ballet

ballet
   Only two ballets created in Britain in 1960 are still performed: Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardeée and Kenneth MacMillan’s The Invitation, made for the Royal Ballet and its touring company, respectively. This is not surprising: Ashton and MacMillan are Britain’s best-known choreographers, whose styles and reputations have cast long shadows. Their works are pillars of the repertoire of the Royal Ballet, the nation’s flagship ballet company, which is mindful of keeping their legacy alive.
   In 1960, Ashton was an established choreographer with thirty-four years’ experience and several masterpieces behind him, entering his last decade of sustained creativity. Widely regarded as the greatest British choreographer, Ashton was a classicist, interested in the formal properties of the ballet vocabulary and using them to explore and express moods and emotions. Characterizations emerge from the steps rather than from an overlay of acting, as in La Fille mal gardée, which typically is also suffused with an affectionate regard for the characters’ foibles and imbued with a sense of community. Known for his musicality, Ashton often dealt with romantic love in his ballets. In 1960, MacMillan was an emerging choreographer with six professional ballets behind him, his most important works still to come. Dramatic and expressionistic, MacMillan’s uncompromising ballets explore the dark sides of human behaviour and the psyche, requiring dancers with strong acting abilities. Often unsettling, his ballets brought gritty and harsh realities to the idealized world of ballet, as in The Invitation in which a young woman is raped. MacMillan’s has always been a difficult talent to assess. His ballets still provoke debate over their choreographic craftsmanship, treatment of women, and subject matter, but there is no doubting their powerful theatricality and challenge to ballet’s conventions and audiences.
   In the late 1950s and early 1960s, MacMillan was not alone in his desire to depict real people grappling with difficult situations. Peter Darrell at Western Theatre Ballet and Norman Morrice at Ballet Rambert, also influenced by new wave cinema and kitchen sink dramas, were making ballets about contemporary life, problems and relationships, thereby broadening the subjects ballet could address. Founded in Bristol in 1957, the small-scale Western Theatre Ballet performed predominantly short new works with a dramatic thrust. Darrell’s subject matter ranged across betrayal and entrapment (The Prisoners, 1957), youth gangs (Mods and Rockers, 1963, set to Beatles songs) and mental illness (Home, 1965). Morrice emerged as Rambert’s in-house choreographer in 1958 with Two Brothers, a love triangle centred on a James Dean-inspired loner. The women in his dance dramas never wore pointe shoes, ballet’s distinguishing artifice.
   The long-established companies absorbed this new trend while adhering to the typical threepronged repertoire of the model ballet company: the three-act ‘classics’ from the nineteenth century; proven twentieth-century ballets from the Diaghilev era, foreign troupes’ rosters and the company’s own heritage; and new work. London Festival Ballet, which offered ‘popular ballets at popular prices’, continued to cater to the conservative regional audiences’ taste for foreign stars and easyto- watch spectacle. Competing with it on the touring circuit were Ballet Rambert, with its core of Antony Tudor works and less hackneyed threeacts, and the Royal Ballet’s second company, a training ground for young dancers and choreographers (such as MacMillan) that toured selections of the main company’s repertoire. At the Royal Opera House (Covent Garden), the Royal Ballet under Ashton’s directorship (1963– 70) carried on its three-pronged approach with new productions of the classics, the acquisition of masterworks from the 1920s and 1930s, and commissions from Tudor, Roland Petit and MacMillan (notably his first three-act ballet, Romeo and Juliet, in 1965). Ashton’s new ballets during this decade continued his musings on romantic love (The Two Pigeons, 1961; Marguerite and Armand, 1963; The Dream, 1964; and Enigma Variations, 1968) and his essays in ‘abstract’ classicism (Monotones, 1965–6). In the middle of the decade a new genre, American modern dance, took root in Britain (where it was called ‘contemporary dance’), and the explosion of creativity experienced by this new art form into the 1970s underscores the distinct absence of promising new voices in ballet in this period. Ballet Rambert even bid farewell to ballet, at Morrice’s suggestion, and embraced contemporary dance in 1966 when dwindling finances and audiences threatened its demise. In a less radical move, the Royal dissolved its large-scale touring company in 1969 and formed the New Group to tour small ballets and more experimental pieces. American Glen Tetley, whose works merged the ballet and modern vocabularies, started the group off with Field Figures (1970), which was followed by acquisitions from Hans van Manen, a Dutch choreographer working in a similar vein. The new repertoire did not fare particularly well with the provincial audiences, however, and gradually the group grew to resemble its former self in size and repertoire, taking the name Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet (SWRB) in 1976. Under MacMillan’s directorship (1970–7), the Royal Ballet also imported examples of ‘modern ballet’ from the continent and updated the American slice of its repertoire with an influx of ballets by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Tetley. The new works were predominantly by MacMillan himself, including two full-evening ballets: Anastasia (1971), which explored the troubled past and psyche of the supposed surviving Romanov princess, and Manon (1974), which delved into the love and sex life of its materialistic heroine. Meanwhile, regional ballet had firmly taken root. Western Theatre Ballet transferred to Glasgow in 1969 to become Scottish Theatre Ballet (now Scottish Ballet), directed by Darrell, whose output continued unabated (notably, The Tales of Hoffmann, 1972; Mary, Queen of Scots, 1976; Five Rückert Songs, 1978). Also in 1969, a new company, Northern Dance Theatre (now Northern Ballet Theatre), was founded in Manchester by Laverne Meyer, formerly Western’s assistant director. In London, Festival Ballet under Beryl Grey acquired its first Sleeping Beauty (1890), staged by Rudolf Nureyev, who also choreographed his well-received Romeo and Juliet (1977) for the company. After a marked scarcity of emerging choreographers, the 1980s at the two Royal companies percolated with a series of new works by young dancers. Quickly singled out was David Bintley, who produced an array of works for both companies, such as the classical Galanteries (1986) and the character-based ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café (1988). More an upholder of tradition than an innovator, his style drawing on those of past masters, Bintley was initially a dancer and the resident choreographer at SWRB before moving to the main company in 1986 in the same capacities. Less feted but more innovative, Ashley Page heralded his choreographic concerns in his first work for the Royal Ballet, A Broken Set of Rules (1984), which deconstructed ballet classicism. On the side, Page choreographed for contemporary dance companies and worked with postmodern dancers, and this exposure to other genres has informed his exploration of the ballet vocabulary and its conventions.
   Although having handed over directorship of the Royal to Norman Morrice in 1977, MacMillan continued choreographing for the company, pushing balletic theatricality to breaking point with works such as Mayerling (1978), about the sordid life of the Habsburg Crown Prince Rudolf, and Isadora (1981), about the private life of modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan. MacMillan had his quiet moments: the lyrical Gloria (1980), a requiem for soldiers of the First World War, and the classical three-act The Prince of the Pagodas (1989). But his final ballet, The Judas Tree (1992), returned to form, echoing the controversial climax of The Invitation; only this time the woman is gang-raped. Darrell’s final years at Scottish Ballet were overshadowed by wranglings with the Scottish Arts Council, and his resignation in 1986 led to tentative appointments of artistic directors until Galina Samsova, a former ballerina at SWRB, took the helm in 1991. (She left six years later after further battles with the Arts Council.) Since his death in 1987, Scottish Ballet has largely ignored its Darrell repertoire.
   The 1980s saw additional changes in directorship. Dancer Peter Schaufuss took over at Festival in 1984; dancer Anthony Dowell at the Royal in 1986; and dancer Christopher Gable at Northern Ballet Theatre (NBT) in 1987. Schaufuss’s six-year directorship rekindled the flair and enthusiasm that Festival had been known for in the 1950s, after worries that it had become too close to the Royal Ballet mould under Grey and John Field (both former dancers at the Royal Ballet). Key events in his reign include rescuing Ashton’s Romeo and Juliet (1955) from oblivion, appointing as resident choreographer Christopher Bruce, an alumni of Ballet Rambert in its modern dance guise, and renaming the company English National Ballet (ENB).
   In 1990 Peter Wright, who had directed SWRB since its New Group days, guided the company’s move to a permanent base in Birmingham. This engendered a new name, Birmingham Royal Ballet, and financial independence from the Royal Opera House. Known for his sure touch in producing the classics and in programming mixed bills that interested public and critics alike, Wright built a company that finally stepped out of the shadow of its older sister and became a significant rival. Upon Wright’s retirement in 1995, Bintley became artistic director, having resigned from the Royal Ballet two years earlier.
   Perhaps to counter criticisms over leaving the resident choreographer post vacant, in 1994 the Royal Ballet inaugurated its annual Dance Bites tour in which a small group of leading dancers take new short ballets by emerging choreographers to regional venues. As well as providing a training ground for young choreographers, Dance Bites is an outlet for seasoned practitioners, particularly Ashley Page. With the economic necessity to fill theatres, artistic directors played it safe in the 1990s, programming mostly full-evening story ballets, which traditionally sell more tickets than mixed bills of short works. To sustain interest, productions of the classics resorted to startling redesigns, such as Maria Bjørnson’s postmodern, skewed perspective set for the Royal’s Sleeping Beauty; shock tactics, like Northern Ballet Theatre’s reworking of Swan Lake (1995) in which all the swans are shot in a military coup; and spectacular gimmicks, such as ENB’s Swan Lake in the round at the Royal Albert Hall, for seventy swans.
   New full-evening works, aiming at popular appeal and accessibility, were based on familiar, usually literary storylines, and on the whole these ballets-as-entertainment were choreographically insubstantial. Northern Ballet Theatre’s productions (in which Gable is billed as director alongside the choreographer) had the feel of musical shows, high on theatricality but low on memorable choreography (A Christmas Carol, 1992; The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1998). ENB aimed at the children’s market with Alice in Wonderland (1996) by Derek Deane, its director since 1993 and a former dancer and choreographer at the Royal Ballet. In Birmingham, Bintley followed up his 1989 hit Hobson’s Choice with another crowd-pleasing drama, Far From the Madding Crowd (1996). At the Royal Ballet, Dowell took a risk with Mr Worldly Wise (1995) by Twyla Tharp, an American postmodern choreographer, whose ballet challenged audiences to make their own reading of the narrative. As with Dowell’s only other forays into the experimental—acquisitions from another postmodernist, William Forsythe of the Frankfurt Ballet—reactions were mixed.
   As the twentieth century drew to a close, ballet was out of step with contemporary society on several levels. In an age of multiculturalism, ethnic minorities continued to be a rare sight on the ballet stage. In the post-feminist age, women had made only the odd transition from performing to artistic control, as directors (Grey at Festival and Samsova at Scottish) or as choreographers Jennifer Jackson and Susan Crow at SWRB in the 1980s). In the age of gay pride, homosexuality was rarely acknowledged, an exception being Bintley’s Edward II (1995). In the age of accountability, the Royal Ballet was tarnished by the financial and managerial scandals at the Royal Opera House, which caused an outcry over the level of government funding for ‘elitist’ pastimes. Hampered by the public image of ballet as the preserve of the very rich or the very young, artistic directors had to programme to entice the punters, leaving the knowledgeable dance-goer to wonder, ‘whither ballet?’ The deaths of Ashton (in 1988) and MacMillan (in 1992) marked an end of two overlapping eras in the artistic life of British ballet, which seemed to lie fallow, awaiting a new innovative classicist or audacious expressionist to make works that challenged and stretched their creator, the audiences and the art form.
   Further reading
    Bland, A. (1981) The Royal Ballet: The First 50 Years, London: Threshold.
    Goodwin, N. (1979) A Ballet for Scotland: The First Ten Years of the Scottish Ballet, Edinburgh: Canongate Publishing.
    Vaughan, D. (1977) Frederick Ashton and His Ballets, London: A. & C.Black.
    Woodcock, S. (1991) The Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, Now the Birmingham Royal Ballet, London: Sinclair- Stevenson.
   CHRIS JONES

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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