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Flash Commentary 1, 5-30: Get With the Program
ABT and the Importance of Being Accurate

By Sandra Aberkalns
Copyright 2000 Sandra Aberkalns

For many people the performance does not begin when the house lights dim and the curtain goes up. Rather, it begins when they sit down and open their programs to read about the works they are about to see. Any audience will be a mixed bag; there will be people who are very knowledgeable about dance history, others who knew it once but have forgotten a lot of it, and those who have limited or no knowledge at all. Is it the dance company's responsibility to educate its audience? Does the audience really care about program notes? I believe that the minute a work enters a company's repertoire it is ethically bound to preserve the work, not only artistically but historically, and the program notes should reflect this.

Looking at my program at the Metropolitan Opera House last Thursday, I applauded American Ballet Theatre as it used the title Tudor himself gave to the first work, which is "Jardin aux Lilas." The translation, "Lilac Garden," which has been mistakenly used as the main title, was appropriately placed in parenthesis as a sub-title. Below the cast list, the program notes included the premiere date and the year that the ballet entered ABT's repertoire. However, Ballet Rambert is listed as the premiering company, but in 1936 (I've also seen 1938 as the premiere date) Ballet Rambert was still known as Ballet Club. That company did not go by its current name until approximately 1941. Also, in 1940 it was Ballet Theatre, not American Ballet Theatre that performed this work for the first time in the United States.

"Jardin aux Lilas" is only 64 years old, so that may explain why there were only minor inaccuracies in the program notes. However, with "La Sylphide (which is technically 168 years old, and not 164 years as ABT would have you believe)" I got the distinct impression that the longer a work is around the more liberties can be taken, and it really doesn't matter -- hey, they're all dead right?

Before I analyze ABT's program notes (or lack of) for the second ballet of the evening, here is a brief history of this famous -- and historical -- classic as I understand it.

"La Sylphide" premiered March 12, 1832, in Paris, with Marie Taglioni in the lead role. Her father Philippe Taglioni was the choreographer. Why is this date important? This work was as revolutionary in its time as Nijinsky's "Sacre du Printemps" was in 1913. The era of romantic ballet began with Taglioni's version of "La Sylphide" -- a story that took the lives of "real people" and put them in situations where they would interact with the ethereal, mythical, and fantastic. This kind of scenario had never been presented in ballet before. In 1836, Auguste Bournonville created a work for the Royal Danish Ballet titled "Sylphiden," with Lucile Grahn as the ballerina. Now we make a giant leap in time to the 1950's when a young Dane, Eric Bruhn, who had trained in the Bournonville style, joined ABT as a dancer. Even though Mr. Bruhn himself had said that he had never felt completely comfortable in the Bournonville style, he carried those traditions with him regardless. Later, in 1971, he would stage Bournonville's version of "La Sylphide" for ABT.

Back to the present. Last night's program notes completely ignore Taglioni's 1832 version, giving sole credit for the creation of this historical work to Bournonville and the Royal Danish Ballet. The program also says that "La Sylphide" entered ABT's repertoire in 1964. I found this confusing -- if Bruhn's staging didn't enter the repertoire until 1971 then who's version was performed in 1964? Or has ABT confused the dates of this version, placing Bruhn's staging on ABT seven years earlier than it actually occurred? However, what really distressed me was the following, "Restaged by Eric Bruhn" without any dates. Unfortunately for the dance world Mr. Bruhn passed away in 1986, and I found it disconcerting that the majority of audience members who weren't aware of this fact were lead to believe that Mr. Bruhn might have been in ABT's studios rehearsing the ballet only a few weeks earlier. Couldn't the program note say something to the effect, "Originally staged for ABT in 1971 by Eric Bruhn"? Or placed his birth and death dates after his name?

Personally, I think that this particular version of "La Sylphide" has been out of ABT's repertoire for too long. When the curtain went up, the audience collectively "oohed" at the beauty of the new sets, costumes, and lighting design. I don't think there was a single person in the audience who would have thought that this production was "dated." It seems that too often these days companies believe they must constantly provide new choreographic versions to give the audience reason to come see them again. Why wasn't Taglioni's version on stage last night? I don't know. However, I do know that "La Sylphide" has survived because the original book/story by Adolphe Nourrit is timeless, and Bournonville's version has withstood the test of time because the choreographic craftsmanship is solid.

In Paul Ben-Itzak's Flash Review 1, 5-9: Ghosts he effectively took the topic of program inaccuracies out of the closet, so to speak, when he brought attention to errors found in the Joffrey Ballet/New School University BFA Program dance concert program. That review made me realize that we must ALL take responsibility in turning this problem around whether it is in a program for a school concert or a major dance company. We should all pay attention to these details out of respect for those people who devote, and have devoted, their talent, creativity, and their lives to an art form that offers too little, if any, financial recompense to also rob them of the credit they so richly deserve.

Print material allows readers a forum to voice their opinions or to correct errata when they write to the editors. It is also not uncommon to see a publication print a correction. We all make mistakes, there is a lot of information out there to sort through. However, if those of us that are aware that there is an error in a program remain silent then that note will not be corrected, and it will perpetuate the problem. Individuals involved in scholarly research already know what a mine field of mis-information is out there. So, let's put those dance history classes we all thought were so boring to good use. By sharing your knowledge and making your voice heard, we can collectively acknowledge the people that work so hard to make your evening at the theatre so pleasurable.

This program will be repeated Friday evening, June 16, and Saturday afternoon and evening June 17.

Editor's Notes:

Sandra Aberkalns is a certified Labanotator with the Dance Notation Bureau, and has re-staged ballets by Paul Taylor, Eugene Loring, Hanya Holm, and others.

Erik Bruhn did stage his version of "La Sylphide" in 1964 -- on the National Ballet of Canada, which premiered it on December 31 of that year.

In his 1954 (Doubleday) "Complete Stories of the Great Ballets," edited by Francis Mason, George Balanchine cites Taglioni's "La Sylphide" as the definitive original, and refers to Bournonville's later ballet as "a version." He then continues with the following introduction:

"Like most nineteenth-century ballets that have long since passed out of the active repertory, 'La Sylphide' would seem to be a mere curiosity. It is seldom, if ever seen any more; never is it seen in its original condition. But 'La Sylphide' must interest the modern audience because of its story, what we know of its dancing, and because of the ballerina who danced it. Marie Taglioni is the first great dancer we know anything about. She and the men who made 'La Sylphide' her most famous part created a revolution in the art of theatrical dancing that we are still witnessing every time we go to the ballet. It is to them that we owe ballet stories that are at once real and fantastic, dancers who rise above the floor into the air, ballet scenery that is naturalistic, then ethereal, costumes of flowing white, pink tights and satin shoes -- all the things, in fact, that begin what we know now as the Romantic ballet."

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