to her house, and then proceeded to pluck one of them.


Regarding the Beauty, I think it's unrealistic to expect it to have been a time machine back to 1890. Or 1903. Or whenever. And who would have wanted that? Look at those pictures of what dancers looked like back then. Eww. I thought the approach the Kirov took was entirely appropriate, a truly brave and completely right-headed attempt that succeeded far more often than it failed. Was Beauty a complete success on every level? No. Was it thought-provoking, beautiful in surprising places, and did it offer new perspectives on Petipa, and times then, and times now? Absolutely. Does it need work in places? Yes it does. Can it only get better? Yes. Will the production be given a chance to stick around and get better? God, I hope so.


I didn't read Anna's review. I've been allergic to dance critcs for awhile. As someone or other once said, though, the ideal is the enemy of the good. This was a very, very good production, and I'll take it?


Will it become a standard? No way. People are used to more conventional Beauties these days. I doubt we'll see Lila fairies shedding their toe-shoes with abandon left and right, although they may form a Fairies' Union and insist on wand-carrying pages at all performances. Also, artistic directors don't like to look backwards. They want to look forward, and make productions where Aurora must confront the Evil Fairy within herself, or where the King is a 19th-century railroad robber baron, and Aurora gets wakened by Bill Gates or...


God, I should never post before I've finished my coffee.

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If a company like the Kirov is putting on productions with no point of view, then it seems to me that's information for the lead of the review, not the end of it, and it would also be an indicator of a company not in "transition" but "deep trouble." Since I'm not in New York, I guess I won't find out...

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Guest Nanatchka

This is all very interesting, and I am taken with the discussion, tangential I admit, about men looking as if they are dancing in their underwear. I have long thought that myself--you know, the leads wear the poet shirt or the bolero jacket or whatever, and then NO PANTS. I can suspend my disbelief as readily as the next person (maybe even more, I am horribly susceptible), but I am almost always taken out of context by this. I think the problem is that *all* the men are not wearing just tights. Thus, since everyone else is wearing trousers, or sailor pants, or pantaloons, or whatever, the lead seems to have forgotton to finish dressing. It is the mixed metaphor which is confusing. They all should wear their underwear. Consistency is useful in fantasy. .

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Exactly, Nanatchka. Let them all dance in their underwear! Or, better yet, wear clothes in story ballets and underwear elsewhere.


Actually, it occurred to me that this is a wonderful example of a convention that we readily accept. We see the tights and think "dancer" and forget about "costume" (or maybe that's the only way to tell who the star is these days), yet are startled when confronted with a 19th century convention, such as when Lilac wears dancing shoes in a dancing act and walking shoes when she doesn't have a solo.


It's all what you're used to.



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I've been reading a lot of dance reviews lately as part of my research, and some of them seem to me extremely unfair. I've had the benefit of hearing the dancers' side of the story, as well as other critics' views of the critics in question, and some may not be as unfair as they seem, and some may be more.


With that not-very-helpful introduction, I'll pose my question, since I'm sure each of us has a different definition of "unfair review." What is unfair criticism in a dance review?


[When we have "critic" questions, usually the first four people to answer are writers. While their views are, of course, welcome, I hope we will get a wide range of responses -- dancers, choreographers, dancegoers, teachers, please join in. In any sense of the term -- what's off limits, what should be taken into account that isn't, what constitutes a conflict of interest, etc.]

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Great topic!


As a dancer, I always felt statements that I was bad or good in a role without explanation or comparison were unfair. I wanted to learn from a critic and often enjoyed the different perspectives on my dancing. I never minded comparisons to other dancers, especially if it was in detail.


One pet peeve is a review that describes what went on without critical (good or bad)comment on the art presented. This to me is unfair to the art and the public.


Th final unfairness is the lack of space for reviews and consistent critics. It is nice to read critics over time and develop a sense of their respective tastes.

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Guest Diana L

I think that when a dancer is compared to another dancer, that's unfair.

I also don't like when a ballet is just panned because of "lack of rehearsal", I always get the feeling the dancers are being blamed for that.

And even when they use nice words, like "womanly" any comments on weight are not kind.

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