The Royal Ballet’s Jonathan Howells and Sarah Lamb in Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Johan Persson, Courtesy Royal Opera House
Everyone loves a good story. They drive our imaginations, teach us life lessons and entertain us. They also warn us not to hold grudges against cradled babies, trust seductive women in black tutus or casually flirt with vulnerable peasant girls. From its historic beginnings, ballet has been a narrative-driven art form, so it’s not surprising that tradition has held fast, even through the era of postmodernism.
But the recent proliferation of new story ballets, usually full-length, by popular choreographers such as Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky, seems exceptional. Even choreographers who made careers in abstract works have recently followed the temptation: Peter Martins created the underwater fantasy Ocean’s Kingdom in 2011; Twyla Tharp took on the children’s novel The Princess and the Goblin in 2012; Wayne McGregor collaborated with author Audrey Niffenegger to make The Raven Girl in 2013. And last September, the Joffrey Ballet received a $500,000 challenge grant from the Rudolf Nureyev Dance Foundation towards an endowment specifically for the creation, production and performance of full-length story ballets.
Right: Scottish Ballet in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo by Andrew Ross, Courtesy Scottish Ballet
But wasn’t Balanchine’s aesthetic—dropkick the libretto and allow the choreography to tell its own story—supposed to have dramatically shifted the focus of American choreography to pure dance? Certainly, over the past few decades, audiences came to expect innovation from the abstract more than from the literal. Few would have predicted evening-long narratives to be the future of ballet.
Yet today there seems to be an increasing need to feed the public stories. Hamburg Ballet artistic director John Neumeier has been creating psychologically driven narrative ballets for over four decades and discovered something interesting when speaking with a PhD candidate writing her thesis on his work. “There’s a theory that while postmodernism condemned anything that seemed to have a narrative,” he says, “post-postmodernism (or metamodernism) has turned toward drama and the necessity to give in to the desire for drama in one’s life.”
But how does that play with members of the millennial generation who want something right this nanosecond on their iPhones? Is there patience for a full evening in the theater? Neumeier points to the enormous popularity of television series like “Homeland,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” that require committing to the long haul. “They involve the lengthy process of the destiny of a person and others,” he says. “In addition to the quickness of this generation, there is also a desire for the long, big story.”
Left: Carsten Jung and Alina Cojocaru in Neumeier’s Liliom. Photo by Holger Badekow, Courtesy Hamburg Ballet
William Whitener agrees. “People are accustomed to a narrative in film and TV,” says the former artistic director of Kansas City Ballet, whose original three-act Tom Sawyer was a hit in 2011. “Depending on an audience’s level of exposure to dance, they might find they’re more comfortable with the familiarity of the story.”
Yet passion for drama is one thing and successfully conveying it is another. Christopher Wheeldon, his global success with pure dance works like Polyphonia notwithstanding, has choreographed a number of full-length ballets: His most recent include Cinderella, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale, which The Royal will premiere in April. Wheeldon points out that ballet’s ethereal properties often work against the grounded nature of linear contemporary stories. “Choreographers gravitate to fantasy, escape and romance because these are themes that work in the pointe shoe,” says Wheeldon. “I think it’s more of a challenge to depict modern stories using such a refined and specialized dance form. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I think it poses more complex problems. You’re more likely to see a contemporary dance choreographer tackle themes of today.” For Wheeldon, a return to stories means that new ballets often have more in common with Tchaikovsky’s fairy tales than they do with the gritty contemporary realities audiences typically see in other art forms today.
But that doesn’t mean classical choreographers haven’t tried tackling more current themes. In 2012, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa (collaborating with director Nancy Meckler) choreographed a highly successful A Streetcar Named Desire for the Scottish Ballet. “I chose Tennessee Williams’ play because it’s an amazing and poignant story that I feel is still relevant nowadays,” says Ochoa, who had never choreographed a narrative work before. “I’m not the fairy tale type of gal, so my aim was always to choreograph a ballet about real people’s drama.”
Right: Kansas City Ballet in William Whitener’s Tom Sawyer. Photo by Steve Wilson, Courtesy KCB
Neumeier choreographed his version of A Streetcar Named Desire for Marcia Haydée in 1983 because Williams’ play “is full of music and layers of dreams and desire and poetic substance.” But, he adds, “I don’t think I could create a ballet on a play by Arthur Miller because the words are so important and the material is so realistic that it doesn’t really lend itself to a nonrealistic structure or form.”
According to Neumeier, just as in translating texts to another language, the worst kind of story ballet is a word-for-word translation to the stage. He thinks it’s necessary to find “blocks of structure and to invent a parallel world.” When Neumeier begins working on Tatiana based on Eugene Onegin, which premieres this June, he won’t be discussing with the dancers what Pushkin said about Tatiana or Onegin. “When I’m making a story ballet, it’s not retelling the story, or acting out in movement the text of the prose, but actually doing a ballet about my reaction to that piece,” says Neumeier. “Translating it into a wordless medium means I have to take liberties with it. I have to find a form that will convey something that’s immediate, something of today.” Depending on the choreographer, that can result in solipsism or ingeniousness.
Arguably the most commercially successful choreographer of story ballets has been Matthew Bourne, whose iconoclastic attitude has remodeled the Tchaikovsky trifecta (Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty). He finds the pacing of ballets critical to keeping audiences engaged. “One of the things that bugs me now about the classics is they’re so slow,” says Bourne. “When the tempo becomes funereal, it loses the spirit of the music and the story.”
Left: Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Mikah Smillie, Courtesy New Adventures
Bourne adds that for him, creating story ballets isn’t about maintaining tradition: “My instinct is always to do something different. When I make a work, I always try to imagine there is someone sitting there who knows nothing about the ballet or the story.” Thus in his Sleeping Beauty, Aurora turns 21 amidst Edwardian tennis matches and awakens in the 21st century. “I found the timeline really fascinating—the idea that there is a hundred-year interval in the middle of the ballet,” he says. “For my version, the styles of dance change to reflect the manners and dances of the periods.”
It seems that story ballets are here to stay. So how can they dodge Disneyfication, eschew schlocky themes, avoid portraying women as victims and stay relevant to today’s culture while representing people and circumstances that are recognizable and riveting? Perhaps with a blend of live onstage musicians, actors and dancers, suggests Ochoa, the story-ballet form can become more flexible. Commissioning new scores and including teams of all types of artistic talent, as did Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, could potentially keep things fresh. How about a Hitchcockian ballet thriller set to the music of Bernard Herrmann? Or diving into the realm of magical realism with something along the lines of the fantasy-driven film Pan’s Labyrinth? The possibilities are only limited by imagination.
Joseph Carman is a senior advising editor for Dance Magazine.
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.
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.
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?
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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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."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
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?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.
This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:
We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.
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.
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.
At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.
Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.
In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.
It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.
But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.
"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."