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A word or two for design.

A few months ago, I was sitting in my usual seat at the New York State Theater, focused on and enjoying New York City Ballet's offering of an all-Balanchine program. Mozartiana, Le Tombeau de Couperin, Divertimento from Le Baiser de la Fee--a lovely program, I think most would agree. Then the curtain went up on the final ballet, La Sonnambula, and an odd thing happened. The audience broke into spontaneous applause. Why? Suddenly my eyes worked out what my ears were hearing: It was the shock of the old. At one time virtually every ballet had scenery and costumes. But today such designing has become a rarity, worthy in itself of being applauded. Let's hear it for the sets and costumes!

When--or better yet--how and why did this happen? When I started to see ballet in 1943, scenery and costumes were part of every dance experience. That year the first world premiere I attended was The Quest, with a scenario by Doris Langley Moore based not very skillfully on Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. It had choreography by Frederick Ashton, a specially commissioned score by William Walton, and, of equal importance, scenery and costumes by John Piper, then regarded as among the top half-dozen or so British painters. And such a collaboration--which in essence dated from Diaghilev's Ballets Russes at the beginning of the 20th century--was, at least in Europe, dance's norm. Ballet was a combined operation of dance, music, and design, with each, in the opinion of such authorities as the critic Arnold Haskell, playing fairly equal roles.

I tried to remember the very first time I ever saw a ballet without decor, set on a bare stage, with costumes that amounted to little more than practice skirts for the women and plain leotards for the men. I finally recalled that it must have been Balanchine's Concerto Barocco, danced by the de Cuevas Ballet in 1949 at Covent Garden. Ballet's holy trinity of choreography, music, and design had been abandoned. Balanchine and Bach stood, with the dancers, naked to the world. (Concerto Barocco originally had ornate designs by Eugene Berman, which were at one point briefly restored by City Ballet, but later, probably wisely, abandoned.)

Fairly soon after this I, together with many others, became disenchanted with fancy scenery and elaborate costumes. It seemed apparent that this emphasis on decor (a ballet by Pablo Picasso or by Andre Derain, indeed!) had led to the encroaching decadence of the Ballets Russes after World War I, and to a dance culture of fashion and a decline of interest in dance as dance. When New York City Ballet came to London for the first time, in my very early days as a professional critic, I stuck my colors to the mast by expressing myself "hopelessly prejudiced in favor of the company" because I thought "Balanchine to be the world's greatest choreographer" and with my prejudice "largely based on the soundest of reasons--I like dancing." Yet conservative from the first, I also added, "On the whole I like ballets to have a decor." At that time--certain Balanchines aside--no one seriously expected design to become the Orphan Annie of the ballet world.

Why was design neglected, particularly on this side of the Atlantic, following the fall of the Ballets Russes after Diaghilev's death in 1929, and the various companies that followed it, including, in its early years, Ballet Theatre? The cause was partly aesthetic. The early 20th-century proponents of ballet were emphatic that the arts that it combined were all of equal value to the whole. This was something that many of the Balanchine generation could not accept. To us choreography was paramount. Even music was only the platform on which dance took place.

Yet another reason was thrift, pure and simple. Scenery and costumes cost money; for some full-evening narrative ballets they can be the biggest budget item. And, of course, for Swan Lakes, Bayaderes, and others they are clearly essential. But for the one-act ballet, and especially for the one-act plotless ballet, elaborate design can be seen as unnecessary icing on an essential cake. Moreover, if decor can be abandoned for a plotless ballet, then there is no need for a story. Not only has decor gone down the drain, but also drama, except in its least specific, although some would claim most poetic, manifestation.

The same considerations would also apply to modern dance. Can we envisage today a modern dance partnership paralleling that between Martha Graham and Isamu Noguchi? I think not. This is a pity. For on the whole, I still like theater dance to have a decor.

Senior consulting editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for the New York Post.
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Title Annotation:attitudes
Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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