The Born-Again Balletomane's Blog

Just another site about the love of ballet

On the lighter side July 26, 2012

Filed under: ballerina,ballet — theworstat @ 5:28 am
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Having spent the last few posts dealing with darkness and scandal, or at least bitching and moaning, I’ve decided to give my readers a funny little reprieve.  Watch French and Saunders give a very young Darcey Bussell and her boss, Anthony Dowell, some silly hell about something. (Click on French and Saunders.)


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.


A strange little video July 17, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — theworstat @ 5:39 pm
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Actually this is just part 1 of 2, but…it just gets stranger.

Bolshoi 1967

The way the girl talks in the beginning, some people making remarks on YouTube thought she had been in the corps for 10 years.  It sure does sound that way.  But I think what is meant was that she and all the other “swans” in the dressing room at the time had all just graduated from the school together and gone into the Bolshoi together.  That in itself is odd: there look to be quite a few girls in the dressing room and later in the video it’s stated that each beginner class has only about 15 aspirants.  By the time graduation would roll around, at least half of them would have quit or been shown the door long before.  So there may be too many girls in the dressing room for that statement.  I also wonder if the Bolshoi has ever accepted entire classes of graduates into the company together.  Perhaps in the old days they did; I do recall long ago hearing something about the Russian schools putting their students on different career tracks: some were trained to become soloists, some were trained for the corps.  I have no idea if this is completely true, though.  I rather doubt it, although I do know that the tiny classes of graduating girls and boys in the Russian academies nowadays are definitely trained for soloist work, whether they ever actually become soloists (or even manage to get jobs) or not.

There are also way too many dancers in the “class” scenes if one considers the stringent entrance requirements and the inevitable attrition.

But it gets even stranger:  the principals dance for the corps’ amusement in full costume with a full orchestra in a rehearsal hall?  Uh-huh.  Sure.

All in all, it’s very, very weird.  But if you are interested in a rose-colored slice of ballet history, from a time when the goings-on in the old U.S.S.R. were a mystery to us in the west, watch this.  There may be a few grains of truth in the film, but I’ll bet 9/10’s of it is fantasy.  It’s interesting anyway.

And the thought occurs that it may contain more accurate information than does Breaking Pointe.


Trashing Ballet (West) July 7, 2012

Filed under: ballerina,ballet — theworstat @ 2:45 pm
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People who know me know that ballet is just one of my passions.  Another is storm chasing.  People who know me know that reality TV is one of my aversions.  And now, people who like ballet and storm chasing know why reality TV is one of my aversions.

For those reading in countries other than the U.S., here’s the deal: in recent years, the Discovery Channel ran a series called Storm Chasers, which was about the trials and tribulations of three teams of chasers in the U.S.  It started out okay, but gradually disintegrated into being about interpersonal squabbles, flashy storm-chasing gear, and finally someone’s girlfriend.  Actually they tried to put two pretty girls into the show; one lasted a few episodes and the other barely 5 minutes.  Actual storm-chasing women — and there are some — were not acknowledged.  I’m guessing this is because few of them are Hollywood-pretty enough.

Yes, they tried to sugar-coat it all as “science” and “saving lives,” but the trash kept rising to the surface.  Finally the show got canceled late last year.

But the damage was done.  Real-life chasers are now dealing with unprecedented “chaser convergence” at every storm; the roads are filled with naive newbies looking for fame and getting in the way instead.  And threats to the lives of chasers who were not on Storm Chasers have been a real and frightening addition to the hazards chasers already face on the road.  How did that happen?  Well, you see, the TV-drugged newbies are convinced that any chaser who was not featured on the show must be in the way of any chaser who was, and the death penalty seems like an apt punishment to some of these idiots.

And now there is a ballet reality show, Breaking Pointe.  Thankfully this cannot lead to a legion of fake dancers seeking fame and soap opera, but it doesn’t do ballet much good anyway.

What’s it about?  Allegedly it’s Ballet West, a Utah-based company that has been around for decades and has a strong reputation.  It is not one of the great companies of the world, but considering its size (the company is tiny; only about 35 dancers), and some of the teachers it manages to attract, it’s an excellent regional company — sort of a pint-sized version of the San Francisco Ballet.

But now CW TV is trashing it by concentrating not on the dancing, but on every bland soap-opera thread they can manage to inject.  The end result is that the show is more about boyfriends and girlfriends breaking up and then kissing and making up than with anything interesting, or anything that has the slightest thing to do with ballet.  Yes, professional problems are somewhat addressed, but not with any understanding of the subject.  They are all washed over with the same damp cloth.  It’s like, OOOOO, Suzie is upset with the conductor’s tempo!  And 3 seconds later: Okay, let’s move on to Mary Suzie (reader pointed out it’s the same girl) and Michael’s romance!  And that part drags on for 15 minutes or more before it (of course) ends with tears.

One gets the impression that the producers of this show neither know nor care much about ballet, which was precisely the same problem with Storm Chasers, where the producers would probably have looked for tornadoes in Antarctica** if no one had told them that tornadoes are far more likely in Oklahoma.  But then they got the idea that there is a strictly-defined “storm chasing season” which makes or breaks a storm chaser’s entire year….oh well.  Let’s just summarize by saying that the show was a stupid mess, as is Breaking Pointe.

If you want to see a good show about the lives of dancers, get hold of a copy of the documentary Ballerina and watch that.  It’s gritty, and it focuses on the dancing.  This is what I was expecting from Breaking Pointe, but did not get.

In short, don’t bother with Breaking Pointe.  Just keep your fingers crossed that it doesn’t ultimately destroy Ballet West.

** click on this link:  TORNADOES  for more information on how many tornadoes there are in Antarctica