What Exactly Is Contemporary Ballet?
Ballet Hispanico in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Sombrerisimo. Photo by Paula Lobo, Courtesy Ballet Hispanico.
Anchored in the old, hungry for the new, contemporary ballet is a style that remains ambiguous. It allows the body to careen off balance and the stage relationships to shift. It’s less bent on creating masterworks, and more curious to be playing in a sandbox of possibilities. But is contemporary ballet any ballet being made today? Or is there a particular tone, approach or style that marks it as contemporary? Dance Magazine spoke to five choreographers attached to this label to learn what it means to them.
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
Classical ballet was very much directed toward the audience. Neoclassical started to change the shapes but was still toward the audience. With contemporary ballet, you turn the room. The audience is asked to look at what is happening between the dancers. But it still uses the classical vocabulary and the aesthetic of a beautiful line.
For me, the woman in classical ballet is so feminine, and I try to change that frail thing so she’s not that 16-year-old princess. I want her to be a woman of our time. She’s stronger. When I use pointework, it’s lower: I have the girls hanging more with their hip, forward or back. I’m looking to use the fluidity of my contemporary work in pointe shoes. I also try to change the position of the female dancer in relation to the male. I make her more powerful and him more visible, so he’s not just lifting her up and down. I try to find tender moments from him toward her, so it’s not that he’s always strong and she has to be as light as possible.
Above: Ochoa rehearsing Sombrerisimo. Photo by Paula Lobo, Courtesy Ballet Hispanico.
Choreographer in residence, Atlanta Ballet
There’s a quandary about the definition of contemporary ballet that hovers over the ballet world. The term at times seems deliberately ambiguous, almost as though we don’t want to define this era, to stay loose about it so it doesn’t get fixed.
But we need to be clear so dancers can be clear. How do we define this for dancers going to auditions? With the dancers who come to contemporary ballet auditions, there isn’t that beautiful command of the pointe shoe where it’s malleable and looks like part of the foot, or that deconstructed torso, where energy bounces into the torso, then back out into the limbs.
Here’s a definition: Work where the dancer has an incredible sense of complex coordination, where the full body is contributing to the movement and not the pose. It’s that overt sense of épaulement. In Forsythe’s company, where I danced for 12 years, it was about the fully investigated body, absolute physical prowess, going to the end of a movement and asking, How does that take you to the next place?
The classical technique, the anchor, must be there so the riffs can happen. And perhaps the riff is the contemporary part of ballet. Like jazz riffs, like in a poetry jam, you have your anchor and then you go from there.
Right: Pickett in an Atlanta Ballet rehearsal. Photo by Charlie McCullers, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet.
Artistic associate, The Royal Ballet
Associate artist, Sadler’s Wells
For me, contemporary ballet means any ballet choreography made today. I consider all of my ballets, story or abstract, to be contemporary ballet. The real question, I suppose, is, What defines a ballet? For me, the pointe shoe is one of the major factors that define a dance piece as a ballet rather than modern dance. However, my movement language comes from many influences, including modern dance.
Above: Wheeldon working on An American in Paris with Nathan Madden. Photo by Matt Trent, Courtesy Wheeldon.
Above: James Whiteside and Whitney Jensen in Elo’s Brake the Eyes. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Boston Ballet.
Resident choreographer, Boston Ballet
There should be some sort of investigating of movement that is not directly taken from the ballet book, something new so you’re not just repeating what the vocabulary has been for hundreds of years. For example, I base my knowledge of how to use the back from Cunningham and from Graham technique, as well as my Vaganova training. I use angles from the legs, from the arms, other parts of the body; I don’t isolate the spine. Some dancers more easily go into movement research. They are not afraid to be in situations that are unfamiliar; they are mentally more flexible.
Above: Elo setting work at Boston Ballet. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.
Artistic director, Kidd Pivot
Associate choreographer, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater
Associate artist, Sadler’s Wells
It’s hard to find new language within classical ballet, but now there’s more openness to bringing in a new vocabulary and smashing it together with the ballet body. At the Paris Opéra Ballet, for example, there’s work by Emanuel Gat, Sasha Waltz, Jérôme Bel. Even though I danced with Forsythe, now when I work with a ballet company, I feel like I speak a different language. I think, How do I get back into pointe and do I want to? Emergence at National Ballet of Canada was about being otherworldly and alien and insect-like, and the pointe shoes really lent themselves to that strange creature-like state. But to use pointe shoes to try to get at other kinds of content, I don’t really have an interest in that.
Maybe the question is, What kind of training does a company do every morning? Are they at the barre, doing tendus? At Cedar Lake they do ballet every day, but they might do improv depending on who’s visiting. At Kidd Pivot, every once in a while we’ll do a quick-and-dirty barre. It’s healthy to be training in different ways. If ballet is in the mix, great. But it needs to be one part of a bigger picture.
Right: Pite rehearsing Emergence at NBOC. Photo by Sian Richards; Courtesy NBOC.
Wendy Perron, Dance Magazine editor at large, is author of Through the Eyes of a Dancer. Her website is wendyperron.com.
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