Are We Overdosing on Balanchine?

December 20, 2009

Last May Sarah Kaufman wrote a tirade in The Washington Post entitled, “Make Room Onstage for More Than One Genius.” In it she claimed that “we are cursed with an overload” of Balanchine’s works. She pined for more “human” ballets, like those of Lew Christensen, Eugene Loring, and Catherine Littlefield in the 1930s, and called for a return to narrative. She claimed that the ballet world is “suffering through a dearth of daring and imagination,” and that Balanchine’s influence has led to bizarrely sinewy and abstract choreography.

Dance Magazine decided to talk to 12 leading figures to get their reactions. We interviewed artistic directors, teachers, and choreographers and found each of them to be thrillingly articulate about Balanchine’s gifts and bracingly honest in their readiness to move forward. Thank you, Ms. Kaufman, for stirring the pot.

Interviewers were Siobhan Burke, Michael Crabb, Khara Hanlon, Tamara Johnson, Denise Luccioni, Kate Mattingly, Wendy Perron, Kina Poon, and Jennifer Stahl.

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
Choreographer, Amsterdam

I do believe that directors and programmers should dare a little more, like Balanchine dared in his time to try new things. We should be following his spirit, not just worshipping what he made.

I don’t think it’s wrong to be inspired by masters. They are masters for a reason. The difficult part is after you’ve done a few pieces that look like theirs, to see what can you take away, what is your own voice, to find your own story.

I do like the part where Kaufman says everything is becoming so abstract—where is the storytelling? Sometimes it’s too easy to make an abstract ballet.

The dancers are getting better; their bodies go all the way where we want them to be. What is the next step? There is no leg higher, there are no more turns. If we don’t want to become a circus, we have to go back into human emotion. With all this technical bravura—of course let’s use it—but let’s move the public with a good old-fashioned story. Why are we going every year to see The Nutcracker? Why do we feel like kids when we see it? The psyche of a human being is as interesting as the virtuosity of the human body, so if we can combine both, that would be great.

Iain Webb
Artistic director, Sarasota Ballet

I was incensed by the article. Balanchine is the backbone of classical ballet in America, and I can’t believe that people are trying to put down Balanchine. Americans should be proud of him. I went off the deep end when I read that. You get the same in England. They overlook Ashton, MacMillan, and Tudor.

Choreographers have been influenced by Balanchine, but they have not been overshadowed by him. If a choreographer is born with talent, then he’s going to be in the spotlight in his own right.

Years ago, when I was in The Royal Ballet and we performed Balanchine, it was always, “Oh, The Royal Ballet can’t do Balanchine.” Now that’s not the case. The Royal has grown to understand and adapt to his style.

Here at Sarasota Ballet, we’ve only done one Balanchine piece a year. I would probably do more if I could, but we’ve also got Miami City Ballet down here. I saw them do Four Temperaments and they were extraordinary. I am very wary not to step on Eddie’s [Villella’s] toes.

Karen Kain
Artistic director, National Ballet of Canada

Sarah Kaufman writes from an American context, not a global or even North American context. In Canada we have a different heritage that draws on a variety of influences. Our company has a long tradition of dramatic ballets, classics, and contemporary works, and we have artists who can dance and act—no doubt about that. We also dance Balanchine because he created masterpieces. If you can’t dance Balanchine well, then you really can’t call yourself a ballet company. However, it’s true that Balanchine has come to symbolize American ballet. His disciples are now populating many American companies as artistic directors. As long as this happens, you’re going to have people who’re attracted to the same type of dancing and repertoire. Perhaps that is holding some choreographers back, but I think of people who’re succeeding in the U.S. like Wheeldon and Ratmansky, who’re not under that cloud of having known little but Balanchine. The pendulum swings, and audiences want things that have emotional resonance and aren’t always abstract.

Marcello Angelini
Artistic director, Tulsa Ballet

I think we are a little obsessed with Balanchine. There almost seems to be a fear that the great master will be forgotten. His works are wonderful and should stay alive in the future, but we should not worry that they are going to disappear.

Dance in Europe developed as a dramatic art form; it was all about telling a story. Balanchine was responsible for establishing ballet in America. His attention to aesthetics—very clean, pure shapes—has been adopted by many other choreographers all over the world.

My company doesn’t just do Balanchine—or just Robbins or just Paul Taylor. We have a very wide range of repertoire, so each one of the ballets presents a different challenge. When it comes to Balanchine, it is a new challenge every time and they love dancing him.

Balanchine believed that dance could survive without telling a story, that it’s a purely beautiful art form to experience through aesthetics. While I might not agree 100 percent with his vision, I think it has served a big purpose in developing the quality of classical ballet and the spectrum of dance. We can see that from the incredible foliage of lines and shapes of New York City Ballet.

But if you look at the Parthenon there are many columns that keep it up, not just one column. Balanchine joins a host of great dancemakers, from Massine to Jooss, to Ashton and MacMillan, to Graham and Bausch, to Duato and Kylián. So saying that Balanchine is the god that we have to believe in—I don’t agree.

Being European, I believe that dance is a means to an end. The means is the technique and the end is telling a story, telling something, feeling something with the audience. Thank God for people like Pina Bausch, who exceeded on the opposite side, going really too much into drama. Bringing back passion and feelings to dance is a good thing.

Peter Anastos
Artistic director, Ballet Idaho

The article was preposterous. It’s like saying orchestras should stop playing Mozart to make way for Milli Vanilli. Nobody does Filling Station (Lew Christensen), Yankee Clipper (Eugene Loring), or Barn Dance (Catherine Littlefield) anymore because their time came and went. People don’t want cheap, dated melodrama. Tudor ballets have little value. Balanchine’s work is simply better. I could see Agon every night for the next 50 years. We shouldn’t give up abstract expressionism to go back to naïve folk art.

Sarah Kaufman seems to think that now that Balanchine is a dominant force, ballet is no longer diversified. There’s never been more diversity: Bill T. Jones, Mark Morris, Pina Bausch, Twyla Tharp all have their work danced by ballet companies. Attention, all great geniuses: George Balanchine is not crowding out Joe Schmoe the choreographer! There are plenty of people with lots to say who are making ballets. Believe me, I’ve had to suffer through them! There is just no great ballet choreographer right now who’s a beacon like Petipa, Ashton, or Balanchine were in their time. Art doesn’t always supply us with a genius on call.

It’s likely, based on history, that Balanchine’s time will pass. But I’m glad I won’t be around for it.

Susan Jaffe
Co-founder, Princeton Dance & Theater Studio

We are not cursed by Balanchine. We are blessed by Balanchine. It is true that we are not doing as many story ballets. There are very few people who can actually act and create characters like they used to. I blame that on the culture of instant gratification rather than on Balanchine. The gift of Balanchine’s genius is that we’re still exploring it. It takes a lot of experiment, thought, and struggle to conjure something of true value. I don’t mind plotless as long as there’s musicality and a point. Kylián, for example, does not always use narrative, yet he speaks volumes in states of being, symbolism, and archetypal imagery. He can evoke, not necessarily lump-in-your-throat emotions, but primordial feelings within the viewer. Why would I want to impose a story on that when I’m already getting something so powerful?

But yes, we are missing those juicy ballets that bring us into a world of story and fantasy. It would be fantastic to see more contemporary movements telling stories. (And I hope that, when choreographers start doing that, they will consult a dramaturge!) It is going to take people who have this incredible urge to tell stories. Ratmansky is a storyteller. His works draw on the past but form it in a different way. I think there are more people emerging to do that. I do have faith!

Robert Weiss
Artistic director, Carolina Ballet

Kaufman stereotypes. Balanchine made ballet an art form that could stand on its own; it doesn’t need the trappings of story. He did not “reduce,” but created contemporary lines and changed the dynamics of the technique. People are doing Balanchine’s repertory because the guy was head and shoulders above those who came before or after.

No one is saying, How come there’s so much Shakespeare performed around the world today? I don’t believe Balanchine is dominating repertory. I have commissioned or choreographed 72 ballets since founding Carolina Ballet 12 years ago. My choreography is influenced by Balanchine. I am not saying there is anything wrong with narrative work; I choreograph story ballets too.

Kaufman is very limited in her view. She writes about what she has seen at The Kennedy Center. Even in DC you have Septime Webre making new choreography for The Washington Ballet, including story ballets. Here at Carolina Ballet, Lynne Taylor-Corbett has made story ballets like Carmina Burana and Code of Silence. What Kaufman writes about Forsythe’s “splayed, cranked-open limbs” is simply not true. He has gone in completely different directions.

Balanchine’s works are not about whizzing turns; they are about poetry, harmony, and spirituality. If you take a work like Concerto Barocco, the concept is about dancing to Bach, seeing the music visualized. The subtext is a great spiritual feeling. When I started this company in Raleigh, the first thing I did was a Balanchine program. My Balanchine program sells almost as well as the full-length ballets.

Balanchine took Villella and made Rubies because he knew what Villella was capable of and was specific to the person. The same is true for the ballerinas. The more specific you are when you choreograph, the more lasting and deep the work.

Virginia Johnson
Artistic director, Dance Theatre of Harlem

I agreed with so much of what Sarah Kaufman was saying. Balanchine carried the tradition of Russian ballet forward and brought it to the new world in a completely new and beautiful way. I spent much of my life dancing Balanchine and became a dancer because of his aesthetic. But I think her point about it being the dominant, the only, criterion for good work is true.

The idea of communication is something that Kaufman brings up when she speaks about the narrative aspect of ballet. I don’t think that it has to be communication of a story; I think it has to be a communication of the human reality. She talks about Tudor and Ashton. What was that wonderful work of Ashton’s that Birmingham Royal Ballet did, the one with the bicycle in it? Enigma Variations. Oh my god! It is an exquisite work because it’s dancing, but what you see on the stage are human relationships. You feel this humanity.

We don’t want to banish Balanchine from the stages, because he teaches us about exalted beauty, an impossible beauty that is more than the human body can actually achieve. She does use the word “cold,” and it can be cold. Her point is not that Balanchine is bad, but that this art form can’t survive on just that aesthetic.

You do need a certain level of sophistication to really get the pleasure in Balanchine. Audiences need to be educated about what they’re looking at. In some ways, Balanchine is very easy to look at, so until we can help the audience see the intricacies of some of those Tudor works, to have the patience to go to a story that is more subtle than clean lines and fast feet, until we can get audiences to look for the depths of more narrative works, they’re going to prefer to see Balanchine because it’s easy to get.

Balanchine is the gold standard, but we have to let some green shoots come up somewhere. I think part of the culprit is that we have this idea in the ballet world that great work is a gift from god, so we have very few programs in which choreography can be developed. I think that’s hurt ballet more than Balanchine has—the fact that we’re waiting for the next “great one.”

Sarah Kaufman mentioned the body thing, the sleek bun-head thing. If you look at New York City Ballet today, those tiny-headed, long-legged bodies Balanchine loved in the ’60s and early ’70s are not there. In our schools across the country, they keep looking for these willowy dancers with the archy feet and the hyper-flexibility, and they are letting people who are very talented wither on the vine because they don’t have that Balanchine aesthetic. And we’ve really moved away from that. We’re interested in beautiful movement, but it doesn’t have to be that willowy body that makes beautiful movement.

That’s the biggest damage Balanchine has left us with—the expectation that a ballerina has got to have six feet of legs and a skinny, skinny body and maybe doesn’t think that much about what she’s doing onstage because she’s just a powerful engine.

Christopher Hampson
Choreographer, London

There is a strong emphasis on Balanchine in the U.S. I personally couldn’t cope with going to see three Balanchine ballets in one night, but there are many people in New York who do. When every company appears to be showing the same repertoire, watching that quota of Balanchine gets tiresome. The real problem, though, is that people don’t always present Balanchine because it’s the right ballet to present. They do it just to fill up a triple bill—if you’re not doing a story ballet, you better get a Balanchine ballet on there to bring in the public. But his work should be done because it needs to be revisited in a historical context or to enrich the dancers, rather than just as balletic polyfiller papering over a crack in the evening.

I adore Balanchine. I’m absolutely influenced by his economic way of communicating and his explorations of rhythm—I often revisit a work of his to see how he constructed it musically. But I know where his place was in ballet history. Sarah Kaufman puts too many suitcases at his front door, blaming his ideology for things that aren’t really of his making.

Like many choreographers, I enjoy doing narrative work. But it’s really difficult to get onstage, and artistic directors are reluctant to give choreographers those resources—it’s a massive investment. We’re not under “the curse of Balanchine.” It’s just a change in trends.

Stoner Winslett
Artistic director, Richmond Ballet

For me to put a Balanchine work on does not mean that there’s going to be a stampede to the box office. I would love it if it did. We look at Balanchine in the same way we look at Jooss’ The Green Table, John Butler’s Carmina Burana, or Tudor’s Lilac Garden—as classics of the 20th century.

We have eight Balanchine ballets in the rep. I program Balanchine so that the audience in Richmond, many of whom don’t get to New York City Ballet, can see it. If they see us do Swan Lake, then see Apollo, or one of the 50 new works we’ve commissioned by 18 different choreographers, they see the progression in the same way that they would if they were wandering through a museum looking at paintings of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Balanchine will only have the importance that the next generation gives him. If he continues to be valued then he’ll be one of those building blocks like Petipa that will change the course of the classic stream. But so will Graham and Taylor; it’s like a big chemical reaction. Every­thing goes into the mix. We won’t know what is a classic until way down the road.

People call Concerto Barocco an abstract work. To me it’s a poignant, beautiful work that illuminates the music. That’s what makes Balanchine’s “abstract” ballets so incredible. They may not have a “Jane fell in love with John and the two of them adopted a puppy” kind of story, but they always have something to say.

There is this idea that Balanchine people went out and conquered the regions and now there are all these baby Balan­chine companies, but I don’t really see that. The Balanchine Trust is so supportive of companies, and of keeping the legacy.

Ashley Wheater
Artistic director, The Joffrey Ballet

When you think of the dancers Balanchine worked with—Maria Tallchief, Violette Verdy, Patty McBride, Helgi Tomasson, Peter Martins, Eddie Villella—they were all incredibly individual. They were physical and emotional people. What we’ve lost are those very distinctive personal layers that you want to see in a ballet.

I have planned some Balanchine ballets for next year. Audiences love them, and dancers love dancing his work. There are so many companies doing the high-profile works like Serenade, I would like to bring some of the less obvious ballets to the Joffrey. I think that Stravinsky Violin Concerto is such a beautiful piece of work. The dancers in the company are at a point where I think they will delve deep to bring the nuances out of the choreography.

His ballets up the ante of a company’s standard. They’re hard to dance really well without showing strain. But for an audience they have amazing sweeping qualities. And because you could say, “Yes, it’s pure dance,” it has an ability to be accessible to a very wide audience. Even if Balanchine was an abstract choreographer, we have an emotional response to dancers and why they do something.

Coming from a company like The Royal Ballet and having worked with Rudolph Nureyev and Robert Joffrey and San Francisco Ballet, I wouldn’t want a company that is of one idea. Joffrey had an ability to understand and execute different works. I feel as passionate about that as Robert Joffrey did. So, we’re going to do some Balanchine ballets, and yes, we do Tudor’s Lilac Garden too.

Karole Armitage
Choreographer, New York City

I don’t think Balanchine ballets are to blame. There needs to be a whole ecology in the dance world that is thoughtful about how to keep things evolving. We desperately need leadership from people who have a broad vision of dance, who show the museum side—the great masters of the 20th century—but also what is new and marvelous today. It’s very easy to just do Balanchine—everyone knows he’s great—and to not be a real artistic visionary and director. For me the question is, Who are these leaders? I think the U.S. needs to take the risk of both preserving and reaching out to the new. But we shouldn’t blame Balanchine for the lack of vision on others’ parts.

If you don’t present Balanchine with feeling and real understanding, it’s not going to be as good as it could. It’s very poetic work but also very technical. Dancers have to understand how the precision and the musicality lead to the poetry, the personal, the intimate. If it’s purely physical, you’re leaving out half of it; if the audience sees just rigid but precise dancing, that’s not engaging. I think it’s the company’s responsibility to make the ballets alive and not just a bunch of dead movement. How do you keep something alive? That’s the trick of dance—we have to keep it alive for it to have a history.

Pictured: Carolina Ballet’s Alain Molina and Lara O’Brien in
Agon. Photo by Russ Howe, courtesy Carolina Ballet, © The George Balanchine Trust.