The Born-Again Balletomane's Blog

Just another site about the love of ballet

Susan Jaffe as Odile, 1999 February 22, 2017

Filed under: ballerina,Uncategorized — theworstat @ 7:22 am
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Never saw Susan Jaffe dance as a principal. Her tenure as an ABT prima ballerina came after I had stopped watching ballet, although she started in the ABT corps, and quickly made an impression on the dance world, during my last days as a balletomane in the 1980’s.

What follows probably isn’t the best video of her.  The music is frantic, the stage looks shrunken, and her shoes are annoyingly loud.  But I know a lot of people still treasure the memory of her dancing.  And so, enjoy:

Black Swan


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.


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…


Rose Adagios and New York, NY January 25, 2017

Went to YouTube last night and watched part of the Bolshoi’s Sleeping Beauty, which had initially been broadcast a few days before.  Olga Smirnova was Aurora…at least, she was dancing the role.  It’s always hard for me to get used to a Russian Aurora, since I’m  expecting that bubbly airhead and instead am faced with a stone-cold classicist who barely pays attention to her suitors unless one nearly drops her, or doesn’t quite get there in time during one of the balances.  Of course I’m kidding, but only just.

Smirnova was a quintessential Russian Aurora.  As Aurora gets more grown up as the ballet progresses ….I mean, she wakes up after something like 100 years…I’m sure Smirnova’s interpretation was just great by the end of the show.  But as it was, it seemed like she was taking class from a very strict teacher and wasn’t much worried about appearing to be a giddy teenager.

Whatever.  Sleeping Beauty puts me to sleep, anyway; it’s all those damn fairies.  Just when you think you’ve seen all the fairies it’s possible to behold…DAMN!  Another bloomin’ fairy.  It gets old very fast unless one is into looking closely at the soloists for future prima ballerina possibilities.

And on to other things…as ever, Joy Womack.  I wondered and wondered what was going on with her.  She left Russia in November and never went back except for one day — and that was to be her application day for a Russian green card.  Apparently she didn’t get one; she’s now stranded at her brother’s place in New York City, unable to return to Russia due to visa issues.

It’s turned out not to be such a bad thing.  Of course she probably won’t get an offer from ABT, as in one of her previous videos she didn’t really badmouth them, but she did mention that they do not generally promote their own dancers beyond soloist because they have so many guest artists.**  Not a great move if one is thinking of future job prospects; prospective employers generally don’t like to have their flaws pointed out.  But she’s taken class with them at least twice, so they’ve now seen her up close and personal.  And considering her newfound love for NYC…

…To be fair, she is not talking about joining ABT.  She’s having a ball taking classes at Steps on Broadway and is speaking almost like she works for Gaynor Minden.  What she did say about her future performing career was intriguing: she is thinking of “putting together a team,” whatever that means, and touring.

Judging from that, it sounds like she means to be a freelance ballerina.  Like I said, what she really meant by that remains to be seen.

It does sound like she is no longer obsessed with carrying on with her career in Russia (Katisized, you were right!).  It could be that she’s finally accepting the caustic reality that her situation there was never secure and didn’t look to improve beyond being a prima in a tiny company.  It could also be that she’s decided to look past Russia strictly because of the visa issue.  And it could also happen that when/if her visa finally comes through, all this NYC love will become a passing fancy and she’ll be back to trying to hammer her Russian dreams into reality, unhappy and drained as that seems to leave her.

I observed that she seems much, much happier right now than she’s ever been (almost like a giddy Aurora!) except for during one brief working trip to California a few years back.  If this is so, maybe there’s a message for her in that: forget your Russian dreams, kiddo; your bouquets are all right here at home.

Freelance possibilities aside, it would be most interesting to see her take a place in a U.S. company and watch how she looks in the same mirror as home-grown dancers.  Obviously if she got into ABT or the San Francisco Ballet, she would likely have to step down to soloist.  Would she be able to step up again?  That would be fascinating to see.  Plus, we would finally really get a chance to closely observe her dancing, live and in person on a steady basis, and make solid judgements based on that.

She is not famous for being clear about anything.  The only thing for certain right now is that she can’t go back to Russia at the moment, and maybe she shouldn’t even try.  There’s no use in continuing to try to build a house of cards, no matter how solid the foundation seems to be.

** That is true now, and has been for decades; it’s too early to tell whether having attended the JKO school will make any difference in an ABT corps member’s or soloist’s future, or if the company will ever stop relying so heavily on guests to fill out its principal roster if indeed it gets more than enough talented kids out of JKO.  It sure didn’t work with the previous ABT school, which folded in the early 1980’s — but then again, that school was never as serious and well-organized as JKO; it had no set ballet curriculum (the JKO school does), and no junior division to speak of; it consisted mainly of preprofessional classes, which may or may not have been open — meaning that anyone could attend (although I do remember seeing a call for auditions at that school).  The only really major dancer I can remember whose training was strongly attributed to that school was Fernando Bujones.  And I may not even be remembering that correctly.

Of course Womack never attended JKO, and she does not have enough standing as a prima ballerina to join ABT as a stellar guest artist, either.  And so she would have to start out as a soloist or worse, a member of the corps.