A Word- Or Two- For Design
A few months ago, I was sitting in my usual seat at the New York State Theatre, minding my own business and enjoying New York City Ballet offering 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 or dance work had scenery and costumes – today such designing has become all a rarity, worthy, by itself, of the acknowledgment of applause. Let’s hear it for the sets and costumes!
It set me thinking. When did this happen? Better yet, how and why did this happen? When I started to go ballet – it was, at least as a serious balletomane, in 1943 – scenery and costumes were part of every dance experience. The first world premiere I attended – it was in the April of that same year – was ‘The Quest,’ with a scenario by Doris Langley Moore, based not all that skillfully on Edmund Spenser’s ‘The Faerie Queen.’ 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 the Diaghilev Ballets Russes at the beginning of the 20th-century – was, at least in Europe, dance’s inescapable norm. Ballet was a sort of combined operation of the arts, dance, music and design, with each, in the opinion of such authorities as the dance critic, Arnold Haskell, playing fairly equal roles.
I tried to remember the very first time I ever saw a ballet without décor, 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 the Royal Opera House, 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. (At the time I don’t think I knew that this same ‘Concerto Barocco’ originally had 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 of my generation of balletgoers, became disenchanted with fancy scenery and elaborate costumes. It soon seemed apparent that this emphasis on music and décor (a ballet BY Pablo Picasso or BY Andre Derain, indeed!) had led to the encroaching decadence of the Diaghilev Ballet, after World War One, and to a dance culture of fashion and a decline of interest in dance as dance. Immediately 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 décor.’ At that time – certain Balanchines apart – no one seriously expected design to become the Orphan Annie of the ballet world. But on the whole I still like ballets to have a décor … and, for that matter costumes.
Why was design substantially neglected, particularly on this side of the Atlantic, following the fall of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes after Diaghilev’s death in 1929, and the various companies that followed it including, in its early years, Ballet Theater. Partly it was esthetic. The early 20th-century proponents of ballet – by then virtually a new art form – were emphatic that the various theater 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 dance/choreography was paramount, even music was only the platform on which dance took place.
Yet – always look where the money goes – another reason was thrift, pure and simple. Scenery and costumes (especially elaborate costumes) cost money, for some full-evening narrative ballets they can be the biggest budget item. And, of course, for ‘Swan Lakes,’ ‘Bayaderes,’ etc. they are clearly essential. But for the one-act ballet – a form generally favored – and especially for the one-act plotless ballet, can bw seen as unnecessary icing on an essential cake. Moreover if basically décor can be abandoned for a plotless ballet, then there is beither cause nor need for a story. Not only has décor gone down the drain, has drama, except in its least specific, though some would claim most poetic.
Beause I started out with Balanchine I have been writing about classic – but the same considerations would also apply to modern dance. Can we envisage today a modern ance partnership pararllellng that between Martha Grahan and Isamu Noguchi. I think not. This is a pity. On the whole, as I said, I still like theater dance to have a décor.
Copyright©2008, Dance Magazine.