Wendy Perron, Dance Magazine Chief, and Swan Lake Samba Girl Tonya Plank respond to ABT’s “Sleeping Beauty” problem and promise

Here are a couple of interesting responses to my last post, on ABT’s “The Sleeping Beauty.”
From Dance Magazine’s editor in chief, Wendy Perron:
Hi, Apollinaire,
I like your description of the “Hey, let’s put on a show!” spirit of ABT’s “Sleeping Beauty.” It’s too bad there wasn’t time to develop and connect all those ideas. But I felt like the right casting could have helped a lot.
I saw three Auroras and none was a natural Aurora (like, for instance, Jenifer Ringer across the plaza). If ABT had cast Sarah Lane in the role, she would have given the story a beating heart. In all of the old story ballets there are narrative inconsistencies, but we’ve gotten used to them and we focus on who’s dancing the role, who’s animating the story.
Apollinaire responds:
Hi, Wendy! I agree that people tend to be much harder on the narrative inconsistencies of new productions–or revisions–than on those stamped, dusted, and perfumed with time. Thank you for your thoughts, Wendy.
From Tonya Plank (a.k.a. Swan Lake Samba Girl):
What a great post, Apollinaire! How wonderful of you to work so hard on trying to improve this ballet, which you obviously deeply care about. I think your suggestions are fabulous and give much food for thought, which, hopefully, McKenzie will consider.
I just want to respond to something Ms. Perron said. She writes

In all of the old story ballets there are narrative inconsistencies, but we’ve gotten used to them and we focus on who’s dancing the role, who’s animating the story.

But who is “we” — dance-industry people and avid balletomanes? Yes, different dancers do different things with each role and I have my favorites and it’s always fun to see who will interpret which role in which way and who will excel at this or that. Yes, those excellent dancers can easily save a flawed ballet for me, FOR ME. But if ballet-makers want to attract new audiences, that’s not the case; those narrative inconsistencies are everything.
Time and again I’ve brought friends who are first-time balletgoers and their enjoyment is seriously hindered by their inability to figure out exactly what’s going on up there onstage. Of course I explain it to them, but they’ll tell me they wish they could have seen it onstage, a sad tone in their voice; they missed the beauty of the story unfolding in the dramatic dancing, which is where it’s supposed to be, not via my mouth or in the Playbill synopsis. So then I’ll try to explain to them how great the dancers are — “Look, there’s David Hallberg and Michele Wiles: they’ve won all kinds of awards together and the critics love them and David writes for The Winger and he’s so smart,” yadda yadda. My friends just laugh politely and tell me I obviously know the dancers better than they do.
I think we, the longtime dance lovers and dance insiders, are sometimes so close to these classic story ballets and these dancers we love so much that we lose perspective. I think ballet-makers need really to try to see things through the eyes of someone who’s never before been to the ballet, ask themselves: how would this story make sense to someone who knows nothing of this ballet, and, alternatively, what would make no sense to them, what would make them jump out of their seats in awe of ballet, what would bore them, etc. — which is what you’re doing with this excellent post, Apollinaire! Anyway, those are my two cents…
Apollinaire responds:
Well, thank you, Tonya. It’s really a challenge for any ballet company to know how to proceed, because they have very different audiences to attract and satisfy: people who will attend the ballet several times a week each week, those who go occasionally, and those who MIGHT go if it felt like a vital or fun thing to do.
I guess my approach to that conundrum is not to think about how the ballet might be accessible to neophytes or acceptable to longtime fans, but how it might work in itself. If the ballet can work in the terms it’s already set for itself, then it will likely make everyone happy, or happy enough.
What’s touching and maddening about the ABT production is how often the choreographers’ attempts to make the narrative clearer backfire–as when they haul on Aurora during the prince’s dream, rather than letting him be awash in his inchoate feelings, with the figures coming and going. After all, he’ll get his vision of her in the very next scene!
The big issue for choreographers is almost always how specific to be and what to be specific about; this is the case whether or not the dance tells a story or could even be identified as a drama. If the movement is too specific or is specific about the wrong things, it’s as bad as being vague. It’s what my friend the illustrious Terry Teachout, quoting Henry James, describes in his Balanchine bio as “weak specifications”– you know, hauling on Aurora when the prince is only just getting his mind around wanting anyone at all.
I, too, hope ABT follows my detailed instructions (hehe!). Thank you for writing, Tonya.

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  1. says

    In response to your response to Wendy, I just saw Sarah Lane in “The Sleeping Beauty” in Orange County and she wasn’t perfect, but her performance was full of heart. Definitely the most emotionally moving Aurora I’ve seen at ABT (I’ve seen Veronika Part, Gillian Murphy & Lane). Amazing debut!
    Apollinaire responds: Thanks so much for letting us East Coasters know, Jennifer. We didn’t get to see her out here.

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