Auguste Vestris


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’I say it’s spinach’
Competitions and the POB Concours
March 2002

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Until the 1960s, there were no ballet competitions of any significance. But, somehow, the Spessivtsevas and Fonteyns of this world, muddled through. There was no television, no Internet, indeed, no instantaneous forms of communication at all. And yet, Ulanova, Kronstam, Chauviré...emerged.

My thesis is that the very existence of these international competitions, is a major factor in dumbing down the level of classical dancing today. I would include amongst these competitions, the notorious Concours de Promotion Interne of the Paris Opera, of which, more later.

With an eye to rigour, I shall attempt to enumerate, and reply to, the arguments in favour of competitions.

Argument One

"Without competitions, young people from areas outwith the world’s dance capitals, would never become known".

There is a process known as auditions. Readers have no doubt heard of such things. Auditioning can on occasion mean attending company class for not one, but several days, which is rather a fair way of testing someone’s ability, I would say.

In the 1950s and 60s, the Royal Ballet, to name only one name, teemed with people from all over the Commonwealth. They made it into the company without the help of competitions. Somehow.

Argument Two

"Competitions force students to work hard at their technique"

The sort of technique demanded from a competitor, is one that will distinguish him from everyone else, viz., more, faster, higher. True artistry is not sufficiently spectacular to qualify as "technique" in front of a baying crowd.

Argument Three

"Competitions are fair, because the judges come from all over the world"

The ballet world is a tiny, if tempestuous, teacup. As a rule, the judges will all have known each other for decades, some would say, only too well. Experience shows that they invariably tend towards a bland aesthetic, otherwise known as "international Anglo-Russian" style. Final judgements are arrived at through "consensus politics" ("we have fifty percent who want to bomb Iraq, and fifty who don’t. Shall we toss dice ?").

Nothing good has ever come of consensus politics.

As for national peculiarities of style and training, on which the emergence of valid new international ideas paradoxically depends, juries have no patience with that. Such peculiarities lie outwith the system.

Argument Four

"The stage is a harsh taskmaster; students have got to toughen up, and competitions show what mettle they’re made of. And the beset always win."

Classical ballet is not a competition, where a Big Star expresses the Triumph of the Will against the whole. It is an art form, made up of music, dancing, painting, costumes, and dramaturgy. Each dancer is but a part of the whole. He must be "heard", as though he were in the string section of an orchestra, even and especially if he be the soloist. Encouraging people to compete from their earliest age, stunts their perception of the vaster framework.

A person who wins a competition, is a person who has got cool enough nerves to get through two or three variations he has practised to death, and could do in his sleep. He is therefore good at those variations. Everything else about him is an unknown quantity.

Argument Five

"Technique would never progress without competitions. People have to push themselves so hard, they make breakthroughs."

Classical ballet today is at an all-time low. It is the absolute pits. There is no épaulement, no head, no eyes, the arms have become stick-like appendages, as the air resounds to the thwack of That Leg hitting up against the ear like a baseball bat.

Dancers have got enough to do, without working on that fifth useless pirouette. But, to win a medal that opens the gateway to what is now called "success", here come the lemmings, flinging themselves over the cliffs of empty virtuosity.

Argument Six

"Youth is very fond of competitions and will lose all interest in ballet if there are no prizes to be won".

The ethos of the great classical artist has no common ground with that of the careerists rampant in the art world today, one driven by the film and recording industry.

In the left ring, Schubert. In the right ring, Herbert von Karajan. Y’all pays yer money, and y’all takes yer choice.

Argument Seven

"There are too many girls in the ballet world, relative to boys, and competitions help to eliminate the wheat from the chaff."

I would rather maintain that they serve only to promote the current fad for fresh anoxeric flesh. The judges scan through the rows of the little hopefuls like a laser scalpel. Any girl who would look "too bummy or titty" in a Unitard, to borrow Derek Deane’s imperishable words, will be deader than the Dodo before dancing a single step.

Remember, all of this hullaballoo has got to be financed by sponsors. The competition has got to be filmed, photographed, televised and what not. Competitors must be PHOTOGENIC, and they must look "attractive" on film.

But there are marvellous dancers who look like a frog in still photography, and others who have always looked ghastly on film. In other words, they may be artists, but they are not a perfectly-formed consumer object.

Does that tell us anything ?

On to the notorious Concours de Promotion Interne of the Paris Opera.

This particular form of competition, without which a dancer cannot rise through the ranks unless, by some miracle, the Director promote him over everyone’s head to étoile, was instituted in the mid-nineteenth century.

In those not-so-far-off days, female dancers were appallingly badly paid, and were wont to get up to all sorts of tricks that cannot be reported on a family Website, to pay the rent. To keep dancers out of the arms, or whatever, of theatrical management, it was felt that a competition amongst the corps de ballet would be the fairer way. And at the time, it was, no doubt.

Autre temps, autres moeurs.

The Concours has now outlived its usefulness.

The Jury is made up of one prominent "outside" figure (from the Bolshoi Theatre, this year), the Directeur de la Danse, the head of the Opera House, and several dancers elected, I believe, from amongst their pairs. So far as an outsider can tell (where was glasnost when we needed it ?), a dancer will be judged partly by his class work (regular attendance appears to be one criterion), partly by his contribution on stage, and lastly but not leastly, by his showing on two or variations at the year-end Concours. An entire year’s efforts on stage will often be wrecked by a feeble ninety-second variation at the Concours.

If a fellow comes down with influenza two days before the Concours, he has lost all chance of promotion for the next twelvemonth. If Dancer Y, having coasted idly throughout the year, puts in a brilliant variation, and sways the jury, Dancer Z’s year of hard work counts for dust. If other soloists sitting on the jury are jealous of Dancer W .... enough said.

The last two years have been marked by scandals, swelling to an uproar that reached the pages of the daily newspapers, over the jury’s failure to promote Emmanuel Thibault (2001) and Fanny Fiat (2002) to the rank of premier danseur. Some nasty accusations were levelled at the jury, that it would be inappropriate to repeat here. Suffice it to say that it has become blindingly clear, that even the most extreme virtuosity on the day of the Concours, will no longer ensure one’s rise. But if it does not, on what basis, then, are people being promoted ?

The penny-wise "let me not put a foot wrong" approach which has marked the POB’s dancing over the last years, can be ascribed, at least in large measure, to anxiety at the Concours. One has got to be a good boy, a good girl, year-in, year-out, to get a good mark. One must avoid performing in too strongly-felt, too "innig" a way, and shy away from inflecting one’s dancing with any nuance that might mark one, on the Day of Destiny, as too "unusual".

Well, if I may be allowed to quote the illustrious Clement Crisp just once: "I say it’s spinach, and I don’t like it."

K.L. Kanter