In the name of Auguste Vestris


Critiques / Reviews

’Vestris’ replies to the organisers of the Rural Retreat 2005

January 2005

The organisers of the Rural Retreat 2005 have posed these questions to the readers of CriticalDance:

Q/ Where lies the creativity in the ballet company ?

A/ There is no such thing as "collective creativity". An act of creation occurs first in the individual human mind.

The issue is therefore the education of the ballet dancer as an individual, from age eight or nine onwards.

Only dancers who are fully conversant with classical music from a professional, technical standpoint, will ever create significant new works, or even become truly significant as dancers. The Academies need to review the curriculum to focus less on the bodily, and more on the intellectual development of their charges.

Also, it is hard to be creative if one knows one will be injured out of the profession no later than age 27.

Unless we be willing to deal with the flaws in what currently passes for technique, and stop treating dancers like India rubber or human cattle, the epidemic of injury will continue to rob us of our best elements before they reach artistic maturity.

Q/ How can we ensure they remain creative organisations when it remains difficult to finance new, innovative work ?

A/ Classical dance is a step-based language. Let us stop fiddling around with crossover dance, diluting and watering down the language until we are left babbling like morons, and get back to a step-based language. We will promptly find that in-house choreographers emerge, as did Ashton, Gore and Cranko.

We should be concerned with promoting step-based choreography, and forget, for the time being, fancy costume, costly décor, video-installations and who knows what. Financing will then be less of an issue. De Valois, Ashton, Walter Gore, et al. all started with chamber ballet, and there was a large audience for it.

Very recently, both J. Martinez and J.G. Bart here at the Opera, have put up step-based choreography to actual music, rather than bruitage. And, yes, there is a large audience for it.

Q/ Is it being creative to produce yet another version of the Ivanov/Petipa Swan Lake ?

A/ Is it being creative to conduct yet another performance of Haydn’s symphonies ?

Q/ What is the best way for companies to nurture choreographic talent within ballet companies ?

A/ "Creativity" does not fall from a clear blue sky. It is LEARNT. Produce as many classical ballets from the repertoire as possible. Empty out the archives and put up all the old ballets. Let the company to dance them. Study their steps. Through mastery of the old, new ideas will come.

And ask Beethoven why he bothered to study Telemann, Haendel and Bach.

Q/ Are all the innovators coming from contemporary dance backgrounds ?

A/ Given the fact that the stream of subsidy has, over the last twenty years, been entirely and exclusively directed to modern dance, and that the mass media, with few exceptions, ignores and/or insults the classical dance, should one be surprised to find that someone who wants to be able to eat and pay the rent, will call himself a "contemporary" choreographer no matter WHAT he may think privately ?

Q/ The branding of ballet: how can ballet attract a new audience ?

A/ Over fifty years in the theatre has taught me one thing: people, young or old, will attend anything, ONCE.

For them to return, they have to like it. For people to like it nowadays, when the "competition" includes necrophile films like "Crash", "Kiss", or "Funny Games", not to speak of homicidal video-games, the classical dance has to be damn good.

"Damn good" in my book, means demonstrating the power and worth of values other than killing, mutilating and destroying other human beings.

Are we damn good ? Or are we trying to compete with homicidal video-games and the kind of perversity served up, free of charge, on the Internet ? Are we trying to offer up the dancer’s body as Live Titillation, as opposed to electronic Titillation ?

Do not pander to what is perceived as "popular opinion", or "popular taste", when your mind and your conscience tell you that "popular opinion", and "popular taste" are debased and degraded.

We have a responsibility towards the public. That is why people train for ten years to become a dancer, and why they have - heretofore - joyfully accepted the risks and sacrifice that entails.

We CANNOT beat the entertainment industry on its own terrain. Nor should we try.

Q/ Do companies need to ’package’ ballet in order to find an audience - for instance by giving a mixed bill an overall theme such as Birmingham Royal Ballet did recently with its Jazz Triple Bill ? In America, Canada and now even in France, branding of mixed bills seems to be the way forward.

A/ Packaging is useless, if the contents of the package be rubbish.

Here at Paris, for example, there are over one million documents in the Opera Library, scores, libretti and even annotated scores with all the steps, dating back two hundred and more years, gathering dust.

Ninety-five percent of the repertory is never performed. Did we treat classical music that way, the public would shrink down to nothing as well.

There is no end of beautiful things that could be put up, quite quickly actually, and no end of interesting themes than could draw in the public.

The question is, do we trust in the fact that classical dance is nothing more, nor less, than a step-based art form that will eternally be tied to the development of tonal music ?

Do we so trust, the public will attend, in droves.

It is all very well to baldly state that there exist a relationship between the public, on the one side, and the choreographer on the other, but my question is, what sort of a relationship ? Have we "succeeded", if we drive people into the theatre to goggle at rubbish, because we have a skilful ad agency and friends in the mass media ?

There must be NEW step-based choreography. That is the basis for building a firm relationship with the public. This is also the duty that we owe to the next generation of choreographers: if, as dancers, they have not been given the opportunity to dance the repertory of the past and thereby learn our full vocabulary of steps, they will remain as ignorant as the present generation, and continue to choreograph formless writhing that conveys nothing save rank boredom, violence, and one’s ego-state.

Owing to the economic crisis, the classical dance is not enough seen in outlying areas of Europe and elsewhere. Ninety percent of the country is cut off.

Within each major company, let us form small touring groups to tour the country and bring the classical dance even into small towns, as Anna Pavlova did 80 years ago. The issue is not expensive décor and costume, the issue is good dancing. Do it on the cheap !

Last summer, at Blagnac near Toulouse, a tour by the POB sold out so quickly that further performances had straightaway to be scheduled.

That is where the new audience lies, and also, where high-level dancing will inspire young people to join the profession.

Q/ Is it still the case that only the three classic full-length Tchaikovsky ballets sell tickets ?

A/ The reason that the "classic full-length Tchaikovsky ballets" sell tickets (we have just had twenty-three sold out performances of "Beauty" here at Paris, with a couple of hundred people being turned away daily), is that there is ACTUAL DANCING in these ballets.

What we now think of as "classics", were, and are, innovative, because the choreographers were concerned with principles. What were the principles that Didelot, Perrot or Petipa worked with, that allowed them so to innovate ? They worked with mime, with steps and with tonal music, and on that basis, invented new steps, new shading and movement in the torso, new affects. They did not trash the mime or the steps !

Step-based choreography - that term again - mime, and extremely well-composed, intelligent dance music.

These steps, and that music, are a challenge to the instructors, to the dancers, and to the public, and always will be. There will be no ’Grand Soir’, no Big Revelation, following which, steps and tonal music will Get Raptured along with the Fundies, and vanish off into outer space. The actual structure of the human body (and the human ear !) has not changed, substantially, in several hundred thousand years. If we decide to respect the human body, rather than use it like brittle plasticene, the public will respect US.

Q/ What other ways can ballet companies encourage audiences to see and appreciate new work ?

A/ If the new work be good, the public will attend. If it be formless writhing, or a pretentious excuse for pornography, they will react like a scalded cat.

One cannot repeat this enough: forget any choreography that is not step-based. Jean-Guillaume Bart and José Martinez here at Paris have been developing NEW step-based choreography, that is most definitely worth both dancing, and looking at. It is hard work, yes, and one has got to be able to read a score. They have studied extremely hard to be able to do so. Therefore, they are more competent than most of us.

Could there be a message in that ?

As for "encouraging" the public to come, the best publicity is for something that one believes in. If the Press Office of a ballet company have seen the works in rehearsal and believe that they are indeed worthy of being presented, they will not just be mouthing Madison Avenue froth, but will be able to get that enthusiasm over to the public.

Here at Paris, the Press Office has made a notable effort since September 2004 to go beyond the trade press, and get the ballet dealt with in the daily newspapers as a regular news item, by press agencies such as Agence France Presse, right down to the Television Guides, and on prime-time television news spots. Dancers and instructors have been talking to the newspapers about their work. The campaign is paying off, and from the lips of the man in the street, one hears of the ballet increasingly.

Therefore, when the man in the street does decide to come into the theatre, let us not offend him with someone’s recondite, or otherwise stale, ego state.

K.L. Kanter