Op-Ed: A Radical Reimagining of Ballet for 2018
2017 felt like we were living the Upside Down of the popular Netflix series "Stranger Things." From Donald Trump becoming president, to the sexual harassment scandals that ricocheted into the ballet world, everything we thought we knew was turned on its head.
Yet while the deconstruction of institutional paradigms is frightening, it also presents an unprecedented opportunity for redesign.
Ballet, much like our political parties, seems to be stuck in an antiquated format that's long overdue for a makeover. With the world changing at lightning speed, if ballet wants to survive it will have to undergo a radical reimagining. But what would that look like?
The Radically Reimagined Ballerina
The archetype of the classical "ballerina" was crafted by the male gaze: a pale, waifish prepubescent girl who projects so much vulnerability that she has to be ushered to and fro by an able-bodied man. In many classical ballets, she's often not even mortal, but takes the form of animals, apparitions and dolls.
Moreover, it is still typically a man who tells her where to stand, what steps to do and what to wear. The ballerina has always been the muse of men. She has never controlled her own destiny, never held true sway or power. She is like the winged hood on a Rolls Royce, a lovely ornamental status symbol.
On stage she is held up as the ideal woman, the unattainable. But historically the ballerina is no stranger to sexual misconduct in the workplace; the Madonna/whore dichotomy has always been her reality. At the Paris Opéra during the Belle Epoque, poorly paid teenage ballerinas were low-hanging fruit for wealthy older men who "sponsored" their salaries and furthered their careers in exchange for sexual favors.
In a radical reimagining of ballet, the ballerina would have her dominion over her body. The actual women who represent its icon would be acknowledged and their femininity affirmed.
That would begin with addressing the various stages of female puberty instead ignoring it. Her blossoming womanhood would not be treated as plague. Instead, ballet would develop a system of support for girls during a time when their bodies seem to be rebelling against them and their susceptibility to eating disorders and chronic body image issues is at its peak.
The ballerina could have breasts, hips and muscles and look as strong as she indeed is. She could be different shapes, sizes and shades as well.
Fans love that Michaela DePrince looks as strong as she indeed is. Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy Dutch National Ballet
The "ballet body" has never been a staid aesthetic anyway; it has always been a slowly morphing trend, changing with the era. In the '40s, the ideal ballerina was short, stocky and tight, with adequate feet. She gave way to the Balanchinian long, lithe ballerina of the '70s. Today she is an extreme version of herself, hypermobile and hyperextended.
It's about what directors prefer to see. Change the eyes, and you change the ideal.
A reimagined ballerina would radically alter the very concept of the corps de ballet. The current uniformity of height and body type eradicates individuality, resulting in a reduction of women in a way that the men are not subject to. It sends the message that women are interchangeable and replaceable.
In a 2006 piece named Black-a Rina, I wrote: "Contemporary ballet is the Women's Liberation Movement for ballerinas. It has redefined her: She is many hued, her body full and womanly, athletic, tall, short, chunky, tattooed and pierced. She is sensuous, haughty and independent; her body is gloriously fecund with possibilities both in movement and aesthetics."
Add to that the facts that she can partner men and other women, walk on her heels and sway her hips even while tutued and on pointe. She's the daring, brazen little sister of the classical ballerina who gives zero $*&#s and, rumor has it, she is a feminist.
Alonzo King LINES Ballet's Adji Cissoko. Photo by RJ Muna
In classical ballet, feminism is about her place and power off stage—in the studio, behind the desk, at the board's table. It is about being able to wear a tutu and tights and have a voice, hold sway without fear of retribution. Feminism in ballet is about having the ability to call into question how someone discusses your weight. Today, women have to be perfect while all too often men can be a mess and keep a job. A radically reimagined feminist ballerina could demand equity in treatment.
Radically Reimagined Classicism
Traditionalist may ask, How can classical ballet modernize the ballerina while remaining true to classism and tradition? Which begs the questions: What connotes classicism? Is it about the technique and the style? Or does classicism inherently evoke the patriarchal hierarchy which includes sexism, racism and gender binarism?
We might not have the answers, but this is the way that ballet needs to question itself if it is to evolve.
Ballet's repertoire is another area that needs to be radically reimagined. The way theater modernizes Shakespearean productions without changing a word of text, ballet could feature the same characters like Giselle, Juliet and Aurora—and, yes, Albrecht, Romeo and Prince Désiré—while revealing their complexity and the messiness of humanity.
If the ballerina got a makeover, then maybe she should tell her own story, too. White men can't continue to have a stranglehold on choreographic commissions. Ballet needs equity in its storytelling. An African proverb states, "Until the story of the hunt is told by the lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter." Women and people of color must get equitable opportunities to create, and to fail just like their white counterparts.
Can we not stretch our imaginations, create vibrate collaborations that yield socially vital masterpieces in the vein of Balanchine, Stravinsky and Diaghilev? Can ballet not be classical and avant garde?
Instead of doing ballets about candy or fairytales, perhaps we could begin to tell stories about our true American history. The relationship between LBJ and MKL would be in interesting subject for a ballet. Or how about the story of Ruth Bader Ginsberg adroitly co-opting the Craig v. Boren case (challenging an Oklahoma statute which set different minimum drinking ages for men and women) into a way to push women's right forward? Now that's a ballet: One woman against 12 darkly robed men.
Radically Reimagined Leadership
With the recent exposure of pervasive sexual harassment, white female rage is threatening to scorch and burn the patriarchal system of the Mad Men days. Peter Martins' resignation might be a harbinger of change. Like the monarchy of American ballet, New York City Ballet has valiantly strived to sustain the Balanchine legacy through tradition: Hiring company dancers solely from School of American Ballet in an effort to keep the bloodline pure. The school's ballet faculty is comprised of SAB and NYCB alum. (Interestingly, in the days of Balanchine, the faculty was mainly Russian teachers, and Balanchine's style wasn't imposed on the technique, thus graduates could easily be employed elsewhere.)
This incestuousness poses a problem where creating diversity is concerned. In NYCB's 72-year history, of the more than 700 dancers, fewer than 25 have been African American. The current structure makes diversifying their ballet faculty mathematically impossible.
SAB's new National Visiting Fellows Program teaches instructors from diverse backgrounds—an encouraging sign of change.
Kay Mazzo and the administrators realize that it is their responsibility to find and train dancers for NYCB, hence SAB has been actively recruiting students of color. However the environment within the ivory tower is still just that: ivory. Martins' exit brings the possibility of reimagining. With an interim artistic directorship team that includes a woman (Rebecca Krohn) and an African American (Craig Hall), perhaps a radical shift is possible.
Some are hoping that NYCB's new artistic director will be a woman. Representation breeds inspiration. Thousands of little girls take ballet and dream of being center stage; few imagine becoming the choreographer, and fewer still the director.
American modern dance, on the other hand, has always been spearheaded by women. While the ballerina languished in her tower, with little changing but the length of her her tutu, Duncan, St. Denis, Graham, Dunham and Primus were blazing trails.
Just look at how the most progressive and expansive era of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater happened under female leadership, with Judith Jamison (artistic director), Sharon Luckman (executive director), Denise Jefferson (Ailey School director), and Sylvia Waters (Ailey II artistic director). Together they built the Glass Palace and cemented Mr. Ailey's legacy.
Ballet needs a power shot of estrogen and a booster of color.
A Radical Precedent
These are not new concepts. Ballet already underwent a radical reimagining in the 1970s when Karel Shook and Arthur Mitchell founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem. It was radical not solely because of the hue of the dancers, but the fact that DTH challenged the foundational aesthetics of classical ballet by redefining the color, shape and size of the ballerina. She ranged from beige to mahogany, waif to womanly with heights from 5'2" to 6'0".
Photo from Dance Theatre of Harlem archives
DTH destroyed the mythical "breaking the line" argument used by Balanchine when asked why he did not accept a black woman into NYCB. You can only "break" a line if you "make" a line. The uniformity of DTH's corps de ballet was not in the dancers' physical sameness, but in the their classical technique, lines and precision of execution.
When Llanchie Stevenson wore brown tights in rehearsal, the "correctness" of her legs matching her arms clicked for Mitchell, hence tights were painstakingly dyed and shoes spray painted to match the dancers' varied complexions. The women danced with braids and afro halos, a radical reimagining of the classical bun.
DTH also reimagined the ballet repertoire, dancing the works of Balanchine and John Tara (Firebird), alongside culturally rooted ballets like Geoffrey Holder's Dougla, Louis Johnson's Forces of Rhythm and Mitchell's own John Henry. Knowing that DTH would never be taken seriously until it did a classic, Shook and Mitchell conceived Creole Giselle, creating a scenario where it made sense for black people to be in the story. It was not a bastardization of classical ballet, but a celebration of the art form's elasticity and capacity for inclusion.
The most radical thing that DTH did was grounding the ethereal ballet into the reality of the time. Its very existence was indirectly a socio-political statement. Without marching or carrying a sign, it was an artistic arm of the Civil Rights Movement. It was outreach before there was funding for it. It was courageous, fearless, inspirational, aspirational and classically American.
In this sense, ballet has a track record for reinvention, and the potential for radical reimagining. The question is, do today's ballet leaders have the "buns" to do it?
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
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For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
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.
Update: Additional perspectives have been added to this story as more responses have come in.
"Every time I see a little girl in a tutu or with her hair in a bun on her way to ballet class, all I can think is that she should run in the other direction," she said, "because no one will protect her, like no one protected me."
It was quite a statement, and it got us thinking. Of course, it's heartbreaking to imagine the experiences that Waterbury lists in the lawsuit, and it's easy to see why this would be her reaction.
But should aspiring ballet dancers really "run in the other direction"? Were her alleged experiences isolated incidences perpetuated by a tiny percentage of just one company—or are they indicative of major problems in today's ballet culture within and beyond NYCB's walls?
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.
Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?
Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.
Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.
Rehearsal is in full swing, and Leta Biasucci, Pacific Northwest Ballet's newest principal dancer, finds herself in unfamiliar territory. Biasucci is always game for a challenge, but choreographer Kyle Davis wants her to lift fellow dancer Clara Ruf Maldonado. Repeatedly. While she's known for her technical prowess, lifting another dancer off the floor is a bit daunting for Biasucci, who stands all of 5' 3". She eyes Maldonado skeptically, then breaks into a grin.
"It's absolutely given me a new appreciation for the partner standing behind me!" Biasucci says with a laugh.
Looking at Biasucci, 29, with her wide smile and eager curiosity, you think you see the quintessential extrovert. In reality, she's anything but. "I was an introverted kid," Biasucci says. "That's part of the reason I fell in love with dance—I didn't have to be talkative."
It's only one of the seeming contradictions in Biasucci's life: She's a short, muscular ballerina in a company known for its fleet of tall, long-legged women; she's also most comfortable with classical ballet, while taking on a growing repertoire of contemporary work.
Sergei Polunin, whose recent homophobic and sexist Instagram posts have sparked international outrage, will not be appearing with the Paris Opéra Ballet as previously announced.
POB artistic director Aurélie Dupont sent an internal email to company staff and dancers on Sunday, explaining that she did not share Polunin's values and that the Russian-based dancer would not be guesting with the company during the upcoming run of Rudolf Nureyev's Swan Lake in February.
Before spending a summer at Los Angeles Ballet School, Lillian Glasscock had never learned a Balanchine variation. "The stylistic differences, like preparing for a pirouette with a straight back leg, were at first very challenging," says Glasscock, 17. "But it soon got easier."
Los Angeles Ballet company members were in class daily, motivating and inspiring her. Trying out a new style and expanding her repertoire gave Glasscock more strength, and a better understanding of the varied demands of ballet companies today. Months later, the Balanchine variations she learned are now personal favorites.
While the early years of training are typically spent diligently working through the syllabus of a single ballet technique, when you start to prepare for a professional career, versatility is key. There isn't just one correct version of each step. And as ballet companies continue to diversify their repertoires, directors need dancers who can move fluidly between an array of styles.