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By Joseph Carman
Full-length classical story ballets provide the bread and butter of ballet companies. What makes them “classics” is not always clearly definable. Perhaps it’s the music, the libretto, or the poetic choreography. But it’s hard to dispute that major portions of classical ballets have survived because of an incalculable combination of all of these elements. Among those are the treasured adagio of the White Swan pas de deux; the ebullience of the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty; Myrta cleaving through the Wilis with her grand jetés in Giselle; the hypnotic arabesque entrances of the Shades moving down a ramp from their heavenly netherworld in La Bayadère.
Nevertheless, every year directors and choreographers announce new productions of story ballets that tweak, update, edit, expand, or completely revamp the mainstream concepts of those ballets. Some work marvelously, others flop or merely bore the spectators.
So why do we need to remake the classics? Is it to streamline the ballets or give them a relevance in the 21st century? Is it to infuse a sense of novelty into worn-out warhorses? Is there a lack of musicality or choreographic sophistication that needs to be revisited? Does the story need a new angle? Does the symbolism warrant emphasizing? Do the men need more dancing? Or is the purpose simply to titillate? Well, according to the specific choreographer you speak with, any of the above could elicit an affirmative response.
For Stanton Welch, Houston Ballet’s artistic director and choreographer of a La Bayadère that premiered in February, the primary motives were narrative logic and full-out dancing. In his version, based on a combination of the Nureyev and Makarova productions with his own added choreography, he reconfigured the three acts of the ballet to end with the Kingdom of the Shades and the climactic collapse of the temple. “I wanted to accent the drama and storytelling because there are a lot of fantastic characters in the ballet,” says Welch, who even considered using live snakes to add bite to the venomous undertones of the plot. “There is the High Brahmin’s love for Nikiya, for example. I wanted to bring that forward and end Act One with that subplot.”
In the normally prolonged mime sections, Welch opted for more choreography and less mime. “Before the temple dances, there is usually seven minutes of entrance music for the priests without a single step of dancing. I have a lot of story to tell and I like to tell it through dance, staying within the vocabulary of the movement.” But for the traditional Petipa sections of the Shades scene and the divertissement, Welch values the “ultimate perfection of the corps” and was willing to spend time on it. He drafted Russian coach Ai-Gul Gaisina to set the white act on students in the school as preparation for going into the company. They were immersed in the style for many months so that the full corps of 24 women were prepared to take on the daunting task of La Bayadère’s precision.
Kenneth Greve, the artistic director of the Finnish National Ballet and choreographer of a new Swan Lake for the company, had a different emphasis in his staging. “The most important thing is to create something out of the ordinary, something that makes the viewer get a new experience even if they have preconceived expectations,” argues Greve. “You can be provocative through a new synopsis, a new look, and, of course, new choreography. I was asked to make a classical Swan Lake and so I let my imagination go wild, then put it into a traditional frame.” The only recognizable elements of the choreography were the second-act pas de deux, the cygnet quartet and the Black Swan pas de deux.
In Greve’s Swan Lake, the Prince and his loving relationship with his best friend Benno—as well as a deep animosity towards Von Rothbart—take center stage in a character-driven version. Greve wanted the male protagonist to have the visceral depth of Hamlet and James in La Sylphide. “Both of those stories reflect the man’s emotions, so this is a Swan Lake with male understanding,” says Greve. “I have danced in 11 different productions of Swan Lake and they all looked a bit the same—they just had some new steps and some new scenes, so I wanted to allow the prince to be more like a man who reaches for something beyond himself.”
Unlike Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet is a modern classic, primarily defined by Prokofiev’s visceral score and the outlines supplied by the familiar Russian and British productions. The choreography varies, but generally you can count on a balcony pas de deux and characters conjured up from Shakespeare’s verse through a balletic lens. When she choreographed her version of the lovers’ tale, Cincinnati Ballet artistic director Victoria Morgan consulted with dramaturge Eda Holmes and researched many dance and cinematic versions to make the story flow succinctly and rationally. “We analyzed each and asked why did this work and why didn’t it work,” says Morgan. “We tried to really flesh out the essential beats, the exact communication we try to make at this moment, what needed to be accented. You get attached to steps you fall in love with, but Eda would say ‘Romeo wouldn’t do that.’ ” The use of an orchestra also required a tight timeline; anything over two hours and 20 minutes including intermission resulted in overtime.
But Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette, first done in its current version for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo in 1996 (and staged for Pacific Northwest Ballet in 2008), throws out a lot of conventional notions: no balcony, no period costumes, no props, and a Juliet with the attitude of a mature woman rather than a teenager. A heavily hormonal Romeo slides on his belly through Juliet’s legs in their rapturous duet and later murders Tybalt on an upstage ramp with Quentin Tarantino-style vengeance. The choreography combines natural movement and mime with both modern and ballet technique.
“The ballet is mainly constructed on a diagonal to avoid the frontal relationship with the audience and to give the dancers a chance to only relate with each other onstage,” says Maillot, the director of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. “I avoided audience applause, except at the intermission, by linking each scene as a continuation of the previous one.” With cinematic flourish (the ballet is told through the pain of Friar Laurence’s memory), he uses slow motion, flashbacks, and freeze-frame stage pictures. “There is no limit for me about what is sacred versus fair game in redoing a classic. The only thing that matters is that a work must speak about the artist who makes it,” adds Maillot.
And what about the audience’s point of view? How much do they matter in the reshaping of a familiar story ballet? Welch points out that, although Houston is a big city, it’s in a part of America where a lot of ballet-goers have never seen a full-length Bayadère. “I think it’s important for the classics to be retold,” says Welch, who has choreographed a Swan Lake in a pre-Raphaelite style. “Every community should have these myths and folk tales reproduced and retooled and passed from one generation to another. I’d like to think that 30 years from now there are kids who watched my Bayadère who would replace it with what they felt society needed.”
The reasons not to attempt a restaging are too clear from failures. Morgan, having watched countless videos of Swan Lake, Romeo, and Cinderella, often questioned the choreographers’ decisions. “But probably some people have watched my stuff and asked why I made that choice,” she says. Welch gets upset over “someone who spends a ridiculous amount of money and doesn’t change anything.” And sometimes a classic that requires a full corps de ballet is downsized to the point of complete diminishment.
There are some full-lengths that choreographers prefer not to tamper with. “I don’t think I would like to change the synopsis of Sleeping Beauty, and therefore I wouldn’t find the inspiration to re-choreograph the ballet,” says Greve. Welch considers Giselle to be “pretty perfect,” with a brilliant story trimmed of any fat, no matter which conventional production he has seen. The Swedish choreographer Mats Ek, however, choreographed a famous (or infamous) Giselle in the 1980s with Giselle as an inmate in an insane asylum and Myrta as the head nurse. And Matthew Bourne, finding new pathways through the music or the storyline, seems never to have met a classical ballet he wouldn’t deconstruct or reroute to an alternate universe, including Swan Lake, Nutcracker, Cinderella, and La Sylphide (retitled Highland Fling).
Naturally, classical ballets shouldn’t be viewed merely as musty repositories of academic ballet steps. “I think it is crucial for classical ballet to try to renew itself if we are to be a part of the 21st century competing with all the other media. We must adapt to the people who watch the performance so they can enjoy and be touched by them,” says Greve. Today’s audiences, after all, like to be swept off their feet and challenged intellectually or even amused, but not insulted with frivolous, arbitrary restagings.
For any choreographer considering making a move on a classical ballet, Maillot has some advice: “Get a real knowledge of the piece you want to talk about and then believe that what you want to say about it is essential. Trust yourself, no matter the rest.”
Joseph Carman writes about the performing arts and is the author of Round About the Ballet.
Photo of Andrew Bowman and Salla Eerola in Kenneth Greve's Swan Lake by Sakari Viika, courtesy Finnish National Ballet