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From an article just published in the NYRB, which quotes a Dorothy Parker theatre review

 

>>She may poke fun at a vast and gorgeous spectacle called Mecca—"It is comfortable to reflect that it gives congenial and remunerative employment to hundreds, including two exceedingly shabby camels, who, I am willing to wager, although my memory for faces is not infallible, made their debut in the world premiere of Ben Hur..."

 

>> - but she goes on to say “the most important announcement is that Michel Fokine directed the dances, for they are startlingly beautiful.” Who knew that the renowned choreographer of The Firebird, Scheherazade, Petrushka, and Les Sylphides had once worked side by side with camels?

 

The article is here (there are no more ballet references):-

 

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/04/07/brilliant-troubled-dorothy-parker/

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Is Fokine the most underrated of the major choreographers of the twentieth century or does he share the title with Massine? You would never know how significant their contribution to the development of ballet was and how good some of their ballets are from the neglect that their works have suffered.

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I could not agree more FLOSS. At times it seems as though Fokine never existed, let alone worked with Stravinsky to produce some of the most important ballet music ever. Added to that there is the quality of designers employed for his works. This second point relates to Massing as well, although I am less a fan of his work.

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Maybe what happens with true innovators over time is that although they may be verging on revolutionary at the time they were choreographing others have "caught up" since so to speak ...so that innovation does not stand out quite so much. And then other new fashions come in anyway.

 

I'm sure it's the same in other areas including science and music.

 

People tend to forget after a while where a revolutionary idea has come from( say in science)

 

Sometimes in music a composer is "rediscovered" as it were.

 

Sorry if this is not very helpful but just thinking aloud!!

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Is not part of the problem that if a choreographer's work goes out of fashion you have little opportunity to see it and you become increasingly dependent on the views of others who did see them and the loudest voices tend to be those of people who did not care for them very much. If you have the opportunity to see a revival you have no way of knowing how much care has been taken over casting or getting the dancers to dance in the appropriate style. You are very much at the mercy of those  responsible for staging the work in question..

 

 The most recent Royal Ballet revival of Fokine's Les Sylphides showed little understanding of the appropriate style and ENB's Petrushka was dull, dutiful and wrong as all the vignettes of  members of the crowd were danced like divertissements with the dancers putting on a show rather than portraying characters while the street entertainers did not look as if they were putting on a show at all. As far as Massine is concerned it must be about twenty years since any of his works have been seen in London and as Janet pointed out it very much depended on which cast you saw in Tricorne as to whether you witnessed an exhumation or the performance of a viable ballet. I could only go to one performance and I got the exhumation.

Edited by FLOSS
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Out of interest FLOSS when was the last time you saw a production of say Petrushka which you felt caught the feeling of Fokine really well.

I was trying to remember when it seemed to,be shown more regularly.....perhaps in the 70's ....I think it was Festival Ballet but maybe the Royal am not sure. I loved it then.....I'm sure Nureyev performed it .....but would have had no idea if it was in keeping with the spirit or intention of Fokine even then. I haven't seen it in recent years by any company so only have those memories.

 

I haven't seen Les Sylphides for years and years either. My guess is that productions today would it too rigidly classical in style and so lose some of the softness of style?

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David Bintley had great personal success in the role and was acclaimed by a lot of very knowledgeable ex-dancers and critics. I was pretty taken with Alexander Campbell when I saw him do it about 8 years ago. Petrushka is very far from being one of my favourites but I would be sorry to see if fall out of the repertoire permanently.

 

Regrettably that fate seems to have be fallen Choreartium. Whether it is dated or not I would rather see that again than a lot of ballets which have been performed since it was revived in the 90s.

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Out of interest FLOSS when was the last time you saw a production of say Petrushka which you felt caught the feeling of Fokine really well.

I was trying to remember when it seemed to,be shown more regularly.....perhaps in the 70's ....I think it was Festival Ballet but maybe the Royal am not sure. I loved it then.....I'm sure Nureyev performed it .....but would have had no idea if it was in keeping with the spirit or intention of Fokine even then. I haven't seen it in recent years by any company so only have those memories.

I haven't seen Les Sylphides for years and years either. My guess is that productions today would it too rigidly classical in style and so lose some of the softness of style?

I have a video recording of Baryshnikov performing Petrushka with Paris Opera Ballet which I happened to watch back fairly recently- a very moving portrayal particularly in the third tableaux when he strikes such a pathetic figure as he mimes about his feelings towards the Ballerina and then is bullied by the Moor. I recall David Bintley talking about his interpretation on a South Bank Show many years ago in which he spoke about how he achieved the "pinned" legs ( can't remember who coached him in the role). I am a great fan of Petrushka not least for its wonderful score which Fokine exploits to the full and Bakst's wonderful costume designs . Petrushka, Firebird, Scherazade, Les Sylphides - each can make wonderful components for a carefully chosen triple bill set against plotless/ neo classical pieces. These works need to be remain in the repertoire.
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I first saw Petrushka in the 1975-76 season when the Royal Ballet revived it with three different Petrushkas , Grant, Nureyev and Sleep. I saw all three dancers in the role and for me Alexander Grant was by far the most effective in the title role. It was exceptionally well cast as far as the minor roles were concerned. Everyone on stage was a character rather than the stage dressing and soloists which I encountered at the ENB's recent revival. It seems to me that in a good revival of Petrushka in the sections in which the three main characters don't appear you should have the impression of a film of a bustling crowd with the occasional close up of the people in it. The dances of members and groups in the crowd are the equivalent of film close ups and the dancers have to remain in character throughout for it to work.

 

In my mind's eye I can still see David Drew as the Head Coachman beginning the dance of the coachman slipping from moving his arms to keep warm into dance; Rosalind Eyre as the lead Nursemaid; the Stable Boys emerging from the crowd only to disappear back into it rather than simply stopping dancing and last but not least the street dancers, one of whom was danced by Ann Jenner, dancing and eyeing each other warily. There was no suggestion ,as there probably would be now, that only Petrushka,the Ballerina Doll and the Moor need be cast from the ranks of senior dancers and the rest of the roles could be assigned to members of the corps de ballet.I think that its theatrical effectiveness came from the fact that the dancers stayed in role all the time they were on the stage whether or not they were dancing. A vital element that was missing in ENB's recent revival where the dancers in the cameo roles danced their section of he ballet and then stopped and slipped out of character.

 

The best performance of the role of Petrushka that I have ever seen was given by David Bintley with SWRB in the mid 1980's. It is difficult to describe what was so special about his assumption of the role to say it looked and felt absolutely right is a bit weak but it did. He made the role completely credible giving it real character and emotion which drew the audience in a way that only Grant came near doing and subsequent performers have failed to do . It is an extraordinarily difficult role to perform effectively because you have to bring far more than floppiness and the exact reproduction of gestures and steps to it; the dancer needs to be able to create a character that consists of more than floppy arms and bent knees. The most difficult sections for anyone dancing Petrushka are when he is alone in the showman's booth because those sections can seem dull and pointless unless the dancer really knows what emotions he has to express and is capable of expressing them.

 

I hope that answers the question. I don't want to sound as if I am ENB bashing. I don't think that the fact that Isabella Fokine was involved in the revival helped much. All the revivals of her grandfather's works that I have seen have had the air of exhumations about them resulting in performances that are remarkable for being cold and dead.Clearly gifts for choreography and staging are not hereditary. I will just add that the best and most compelling Les Sylphides that I have ever seen was the staging that Markova did for ENB. It was incredibly slow but it never ground to a standstill and it never left you wondering why the ballet was so highly regarded. It helped that Evdokimova danced in it but that was not its secret. Its secret lay in the fact that it was staged by someone who had actually worked with Fokine and who had complete command of its mood and choreographic text.

 

Unfortunately, as far as I am aware, there is no DVD of Petrushka available although PNB were filmed years ago in a staging by Beriosoff. There are a couple of excellent recordings of Les Sylphides which show what the fuss is about. One is on ICA classics which gives us an early BBC black and white recording with Markova. Beriosova and Elvin. It makes it look incredibly simple, which it should, and it leaves me wondering quite how the Royal Ballet managed to get its 2011 revival so horribly wrong. It has a short introduction by Karsavina. The second DVD features the Royal Ballet with Fonteyn and Nureyev.It is something of a fluke that it is so good as I understand that the ballet was never one of the brightest jewels in the company's crown. It is on one of those evening with the Royal Ballet DVDs issued years ago. The third DVD is called Markova La Legende it is a French ballet documentary which shows a frail Markova working with members of the POB and includes a section in which she coaches sections of the ballet. All three are well worth seeing if you are at all interested in Fokine and his works.

 

Finally there is Firebird. There are excerpts of Firebird available on DVD with Fonteyn and Somes and the complete work danced by Leanne Benjamin is also available. I thought Benjamin was extraordinary in the role because of the way in which she portrayed the bird's wildness, its fear and its power. Those in a position to know said she was the best since Fonteyn . I managed to see her several times in the role at the theatre and she was certainly the best that I have seen and some of that comes out in the recording.

Edited by FLOSS
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Floss said: 'Finally there is Firebird. There are excerpts of Firebird available on DVD with Fonteyn and Somes and the complete work danced by Leanne Benjamin is also available. I thought Benjamin was extraordinary in the role because of the way in which she portrayed the bird's wildness, its fear and its power. Those in a position to know said she was the best since Fonteyn . I managed to see her several times in the role at the theatre and she was certainly the best that I have seen and some of that comes out in the recording.'

 

 

Completely agree with you about Leanne Benjamin as the Firebird, Floss, and I'm glad to hear that others do too.

 

And you've reminded me what an amazing character dancer David Bintley was. eg Widow Simone. I should have added him and David Drew (and no doubt others) to my favourite male dancers list, since they are just as rare and precious as the great male star dancers.

 

 

(Edited to indicate Floss's quote - messed up the Quote function.)

Edited by bridiem
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My twin favourite memories of David Bintley are as Petrushka and Alain. Thinking back on it there were common qualities for both, I expect the same was true for Alexander Grant as well.

 

This is slightly off topic but I can still see Bintley at the bottom of the staircase when he realised he had just found Lise and Colas in the bedroom and that he was not going to get married. He was heart breaking and unforgettable, rather like his Petrushka.

Edited by Two Pigeons
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Wildly off topic I know but just loved Grant as Alain ......he made him so sympathetic so much so that I've always wanted to act out the bit at the end of Fille where he finds his beloved umbrella and occasionally do when with a few mad ballet friends if just seen the ballet!! I now also wished I had seen him as Petrushka by all accounts.

David Bintley sounds as if he caught the essence of the role what a shame he was not recorded in it.

I wonder which current dances could make something of it. There's a dancer with ENB who comes to mind .....it might be Yonah Acosta but not absolutely sure. He played Ali in Le corsaire not long ago.....have to check programme.

 

Thank you FLOSS for your reply. I would certainly love to see some of these ballets again if the right person can be found to revive them sympathetically

I was very into Fokine at one time and read a lot about him any by him .....but all about 40 years ago now but was fascinated by this whole period in ballet at the time.

The very reason I was attracted to start ballet lessons myself as a child was hearing the music of Les Sylphides on an old 78 record of my mothers.

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Having recently seen a recording of Alonso in Giselle I have been struck by how much the National Ballet of Cuba's style of dancing at the time the recording was made reflects the performance style required in Les Sylphides. I know that Fokine made his ballet as an evocation of the early nineteenth century French school and that in doing so he was criticising the over reliance on Italian bravura in Petipa's later ballets, but the link is not so obvious in more modern performances of Giselle. The current performance style seems to favour a crisper, cleaner account of Giselle's choreography than was true in the past.

 

It's not simply the style of dance that creates the link but a number of the corps' groupings in the recording and some of the poses look as if they are straight out of Les Sylphides. I saw some of the Royal Ballet's earlier productions of Giselle but I remember nothing about them as Peter Wright's production has dominated the Covent Garden stage for so long. The Giselle recording suggested that it was the quarry from which Fokine took his source material. Now it is probably true that Giselle was the source for most of his choreographic ideas but as far as this production is concerned so many of the groupings and poses in act 2 seem to find echoes in Fokine's ballet. It leaves me wondering whether the Cuban staging and groupings were influenced by Les Sylphides rather than the other way round.

 

The recording is fascinating because it contains some of the mime sequence we know from act 1, with some additions. Berthe's mime sequence is similar to the Royal Ballet's text until it is overtaken on the recording by unnecessary special effects. The recording also includes the scene of the huntsmen gambling by Giselle's grave. I think that the Cuban's are the only company that retain that element in their production.

Edited by FLOSS
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Isabelle Fokine is destroying her grandfather's ballets by foisting inferior versions of his ballets on companies worldwide:  The ballet equivalent of dumbing down, the legacy has died now. 

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It's not simply the style of dance that creates the link but a number of the corps' groupings in the recording and some of the poses look as if they are straight out of Les Sylphides.

 

Isn't that the case with the Skeaping production for ENB, too?  I guess we shall get a reminder in the new year.

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I remember being completely enthralled the first time I saw Petrouchka because of the crowd scenes, which in a way didn't seem like ballet (it certainly didn't look anything like a corps de ballet I'd ever seen before) but at the same time somehow seemed to get to the essence of the dance and lose the artificiality while still remaining within recognisable limits. At first I couldn't believe it was the same choreographer as Les Sylphides, but on further viewing it had the same organic feel to it, so different from Petipa's choreography. The Ballets Russes audiences in the early 20th century must have wondered what on earth they were watching! And what a good thing Fokine put his foot down about Mathilde Kschessinska and insisted that, unlike at the Mariinsky at the time, it wasn't all about the ballerina. We ended up with a fascinating repertoire. It's interesting that Diaghilev apparently thought that Fokine peaked in 1910 with Scheherazade and got rid of him in favour of Nijinsky, because he produced some real keepers in the years after that even if they weren't quite as shocking and different as the stuff Nijinsky was creating.

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Unfortunately, as far as I am aware, there is no DVD of Petrushka available although PNB were filmed years ago in a staging by Beriosoff.

 

There is a recording of Petrushka on a DVD called "Return of the Firebird", which is available on Amazon. It was filmed in a studio, and stars Andris Liepa as the eponymous puppet, with a cast, I think, of mostly Bolshoi dancers. Although it doesn't have the same atmosphere as a theatre-based performance, it uses the Benois designs and is very colourful. I can't vouch for the quality of the interpretation, though. The same DVD includes performances of Firebird, with Nina Ananiashivili, and Scheherezade.  

 

James

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The Fokine revivals that Maris Liepa has been connected with have, as far as I am aware, all involved Isabelle Fokine. Although I understand that Fokine left copious notes about his ballets I am not convinced that his grand daughter has made a particularly good job of staging his works. I have read some interviews that she has given in which she has stressed the authenticity of her revivals and by implication the lack of authenticity of any other productions. Her comments do not make the revivals in which she has been involved theatrically effective or authentic. I would prefer to see the Royal Ballet's production of Petrushka originally staged by Diaghilev's ballet master or failing that the one staged by Nicholai Beriosoff. But if you want a recording at present there is no choice except the Liepa recording.

 

I understand that Fokine thought that no one ever came near the original cast of Petrushka and that he was concerned that while he had created individual choreography for the three main characters and those who have vignette roles he found that the individual characteristics of their choreography were not always reproduced with care and were sometimes transposed from one group of characters to another. In his memoirs he said that he had not created different plastiques for the Moor and Petrushka and that the basic difference between them is that the Moor is an extrovert and all "turned out" while Petrushka is an introvert and all "turned in".It was on these foundations that he had created the two characters. The "improvements" made by later dancers had made the two characters virtually indistinguishable. Petrushka had even acquired some of the wet nurses' gestural characteristics. I recognise that these comments call into question the authenticity of the revivals of the ballet that I have seen but it does not make Isabelle Fokine's lifeless revivals of her grandfather's ballets authentic.

 

The version of the Firebird on the Liepa DVD has the original ending in which the figures embedded in the walls of the sorcerer's garden are clearly knights who suffered the fate that Ivan Tsarevitch only escapes with the assistance of the Firebird. Those knights are freed by the sorcerer's death and are restored to the beautiful princess' companions. Ananiashivili's performance of the Firebird is well worth seeing but my preference is for the Royal Ballet's recording with the revised ending and the Goncharova designs. A production staged by Diaghilev's ballet master in which Karsavina who created the title role coached Fonteyn and her successors have access to her insights into the role is authentic enough for me. Benjamin is magnificent in the title role and the rest of the cast are excellent. For me it has the advantage of being part of a living performing tradition rather than a revival years after the event.

Edited by FLOSS
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Melody. Out of interest why should early twentieth century  audiences have wondered what they were watching when they first saw Petrushka?

 

The ballet was premiered in Paris and as far as I am aware not performed in Russia until comparatively recently. Diaghilev had a pretty sure touch when it came to gauging the taste of the Parisian audience and that was the audience for which it was created. 

 

If it had been shown in Russia the music might have been a bit of a shock to an audience used to  Minkus  but as far as the choreography is concerned not everyone was happy with the emphasis on technical display that had become an essential part of Petipa's later works. Fokine may have been the only person to present an artistic manifesto to the Mariinsky's management  but he was not alone in wanting to restore the purity of the French school to the stage. The fact that Pavlova who was not a technician was highly regarded by her teachers including Cecchetti  and made rapid progress when she joined the Mariinsky  company suggests that technique was no longer the only thing that mattered.

 

 As far as Petrushka's structure and the use of dancers are concerned I don't think that the use of the corps would have been such a shock. Gorsky had already introduced more natural looking groupings in his staging of Don Quixote and broken up Petipa's floor plans. As far as Petrushka is concerned it would probably have been seen  as a natural development of the trend towards naturalism or at least away from an over reliance on formal patterns  and technical display.

 

As for Western Europe while Diaghilev's company received some state support in its first year after that it was dependent on the tastes of a cultured western elite for its finance. There were ballet companies in European cities  which had opera houses  because many operas included a ballet but it was regarded as a serious independent art form in only very few. The only places where it was taken at all seriously seem to have been  Copenhagen, Moscow and St. Petersburg. Paris had a fine school but the company attached to the Paris Opera  had last performed Giselle in 1868. It had Saint Leon's Coppelia and works by Merante. The Ballet Russes restored Giselle to the Paris stage.In much of Europe Diaghilev's Ballet Russes represented the  revival of a moribund art form. it is unlikely that the bulk of audiences who saw Diaghilev's company did so with any preconceived ideas about  choreography, design, music or subject matter. Remember Petrushka was not shown in the first Ballet Russes' season and the Western audiences' first encounter with Stravinsky had been with Igor heavily disguised as Rimsky Korsakov.

Edited by FLOSS
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Melody. Out of interest why should early twentieth century  audiences have wondered what they were watching when they first saw Petrushka?

 

It may be that I've seen it performed rather than just as still photos, which is all I know of some of his other early pieces (apart from ballets like Les Sylphides and Spectre de la Rose, which are very balletic), and I thought the crowd scenes looked very un-ballet-like in a way that the photos of Cleopatra and Scheherazade didn't.

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Melody. I think that we have to forget everything we know or think we know about late nineteenth century ballet. In  most cities with an opera house there were ballet companies but they performed in the ballets which formed an integral part of the operas being performed. It would be a mistake to think that they had anywhere near the technical skills that the Russians displayed. You need to forget Petipa completely.

 

Audiences in most European cities would have been surprised by the dancers' skills of characterisation,; the presence of male dancers and their quality and the range and variety of the company's repertory when they compared it with what they saw in opera performances. But they would not have been surprised by the size of the company or a ballet with a scene in which the stage was dressed with supers. Such scenes were familiar from opera staging and the staging of the spoken drama. The nineteenth century was the century in which you might expect to see a street scene full of supers whether you were watching Boucicault's  The Streets of New York or a staging of Shakespeare  by Charles Kean,, Henry Irving or  Beerbohm-Tree .The sort of staging  that we now  associate with Shakespeare's dramas was being introduced to London by Harley Granville Barker almost simultaneously with the arrival of the Ballets  Russes in the west.

 

Petrushka was not staged in the first year the company came to the west. In 1909 the repertory included Le Pavilion d'Armide, Les  Sylphides,. Cleopatra, Pavlotsian Dances and Le Festin;.In  1910 it included Scherazade, Le Carnaval,,Firebird, and Giselle. Petrushka only entered the company's repertory on 1911 by which time I imagine Diaghilev believed that he had trained the taste of  western audiences.to coincide with his own.

Edited by FLOSS
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I think  that Firebird and Petrushka can be very effective in the theatre at least in the Royal Ballet's productions as for the Polvtsian Dances it does not work unless it has the right cast.. ENB had a beautiful production of Les Sylphides staged  by Markova. Scherazade was a staple of Festival Ballet's for many years so much so that it was something of a cliché. The roles of  Zobeida and the Golden Slave both require a compelling stage presence. As far as the choreography is concerned  Fokine is said to have studied Persian miniatures when preparing for it but it also seems to owe a great deal to ballets like La Bayadere and Le Corsaire for its source material. I have seen Spectre de la Rose danced well by ABT and rather badly by the Royal Ballet..  Maris Liepa claims to have brought Thamar to London but I did not find it convincing and I was relieved to discover that .Cyril Beaumont  was of the firm opinion that it was only any good in its initial season when it had its original cast and that after that it was at best a pale shadow of what it had been when new.

 

I have only seen Egyptian Nights and Le Carnaval in recordings. Neither seems to me to be particularly compelling . I have spoken to people who saw Le Carnaval danced by the Covent Garden company many years ago and they  expressed great enthusiasm for it. But then I discovered that Ashton danced Pierrot and that, for me, explained their enthusiasm. Carnaval is a feather light piece which  depends on a company having enough dancers who can create stage characters for  Estrella, Colombine, Pierrot and Pantalon. I am not sure that I would want to take a chance on the Royal Ballet staging it as I am far from convinced that it would be cast with the care that it obviously requires to be effective. It would be a total disaster if the dancers were just let loose on it to do what they could with the work.

Edited by FLOSS
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I've always liked Le Carnaval and wondered whether the RB ever danced it, I had an old LP of the music and I was sure the photo on the cover was the RB, I have the Kirov DVD which also includes the first version of Egyptian Nights which does seem rather weak, but would love to see the RB dance Le Carnaval, although as you say it needs a very light touch, I could imagine Francesca Hayward dancing the Papillon solo but that's about all.

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Melody. I think that we have to forget everything we know or think we know about late nineteenth century ballet. In  most cities with an opera house there were ballet companies but they performed in the ballets which formed an integral part of the operas being performed. It would be a mistake to think that they had anywhere near the technical skills that the Russians displayed. You need to forget Petipa completely.

 

Disappointed that you make no exception of  the Danes and Bournonville.

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MAB. I am sorry that you are disappointed but I mentioned Copenhagen as a place where ballet was taken seriously in my post of the 19th April which is number 23 in this discussion. I said "the only places where it (ballet)was taken at all seriously seem to have been Copenhagen, Moscow and St. Petersburg" and then went on to say that I did not think that western audiences would have had any preconceived ideas about ballet.As I have been criticised for posts that are too long. I don't want to get it in the neck for being repetitive too.

 

Out of interest do you think that the Royal Ballet would be able to stage Le Carnaval successfully? I think that Pierrot and Pantaloon would be particularly difficult to cast.

Edited by FLOSS
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Out of interest do you think that the Royal Ballet would be able to stage Le Carnaval successfully? I think that Pierrot and Pantaloon would be particularly difficult to cast.

 

I could see Bennet Gartside as Pantaloon.

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