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One of the strangest puzzles of dance history is: Why the one-act ballet? The one-act play or opera has never acquired much in the way of popularity. In the world of movies there are what the Academy Awards call, somewhat slightingly, "short subjects," but they don't sell much popcorn. And yet from the time Diaghilev's Ballets Russes played its first season in Paris early in the past century until comparatively recently, the one-act ballet or dance was king.

Accepting as given that in the other theatrical arts the mixed program is the exception rather than the rule, how do we explain what you might call this variegation of dance? It really comes down to the reason why Diaghilev, in 1909, along with Alexandre Benois, Leon Bakst, Michel Fokine, and a few others, when invited to stage a season of Russian opera and ballet at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, delivered dance in a mixed bill.

The Diaghilev circle were reformers in the arts, chafing against what they felt were old-fashioned idioms. Apart from the artistic motives, it is possible that such attitudes were also a thinly disguised and pretty safe outlet of gentlemanly political protest. But in dance, Isadora Duncan's first visit to Russia in 1904 had clearly influenced Fokine, and the avant-garde would doubtless have favored Isadora over Swan Lake. Fokine's own choreographic manifesto--his famous Five Principles of 1914 supporting expression and artistic homogeneity--tended toward the one-act ballet.

Of course, the Diaghilev one-act rule was not completely ironclad. For his second Paris season in 1910 he had Fokine stage Giselle as a full-evening presentation, partly to showcase Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky. Then, in 1921 he staged the full-evening Sleeping Beauty (renamed The Sleeping Princess) for a financially disastrous London season. Finances! Here might be a major clue: One-act ballets were less of a financial risk than a full-evening work.

They were also easier to digest for audiences who were not accustomed to dance at a serious artistic level. If they didn't like one work, they might like another. Furthermore, Diaghilev's balletic interest, if reliable sources such as his company regisseur, Serge Grigoriev, are to be trusted, was not so much in choreography as in the music and design. It was more a ballet by Picasso or Stravinsky than by Massine or Fokine. With the one-act ballet Diaghilev got more bang for his aesthetic buck. They were cheaper, more numerous, and more newsworthy. When investigating art trails, always follow fame and fortune.

The pattern set by Diaghilev was naturally followed by his successors-the kind of Ballets Russes spinoffs shown in the now-famous movie-then Ninette de Valois in London, Serge Lifar in Paris, Balanchine/Kirstein in New York. The one-act ballet was not just king, but also, it seemed, the inevitable form. This was emphasized when the major modern dance companies came along, for their own origins were in solo dance recitals. Thus, when people like Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey in the United States, and Mary Wigman and Kurt Jooss in Germany started a company, it seemed only natural to follow the one-act precedent.

The English ballet sneakily appropriated Russian roots, naturalizing as its own the 19th-century Russian canon of evening-long ballets like Swan Lake. This eventually had a worldwide effect, as did, during the 1950s, the international discovery of the Royal Danish Ballet and Bournonville and, later that decade, the arrival in the West of Soviet ballet. Suddenly the world found itself asking, "Why must an evening of dance be divided, like Rome, into three parts?" Why indeed? And the full-evening event started to regain ground.

In modern dance, Paul Taylor had danced his magnificent two-act Orbs (1966) to Beethoven quartets, while even before that Martha Graham had given the Trojan Wars her old one-two with Clytemnestra (1958). Merce Cunningham dipped his toe into the full-evening dance with Ocean (1996). For classical ballet, just think of the ancient and modern offerings of American Ballet Theatre at the Met, while New York City Ballet started its winter stanza with The Sleeping Beauty (after the customary obeisance to The Nutcracker), following it up with a spring season opener with Peter Martins' new Romeo and Juliet.

And speaking of Romeo and Juliet, guess what Mark Morris has up his sleeve for next year? That's right: Romeo and Juliet. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, although in fairness, Morris has long had an inclination toward the full-evening work. So, for that matter, has William Forsythe, while Pina Bausch has produced nothing but for a couple of decades. So what is the future of dance-a one-shot night or a varied choreographic menu? Answer in year 2027.

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
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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