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Dancers to the Rescue

Have you noticed that ballets that are inarguably choreographic disasters often improve after a few performances? This happens, I think, once the piece has been danced before a public audience and the performers have finally admitted to themselves that “there’s no there there.” Then they take the hapless creation into their own hands, recognizing that it’s up to them to do what they can to rescue it.

It’s not that they change the choreography noticeably, though they may intensify the phrasing and the shifts in emphasis between light and shade. It’s more, rather, that they learn to “sell” the piece to the public by believing in it, much in the way a parent or other committed guide bolsters an ill-endowed or wayward child.

They give it extra and more intently focused physical energy, more psychic communication between dancer and dancer or among groups of them. They animate areas of the stage that before looked empty or dead with its lifeless figures standing lackadaisically where the choreographer has placed them, without awakening their consciousness, as if waiting for a bus. They attempt to discover what the choreographer intended this particular ballet to be “about” and make it their own vision. Not for a moment now are they content, as they appeared to be at the ballet’s premiere, to be satisfied with simply going through the motions.

The feeble ballet may have the grace to vanish permanently from the repertory at the end of the season or after one last try in the following season, but meanwhile you’ve got to admire the dancers for their resourcefulness and generosity of spirit in the face of fiasco.

© 2009 Tobi Tobias


  1. Brenda Way says

    I think any new work needs airing, perhaps 10 times, before it comes into its own. Some come more easily than others but I can’t agree that dancers consciously save a ballet from disaster. They learn what is in it by doing it, they come to embody it. I don’t know any real professional dancers who would simply be satisfied going through the motions.

  2. Susan Jones says

    Undoubtedly, dancers contribute to the”fix.” They’re the ones to pick up the pieces. It is, after all, in their hands. But there are so many facets of this issue. In speaking from experience, choreographers get so little stage time. They are lucky to see a piece one time on the stage prior to the premiere. And then they are dealing with production values, as well. Sometimes the premiere is the first beginning-to-end run of the piece on the stage. Having that perspective is so vital to the piece & affects the choices of the choreographer — mediocre or not. Certainly changes are made after the first show — whether step-wise, dramatic or technical elements. Then the various elements are adjusted.
    The piece gets into the skin of the dancers with each run-thru/performance, allowing them to understand the “light and the shade.” Dancers are, for the most part, amazingly resourceful and creative creatures. Their ability to grasp phrasing or expression of a theatrical moment is an enigma I never hope to understand, for it is part of the “why” of dance I hold close to my heart and I’m just grateful and honored to witness it when it occurs.
    The ability of some choreographers to deal with the pressures of working with little stage time and not enough rehearsal time shows us the difference between mediocre and not. Some cope; some don’t. (Experience plays little part, for I’ve seen first-time choreographers deal with the nitty gritty better than some of the more seasoned.) Of course even a solidly talented choreographer can put out a bad idea that, I suppose, can be helped by the artists in it. To focus on my task — ballet masters contribute by doing their job. We’re the ones in the dressing rooms after the show, giving feedback, corrections, and hints as to how to play or phrase a moment — sometimes on the behalf of the choreographer; sometimes using our eyes to relay what may become an inspiration to the dancer.
    As Ms. Clinton said, “It takes a village.” The process of improvement is driven by the general integrity of the work at hand. The better it is, the more time and energy will be put into it following a premiere. You are right to praise the dancers. Given a stage and an opportunity to perform, dancers give their “all” for all sorts of pieces — good, bad, indifferent. And they respectfully do their work, always growing, hearing more of the score, pacing their energy, handling props better and understanding what needs to be done. They do it wholeheartedly, but not without a little help along the way.
    Respectfully, Susan Jones

  3. Penny Frank says

    Tobi, I really love your pieces.

  4. Martha Ullman West says

    Are dancers, and I think it’s a given that Ms. Tobias is speaking about real professional dancers, or more accurately artists, satisfied by going through the motions? That’s an interesting question posed by Brenda Way. I believe good choreography inspires dancers from the get go; with mediocre to bad choreography they tend to do their job. So perhaps we’re talking about the difference between artistry and professionalism here. I do know this much: all choreography, great, good, mediocre, lousy demands commitment from the dancers or it fails. I’ve seen dancers make Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son” look extraordinarily dated and irrelevant; other dancers give content to choreography empty of ideas of any kind.
    I’m glad to see Susan Jones weigh in on this; nobody knows dancers better than balletmasters and they don’t get the credit they deserve. She works for a very large company (ABT–Ed.) however and the challenges for choreographers there are huge; they’re in acute competition for studio time and for dancers as well, so often they don’t get their first choice in casting, another issue to be raised here.
    Let’s raise another: should dancers have to make a commitment to bad work in the first place? And balletmasters devote their invaluable time and energy to getting it onstage as viably as possible? I’d be interested to know what others think, because there has never been a time in this country when there have been so many gorgeous dancers performing so much indifferent at best choreography.

  5. Nicole Collins says

    I have noticed that disappointing new works sometimes improve over time but it has never occurred to me that dancers might be consciously trying to “rescue” the work. It’s an interesting thought. I know that many dancers dislike premieres and prefer to have time to grow into a new role. I suppose that in my view dancers are coming to the rescue of the art form of ballet generally. I wholeheartedly agree with Martha Ullman West’s assertion that “there has never been a time in this country when there have been so many gorgeous dancers performing so much indifferent at best choreography.”

  6. Micalyn S. Harris says

    If a dancer, singer or musician doesn’t connect with the piece, it’s unlikely the audience will.

  7. iris fanger says

    I agree that sometimes a new ballet improves as the run continues, or in a revival. In Boston, there is competition for studio time and space among all the pieces being rehearsed for a single program. Often the new work looks under rehearsed. And on occasion, the choreographer is at the mercy of wrong technical choices. For example, at the premiere of Jorma Elo’s “Carmen” several seasons back, the dimmers were set so low that one could barely see the movement. I’m looking forward to the ballet’s revival this fall, to test my original perception of the work.

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