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