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An issue of design.

The other month in New York City I went to a week of the San Francisco Ballet and had, on he whole, a great time. I also went to a week of the Toronto Dance Theatre and had, on the whole, a pretty miserable time. That vital difference is here totally irrelevant. I'm talking objective fact here, not personal opinion. Now, there were ten works on view by Helgi Tomasson's San Franciscans and five works on view by Christopher House's Torontonians, What did most of them have in common? I'll tell you. No scenery.

Yes, for San Francisco, admittedly, David Bintley's Dance House and Val Caniporoli's Lambarena enjoyed the services of a designed backdrop, but the other thirteen ballets, most of them plotless, were virtually bare and classroom innocent. Any choreographic suggestions of mostly nonspecific drama were left to be reinforced only by the costume designer and, much more powerfully, by the lighting designer. And you know what is really odd? Simply that this did not seem to strike many people as really odd. We have become accustomed to dance's faceless face.

What would Diaghilev have thought? What would Rolf de Mare have thought? Heck, what would Vassily de Basil, Rene Blum, and Ninette de Valois have thought? Things have changed.

When I was growing up in dance, theatrical dance was essentially theatrical. Ballets were covered in decors while wading, often knee-deep, through a jungle undergrowth of theme and story. Once in a while there would be plotless ballet with virtually no scenery and vestigially designed costumes - Serge Lifar's Suite en Blanc, for example, or John Taras's Mozartiana or David Lichine's music-free Le Creation, I suppose for that matter Balanchine's Serenade. But even the most chaste of plotless ballets (they were inaccurately but usually called "abstract" back then), such as Ashton's Symphonic Variations and Balanchine's Four Temperaments and Waltz Academy, were quite elaborately decorated. Admittedly, in a few instances - those Four Temperaments and Balanchine's Concerto Barocco were two potent cases in point - some works actually looked better when they were divested of their decor. Yet the fact remained that scenery was regarded as an essential part of the theatricalization of dance. The designer, not to mention the scenographer or librettist had as much a role to play in the art of ballet as did the composer or choreographer. Well, almost ...

In 1952 I started my first (and come to think of it, almost my last) book with this brief paragraph: "Ballet is a combined operation of the arts. Dancing, music, scenic design, and frequently drama all have a part to play. A type of ballet can exist without decor or drama or even, in extreme and admittedly unsatisfactory cases, without music, but the idea of a ballet without dancing is unthinkable." And, of course, it still is. Quite unthinkable. Yet in those now far distant days I never had envisioned a situation where so many works would be about dancing and nothing but dancing - songs without words at best, vocalise a capella exercises at worst. I never expected so many works to be essentially untheatrical.

How did this happen? My generation of critics - myself very much included - must bear at least part of the blame. Generally we rightly championed neoclassic, back-to-Petipa in classic ballet, preferring Balanchine to Fokine-Massine and Ashton to Helpmann, and while we initially embraced the neo-Fokinean (wouldn't she be surprised at the connotation?) Martha Graham and the hyper-theatrical Alwin Nikolais in modern dance, our later tastes were soon running to Merce Cunningham (post-Rauschenberg) and Paul Taylor. The path to dance minimalism and decorative austerity was soon open and strewn with our own critical primroses.

Taste was not the only question here. As Hamlet remarked, "Thrift, Horatio." Thrift. and dance's essential economy have always been a factor working against the ballet decor - as they have been against the composer's commissioned score, although in the latter issue the fact that serious music lost its bearings and moorings in its postromantic era was always a help. Then add to this the fact that, in America in particular, the dance public, much more than the music or opera audience, constantly demands novelty, indeed shows an insatiable appetite for it.

So, what would Diaghilev have thought? What would Rolf de Mare have thought? And I myself - around the time of my San Francisco and Toronto experiences - found myself pondering on both while walking around the excellent exhibition called "Paris Modern: The Swedish Ballet 1920-1925," being held at New York City's Fashion Institute of Technology and running through the middle of this month before going on to San Antonio and San Francisco. De Mare's Ballets Suedois, celebrated by this brilliant exhibition, curated by Nancy Van Norman Baer, was almost everything contemporary dance is not. It was a theatrical dance where theatre was more important than dance, where where the designer and composer were more significant (and better known) than the choreographer-dancer Jean Borlin, and where the style of taste reigned over the expertise of technique.

Borlin and his patron, de Mare, have left an extraordinary legacy with their short-lived Ballets Suedois - not of choreography, for nothing remains, but of design and to a lesser extent scores. They set up a dance shop in direct competition with Diaghilev and then hired the sharpest and brightest in the Parisian art community. Think of them - painters Giorgio de Chirico, Jean Cocteau, Fernand Leger, Gerald Murphy, and Francis Picabia; composers Darius Milhaud, Erik Satie, and Cole Porter, not to mention the filmmaker Rene Clair. And remember that those very same five years saw new productions by the Diaghilev Ballets Russes with decors by Benois, Picasso, Sert, Larinov, Bakst, Goncharova, Gris, Laurencin, Braque, Pruna, and Utrillo; and new music by Stravinsky, Respighi, Prokofiev, Poulenc, Auric, Milhaud, Dukelsky, and Rieti.

Nearly seventy years ago ballet placed rather more value on scenery, costumes, and new music than it does today. Was that then theatrical dance's golden age? I very much doubt it. We almost certainly today possess technically better dancers, and while we have few real choreographers current, we still have a remarkable backlog of repertory. But would it hurt to have some scenery, some costumes, even the occasional commissioned score? With so few decent choreographers chasing so many decent dancers, the chase could well be enlivened by some a setting.

Clive Barnes has been writing for Dance Magazine since 1958.
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Title Annotation:scenic design in the performing arts
Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 1996
Previous Article:Improv performance.
Next Article:Lincoln Kirstein, 1907-1996.

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