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HAS narrative ballet lost the plot?


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Just discovered some very interesting musings (http://thirdcast.wordpress.com/2014/11/24/has-narrative-ballet-lost-the-plot/) by Luke Jennings on this subject in this week's Links (yes, I'm playing catch-up again, I'm afraid). Is he right? I can think of a number of "narrative" ballets (or other dance works, of course, although contemporary dance seems to cover narrative rather less frequently than ballet) where the narrative thread is pretty flimsy at best (is that perhaps a 21st-century thing?). He pretty much restricts himself to the Royal Ballet, but what about other companies who rely significantly more on narrative works? Northern Ballet would be a prime example, BRB to a lesser extent. How well do those work, structure-wise? Are they densely-structured or, like every ballet version of Alice in Wonderland I've seen, are they little more than a linear retelling of the story? And does it matter?

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I thtink the key line in Jennings' piece is "caring about the characters."

 

Do we care about what happens to  Odette or Gisellle or Nikiya or Romeo/Juliet?  I think so, yes.  Their lives are on the line.

 

Do we care as much about what happens to Cinderella?  For me - no - not as much.  She's a sympathetic character but her actual life is not in danger.

 

Alice never comes across as real (for me).

 

The lighter story lines such as in Coppelia or La Fille - I care - but I know the story line is a "fun" one.

 

The more the character is at risk the more deeply it touches us - or should.

 

I also find (for me) that no matter the story line, no matter the wonderful choreography, if the music is not memorable - doesn't move me - nothing will help.

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I think that no-one can get it right all the time but there is a strong recent history of great narrative ballet going back, say 30 years.

 

I am most familiar with BRB and Northern Ballet so I will list just a few of each that I think particularly strong:

 

Hobson's Choice (Bintley)

Far from the Madding Crowd (Bintley)

Edward II (Bintley)

Cyrano (Bintley)

 

Madame Butterfly (Nixon)

Wuthering Heights (Nixon)

Great Gatsby (Nixon) 

Dangerous Liaisons (Nixon)

 

Tale of Two Cities (Marston)

Romeo and Juliet (Morricone/Gable)

Christmas Carol (Morricone/Gable)

 

Then, of course, we have Mark Bruce's Dracula in the mix too.

 

As a member of the audience I sometimes think that the synopses in the programme can make the work seem over-plotted and perhaps a briefer synopsis that leaves more to the audience imagination would work better.  A good example of that is Northern Ballet's Dangerous Liaisons where multiple scenes are described when it is the relationships between the protagonists need to be established and the rest is obvious when watching the production.

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What an interesting article!  I also enjoyed the comments (almost as long as the actual article) by Mary Tomlins. Of course it is right to give encouragement and a platform for young, less experienced choreographers, but I do feel that the Covent Garden stage should be reserved for ballets worthy of it . By the way no-one has mentioned Boris Eiffman and his ballet company.  He comes up with a new narrative ballet every year or so and they are usually riviting.  He uses a collage of music, inventive scenery and dancers who are actors as well as brilliant technicians and I have become a groupie! 

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Judith Mackrell's Blog piece - yesterday's Links - also plays into this discussion:

 

http://www.theguardian.com/stage/dance-blog/2014/nov/26/why-dance-choreographers-need-editors

 

I have a feeling that a good deal of Cathy Marston's success with some fairly dense stories has been to do with her association on most with Edward Kemp, Theatre Director, Dramaturg and, now, Director at RADA.

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The collaborative choreographic laboratory being held at Northern Ballet's HQ in May/June this year specifically refers to story ballet and mentions mentors.  The outcomes could be interesting.

 

The collaborating parties, Royal Ballet, Northern Ballet and Scottish Ballet will each give one of their young choreographers a place on the laboratory and there is one place advertised for audition.

 

http://www.balletcoforum.com/index.php?/topic/8299-northern-ballet-scottish-ballet-royal-ballet-choreographic-workshop/

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Judith Mackrell's Blog piece - yesterday's Links - also plays into this discussion:

 

http://www.theguardian.com/stage/dance-blog/2014/nov/26/why-dance-choreographers-need-editors

 

I have a feeling that a good deal of Cathy Marston's success with some fairly dense stories has been to do with her association on most with Edward Kemp, Theatre Director, Dramaturg and, now, Director at RADA.

 

I was wondering whether designing a narrative ballet for the stage might be a bit like the approach taken for writing a film script.  I remember a successful scriptwriter giving a talk when I was a student, and saying that the biggest mistake aspiring screen writers make is to put too many words on the page.  He said that many of the best films worked because much of the action was conveyed by the actors' facial expressions and body language, rather than dialogue. 

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Akram Khan had a dramaturg for Dust, even though that's not, strictly speaking, a narrative ballet. Scottish Ballet had something akin to a dramaturg for Streetcar. As someone commented BTL in one of the articles, there are two slightly different but related issues: (a) the telling of the story, which may involve dispensing with some characters and pruning certain events which are not fundamental to the narrative; and (B) editing so that the ballet does not become too long or ramble or become repetitive.

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I'd like to add The Three Musketeers to Janet's list.  It's a complicated story but was excellently told when I saw it at Sadlers Wells a few years ago (Northern Ballet, I think) with both the comedy and the drama well portrayed.

 

Linda

 

It would indeed have been Northern Ballet and I am still hoping it will come back into the rep!

 

David Nixon often uses Patricia Doyle as his dramaturg.  Her association with NB goes back to Christopher Gable's day.

 

Speaking of NB pre-David Nixon, Didy Veldman did 2 cracking productions for the company - Carmen and Streetcar Named Desire - wish I could see them again too!

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I agree and Luke Jennings' comment on J Mackrell's blog  seems especially relevant to many recent works. Some narrative pieces do seem very old fashioned in their themes and attitudes. Some were just never going to work-and an expereinced observer would be able to point this out.

 

Even better, would be for choreographers and designers to consider the audience a little more with respect to angles of viewing and lighting- I am sure many forumers would be happy to volunteer their services as audience guinea pigs in rehearsal!

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Most might agree that storytelling without words is not easy.  So why not add a few words at judicious moments to help focus the action?  The value of doing so, to my mind, was well demonstrated in Witch Hunt, Cathy Marston's last work in Bern and brought to the Linbury in May of last year.  After a danced prologue, Swiss actress, Mona Kloos, moved the story on from the sidelines at intervals, using a few, well-constructed sentences until, towards the end, she was gradually absorbed into the action and we were given her final admonition to the modern world: "... but I have nothing left but this witch!"

 

https://www.flickr.com/photos/dancetabs/8779366687/in/set-72157633600994740

 

Eighteen months on, I can't forget it, so the technique seems to have worked for me.

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Akram Khan had a dramaturg for Dust, even though that's not, strictly speaking, a narrative ballet.

 

Really?  That's interesting.  And that reminds me of another question I was going to ask last night: where do you draw the line as to what is and isn't narrative?  Are "balleticised" biographies of people "narrative", and if not, why not?  The "narrative" in some ballets is so vague as to be barely there - maybe just, say, a relationship between a woman and a man, and something happens.  And what about Balanchine's oft-repeated comment that when you put a man and a woman on stage there's already a story?

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Most might agree that storytelling without words is not easy.  So why not add a few words at judicious moments to help focus the action?  The value of doing so, to my mind, was well demonstrated in Witch Hunt, Cathy Marston's last work in Bern and brought to the Linbury in May of last year.  After a danced prologue, Swiss actress, Mona Kloos, moved the story on from the sidelines at intervals, using a few, well-constructed sentences until, towards the end, she was gradually absorbed into the action and we were given her final admonition to the modern world: "... but I have nothing left but this witch!"

 

https://www.flickr.com/photos/dancetabs/8779366687/in/set-72157633600994740

 

Eighteen months on, I can't forget it, so the technique seems to have worked for me.

because was in english.what if it had been in swiss german. or mandarin. one of balllet's greatest assets is its wordlessness

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Katherine:  It was, indeed, in English in London, and had been in Swiss German in Bern.  And it would no doubt be readily translatable for performance elsewhere.  There might be a job in it for you one day!  But seriously, the dramatic issue concerned a present-day revisionist look at a historical decision, the execution in 1782 of Anna Goeldi, the last 'witch' in Europe, pardoned by Swiss authorities in 2007.  Better explained here:   http://www.balletcoforum.com/index.php?/topic/3594-bernballett-witch-hunt-hexenhatz/?p=46364

 

I'm perfectly content to accept that this was Dance theatre rather than ballet - my point is that it was effective.

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I think it's encouraging that narrative ballets are making a comeback, especially if it means that the recent concentration on more and more difficult and flashy technique and the blurring of the boundary between dance and acrobatics in plotless ballets is slowing down. But the thing that interests me about Jennings' article, which I didn't really see him answer after asking it, is why choreographers these days have more difficulty than just a generation ago in creating narrative ballets that really draw an audience into the story. It can't just be that today's choreographers are working without editorial help, because earlier choreographers also did that quite a lot of the time. I'm wondering if the educational system has changed or if there's some sort of greater cultural thing going on.

 

Having said that, I do agree with Judith Mackrell that it's a good idea to have some sort of outside input into creative work, because the creator is usually too close to the creation to be objective, and changes and cuts can feel like betraying or killing your offspring, which means that creators aren't always willing to do it without someone insisting.

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It seems to me that there is something - as Melody notes above - which has changed.  

 

Many of the newer dvd's my husband and I watch don't follow the dramatic structure used by tellers of stories for a couple of thousand years.

 

I remember being taught that a story has a beginning (characters and plot are introduced), a middle (characters and plot interact and there is some action/change), and an ending (a resolution).  But all too often in "modern" story telling while there is a beginning and a middle - there is an end but no ending.  It all just sort of stops - no resolution.  At least - none that I can detect.

 

I put this down to the inability of the author to bring the story to resolution - that takes planning and thought.  I admit that I could be wrong to ascribe this to a lack of ability/imagination on the part of the writer - maybe it is acceptable.  Maybe it's modern and sophisticated.   Since I am neither modern nor sophisticated, I am not impressed.  I want to have a resoltuion.

 

The lack of a resolution - for me - wipes out the entire impact of the story and empties it of "reason."    An ending doesn't have to be cataclysmic.  I'm not looking for whiz-bang "gotcha" surprise endings.  Just a resolution to the plot.  I'm open to the possibility of several resolutions.  But when, seemingly in the midst of the story - suddenly the credits come up and then the screen goes blank - I feel cheated.

 

What does all this mean?  Well, whether it is a play, movie, opera or story ballet it will fail to register - fail, as Melody says above "to draw me in" - and I surely won't go see it again.

 

As for Eifman's ballets (mentioned in a post above)- while the dancers are superb - the story lines and choreography are all so very frantic - little to no change of pace - and after a while the observer craves a moment of rest, a moment to reflect.  I can't imagine any other company taking on his work - so it is not transportable and will probably cease to be when Eifman retires.

 

For a story ballet to be successful - among other things -  it must be able to live beyond the span of its original cast.  And - beyond it's time of origin.  And reach beyond the cultural outlook of it's original audience.  the plot and characters must appeal to nearly universal human experience.  Every culture - and generation -  can understand loneliness, unrequited love, illness, betrayal, domination, death, birth, fear, happiness, hope, etc- 

 

No wonder success is so rare.

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While I don't necessarily dispute the jist of his argument, how many narrative ballets recently created by the Royal Ballet were expensive failures?

 

He doesn't really mention which ballets he is thinking of (apart from a mention of Age of Anxiety in the comments), but I recall several of his articles using Alice as his prime example, given that the fourth run in five seasons is already sold out before performances have started (and the first three runs were the fastest to sell out I remember seeing), I doubt the Royal Ballet will want to do anything differently. Raven Girl seems to fit the bill a bit more (I don't actually remember how well it had sold, but I can't imagine it will be revived any day soon), but while he wasn't necessarily ecstatic about it, he was still a lot more positive than about Alice. And regarding Age of Anxiety, the bill was pretty much commercially doomed before it had even opened for being too contemporary (and too highly priced for it and lacking the pop appeal of the Carbon Life bill).

 

He may have a point, but as long as the "failures" fill in the coffers, I doubt the RB will listen.

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