Ballet's Boys Club
Are ballet companies all starting to look the same?
Ten companies, including the Joffrey, will collectively dance 16 different Wheeldon works this season. Photo by Cheryl Mann, courtesy Joffrey.
This season, Royal Ballet artistic associate Christopher Wheeldon will premiere a new work for The Royal in February as part of a Wheeldon triple bill, before the company reprises his much-acclaimed The Winter’s Tale (which was also performed in November by the National Ballet of Canada). And in addition to a new ballet for New York City Ballet and a new Nutcracker for the Joffrey Ballet in December 2016, Wheeldon’s signed on for stagings of his previous works for seven other international troupes.
PNB is one of three companies to dance Peck's Year of the Rabbit this season. Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy PNB.
Justin Peck will choreograph two works for NYCB, a new ballet for San Francisco Ballet and stage his Year of the Rabbit for Miami City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Dutch National Ballet. Similarly, Wayne McGregor’s and Liam Scarlett’s premieres and previous works will be danced from Paris to Houston to San Francisco. And it’s no surprise that Alexei Ratmansky will continue his global ubiquity, especially in the narrative-ballet department.
All five men are wonderfully accomplished choreographers. Wheeldon and Peck instinctively shape ensembles with master craftsmanship and musicality. Scarlett and McGregor display a deft contemporary edge that appeals to young audiences. And Ratmansky brings heart and soul to the stage. Why wouldn’t any company jump at the chance to work with this millennium’s best?
While some may decry the death of ballet, this burst of creative output and shared goodwill has others heralding a new golden age, a cornucopia of choreographic plenty. But are companies oversaturating the market with these named choreographers, and making ballet too safe?
Truthfully, hot-property choreographers have always existed. William Forsythe, Jirí Kylián, Twyla Tharp, Benjamin Millepied and Nacho Duato have all had their Warholian 15 minutes—or longer. But this gang is different. All are resident or affiliated artists with ties to major traditional big-budget companies: The Royal, NYCB and American Ballet Theatre. Their prestige is both institutionally sanctioned and marketed by corporate teams. The widespread presence of these pedigreed men reflects the merchandising of ballet that can happen in a nanosecond. The way companies now cyber-network allows them to easily communicate and share information, as well as to determine which choreographic offer-ings they like via a YouTube clip. And the licensing and dissemination of ballets has emerged with impressive sophistication.
Naturally, with globalization, there are some significant positives. High-quality choreography can be imported almost anywhere. Dancers get to stretch their technical and stylistic chops working with world-class artists. Companies can share productions, particularly expensive full-length ballets, making the process more cost-efficient.
With the pressure to sell out theaters, ballet companies turn to respected names, similar to the way Broadway shows now bank on star actors to guarantee a box-office bonanza. The troubling erosion of ballet audiences can be mitigated by marketing a sexy, young choreographic prodigy. And the companies, choreographers and dancers tweet, Instagram and Facebook their experiences.
Of course, with all this inevitably comes “branding”: a word that makes some salivate and others groan. A choreographer these days is often a traded commodity, and, as it seems, part of a programming formula, in which a good season starts with a modernized classic by Ratmansky and ends with a wild work by McGregor. Franchising is here, in what Mark Morris has accurately called “the ballet industry.” Will this monopolization of choreography make the biggest, richest companies the Apples and Amazons of the ballet industry?
And in the act of franchising, what is lost? For one, companies need an original voice to claim artistic distinction. In the previous century, you could absolutely discern the Joffrey Ballet or ABT from NYCB or The Royal Ballet in terms of style and repertoire. The Royal Ballet demonstrated the precision, musicality and dramatic integrity of Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan and Ninette de Valois. ABT upheld the theatricality of Antony Tudor and Agnes de Mille. NYCB boasted the neoclassicism and musicality of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Today, when so many troupes dance Year of the Rabbit, can we detect the heart of a company and the uniqueness of its dancers in such a shared context? Maybe yes, maybe no.
Ratmansky at MCB. Photo by Daniel Azoulay, courtesy MCB.
In the best of all possible worlds, today’s amazing dancers can absorb and process 10 different styles with acumen. But the reality of choreographic globalization can unfortunately lead to jeopardizing a company’s artistic spirit and style. In worst-case scenarios, a bland homogeneity of tenor and approach ensues. Outsourcing of talent can also preclude the local nurturing of artists who are homegrown and perhaps best know and appreciate the skills of their native city’s dancers.
That latter downside in particular leads to the most troubling aspects of the omnipresence of the pack: the striking lack of diversity. There are no women or people of color in this boys club of choreographers, and few among the primarily male directors. Chris knows Peter and Peter knows Justin and Justin knows Benjamin and so on. Doesn’t that skew the direction away from a desired goal for more multiculturalism and outreach in the ballet world?
There are exceptions. For example, PNB had a November program called Emergence, featuring contemporary works by prominent female choreographers Jessica Lang and Crystal Pite. In April, English National Ballet will present She Said, a triple bill dedicated to female choreography with world premieres by Aszure Barton, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Yabin Wang. And Boston Ballet’s 2015–16 season doesn’t include any of the voguish quintet in its programming. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the results will be better—just that they are presenting an alternative. And there are smaller companies, exemplified by Sarasota Ballet’s dedication to Ashton’s legacy and Ballet Memphis’ commitment to the community’s cultural flavor and impressive diversity, which offer refreshing options.
I look forward to seeing what these gifted men will produce in the future. They have already changed the face of ballet in this century and have whipped up masterpieces that inform us, as great art always does, about ourselves in today’s world: Think of Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, McGregor’s Chroma and Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH. The Winter’s Tale by Wheeldon might rank as the finest new story ballet in decades. But perhaps ballet directors need to step back, take a look at other talent that exists and strive to present ballets that speak to their audiences and truly represent their locale, their dancers and the singularity of a director’s vision.
Joseph Carman is a frequent contributor to Dance Magazine.
The Lineup for 2015–16
• Raven Girl: The Royal Ballet (Oct. 2015)
• Chroma: Pennsylvania Ballet (Oct. 2015)
• Dyad 1929: Houston Ballet (March 2016)
• Infra: Mariinsky Ballet (May 2016)
• Commissions: Paris Opéra Ballet (Dec. 2015), The Royal (May/June 2016)
• Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes: New York City Ballet (Oct. 2015)
• Year of the Rabbit: Miami City Ballet (Feb. 2016), Pacific Northwest Ballet (March 2016), Dutch National Ballet (June 2016)
• Paz de la Jolla: NYCB (Feb. 2016)
• Chutes and Ladders: PA Ballet (Feb. 2016)
• In Creases: POB (March/April 2016)
• Everywhere We Go: NYCB (April 2016)
• Belles-Lettres: NYCB (May 2016)
• Commissions: NYCB (Sept./Oct. 2015), NYCB (Feb./April/May 2016), San Francisco Ballet (April 2016), POB (July 2016)
• The Sleeping Beauty: Teatro alla Scala (Sept./Oct. 2015), American Ballet Theatre (Jan./June 2016)
• Russian Seasons: Bolshoi Ballet (Oct. 2015)
• Piano Concerto #1: ABT (Oct./Nov. 2015)
• Lost Illusions: Bolshoi (Oct./Nov. 2015)
• Romeo and Juliet: National Ballet of Canada (Nov./Dec. 2015, March 2016)
• Cinderella: Mariinsky (Dec. 2015, March/May 2016), The Australian Ballet (Feb. 2016)
• Seven Sonatas: POB (March/April 2016), SFB (April 2016), ABT (May 2016)
• Concerto DSCH: Mariinsky (March 2016), NYCB (May 2016)
SFB's Frances Chung and Gennadi Nedvigin in Scarlett's Hummingbird.
Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB.
• Pictures at an Exhibition: NYCB (April 2016)
• Shostakovich Trilogy: ABT (May 2016)
• Firebird: ABT (May/July 2016)
• The Golden Cockerel: ABT (June 2016)
• Commissions: ABT (May 2016)
• A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Royal New Zealand Ballet (Aug./Sept. 2015)
• No Man’s Land: English National Ballet (Sept./Nov. 2015)
• Viscera: The Royal (Oct./Nov. 2015), MCB (Oct./Nov. 2015)
• Asphodel Meadows: PA Ballet (May 2016)
• Commissions: SFB (Jan./Feb. 2016), Frankenstein at The Royal (May 2016)
• Fool’s Paradise: Joffrey Ballet (Sept. 2015)
• Tide Harmonic: PNB (Sept./Oct. 2015)
• DGV: PA Ballet (Oct. 2015)
Wheeldon's Rush at Houston Ballet. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet.
• The Winter’s Tale: NBoC (Nov. 2015), The Royal (April/June 2016)
• Polyphonia: POB (Dec. 2015)
• Continuum: SFB (Jan./Feb. 2016)
• This Bitter Earth: NYCB (Feb. 2016)
• For Four: PA Ballet (Feb. 2016)
• After the Rain: The Royal (Feb./March 2016)
• Within the Golden Hour: The Royal (Feb./March, May/June 2016)
• Estancia: NYCB (Feb./April 2016)
• Rush: SFB (April 2016)
*Scheduled repertory as of press time
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.
Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you: