I’m sure my regular commentators have noted that a few days ago Womack uploaded her first YouTude video in a long time, and that she is now absent from the Kremlin Ballet’s roster. As usual this video was so vague that I couldn’t tell which company she was talking about when she said she’d be a “guest artist;” she is not listed as such at the Kremlin (however, it could be that she is simply not yet signed for any performances as a guest artist), and is not yet listed in any capacity at the Universal, so I do not know which company she was talking about. Certainly it would seem a bit strange if it were the Kremlin, from which she seemed to be burning her bridges with abandon even as she agonized about leaving Russia, but she gave such mixed signals about that that it was hard to tell. She did not mention the Universal in her video, but has mentioned it elsewhere. There was also a brief mention of a “new coach from the Bolshoi,” which was interesting — why would the Kremlin assign her a new coach if she was leaving? Then again, the Universal has close Russian ties — many companies in southeast Asia seem to have those — so she may have been assigned someone to groom her for her new job at the Universal. As usual with Womack, who knows? Stay tuned.
Gender roles/ballet/being tall/other things October 16, 2017
“There is no such thing as equality in ballet” (as regards gender roles) — Alexei Ratmansky
“The ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener.” — George Balanchine
(Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/g/georgebala146229.html)
“Everyone’s looking at her, anyway…” — Anthony Dowell
“Ballet celebrates masculine strength and feminine flexibility” — some kids’ encyclopedia, early 1960’s.
Gender has become a scary subject to approach; anything you say can be blasted endlessly — and will be — by total strangers who know neither you nor your circumstances. In the end you can wind up being the kid on the playground that nobody will talk to, and often you will have little idea which verbal mine you stepped on because there are so many.
However, any community needs agreed-upon realities. So let’s agree that sexuality aside, traditional ballet tends toward two physical genders. Okay? Thank you.
Now, is that right or wrong? Generally, it is right in traditional ballet. Ballet is not verbal, it is visual. The vast majority of its public don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out who is what in each ballet, nor do they want to. They are there for the beauty of the movement and for the story being told.
Modern ballet is different. The big thing now in ultra-modern ballets seems to be, “let’s have a nebulous situation such as “violence,” and have a bunch of bodies wobbling around and rolling on the floor when they aren’t climbing all over each other.” Everything and everyone ends up looking very much the same no matter what the subject when you approach it that way, and gender is indeed no big deal.
Back to the subject of gender in more traditional ballets: need everything be so rigid? Probably not. But the eye has to be trained, and it can’t happen overnight.
That said, I don’t support Ratmansky’s statement totally, nor do I support Balanchine’s. Balanchine’s attitude was born of a millennia of sexism and misogyny. Should he be blasted for this? Yes and no; it was all he knew, but it must also be pointed out that he may have saved the ballerina during the 1960’s through early 1980’s rise in male dominance in ballet — an era in which Nureyev had the temerity to try to make Swan Lake entirely about Prince Sigfried (leading to perhaps the most spare and boring production of Swan Lake in history, even though the POB continues to worship it), and Baryshnikov tried to focus The Nutcracker almost entirely on the Nutcracker Prince (stamping out that ballet’s signature character, the Sugar Plum Fairy, in the process; if I remember correctly, her centerpiece variation is danced by Clara, who is wearing a glittery nightgown rather than an elegant tutu).
What happened to Giselle? Nothing that I remember, since the entire point of the story is Giselle’s forgiveness saving Albrecht’s life. Both of the main characters are transformed in the plot — one can’t dominate the other in that regard no matter how hard you try to change things around. The ballet may be called “Giselle,” but it’s a two-person show. It’s the same with “La Bayadere,” which is essentially the same story.
No one tried to tamper with The Sleeping Beauty, either — thank goodness, because that could have gotten ugly. That story seems sexist at its base; however, the Prince who saves the day in that story is not really an active player and can’t have any dominance in the ballet no matter how you might try to rearrange things. He just saves the day because he’s a guy. I say this while recognizing the power of the Lilac Fairy in the narrative, since she’s the one cast that spell to begin with.
As for Ratmansky, he’s right as far as the classical ballets as performed by your usual ballet company are concerned. I’ve seen Swan Lake performed entirely by men, but one went into those performances knowing that this would be the case. Makes a difference.
I guess the question here is whether traditional gender roles need to be continued, should a major modern narrative ballet ever be created. I’m not talking about new productions, I’m talking about entirely new ballets (Alice in Wonderland comes to mind, but I’m thinking more of a brand-new ballet based on a modern story). Again we go back to the visual cues thing because it is a consideration. Do the girls need to be ethereal and the boys strong? Maybe not. Hard to tell, not knowing the story.
Which kind of brings me to the subject of very tall dancers. When I was dancing decades ago, girls had to be small and light — otherwise they would not be hired. There was a huge worry that skyscraper-tall women, especially when on pointe, would out-height their shorter partners and it would look funny because, you know, girls have to be shorter than guys. There was also this theory that it was very hard to find tall male dancers, as shorter men danced better.
5’5″ was the female height limit in most U.S. companies; the only exceptions were the New York City Ballet and Ballet West, where some of the women were nearly six feet tall. A comment by a reader long ago on this blog mentioned that her daughter, a ballet dancer, was very tall and was having trouble finding a job in the U.S. I remember being shocked at this; I was under the impression that the last push for tiny dancers had been during Baryshnikov’s reign as AD of American Ballet Theater. (In fact, when Baryshnikov briefly joined the NYCB, Balanchine went out of his way to put him in his short-guy place.)
During Baryshnikov’s tenure I remember passing outside the stage door after an ABT performance in Chicago, and being struck by the numbers of minuscule dancers waddling out the door past me, tossing disdainful looks behind them. I had honestly never seen so many tiny adult humans in my life, not even in ballet class.
Then the other day I happened across a story about one Sara Murawski, a very tall dancer whose height apparently cost her a job (and for some reason she was told about it as she was heading out on stage to give a performance). She’s now one of two principal dancers of a brand-new company, the American National Ballet, which says that it will celebrate diversity among its dancers. As they only have two right now, it’s a bit hard to tell where they’re going with this — but I’m guessing Murawski’s height got her in, as well as her dancing.
This pushed the point home to me that the height problem is still a big one in U.S. companies (and in the U.K.’s Royal Ballet). I guess since my first exposure upon my return to ballet-fandom had been to the Russian companies, where height, height, and more height is worshiped, I hadn’t realized that tall female ballet dancers in the U.S. still face obstacles.
But yet they do. And yes, it all ties back to gender roles and just plain old sexism in those old ballets.
Like I said, should that be carried over into modern-day stories? Probably not. But is it necessary in the old stories? Certainly the Russians have inadvertently proven that the height issue is not an issue (unless you cast a 5’10” dancer as Clara/Maria in the Nutcracker). But the sexism/gender rigidity? It’s right there in the stories. Not much you can do about it.
P.S. — when I was first exposed to traditional tarot cards, I was shocked by the sexism they displayed. Men depicted in the cards did, and still do, represent one set of characteristics and women quite another. Not surprisingly, women’s roles tend to be slightly negative, as are the cards associated with femininity (such as The Moon). So you see that this is a deeply-ingrained prejudice that ballet is not equipped to tackle by itself. Our entire society needs to do it.
TwinTalksBallet gets to yell “BINGO” October 12, 2017
Twintalksballet talks about the differences between students and professionals.
Great Expectations Meet Reality October 10, 2017
We’ve been discussing the role of competitions in the ballet world recently; as you have probably noticed, I take a rather dim view of the matter.
I just got finished watching a video made by a major competitive school in the U.S. southwest (yes! the business of ballet competitions has grown to the point where there are schools that seem to concentrate on producing top competitors!). I won’t say anything bad about this particular school because if you’re looking to become a champion in ballet competitions, they certainly seem able to help. I watched a video of one of their classes and it featured a few of the longest and most intricate barre exercises I’ve ever seen (as I watched I thought, “cripes are these barre exercises or mini ballets?”); some of the exercises performed by advanced students at the Vaganova Academy seem almost simple in comparison.
The students looked pretty sound technically. There seemed to be some slipping turnouts, though, and they could use a lot more emphasis on port de bras — but those issues were hardly major considering the apparent ages of the most talented dancers, who seemed to be just barely into their teens. Lots of time to correct that stuff (assuming they all have the potential to turn out 180 degrees to begin with). Also I’d say that although this school seems to be concentrating on producing competitors, they aren’t wasting the kids’ time in terms of ballet education. Some of these kids definitely have the possibility of moving on to professional careers if the competitive circuit doesn’t burn them out before they’re old enough.
This school has been posting bio videos of their star dancers recently, and they seem to have quite a few. In fact, in the recent past Gisele Bethea was at that school, as was Robbie Downey — a competitor who has come to the end of her pre-professional career and will now be looking for a job starting in January.
Bethea is an anomaly — she was actually offered a position at ABT a few years back, while she was still in high school. Downey’s career is a little more typical of how things go in real life, even for top competitors: they age out of the kiddie comps and find themselves auditioning…and then, if they’re lucky, they end up in the corps of some company somewhere. The great expectations gained by winning medals tend to tarnish a bit when you hit 18 and are faced with the way things go once you’ve grown up.
Anyway, as I said, this school now has several more very young dancers making the rounds of the competitions and doing well. The latest video showed a young teen showing off not only her gold medal, but her competition tutus, which of course were all carefully and expensively handmade. A few of them didn’t fit her anymore. The previous video also showed an obviously very affluent young lady who had her own ballet studio in her home. She was cheerfully complaining that the mirror in the studio was now too low for her (the studio was built for her when she was six; she’s now something like thirteen).
It got me to thinking about the expense of it all, and the unfortunate parallel to figure skating — which is a sport first and an art (a distant) second.
Figure skating used to be a sport reserved for affluent young ladies and men — the sons and daughters of the country club set. It has always been expensive both in terms of money and in terms of time. There was an era when only the wealthy could afford it. This limited the talent pool quite a bit; even so, U.S. skaters generally did well in international competitions. This ongoing success kept the status quo in place for decades, as there was no need to look for skaters who would burden the governing body by needing financial assistance. In fact, less-than-wealthy skaters often found themselves almost literally frozen out of the sport. No one wanted them there.
But suddenly in 1961, the USFSA had to find a lot new talent fast when the entire U.S. World Team died in a plane crash. Quickly the USFSA did what it was forced to do — with an eye toward extending the talent pool, it sought to make figure skating more welcoming to less-affluent skaters. It changed the culture of U.S. figure skating; almost overnight, the rarefied and exclusive world of Dick Button and Carol Heiss vanished as a kid from a trailer park, Peggy Fleming, rose to become the next US Olympic gold medalist just 7 years later.
Oddly enough, while the USFSA succeeded at doing this by offering financial assistance and outreach programs, the sport itself never became less expensive. If anything, it got worse. For example, costumes these days can cost thousands of dollars (before the 1980’s, costumes were not expensive); music rights and editing are also costly; choreographers charge $20,000+ to create one program (you need two for a competitive season)…and we won’t even talk about the price of a good coach; however, certain skaters receive assistance from the USFSA for that particular expense. And we can’t forget that skaters require at least one new pair of boots/blades a season (it used to be two in the days of compulsory figures), and competitive-type skates — and their upkeep — aren’t cheap. And then there’s ice time and travel and….
In the end, the vast majority of skaters have retired by the time they’re in their mid to late teens — if not before. Most of them can’t master the now insanely-high competitive requirements (very different from testing requirements) before they age out at various levels; besides that, there is simply nowhere else to go. There is no professional competition circuit anymore (the pro comps that did exist, existed only briefly) and most ice shows are cheesy at best. Figure skating is shrinking, crushed by the weight of expenses incurred by each individual skater as opposed to what they can expect to earn — which is, in most cases, nothing. The sport may someday disappear because of that.
I thought of this as I watched the very affluent young lady showing off her custom-made competition tutus, two of which no longer fit her. It also put me in mind of some Irish dancers I used to know.
The careers of all but a handful of Irish dancers are over by the time they graduate high school — of thousands of dancers who enter competitions each year, maybe one will get a professional job and a few more will end up teaching — which is even worse than the odds of employment in ballet. For most, Irish dance is a competitive sport. You age out of competitions when you enter college and that’s that.
Irish dance isn’t cheap, either. You have to consider the cost of training and travel and entries into competitions, of course…but what a lot of people don’t know about is just how damn expensive those dresses and wigs are. We’re talking about thousands of dollars.
And it all goes nowhere in the end. At 18, you’re gone.
Could this happen in ballet? It could, but if it is on the horizon, that horizon is still a long way off. Thank goodness for that…but the question is how to keep it from ever being an option.
The goal is to keep business from taking over ballet. Business feeds on the competitions, because competitions are businesses themselves quite like beauty pageants are. Of course, ballet companies are also businesses — but they are businesses that exist for the sake of art rather than massive profits. Therein lies the difference.
It would seem that most ADs are resisting turning former competition kids into instant ballet stars and instead are viewing competitions as a sort of advanced class from which to choose new talent that can be developed, just as they would view a kid who just graduated from a traditional ballet academy. That’s for the good of the art even if it causes temporary pain to those kids who thought they would be instant primas because they have a closet-full of gold medals.
What must never be forgotten is that art that is what ballet is at its heart. The moment that goes by the wayside, there will be no more ballet. There will be just meaningless movement, yet another sport that will grow ever more expensive and unmanageable as more and more entities seek to profit from the competitors. And in the end, even that will die.
Rudeness October 7, 2017
One of the comments made on a recent article here prompted this: the commentator said something to the effect of, “she has auditioned with many companies…it’s something they see at the barre that stops them from hiring her.” (Not a direct quote.)
Fast forward to this morning, when I happened upon a video of the Royal Ballet class made during the recent World Ballet Day. Was struck by the simplicity of the early exercises, as I wish my own past teachers had done that, lol. They were so basic even I could remember them; not only that, but I noted that even professional dancers sometimes suffer from flying heels during tendus. Made me feel better.
But then one of the announcers said something that jumped out at me, “class is a very personal time for the dancers.”
Indeed it is. This may be why Womack’s co-workers at the Kremlin Ballet got so bent out of shape about her videoing class. It definitely is true that she got the entire men’s contingent of the company into trouble by publicly sharing her video of the men’s class (specifically this was a class in which many of them appeared to be just barely going through the motions if they were paying attention at all). It was after this incident that her very serious interpersonal problems at the Kremlin seemed to start and she began reporting other dancers’ objections to her posting videos of company classes. This is troll behavior, not professional behavior on her part, and in a way I don’t blame her co-workers for turning on her.
In one video of an ABT class she shared last spring, I noted that she kept doing fouettes long after her group had left the floor, and while the next group was waiting. Again, rude. Not done. Granted that was not an audition for her, but should she ever audition for ABT, that behavior will not be in her favor. And they will remember it even if she does not repeat it.
I also noted during World Ballet Day that there are a total of two members of the Bolshoi’s gigantic corps who have clickable bios on the company’s website. Both were featured in the Diamonds rehearsal during WBD. One has danced principal roles at La Scala in the past; the other quite recently graduated from the Bolshoi’s school. Thing is, they are both starting in the corps, as has Xenia Zhiganshina, who has been there for about 3 years. Remember, Womack refused to do this. I think it’s called shooting yourself in the foot; not a good thing in ballet.
Anyway, just some random thoughts on a rainy, miserable autumn day.
Another World Ballet Day… October 5, 2017
Let’s face it; there are only so many company classes you can watch. I watched the Australian Ballet, which started with a weird intro by two reps of aboriginal peoples there. This is going to be very incorrect, but I have to say that while I appreciate the horror of the grave injustices these peoples have suffered and continue to suffer, I don’t see the reason to kick off a day about ballet by having them make a statement. If anyone can clarify, let me know. It didn’t upset me, but it did make me think I was watching the wrong thing for a few minutes. That is to say that I don’t think it did them any justice.
The ballet mistress in the Australian Ballet class kept giving lots of corrections (and some praise), which was a big difference from the next class — the Bolshoi’s — in which I admit I didn’t know if there were any corrections because of course everything was in Russian. The teacher was very charismatic (and so was Maria Alexandrova, who was there and on camera a lot more than any of the current primas), and even pulled smiles out of some of the dour-faced Bolshoi dancers. Only Alexandrova smiled easily and often.
I did spot a few other primas. Obraztsova, who is hard to miss, is now drifting into her cherished-assoluta stage and really stole the show with a display of effortless elegance and dedication in the center. Actually, maybe it wasn’t so much a display of dedication than a display of what happens when you just are that way. She’s also incredibly tiny, but had such a huge presence among the big boys and girls that it didn’t matter at all.
Smirnova (if I picked her out correctly — I have been corrected by a commentator and it probably wasn’t her), looked every inch the haughty, forbidding ice princess; one gets the impression that she’s not much fun at parties. Stepanova, who seems a softer sort, is probably the most physically beautiful ballerina I’ve ever seen (now we know why Russianballetvideos fell in love with her!), but I didn’t see much of her center work. I thought I saw Zakharova but maybe I didn’t; she seemed to be the one in the down vest? (Turns out she was not.)
There was another tiny girl, who looked about 12, in a gray practice dress. She was incredible, but I couldn’t figure out who she was. Actually picking out anyone but Obraztsova, Alexandrova, and Stepanova was tricky; one girl I thought I picked out, Chinara Alizade, had actually long since disappeared from the Bolshoi roster along with many other soloists, it seems. A brief bit of research revealed that she has moved on to the Polish National Ballet where she is now a principal.
Denis Rodkin, by the way, is very dishy. (Giving into my inner cougar here.)
By the time the Bolshoi class was drawing to a close it was nearly 3:00 a.m. here, and way past my bedtime, so I missed the Royal Ballet entirely. I’ll watch the video to see if they gave another stage performance rather than a class; last year, of all the companies, they seemed to be the most conscious of the presence of the camera.
I’m afraid that by the time they get to the National Ballet of Canada (where they are as I write) and the San Francisco Ballet, I’m so sick and tired of the whole thing that I stop watching. Maybe this whole affair would be better if they would just visit one or two companies a year? It’s a thought.
P.S. No pontificating from you-know-who about her personal leadership qualities and what she thinks her comrades at work should be doing in their off hours (working out, of course!), but I’m waiting. Then again, she has vanished once more and may currently be without a company while she waits to join the Universal Ballet. Who knows.