The King of Crossover Crosses
A Conversation with Bruce Marks (interviewed by Alexandra Tomalonis)
From Ballet Alert Number 1, October 1997
"I was once the king of crossover,
but now I have some regrets," said Bruce Marks, Artistic Director
Emeritus of Boston Ballet and this year's 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
Marks first crossed over from modern
dance to ballet in the 1960s, becoming a principal dancer with American
Ballet Theatre and the first American solodancer 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 ballets
future, Marks seemed more concerned about ballets 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.
BRUCE MARKS: 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
BALLET ALERT!: Have we lost all the things
that you said? I mean, I totally agree that they're not there now, at
least not in America -- no épaulement, no positions of the body,
no opposition, no tension. I think I see those things in Paris still,
and at the Kirov.
BRUCE MARKS: Yes.
BALLET ALERT!: 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.
BALLET ALERT!: 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.
BALLET ALERT!: As a friend of mine said
the other day, once the leg is up that high, there's no place for it
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.
BALLET ALERT!: -- 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
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
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.
BALLET ALERT!: Well, we're getting away
BRUCE MARKS: Yes, we are getting away
BALLET ALERT!: 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.
BALLET ALERT!: 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.
BALLET ALERT!: 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.
BALLET ALERT!: 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.
BALLET ALERT!: 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.
BALLET ALERT!: 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.
BALLET ALERT!: 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
BALLET ALERT!: 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
BALLET ALERT!: Are there any other choreographers
that you've seen that are like Corder?
BRUCE MARKS: When I saw that ballet [Cinderella]
in London, I knew I had someone who actually loved classical ballet
and was working with it. Working with it in new ways, in personal ways.
And it wasn't Ashton, although it was English-influenced. It was that
attention to the classical style, and the musicality -- and certainly
the musicality is an important part. I was very impressed with Michael,
and I bought the ballet instantly. I bought it that night.
BALLET ALERT!: I've heard that the audience
liked it very much.
BRUCE MARKS: Absolutely. Even though
it was difficult, and it was long, and it was all dance. Again, there
isn't much mime in it. And there's no high jinks. There's no bad taste,
BALLET ALERT!: 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.
BALLET ALERT!: 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