Beyond Ballet Bashing

January 10, 2007

Last August, Los Angeles Times dance critic Lewis Segal published a diatribe titled “Five Things I Hate About Ballet.” Although his approach was somewhat clumsy—like the guy at a family reunion who drinks too much and blurts out why he hates his relatives—he brought up a number of debatable issues that prompted a response from John Rockwell in The New York Times and ignited an international firestorm among ballet bloggers. Among Segal’s claims and targets: dwindling ballet audiences; a repertoire “that’s decaying”; the infantilization of ballet dancers; ballets that traffic in archaic stereotypes; classics that are inauthentic for today’s audiences; an art form that values “prettiness” over beauty and depth; and ballet’s irrelevancy to today’s world. Dance Magazine decided to reframe the argument and ask, “How can ballet evolve into a more vital, relevant art form in the 21st century?” Ten heavy hitters in the ballet field, including choreographers, directors, dancers, and executive directors, replied with some solutions. —Joseph Carman


Mikko Nissinen, Artistic Director, Boston Ballet

Anytime we talk about the future of ballet, we have to recognize that it is based on very solid platforms. One of those is music—let’s use good music. The second is the choreographers—let’s put lots of effort into cultivating young choreographers. I try to scout the world looking—not for the people everybody knows—but for the next generation. Multiculturalism should be the next big step in ballet. Risk is a word people shy away from, but I think calculated risk is a form of judgment. Neoclassical ballet has a different sensibility from the period of classical ballet when prettiness was highlighted. Balanchine’s Agon is not a “pretty” ballet. Occasionally I see ballets that look like a predigested dessert. I’m allergic to the more commercial, gimmicky way of presenting ballet. That weakens companies structurally. My biggest fear is that ballet as an art form will die and survive only as a movement vocabulary in Disney Broadway musicals. Tough times don’t last, but tough people do. We have to make decisions that are not just for here and today, but that pave the way for the future.


Rachel S. Moore, Executive Director, American Ballet

I really have to challenge Segal’s claim about dwindling ticket sales in ballet. For our Met season over the last two years, our ticket sales have increased 17 percent—that’s in a 4,000-seat theater. Our City Center season ticket sales have increased 36 percent over the last two years. And we sold out our Giselle in L.A. There are many studies that show that if you’re exposed to the arts as a child, you’re more likely to buy a ticket when you’re an adult. Arts education in the schools has essentially been eviscerated over the last 20 to 30 years. It’s hard to encourage somebody who is only interested in rap music to come see Giselle. We need to be creative about how we keep the message and the beauty the same, but contemporize it somehow.


I know that the dancers at ABT would be deeply offended by the claim that they are infantilized. We do not call them “boys and girls.” Dancers are much savvier than they were 20 years ago.


Christopher Wheeldon, Choreographer

There are a lot of talented choreographers out there, but they haven’t necessarily had the opportunities I’ve had. Here in New York, Baryshnikov has his facility supporting new choreographers, and there’s the New York Choreographic Institute. You could look at the ABT season and perhaps argue that one new work is not enough. I think the optimum position for choreographers is to be connected with a company that has the luxury of money for commissions. There’s nothing more stimulating than a world premiere with new music, choreography, scenery, and lighting. You could argue whether any of the Swan Lakes are authentic. Swan Lake will always resonate emotionally with an audience. I think there is something to breathing fresh life into the classics and not necessarily trying to re-create things. We need to find new ways to present these ballets to a young iPod generation. If we don’t, they’re going to stay at home with their computers.


I think there is a little bit of an epidemic at the moment of pushing young dancers too quickly. Personally, I am always drawn to the more mature dancers, because I feel they have something I can learn from. They are usually much hungrier to collaborate.


Ethan Stiefel, Principal Dancer, ABT

I think the elitist idea that ballet is only for a specific group of people is bothersome. We should be trying to promote accessibility—things that would bring people in to make their minds up for themselves—through promotion or cheaper ticket prices or performing in different venues that would give people the sense that they are seeing something they can relate to. If you are dancing the 1877 version of La Bayadère, does that make sense as a piece of entertainment for today? These pieces were built as entertainment at a time when it meant something else. Ballet technique has evolved. The notion that dancers are eternally childlike and marching to another’s drumbeat is hard for me to personally comprehend. Sacrifice and professionalism should not be confused with oppression and lack of individuality. Dance in this country incorporates what made this country special: the pioneering spirit, entrepreneurial leadership, and the belief that one person can make a difference. Creativity is also about the unity with the downtown modern dance world. We all come from the same place: the feeling that movement speaks to us and we believe it can do something positive for those who watch it.


Alonzo King, Artistic Director and Choreographer, LINES Ballet

Classical ballet is not a style. It is a language and a science, a systematically organized body of knowledge of movement. The language of classical dance stands apart for the limitless ways it can be investigated. Nothing as profoundly universal as classical ballet could be rooted in the “customs” of a particular culture or limited to one specific look or way of moving.


This dissatisfaction with how classical dance has become denatured is not new. It was the shared opinion of the modern pioneers and a host of other visionaries. Fokine, Balanchine, and others chose not to abandon the form, but instead to reinvigorate it. You can’t fault a language because of its poor use.


Karen Kain, Artistic Director, National Ballet of Canada

I don’t think any of us want this to be a museum. We’re all trying to find ways to expose young people to ballet, except that it costs money to do that. I welcome the advent of simulcasting events like opera and ballet to anyone who happens to wander by the theater so they can discover it. I have seen it work. We have done outdoor performances for free in Toronto—Theme and Variations in tutus and tiaras—and people of all backgrounds and languages stand there fascinated, so I know the art form touches them, but they have to be exposed to it.

I hate it when a dancer is doing silly, self-conscious posing in a ballet that is about emotion and story. That makes me think ballet has lost touch. If you take a ballet like Le Corsaire, you have all those stereotyped characters. The only reason you do a ballet like that is because you have the dancers who make it fascinating. But in terms of being relevant to our society today, it isn’t.


Peter Boal, Artistic Director, Pacific Northwest Ballet

I thought it was exciting having an article about the dance world e-mailed around the globe in 24 hours.


I don’t like it when people come to see PNB with a preconceived notion of what ballet is. I want people to take a fresh look and see something that’s current, relevant, fascinating, and thought provoking. I think there is pressure on choreographers to make a revenue-producing hit. That’s not a pressure any choreographer wants. Choreographers need the freedom to go into a studio, create a work and not have to show that work to an audience. It’s about having the process, the freedom, and the tools to create. If the dance world could have more laboratories like that, it would be a much healthier environment.


We had a success last year with a mixed repertory program—ballets by Susan Marshall, Richard Tanner, Ulysses Dove, and Twyla Tharp—outperforming many of our full-length works at the box office. It tripled our box office estimate. That’s a goal we have at PNB—to bring these mixed reps to a level of excitement. Any art form must take a good look at itself. Are we inventing? Are we current? Are we speaking to yesterday’s audience or tomorrow’s audience?


Tom Gold, Soloist, New York City Ballet

At NYCB we always have an influx of new choreography coming at us from all angles. People need to try new ideas and theories. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail. The form can’t survive if you just let it sit there on its laurels—you have to push it to the next level. It’s necessary to incorporate aspects from other fields—modern choreographers and Broadway choreographers like Susan Stroman, who did Double Feature (2004), an original story that people could relate to. It’s a little hard these days when people are doused with reality television to relate to a swan or a Giselle. If you do something cinematic or pop-culturally oriented, it might draw people in.


Dana Caspersen, Dancer and Choreographer, The Forsythe Company

Ballet performances are often marketed and therefore perceived, as Bill Forsythe has commented, as “part of the fine dining experience.” At those moments the “fall and crush” (Segal quoted George Bernard Shaw’s curse, “let the proscenium fall and crush”) option starts to look good.


This is a rich field. I think it is a mistake to think we already know what ballet is. The repetitive programming of historical repertoire by many companies gives the false impression that an end-state of the art has been realized. Ballet is not a completed project! Choreography needs to be changed constantly, because the culture and the dancers are constantly changing and if you don’t let what is dying die, then you can’t recognize what is being born. Choreography is an autodidactic field—you can’t teach it.


However, I think dancers and choreographers need to be exposed to a greater variety of information—science, architecture, music, film, philosophy—so they can discern the components and translate one thing into another. Young “ballet” dancers are taught too narrowly in my view, particularly the girls. I find that dancers who come through the ballet academies are often damaged in that they understand dancing to be something external to them that they are attempting to mimic. They lose faith in their ability to follow impulse. Get boards off artistic directors’ backs. The artists should be responsible for artistic decisions, not the board. Create ballet companies that are dance companies, not ballet companies. Essentially, change the internal culture of ballet companies so that the focus is on dancing as a changing art form, and not on reproduction.