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Attitudes.

FOR ALL ITS merits and many advocates, the short story has never really held its own against the full-length novel as a literary form. There are one-act plays, but they cut comparatively little dramatic ice.

And in opera, while Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, not to mention the Puccini trilogy, are perennial favorites, the one-act opera remains a rarity" in the repertory. Yet in classical ballet of the past century, the one-act form not only held its own against the full-evening ballet but also established itself everywhere, except in Russia, as the self-evident gold standard.

However, from about the middle of the twentieth century onward--the first New York season in 1949 by the [then] Sadler's Wells Ballet seems to have been a turning point in Western dance--audiences for classical ballet started to demonstrate an ever-growing wish to return to the full-evening offering. Those nineteenth-century gems Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and, especially, The Nutcracker, started, partly through their beloved Tchaikovsky scores, a pervasive movement. Suddenly many people realized that they preferred the undiluted impact of a full-evening ballet.

WHY DID THE: one-act ballet prove, and continue to prove, so popular in the first place? Largely perhaps, in the words of Hamlet, "Thrift, Horatio, thrift." When Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes first came to the West in 1909, I suspect that its mostly one-act repertoire (it did bring Giselle a year later) was partly a matter of providing a mixed bill to reintroduce ballet, which had by then become unfamiliar. After World War I, when the Ballets Russes was cut off from its St. Petersburg roots, Diaghilev, now blindly in search of fashion in music and particularly design, was virtually forced into the cheaper form, for experiment had to be rationed by economy. The one-act ballet became the norm, giving a bigger bang for the buck-or, rather, over a period, it gave three bangs for the same buck.

Yet the taste for the full-evening work (please, never "full-length," for what is, say, Prodigal Son, if not full-length?), as any American ballet director will assure you, grows and grows like Topsy. But what full-evening ballets to what full-evening scores? In conventional terms, the demand far outreaches supply; today, what modern composer of any reputation would, or even could, supply a viable full-evening ballet score? Also, remember that a full-evening work virtually demands a narrative (for George Balanchine's plotless triad Jewels is surely as unrepealable as it is priceless), and who does scenarios these days? Further, as has been shown time and again, the full evening dance work--from Swan Lake to Cinderella not only needs a story, it also demands a story with some name recognition for the audience. Hence all these various attempts at Dracula, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and even A Streetcar Named Desire.

One option--it can solve story, music, and, occasionally, name recognition all in one blow--is to resuscitate the old nineteenth-century repertoire, be it Russian, French, or Danish. This has been the course set by Kevin McKenzie's American Ballet Theatre with mixed results but general success. The company has introduced into the American repertory, first in pre-McKenzie regimes, Bournonville's La Sylphide and Petipa's Raymonda, Don Quixote, and La Bayadere, while McKenzie himself has nurtured these and added, together with Frederick Ashton's special La Fille Mal Gardee, Petipa's Le Corsaire, in a version staged by Anna Marie Holmes, and this past season also brought back Raymonda, again with Petipa's choreography restaged by Holmes.

I APPLAUD these grand--some would say grandiose--attempts to build up ballet's nineteenth-century repertoire, which to me seems the precise equivalent of bel canto opera, which itself once fell into disuse and disrepute. Ballet, like opera, also needs old blood. I note that just before ABT's resuscitation of Raymonda, the New Jersey Ballet staged Vladimir Bourmeister's version of Jules Perrot's Esmeralda, which I once saw and rather liked in Moscow. Why not an Esmeralda, with its cheery and painless Cesare Pugni score, for ABT? Call it, after its Victor Hugo source, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and you could even have that vital name recognition, which poor old Raymonda lacks.

According to many of my critical colleagues (I seem to have very few uncritical colleagues), that was not the only thing Raymonda lacked; indeed, it was perhaps the least of its problems. Yet seeing it six times with six variously brilliant casts, I found myself loving it. The Glazunov score, as Balanchine recognized, is absolutely gorgeous. Zack Brown's settings and costumes are Broadway-style sumptuous, the slightly adapted scenario (while no match for those of The Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake, both of which it partly resembles) is silly but acceptable, and the Petipa choreography (much of which Holmes unearthed from the Stepanov-notated authentic score) has dazzling moments. Yep, I loved it. Bring on Esmeralda.

Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for the New York Post.
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Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2004
Words:810
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