Tell me a story?

31 Dec

To close the year, I think a highly recommended read is Ismene Brown’s article at The Art’s Desk, a sort of counterpunch to the apocalyptic, Post-Balanchine diagnosis that has been the talk of the town in the ballet’s little corner of the universe.  If you missed the hubbub over the book Apollo’s Angels, consider yourself fortunate…while I can’t really comment on the content of the book itself (I’ve only read excerpts and have heard things…as in, not good things from people I respect), my New Year’s resolution will be to read it, which in my opinion is a fair compromise for having to put up with some of the ridiculous publicity surrounding the book.  Obviously, I can’t approach a reading of the book completely objectively (which was doomed from the start due to a blatant lack of recognition for Sir Fred), but the least anyone can do is try.

Anyway, I found Brown’s article to be a delightfully poignant read, putting into just the right words the quagmire ballet finds itself in today; the lack of money and music for new, full-length story ballets.  While I appreciate (and in fact love) many shorter pieces or gala-type pas de deux, the story ballet is the tradition that has endured and it is weird that choreographers seem to just…not do them.  It’s not for a lack of trying—certainly Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon are doing what they can when the resources are available to develop new ballets, and obviously funding for the arts is always the first issue that comes to mind, but Brown is correct in that music is probably the primary obstacle.  I for one, have always enjoyed classical music and come from a classical background therefore I can’t rationalize the lack of appreciation for it.  I know I’ve joked about being old and crotchety before, but I honestly don’t think age has anything to do with an appreciation for certain standards in music, as opposed to things like that creature I refer to as “the Bieberling.”

Again, the lack of reverence for classical music is not something I can discuss rationally and will spare you inane ranting, but what is more easily discussed is how the lack of classical composers affects ballet today.  I am completely on board with Brown, but when I thought about the subject more, I realized that some choreographers probably rely on inspiration from the composers, who seem to struggle equally in making names for themselves.  Maybe it’s time to take a shot in the dark and pluck someone out of obscurity.  At OSU I took a music skills class which concentrated on creating scores electronically (since modern dance is less picky about such things), and I remember the music teacher discussing with one of my ballet teachers that he had a friend who was a graduate student in music and had written a ballet score.  Chances are it wasn’t a full, three act ballet but it was something and to be honest I don’t know that he found anyone who wanted it (ballet is not really the focus of the dance department at OSU).

Perhaps there’s a fear that the score won’t be great, that anything less than something like Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake won’t leave a lasting impression.  His scores are regarded as perhaps the greatest of all time but we have to remember that a musical genius like Tchaikovsky was something of an exception to the rule—many ballet scores, even those used today are nothing special, but survive because the ballets themselves are venerated so.  The rift between ballet composers and “real musicians” has always been apparent (though I imagine it would be less spiteful these days…survival tends to foster camaraderie, no?), however a few have achieved great success in both spheres.  Tchaikovsky is my obvious first choice, but Prokofiev and Stravinsky were also prolific in writing classical and ballet music.  However, a list of names like Ludwig Minkus, Adolphe Adam, Léo Delibes, and Cesare Pugni is often met with confused looks or rolling of the eyes from anyone outside of ballet (I even have to list them by first and last name because nobody will know who they are!).  Given, the scores these composers wrote can’t stand alone, but the point I’m trying to make is that the score doesn’t have to be memorable for the ballet to be (although it severely helps).  Choreographers shouldn’t wait for musicians to establish themselves in the music realm before seeking them out…if there’s interest from both sides then by all means, make those New Year’s resolutions to be to stop waiting!  I know it’s easier said than done when funding is an issue, but like I said, a graduate student at OSU was practically giving a score away and I’d imagine similar people exist at institutions elsewhere.

Regardless, the lack of musical prodigies didn’t stop Sir Kenneth MacMillan from creating what are probably regarded as his two most popular masterpieces, Manon and Mayerling.  Both are full-length story ballets choreographed in the 1970’s, using patchwork scores orchestrated by Leighton Lucas (Jules Massenet works for Manon) and John Lanchberry (Franz Liszt works for Mayerling).  It seems the lack of talented composers isn’t a full-proof excuse after all, when there’s a wealth of composers and music already written that is yet to be explored.  However, this is not a reliable practice because it would be the ballet equivalent of dependence on fossil fuels, but it’s not a bad temporary solution until music finds solid ground to grow from.  MacMillan wasn’t the only one either; both Sir Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine used Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, long after his death.  An alternative to finding a living composer is hitting the books, going to the library and doing some homework!  I’m no choreographer and I look for music to imagine ballets to FOR FUN.  Obviously, I have no life but if I can do it as a hobby, anyone else is free to start compiling a score on their own.

It’s like I always say—we are in desperate need of a renaissance.  America especially…I’m not sure people understand how young our country is and how the lack of historic traditions affects our perceptions today.  A celebrated story ballet is the one thing America really hasn’t contributed to ballet as a whole and while Balanchine did a few, I don’t consider storytelling to be among his strengths as a choreographer.  I’ve seen his Coppélia and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and while they were fine ballets, I didn’t find them particularly inspiring.  I don’t mean to fuel the flames of the “Ashton and MacMillan were better storytellers” argument (even if it’s right), only to point out that if we are to honor the tradition, we can’t look to Balanchine for guidance.  I think MacMillan best exemplified how fascinating real, human stories can be as ballets and I hope this is where our future lies.  Stories today are no less interesting than fairy tales, they just haven’t been translated into classical steps.

Shall we make 2011 the year of new beginnings?  I’ll do what I can.

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