The Born-Again Balletomane's Blog

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This is risky, but… July 24, 2012

I’m still intrigued by the extreme claims against David Hallberg which were made by Eric Conrad.  These claims, as you may know, seemed to extend beyond Hallberg to the danseuses Keenan Kampa (Maryinsky), and Joy Womack (Bolshoi).  Actually he only mentioned Womack, but the natural extension of that is Kampa, whose situation at the Maryinsky has been the forerunner of Womack’s at the Bolshoi.

The implication seems to be that since these three dancers are American, it follows that they cannot dance and are not worthy to be in Russian companies.  The fact that they were hired by Russian companies indicates nothing but a tremendous need for money on the part of the companies that hired them.  Corruption!  Shame!  Scandal!

Short of contacting Sir Anthony Dowell to ask his impressions of Hallberg (and I do feel those are pretty positive, but I’m sure Sir Anthony would not reply to such a request from a stranger) I put together my own timeline regarding Hallberg working with the Bolshoi vs. Natalia Osipova’s departure.  Conrad, as you know, claims she fled at the moment Hallberg was hired, fearing for her well-being because he dances so badly and is such a horrible partner.

According to reports I’ve read, it seems that Osipova and Vasiliev were planning on leaving the Bolshoi a bit prior to Hallberg starting to hang around there.  Can’t prove it, but it seems to work out that way.

It also seems to me that Osipova would rather dance with her fiance Ivan Vasiliev than anyone else, but is not averse to doing guest stints in the west…that is to say, she has no fear of being partnered by a non-Russian male dancer.

And yes, probably Russian dancers and critics are probably bitching and moaning about Hallberg being hired.  Russians bitch and moan a lot.  I know.  Half of my relatives are Russian.  This video (click on “video”) from a documentary about Darcey Bussell may show you a bit about Russians in general and Russian dancers in particular; it talks about what happened to Bussell when she was invited to guest at the Kirov (Maryinsky).  Fast-forward a decade and a half to the situation with Hallberg at the Bolshoi, and throw in the extra added fact that he’s been hired as a principal there.  Kaboom!

Even further back, in the days when it seemed like there was a Russian defector in every western ballet company, a rumor seemed to have gotten around in the U.S.S.R. that a corps dancer in any Russian company could defect and be hired as a principal in a major American company.  Several tried this route and found themselves in the corps of, say, ABT instead of the Bolshoi.  One tried to go back home.  I believe he was never heard from again.

Why am I telling this story?  To illustrate Russians’ long-standing attitude toward western ballet.  They have one of the most efficient training systems in the world, and they jealously guard it.  Even Conrad can tell you that.  Packaged with this is a sort of insular arrogance that colors their actions toward any foreigner who may intrude on what they consider their territory.  This has to be considered in the story of Hallberg.

I’m not saying this is something evil; in fact, I believe their reaction is simply human.  Keep in mind is that we in the U.S. would be bitching too if ABT had an ancient and fabled school that historically admitted Americans only, and all of a sudden they were admitting foreigners, and all of a sudden foreigners with foreign training were occupying principal jobs in the company.  (As it is, this kind of thing is tradition at ABT to a point where people have at times questioned the inclusion of the word “American” in the company’s name.)

Come to think of it, the New York City Ballet is kind of like that, except that they have never thumbed their noses at foreigners.

To my eye, none of this is fitting in with Conrad’s charges particularly well.  Another thing that does not fit in is the high praise Hallberg has received internationally. It is exceptional praise and it is across the board — that is to say that it’s very hard to find a dissenting opinion.

So what does fit in?  Yes, it does seem that Hallberg had some special “in” at the Bolshoi, as in, he must be friends with some higher-up there.

Yes, Russian companies are experiencing an unprecedented need for money since they are no longer supported by the government (as far as I know).

No, Hallberg’s style does NOT fit in at the Bolshoi.  He can, of course, overcome this…but not instantly.

I think it’s more a question of maintaining stylistic purity at a certain company than shutting out all foreigners because they are foreign, isn’t it?  And the way to do that is through education.  That brings us to Kampa and Womack.

Yes, at one point I thought Joy Womack was in the parallel “foreigners” class at the Bolshoi academy, The remarks of one of the academy’s teachers on YouTube sure made it sound like that.  Conrad indicates that the foreigners’ classes are taught by has-been and second-rate teachers; therefore, anyone educated in the foreigners’ isn’t really a well-educated ballet dancer.  However, Womack’s comments about her classmates’ reactions to her, which parallel Kampa’s at the Vaganova Academy, indicate that she was, in fact, in the Russian class.

Conrad seems to be hinting otherwise.  I’d like to see his proof.

I’d also like to know this: if being American automatically excludes one from being a fine ballet dancer, does being American also exclude one from being an excellent ballet teacher?  If so, someone needs to look in a mirror, fast.

Now don’t get me wrong: everything Conrad said may in fact be true.  But if it is, there is an overwhelming amount of information out there that conflicts with his opinions, and we can’t just take his word and shrug off the rest.  If he is expecting that, he is expecting too much.

I used to have a lot of faith in Conrad, even though I questioned him locating his school/office/whatever it is in southern California — never a well-known bastion of classical ballet.  I think some of his present frustration with U.S. ballet may stem from that, although I’m keenly aware of the pain-in-the-butt system we have here of ballet companies run, essentially, by socialites and overpaid P.R. representatives, as well as our lack of a coherent training system (outside of the New York City Ballet, whose entire existence kinda blows a small hole in Conrad’s theories about the natural inferiority of American dancers).  Yes, the training system, or lack thereof, is the result of too many decisions made by private enterprise, and the fact that we have never had government support of ballet.  Ballet, after all, is rather socialist, kind of like the military.  You can accomplish a lot of things in the free market, but fostering a great dance company for centuries is not one of them.

That brings us to the issue of Baryshnikov and ABT…but that’s for another post.  For now let’s leave it at this: Natalia Makarova accomplished in one production (La Bayadere), what Baryshnikov could not in nearly 9 years as artistic director of the company.  Just think about that for a moment.

But, enough.  The point is this: the things Conrad has said are extreme and cannot be accepted at face value.  We need an explanation.

 

Joy Womack Joins the Bolshoi, and “Scandal” July 18, 2012

Someone commented on this entry and I approved the comment, but then it disappeared.  My apologies for whatever happened.  All I can say is that it’s Mercury Retrograde time again, if you believe in that stuff.

Anyway, Joy Womack starts her professional journey in August with the Bolshoi.  I wish her the best.

Article with video here.

There are now two U.S. Americans in the Bolshoi and one (that I know of)  in the Maryinsky.  As I suspect that many if not most of my readers are young, I have to tell the gentle reader that one cannot imagine how hard it is for me to wrap my head around this.  Back in my day, studying at the hallowed Russian ballet schools was out of the question for those of us in the west.  No one even thought of an American dancing with either the Bolshoi or the Maryinsky (Kirov).  It just didn’t happen.  Heck, I’m half Russian and have relatives there whom I have never met.  Back in the day we used to try to send them things, and finally they wrote back that it was all being stolen, (of course they did not use the word “stolen”), so please don’t bother anymore.  My uncle did visit Russia when it was still the U.S.S.R., but was made as uncomfortable as possible during his stay.  This was not by our relatives, but by other people there.

There were insurmountable walls back then.  Really insurmountable.

Eric Conrad believes that cold hard cash may be more responsible for bringing the ballet part of the wall down than anything else.  See his vlog: Scandal at the Bolshoi.  His take on David Hallberg joining the Bolshoi is extreme, but may be true.  He doesn’t say much about Joy Womack; then again, she actually trained at the Bolshoi’s academy (in the Russian class) for the past three years.  If he tried to say that she or the Maryinsky’s Keenan Kampa (who also trained in the Russian class) are not properly trained, as he does about Hallberg, I’d have some rather severe questions. (Viewing the vlog again, I have to add that it seems he may be a little confused about Womack’s and Kampa’s status at their respective Russian academies.)

As it is, I do have one question: what is the worth of bringing a supposedly unworthy American dancer to the Bolshoi if there is no strong ballet culture in the U.S. that would be keenly interested and fork over money to watch him?  It would seem that you can’t make both claims at once.

I could chuckle that this seems to be the summer for extreme statements about dancers, but I admit that I did wonder why Hallberg was hired by the Bolshoi.  Companies in other parts of the world will hire anyone, no matter what their training, as long as they can do the tricks.  In Russia this has never been so in modern history — at least not that I’m aware of.  And then all of a sudden, there was the situation with Hallberg at the Bolshoi.  Why bring in a mature dancer, set in his ways with training foreign to the environment, when there are plenty of home-grown dancers they could develop?   (Do look at Conrad’s vlog.)

Another thing: according to one source, about which I have already written, Oxana Skorik’s rise through the ranks at the Maryinsky has also been cause for considerable consternation; the feeling is that if the film A Beautiful Tragedy had never been made, she would not be in this position because she is a bad, or at least ill-trained dancer.  As I just mentioned, one Russian vlogger went out of his way to make her look bad and offered theories about dark conspiracies at the top of the Russian ballet world, and higher-ups groping for Western money, as the villains of the melodrama. This does tie in a bit to Conrad’s claims about Hallberg, but again…A Beautiful Tragedy was and is known only to a minority in the U.S., so if the Maryinsky has promoted Skorik in a search for U.S. dollars, it’s a pretty bad marketing choice.  If she really is that inept, word will get around even in the ballet-barren West, and all memories of images of a poor little bullied, anorexic ballet student in Perm will quickly fade among whatever small number of ballet fans we have.

In other words, we do recognize a bad dancer when we see one — even if she has been the subject of a documentary.

All that said, I have to admit — as I have already, frequently — that I am no expert.  Apparently because I am not an expert, in Conrad’s estimation I should keep my mouth shut if I disagree with him even slightly.  BUT, remember that this blog is mostly the personal opinions of a life-long ballet fan who took a long break and came back to discover a changed world (of ballet).  As I’ve stressed before (and had someone freak out about before), these are my opinions, not necessarily cold hard facts, and I have a right to say what I want.  I am exercising that right here and will continue to do so.

On another subject, take a look at some adult students of Bolshoi Academy teacher Ilya Kuznetsov in the video below.  Mind you I don’t have any idea how much training these women had before reaching adulthood, but still, this video does show the possibilities (with good training, of course) for those of us beyond the age where we can consider becoming professional ballerinas.  It’s very inspiring.

adult ballerinas

Conrad has an adult ballet training course on video; you can find it on his blog: Black Swan Fitness.

 

The State of Things: Ballet Training in the U.S. September 14, 2011

First off, I’m no authority.  But I have been witness to the outright discrimination U.S.-trained dancers have endured in major companies in the U.S. (most notably ABT, which was well-known for such things back when I was paying keen attention — in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, although things apparently have changed a a bit since).

The same old charges stand: U.S.-bred dancers are fat, lazy, and can’t hold a turnout.

I’ve already said my piece about the “fat” charge: I’d rather see a modestly fleshed-out human being than a dancing skeleton.  Of course, pervasive chubbiness and/or outright obesity are quite another matter, and I’ll discuss that in this article.

As for “lazy,” well, the field is so competitive that I honestly can’t see any kid who refuses to work her ass off getting hired by a major company, or lasting very long if she does get hired.  I did fairly recently see an observation in a newspaper that a foreign-trained corps dancer kept working and working  while compatriots around her rested (was the hint that this rendered her superior?).  All I can say is that she reportedly did the same thing before  she went abroad for advanced training.  Further, one must rest, especially in dance where one is on one’s feet all day and often well into the night.  After all, wearing-out problems occur even in the young.

I’d also like to point out that the schools that are heralded as being the greatest in the world are all state-run.  The U.S. has no state-run ballet schools.  This sort of leads into the “can’t hold a turnout” thing.

Just recently, within the past decade, did we start hearing of very determined and talented U.S. dancers heading for Russia for training.  A few have made it into the exclusive Russians-only incubators where potential prima ballerinas are nurtured.  The one who is probably the youngest of the few I’ve heard about must be currently in her last year of training at the Bolshoi’s school.  She’s been injured a bit, but video clips of her show her to be promising.  I’ve heard that she was selected to dance the lead in a major school performance (her partner in this performance was also American), which perhaps indicates that there’s more to her than I have seen in video clips — if this was not, in fact, a segregated “foreign students” production.  This girl is intending to stay in Russia, or at least she was.  We’ll see.

Back in the U.S., with its patchwork of ballet schools, all we have to judge from currently is a hodgepodge of YouTube videos from adoring mommies and self-adoring teenagers.  In looking at those videos, you’ll see that some of the youngsters seem promising but many do not.  A few are downright chubby, even to my eyes, and many more just don’t have much turnout or other signs of proper training.

A Russian-trained American choreographer, Eric Conrad, seems to feel that our very system of training (or lack thereof) is based on fundamental misunderstandings of the way ballet actually works.  He feels that ballet education in this country needs to be corrected and codified if our dancers are ever to reach the heights of the major Russian dancers.  Of course this is a tough sell in an age where some American primas and premiers find themselves in demand by European and even Russian companies.  But as for the training question in general, he may be right.  However, I fear it will never work here.

We do, of course, have excellent schools.  The School of American Ballet is always at the top of the list; ABT’s fairly new Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School…well, the jury is still out, but I am glad they now have an actual school.  There are contenders such as the Kirov Academy, Boston Ballet School and the Joffrey Academy (and the older Joffrey Ballet School, no longer affiliated with the Joffrey Ballet), as well as several smaller academies across the nation.  But without state support, I guess, there is only so much these schools can do.  Certainly there is no set system that they all share, and this problem eventually shows up on stages across the country.

In the U.S., at least in my day, turnout was viewed as being difficult, unnatural, and optional.  In Britain, Russia and France, it is everything.  If you do not have turnout, you are not a ballet dancer.  Period.  I daresay that turnout is the result not only of training but of very determined selection and nurturing of the kind that can only happen in a state-run school where money isn’t a primary concern.  As a result of this kind of training, the Russians (and the French) have a distinctive “look” about them.  So do the British.

I’m wandering here, but overall, I do believe that the answer is state-run schools with codified curricula.  There’s also the necessary cruelty of exclusion that we are lacking at all but the highest levels (at which time it’s usually too late to correct any other deficiencies); as an example, with the Marines, if you don’t have the physical goods, you don’t get to be a Marine.  It’s necessarily the same with ballet.  The problem is that we don’t support ballet.  We don’t value it.

In Russia and France, kids get booted out of ballet school for the most minor of shortcomings (the French encourage their ballet students to pursue higher education in addition to ballet, in recognition of the fact that most students never make it into a company; the Russians do not make allowances for this).  Many U.S. students would be considered hopelessly obese to Russian or French eyes and probably would never make it through the starting gate at any of their schools.

Here, however, if you so much as hint that a child is chubby, her parents fly into a rage.  Conrad seems to feel that correct training could eliminate some of the bulges, but again, there is no one idea of correct training here, and of course we have a lot of kids who are just plain fat, and even proper training would only result in toned fat.  Sometimes you just have a kid who is too fat, or at least too big-boned, to enter ballet school.  But there is no one here who will say “no.”  They can’t, because they need money to keep their schools open.

Back in my figure skating days, there was one mother with a horrifyingly obese little girl (who nonetheless could do figure skating moves well enough to pass tests and enter competitions).  The mom fed this kid McDonalds as a reward for practice even as she whined about organizations such as the USFSA “discriminating” against her daughter because she was fat.  That’s the sort of thing we have to contend with here, and we have no politically correct way of handling it.  Kids are flawless and their fat is sacred.

Whatever.  It’s all probably not even worth mentioning in a country that is arguing whether or not to allow everyone equal access to such basics as housing and healthcare.   But I wish Conrad all the luck in the world nonetheless. Ballet in the U.S. could use his ideas, even if implementing them properly isn’t feasible.

 

 
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