How do we make ballet, a traditionally homogeneous art form, relevant to and reflective of an increasingly diverse and globalized era? While established companies are shifting slowly, Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference, though less than 2 years old, has something of a head start. The guiding force of the company, which is based in Germany, is bringing differences together in the same room and, ultimately, on the same stage.
"We are trying to reconcile what has felt like, in a certain sense, discrete agendas: the uptown/downtown split, tension/release, Eurocentric/Afrocentric postures," says founding artistic director Richard Siegal. "There is always an element of discourse in the room, and it asks on both ends: Contemporary dancers must stretch in one direction and vice versa of the more classically trained." Siegal brings a variety of practitioners, from fashion designers to dramaturgs, into the studio to collaborate, while drawing on his own experiences in classical ballet and in the diverse dance scene in New York City.
The American expat choreographer spent 10 years creating cross-disciplinary productions in nontraditional formats for his avant-garde company, The Bakery. Then, in the last few years, he began receiving commissions from major ballet companies across Europe. "I had to source a different skill set when I started making ballets," says Siegal. "I really enjoyed it, and I was surprised to feel that. Coming back down to the nuts and bolts of the music, the steps, and the quality and potential of human movement—it was all such a pleasure." His aesthetic will be familiar to anyone who attended Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet's final season in 2015, which memorably featured the company displaying electric showmanship in Siegal's glam-rock My Generation.
When Ballet of Difference was officially formed in the spring of 2016, the licenses on some of his works were about to revert back to Siegal just as a number of talented dancers with whom he had worked found themselves looking for employment (due to the closure of Cedar Lake and director changes at Bayerisches Staatsballett and Ballet National de Marseille). Receiving a three-year grant from the city of Munich, the choreographer made his move.
The company now boasts 12 dancers (including Cedar Lake alumnus Matthew Min Rich, European star Katharina Markowskaja, and Courtney Henry, formerly of Alonzo King LINES Ballet), as well as a wide range of artistic collaborators and homes in both Munich and Cologne.
While the company debuted in its home theaters last spring, Siegal's new triple bill, On Body, which premieres February 22, will take the dances on a wider tour. The company will also spend the next year working on a cross-genre theater project and engaging in think tanks and symposiums. The first of these took place in December and brought together dance scientists and researchers to investigate the ways that culture, identity and movement are intertwined.
Siegal is looking forward to creating more dialogue, in more places, around the idea of difference. "I count myself as very lucky that my relationship with dance has far surpassed my expectations for it," he says. "We have only had a taste and I am hungry for more."