What Should We Do When Great Choreographers Make Work That's...Not So Great?
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
"A 'successful' work can mean good box office, it can mean critical acclaim, it can mean a work advances the art form, that it bears on the history in interesting ways," says Scherr.
How to address these questions remains an open debate. They can be particularly difficult for ballet companies, which must balance a repertoire of commissions and classic work, and build new audiences while retaining longtime patrons. (Modern dance companies dedicated to a single choreographer generally have audiences ready to invest in the artist—even when not successful—as much as the art.)
Many factors shape a company's decision to revive a flawed work, says Julie Kent, who directs The Washington Ballet. "As an artistic director, you have to ask yourself a broad set of questions," she explains. "Will it help the dancers grow? Will the audience have an appetite for it? Is there an underwriter who wants this work known better?"
Kent, a celebrated interpreter of Sir Antony Tudor's ballets during her principal career at American Ballet Theatre, believes a choreographer's contributions to the art form play a part as well.
Julie Kent with Sascha Radetsky in Tudor's The Leaves are Fading
"Tudor was a founding voice of Ballet Theatre," she says. "His work—whether it was perfect or not, and some feel it's dated—is staged out of respect and love. You're maintaining a legacy, and paying homage to someone who shaped the destiny of an organization."
Kent notes Tudor's output was relatively small. Balanchine, in contrast, created hundreds of ballets. "He was prolific," says Kent. "He was a master choreographer but also an artistic director. He made ballets for different reasons. A perfect example is PAMTGG." Set to music based on the Pan Am Airlines jingle, the 1971 ballet was a jazzy exercise with lighting and set design that evoked an airport. Its debut provoked New York Times critic Clive Barnes to write, "Even the career of a great choreographer like George Balanchine has got to have a nadir," going on to describe the work as having "the dull thud of ineffable triviality." Kent is on the lookout for forgotten gems by master choreographers. However, she says, "I don't think PAMTGG needs to be redone."
Other flawed works can benefit from excerpting. Peter Boal, artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, says, "There are imperfect works with perfect sections, and choreographers and artistic directors both realize that." For instance, usually only the gender-bending pas de deux from William Forsythe's Herman Schmerman is staged now. And some works' excerpts take on a life of their own; they may even eclipse the original. "Christopher Wheeldon's After the Rain succeeds in its entirety, but many companies, including mine, only stage the pas de deux—you are in the meditation, there's no setup," Boal says. "It's just a different work."
Boal believes that a weaker piece also can work with careful programming. He recalls Serious Pleasures, a ballet by Ulysses Dove about the AIDS crisis, as an example of one that benefited from smart bookending. "I would not have wanted to program it alone, but on a program of three Dove pieces, including Red Angels, it worked. It showed some real assets he could bring, even though it wasn't completely successful."
Sometimes a retrospective like a festival can offer a better framework. "When it comes to a ballet like Don Quixote, it may not be the best introduction to the Balanchine canon," says Boal. "If you have an audience that's new to Balanchine, it can have a negative effect. This is where the festival format can come in, and show you context and the relationship between ballets."
PNB in Ulysses Dove's Serious Pleasures
Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB
Of course, commissions remain integral to most companies' repertoire. Kent says that revivals "have to be weighed against new voices." Companies and presenters commission new work to break fresh ground, to build their own reputations as well as a choreographer's.
Alicia Adams, the Kennedy Center's vice president of international programming and dance, believes that presenters should encourage experimentation. "If you commission work by an established choreographer, and in rehearsal it doesn't seem at the same level as the person's other work, that's what a commission is—it's a chance, a risk. You have an obligation to the choreographer, but you might talk about calling it a work in progress, or suggest that they revisit it after the showing."
She notes that the Kennedy Center recently presented San Francisco Ballet's Unbound, a program featuring new works by a variety of choreographers. "Some were great, some not so great," she says. "SFB took risks and as presenters, we took risks. The critics said we should do more programming like that."
Adams praises an atmosphere where failure is possible. She singles out NYCB's fall fashion gala as a forum for new work, frequently by less experienced or less conventional dancemakers. "Last fall they gave a commission to Kyle Abraham, who had never worked on a ballet company before," she says. "He did a brilliant job, the reviews were spectacular and now it's in their rep. That's all about risk-taking."
Threading a path between fostering creativity and selling tickets can be especially difficult with current choreographers, even ones as talented as Abraham.
"Critics don't have the benefit of hindsight," says Scherr. "We are in the moment. I hate the fact that I'm reviewing the first outing. With Alexei Ratmansky's Whipped Cream and Harlequinade, I gave them fairly negative reviews but saw them again and liked them much better. With certain choreographers, their work has layers, and it takes some adjusting."
So this year's success—or failure—could look very different in the future. Boal notes that "the time can catch up with a work."
Adams agrees that pieces once seen as problematic can become acclaimed. "A couple of things happen: A choreographer can go back and revise a work. Or audiences may become more willing to accept a work that seems out of the norm," she says. "And times change—absolutely."
A little over a year ago, I wrote an op-ed for Dance Magazine about the grueling, oppressive grant cycle. It was crying into my pillow, really. I was complaining and desperate to share my story. I was fed up with 10 years of applying for grants and having never received one for the research or development of my work. I was tired of the copy-and-paste rejection letters, the lack of feedback, and what seems to be a biased, inconsistent system.
I couldn't stand that I was made to feel as if I had to ask for permission to be an artist.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
The connections dancers make in college are no joke. For recent alum Gabrielle Hamilton, working with guest choreographer John Heginbotham at Point Park University put her on the fast track to Broadway—not in an ensemble role, but as the lead dancer in one of this season's hottest tickets: Daniel Fish's arresting reboot of Oklahoma!
We caught up with Hamilton about starring in the show's dream ballet and her delightfully bizarre pre-show ritual.
Last Friday, through an appeal to an independent arbitrator, the American Guild of Musical Artists successfully reinstated NYCB principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro, previously fired for allegedly circulating sexually explicit texts containing nude photos.
AGMA opposed Ramasar and Catazaro's terminations in order to prevent the setting of a dangerous precedent that would allow dancers to be fired under less understandable consequences. But we cannot allow future cases to dictate the way we handle this situation—particularly a union committed to "doing everything in [its] power to ensure you have a respectful environment in which to work."
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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But according to the H+ | The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory, one in every three dancers in New York City lives under the poverty line, and may lack the resources to purchase the ingredients they need to make nutritious meals.
Not to mention the fact that dancers are busy, and often running around from class to rehearsal to performance to side hustle, grabbing whatever they can get to eat on-the-go.
I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."