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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A Whole New ABT? January 27, 2017

I admit I hadn’t looked closely at ABT’s website in a long time, in terms of checking out dancer biographies.  What I learned when I checked today was pretty eye-opening:

— Most of the corps dancers appear to be JKO trained, and/or ballet competition medalists.  This is unprecedented.  Just a few years ago, a fair number of them were former principal dancers from small companies around the U.S and the world, and the rest came from scattered schools around the U.S.  I remember back in the days of the Russian defectors, Soviet-era corps dancers were apparently being told that a corps dancer in, say, the Kirov would automatically be a principal at ABT.  Ugly surprise, they too found themselves languishing in the corps at ABT.  One tried to go back to the Soviet Union and was whisked away in a car when he landed, and was never seen again.  Tragic.  But the point of the story is that at one point, the corps at ABT was a life sentence for just about everyone, particularly if they were U.S.-born and bred.  A few would make it to soloist, of course, but almost no one made it to principal.  That’s still true — it’s true in all major companies — but at least now many of the principals started out in the soloist or corps level at ABT.  Now there’s hope.  Back in the day, there wasn’t much.

That said, according to what Womack said in her video, ABT corps members are still complaining about all the guest artists getting in the way of promotions and performance opportunities.  Currently there is only one guest artist listed on ABT’s website, and she is the semi-retired Alessandra Ferri.

–Several of the principals entered the company as soloists (from smaller companies like Boston Ballet), but a more than a few others came up through the ranks at ABT.  Believe me, this is an ENORMOUS change from the way things used to be at ABT.  Obviously there are still a few who are entirely foreign-trained, and there’s only one “international superstar” if you don’t count home-grown David Hallberg — and she’s apparently retiring from ABT this summer, although she is not ending her ballet career (Diana Vishneva).  I guess I might count the popular Maria Kochetkova in that category as well.  But still, the majority of the principals seem to have started at ABT either as soloists, or in an apparently growing number of cases, in the corps.

–Most of the soloists appear to have come up through the ranks at ABT.  I haven’t gone through all the bios yet, but one is a former principal from another country who spent an astonishing fourteen years in the corps before becoming a soloist.  At least two others actually came from the JKO school; I’d thought it was still too early in the day for that — the JKO school is just not that old — but I guess not.  Several others are former ABT summer intensive students and came to the company through the former ABT Studio Company (now ABT II).

All in all, it looks like ABT is putting their money where their mouth is as regards the JKO school, and developing their own dancers.  Like I said, it’s a huge departure from the way things were back in the day.  The dancers who are complaining now…well, they weren’t even born then.  But believe me, things can be worse.

P.S. Here in Chicago, the Joffrey has totally turned over the management of the Joffrey Academy (not to be confused with the Joffrey Ballet School in New York, which is not affiliated with the Joffrey Academy or with the Joffrey Ballet).  Don’t know specifically why that happened, but the company had been seeming to hire dancers from anywhere but its own Academy in the past (to be fair, the Academy has only been in existence for about 6 years).  The AD of the Joffrey is now also the head of the Academy, so that may change.  Stay tuned…