Auguste Vestris


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Did you say ’Multi-Purpose’ ?
March 2002

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Originally published on

In mid-April, the management of the Prix de Lausanne, one of the world’s most prestigious competitions, placed the following lines into a French monthly, in reply to criticism that had apparently been levelled at changes made this year to the Prize conditions.

"The decision to include contemporary dance amongst the tests, has been taken, in the light of a shift in the dance world’s requirements: young dancers today must have the ability to be multi-purpose (aptitude à la polyvalence), if they are to meet the demands put on them by most major companies, whose repertory is no longer limited to the classical works. The candidates are not being asked to like contemporary dance, but rather to shew that they can adapt to a different style."

Thus, the pre-selection process for the Prix de Lausanne now involves a class in "contemporary" dance, and one in classical dance, the dancer being admitted to the next stage in the elimination process, by the average of the two marks. Stage two, involves yet another "contemporary" dance class, a classical one, and one classical variation. Again, the candidate is judged on the average of the three.

Put plainly, a youth or girl who flubs up on the contemporary class, is out.

Were this but a figment of the imagination of the Lausanne Gnomes, had the Gnomes lied to us, about the shift in requirements, we could heap ashes upon their furry green heads. But they ain’t lying. Flick through the audition ads: most, if not all, call for a "strong contemporary background". Fine, except that the companies in question are, at least on paper, "classical".

Why should that concern us ? Shouldn’t people be multi-purpose, or polyvalent, as the French audition ads read ?

My thesis is that they should NOT. Classical dancers should be masters of classical technique, which virtually no-one is, nowadays, with a few remarkable exceptions such as Johann Kobborg, Thomas Lund or Emmanuel Thibault. If people want to toss their stuff in a discothèque after hours, or slither about in an occasional triple bill, why not ? But I shall now attempt to shew that ramming so-called "contemporary" down classical dancers’ throats, is creating a value-free, standards-free zone, which is wrecking classical dance.

Point One: Contemporary dance is a value-free zone

There are no standards. There is no way of judging what is good or bad. It is all a matter of taste and opinion. Each one of these whimsical little fellows, self-styled choreographers, have an equally whimsical little following. The public may be indifferent, by and large, but, thanks to the largesse of agencies like the French Ministry of Culture, they have now got a virtual stranglehold on many theatres. It’s the equivalent of Regie Theater, in the ballet.

Just what IS contemporary, anyway ? All we know for certain, is that there is no turn-out, no precise academic figures, no proportions and relations, no absolutes. What counts, are the choreographer’s meteoric moods. There may be different schools, that of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, and so forth, but, at the end of the day, it is all, like raw vegetables, terribly perishable.

Some of those people may be clever, even talented. Their work may, though rarely, be pretty to look at. But that’s serendipity. It may happen, and it may not happen. The triumph of the irrational will, cannot be repeated at will. "I think that looks nice, so we’ll see if the dancers can do it, without suffering a fatal industrial accident".

If contemporary dancers want it, well, it’s at their risks and perils. They chose the job. There is, no doubt, a small coterie of spectators who will find déjà-vu thrillingly "experimental", till the end of time. Well and good.

Where I beg to differ, is where the Big Cheat comes in. Ballet dancers, it is well known, can do anything, and look good at it. They are skilful, and they have terrific figures. Standing on their head holding a tennis racket, they would still look chic. Indeed, it has been done ! A contemporary choreographer, short on invention, but long on luvvie contacts, will say to himself: Why should I "create", if that is the word, on stubby, overweight, non turned-out modern dancers, when Philibert and Pippa XXXX have given me an entrée to a great classical company, on which my weedy, etiolated notions will look like an Act of Genius.

And the Trick is Turned. He will be served up with the likes of a Tamara Rojo, on a platter, and the girl, by sheer skill and conviction, will carry the day.

But the choreography will still be rubbish.

Point Two: classical dance is NOT a value-free zone

Classical ballet is an intelligible system, elaborated over hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Nothing is arbitrary. The turn-out is a scientific necessity, the proportions and relations are exact, the épaulement has a precise physiological and artistic purpose. It breathes a magnificent, eternal calm. Corrections are extremely precise, and universal. A Russian and a Dane may differ on points, even major points, but they certainly do know what the other is talking about ! There is a coherence between what is physiologically ideal, and what is ideally beautiful.

Close study of the two minutes of film of Spessivtseva in Act One of Giselle, captured almost eighty years ago, shew how very little, if at all, the technical canons of our art have changed over time.

You do not trash something that has proven its worth, its viability, over centuries, unless you have come up with a better system. If someone has, please contact the Webmaster immediately.

Point Three: Knives are meant for cutting

The mind of a classical artist is razor sharp. His creativity is a tension between strict technical rules, laws, and the need to force those rules to express new ideas that nevertheless remain intelligible to third parties. Do not blunt that sharpness by trashing the rules !

Just to be sure that I’m raising enough hackles out there, off we go with an example or two. Switch art forms for a moment.

Classical stage technique, as we know it, has survived because of Shakespeare, Schiller, and the Greeks.

Let us look at our friend Shakespeare. Here, we definitely do not have a value-free zone. His verse is strict, his form, pretty formal, but in terms of content, all meat-and-potatoes. Now, imagine you are an actor, and you are trained to work on Shakespeare. You learn the rules of versification, you learn to make the voice ring, you learn to sing, to dance and to fence, you learn to hold the stage, you study the period, and every night, an entire world teeming with life steps out with you. It is something precise, and immediate. Intelligible.

If you do not have that technique, you cannot get Shakespeare’s points across. If you do, you are as technical, in your own way, as a musician or ballet dancer.

Then the theatre is given a new director. Regie Theater. You find yourself doing Living Theatre, Happenings, tearing off your clothes, slumping, and shouting yourself hoarse. Not for one performance, but for months, years at a time.

You come back to Shakespeare. Your edge is blunted. You are just not that keen any longer. You have lost that sense of what it is to be absolutely precise, absolutely technical. The thrill of riding the wave of mastering all those elements, that is Shakespeare.

Switch art forms again. Classical music.

A recurrent complaint expressed by audiences, in every concert hall today, is blandness. People just cannot fathom why everything, nowadays, sounds the same.

Flashback to our friend Wilhelm Furtwaengler. Cannot remember anyone ever complaining about his being bland. Furtwaengler dabbled, occasionally, in late-nineteenth century music, but, as we all know, his stress was on Beethoven, that general area. In his own words, "I am a composer who conducts, not a conductor who composes". He was 100% intent on getting the compositional idea across. Authors who lacked such ideas, were of no interest to him.

Now, imagine Furtwaengler had been compelled to conduct music that he did not believe in - like Satie or Poulenc for example - or aleatory music, like John Cage. What would have happened, to a person of that artistic integrity ? What would his orchestra have thought, had they seen him slime-ball his way round his ideals ? How would they have played ?

Those are the sort of questions one might want to have in the back of one’s mind, the next time one watches a lovely young girl having her bones crushed and cracked by some fool choreographer.

Point Four: Do we really want to do things like this to the likes of Miss Rojo and Miss Cojocaru ?

Here, an excerpt from Clement’s recent review of Ballet Preljocaj’s LeSacre du printemps in the FT.

"Preljocaj battles with Stravinsky like a man fighting an avalanche: the encounter can be said to be either ludicrous or insolent. It is certainly unwise. Modern dress of the most dismal kind, and an action that is no more than a protracted striptease in which six couples are involved. The women start the piece by removing their knickers, and we guess all too easily what portends. Bras, bare chests, simulated copulation - foreplay as tedium - and finally one hapless woman finds herself naked, flailing about on a grassy dell and behaving with those bad social and sexual manners which are the lingua franca of such stagings in Europe. The piece is foolish, lumpily done by cast and choreographer, and is about as erotic (voyeurs please note) as blotting-paper."

It so happens, that Angelin Preljocaj turns up with some regularity at the Paris Opera, which is, at least in theory, a classical theatre, and choreographs, if that is the word, on the troupe there. A recent offering was "Casanova", complete with mini-plastic male [ ] pinned to the girl’s bikini briefs (yes), and Isabelle Guérin reciting poetry on venereal disease.

Should one wonder that Paris audiences have begun to find the troupe "somewhat withdrawn", "skilful, but pale", "under the weather..."

People in London have, in recent months, been fortunate to see some extraordinary dancing, in the persons of Miss Rojo, Miss Cojocaru, Mr. Kobborg... Do we really wish to subject them to that sort of thing ?

These young people are very competent. They were attracted to the ballet because their mind-set is rigorous: work is a value to them, they work in the very large, and the very small, both "jewellers" and "engineers" of space, but, at the same time, they want to give something from their soul to the audience. But what can one give, when one is oneself being subjected to "mind-rape" by some self-indulgent choreographer ?

Can one learn anything from modern dance ?

To return to the Prix de Lausanne, modern dancers are not expected to don pointes, or pop off a double tour en l’air, just to shew they can do it. And of course, they can NOT do it. They do not have the competency. What that boils down to, is the fact that "multi-purposeness", is a one-way street.

To be honest, classical dancers will often be heard to complain that ballet has become so stiff, so rigid, that they’ve got to do a bit of modern dance to have fun and loosen up. Bring back épaulement, bring back Bournonville, drop those damned hyper-extensions, and classical dance will stop being stiff, overnight.

My own view is that technique is NOT being over-emphasised today. What has happened, is that choreographers believe they are being creative, by twisting the human body into weird shapes that it was never built for. It’s difficult, and excruciating, so people call that "technique". But it is not technique. It is just impressing upon the eye, a certain novelty.

Technique, in the ballet, is a musical response, which means that the actual criteria are how one produces a legato, singing line, how one develops footwork, ballon, riding lightly on the music, never for a moment breaking its flow. We have thus got to have more concentration on rigorous technique, not less.

There are huge, unexplored areas of potential ballet libretti - the conquest and exploration of Space, or Greek tragedies, for example. Ballet cannot run out of ideas, because the universe has not dried up, at least, not yet. But to exploit that potential, we must get back to a rigorously classical technique.

K.L. Kanter