The Measure of a Ballet Company…

No one really knows how to measure one ballet company against another, and there really isn’t a science to it. I can tell you that if you are going to measure a ballet company by funding, well be prepared for a crazy awakening. If you are going to measure a company based on principals, then that is just biased. Measuring a ballet company based on performances, repertory and touring… Maybe that is a more legit claim, but even then how can you compare an international ballet company that is supported by the state, versus American companies that have to fundraise a lot of their budg? My list of international ballet schools has created quite the controversy, and my blog itself has turned into a whirlwind of expectations, rivalries, and debates. So, as many of you have written to me and for me to rank the top ballet companies… I am sadly going to have to inform you that I can’t, simply on the basis that every company is different and has an extremely different repertory.

Swan Lake used to be the measure of a ballet company, but with everyone re staging their own versions it is hard to compare, and Swan Lake allows insane tricks and music alterations to accommodate turns.

So how do I measure a ballet company the playing field has to be fair, so if we are ranking large ballet companies here is how I compare them: The Balanchine Trust. Yup. Balanchine wins again. Specifically, I use Jewels. If you aren’t familiar with the ballet, you will be. Jewels is popping up in company repertories all over, and here is why:

Paris Opera Ballet in Diamonds
Paris Opera Ballet in Diamonds
  • Jewels is a full-length ballet in 3 Acts demonstrating company stamina. The difference between a full-length ballet and a smaller 1 act ballet is the ability to fill an evening with one mood, one presentation, and once chance to be evaluated as whole. (Jewels runs 81 minutes without intermissions.) Unlike presenting numerous works in an evening, the mood changes from piece to piece, and the reviewer and audience will have separate opinions of each. Jewels allows for both. (Yes, Swan Lake is 4 acts, but no one really pays attention to Act 1, the only thing good in the first act is pas de trois and even that is hard to get through.)
  • There are no tricks. One of the nice things about the Balanchine Trust is that the choreography is preserved. While dancers take artistic freedom, the steps and music does not change. The music is never altered, and the choreography doesn’t allow tricks. For those who are daring to speed up the turns in Rubies, good luck. The music is already fast enough. (We all know that the black swan coda is the test of tricks, and we all know white swan pas de deux is how high can you get your leg these days.)
  • In order to dance the full-length Jewels, you will need 66 dancers. For most companies, that is basically the entire company, give or take. Not only is this going to show the grandiose size of a company, but the Balanchine ballets let the corps really dance. Like REALLY dance.  Now, there are numerous leads, pas de deuxs, demi-soloists, and so on in Jewels. Never have I seen a dancer double up in an act. (Swan Lake tests 1 dancer, Odette/Odile, Jewels tests an entire company.) In addition not only does each variation, pas and act portray something completely different, they all cohesively collect to make the full evening pristine, exciting and glamorous. (The ballet itself was inspired by the jewels at Van Cleef and Arpels.)
NYCB in Rubies
NYCB in Rubies
  • When a company presents Jewels, they don’t just present one ballet, but they present three very different styles of ballet. In one evening you will get your sylphide, giselle, romantic ballet fix in Emeralds (music by Gabriel Faure). You will get your sassy but avant garde, seductive yet charming ballet fix in Rubies (music by Igor Stravinsky). You will get your platter tutu- Swan Lake, and corps intensive La Bayadere fix in Diamonds (music by Tchaikovsky).
bolshoi ballet in emeralds
Bolshoi Ballet in Emeralds
  • You get to see the company. In Emeralds you will see a corps of 10 that rigorously dances, two pas de deuxs, and a pas de trois. In Rubies you will see a fun pas de deux, and a leggy sassy soloist and corps of 8 women and 4 men who deliver a scintillating performance woven between the leads. Finally in Diamonds you will see one of most breath taking pas de deuxs, 4 demi-soloist couples, and an additional 12 couples. If that doesn’t test a company, I don’t know what does.

With that all being said, when we used to compare swan lakes, we now are starting to compare Jewels. With Bolshoi constantly broadcasting their take on Jewels with a more modern backdrop, to Boston Ballet‘s 2014 staging with necklace-like back drops, to Paris Opera’s costume designs by the fabulous Christian Lacroix… it seems that companies are now using Jewels as the ballet to compare companies. It is hard to compare swan lakes, but easy to compare Odettes… It is easy to compare Jewels since it doesn’t change, but hard to judge the leads. Because there is no story, each lead develops their own artistic take to create the mood of the night. Jewels has become so prominent among international companies like Royal Ballet who in 2008 won two Laurence Olivier awards.

 

Type Casting … pt 1

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George Balanchine, Suzanne Farrell, Patricia McBride, Violet Verdy, & Mimi Paul “Jewels”

So, when it comes to ballets I think there are always pre conceived notions as type casting, at the Artistic Director’s discretion (may or may not be a bad thing). For example if you look at a ballet there are always different spots for different types of ballerinas. 

In Balanchine’s Serenade we have three spots… Waltz Girl, Russian Girl, and Dark Angel

In Sleeping Beauty we have three spots… Aurora, Lilac Fairy, and Bluebird

In Don Q we have three spots… Kitri/Dulcinea, Cupid, and Queen of the Dryads

In Bayadere we really only have two… Gamzatti and Nikiya

Balanchine’s Jewels it is mapped out as three very different castings of girls… 

Nutcracker has…. well depends on the version, I will go off Balanchine’s since it is my favorite: Sugar Plum, Dew Drop, and Arabian

the list goes on… So here is how I see the types of Primas being developed.

First we have the romantic ballerinas, usually average in height, but they all possess this crazy lyricism and musicality. They are always so subtle, and quite pleasant to watch. I also feel like they have really beautiful feet, well proportioned lines, and kind of that “old school” ballet feel. These women are constantly being cast in Giselle, Dark Angel in Serenade, Onegin, and of course Juliet.  

ABT's Hee Seo and David Hallberg in Onegin.
ABT’s Hee Seo and David Hallberg in Onegin.

Then we have the ferocious primas. These women are spicy, they are super playful and kind of on the shorter side, no? I mean Russian Girl in Serenade I feel is always cast as a short girl with a lot of fire… Ashley Bouder. Technically precise and offer a lot of pazazz when on stage these women are addicting, and passionate. These girls are the Kitris, the Esmeraldas, Paquitas and the pas de deux from Rubies….  

Powerhouse and standing at 5', Maria Kochetkova in Helgi Tomasson's Trio. (San Francisco Ballet)
Powerhouse and standing at 5′, Maria Kochetkova in Helgi Tomasson’s Trio. (San Francisco Ballet)

And finally we have our swans, the women who are elegant, and overall have mastered being a ballerina… can’t figure out how to phrase it… These women seem to be cast as Odette/Odile, Waltz girl in Serenade, Grand Pas Classique or Balanchine’s Sylvia. I guess you could say that these women are what most people think of when it comes to ballet: Olga Smirnova, what a beast.  These girls have a flare for drama and do well in roles like Nikiya or Manon. 

Olga Smirnova in Bayadere
Olga Smirnova in Bayadere

I don’t think one is better than another, it just points out that a company’s ranks must be filled with diverse principals as the repertory demands it. If we all danced the same, it would be quite boring. And, what is great about full ballets versus pieces, is I think it shows off a dancer’s versatility as an entire story builds, thus the character changes. Do I think it takes 4 acts to do this? No, in fact to be honest a lot of full length ballets are very tiring to get through. Do I think that it can be done in 5 minutes? Sure, but it is less time to fall in love with a character. Can a dancer be all three, yup. Do I think directors make choices and type cast, therefore their legacy is left in a stereotype? Sure do. There are hundreds of ballerinas past and present who have already been type cast, as one of the following, I doubt we will ever see them transition into other roles. Will we see Ashley Bouder do Waltz Girl in Serenade? Or Uliana Lopatkina in Don Q?

Peter Boal of PNB, challenging Carla Korbes in different roles after she left City Ballet was genius.  I remember when VOGUE did a spread on Ashley Bouder and Carla Korbes, and how differently contrasted they were upon graduation of SAB and entering NYCB.  For example, do I think Peter Martins would have cast her in Agon, maybe not so much. Do I think she would have ever danced Don Q, nope. Regardless, her change was good and with Peter Boal casting she has made her mark as a leading lady of ballet. 

Ashley Bouder and Carla Korbes in VOGUE
Ashley Bouder and Carla Korbes in VOGUE

The Race for Balanchine’s Spot in History… replacing Mr. B

replacing balanchine

The 20th Century had George Balanchine, among other great choreographers (You may start reaming me now for using Balanchine as my choreographer of the 20th Century…) But since Balanchine, Massine, and the Diaghilev/ Ballets Russes eras… Who has filled their shoes? Who will be the next choreographer to go down in history and have a repertory that will survive generations. In retrospect, as NYCB has no dancer currently dancing who ever danced for Balanchine, officially closing an era, and hoping that the repertory lives on… I move on to my point… Who, in 50 years will we be able to see their ballets/works that were created for this generation of dancers. John Cranko has Onegin, which will probably live forever. Sir Kenneth Macmillan has his set of ballets, all stemming from restaged versions… which still prove to be box office hits, as Queensland Ballet banked 1.1 Million in box office sales this week off of his dreamy version of Romeo and Juliet. (Literally, this week) Antony Tudor has his ballets… but more specifically La Dame aux camélias The Jerome Robins ballets will live forever, I hope. Jiří Kylián has a works, but his legacy of Petite Mort seems to be the survivor. The Forsythe ballets, in the Middle, Somewhat Elevated is a ballet that a million dancers dream about performing… A more recent choreographer John Neumeier has a plethora of works, but I think his stand out is the Little Mermaid. (honorable mention to Robert Joffrey, and Peter Martins’ ballets will live on through NYCB, though I really haven’t found one I am lovin… especially after that Romeo+Juliet disaster…) There are probably a few more that fit into that category of choreographers… But, what I am more excited about is the slew of choreographers right now who are building a very extensive repertory around the world. 🙂

There are the front runners…

Former director of the Bolshoi (good starting point if you ask me), Alexei Ratmansky.

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Benjamin Millepied, mentored by Jerome Robbins, former principal at NYCB, and now director of dance for Paris Opera Ballet… not bad…. (Natalie Portman’s baby daddy…okay, husband)

Then there is the ever popular Christopher Wheeldon, who won a gold medal at the Prix de Lausanne, was a soloist for NYCB. His ever popular works are growing and growing, his full length ballets are always so beautiful and so thoughtful.

The Movement Explorers

lines ballet repertory

Power duo Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson have made a cozy little spot for themselves in the contemporary world, but I also think have very strong ballets. Alonzo King would fit into this category too… but I don’t really see any other companies performing his repertory, granted most of them can only be performed with asian warriors, african tribal drummers, and beautifully mastered props/sets. (By the way, most of my favorite works are contemporary works.)

And two very unexpected, very young talents….

Justin Peck has created gorgeous ballets for NYCB, and he is definitely on the rise for becoming a stand out choreographer, and he is still a soloist at NYCB, so young and just named resident choreographer… The only other person who has held that title at NYCB is Christopher Wheeldon.

On the west coast, Myles Thatcher at San Francisco Ballet, a corps member seems to be making a splash in the ballet world as well with his choreography for SFB’s student showcases. Again another very young, very talented man. Liam Scott for ABT is about to do another world premier for their new season.

There is also the rise of the choreographers coming from PNB.

I am sure I left off a million other names both current and past, and future…. but these are who I am excited for. It is exciting and scary at the same time to think that the direction of ballet is changing so fast, and so rapidly. What category of a ballet once was the Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, joined by Rodeo, Serenade and Afternoon of the Faun, has now been joined by in the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, Petit Mort, and Bolero. See I added De Mille and Roland Petit, Nureyev and others… Now the question is, whose repertory will be so vast and diverse, as well as survive generations?

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Mauro Bigonzetti’s Reflections Project for Bolshoi

The Rise of the Asians…

Jeong Hansol

The Rise of Asians… well specifically South Korea… As the 2014 USA IBC medalists were announced, it seemed that Korea, again… made a strong appearance. Taking the senior men’s gold, silver, women’s bronze, and senior couple award, you may wonder where are they all coming from? Last year at VARNA, South Korea swept the top prizes as well… And you are like… what are they feeding them in Korea, besides rice?

So, ballet is relatively new in South Korea, and it seems they are always at major international ballet competitions with multiple entries. Here is why, particularly for men… In South Korea, like other countries, but I am not aware of other countries standards… Every male has to serve two years in the army upon completion of their lower education, somewhere between 17-20. So, if you are a ballet dancer, those are some prime years… The only way for a Korean male to not serve is to win a gold or silver medal at an international ballet competition, which means they have to be super talented, super dedicated, and super diligent. I am not sure if other countries like Israel, I know they require EVERYONE to serve, has exceptions… If anyone knows… that would be cool.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all about Korean Pride, and that whole sha-bang, but the reality is they are literally competing for their careers, their lives, etc. A boy dedicating his whole life to ballet will be forced to stop, wear boots and stomp around for two years if he doesn’t win a competition. (I am not saying let them win every competition, but I am saying it is nice to see that these men will have futures in ballet.)

somewhere around 6:30 she talks about it, but the whole video is interesting.

Too many Claras… and every little girl’s dream

The Dream of Becoming a Prima Ballerina…

It is sad to say that this is my first substantial post, a reality check for those who are starting to enter the world of dance. Unfortunately, or fortunately the world of dance has become over-saturated with dancers. This means there are too many dancers and not enough jobs. It seems that when a young girl goes to see the Nutcracker, they instantly want to be Clara or the Sugar Plum Fairy, and so the first seed of ballet is planted into their hearts. This is a great desire and passion, and I think it is very important to expose all children, male or female, to music, dance and art. So then, parents enroll their students at a dance studio, and by age thirteen when the child realizes they really want to be a dancer, it is most likely too late.


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Some version in Indiana

Too Many Claras…. Now, it is funny as Clara in the Nutcracker is the main character, or the heroine, but in most versions she doesn’t dance at all. Reality is, Sugar Plum Fairy is the one you want to be. Problem? There are just too many Claras… Unfortunately in the world of ballet, the Sugar Plum Fairy Pas De Deux is reserved for principals and if you are in a regional company, it is usually danced by one or maybe two casts. There are usually 4-6 girls cast as Clara, as a way to sell tickets… What parent doesn’t want to say, “My daughter is Clara in the Nutcracker.” Sooo, let us do the math…. If the role of Clara goes to a girl age 9-13 who shows outstanding promise and great acting abilities, and there are six of them, when those girls become 22-28 who will get cast as Sugar Plum? The reality is harsh… But, when you do become a Sugar Plum, it is totally worth it.


What does this mean? Most parents don’t take the time to research ballet, ballet studios or how the ballet world really works. FACT: A dance studio is not the same as a dance school and is not the same as a performing arts school and is not the same as a ballet school.

A Dance Studio is a recreational place to dance, which means you are there for exercise, exposure to music and the idea of technique.

A Dance School is a recreational place to dance with higher performance expectancy. A dance school usually can also be called a competition studio, or a performance studio. This is where technique matters, but not to the extent of creating a career. This is more for commercial dance route, the Hollywood route, and the scholarships to a UDA college route.

A Performing Arts School is a place for children to develop the fine/performing arts to a greater extent. Most kids in these schools aren’t just out to be ballet dancers, but instead they are also on their way to become a triple threat. BROADWAY BOUND. Performing arts schools usually offer more than just ballet, but modern, contemporary, voice lessons, acting lessons, and so forth.

A Ballet School is a place for children to studio pure ballet. Regardless of the pedagogy, it is completely ballet based, and the emphasis is only on ballet technique with supplemented curriculum of modern, contemporary and occasionally jazz.

So, the best way to insure your child’s future in dance is to make sure you are at the right school for your child. There is nothing wrong with any of these schools, or approaches to dance, but they will basically be the deciding factor of how your child will be received in dance.


So, your daughter was Clara?

Insuring your child has the best chance he or she may need in BALLET. You want to be a good parent, but you don’t know what to do? You think oh, is it even possible? Is my child good enough? Ballet dancers don’t make that much (which is a lie, it just depends where you get a job, like any career).  This is not an endorsement to any school in particular, please just go with the scenario. There are few jobs for ballerinas these days, and it seems one of the only ways to get noticed is to go to a legit ballet competition…. True and False… The reality is that those who go to these huge international competitions and do well are on the fast track to become principal dancers AKA sugarplum fairies. BUT, that doesn’t mean that your child isn’t going to make it. There are hundreds of companies that hold tons of ranks, and so your child just might be a snowflake, or a divertissement. Now, it is more important to decide how your child is going to get there… that is when the school your child is at should be evaluated.

A Ballet Education… It’s just not tutus and tiaras… Seriously

So, I told myself no more blogs. You have enough already, and they are already difficult to manage.(Yellow Like Asian) Then, I reminded myself I don’t have a free blog, and I don’t have a wordpress. This was enough to convince me to go for it. This blog is to educate aspiring dancers, audience go-ers, parents and other dancers on what is, and what is happening in the ballet world… AKA it is me ranting and raving about ballet. 

As any first blog post, I should introduce myself. My name is David (personal site), and I LOVE BALLET. No, I am not some crazed fan, or gay man with some over the top extravagant lifestyle. In fact, I do have some legitimacy here. I grew up dancing ballet, and not just at a some dolly dinkle studio in podunk America. I actually went through the entire ballet process, and become a professional ballet dancer. In addition, I have taught ballet, and other genres of dance on many different levels across the United States. Finally, my entire curriculum for teaching is based off Cassa Pancho’s All Things Black and Beautiful and the Balanchine Aesthetic. Finally, I am embarking on starting my own ballet company, Redlands Dance Theatre, click here for more info.

I’m not sure where this blog is going to go, but I can tell you what it isn’t going to be:

1. It isn’t going to be me bitching and complaining companies I dislike in general. (Trust and believe there are a lot I dislike)

2. It is definitely not going to be advice to get into a company. (A Guide… maybe)

3. It probably won’t be a blog slamming eating disorders, cocaine and drinking. (Not that I condone those things.)

4. It is not going to be me sitting on a high horse and just saying things for the sake of saying things… That is why we have artistic directors, haha that was a joke. I will give explanations and so forth. 

5. I will not be associated with youtub-ing, posting on IG, or even tweeting… I already have too many to manage.

Now, I can tell you what I want the blog to be:

INFORMATIVE, an education.

INSPIRATIONAL, a future.

INSIGHTFUL, a perspective.

INTRIGUING, a personality.

(If you can’t tell, I totally do PR and Marketing.)