BWW Blog: Stephen Campanella - Preserving and Changing Steps
In my first blog, I spoke of the importance of preserving ballets as a part of the heritage of dance. I did not touch on what constitutes preservation, however, and I would like to remedy that by discussing a few of the problems inherent in preserving a ballet, especially in regards to changes made to the choreography. Before continuing, I must make two disclaimers. First, in no way is this an exhaustive discussion of the subject. It is a blog with a discussion of a few of the problems I have encountered. Second, although I will primarily discuss romantic and classical works of the 19th century, what I say holds increasingly true of early and even mid twentieth century work, and will eventually be the case for contemporary works.
There are few questions about the acceptability of changing the steps in a ballet when the choreographer is still alive. To be brief, the choreographer can change whatever he wants, whenever he wants, either 50 years after the ballet was first done or 5 minutes before curtain at the world premier. A dancer is not supposed to change the steps without the choreographer's permission, but can certainly get away with it when the choreographer is not looking. In theory a director is not supposed to change the steps in someone else's ballet, but in practice the one who cuts the paychecks decides what goes. There are of course certain practical reasons for changes that are generally considered acceptable: if a dancer with no replacement is injured, if a large work is suddenly crammed onto a small stage, wreaking havoc upon spacing and the ability to move, or other unforeseen circumstances. However, I am more concerned with willful changes based on artistic taste, and it is this aspect that I will attempt to explore.
One of the greatest difficulties in preserving ballets is that of establishing a definitive version. Just as choreographers nowadays often have different versions to suit different dancers, so it was in the 19th century. In both the opera and the ballet there were many arias and variations, usually music written by the composer of the piece in question for something different, that were put in the latest production based on the wishes of whatever diva was in the lead role. The Minkus music for Queen of the Dryads in Don Quixote very often shows up as a variation for Medora in Le Corsaire, in the midst of what is often presented as a pas de deux out of context but as a pas de trois when performed during the full length ballet. Then there is the issue of transmission. Those who worked with Petipa are dead, those who worked with Bournonville or Perrot are, well, even more dead. In Bournonville's case, it is lucky that his work was very, very, very carefully preserved by those who followed him, both in notation and by oral tradition. Others were not so fortunate, and many of the great classical ballets are less fully preserved. Obviously, there is no video. There is notation, but it is not always complete, and can be difficult to understand, given changes of vocabulary. Now, with different versions of classical ballets multiplying like rabbits, it can be hard to know what is even close to the original..
Assuming that a definitive version can even be found, it is important to remember that over time, the ideals of aesthetics and technique change for both dancers and audiences. As a student in Tours, France, I once saw a production of Racine's Andromaque, a favorite play of mine. The company that produced it specialized in performing 17th century French neoclassical work as it would have been performed in that era, in terms of pace, pronunciation, and costuming. It was one of the only times I have ever left a show early. Everything was so highly stylized as to be incomprehensible, even ridiculous, to the modern eye and ear; the result sacrificed substance for presentation. Likewise, seeing dancers turn on quarter pointe (that is to say having the heel of the standing foot barely off the ground) with the working toe touching the standing leg in the middle of the shin as was common practice in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century would look completely outdated today. Modern pointe shoes are also considerably more supportive than those first worn by Maria Taglioni; where they now have a box to help support the toes and a shank to help support the arch, the first pointe shoes were pretty much satin ballet slippers that came to a hardened point at the toes. As a result it is possible to do much more in modern pointe shoes. From these observations the conculsion can be drawn that a too rigid observance of every aspect of how a ballet would have looked at the time it was first performed can result in a dry production that has the feeling of an archeological exhibition.
Now that I have presented why it might be permissible, even desirable, to make changes to the choreography when restaging classical work, it is time to turn around and point out the very real dangers. First of all, you do not simply change the steps you've been given by a living choreographer, no matter how bad the ballet; why should you owe less respect to the work of a master, just because the choreographer has been dead for a century or so? One does not change the notes Mozart wrote, and altering the work of Petipa implies that the work of a master choreographer is somehow less valid than that of masters in other areas of the arts. There is an additional danger that in making one change it opens the floodgates to any change, however inappropriate. A switch split is an anachronism when appearing in any 19thcentury ballet, but where a flashy bravura movement like that is certainly in keeping the with flavor of Don Quixote or Le Corsaire and would therefore not be an objectionable alteration, it is not at all appropriate in Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, or Giselle. Adding it to either of the former two ballets does not make it acceptable to add to the latter three. A friend once told me a story of a ballerina in Giselle who, wishing to show off her extension at the beginning of the second act pas de deux, put her leg all the way up to her ear, which flipped her long romantic-era tutu over her head. In addition to ruining the emotional beauty of the moment, it indicated a lack of stylistic understanding. The long tutu of the first half of the 19th century covers much of the body and legs, placing the emphasis on the cleanliness of the footwork and the use of the upper body, not the height of the leg.
Minor details can be just as tricky as the steps themselves, especially considering that they are more readily lost. Set three times, once by someone from the Russian school, once by someone from the French school, and once by someone from the Italian school, the same ballet could look completely different based on those minor details, but each version could be equally beautiful and equally valid. Some might claim that this suggests that those details are less than vital. However, that's like saying that it does not matter what spices you add to a bowl of rice, you will end up with the same result. This is nonsense. All of the potential choices may be tasty, but they will not taste the same.
For me, the most important thing in the preservation of a ballet is the preservation of the choreographer's intent and style. To that end, it is vital to preserve any and all details that have an impact on either of those. I wish I could make a stronger statement, but the dilemma in restaging an old work is the difficulty in knowing exactly where to draw the line. The best that can be hoped for is that those who are restaging a classical ballet will approach it trusting that the original vision of the choreographer is still valid, and the sense, knowledge, and good taste to carefully polish only what must absolutely be done to reflect changing aesthetics, without compromising the substance, style, or richness of the original.