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The Audience View on Casting


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On the RB Manon thread Aileen said:

 

Post #259 refers:  http://www.balletcoforum.com/index.php?/topic/7881-the-royal-ballet-manon-autumn-2014/page-9#entry107686

 

 

" I think that there are questions to be asked about casting generally (ie whether the RB should be more particular about casting some principals in some roles) and about the wisdom of casting dancers in certain roles when they have recently returned from injury or when they are nearing the end of heir careers. Let's remember that this forum is not representative of people going to watch a ballet performance. Most people only go occasionally.They are not much interested in factors which lead to a less than stellar performance (and that includes dancer development and debuts). The are only going to judge the performance on what they see and that will include wobbles and uncertain technique. "

 

She has made some interesting points but let's not be RB-centric about this.  What are our opinions on casting???

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There have been quite a few comments lately about making allowances for dancers returning from injury and this surprises me.  I simply don't believe any reputable company would allow its dancers to perform demanding principal roles before they were fully fit and capable of a good performance. Or that the dancers themselves would want to.   As they say at Wimbledon: to appear on court is a declaration of fitness.  So let's not patronise these dedicated and level-headed professionals by suggesting otherwise.

 

As for aging dancers, I think it is fair comment to point out that a lack of youthful brilliance can be overlooked in appreciation of their experience and charisma in performance.  I had a friend (a professional ballet dancer) who simply couldn't bear to watch Fonteyn in her last few seasons but her audience forgave her waning physical prowess, preferring to see her artistry and interpretation.  No one watching her as Juliet towards the end of her career saw her as mature and middle-aged.

 

And the opposite also applies.  I'm sure there are plenty of Ballet.co-ers who wish, as I do, that certain very technically gifted and dazzling performers would concentrate more on their acting and less on the fireworks and party tricks!

 

Linda

 

edited for typo.

Edited by loveclassics
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I'm a balletomane who would attend almost every performance of my favorite companies if I could, living along with the life of those companies in all their vagaries, watching dancers develop their interpretations etc. But...back in reality I live far from major centers of classical ballet, and I often plan trips to see a cluster of performances in a particular city. Sort of a mini-festival approach. This has slightly altered my onetime "inside baseball" approach to casting and performances especially since I can't always choose exactly the dates I am able to attend.

 

Sometimes I am interested in seeing a less-experienced dancer or a close-to-retirement one--that may even be the reason for attending a particular performance--but the performances I see are limited enough that I don't want to find myself constantly making allowances or saying to myself "oh well...I guess xyz was having an off night" or (something I sometimes hear of companies in New York) "well, it's the end of the season and the dancers must be exhausted" etc.  (I'd like to say that money doesn't factor into my attitude, but I'm sure it does at least a bit...)

 

I hope I'm not without compassion! I know perfectly well dancers are only human and I certainly expect careers to have trajectories. Also, companies have to take some risks with casting or younger dancers especially may never develop. But, in my experience, it can add to one's disappointments as a fan to see something that should not be but is well below par and know that that particular cluster of performances may be pretty much IT for quite a while.

Edited by DrewCo
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Do you live in the UK, DrewCo? I ask because you mentioned NYC and baseball.

Those things do give me away! I live in the U.S. -- I have been fortunate enough to do a little ballet-going in London when work took me there and (a little more often) to see the Royal Ballet on tour.

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Regarding injuries - I agree with the statement above - if a dancer is scheduled to dance, I assume the dancer's injury is healed and the dancer is capable of performing.  Issues of confidence should be taken care of in rehearsal.

 

One of the more interesting experiences I've had in years of watching famous Romeos was the evening when a dancer from the corps undertook the role.  It was exciting watching him explore the character and begin to make it his own.

 

As for an ageing dancer.......I saw what was probably one of Fonteyn's last performances of Sleeping Beauty, Act III, where she was merely sketching in the steps and yet she was brilliant and brought the audience to a collective sigh of gratitude simply by stepping into arabesque - the proportions so perfect.  On the other hand, seeing Nureyev well beyond his time, left me with sadness at the sight.  He was by then dancing for himself, not for the audience.   So, the dancer needs to make an artistic decision when to stop - not an emotional one.

 

I would like to see more casting against type.  As I understand it, Cynthia Gregory was never cast as Juliet.  Various reasons were given but I would have liked to see her dance that role.

 

I remember when a major company came on tour with ticket price reflecting "famous company" with not one principal dancing.  It was Christmas time and I would guess the principals were out guesting various Nutcracker's.  When I buy a ticket I expect at least a principal or two to dance, unless otherwise advertised.   

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Regarding post #2 (above), I think that the analogy with tennis players is a good one - but I would use it another way. They and ballet dancers may both be physically fit to play or perform after an injury lay-off but it takes time for one to get 'match fit' again and for the other to feel fully confident dancing on stage again. And returning to peak form can only be achieved by doing the 'real thing' of playing matches or performing in public..

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I remember when a major company came on tour with ticket price reflecting "famous company" with not one principal dancing.  It was Christmas time and I would guess the principals were out guesting various Nutcracker's.  When I buy a ticket I expect at least a principal or two to dance, unless otherwise advertised.   

 

 

We had a similar thing at the Lowry some years ago when the Mariinsky and Bolshoi visited.  Initially the tickets were around half the London prices but with the Mariinsky there was only one principal so perhaps that was acceptable.  For the following year with the Bolshoi again very few principals but London prices.  I chose not to go!

 

I feel a bit hypocritical really because I look at casting for the companies I follow and I love watching the youngsters getting a chance and often I have found the performances very rewarding.

 

However Aileen, Drew and Anjuli have a valid point.  If you are not familiar with a company or are only an occasional visitor to the ballet should you expect to see the "top" dancers.

 

One company I follow some years ago had several principals reaching the end of their careers and the soloists were dancing most of the leading roles (and we saw wonderful performances) but on more than one occasion I heard audience members muttering because principal dancers weren't dancing.  On one of those occasions I felt that I had to tell the people that they were about to see one of the very best dancers in the company performing the role and that they should be very grateful that they were able to see him!

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Regarding post #2 (above), I think that the analogy with tennis players is a good one - but I would use it another way. They and ballet dancers may both be physically fit to play or perform after an injury lay-off but it takes time for one to get 'match fit' again and for the other to feel fully confident dancing on stage again. And returning to peak form can only be achieved by doing the 'real thing' of playing matches or performing in public..

 

To continue the tennis analogy even further, a top professional player coming back from serious injure is unlikely to plunge straight into the first round of a Grand Slam.  They would play a few smaller tournaments first,  to get used to the idea of playing competitive tennis.

 

So, is there an argument here for Principals who have been off with an injury to come back on stage in a less strenuous role, possibly a soloist part for a couple of performances?  Rather than plunging straight back into a Principal role, with the possibility of over straining muscles that seem fine in rehearsal, but are not quite up to the stress of a proper performance?

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How easy casting is when you have no responsibility for it or its impact on the company's artistic reputation , the dancers' development,company morale, audience attendance or balancing the books. In real life casting is far from easy.Do you cast and dancer X because the role will clearly suit them , dancer Y because  they need the challenge or dancer Z who will only give a so, so performance but who, because of their seniority, should be given a chance and is valuable in other roles?

 

Casting dancers who are well known to the general public clearly has a significant impact on ticket sales but there are few such dancers today .As far as the general public is concerned Carlos Acosta seems to be the only person currently.dancing regularly with the Royal Ballet who is able to guarantee significant advance ticket sales.Like Darcey Bussell his fame is sufficient to persuade the occasional ballet goer that buying tickets for a performance in which he is cast  guarantees that they will see the very best that the company can offer.

 

Enthusiastic reviews of a particular programme or individual dancers involved in it may persuade a few to attend a performance during a run but does not seem to carry over to subsequent revivals. Ballet goers, who you might expect to show some interest in what trusted reviewers say are outstanding performers in particular roles, continue to follow their favourite dancers and show little interest in widening their experience of the interpretation of roles. I know that cost is a significant factor, it is for all of us, but only ever to go to performances by your favourite dancers significantly limits your experience of any ballet and may put you off a work if the dancers are miscast in it..I know some ballet goers who,in order to ensure that they see the widest range of interpretations, keep notes of the casts that they have seen so that they book for different dancers when the ballet is next revived.

 

Generally speaking it is the choreographer and the ballet that loom largest in my ballet going decisions. I loathe soviet style Swan Lakes with their jesters, relentless dancing through the mime sections,slow motion,self indulgent,virtually static Act 2 pas de deux,  and happy endings .I think that Danilova's description of the contemporary Russian take on ballet as "exhibitions of dancing" is sadly accurate..Most of all I loathe Grigorovitch's cliche ridden choreography and productions but I will brave all this in order to see an interesting dancer such as Smirnova. As a result I generally need to know the casts before I part with my money for performances by either the Bolshoi or the Mariinsky. I do not go to Don Quixote very often because it has a poor score and a dubious choreographic text but I will go to see the Bolshoi perform it because they do so with such wholehearted vulgarity. I do not think that it is a ballet that suits the Royal because vulgarity does not seem to come naturally to the company although, regrettably, not all of its current dancers are above empty displays of technique. As far as the Royal's Don Q is concerned it will be a particular dancer or cast that will persuade me to go. But if the Michailovsky bring their reconstruction of The Flames of Paris to London I shall not need to see the cast before I buy a ticket.. 

 

In the 1980's and 90's casting had a significant impact on my ballet going and that of many others that I know.The Royal Ballet would announce an Ashton programme but when you saw the casts you would find that there were very few performances that you actually wanted to attend.Strangely enough that limited number of performances were those which all the "regulars" seemed to attend. I will admit that while the announcement of the Ashton mixed bill that is currently being filled me with enthusiasm that rapidly waned when the casting  for Symphonic was announced.The presence of Matthew Golding's name among the cast made me hesitate because of what I have seen him do so far I know that if I do go to see other performances which he is scheduled to dance it will be because I want to see the ballet and the rest of the cast.  

 

When it comes to the dancer of mature years you hope and trust that they will know when the time has come to retire, and that they will do so at a time when the audience feels pangs of regret rather than a sense of relief. The sad thing about dancing is that at the age when an actor or an opera singer has the experience to begin to bring the most profound understanding and artistry to their roles a dancer of the same age, giving such performances, must be contemplating retirement. It is the combination of  experience and artistry that  made Sibley's,Seymour's and Benjamin's mature interpretations so compelling. I for one hope that we never have another director like Ross Stretton who regarded the more mature dancer as "dead wood".

 

But the young dancer needs to be given a chance too. I will happily go to young dancer's debut in roles.I hope that Ican trust management not to over part a young dancer. But developing the young dancer requires time and coaching resources and programming pieces that give the opportunity to gain experience and develop stage skills. Past experience has taught me to be wary of debuts by more mature dancers who have failed to register as stage performers in smaller roles. A dancer has to bring considerably more to a performance of Swan Lake than an efficient technique and the ability to do Big swans and yet I can remember some debuts during the late seventies and the eighties when that is all the dancer actually brought to the performance. The company should have a system in place to develop its dancers but it does not seem to have one and taking up a contract with BRB has proved a smart career move for more than one dancer.

 

As it no longer has the touring company to perform a training function the Covent Garden company should be programming ballets that provide this function such as Two Pigeons rather than treating roles like Myrthe and Lilac Fairy as suitable for learners.It is one thing cast an outstanding young dancer in these roles  but quite another to cast dancers in them as if they were minor roles suitable for the young and inexperienced. That sort of casting decision can quickly lead to the idea that these are not Principal's roles with the result that their impact is significantly reduced and the structure of the ballet damaged.The fact that the Covent Garden company has, so far, shown no sign of adapting its programming to provide development opportunities, and its recent recruitment decisions suggests that it is still more inclined  to buy in dancers  than develop them itself.

 

 

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An interesting read, FLOSS.  

 

Gone are the days during the dance boom where if you didn't get your standing room place number by 6.30 am for for that evening's performance by Baryishnikov and Kirkland, or Baryishnikov and Makarova, or Dowell and Makarova, or Gregory and Bujones ... or any number of other heady mixes ... you would simply not get one of the 200 places - given that all of the 3,800 seats at the Met were already sold out.  During those seasons my sleep patterns were regularly disturbed.  Across the plaza at what was then 'State Theatre' it was of course the choreographer who ruled the roost .... not that the dancers weren't celebrated for their interpretations.  Still it was the dance itself that came first unless it was a very special occasion, ..... say, any one of the five Farrell farewell performances.  (I went to them all ... thank heavens there were no ticket limitations then - and how memorable they were ... )   Of course there were the Balanchine devotees who you would see at virtually everything ... their lives being dictated by such ... and the Robbins club ... and those who came for the music.  Somehow it was different from at the Met.  This was the House that George would build having built SAB ... It won't happen again ... it couldn't in the same way ... but it did pay off.  It STILL is, albeit with refreshing differences.  NYCB is dancing today with a zest that seems to have not been wholly remembered for decades.  I think somehow Kevin O'Hare senses a need with the Royal Ballet and has chosen to re-construct/develop from the bottom up.  This will take time, of course, and patience but I believe it to be prudent.  It is, as you suggest FLOSS, a thankless job in many ways (i.e., casting in a company like the RB).  Someone will damn you no matter WHAT you do as the options are seemingly limitless whilst the realities oh, so limited.  I admire O'Hare's determination and feel it will ultimately mark his regime.  He has, as I've said before, showed that he is willing to stick to his guns ... and the RBS seems to be happily following in his suit.  This year's graduating class has some wonderfully prime candidates.  (Let's hope a few of those can be even now enticed to find their way into the RB ranks.)  I don't know why entirely sometimes, but I sense the future will be ... or should I say CAN be - rich.  The potential is there.  That's worth a smile at least.   :)  Fingers crossed. 

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Edited by Bruce Wall
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As it no longer has the touring company to perform a training function the Covent Garden company should be programming ballets that provide this function such as Two Pigeons rather than treating roles like Myrthe and Lilac Fairy as suitable for learners.It is one thing cast an outstanding young dancer in these roles  but quite another to cast dancers in them as if they were minor roles suitable for the young and inexperienced. That sort of casting decision can quickly lead to the idea that these are not Principal's roles with the result that their impact is significantly reduced and the structure of the ballet damaged.The fact that the Covent Garden company has, so far, shown no sign of adapting its programming to provide development opportunities, and its recent recruitment decisions suggests that it is still more inclined  to buy in dancers  than develop them itself.

 

 

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I can remember all the SB prologue fairies being principals or senior soloists, these days hardened ballet goers only roll up at the start of act one, I'lll probably follow their example before long.

 

Confession:  I actually like Grigorovich.

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Oh, I don't doubt that casting is enormously difficult. I do wonder whether there is any structured system of dancer development and training. In particular, I wonder about male partnering. I saw something on the ROH's website a while ago featuring two dancers being coached in a pdd. The male partner (who was not a recent joiner) didn't seem to have much of an idea how to go about it; even the basics had to be shown to him. I just wonder whether some dancers get left behind because there isn't time to teach them as part of general development and, as a result, the same dancers tend to get cast repeatedly because it is easier. Some of the very junior dancers are getting a lot of opportunities now but there is a crop of older dancers who don't appear much in featured roles or are cast in more character type roles (usually with some dancing) and I wonder about them. Have they reached their 'natural limit' or could they have progressed further but were not as well regarded as some more junior dancers by the previous AD. There are some dancers who have looked uncomfortable or lacklustre or even struggled in roles (eg in Beauty and Giselle) and it seems surprising that they were cast in those roles. I don't doubt that some dancers are more assertive in asking for roles (or declining to dance roles) than others.

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I wish that I could work up more enthusiasm for the Fairy Variations but I have been treating them as optional for some time now.I remember when they were regularly cast from among the ranks of the Principals and you would have been sorry to have missed any of them.The company would probably argue that such stellar casting is unnecessary now when the gap between the technical ability of the highest ranks in the company and the lower tiers is so much narrower than in the past. What that ignores are the essential elements of artistry and stylistic sensitivity which in my opinion count for far more than mere technique in any performance.But it seems to me that if the dancers who appear in those roles fail to register as they should perhaps questions should be asked about their coaching or lack of it.

 

All too often the variations are churned out mechanically as if it is all rather a bore which of course makes it boring for the audience too.The speed at which the music is played does not help either.But if ENB was able to put on Beauty and get the variations pitch perfect then the Royal ought to be able to do so as well.I know that Alfreda Thoroughgood was involved in that revival and  if she was indeed ENB's secret weapon then common sense would dictate that she should be invited to assist in the next RB revival to work her magic on the cast.But that won't happen in the same way that you are unlikely to find anyone senior going upstairs to see how productions and individual performances register from the dizzy heights of the Amphitheat

 

I do not know whether management knows or cares about what the specialist audience thinks of the performances that it puts on.It may be that only a significant long term drop in ticket sales would make them take action.  Perhaps someone should write to Kevin O'Hare expressing these concerns. It would be interesting to know his response. 

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I love the Fairy Variations in the Beauty Prologue. The music and choreography are full of variety and interest. I agree that they were rather disappointing in the RB's run in this Spring and that they were more enjoyable in ENB's last run. You need dancers with a lot of on-stage personality and charm, as well as technique, to do them justice.

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I can't remember the last Beauty I saw, it is not really one of my favourites.  However, I do remember that the only person who really stood out in the Fairy Variations was Laura Morera, who got it absolutely perfect.  As far as the others were concerned, I could only say that some of the dancers were making a real effort - and it showed in their tense arms and hands, and fixed expressions.  Also, a lot of the timings were off, with several of the fairies a little behind the music.  All in all, the whole thing smacked of a very good school performance, rather than a professional one.  I was quite startled, actually. 

 

Kevin O'Hare shouldn't need us to write to him.  He only has to read the thread regarding the Ashton Mixed bill to see what we think of some the casting decisions. 

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Aileen, you probably watched a SB performance at a time when so many dancers at the RB were injured and off, when the bulk of the dancing was left to the few dancers still standing and able to dance, who had to perform multiple roles in the various Acts, sometimes in two shows on the same day. Some may have even stood in at very short notice with minimum rehearsal time. Those dancers saved the performances. I remember reading (Ballet Association report?) that Miss Beatriz Stix-Brunell danced her Fairy Variation, also danced Lilac Fairy and changed back into corps roles. There were others who danced two different corps roles and two demanding soloists role in one given performance.

 

I don't feel your comparison under such circumstances is justified. 

Edited by Nina G.
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I know that there was a lot of injury during the last run of Beauty. It was a series of performances during which the Lilac Fairy had a much depleted entourage. It was not that run that I had in mind when I wrote about the casting of the Fairy Variations although I thought it remarkable for the number of inadequate Lilac Fairies that the company managed to put on stage. It was a more general comment about the casting of these roles over the last ten years or so.

 

The fact that ENB dancers managed to dance these variations in a manner and style that looked far more like the Royal used to perform them suggests the problem at Covent Garden may have more to do with the coaching or lack of it than the initial selection of dancers.

 

The problem is that unless time and care is taken on coaching and developing dancers in these roles then performers will pick up the bad habits of the dancers that they have seen and repeat them. Perhaps one of the problems is that Beauty is performed so often that management  feels that it canskimps on rehearsal time for these role in order to accommodate everything else that needs to be prepared. As the company no longer fields an "A team" in these sorts of roles except when a performance is being broadcast the default position of picking up how these roles should be performed by watching exemplary performances is no linger available to the young dancer. The amount of chopping and changing that occurs which has nothing to do with injury or illness does not help either.

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I suppose that depends Chrischris on whether the way they are currently performed finds the essence of the role as it was created or if it has become fuzzy and diluted with time.

 

I know we have had discussions about this sort of thing in the past, but I don't like the six o'clock extensions inserted into 19th century classics and I find that some of the more extreme of standard moves take longer to execute so perhaps the fleetness of foot required in a lot of Ashton is lost or indeed the exquisite upper body movements.  

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Quite.  Nobody's going to expect a carbon copy of 50 years ago, but at the same time the style of a piece needs to be respected.  For me, that would include extensions at closer to 90 than 180 degrees in Sleeping Beauty :) 

 

I agree with Floss: the first time I saw the Royal do Sleeping Beauty was in the 1989 run, and I'm pretty certain we had at least two of the Fairies danced by principals (Viviana Durante and Karen Paisey would be my guess).  Admittedly, that was in the days when the RB had a much greater abundance of principals than they do now, but even so they have quite a few under-used principals now.  Nowadays, those roles often seem to go to aspiring junior dancers.  I see the point, in that they're short solos, but as discussed above they are not infrequently under-cast.

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Does it really matter if roles change and people don't perform them they way they did 50 years ago?

 

I don't have a problem with individual dancers putting their own personality into the role.  But as Janet says, their technique should be suitable for the choreography. 

 

I think the problem is that there seems to be a tendency now to use a "one size fits all" approach.  Ashton's muse was Fonteyn, a small, neat dancer, and his works require speed, precision footwork and musicality.  It is quite possible that some of the taller dancers can excel in his work, but they must be prepared to perform it in the way in which it was intended.  Once you start adapting the steps to suit the dancer, such as slowing down the music, you lose the whole essence of the work.

 

You don't change a soprano role in an opera to suit someone who can't manage the high notes, so why would the Royal want to cast any dancer who is simply not technically appropriate for Ashton's works.  Especially when there are dancers who would be much more suitable languishing on the sidelines. 

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I don't mind if the Fairy variations are danced by principals or people in their first year in the corps de ballet so long as they have the personality and the confidence to make their roles sing: see Antoinette Sibley aged about 20 in the recently televised 1959 performance, or Francesca Hayward last season, doing possibly the best Songbird I've ever seen. The trouble with too many others - and it's not new - is that they do the roles as if they've been told they'll be fired if they make a single mistake - very correct, very careful and very unexciting.

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