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Ballet Talk for Dancers

The Critics: Strong language


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'Ghastly appearance', 'abominable weakness', 'disgusting line' - these are quotations from Robert Johnson's review of the Royal Ballet School's performance in New York. Does he always talk like this? I see he also refers to the 'crude posturings' of SAB students, but I'd have thought if he hates what they're doing so much, it's the school he ought to be lambasting rather than the students, who must be shattered to read such harsh words about themselves.

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I have to say I agree. I thought that was way over the top -- and I have to say I think some editors would have questioned such strong language about students. I don't read Johnson regularly now, so I don't know if this is standard, but I do remember one review last spring (of NYCB, I believe) that was so harsh that the Gottlieb piece that bothered some people here looked like boosterism in comparison.

 

Let's just say that review of students wouldn't be allowed to stay up here. Johnson's mother was a teacher, and so I'm sure he has strong feelings on how ballet SHOULD, if not MUST, be taught, but I think there's a way of saying it when children are involved.

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Guest Manhattnik

Having seen the performance in question, I find Johnson's comments to be much harsher than the it merited, even had it been given by seasoned professionals rather than students. Although I was turned off by the dry, stultifying correctness (or striving for such), I didn't find the dancers as technically inept as Johnson, nor did I find the pretty-pretty classicism as objectionable; at least they weren't in metallic milliskin unitards performing origami on each other.

 

I felt myself wishing that someone had told these kids that it was OK to actually leap, and that space is sometimes meant to devoured, not just nibbled. The Flower Festival was just way too precious and low-octane for my tastes, and I found myself grateful that, despite his faults, Peter Martins at least likes women who can jump. I felt I would have to watch a few dozen of Janie Taylor's stag leaps as an antidote. I'll admit my eyes have been molded by Balanchine (who rather famously said of England, "You're awake and already it's vulgar"), but still....

 

I also got the distinct feeling that the stage was much smaller than these kids were used to (scrunching out much of the shape of Ashton's waltz from Swan Lake, making it more of a Pas de Doze than Douze), and perhaps a bit slippery, given the occasional bobbles here and there.

 

Despite all this, I found myself really enjoying the spunky blonde girl (Leanne Cope?) and a short but very bouyant boy whose name I couldn't even guess at. I got a kick out of the cute silliness of Wheeldon's Souvenirs, although the arithmetical processions of his early Le Voyage left me rather cold (as Mercurial Maneouvers does more and more these days, too).

 

I did leave the theater thinking I'd seen and heard enough sober, moody ballets to piano solos, piano concerti, piano fantasies to last me a few lifetimes. I would've been very happy for a campy Gypsy number or something. But iffy programming isn't the fault of the students!

 

Getting back to Johnson, even if this program was worse than a trip to the dentist with no novacaine, these kids didn't deserve his shredding. If some were weaker than others, they all clearly had good, strong training, and danced with commendable poise, if not always verve.

 

I've read a few other slice-and-dice jobs from Johnson, so pronounced that it undercut whatever interest I might've once had in his opinions (he's clearly rather passionate about ballet, even if it's the ballet which exists only in his head). It's fine (and rather enjoyable) to rip into appropriate targets with a few well-timed thrusts of the rapier, but Johnson's penchant for laying about with great force but little discrimination, makes me increasingly uninterested in each particular swing of his rhetorical battleaxe, and wondering instead just how much time he's spent in the shadows, grinding away at his weapon of choice, and why.

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In which publication did this review occur? Is it online? I haven't read the review or seen the performance, but as for the students dancing "correctly," isn't that how students are expected to dance? Though I admit I am surprised if they made NYCB's jumps look good by comparison; of course, nobody jumps well on a small, slippery stage. Most surprising, however, is to read such insulting words about the Royal Ballet School, which is one of the best in the world...surely they can't have been "ghastly," "abominable," and "disgusting." Those are not qualities one usually associates with the school or its graduates.

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Victoria Leigh

Hans, check today's Links. It's there. It was from the NJ Star Ledger. A totally "ghastly, abominable, and disgusting" review, IMO. I did not see the performance, but I just don't believe in using language like that in any review, much less with children

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Thank you, Ms. Leigh. I suspected it might have been there. One quote in particular I cannot get over is this:

 

Increasingly, parents and instructors fear making excessive demands on children.

 

One of my best friends is a former RBS student, and according to her, the school is very tough and quite strict. It produces dancers for the Royal Ballet, which everyone knows is among the very best six or so companies in the world. Therefore, I cannot understand Johnson's logic when he attacks the RBS's standards.

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It looks like a "career-move" review to me. Mr. Johnson (no relation) writes for the Newark Star-Ledger, and seems to want to "cross the river" and write for the NYC papers. I think that the days are gone when critics who hatchet everything are gone in most places, and continuing to write like that might assure Johnson of a change in papers - to the Bergen Record. The reason that the RBS school classes were "sealed" was that observers had paid for the privilege, rather than being invited, and apparently press credentials were not honored, because the classes were intended as a seminar for teachers. Nothing "elitist" about it at all! Pay the money and take the class. Would he have expected unrestricted access to, say, Political Science classes at Rutgers?

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I was shocked by the tone of that review too. Also, I don't know about the conditions in which that performance took place: did they have much time to get used to that stage, recover from jet lag, etc.? It's a bit harsh to judge young students so severely after only one performance, especially when they are in an unusual environment for them (and probably quite nervous because of that).

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Guest Manhattnik
Originally posted by Alexandra

Vulgar is now a universal good when it comes to company style?

 

Are you replying to my previous post, Alexandra? I don't believe I said that vulgarity is "good," (although Balanchine certainly had great use for it), or that a lack thereof is bad.

 

What I meant to say, and clearly didn't do so well enough to convey my meaning, was that I find the English style, as evinced by these dutiful students, to be so concerned with correctness, propriety and inoffensive deportment as to be, in places, dull. Really really dull. All the epaulement in the world won't revive a child who's had the life leached out of his movements, or the audience watching him, for that matter.

 

I think it takes a particular kind of artist, to infuse such dry academicism with life. I'm sure most BA regulars can name their favorite Royal Ballet artists and say, "But Monica Mason wasn't dry!" I won't say such dancers are the exception that proves the rule, but rather that although it's not impossible to overcome such stultifying training (How many American dancers hate Cechetti? May I see a show of hands?), clearly it's a challenge.

 

As I wrote, some of the kids onstage at Hunter looked like they were already up to the challenge, and, frankly, I'm sure that many of the others, once they grow up a bit, will gain the strength and personality necessary to bring this academic style to life.

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Yes, Manhattnik, my comment was in response to yours. Partly because I groan whenever I read that quote; it's snitty. Geniuses don't have to be kind, or polite, but still. (Wasn't it made in the context of, "So why didn't you get the job in England?") More importantly, I think that because that quote is so often used, there are a lot of people who think that it means that "vulgar" (whatever that means; in the 1930s, it meant too many pirouettes) is something for which ballet dancers, or students, should aim.

 

I'll echo what Hans said above: "As for the students dancing "correctly," isn't that how students are expected to dance?" I know quite a few American dancers who love Cecchetti. The Royal Ballet school hasn't taught Cecchetti for well over a decade. Merle Park changed them over to Vaganova. Anthony Dowell spoke to this in Washington during a company visit, saying this had been a conscious decision because otherwise "we won't be able to compete."

 

But the point I was trying to make when I wrote the vulgar line above is that there are ways to discuss differences in schooling or opinion without mocking, trashing, or condescending to that with which we disagree or don't like. If someone thinks the demonstration/style was dull, then that's what they think.

 

I've seen dull Royal Ballet dancing, as though all the juice had been leached out of the movement, and that may be what happened here (Kisselgoff makes some of the same points as Johnson, just does it in a more judicious way). And I thought Johnson's point, that delicacy comes from strength, it's not decorative, is a good one, and I can imagine what the students looked like in that regard from what he wrote; there are current RB dancers whose delicacy seems fake to me. I see it as part of MacMillanism. When his version of expressionism took over -- emoting on top of classical steps to make them more "modern" and "meaningful" -- I think the dancers became removed from classicism as a living force; it's no longer the native language. Perhaps the school has picked this up and is training the students for it. But I don't think being vulgar is what's needed. And I don't think that correctness -- in English, French, or Russian dancers -- is bad. It's just different from what we're used to seeing.

 

Editing to add:

 

I think the emphasis on correctness is one basic difference between European and American training. I've heard American teachers complain that European-trained dancers can't learn new or complicated combinations as quickly as American dancers. That may well be true, but it's the result of the difference in emphasis. Traditionally, European schooling has been to make sure that the students have the correctness in their bodies; time enough to mess them up when they get into the company. As students, they do it over and over and over until they get it right. When they start dancing professionally, then they'll have this in their bodies. I've noticed European (English, French, Danes, Russians) correcting to a fifth position rather than just comin' down close enough and bounding away again. I think this is part of that difference as well. Americans (or some of us, at any rate) value energy above everything. So it's a little sloppy, so their arms are dangling at their sides. It's exciting and it moves. But for a European school, I don't think that's what they want to show. They want to show the schooling.

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"Traditionally, European schooling has been to make sure that the students have the correctness in their bodies; time enough to mess them up when they get into the company. As students, they do it over and over and over until they get it right. When they start dancing professionally, then they'll have this in their bodies. I've noticed European (English, French, Danes, Russians) correcting to a fifth position rather than just comin' down close enough and bounding away again. "

 

With all due respect, Alexandra, I don't think that European schools are the only ones who stress doing it over and over until they get it right. I have direct personal experience with dancers who correct automatically, who feel that placement and line are important, who have it in their bodies--and surprise! they have been trained in this country. There is a vast amount of good dance training in the United States.

I take serious exception to this. Artistry, on the other hand, takes age and experience to develop.

 

That said, I also take serious exception to Mr. Johnson's review. It was an uncalled-for attack on pre-professional dancers, with gratuitous insults to others in other schools. Helpful to no one, it is the sort of review which earns him a salary but is malicious to no purpose.

 

I feel very badly for the dancers. I know how much they look forward to reviews when they tour and this was vitriol for breakfast.

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Juliet, I'm not saying that one method is good or bad, just that there's a difference in emphasis. There are plenty of good teachers here and bad ones elsewhere, of course. I'm also not saying that American teachers don't want the students to get it right. I'm saying that in European schools --

England, Denmark, Paris, that I know -- the syllabus is at a deliberately slower pace and that there's a reason for it, agree or disagree. I also know many American teachers who complain about this -- that European trained dancers "don't know how to dance." (I'd argue that if they went into their own companies with their own repertories they'd dance very nicely. It's not a system, perhaps, that lets you dance 10 different styles in a week, at least not until you get used to it. To me, this isn't a bad thing. To others, it is.)

 

I realized after I wrote the post above that I don't know whether the current RB School director is using Vaganova or not. There was a concern about the training and there may well have been a change -- so if anyone knows, please correct me.

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Perhaps we should differentiate between European/American syllabi and European/American dancers, although I have noticed a tendency in the US towards sort of a hodge-podge method of ballet training--go to this school for a few years, then change to that one, &c. Dancers don't tend to follow a complete method of training for all their school years here, and while I know that is not always the case in European neighborhood schools, it is definitely more common in the big academies there than it is here.

 

As far as I know, the current RBS director does not officially use Vaganova, though some of the teachers, mostly for the boys, are Russian. I know the RBS doesn't use RAD; I believe the current director (Gailene Stock?) revised the syllabus that was already in place when she got there.

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