Seven Reasons Why Ballet Is Thriving

posted by Wendy Perron on Tuesday, May 03, 2011
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Wendy

Some people have asked about the talk I gave in Sarasota, where I outlined my seven reasons ballet is NOT dying, in response to ballet-doomsday-sayer Jennifer Homans in her book Apollo’s Angels. (Her book is actually excellent until that last chapter.) So I decided to tweak my notes from my talk at the event for the Carreño Festival and post them.

1. Choreography beyond Balanchine
Thirty years ago Bill Forsythe took the ballet vocabulary and extremified it. He revolutionized pointe work, threw the center off balance, and insisted that dancers be individuals onstage. Whether or not you like his work, it’s opened a new universe of movement possibilities. His influence has spread as some of his dancers have developed into daring choreographers themselves, e.g. Crystal Pite, Richard Siegal, and Helen Pickett.

At the same time, we have two excellent choreographers working in a neo-classical vein: Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky. They can awe you with their inventiveness and move you with their humanity. Other recent choreographers like Jorma Elo and Nicolo Fonte challenge  dancers in new ways. They are gaining in craft and fluency, and they look nothing like Balanchine or Robbins.

And then there’s Wayne McGregor, who makes the Royal Ballet dancers look like they are from outer space. But hey, maybe it's time to explore other planets. His choreography astonishes audiences in the way I imagine Balanchine’s Agon did when it premiered in 1957. His dancers aren’t Apollo’s or anybody’s angels, but there is something cosmic in his sense of possibility.

And more ballet choreographers are on the way. Traditionally, ballet dancers were happy to just follow directions (as opposed to modern dance, where there’s a tradition of making your own dances). But now more of them are trying their mettle at choreography. To help make this happen, companies like Pacific Northwest Ballet, Ballet West, and Louisville Ballet are giving their dancers opportunities to explore. See our listing of  Choreography Knocks.

2. Dancers
The merging of technique and artistry is at an exquisitely high level internationally. We have the charisma of Carlos Acosta, Jose Manuel Carreño and other Cubans. We seem to have more Russian superstars than ever before, including Osipova, Vishneva, Semionova, and Ivan Vasiliev. At ABT we have an array of beloved male stars, and at New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Boston Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and Houston Ballet, incredibly gorgeous women too numerous to name. The Royal Ballet has Tamara Rojo, Steven McRae, and other fantastic dancers (when-oh-when will they come stateside?). In Europe dancers like Marie-Agnes Gillot at Paris Opéra, Lucia Lacarra at Bavarian State Ballet, and Alicia Amatriain at the Stuttgart are tantalizing, though we see them mostly in videos. The list of exciting dancers goes on.

3. New models for companies
The Trey McIntyre Project in Boise, ID, is blowing open the whole notion of what a ballet company can be. They are engaging in the community, performing at half time at local football games, and cultivating a populist image. They’ve made Boise into a city of ballet fans.

The TMP dancers are trained in ballet but aren’t necessarily in the ballet mold. Other small companies that are blurring the lines between ballet and modern, like Dominick Walsh Dance Theater, Other Shore, and Jacoby & Pronk, are getting gigs at festivals all over.

4. Global traffic
Spain’s Nacho Duato is running a Russian company (the Mikhailovsky); Canadian Reid Anderson is running a German company (Stuttgart); Italian Marcello Angelini is running an American company in Tulsa, OK. Cubans and Russians are everywhere—and so are the Japanese. Sure, people are worried that some national styles (i.e. the Royal Ballet style) have been lost, but we’ve gained in globally shared influences.

5. The Big Mix
Some presenters are bringing all kinds of dance together in a single evening. The recent Youth America Grand Prix gala included ballet étoiles, a break dancer named Legacy, and modern dance. The 800 kids of YAGP who screamed for the spectacular Viengsay Valdés and Ivan Vasiliev also screamed for the wonderful weirdness of Andrea Miller’s troupe, Gallim. That means to me that the young ones are open to other influences. (Miller had been steeped in Ohad Naharin’s Gaga approach.) Other festivals like Vail International Dance Festival, Fall for Dance in NYC, Spring to Dance in St. Louis, the Carreño Festival in Sarasota, and of course, Jacob’s Pillow, are combining different genres of dance in an synergistic brew.

6. Social Media
Well known ballet dancers like David Hallberg and Ashley Bouder have been quick to enlist social media like Twitter, Facebook, home4dance, and blogging as ways to connect with other dancers. It also serves as a method for attracting younger audiences to the home company. Not to mention that it gives the dancers more of a voice when it matters, e.g. the recent labor negotiations with NYCB.

7. Greater accessibility
YouTube and other sites like dancemedia.com, TenduTV, ballerinagallery.com, philadelphiadance.tv, make the past and present come alive. The treasure trove of Jacob’s Pillow archives just went online as the Virtual Pillow. You choose by genre, era, or artist. Danilova and Franklin are at your fingertips.

Plus, live streaming of Bolshoi & Paris Opéra Ballet is now in theaters, so we all get to see the current Russian superstars Ivan Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova. Pacific Northwest Ballet and National Ballet of Canada now have apps that let you see casting and buy tickets by iPhone.

For various reasons (one of which is the movie Black Swan) ballet has had a burst of visibility on TV. Recent appearances by Misty Copeland (Fox cable news), Sarah Lane (ABC’s 20/20), and Jenifer Ringer (on Oprah and the Today Show) have thrust ballet into the public consciousness. More people are curious about what it takes to become a ballet dancer.