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aileen

Is choreography being sacrificed for spectacle?

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Having read various comments on a number of new productions (here and abroad), I am left wondering whether modern choreographers spend more time thinking about sets, costumes and special effects than the actual dancing. For me, the test is: how interesting and attractive would the dancing be if it was done in leotards against a plain backdrop. What do other people think? Do I need to 'move with the times' (even though I've only been watching ballet for a few years!)

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I think with narrative ballets the overall spectacle will be a spectacle.  What is interesting though is looking at a rehearsal where dancers are just wearing practise clothes and then see how the choreography looks.....

 

Great thread Aileen!

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Hmmm, good question! I think if the music and choreography appeal to me, then sets and costumes are less important.

 

That said, I do love a beautiful tutu though - and even a pretty leotard and skirt would please me more than flesh coloured vests and knickers. ;-)

 

Edited to add that IMHO, Ballo della Regina is a great example of simple but beautiful costumes and lighting.

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Well, that is an interesting question.

 

When I think of modern productions, my perception is that the costumes are much more restrained than the lavish ones for the older productions, almost as if they are an after thought.  The sets, on the other hand, can be quite baffling, and often seem to have nothing to do with whatever it is the ballet is about.  Odd lights flash, bits of set representing something you cannot identify shift, or disappear, dancers play with props that are clearly meant to be significant, but you have no idea what they are...the list goes on and on. 

 

I have no problems with a pared down set and costumes, providing the music interests me.  One of my favourite ballets of all time has very simple outfits and set, and that is Symphonic Variations. 

 

For me, it is whether the sets and costumes complement the music and dancing.  I don't mind whether the dancers are in leotards or tutus, providing it looks as though some effort has been made to make them look visually attractive, and not as if they have just walked in from the studio wearing whatever they grabbed first thing that morning. 

 

My pet hate is men in shorts with bare legs.  Ditto girls in leotards with no tights.  If I want an anatomy lesson, I will open a medical book.

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I can't 'get with' some of the sets for modern choreography which may be expensive technological marvels but are, at best, distracting and, at worst, manage to shine a spotlight in the face of the audience to such an extent that one cannot see the dancers properly.

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I don't think Alice's Adventures in Wonderland would be the most interesting ballet without all the sets, costume and trickery.

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Yes, BRB's recent triple bill being a major offender.  I had to keep my eyes shut during whichever the last part of the Einstein (sorry, always get it confused with Constant Speed, which I think is Rambert?) one.

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I think the entire production is a combination of elements and should be judged as a whole.  If the dancing is good but the music or sets or costumes (or lack thereof) are not - then the production is flawed.  And vice versa.

 

Usually if a production is dependent upon "tricks" - then it probably won't bring the observer back for future viewings - such as the old classics do.

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Yes, BRB's recent triple bill being a major offender.  I had to keep my eyes shut during whichever the last part of the Einstein (sorry, always get it confused with Constant Speed, which I think is Rambert?) one.

 

E=MC2 - the part offending your eyes being Celeritas.

 

Funnily enough I didn't see the first couple of performances of this piece (2009) and when I arrived in Birmingham numerous people warned me about the lighting in the final section.  As it happened it didn't and doesn't bother me in the slightest.

 

When I recently saw Cedar Lake in Bradford I adored the Crystal Pite piece and the dancers were almost in silhouette for most of it.  I thought that effect enhanced it.

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Actually, this topic was prompted by a review of Wheeldon's new Cinderella (although the reviewer didn't like the 'embellished' plot either). There have been similar criticisms of his Alice as well. I'm not having a go at the RB, but when I saw Metamorphosis I did spend some time wondering how much the sets and 'props' had cost whilst finding the actual choreography unsatisfying. Whilst I agree with others that in a narrative ballet the sets and costumes are important there can be very effective story-telling with minimal sets. An example of this (ok, it's contemporary dance) was the Mark Bruce Company's Dracula at Wilton's Music Hall this week.

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when I saw Metamorphosis I did spend some time wondering how much the sets and 'props' had cost 

 

Me too and not just in Metamorphosis. I sometimes wonder whether choreographers feel the need for gadgetry to divert the minds of the audiences away from their weaknesses." No names, no pack drill"!!!!

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Liam Scarlett doesn't seem to rely too much on sets and props.

 

Sweet Violets?  Asphodel Meadows?  Hansel & Gretel?

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Chrischris, did you see Hansel and Gretel? Half of the 'stage' moved up and down. I think that the sets for Sweet Violets must have cost a fair bit.

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Sweet Violets?  Asphodel Meadows?  Hansel & Gretel?

 

Ashodel Meadows was pretty minimal, compared to the other two

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I did enjoy Raven Girl, but, IMO, the dancing really played second fiddle(!) to the concept, sets, props, costumes and lighting.

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I'm often happy with a bare stage and minimal costumes (even bare legs) - see most of Balanchine's output. Think stage production can help narrative ballets a lot, to put the story into perspective and context, and so allow the dancing to be free to do its thing. To my mind plotless ballets should have minimal sets/costume design/tricks - and enough lighting to allow us to see what's happening. Just my own preferences.

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Chrischris, did you see Hansel and Gretel? Half of the 'stage' moved up and down. I think that the sets for Sweet Violets must have cost a fair bit.

 

I actually havent seen either, but I remember Asphodel Meadows being really bare, or am I confusing it with something else? His recent new work for the New York festival was apparently just an empty stage, with two dancers and a musician in the corner, and was well received.

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Talking of lighting, I commented once on the old ballet.co.uk website about a ballet I saw at the ROH about 5 years ago (?).  The lighting was very peculiar - from where I was sitting, it highlighted the lower half of the dancers' bodies, but their faces were in shadow.   I remember saying at the time that I would occasionally have liked to identify who was performing. 

 

Could it have been one of McGregor's?  All I can remember is that the girls were in white leotards, which I realise is not much to go on!

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I would agree with Anjuli_Bai, it is all part of a whole, and what matters is getting the balance right, or at least right enough to have a successful piece.

 

Sets and lighting have always played a part in ballet, sometimes doing more than just highlighting the choreography (my favourite example being in the last movement of MacMillan's Requiem).

I also agree with chrischris that Liam Scarlett doesn't rely on sets, they may have been elaborate for Sweet Violets or Hansel and Gretel, but they didn't take on a life of their own as was the case in Alice.

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Are there national aesthetic preferences also at work here?  When Cathy Marston went out as Director to Bern, in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, her first production was a Firebird set in the immediately pre-revolutionary Romanov court, costumed as I suspect most of us here might expect for a narrative work in a historical setting.  However, that was not the critical expectation out there.  She took some knocks as a result and I think I'm right in saying that her subsequent work out there was clothed in pretty much neutral dress.  That was certainly the case with the J&R that I saw in the following year, and applied too to the works she subsequently brought to London.  By comparison, the Tale of Two Cities that she did for Northern Ballet back here whilst in Bern was fully costumed.

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Ian I was literally just thinking about Berne Ballet's 'Witchhunt' which came to the Linbury Theatre last year, and also Ballet Black's last year programme in the same venue. Neither relied heavily on sets or elaborate costumes and I was completely absorbed by them, particularly by Witchhunt. By contrast I often find that the elaborate sets and costumes of the RB in the Opera House create a sense of distance, maybe the more so because I know nothing about ballet. Of course this could also be because I prefer the more intimate Linbury and am usually too far away from the stage in the Opera House to appreciate the nuances of the dancing without the sets and costumes getting in the way (so to speak).

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I actually havent seen either, but I remember Asphodel Meadows being really bare, or am I confusing it with something else? 

 

I suspect you're confusing it with Viscera, which the RB did a year or two ago?  Asphodel Meadows had a lot of flat panels, I think they were, which moved about, and I wished the set had been less "busy".

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Well when house seats are getting so expensive it is something to consider as some costumes and sets are so expensive and this no doubt gets passed on to us ballet fans (and opera fans)

 

In the final analysis it's the dancing that I'm absorbed by (or not)

but whereas a ballet like monotones is superb the way it is.....with the music, minimal costume and set all contributing to the overall effect.....and usually superb dancing of course!

I would not enjoy say "a Month in the Country" or "Giselle" too minimalist! In those ballets the costumes and sets are perfect for the story the dancers are telling.

 

"Alice" is more unusual in that the original book is SO visual (and weird!) that its more difficult to get across the magic without some "special effects" probably.

I don't mind this occasionally.....it just becomes more of a "theatrical" experience as well as a dance one. As long as it works!! I think Alice does......though will never be one of my favourites. But not sure if I would want choreographers to continually choose material that required more special effects to complete the experience and get the work across!

However I'm pretty sure they won't.......most choreographers are going to be attracted by different ideas to explore.......some of which may be more pure dance and others may have more of a story to tell.

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Re. DaveM's comments on Balachine above, it's interesting that some of Mr. B's greatest works (Apollo, The Four Temperaments, Agon etc.) are dressed in simple, mostly black and white practice-type costumes, designed carefully enough to show both the choreography and the dancers' bodies with absolute clarity.  Would anyone actually wish to put any of those immortal works in proper 'costumes'?  One only has to look at photographs of the earliest, clumsy-looking  costumes for Apollo to imagine what a mistake it would be to attempt 'costume' the work today - it would comparable to having to  watch it through a scrim!  That said, it's hard imagine Petipa's ballets without costumes, and there's no doubting that his choreography could stand up effortlessly to the most minimal of costuming (actually it would be fascinating to see what some of it would  look like performed in black and white practice costumes). 

 

I've always found that new, good choreography seen in the rehearsal room in practice clothes and with only a piano accompaniement always shines through and always excites.  Which doesn't of course mean that it wouldn't look look even better in costumes...  

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It needs all sorts. Some people go to the theatre for the complete theatrical experience, some for the pure dance, and some for any or all points including these and in between. (And some who start with the the "theatrical experience" as a special outing could then get hooked on the pure dance.)

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It is almost like comparing a full orchestra playing a symphonic work, or a solo instrument playing a sonata.  Both are equally valid - just different.  Although people will always have their own preferences.

 

Thanks Aileen, as I had seen Dutch National Ballet dancing Wheeldon's Cinderella in the recent broadcast, I had forgotten it was a co-production with San Francisco.  I agree with much that was said in that review, but did like many of the effects such as the flying chairs.  Also the drunken solo of the Step-mother which then became a pas de deux with the Father was a very funny and original dance.

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