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.

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2 Responses to “This is risky, but…”

  1. AlineS Says:

    Just about something you commented, the russian companies needing money. I might be wrong, it was just an idea… I’ve been thinking about the Oksana Skorik dilemma and the reason why the artistic director of the Mariinsky would put such an unstable girl to dance big roles like Odette/Odille and Giselle. Couldn’t it be an strategy to get more audience, being Oksana already known for the film A Beautiful Tragedy? Everyone gets curious about what the poor girl has become… what do you think?

    • theworstat Says:

      Absolutely, but my question is…who are they aiming this publicity ploy at? If it is the U.S. audience, I have to believe that very few people have heard of, let alone seen, “A Beautiful Tragedy.” So there is no advantage there except among a select few who love ballet already.

      I don’t know. Perhaps the film has been seen in Russia and so they are trying to cater to the Russian audience and say, “look, everything’s okay with her now?” I know there are questions, at least in the west, about the weight of some Russian dance students and professional dancers. Perhaps pushing this (you said “unstable,” and it’s a very good description) girl so far so fast, when she is clearly not ready, is viewed by some as an answer to that.


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