CriticalDance Forum

Classification systems for ballet companies
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Author:  Stuart Sweeney [ Wed Dec 08, 1999 6:27 am ]
Post subject:  Classification systems for ballet companies

The visit of SFB to London gave rise to a discussion about the high quality of the Company, but also to a debate on the Internet, about the use of a Regional/National/International model for the classification of ballet companies. It's tempting to simply agree with Betsy Erickson (Ballet Mistress at SFB) who, in the foyer of Sadlers Wells, London, very quietly, without rancour and with great confidence said, 'SFB is not a Regional company.'

However, I never received an answer to an oft-posed question, 'What is the purpose of this system?' Thus, my focus in this posting is not that I wish to debate whether SFB should be a National or International Company or whatever, but rather whether the system has a practical use.

On the basis of the arguments I have seen, I believe that the US classification system, as I have seen it propounded, is an unhelpful structure, which wastes valuable discussion time that could be better used in other directions. The negative aspects of the system were highlighted in a comment by a critic which started, 'For a Regional company, SFB…..'.

I am by nature someone who likes intellectual structures and am sometimes too ready to adopt them when they do not really take our understanding forward. However, this is an instance where a structure seems almost entirely without attractions and I must confess that I was surprised that it has been defended so passionately by its advocates.

So, what is the basis of this classification model? Firstly, there is no definitive system and even its devotees acknowledge that there will be a variation between adherents and even the naming of the different categories. Thus, there is already a worrying vagueness about this system, which suggests that it may not be a useful tool in surveying the ballet landscape. This system, which has formed the centre of the discussion, has clearly been around for some time and perhaps dates from a period when there was a great difference in performance standards between the major NY companies and others around the country. An example has also been quoted concerning its use by Arlene Croce in the context of a discussion of Stuttgart Ballet some years ago. As a Principal in SFB told me, it was also important in a time when the Endowment for the Arts was an important source of income for US companies, which I understand is not the case today.

One formulation of this model (The Model) seems to place little weight on quality of current performances, individual seasons or even a decade of fine performance, but hypothesises that the 'International' companies deserve the title because of factors such as:
- a unique style
- a top class school
- a distinctive heritage repertoire
- current (last 10 years) performance track record is less important than a 'potential' to regain past glories

The question of distinctive 'style' is another battleground and I will merely note that in the view of many the parachuting of a wonderful dancer such as Nureyev into the RB shook the Company out of a period of relative torpor. In addition, the introduction of Carlos Acosta from Cuba and Johan Kobborg from Denmark has also strengthened the Company greatly in the past year. This trend of 'internationalism' is well advanced in many companies and is deplored by some, but this is a separate debate. There is also the current legal framework, which in the UK, as elsewhere no doubt, insists on Equal Opportunities recruitment. However, in all fields, the quality that Equal Opps promotes is a strong factor in achieving success, as well as mere legal compliance.

The factor of having a top class school is closely related to the style argument above and such schools are clearly crucial to the future of ballet. However, we are into the problematic area of classification systems for schools, which may be an even more difficult area than for companies.

Turning to the heritage repertoire argument, the classifiers argue that the top companies have had the involvement of the finest choreographers and offer a distinctive approach to these works that others cannot match. Again, I am unconvinced. A case can be made that works often look best on the dancers on whom they were made, but once we have gone on to another set of performers and directors, then the argument often becomes weaker. For instance, I have heard the comment that Deborah Macmillan, Sir Kenneth's widow, feels that the recent Paris Opera Ballet version of 'Manon' is perhaps the most successful realisation of the work to date. This shouldn't come as a great surprise. UK audiences are regularly amazed at the passion that theatrical companies from Eastern Europe or Kwa Zulu bring to Shakespeare, even though their performances are in a language we do not understand. I am encouraged to think that different companies and different aesthetic perspectives may bring out new wonders from a great work of performance art. It is also interesting to note that the Paris Opera Ballet has never had the benefit of a 'great' resident choreographer, but is widely acknowledged as the ballet company in Western Europe which consistently sets the highest standards.

One of the arguments put forward by supporters of The Model is that performance standards have little to do with the position of a company in the structure and a company like SFB can be described as 'Very fine', but still occupy a place in Div III. I do find this the most unhelpful aspect of The Model. I can accept that a fine single performance or even a season would not constitute grounds for a marked change in the perception of a company. But, frankly, a 5-year plus period of consistently high standards of performance seems to me to be a reasonable time for the consideration of the worth of a company. The time-scales given by The Model are too sluggish to be useful in my view.

Thus, The Model not only serves no useful purpose, but is deeply flawed. Clearly, I would not wish to take away the great history of a company and its past glories. In addition, I am sure that there is scope for current administrations to learn from the past and draw on the experience of an earlier generation. However, in an age when change management is probably the key factor for any sort of organisation to prosper and grow, I believe it is unhelpful to constantly hark back to former times and different circumstances.

To sum up, I see little benefit from the classification system for ballet companies used by some in the US, while I can see negative effects. Whether this system served some purpose at an earlier stage in the development of ballet is a separate debate. I am opposed to dogmatic structures that do not acknowledge the changes that can occur within companies after several years under a new Artistic Director and with a number of key dancers who may be home-grown or imported. Indeed, such a structure may hold back the full recognition of a very fine company or divert attention from the relative improvement in companies such as The Royal Ballet or The Bolshoi.

I look forward to a day when we do not see phrases such as, 'For a Regional Company, SFB...' that obstruct rather than assist the development and recognition of excellence.

<small>[ 10-17-2002, 04:16: Message edited by: Stuart Sweeney ]</small>

Author:  Azlan [ Wed Dec 08, 1999 10:04 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Classification systems for ballet companies

Stuart, thank you for well-thought out treatise. I will gather my thoughts and respond to your points.

Author:  trina [ Thu Dec 09, 1999 3:23 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Classification systems for ballet companies

Stuart- I am making a quick reply. I will reply in depth more later. <BR>I lived in England for a month and noticed this same phenomena with regard to pop music: Americans are very intersted in putting pigeonholing and classifying things under a "heading". For instance: "rhthym and blues", "gospel", whatever. In England they didn't do this at all-they merely called it "music" and left it at that. I still can't figure out, to this day, why there is this difference. Maybe the fact that the US is a much younger culture has something to do with it? From what you said, the same thing is true for dance companies. I'll think more on this and respond.

Author:  Azlan [ Wed Dec 15, 1999 9:52 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Classification systems for ballet companies

Stuart,<P>I agree with you whole-heartedly. I personally think such a Model that defines a company as "regional" does a huge disservice to dance. A company could be dancing its best season ever and surpassing the standards set by the "international" companies yet, because it is labeled "regional" receives lacklustre attendance because fans equate "regional" with "small town." How does this help dance?<P>The Model is also, as you say, sufficiently vague as to prove useless. There is not a "rulebook" that defines the different categories. Thus these labels are subject to relative interpretation and, as such, they can be misused by detracting critics or ruthless publicists. It's like those labels you see at restaurants: "Award Winning Clam Chowder" or "The World's Best Pancakes." Or ones used by politicians... I won't quote the politicians as that opens a whole new Pandora's Box. But the point is that these labels are so misused, that they no longer have any meaning.<BR><p>[This message has been edited by Azlan (edited 12-24-1999).]

Author:  shag [ Sat Dec 18, 1999 1:56 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Classification systems for ballet companies

I do think that this is a sticky wicket like none other. It is the MISUSE of classifying that is troublesome in dance like no other art form.<P>Here's the GOOD analogy, IMHO.<P>If Diablo Ballet and SFB were to put on the same program and had relatively similar responses regarding level of tech., musicality ... everything one considers, they should be judged differently for the exact same product. <P>For those less educated audience members, there is SOME value to having a context without having to do hours of research. This say nothing of astetic b/c of the personal nature of dance. Truly the odds of an exact performance are rare, (R&J, Nutcracker, Corsaire etc) but if someone saw Ballet Florida's version of a pieced by Val Caniparoli and it was on par with a SFB performance, that is worth noting because of the context.<P>It is the blatant disregard of a company's work PRIOR TO VIEWING that so offends many of us. Furthermore, it is the clinging to out moded criteria and limited biases in formulating the "proper" context without due regard for the opinions of others that is extremely offensive.<P>I happen to think that many if not most of Balanchine's work lacks the depth I personally enjoy in dance. Feel free to flame me, explain to me why I am a novice to dance viewing and point out why you feel I should change my mind, but DO NOT tell me I am a moron for feeling this way. This is art and it touches us all differently. <P>I will add more later, but my feeling is that despite the many problems a system has, if used not as a yardstick, but merely as a context, it can be valuable.

Author:  rr [ Tue Dec 21, 1999 6:19 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Classification systems for ballet companies

The use of terms like 'regional' in performing arts discussion seems to be a more polite way of saying good but not great. In other words, there are some companies, performers, choreographers, etc. that without a doubt deserve as a wide an audience as possible and others that don't. The problem is that each performance/program is different. If you have limited time and money, you go with the highest percentage ones. Thus there are some groups I always make an effort to see, e.g. Paul Taylor Co, Twyla Tharp, NYCB, Joffrey, Mark Morris. That said, I must admit I also see the local smaller groups and/or lesser known ones as well. For most part, they do in fact fall into this regional/national/international quasi ranking.

Author:  Azlan [ Fri Dec 31, 1999 2:42 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Classification systems for ballet companies

Good points, rr. I think that's what most of us are saying, that "regional" can be used as a derogatory term. But I would tend to think the term is less polite and more condescending.<P>I saw at least one performance of NYCB this past summer that was embarrasing, the principal kept slipping and one of the soloists actually tripped. Not long after that I saw a SFB performance of Giselle in Orange County and a performance of Jewels by Miami City Ballet that were extraordinary. Here, the term "regional" used by critics to label SFB and MCB is useless to the general audience and is probably best reserved for "wise" use by knowledgeable critics for academic purposes.

Author:  Azlan [ Sat Jan 01, 2000 9:36 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Classification systems for ballet companies

On second thoughts, after reflection on passage into the new millennium, I think some kind of ranking system that is pertinent to the current state of dance companies is useful to the average audience. Instead of a system that labels a company "regional" (in a form of polite put-down) based on past history, school quality, and classical repertoire, there should be a ranking system that says "this company is in very good form", "the dancers are at their peak" and/or "the current season's works are strong". This will allow the casual dance fan to decide whether his or her money will be wisely spent. In the outmoded system, the dance fan might decide to see an "international" company only to get a mediocre performance instead of walking down the street to a "regional" company with a solid program.<P>For example, as Stuart pointed out, if any critic in the UK had labeled SFB "regional" like the one critic in the US has, some UK dance fans would have missed out on the times of their lives. As it turned out, discriminate London fans loved SFB and cast their reservedness aside to give one work seven (I've lost count) standing ovations. SFB may be a "regional" company in academic terms but it certainly was red-hot this past season and for the last several seasons.<P>A new classification system is in order. One that is dynamic, fair, with the times and useful to dance fans.

Author:  rr [ Wed Jan 05, 2000 3:54 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Classification systems for ballet companies

I agree more reviews tied to the current way a particular company or group is performing is much more useful. (Happen to disagree that SFB is currently hot; could be more of a personal preference about repertoire than an objective assessment).<P>On reflection, I think the real issue is level of funding. I.e., how can small groups or companies improve unless they have enough money to pay for adequate rehearsal time, the maintenance of a cohesive group of dancers at their peak, etc. I think these issues are at the heart of making unforgettable dance performances.

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