The Born-Again Balletomane's Blog

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The perfect (US) American Ballerina, and other things February 2, 2017

A comment from the previous post inspired this post.  The contributor was talking about how Russian dancers, viewed in person and not on video, always seem so light.

That got me thinking about U.S. dancers and what they are in general.

Comments from Russian dancers who have danced with American companies generally run like this: “the dancers are not very classical, but are very versatile.”  (This is actually based on a comment made by one currently-famous Russian ballerina who, although revered and renowned, is not known to be perfectly classical herself.)

Time will tell if the JKO school will transform ABT into a cradle of classicism.  The corps was famously messy in past decades (Natalia Makarova had to teach a late-1970’s ABT corps how to hold a turnout for the Kingdom of the Shades scene), but reviews in recent years indicate a complete turnaround.  ABT’s corps is now considered one of the most disciplined in the world.  Decades ago, no one would ever have guessed that to be possible.

We still wait to see the effect this will eventually have on the roster of principals.  Among the current principals I can find two who are verifiably completely American: Gillian Murphy and Misty Copeland.  Both are strong and athletic rather than ethereal and light.

Personally (and I think this sums up my entire attitude toward her), I didn’t care for Murphy’s Odile, which I thought was a painfully slutty and cheap portrayal, kind of like Mae West rather than Mata Hari.  But the fact is that Murphy has fans the world over who don’t see a thing wrong with her.  I guess I can’t argue with that.  I’m just not a big fan.

Then there’s Misty Copeland, who some criticize as being the product of marketing and very little else (pay attention, Joy Womack!).  I find that she’s a perfectly acceptable prima, but at this point not a great one. The fact that she was not promoted for so many years has cut into her development possibilities as well.  Then again, the Maryinsky’s workhorse, Kondourova, was promoted late and thrives in her newfound prima role.

The fact that ABT has been looking at Copeland as a prima possibility since she joined them says great things for her.  I just wish she would show more versatility (maybe she isn’t being allowed to?).

That said, she is the dancer who currently is doing the most wonders for ballet among the general public in the U.S., who are normally numb to any dance more artsy than what they see on Dancing with the Stars.  That is to say that she’s great for publicity, and that makes her valuable aside from her obvious historical impact.

Some people probably think that I should look at the New York City Ballet for the perfect American ballerina, rather than at ABT.  They’re probably right…and I would, except that NYCB seems to have about 30 principals, and they seem interchangeable.  That may be a product of the Balanchine era (he was anti-star, after all), although the funny thing is that the Balanchine era produced many, many highly individualistic stars — much to Balanchine’s chagrin.  In the 1960’s and ’70’s and somewhat into the ’80’s and ’90’s, there were NYCB ballerinas who were so unique that they were irreplaceable.  The principals they have now, by contrast, seem to be made on an assembly line and then sent through advanced quality control.

Of course I’ve never been a huge Balanchine or NYCB fan, and I’m sure I’ll catch hell for saying this.  He did, after all, create the only truly American school by drawing from his Russian background and adapting it to American dancers, much as Ninette de Valois helped create the British school by combining several European and Russian schools.  (The JKO school has developed its own curriculum in cooperation with ABT, but the full impact will not be evident for a few more years, so right now there’s really no competition for SAB’s accomplishments.)

Still, the SAB school and NYCB do not seem to be producing anything other than technically dazzling, but otherwise cookie-cutter dancers.  And what do I see in them?  Stunning musicality, tremendous athleticism, and…

I’ll think about it a while.

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One Response to “The perfect (US) American Ballerina, and other things”

  1. I actually really like Misty when she is doing contemporary, but I feel that a principal should be able to do all the classic roles (Odette/Odile, Kitri, Giselle etc)

    I never followed ABT until I moved to NYC a few years ago, so I am not as familiar with its history. But in regards to the corps, I can see how it can be a mess when training is so varied.


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