You can teach an Elephant to take a pose, but you can’t really teach him to dance.

Bruce Marks comes to Charleston to work CBT Dancers on his ballet “A Lark Ascending”

World Renown  US dancer, choreographer, and ballet director. He studied at the High School of Performing Arts, the Juilliard School, and with Tudor and Craske. He began his career in 1956 with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, becoming a soloist in 1958. He also danced with H. Ross in Spoleto in 1959. From 1961 to 1971 he was one of the premier dancers at American Ballet Theatre. He guested with the Royal Swedish Ballet, London Festival Ballet, and the Royal Danish Ballet, joining the latter as a principal dancer (1971-6). He choreographed several ballets including Dichterliebe (mus. Schumann, 1972) and Asylum (mus. C. Ruggles, 1974). From 1976 he was artistic co-director of Ballet West in Utah. From 1985 to 1997 he was artistic director of the Boston Ballet. He introduced modern dance works to the repertoire, developed new choreography, and secured new premises for the company. In 1985 he reconstructed Bournonville’s 1855 ballet Tales of the Arabian Nights: The Story of Abdallah for Ballet West, and later staged it for the National Ballet of Canada (1997). He had discovered Bournonville’s handwritten scenario for the forgotten ballet at Sotheby’s in New York in 1971.  His most recent directorship was taking over the helm of Orlando Ballet after Fernando Bujones sudden death.

A Reprint of an Article On Bruce Marks “The King Of Crossover”

interviewed by Alexandra Tomalonis

 I was once the king of crossover, but now I have some regrets,” said Bruce Marks, Artistic Director Emeritus of Boston Ballet and 1997  winner of a prestigious Dance Magazine Award. Marks, speaking September 10th in Manhattan at a press conference announcing the Jackson International Ballet Competition, to be held this summer in Jackson, Mississippi, went on to say that he had been an enthusiastic supporter of crossover dance, both as artistic director of Ballet West and later Boston Ballet, as well as in work with the National Endowment of the Arts, but he had, of late, been re-examining his position.

Marks first crossed over from modern dance to ballet in the 1960s, becoming a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and the first American solo dancer of the Royal Danish Ballet. At Ballet West and Boston Ballet, Marks built a repertory that mixed classical ballets with works commissioned from modern dance choreographers. In a recent telephone interview about the role of crossover in ballet’s future, Marks seemed more concerned about ballet’s past, and how much of what he loved about ballet, especially the lessons and attitudes learned in classes with Antony Tudor at Juilliard, was disappearing.

I think the dialectic is complete. I think we’ve melded, and I think we need to start unmelding again, and becoming individual.

I grew up in the ’50s, dancing in the ’50s, when ballet dancers and modern dancers didn’t speak to each other. And of course, now that we love each other — I don’t know why modern dancers love us now. We’re less like them than ever before.

Ballet has no épaulement today. It has no opposition in the body. All the tension in the body is gone from it. There are no body positions any more. There’s no such thing as an effacé, because you can’t do an effacé when your leg’s up around your face. Effacé is a position of the body, not of the legs. A croisé is a position of the body, meaning the torso has a lot to play in it.

And I think ballet has lost a lot because of that. I now believe that you need to examine within whatever that is called the ballet base, the classical technical base, in order to create and to move out from the classical tradition. I think you have to be trained classically to move out from it and to expand it. In my experience commissioning modern dance choreographers to create on ballet companies, what happens so often is, the modern dance choreographer feels so uncomfortable, or so uninterested in the technique itself—the use of the pointe shoe and the foot, and the way we use gravity—that they choreograph on their own company and transfer it. Or their own assistant. “I need my assistant to choreograph on.”

Very few actually challenge the ballet technique, so that in and of itself is just doing modern dance on ballet dancers, who don’t do it as well. And then the modern dancers complain that it’s not being done well enough.

I don’t think there’s much point in that. I think there’s a great deal of point in taking people who wish to, who want to, work with ballet dancers. You don’t have to be necessarily deeply ballet trained, but you have to have an interest in ballet. For example, I believe Birgit Cullberg was not deeply ballet trained, but she was interested in ballet idiom for a long time, and worked with ballet idiom and ballet steps.

I think it is time to examine ballet technique, and to use it and to explore it, and I think crossover doesn’t do that.

QUESTION : But are you interested in getting that back in America, or is it just time to say we’ve lost it and move on?

BRUCE MARKS: Maybe the technique is changing, and it’s going to something else. I think it’s more interesting to have different body positions than the one flat-on en face. I think at the Kirov Schools, there are some body positions, certainly. I think they use the upper body a great deal. They go low, they go high. They certainly bend their backs a lot. They go back a lot.

The question is, when their legs — and their legs are way up there, too — when the leg is that high, how do you make an effacé line? See, I don’t see much effacé line in anything any more, in women’s work, especially.

QUESTION!: Line is going. It’s not part of the aesthetic any more.

BRUCE MARKS: That’s right. It’s not. It’s not desired. Turn out, in a sense, is — our legs are more on backwards than they ever were before, but it’s very hard to use turn out at those levels. When the leg was hip level or below, you could actually rotate it and show the heel, in that beautiful, almost baroque way. You can’t do that now. It’s not possible. So there’s a whole range of things we don’t do, and don’t use.

QUESTION!: As a friend of mine said the other day, once the leg is up that high, there’s no place for it to go.

BRUCE MARKS: That’s right. Also, the concept of Cecchetti technique, when I was being taught it in the ’50s, was that the last position before you lower the leg should be the highest. So what happens now is, you developé front and lean back, you get the leg way up high, near your nose. You go to second, it’s stretching your ear. And you go to arabesque and lower it.

My teacher would have said, that’s an anticlimax. You know. If you’re doing grand ronde de jambe, that is anticlimactic. Because it should be low, and it should go up a little in second, and the arabesque should be a high point of the line. Same thing coming to the front. You start with a lower arabesque, you come to second, go up a little, and you come to the highest point of the line. And that seems to me to make some aesthetic sense, rather than up, up, drop.

QUESTION — gone too is any sense of dynamic, of young dancers not knowing how to build a role.

BRUCE MARKS: Well, not even a role. How to build a movement phrase. What a glissade is for. I don’t find a great deal of love of transition. There’s a lot of love for big movements, high leg line, and lots of pirouettes and lots of jumping, but there’s not much love for the in between phrase, the tombé. All the transition things.

Tudor told me, “Dance lies in the transitions.” I’ve always said you can teach an elephant — and Balanchine did — you can teach an elephant to take a pose, but you can’t really teach him to dance, because dance is about how you feel about the transitions, whether the glissade, where the second leg comes in quickly, what are the dynamics of a pas de bourée? What is a pas de bourée?

When I teach, when I do master classes, I ask them to define what it is they’re doing. Almost no one can define what they do. So when I say what is a pas de bourée, and they always say, “Three steps.” And I say, “No, no, no.” And it takes me about twenty minutes to get them to say, “A pas de bourée is a movement,” to begin with that, and then I go further than that. And I say, “Okay. Tell me about it.” And they finally get to the fact that it’s a transfer of weight, and then I finally get them to say it’s one movement consisting of three steps.

Now, one movement consisting of three steps is very different from three steps. Because it is then a dynamic entity. There’s a phrasing curve to it. So you go up, up, down. Rather than step step step, pas de bourée. And you see that fussy kind of dancing, where pas de bourée is three separate steps, where you pick up your feet and you put them down hard, but not the kind of little fluttering transition that it can be.

Steps and transitions like that, they’re not part of the vocabulary.

QUESTION!: Well, we’re getting away from steps.

BRUCE MARKS: Yes, we are getting away from steps

QUESTION I’m feeling very nostalgic.

BRUCE MARKS: And well you should, because all of this is part of something called style, and these positions done with épaulement, these steps done with proper dynamic, are all stylistic things, and we don’t do that.

QUESTION!: Can we get it back?

BRUCE MARKS: I think we could. We’d have to have a minor revolution, I think. But if you’re a Toynbeeite and believe in cycles of things, I think people are going to be looking for something new, and something new in this case may be something old.

QUESTION!: Is what is currently happening in ballet being driven by the dancers, or by marketing, or what people think the audience wants, do you think?

BRUCE MARKS: I really don’t know. I think it’s more than any one of those. I think it’s this kind of cultural and stylistic synergy, and it happens everywhere. You know, how far do you go? You get to the point where the canvas is totally bare, and it’s conceptual art. And you get to the point where the legs can’t go any further, and then people stop caring about the legs at all.

So what happens is, Mats Ek doesn’t even care about ballet line. He’s got the Culberg Ballet, but they don’t do any — there are very few ballet steps in what he does. It’s about another more conceptual thing. So you go away from the steps altogether. And someone, I guess soon, will rediscover ballet, its épaulement, and its steps again. And we may very simply come back to doing a tendu with a change of shoulder and head movement on the tendu. Now, all of that is static and facing in one direction.

QUESTION Well, you just had one of the very few people who still seems to like classical ballet as a choreographer, namely Michael Corder, setting a piece for you.

BRUCE MARKS: Right.

QUESTION!: He seems to like épaulement.

BRUCE MARKS: Yes, he does. And he also likes steps. He likes musicality. He insists on a certain musicality.

What has happened with — in latter day Petipa, as we know it, in star-studded ballet tradition now, is that, you know, you do what you want. You turn until you can’t turn any more, and it doesn’t matter what the music is doing. If you’ve got it and you’re on, you know, you go for eight, nine and the audience loves it, and they love you, and that’s what it’s about.

But if you’re doing a Balanchine ballet, or Bournonville, you can’t do that. You have to be on the music. And maybe the reason Bournonville isn’t as popular as it should be right now is, that people aren’t that interested in the outside world. They aren’t interested in that musicality, staying on the music, doing all those small and intricate, and phrased steps.

QUESTION No. They don’t see them. And then there’s the hatred of mime.

BRUCE MARKS: Right. So what you need to see is line dancing. I mean, I think, in a way, Riverdance is perfect for its time. It’s the Rockettes gone ethnic. It’s loud, and incorporates that over-energizing of everything. And one of the other phenomena of this age is the over-energizing of dance.

QUESTION Is this part of trying to bring more people in?

BRUCE MARKS: I think it’s done to get the bigger reaction. See, it’s not enough now to have people walk away quietly saying, “God, that was so touching and sweet. Bournonville is so charming. I just love it.” Or Tudor. You don’t jump to your feet near the end of Dark Elegies.

So in a sense, as the decline of our Roaming Empire continues, as sport becomes more and more a part of our life, as we go to our coliseums to watch our local gladiators defend our territory, at the same time, we want our arts to whip us into a lather. We want to end going “AH.” And doing that thing which has replaced applauding, and that is the “WHOOO.” We’ve replaced the bravo with the “WHOOO.” Which means, “I am now lathered up.”

QUESTION!: Audiences can respond when they see something truly beautiful.

BRUCE MARKS: Yes, they can. You know, geniuses — you can respond to it. You really can respond to great, great dancing. I bet they would respond to tapes of Ulanova dancing Giselle.

QUESTION God! You brought something that didn’t have any bad taste in it? That’s one of the bravest things I’ve ever heard.

Are there any other people that you’ve seen that are making that kind of work?

BRUCE MARKS: No. Not yet. Well, I think Bintley maybe. He is extremely musical, and he is English small-step-interested which I like. I did a piece by him some years ago called Allegri Diversi, and I loved the musicality and the weight shifts. I think Bintley is up there. They’re both English, and they both come from Cecchetti. And of course, Cecchetti and Bournonville really interest me.

***

BRUCE MARKS: I’ve done both (ballet and modern) and I’ve lived through Tudor for fifteen years, and Craske for fifteen years, and the Royal Danish Ballet for ten years, five there and working on it with Toni [Lander] and Erik [Bruhn], so I feel like I can pick what I’m interested in. And certainly, what I’m interested in is not much of what I’m getting. That’s why, when I found Michael doing that work, I was so excited, because he was something I was interested in, and my eyes were interested in. It wasn’t that same sort of Gala pas de deux look that everything has degenerated into.

And one of the reasons that I was so insistent on giving Johan Kobborg the Grand Prix in Jackson is to prove the fact that real taste and real style have a place in this world, and should be rewarded.

QUESTION!: How can you encourage choreographers to make ballet, as opposed to crossover dance?

BRUCE MARKS: I’m not sure. I guess you can do it by finding people who are interested in that, and then supporting them and bringing them to the fore. After a few people watch Bintley and Corder, they may think, “Gee. That’s a way to work. There’s a way to work there. And that’s exciting.” And I don’t know how else you can do it. I mean, I guess you can teach composition classes, but I’m not sure anyone’s ever learned to choreograph from a composition class.

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3 thoughts on “You can teach an Elephant to take a pose, but you can’t really teach him to dance.

  1. Ron Colton

    Right on Bruce! I was raised in the Cecchetti school, exams and the whole thing. I believe it gave me a strong background and helped when I stopped dancing and started to teach. All the things you wrote about was a rush and brought me back to my youth along with the bitching when I needed to study for the exams. I had my doubts then but really came back to the valuable work that was forced on me when I wanted to jump around the studio. Thanks for bringing it back now that I’m retired and wondering if I was a good teacher! All my best to you.

  2. Pingback: 4dancers » Blog Archive » 10 Questions With…Bruce Marks

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