The Do-It-All Generation

January 31, 2015

What the ever-expanding repertoires of today’s companies mean for dancers

The Bolshoi Ballet in Tatiyana Baganova’s 
The Rite of Spring; Photo by Damir Yusupov, Courtesy Bolshoi

When principal dancer Robert Fairchild originated the standout role in Spectral Evidence, a 2013 creation by Angelin Preljocaj for New York City Ballet, he fell in love with the French contemporary-dance choreographer’s movement. “It’s systematic, then wild and loose; mathematical and sharp-angled, then completely not.” But beyond the pleasure, the alien piece enriched Fairchild as an artist. “Each ballet helps the others,” he explains. “You keep taking from other ballets to deepen the work.” His Melancholic in Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments grew denser, gluier, more strange and compelling in the weeks after Spectral Evidence premiered. And more recently, Apollo’s uncouth moves took on an underwater thickness that slowed time so we noticed the young god was growing up.

Stretching the parameters of ballet, Fairchild is quick to point out, is nothing new for NYCB. Agon’s original dancers, for example, “pushed themselves to the limit for the art.” But by 2014 you don’t have to make a career in Balanchine’s house to drive yourself, if not your art, to extremes.

Classical companies, like Boston Ballet, have come to acquire pieces like Alexander Ekman’s Cacti, in which performers spend much of the dance in a squat. This spring, The Royal Ballet unveils its first commission from Israeli-born Londoner Hofesh Shechter, whose slack-kneed, pigeon-toed, heavy-metal tribal epics have proven massively popular with the under-40 set. Even the Russians, who have little history of modern dance, are venturing off pointe and into the earthbound domain of contemporary dance: The Bolshoi recently took on Mats Ek’s avidly flatfooted and angular work, and as resident choreographer of the Mikhailovsky Ballet of St. Petersburg, contemporary-dance maven Nacho Duato is supplementing its 19th-century and Soviet-era classics.

Single-choreographer modern dance ensembles are also broadening their scope. Casting off the strident individualism that so long defined the idiom, the choreographers are admitting they have a history—one capable of disappearing—and family. Besides the Martha Graham troupe’s decade-long commitment to setting the grand dame in contexts that involve either her contemporaries or ours, Paul Taylor is repositioning his company as Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance and inviting in likeminded choreographers, both iconic and contemporary. In April, postmodernist Stephen Petronio bears the first fruit from the initial year of his five-year Bloodlines project, in which the work of his spiritual foremothers and –fathers joins the repertory. To start things off: Merce Cunningham’s twitchy, archaic RainForest, from 1968.

What this ecumenical era requires of dancers is a keen attunement to differences in style and method—a level of self-consciousness unimaginable in the “just do it” days of “the Balanchine dancer,” “the Ashton dancer,” “the Graham acolyte.”

“You have to learn how to shift back and forth,” notes Boston Ballet principal Kathleen Breen Combes. When she learned Jirí Kylián’s Tar and Feathers, “I had to switch off everything classical and teach my body to be really grounded and one with the floor. It was insane!” But her classical training was not going to waste, she argues: “In order to let yourself go, your body has to know how the weight works, how the weight shifts”: first principles of any rigorous dance training, including that of ballet.

Above: Robert Fairchild with Tiler Peck in Angelin Preljocaj’s 
Spectral Evidence; Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

For her colleague, Boston Ballet principal Misa Kuranaga, the ballets begin to speak to each other—across decades, even centuries—once she acclimates herself to their idiosyncrasies. William Forsythe’s The Second Detail, for example, gave her insight into the Swan Queen’s craggy, inside-out arms.

Likewise, Emily Stone found that after long exposure to Petronio’s whiplash organicism, the Cunningham technique that she had trained in, that had “once been my everything,” made a vivid new sense. With RainForest, “I am much more informed, less rigid,” she says.

Versatility defines this generation, Petronio member Davalois Fearon argues—so much so, troupe veteran Gino Grenek adds, that the term “modern dancer” is becoming an anachronism. Grenek identifies himself as simply a dancer: “I’m not just one thing.”

The protean dancer must not cling to any single idea of himself. “For me to come into the room where the Cunningham stagers are rehearsing RainForest and say, ‘I’ve been dancing for Stephen for 15 years and this is how I do it—’ I mean, who cares?” Grenek exclaims. “There is a beauty in finding your own way of doing it, but maybe I can be something other than my natural instinct. Allowing yourself to leave the ego at home—that’s exciting.”

But eclecticism also has its dangers. “Do you worry about dilution?” I ask principal Lauren Cuthbertson, who’s been regularly cast in new work since the very start of her Royal Ballet career 13 years ago. “Yes,” she answers instantly. “You could spend a lifetime with only Robbins or Balanchine or Forsythe” and not exhaust its potential.

Boston Ballet in Alexander Ekman’s 
Cacti; Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Melissa Toogood, who danced with the Cunningham troupe and will reprise her role in RainForest for Petronio, has found that the most fragile element in performing Cunningham is the risk—that almost violent transcendence that a Cunningham dancer can achieve. Familiarity with the technique helps unleash it.

The Petronio ensemble will have to access risk by being “true to the Cunningham work as Petronio dancers,” as Grenek puts it. Petronio describes this layering as “a conversation through the body.” Everyone—the Cunningham alum rehearsing the work and the anxious professionals assimilating themselves to it—hopes the dialogue won’t sound like gibberish.

In addition to the conceptual work these artists do, there is the body—what it can endure. “The repertory is the main reason I’m here,” Combes says of her long tenure with the Boston Ballet under Nissinen’s adventurous stewardship. But at the start of every season, despite careful upkeep, she is incredibly sore. “I use completely different muscles for each ballet,” she explains. In the case of the stirring ballerina Carla Körbes, who migrated to Pacific Northwest Ballet from NYCB expressly to enlarge her repertory and deepen her artistry, sore does not begin to describe it.

In 2013, Körbes injured her knee during rehearsal for a new piece that involved relentless torque. She could not fully straighten her leg for a year. Soon after she returned to the stage, the 33-year-old announced that she would retire from PNB in June. She cannot imagine continuing under the current system.

“If you even go to a yoga class and haven’t done it,” she explains by way of analogy, “and you start doing it like you’re supposed to, you’re going to hurt yourself. Between going from Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement to David Dawson’s A Million Kisses to My Skin to Justin Peck’s Debonair—they’re three very different things that you’re not warming yourself in the morning for.”

Körbes realized exactly how out of sync the strictly academic daily class was with the requirements of rehearsal when one morning the stager for Dawson taught class. “ ‘Oh, now this is fun,’ ” she thought as he told the dancers to put their arms behind them and stretch. By the time she got to rehearsal, Dawson’s hyperextended style “made total sense.”

Cuthbertson agrees that company class does not yet “set you up for the repertoire you are asked to do and,” she emphasizes, “have the appetite to do.”

These dancers have the appetite. For them to exercise it, the company need only be as avid about preparing them for new moves as it is about the new itself.

Apollinaire Scherr writes on books and dance, principally for the
Financial Times, and teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan.