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Société Auguste Vestris - The ’Wagner’ Issue in Classical Ballet
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The ’Wagner’ Issue in Classical Ballet
July 2001

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Last week, as I sat through several, admittedly brilliant, performances of Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet with the Paris Opera Ballet at the Bastille, Wagner’s bloated bombast came to mind. The ballet is a four-hour marathon. By the time the dancers leave the theatre at 11.30 pm, they will have put in a fourteen-hour day, between class, rehearsal, warm-up, make-up and costumes, waiting between Acts, and so forth. The choreography is a technical labyrinth with a Minotaur at every turn, the principals are called upon to navigate lifts better called salti mortali, and withal, everyone is supposed to be acting his or her heart out. A number of people being out injured at this end of season – not surprisingly - including two Juliets (Mlle. Guérin, Mlle. Guillem), and a couple of Tybalts, and so on, others had to stand in and dance the roles virtually every night. The first level of Wagnerianism, is that demands are being put on people, which drain their entire physical and intellectual substance, not occasionally, but as a habitual occurrence.


Now, one might say that "theatre people are troupers", and "twas always so", and so forth, but there is not a dance physiotherapist or orthopaedist in the world who would not acknowledge that injuries, often of a never-before-seen severity (even broken backs !) are now commonplace. Nervous breakdown has become an occupational illness, even among elite circles in the profession. Waiting backstage as people file out after the evening’s performance is not a pretty sight.


The joy has gone out of dancing. The dancers are navigating between insult, viz. crazy, dangerous and often obscene choreography – and injury, in the most literal sense of the world. They cannot protect themselves, they cannot go out on strike against the choreographer, or the director, because it is their livelihood. The job is up to us, in the outside world.


The next level of Wagnerian bombast, is what is today called technique. Twenty years ago, you might, just, have been able to navigate choreography like Nureyev’s, because you could get away with a somewhat low-key approach. Today, every foot must scrape the ear, every step be as large, as bold, as possible, every jump enormous, no matter what happens on landing. It is all over the top.


A case in point, is the so-called "new generation" of Kirov female dancers, presented at London this season. Where is style, where is judgment, where, above all, is musicality, when rows of skeletal Guillem clones, leg firmly pressed up against the ear, are presented to us as the latest sensation ?


We are dealing with addictive behaviour. Theatre is, after all, a business. It must sell. Artistic directors, not very artistic these days, are, above all, businessmen. They have cottoned on to the fact that their audience spends several hours a day, on those evenings they are not in the theatre, looking into television, video games and other forms of feral "entertainment". They go to see films like "Crash", "Funny Games", or "Kiss", and call necrophilia "art". That is where the roar of approval comes from, when that leg comes up and presses smartly against the ear, or some other ludicrous stunt is performed. It is an addictive, compulsive reaction to physically-thrilling forms of performance, which may be orgiastic, but have nothing whatsoever to do with the classical ballet. Nothing.


Were all this marginal to the mainstream of ballet, it would not be worrying. What is grave, is that this "von Karajan" syndrome is now the mainstream of ballet. As a lone individual, I myself personally could set up an entire company made up of people on soloist level, true artists, who have been side-lined from the major roles over the last fifteen years, in the stampede to put the spotlight on those dancers who can provide the orgiastic "fix", the "rush". The addictive dancers are people possessed of a very particular body type, of a very particular combination of muscle-fibre and lax articulations, an almost freakish combination of strength and flexibility, which enables them, over a relatively short period of time, to turn out performances of absolutely shocking virtuosity, until they burn out by age 31 or 32. These people are now the "étoiles", the principals, in most major companies worldover.


Our epoch is that of the eye, the insatiable, ever-open, voyeur’s eye. Dancers used to simply have to go out there and dance to the music. The audience was, essentially, watching music. Today, and this applies of course most brutally to female dancers, the artists must be photogenic, they must be pencil-slim as a fashion model, their limbs must drape themselves into shapes which give that "camera-flash". But for a dancer, fat is the slow-burning source of energy in brilliant variations, it is the extra push which allows for brio, just when you think you are tired and running out of oxygen. Female dancers in the top companies today are required to be so slender, that they are dancing on raw nerve, devouring the very substance of their bodies, as X-rays of the skeleton will shew.


A case in point is the Paris Opera. This company, which I have had many opportunities to watch over the last six or seven years, is generally considered to be the world’s finest, from a technical standpoint at least. For the men, this may well be an accurate assessment. For the women, the question is, what is meant by technique ? One cannot simply look at feet and legs. Raise your eyes and look closely at the straining neck and shoulder sinews, the dull upper-body positions. There is no follow-through in the back. Where has the épaulement gone ? It has been eliminated, purely and simply, in order to get those legs up.


Each and every female student whose body will not yield that sizzling effect, has been bounced from the Paris Opera School. The technical demands put on female dancers at the Paris Opera today are such, that it is simply unfair to expect of them to act a role. Given the fact that they are required to scale Mount Everest, technically, every night of the week, one should not expect more from those girls than a vague sympathy with the crasser, rhythmical aspects of music. A great art form, reduced to high-tech gymnastics, nicely in step with the music ! Of course, there will be one or two exceptions, one or two minnows will slip through the net, but the overall thrust is just as I have described it.


Are things different in any other top company today ?


The virtuosic use of the body has been with us since flight began, since the end of the eighteenth century, when teachers, notably Auguste Vestris, brought in the soaring leaps called for by the music of Haydn, Beethoven and so forth. That use of the body will not go away, classical ballet will never go back to being chi-chi posturing punctuated by episodes of petite batterie. For over two centuries now, there has been no room in the ballet for people who want to flit about the stage in a pretty costume. But we must draw the line somewhere. The line is where the dancer is so preoccupied with avoiding an accident, with being ludicrously over turned-out, with getting the leg up there, with making it through the Grand National steeple-chase of dangerous lifts or extreme positions, that the poetic, musical part of the brain, the part that generates ideas while you are dancing, the Metaphoric part, is switched off in the race for survival. We have been there for twenty or thirty years now, and I say, enough.


I could be very specific, I could be really nasty, I could name names, and point to specific choreographers, or dancers, but that is not the point.


Let us turn now to the audience. Tell the truth ! Would you, in your heart of hearts, be satisfied, today, in 2001, to see little Lis Jeppesen float out and act her way through the Sylphide ? Would the mystery, the poetry, the unthought thoughts for days and weeks afterwards, be enough for you now ? You know it would not. You crave that hard edge, you crave the Effect, "Etonnez moi !" is the cry from within. Would you truly be able to sit through half-an-hour’s mime scene, without inwardly dozing, or mumbling "When does the floor show start" ? Could you discipline yourself to take a cold, harsh look at what currently passes for a technician, some Guillem-clone, and ask yourself why grand jeté is no longer a sloping arc, rising, resting, and then drifting imperceptibly to the ground, but rather an explosion from a cross-bow, both legs twisting double-jointedly upwards into the empty air ? What is your idol’s torso doing, as that ubiquitous limb veers towards the ear ? Rigor mortis, no doubt.


We must educate ourselves away from addiction. We must get a grip on our own mental processes. We must learn not to writhe in enjoyment at these morbid forms. That is the first step to saving the classical ballet. We must train the mind to be attracted to classical principles. The ballet, in its modern form, is a product of the Italian renascence, of scientific principles expressed in their highest form by people like Dante or Leonardo. Theatrical, they certainly were, and they could even be very "commercial" – but the principles never failed them, and they never failed their principles.


K.L. Kanter