Posts Tagged ‘Polina Semionova’

The Ballet World and the Star System

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

By Rachel Straus

In 1955 the British dance critic R. J. Austin calculated that American Ballet Theatre, whose roster of choreographers continually changed, would focus on it star dancers to solidify its reputation as a premier ballet company. Austin calculated right. Today ABT is powerful because of its stupendous dancers, whether they’re on the masthead or employed as guest artists for only a season.

On May 21, throngs descended on the Metropolitan Opera House to see David Hallberg dance Basilio, the poor barber, across from guest artist Polina Semionova, dancing the headstrong Kitri, in “Don Quixote.” On May 28, Hallberg played Prince Albrecht to guest artist Alina Cojocaru’s Giselle in the eponymous ballet. What seemed to matter to audiences (and critics) in these full-length ballets, where fifty plus dancers performed, was the performance of these principal dancers. The audiences got their money’s worth. Semionova, Cojocaru and Hallberg are at their peak of their artistry.

Hallberg dances like he is in the act of discovery. He has mastered ballet technique to the point that he plays with steps, rather than merely executing them. His confidence as an actor grows nightly. As Basilio he was all brio, showing unswerving confidence that he could win Kitri, despite all those rich suitors. As Albrecht, Hallberg dances as innocently as Cojocaru’s Giselle, whose heart he breaks and who saves him from The Wilis that are bent on his destruction. When Hallberg sequentially scissors his legs in the air six times, he resembles Christ suspended on the cross. His arms stretch wide, his expression is deathly. Hallberg’s face as much as his legs reveal his passion, his fear that if he stops dancing the Queen of The Wilis will kill him.

But Hallberg’s ability to create meaning isn’t what ticket holders, at least those I spoke to, are discussing. Hallberg’s technique and beautiful leg line are the points that dominate the conversation. Balletomanes are comfortable objectifying dancers and reducing ballets to its dancing stars. The choreography takes a back seat to discussions about virtuosity, and how principal dancers’ performances measure up to other principal dancers’. And that is a problem, if you consider a dance an artwork, in which the movement of every one on stage imbues the work with expressive value.

This complaint about ballet being reduced to stars and their tricks is as old as Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810). The French dancer and ballet master argued in “Lettres on Dancing and Ballets” (1760) for creating a ballet whose power lays in the sum of its parts. The ballet master, writes Noverre, has a responsibility to the entire work:

“Without forgetting the principal players in the piece, he should give consideration to the performers as a body; if he concentrate his attention on the premières danseuses and premiers danseurs, the action becomes tedious, the progress of the scenes drawn out, and the execution has no power of attraction.”

Kevin McKenzie’s staging of “Giselle” ocassionally grows tedious. It’s not that the ensemble dancers in the village scene of Act I don’t perform their steps beautifully. It’s that their steps convey little about the village life in which their dancing is supposed to express. The villagers dance much like The Wilis, who are ghosts! In both scenes, the dancers perform ballet steps.

So why didn’t McKenzie create folk dances and take the women off their pointe shoes for the village scene? Because audiences want to see virtuosity, even among the corps dancers, and because ballet dancers want to perform ballet steps so that they can have a shot of performing the roles of Giselle and Albrecht some day. Unfortunately, the plot of “Giselle” gets ground down by this assembly line standardization of choreography, which churns out a few principal dancers who can dazzle with their turns and leaps. This keeps the audiences focused on the sport of dance, which tends to sap the overall quality and meaning of a ballet.