Challenging Changes and Audacious Authenticity

23 Jul

I’ve been reading up on reviews and such for the Bolshoi’s production of Coppélia that is currently showing at the Royal Opera House, which is a new reconstruction from a Stepanov notation score of Petipa’s original.  The Bag Ladies wrote a post that included a link to a fascinating article from The Arts Desk, featuring the man “restoring” Petipa ballets, Sergei Vikharev.  It’s all supremely interesting, but unfortunately wasted on me because most of the Petipa ballets I’ve only seen one or no production of (I can hardly believe this debauchery), let alone be familiar with the details and choreography to know the differences in “after Petipa” versions and any reconstruction (none of which are on film yet anyway).  I hope in depth discussions about Coppélias are taking place in London as we speak, meanwhile I’m going to keep splashing about in the kiddie pool.

What I do take away from the article though is a question of what exactly does authenticity mean to the world of ballet?  Rather than lead you to believe I have some coherent answer stewing in me brains, I’m just going to say up front there really doesn’t seem to be one.  Some ballets do well with change while others simply can’t be touched.  There’s no clear formula to decide what’s allowed and what isn’t and it seems no great choreographer’s work, whether classical or contemporary is completely invulnerable to change.  There’s no gauge to say whether any of the changes are good or bad, but we discuss these changes anyway and that friends, is what makes art history so special in comparison to plain history.  Regular historians have to argue with each other over the truth while art historians can just argue for fun…or really, to present a certain interpretation of an idea.  It’s all quite intangible and makes for better conversation because we have the luxury of learning to accept differing ideas on the same topic.  Meanwhile, history seeks to uncover one, unbiased truth and I find that incredibly boring (needless to say, history was never my best subject).

I was surprised to read in the article that there was a lack of support for Vikharev’s work (and even more so that money was part of the reasoning behind it) because I don’t think Vikahrev is trying to monopolize Petipa ballets; to me it seems to be more of a responsibility to expand ballet’s history.  I think part of the problem is the word authenticity itself—to claim one version as “original” or “authentic” is to imply that anything else is not and while everything else is indeed “after Petipa,” many new stagings of these ballets have built their own, admirably strong traditions (like Balanchine did with his after Petipa choreography).  As cliché as it sounds, we really do have to look at the past to be able to see the future.  These new reconstructions can help us see how ballet has changed and thus give us that ballet can indeed continue to evolve as a classical art form.  The only way to know where you can go is to know where the heck you came from.

Nobody knew the importance of change better than Balanchine.  In my own obsession with (or as I like to call it, “amateur studies”) of the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, I’ve seen many of these changes and not just in historic versus contemporary performances, but within older performances that included changes made by Balanchine himself.  He created the pas de deux on Violette Verdy and she herself had this to say in a documentary:

If he didn’t like what you did with it right away, and he’d say ‘I think I need to change it’ [And you say] Oh Mr. B. I love this, I’ll make it look good, I promise, I’m going to work. [Balanchine would say] ‘No dear, I have another one [step]’ because he knew, maybe there was something better there to be done.

I’ve seen footage of Verdy, the originator of the piece which debuted in 1960 as well as the television debut with Melissa Hayden and Jacques d’Amboise in 1962 and already there were changes in the choreography.  DISCLAIMER: Okay so if you’re a casual reader who may not be too familiar with ballet terminology, you may want to choose your own adventure and skip right to the animations because it’s about to get really confusing or if you know the terms and want to skip the details anyway (a valid lifestyle choice) please feel free to do so.  For example, in the coda fouettés were never in the original choreography.  Verdy would perform a series of consecutive attitude turns (en dehors) followed by a quick series of tour sautés en arabesque.  When Hayden performed, Balanchine had her do fouettés but start out with slower ones and gain speed.  Fast forward a bit and Patricia McBride performed what has become sort of the standard and what I used to call the “fouetté steppy-step.”  I looked this up in the dictionary and it’s a mouthful—“fouetté rond de jamb en tournant en dehors, emboîté en tournant sur les pointes.”  I have a little side complaint with this because nobody does this with the speed and accuracy of Suzanne Farrell (understandably so) but what many ballerinas end up doing is cheating the second half of the emboîté en tournant.  They do the fouetté, step onto the right foot en pointe but they cheat with the left leg and plop straight into plié to do the next fouetté.  It’s kind of sloppy to me…but anyway here’s a couple of animations for the visual people:

violette suzanne

Observe: Violette Verdy on top, performing attitude turns en dehors followed by tour sautés en arabesque and Suzanne Farrell on the bottom, performing fouetté rond de jamb en tournant en dehors, emboîté en tournant sur les pointes, both at the same moment in the music.

It is somewhat normal to change bravura steps in a grand pas de deux but there are also many stylistic changes throughout that Tchai Pas has gone through over time.  Hayden didn’t do the partnered penchée in the pas de deux and d’Amboise’s variation actually had an extra forty-eight counts!  Arms differ on the fish dive, whereas Farrell would dive face first, many ballerinas extend their arms forward.  The final exit offstage includes an overhead lift where the man lifts the woman underneath her back and she extends one leg forward and one leg behind her in attitude but it is often changed now so that she tips completely backwards and extends her front leg to the ceiling.  Personally, I like the forward version because it gives the effect of this huge, flying leap and the tipped back version tends to look a little awkward to me, like a caveman hoisting his latest kill but like I said, no right answers when it comes to these changes.  I’m just scratching the surface here, but you get the idea.  What I’d like to know is why hasn’t Verdy’s original interpretation been revived?  Yeah, I went there.

Three different fish dives: Hayden & d'Amboise left, McBride & Baryshnikov center, and Farrell & Martins on the right. Note the differences in arm and leg positions as well as the positions of the men. d'Amboise is lunging forward with his weight on his front leg, Baryshnikov on his back leg while presenting his front foot in tendu and Martins in an upright pseudo-first position. Each couple presents a completely different line and aesthetic, and all of these dancers worked directly with Balanchine.

Anywhodle, there are more controversial, substantial changes like the whole Bournonville versus Lacotte La Sylphide.  The Bournonville is the real deal, “authentic” if you must, while the Lacotte is what it is and seemingly less liked.  In the case of Bournonville’s La Sylphide, I think the choreography was so stylized it’s hard to imagine the same story being told a different way.  However, old or new even masterpieces can see a little change, as Lady Deborah MacMillan mentioned in an interview that when the English National Ballet (I think) did Manon, there was new choreography she had never seen before and she was in full support of it.  So it seems we’re forever blessed and cursed with conflicts between originals and obscurities, authentic versus standard but in the end it’s always giving us something to talk about and that’s the most miraculous thing about the classical arts.  I think it impossible to find something that is so rewarding, the more you invest into studying it…because maybe every Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux being performed today is a LIE.

8 Responses to “Challenging Changes and Audacious Authenticity”

  1. Karena July 24, 2010 at 11:14 am #

    I can’t remember if I mentioned this already, but a while ago had a guest in a history class, Christian Matjias, who talked about being a rehearsal pianist for Serenade–depending on who was staging it, there were various sections of music left out, repeated/augmented, etc, with the corresponding differences in the choreography…

    Also, probably already said this, but I had a blast reading Philip Gossett’s “Divas and Scholars” about his work trying to establish reliable scores for 19th century operas. Even with a seemingly stable “text” to go from, there are all the same issues of authenticity, tradition, etc. And apparently tenors are pains in the a$$ 🙂

    • youdancefunny July 24, 2010 at 10:41 pm #

      That’s interesting about Serenade…what if some poor ballerina switched companies and got all confused during a performance? She can’t be blamed for what happens if she’s “in the zone.”

      I’ll have to read “Divas and Scholars.” (After I finish Karen’s book!)

      • Manhattnik August 24, 2010 at 9:45 am #

        Forgive me, a long ramble follows:

        Nobody’s revived the Verdy version because Verdy doesn’t dance any more. Balanchine changed it for good reason, and I don’t think even Verdy would stage it as she did it. The version with fouette steppy-step (thanks for looking up the correct name, I can never describe it properly) has become more-or-less standard (although some lazy ballerinas just do regular fouettes).

        The change I look for is in the woman’s solo, with the backwards-hopping arabesques voyagees. She should hop backwards until almost the end of the bar of music, finishing with a big assemble. Too often women bail on the last measure or two (*cough*Vishneva*cough*), giving themselves plenty of time to stroll into position for the next enchainement. Boo-hiss.

        The attitude turns are gone from Tchai Pas, but there’s a lot of Verdy left. There’s only one of her famous “pas de Verdys,” that big saute de chat with the front leg extended, but there’s also the flashing little gargouillade snapping into a tight fifth. You can see that one in La Source, too.

        Nobody’s completely revived the woman’s second-act solo from Western Symphony as originally done by Hayden, most likely because it’s so damn hard. She did inside (I think) fouettes. Not something you see every day. (There are copies of the 1956 film floating about in the ether.)

        Actually, speaking of versions of things, there are bits and pieces of Balanchine whose usage seems to be depressingly arbitrary. The third movement of Western’s seldom done (it’s a killer, and not really that interesting), and these days you never know if the Waltz will show up in Cortege Hongrois, or Clap Yo’ Hands in Who Cares. I knew a dancer who’d always hope they’d drop the repeat in the third movement of Symphony in C, which, for time reasons, they’d sometimes do.

        Usually, the version of a ballet as last staged by Balanchine becomes the “correct” one. For bravura stuff, there’s often more leeway, especially for the men. There used to be a great compilation video on YouTube comparing several different performances of the man’s variation, and another doing the same with the woman’s. (Guess what happened to it?) Some of the male variations were hardly recognizable, not even with the sisonnes and sisonnes with developpes, across the front of the stage.

        Balanchine originally bequeathed Symphony in C to John Taras, who didn’t suborn it to the Balanchine Trust, and for while there were two slightly different Bizets: as performed at City Ballet, and as staged by Taras everywhere else. Taras bequeathed Symphony in C to SAB, I think, and now it’s been homogenized back into the Trust. I think we have the Trust to thank (blame) for the demise of the Paris Opera Ballet’s Palais de Cristal, the original Bizet. I suppose over the decades of being handed down by the POB, it has gotten pretty ragged, but apparently it had some interesting choreographic differences from Symphony in C. Now the POB does Symphony en Ut and Palais’s in the dustbin of history, I’m sure.

        The fact is, Balanchine’s dead, and eventually his greatest disciples will be, too. So will I. Ultimately, the ballets belong to the dancers, to make of them what they will. I’d like to think there are a few out there whose judgment we can trust, but I’m not going to be around to see it, so why stress? Sometimes I wonder if Balanchine felt the same way.

        This was a really fascinating read. It’s nice to see someone analyzing the text of a dance so closely. Sad it’s so difficult to do with Balanchine.

        Oh, if some poor ballerina got all confused in Serenade, she’d be fined or fired. First, there’d be rehearsals, and second, well, dancers are professionals, and to not screw things up like that is why they get paid the big bucks.

  2. Linda August 17, 2010 at 6:53 am #

    Loved loved this post Steve! And the animated .gifs inspired!

    Indeed there were some discussions regarding Coppélia, mainly with respect to Franz’s variation though the RB’s choreography is very similar to the one “reconstructed”. In any case, the Bolshoi’s is a feast for the eyes.

    Mikhail Messerer, chief ballet master also had some words with respect to reconstructing historical ballets. See Ismene Brown’s interview with him. We will also have some things to say on the subject very soon!


    • youdancefunny August 19, 2010 at 11:51 pm #

      L! You were my 200th comment! This so deserves a prize 😉

      • Linda August 24, 2010 at 11:13 pm #



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