Saturday, April 9, 2011

Beethoven and the Ballet

Reading accounts of the revival of “Orbs” by the Paul Taylor Dance Company reminded me of how much awful choreography has emerged from otherwise sensible (or not) choreographers being foolish enough to take on scores by Ludwig van Beethoven.  I suppose my own attitude can be traced back to that bitter rivalry between Ninette de Valois and Marie Rambert, back in those wonderful years when British ballet was beginning to come into its own, perhaps at least in part because those two directors were such fierce rivals.  The story is that the two of them once met in a record shop (for those who remember what such establishments were);  and de Valois gave Rambert an arch look and said, “You know, I think that the new generation of choreographers is spending entirely too much time in gramophone shops.”

She was right.  Choreographers were being inspired by what they heard on recordings, often at the most superficial level.  The problem was not so much that they lacked any experience in cultivating an ear for listening but that they thought that hearing a recording was an adequate substitute for establishing a collaborative relationship with musicians who knew better.

This was most painfully obvious among choreographers capable of doing better.  Consider Léonide Massine, who thought so highly of himself that he once did a choreographic interpretation of Ludwig van Beethoven’s seventh symphony, whose scenario included, among other things, the creation of the world.  This was the same Massine who never got along very well with Igor Stravinsky, which may be one reason why Pulcinella turned out far worse than it had any right to be.

For those who do not know about “Orbs,” it is a rather extended work that draws upon the repertoire of late Beethoven string quartets, a far more daunting challenge to serious listening than the seventh symphony.  To make a bad situation even worse, my first encounter with “Orbs” took place at an American Dance Festival performance, in which the Beethoven quartets were being played by a string orchestra.  I remember wandering into a rehearsal the dancers had arranged with this orchestra.  The first thing that struck me was the sound from the pit, and my reaction was struggling to recall where I had read that the company would be dancing to the music of Hector Berlioz.

In retrospect that first impression should now be taken as a valuable listening experience.  We know from his Wikipedia entry that Berlioz-the-working-musician was involved with conducting many of Beethoven’s symphonic works.  We know less about his contact with the chamber music;  but it is worth pondering that Berlioz-the-composer may have well learned a useful thing or two from those quartets.

I suppose the best thing I can say about “Orbs” is that the choreography was so silly and incoherent that I was drawn into my first serious listening experience of those late quartets.  The good news was that I later saw a performance that used a recording of a string quartet performance, and that motivated me to study those quartets even more.  The bad news is that choreographers continue to follow the trail blazed by Massine and Taylor, and the results just keep getting worse.  There is a side of me that would say that nothing could possibly be worse than Hans van Manen’s take on Beethoven’s Opus 133 “Große Fuge” (as if what Taylor had done was not bad enough);  but I know how dangerous it is to use a phrase like “nothing could possibly be worse than!”

The irony is that there is music by Beethoven that is suitable for dancing.  There is even Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, which was intended for dancing.  Yes, it is not Beethoven at his best;  but it is far from his worst effort.  It even has a few idioms that we encounter in the more “famous” Beethoven scores.  Similarly, there are any number of short ternary-form piano pieces that would lend themselves to choreography as readily as the two sets of “Liebeslieder” waltzes by Johannes Brahms had done for George Balanchine.  I suppose one of the problems is that choreographers have such high opinions of themselves that they do not want to take on anything short of the monumental, when the sad truth is that none of them come close to measuring up to the likes of Balanchine.

Balanchine was a choreographer who knew how to listen to music with a keen and comprehending hear.  Rather than spend his time in “gramophone shops,” he would sit at a piano and prepare his own reductions of orchestral scores for use by rehearsal pianists.  It is hard to imagine any of today’s choreographers having that level of competence, let alone the commitment to take the time for such a task.

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