Ballet and History

A recurrent complaint, not to say howling cry, in the world of ballet is the dearth of new choreographers -- dance makers who can make dance using the academic vocabulary and not distort it by alien idioms. (Of course, there are some of us who think the best modern-dance and world-dance choregraphers are enlivening the classic vocabulary, not besmirching it, but that's another story.) Of those who remain firmly in the ballet traditon, there are Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky and a few others (Elo, Bigonzetti), but the pickings are slim.

Conversely, there has been considerable suspicion in the ballet community about the value of historical re-creations of choreography previously thought to be lost. Given the relative newness of video and its inherent limitations, and the failure of any one system of dance notation to be widely accepted, great dance remains an almost oral tradition, or one of muscle memory, handed down from dancer to dancer and teacher to teacher, in a line that must stretch back unbroken to a dance's creation if it is to have any validity. That makes choreography a living art, perhaps, but it also means that the "authenticity" of past dance is even more questionable than an "authentic" performance of Baroque music. Some traditions seem to form a pretty solid chain back to the past, as with Bournonville in Copenhagen. But most are pretty sketchy.

Still, there has been a lively subgenre of historical re-creation in recent decades: one thinks of Ivo Cramer in Sweden or Pierre Lacotte in France and a legion of Baroque dance specialists like Catherine Turocky in New York. Not to speak of Millicent Hodson in Britain, who with her husband Kenneth Archer has attempted to re-make the steps and decor of many lost dances, most famously Nijinsky's "Sacre du Printemps."

Such efforts have tended to be looked at askance by dance critics, and by many dancers and dance scholars, too. The Kirov Ballet tried to present an historically accurate "Sleeping Beauty" in 1999, but it was quickly modified after protests from the dancers and others in the local, national and international ballet communities.

So it was fascinating for me, as a devotee of historical re-creation, to read Tuesday in the NY Times that Yuri Burlaka has been appointed Ratmansky's successor as artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet. Burlaka is an active specialist in historical reconstruction, or re-creation. How successful his work along those lines has been, I cannot say. Especially since "success" can be judged either on its present-day effectiveness or on its fidelity to what we can learn about the ballet being reconstructed. If it's pretty much pure guesswork, as critics have complained about Hodson's efforts, than it's less historical veracity than mere bad choreography.

My interest in such reconstructions was quickened when I saw, some 20 years ago, a Cramer version of Noverre's "Jason et Medee" at the Ballet du Rhin. I can't speak to its scholarship, but it made a strong, evocative impression on me. It was like looking through a long-obscured window back into a distant era. Similarly with Chen Shi-Zheng's production of the 18-hour, 55-scene kunju opera "The Peony Pavilion," which I engendered as director of the Lincoln Centrer Festival and which toured the world. Chinese opera contains ample dance as well as singing and acting, but over 400 years its reconstruction in all aspects had to be largely surmised. Yet the result, however true to 1598 and however at variance with debased modern kunju tradition, was wonderfully poetic.

Dance has lagged behind music in historical terms, starting with music's far more detailed and widely accepted notational system. Perhaps a renewed interest in historical reconstruction, at such a prominent ballet center as the Bolshoi, will result in fuzzy guesswork and just dampen opportunities for vital new choreography. Perhaps Burlaka will be seen to look backward while Ratmansky looks forward (despite his own re-imagining of the choreography for Shostakovich's score for "The Bright Stream"). But for me, the potential rewards far outweigh the dangers. Ballet's history is rich, and any serious effort to dig into that past, to draw out details and lost choregapahic inspiration, can only be welcomed.   


March 6, 2008 3:54 PM |


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This page contains a single entry by John Rockwell published on March 6, 2008 3:54 PM.

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