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Ashton, MacMillan and their American reputations


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Interesting comments re: American antipathy towards Macmillan. I didn't realise  there was such strong feeling against him and to have it stoked by critics makes it all the more extraordinary.There must be more to it, although I can imagine a deeply conservative society finding the grittiness of Manon hard to take. Oh my!  :blink:   

Funny really when you consider how many ballets are about women being oppressed in some way and only able to be saved by a man. Best done with lashings of tiaras and tutus of course.

I wouldn't say I actually dislike Manon, it just doesn't move me. I prefer Mayerling. I always find Macmillan's choreography at its best when understated. A simple gesture or look, for example, one of the most affecting scenes for me is when the prince is trying to appeal to his mother for help in his distress. As a result of rigid court upbringing, they are both emotionally illiterate and she has nothing to give him. She sort of drops her hand in a gesture of helplessness and he just walks away. I probably haven't described that very well, but on stage it is electrifying.

As for casting, I am wondering when we can expect some for the Brandstrup and co. triple bill run. I see there are many unsold tickets for that also. I have a ticket for the matinee but am thinking about swapping it for this Saturday's matinee of Manon with Roberta Marquez. 

Any thoughts on whether this might be a good idea?

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I don't think the Americans are wonderfully keen on most Ashton either!  In fact I get the impression they are not keen on European choreographers full stop!

 

Janet, I'd love to know where you got this notion.  I, myself, remember capacity audiences cheering the Ashton when his rep was largely kept by the Joffrey when at City Center.  I well remember how hard it was to get tickets for those performances.  I remember having to climb along those long rows of seats because I could only get - and was lucky to do so - one in the middle.  The audiences exploded in joy at La Fille ... and positively thrilled with joyous laughter at Wedding Bouquet ... with Dowell doing the honours as the Narrator .... and I remember joining them when standing in rapture on receipt of Monotones I and II.  Those tickets were I recall almost harder to come by than for the Cranko rep that the Joffrey had long in advance of, say, our local, the Royal Ballet.  (Bless them for letting me see Marcia Haydee and Richard Cragun celebrate those.)  I also remember them reviving Tudor ballets originally mounted by the Sadlers Wells Ballet as was which even now I've never had a chance to see here.  I also DISTINCTLY remember Ashton himself several times saying that he, HIMSELF, felt his work received 'more respect in America' than elsewhere in more than one FREE in-sight-like presentation at the Lincoln Center Library.  (These would be on record - again for free - in the facility itself - and, indeed, open to anyone on request, e.g., filling out an easily attainable form in the Jerome Robbins Center for Dance on the third floor.  Bless them.)  One also now thinks last season of the Ashton Festival in Sarasota where several BRITISH commentators said they wished the same range of his work was available in one place at one time in the UK. Where exactly did you get your 'impression' I wonder, Janet?  I, myself, would be fascinated to know.  

 

As to an American lack of keeness on European choreographers ... let's just think of recent British ones .... There is little question I think but that Wheedon has done more Ballets in the US than he has anywhere else .... (the same now being recorded for Ratmansky) ... and even young Scarlett has created more works over the past several seasons in the States than he has here.  He just had a third work done by NYCB .... and will shortly have one premiered for ABT's Fall season.   Again, would love to know why you felt your above sentiment held true.  

Edited by Bruce Wall
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I tend not to think of Wheeldon as a British choreographer as he has spent most of his career in NY.

 

Funny, I suspect Wheeldon, himself, would take a certain umbrage against that statement.  Indeed I think he would genuinely be hurt.  From the little I spoke to him (albeit in NY) - I think he would feel he was, in fact, British - proudly so - as that is where his roots were formed .... much as, I think, David Nixon (who I know you champion) will always be Canadian given that country - his homeland - so clearly is where - through the influence of Betty Oliphant and so many others - his own skills in so many varied directions were initially championed/sparked.  

Edited by Bruce Wall
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Comments I've seen on other websites and reviews.

 

 

 

Well, I can't speak for them .... but - vis a vis Ashton -  I certainly know that the choreographer himself did not share that opinion ... given that I heard him say otherwise via his own mouth.  For myself, you will forgive me if I prefer to lean - when given the option - on that source..  

Edited by Bruce Wall
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However highly regarded Manon is today it did not receive universal acclaim at the start. Mary Clarke wrote words to the effect  that all you needed to know was that Manon was a slut and Des Grieux a fool. When Arlene Croce wrote about it she complained that MacMillan had filled the work with dance but that apart from a few scenes he had failed to capture the essence of the book or tell enough of the story.She singled out the five pas de deux for Manon and Des Grieux for particular criticism because she thought that they were all too similar and that MacMillan had failed to portray DesGrieux being corrupted by Manon .In her opinion De Grieux remained a sweet boy until the end of the ballet.

 

In the 1970's MacMillan was regarded as a talented choreographer but he was not seen as the equal of Balanchine, Ashton or Tudor He was intelligent, musically acute and had theatrical flair but he lacked Ashton's genius. In 1974 there were people who thought that Ashton's enforced retirement had been unfair and that his replacement by MacMillan was detrimental to the company. I do not think that many people then would have expected the reputation of the two men to have changed so markedly.

In the US in the 1970's the negative response to MacMillan was from fans as much as critics. I do not think that the critics created the response to MacMillan. They did not need to. MacMillan's fault was that he was not Ashton and that was sufficient reason for criticism.

 

The response to Manon had nothing to do with conservative tastes and liking nineteenth century classics because at that time they had not come to dominate programming in the way they do now. The world of ballet was far less conservative and driven by the accountants than it is today in large part because of the number of major names who were still actively engaged in ballet making.

 

As to the Ameican view of dance they seem to like classicism and  loathe expressionism. While in Europe, if what we get to see here is anything to go by, expressionism is dominant. We seem to occupy a the middle ground as far as likes and disikes  are

concerned.

 

Anyone interested in the initial response to MacMillan's Manon should read Arlene Croce's criticism of the ballet which is reprinted in Writing in the Dark.

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I agree with both Bruce Wall and Floss.

 

Pre 1970 the New York audience response to Macmillan's works was largely positive (without regarding him as the equal of Ashton, let alone Balanchine or Robbins), and was based largely on The Invitation and Romeo and Juliet. However, after Ashton was forced from the Directorship by Webster in the summer of 1970, Macmillan, as Ashton's successor, came in for much hostility from the New York fans, not because of inherent failings, but because he wasn't Ashton. When Macmillan failed to arrive in New York for the first performance by The Royal Ballet after he took over as director, the criticism intensified and was both personal and professional. Romeo was always exempt because not only was it manifestly a fine work but it also tended to feature Fonteyn and Nureyev and Sibley and Dowell - both well-entrenched New York favourites.

 

My memory suggests that Ashton was always well received in New York, though don't think that the New York audience is homogenised. The City Ballet people would always tend to see no-one ahead of Balanchine, and the ABT and Joffrey people would be predisposed to favour Ashton, though there would always be a significant overlap of people who liked both and wouldn't see ballet as a race.

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This is Jennifer Homans in her book Apollo's Angels (it's not the only part where I disagree with her!)

 

"it remains the central fact of MacMillan's career that he consistently sacrificed his talent to an obsessive desire to make ballet something it was not. ... MacMillan completely misread the tradition he had inherited... instead of pushing ballet in new directions, he revealed its fundamental limis -- and then failed to recognize them. MacMillan's ballets showed too many lapses in judgment and taste. By the end, he had reduced ballet's eloquent language to a series of barely audible grunts."

 

!!!!!

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I recently read Secret Muses (about Ashton) and Different Drummer (about MacMillan), and both of them said that Ashton was far more popular in the USA than MacMillan, although this probably isn't the case now. Apparently Ashton himself felt more appreciated in the USA, to the point where he thought seriously a couple of times about moving here. It surprised me, considering that there was such an English "feel" to his work that is far less apparent in MacMillan's work, and that Ashton was a contemporary of Balanchine's and considered in the USA to be inferior. His popularity was part of the reason that MacMillan wasn't greeted warmly when he took over the company. David Webster has a lot to answer for, one way and other, with that inept transition, although Ashton also blamed de Valois.

 

I remember thinking, when I first moved here in the early 1980s how old-fashioned people were about sex, so maybe MacMillan was just before his time regarding appreciation by American audiences. Nowadays I think his ballets would be more to current taste while Ashton's would be more "Masterpiece Theatre" stuff, up there with the old Russian classics as period pieces.

Edited by Melody
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I would suspect that a lot of the American audiences associate the Golden Age of the Royal Ballet as the Ashton years and that nothing has quite matched it since. It is interesting that one of the British stars they did take to their hearts, Darcey Bussell, was not particularly associated with the Ashton rep.

 

I wonder if he resonates in the American consciousness in the same way as Downton Abbey appears to. A type of Englishness that is fast disappearing.

 

Either way, all credit to Iain Webb and Margaret Barbieri for keeping the flame alive. It is spluttering badly over here.

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Not dead yet, but at present in a terminal condition.

 

Feminism is very strong in the US, and I think MacMillan's view of women does a lot to colour opinion against him,  He returned to the theme of rape again and again, liked to include brothel scenes and even had the audacity to include 'harlots' in R&J:  It doesn't go down well.  Although I would say it is true that Ashton was considered inferior to Balanchine in the past, I think his reputation has grown over the years.  My personal view is that Americans like a challenge and Ashton is notoriously difficult to dance; they like that.

 

Getting back to Manon, I think the playing down of Des Grieux's religious convictions robs the story of much of it's impact.  Anyone who saw Anna Netrebko seduce Vittorio Grigolo away from the altar in the Massenet opera at ROH a couple of years ago will know exactly what I'm getting at.

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Getting back to Manon, I think the playing down of Des Grieux's religious convictions robs the story of much of it's impact.  Anyone who saw Anna Netrebko seduce Vittorio Grigolo away from the altar in the Massenet opera at ROH a couple of years ago will know exactly what I'm getting at.

 

Do we know that Des Grieux *has* religious convictions?  I can't remember it from the novel, which I haven't read for a few years now - although as I've pointed out before MacMillan's ballet has so little to do with the novel that it's barely recognisable.  Sure, DG is a divinity student, but I thought that back in that time in French society that didn't necessarily mean much, and that they could be as corrupt as the next man.

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Feminism is very strong in the US, and I think MacMillan's view of women does a lot to colour opinion against him,  He returned to the theme of rape again and again, liked to include brothel scenes and even had the audacity to include 'harlots' in R&J:  It doesn't go down well.  Although I would say it is true that Ashton was considered inferior to Balanchine in the past, I think his reputation has grown over the years.  My personal view is that Americans like a challenge and Ashton is notoriously difficult to dance; they like that.

 

I think this is one of the problems I have with Manon. I started to find the scenes outside the big pdds a bit too long even if its for the sake of plot and character development, and the violence to women very tiring - maybe I'm becoming more impatient and prudish with age! Much as I admire the naturalism of the RB style, I can see than in retrospect that I went to Manon to see the performances of the dancers, that is Cojocaru-Kobborg, Rojo-Acosta, Guillem-Cope, rather than the ballet itself. As these dancers have dropped away from the RB, I've seen the ballet much less frequently and I've decided to miss this run (though I'm considering the live relay just to see Nunez).

 

That's not to say I don't appreciate MacMillan - I love many of his one-act ballets and both R&J and Mayerling are still very satisfying works to me. But as time's gone by, I think I've begun to prefer the subtlety and conciseness that Ashton brings to his work. I don't ever tire of Ashton's choreography but then again they aren't "blockbuster ballets" and come around less frequently.

Edited by Sunrise
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It is too easy to see the past  as if everything was done then as it is now and as if reputations are fixed for all time. When Manon was first seen in New York in 1974 it was not quite the piece we see today. The Royal Ballet was a regular feature in the dance life of the city and its seasons were considerably longer than they are today. Ashton and Balanchine were both active, their different styles of choreography were recognised and appreciated and Balanchine had yet to be deified. Manon's. choreographer was seen as someone entering into maturity of whom much was to be expected

 

.Arlene Croce clearly did not think that MacMillan had delivered the goods;she criticised Manon because she thought that MacMillan under pressure to produce a star vehicle and to maintain a progressive standard in choreography had failed to satisfy his principal obligation which was to tell a great dramatic story. She found significant parts of it to be reworkings of his earlier works and expressed the view that Anastasia was the  best of the full length works that he had produced up to that time. 

 

 Manon was full of dance but as far as Manon and Des Grieux were concerned it did not tell you about their characters and did little to advance the story.It was full of meaningless dance. She characterised this as" "Madame, I am Anthony Dowell. Notice my turns and my perfect develpe into attitude front" And her answer was "If you're Anthony Dowell, I must be Antoinette Sibley. Let's have a Sibley-Dowell pas de deux" and they did," She seemed to think that MacMillan had lost his nerve.

 

As to the relative standing of MacMillan and Ashton the fact that there are still quite a lot of people around who have direct experience of working with him must be a factor in keeping the MacMillan repertory alive. The fact that  there is one beneficiary who protects and promotes MacMillan's works places him at considerable advantage over Ashton whose works are now largely owned by people who have no direct experience of working in dance let alone working with him in the studio.

 

The bulk of Ashton's ballets are owned by his nephew who in the past has shown no great enthusiasm for staging the works that he owns and has expressed opinions about some of them which suggest we are unlikely to see them again on the opera house stage, Two Pigeons apparently " does not work on that stage" which is a very odd view of a ballet that used to be served up regularly at the RBS matinee without complaint; while Jazz Calendar which we might have hoped to see revived is too old fashioned. The fact that it makes an amusing end to a triple bill seems not to have been noticed. Thursday's child in which Alexander Grant used every type of transport until he disappeared into the stage was effective as was the Saturday's child ballet class conducted by Michael Somes playing himself where a late comer is punished by being forced to dance until he drops  Kevin O'Hare seems to see Les Patineurs only in the context of The Tales of Beatrix Potter which is more than a trifle unfortunate.

 

None of MacMillan's works have,so far, been subjected to the inept and unsympathetic redesigns imposed on two of Ashton's works which in both cases destroyed the mood of the ballet. Daphnis and Chloe which began life as a modern retelling of the ancient story without a chiton in sight was re-clothed in ancient Greek costumes which radically altered the quality of the movement while  Les Rendez Vous  currently has a set which makes nonsense of the floor plan and costumes which are a mixture of tweties blazers and boaters for the men and fifties polka dots and marigold like gloves for the girls. 

 

Dancers want to appear in MacMillan's works. I have often wondered how much of their popularity among performers is attributable to their inherent qualities and how much to the dancer's familiarity with them. Ashton's works by contrast form a relatively small part of the repertory, are difficult to dance well and unlike MacMillan's dramatic works leave the dancer exposed. Ballets only live in performance.If they are not performed it is easy to assume that they are lacking in some way. If when they are danced the performers fail to dance in the appropriate style it is very easy to write a ballet off as camp, old fashioned and irrelevant. Audiences and dancers alike can end up between them consigning important works to the dustbin of history. The Paris Opera Ballet has a long history of doing so.It remains to be seen whether the Royal Ballet follows the same route as far as Ashton's works are concerned. Perhaps Ashton's reputation in the US will result in the preservation through performance of a

greater range of his works there than seems likely here at the present time. 

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New York City is part of the United States - it is not the United States.  Actually, it is but a small part - one pane of glass in a large multi-colored painted window.  

 

Arlene Croce is but one voice in a pool of many - most of whom the average (if there is such a thing) dance ticket buyer doesn't care about.  

 

A country as large and diverse as the USA with ample numbers of people falling into an almost infinite number of categories (conservative, progressive, liberal, religious, old hippiies, new millenials, etc) is impossible to catagorize on almost any subject or thought pattern.

 

The experiences of a dance company on tour are not the same as the experiences of a resident company. The audience tends to be different, the intent of programming is different.

 

As for Ashton and MacMillan - I would bet a sufficient number of ticket buyers base their purchase decisions on the ballet being performed, the dancers casted, the reputation of the company and just plain old curiosity - as the reputation of the choreographer. 

Edited by Anjuli_Bai
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I think FLOSS' s point about dancers wanting to appear in Macmillan roles is a very valid one. We are frequently told than dancers would almost walk over broken glass to appear as Manon or Des Greiux and these roles may be offered to encourage dancers to join certain companies. I have heard a number of members of BRB say how much they would like to dance principal roles in Manon or Mayerling but have resigned themselves to this will not happen.

 

However, from an audience point of view there seems to be a saturation point unless debuts are offered. The Macmillan rep is clearly viewed as more box office than much of that of Ashton. In this era of live cinema broadcasting I can the attraction of strong, story lead dramas. However, if it comes to repeated viewings I am not convinced that they stand up so well without some novelties of casting.

 

Having said all if that my sister will go out of her way to see Manon every time, including when ENO do it, so what do I know?

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A propos of some of the above, at the flick of a tab I have Anthony Dowell teaching Manon at NBC right now - and dealing with the reality of passing on moves to dancers with different bodies from his and Sibley's.  Or I can flick another switch and find the the Berlin Philharmonic performing Beethoven 5 with modern instruments and producing a sound unknown by the composer.  I can live with all of this, having known neither original.  Detail will change but the essence will remain.

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I've been reading this thread with great interest and I'm as puzzled as most of you are. Let me note that we don't have a lot of opportunities to see MacMillan in the US, at least in recent years. Last season, ABT presented his R&J and Manon, both warmly received by audiences. MacMillan was Associate Director at ABT for five years in the 1980s (when Baryshnikov was Artistic Director), but only made two new ballets there. I vaguely remember Wild Boy as a vehicle for Baryshnikov that disappeared when Baryshnikov left the company. http://www.kennethmacmillan.com/kenneth-macmillan/biography.html

 

I don't recall Mayerling being presented in the U.S. and confess that, after seeing a DVD, I don't miss it. I adore R&J and Manon, but Mayerling didn't seem to have the wealth of thrilling PdD of the other two. (Perhaps I would appreciate it more in the theater.)

 

Let me add that Robert Gottlieb, the brilliant dance critic now writing for the New York Observer, refers to "my firm embargo of the schmaltzy Manon" in his review of the ABT 2014 Met season: http://observer.com/2014/07/the-season-at-american-ballet-theatre/  (Gottlieb was the editor-in-chief at Knopf and brought us a wealth of great ballet books in the '70s.)

 

Someone here thought that Americans are too prudish to appreciate MacMillan. While there are ridiculously prudish segments of American culture, you don't see them at the ballet, so I wouldn't put much stock on that. 

 

We can see much more Ashton: The Dream, Cinderella, A Month in the Country, and Sylvia, just in the last year. His ABT rep: http://www.abt.org/education/archive/choreographers/ashton_s.html

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