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The Buzz, 9-19: Prodigals
Ballet blog skinny; History of a Siren; Martins commander of arts and -- huh?; All-danse in Biarritz; Up-close in Manhattan; Bessies heart ballet (not); ModErin mama

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2008 Paul Ben-Itzak

Image is everything

I was alarmed yesterday morning, in checking out the new blog of a major international ballet company, to discover the thinness of the cover girl, the dancer who graces the Home page. I don't know her, I know nothing about her situation, so for all I know she may just be naturally skinny and 100 percent healthy, but her image, at least, conforms all too easily to that of the ballet dancer we all know too well. I'm not going to describe how this one looks because if the dancer in question does indeed suffer from an eating disorder I don't want to traumatize her further, but let's just say that if a major ballet company is going to start what looks more like a fan site blog than a vehicle for serious introspection (it's produced by the company's marketing and P.R. department), it should assume that the site is going to be regarded by young and impressionable dancers, and should really, really think about the image it's presenting, and the possible harmful influence on young dancers who will think they need to emulate what they see to get to the same place.


Whenever a ballet company director tries to tell me that weight does matter, I counter with the example of Monique Meunier, the former New York City Ballet principal and American Ballet Theatre soloist. Never mind that by any other standards, Meunier would not be considered 'over-weight,' it would be safe to say that she doesn't meet the 'rail-thin' standard. More important, she makes the case that the issue isn't weight, it is indeed grace. What's important in a ballet dancer is not that she looks light but that she travels light.

Meunier is a graduate of SoCal's Westside School of Ballet, whose director, the former Balanchine dancer Yvonne Mounsey, will get together in her Santa Monica studio next month with fellow City Ballet alum Melissa Barak and freelance dancer Arsen Serobian to coach the Siren sequence from Mr. B's 1929 "Prodigal Son" before the cameras of the George Balanchine Foundation. It's the latest installment of the foundation's Interpreters Archive video series, whose goal is to document the viewpoints of dancers on whom Balanchine created his ballets as well as of important later interpreters whom he directly coached. The method is to capture them in studio coaching and explaining their roles to contemporary dancers. They're also interviewed; Mounsey's interpolator will be dancer and journalist Emily Hite. Another former NYCB dancer, the foundation's director of research Nancy Reynolds, oversees the project.

"'Prodigal Son' is unique in the Balanchine canon," says Reynolds, "not only because of its age but because of its Constructivist influences, not seen in any other surviving Balanchine ballet. With this taping, we are reaching far back into living history and to a whole other stylistic mindset."

When Mounsey took over the role in 1950, notably performing it in the company's London debut, she was coached not only by Balanchine but also by Felia Doubrovska, who created the role in its Ballets Russes premiere. "She would come to the performances and always came backstage to give me corrections and tips," recalls Mounsey. "'Little more here.... Little less here.... Little softer.' It was a great gift, which I still cherish. I hope I can pass on at least a small part of what she taught me."

The George Balanchine Video Archives, consisting so far of 28 tapes (another dozen await editing), are available for unrestricted viewing at 70 libraries around the world. For a list, click here.

Mais -- je reve

Years ago, or so the legend goes, when it came time to pick the winning design for the Bastille Opera House, French President Francois Mitterand misunderstood his advisors' recommendation and instead of pointing to their preferred model, indicated the last-place finisher. Et voila the ice-box monstrosity that we have today.

A similar mal compris is the only explanation I can find for this month's decision to award the Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters to Peter Martins, ballet master in chief of New York City Ballet.

I mean really: What has Martins achieved that merits this high French honor?

Mmmm.... Okay, he's maintained one of the leading dance organizations in the United States. I guess that merits a... "job well-done."

But leaving aside questions of whether he's maintained the Balanchine repertoire at a high level -- not having seen the company since 2001, I'm not a good judge -- there's no question that by the very infusion of his own works he's diluted the artistic caliber of the City Ballet rep. Simply put, every time there's a Martins ballet on the program, it's taking the place of a Balanchine or Jerome Robbins master-work and really -- that's no fair exchange. His works are at best competent; at worse, embarrassing and barely crafted.

As for Martins's directorship of the company: He diluted the level of coaching by dismissing Suzanne Farrell. His programming of new choreographers shows absolutely no vision or breadth. At times -- as I said, this may not still be the case -- the company has seemed brittle trying to perform works outside the Balanchine/Robbins mode.

All he has been, then, is a custodian, and there are some who would dispute how effectively he's performed even that task.

In Biarritz, a presenter just says no to 'non-dance'

Grace of Sud Ouest, my local paper here in the Aquitaine region of southwest France (where it's been rainy and overcast all day), I can tell you that there exists at least one festival director in France who isn't having any of that non-dance dance. Meet Filgi Claverie, programming director of the festival Le Temps d'aimer (the time to love), taking place through Sunday in this coastal city in the heart of French basque country. "When we launched, at the beginning of the 1990s," Claverie tells Sud Ouest, "it was the boom of contemporary dance: the less one understood, the more (a show) was 'in.' Moi, je ne mange pas de ce pain-la." (Literally, "I don't eat from that bread," but I like the French better.) "For example, I've never programmed 'non-dance'! I receive public money (300,000 of a total 500,000 Euro budget), and I want above all that the public takes pleasure (in what we offer). I'm not going to give them a show with two persons sitting on a chair for one hour." (I've translated it roughly; here the French is also better: "Pas de question de lui proposer deux types assis sur une chaise pendant une heure.")

In lieu of two types sitting around on a chair, then, this year's festival has ranged from sad clowns Josef Nadj and Dominique Mercy to Israeli Inbal Pinto, from the Kiev Modern Ballet to Black Blanc Beur, from Compagnie le Cri du Pied to the Macedonian Opera Ballet, and from Flamenco/Spanish dance artist Aida Gomez to Jant Bi / Germaine Acogny.

Meanwhile, back in Gotham

If you can't make it to Biarritz this week-end, why not bop over to Manhattan where, tonight and tomorrow, Edisa Weeks and the performers of Delirious Dances bring "Liaisons" to two intimate settings? Tonight you're welcome in the Geraldine Page Salon at 435 West 22nd Street between 9th & 10th Aves in Chelsea, and tomorrow the action moves uptown, waaaaaaaaay uptown to the Washington Heights living room of Tracy and Drew, 812 181st Street #31, between Fort Washington & Pinehurst Aves. Plan to get there at 8 p.m. for the 8:30 curtain; for tix (limited to 20 per show), call Smarttix at 212-868-4444.

What's that you say? Why? Well, here's how Carrie Stern of the Brooklyn Eagle describes the up close and personal action: "Leaps float literally overhead, lifts hover above your lap, tiny gestures are visible, emotions palpable, turns ruffle your hair."

Bessies heart ballet. Not.

I wasn't going to get into this because it's a no-winner for me but a segue is a segue so, Speaking of getting ruffled: Don't get me wrong. It's great that dancemakers like Doug Elkins and dance presenters and big thinkers like Laurie Uprichard were recognized by the New York Dance and Performance a.k.a. Bessie Awards this week and I don't want to take anything away from them; they merit the acclaim. Indeed, it's for fear of seeming to diminish their well-deserved honors that I was going to avoid this topic but really: The theaters who run this event should either follow the example of their Left Coast colleagues, i.e. the Izzie or Isadora Duncan Awards and stop excluding ballet or they should insert the word "Modern" between "New York" and "Dance."

Irish eyes are smiling

And if you inserted an 'i' between the 'r' and the 'n' and capitalized the 'e' in Modern you'd get ModErin, whose master (and the only person who would forgive me for the above sub-head), Darrah Carr (of Darrah Carr Dance), and husband David Byrne are the proud new parents of Cavan Eileen Byrne. The Dance Insider's North American editor gave Cavan to the world on Tuesday, September 9. Clocking in at six pounds, seven ounces, and 19 inches, young Cavan looks quite ready for her close-up.

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