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.”