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>