Ballet needs help. There's no denying it. In fact, the Arts and Humanities do in general, as the current UK government seems to think we can do away with them and still live a full life.
So, to ballet's current status, and possible future. It's precarious to say the least. Some performances and repertoire may feel frequented by a newer audience, but I'd argue that the regulars at stalwart theatres are mostly still the same: of a certain age, and ethnicity, and rigid in what they deem as acceptable as ballet.
Off stage, in all directions, is where the problems begin. New work must do many things: satisfy the old guard, bring in and maintain a new audience, challenge the dancers, and give gravitas to the art form as a whole. Rather you than me!
We need to address the education and environments choreographers find themselves in.
Choreography is taught as a subject. Whether at a ballet school or contemporary dance university. Many movement analysts and choreographers have shared their own frameworks on how to build work, with some becoming de facto points of reference. Laban's study of dynamics, Forsythe's awareness of the body in space, de Keersmaeker's play with rhythm and sense, de Valois' structure, MacMillan's narrative exploration, Ashton's development of danse d'ecole-based style recognition, Balanchine's everything.
The gender debate has also been big news when discussing the imbalanced representation of choreographers in the ballet world: “Where are the female choreographers?”… “It's not about gender it's about talent.”… “Nijinska was sidelined.”… are some generic examples. I could go on.
Equally deliberated is the environment in which new work is created, and existing work is rehearsed. With the #metoo movement in action, even normally semi-mute dancers started to find their voices and pose important questions about abuse of power, and the acceptance or denial of it.
So who teaches choreography? Who should it be at a ballet school?
An exclusively ballet-trained creator? Too niche and outdated surely.
An exclusively contemporary trained creator? But could they communicate an embodied understanding of the classical lexicon within their critique?
A mix of both? Does this then become a matter of taste? Do we want all graduate students to be shaped by one main voice?
Or neither? A choreographer that inhabits all genres but resides nowhere in particular. Would this allow their work to develop a singular art form through creativity?
All the above questions pose a further real biggie: are we in fact training exclusively the ‘how' rather than the ‘what', and if so, where does this take the future of the genre in relation to its current identifiable language, and the possible developments of it?
And choreographers can't do much without dancers: what role do they play, and of what importance?
Many choreographers have muses. If you aren't the muse it tends to be all you desire; if you are, one wonders how the pressured pedestal might feel…
Also prestige and pack mentality can be problematic. David Dawson was commissioned by the Royal Ballet back in 2013 to create The Human Seasons, which many felt to be long overdue considering his hugely established career throughout Europe and America. Ever the professionals there weren't any public declarations of discomfort… but there were definitely whispers.
The whispers turned into (factual – according to Tim Couchman – Dawson's assistant) shouts in 2017 when the ballet was restaged. Dawson was present for only one day of rehearsal due to commitments at Pacific Northwest Ballet, so Couchman primarily staged it alone. Hanna Weibye of The Arts Desk gave it a topical review with highlights including:
The less said about David Dawson's The Human Seasons, the better. In fact, I'd recommend missing it entirely. Everything that is vapid and dreadful about contemporary ballet is present and correct: repetitive score based on arpeggios and ground bass; greige set with abstract light projections; complicated but banal “neo-classical” choreography that even Royal Ballet principals struggle to display to advantage; and startling and tasteless gymnastic feats.
The plot thickened when Couchman replied to her review with this (here edited) comment:
As the stager of The Human Seasons, I would like to say that the ballet you saw was not, in truth, The Human Seasons – it was, as you say “a game stab at it”. And if you'd been privy to the staging process, your assumption that all the dancers are “top-class professionals” might perhaps have been challenged. To me, personally, a top-class professional is someone who endeavours to present the art as authentically as possible. They are open to understanding the techniques required to achieve an artist's particular style and vision, whether they like them or not. They are, in this case, open to falling, twisting, arching, tilting, throwing, sliding, etc. in contrast to being still, square, tense, upright, blocked and closed. A top-class professional makes the effort to learn the physicality, and musicality, properly and precisely. They observe, listen and practice, and they practice repeatedly until they master that which is strange and difficult.
So will we ever know the truth? And whose? With all the nuances that that involves. I'll tell you who's a constantly reliable source – the pianist. Someone send for Jessica Fletcher!
But in all seriousness, this isn't a good situation. Only in a constructive environment can work truly develop. If creativity can't be fully explored, are we dealing with the evolution of the art form or just killing time? And time is money, in many different ways: financial (budgets) and personal (career-clock ticking).
It also highlights the need for ongoing education for all involved. A good place for this to be contemplated is in the choreographic labs dotted around all educational institutions. And then continued into professional environments through channels of mentoring and further training.
The go-to name for current dance pedagogy is Karen Berry, the Senior Teacher Training Manager at The Royal Ballet School and an industry professional who isn't afraid to ask the necessary questions. I told Berry about this piece over a coffee, and she enlightened me that we were having the same thoughts. Berry has just completed and started to share a new programme through the RBS: the Professional Dance Coaching Programme (PDCP):
The course is specifically designed for artistic staff – permanent or visiting artists – who work with professional or trainee dancers in any coaching capacity. Staff such as rehearsal directors, directors, company class teachers, choreographers, and repetiteurs, as well as dancers who bridge into coaching, will gain valuable insight into modern pedagogical practices. Regardless of experience, the course will upskill participants with effective communication strategies to foster, develop and sustain a positive studio culture.
Difficult conversations about intention, taste, and editing are vital for the sake of developing successful new work. With focused training, and subsequent appropriate delivery happening on both sides of the studio, these imperative, complex exchanges seem all the more feasible. Berry also agreed that dancers have a key role in the reality of positive working environments. So it really needs to be all hands on deck moving forwards.
In ballet, we're lucky that we have repertoire companies who continue to perform the seminal works that shaped the art form to date. In London how can't one still be inspired when watching Ashton's Symphonic Variations (1946), in all aspects: choreography, music, sets, and philosophical underpinning. It's beyond timeless. As fresh as the premiere, I imagine. This is balletic ricotta.
Of today, a piece that depicts where I think ballet should be going is Dawson's Styx (music by Nils Frahm). It was choreographed in 2016 on the indomitable Maria Kochetkova. What a combo – it was impossible to fail. But also the mindsets involved can't be underestimated with two truly inquisitive artists. What they explored and discovered together really is the stuff of newness, but without disregarding context – the frameworks we're used to seeing in ballet, which include line, suspension, pointe shoes, etc. What Dawson does so well is the questioning of port de bras capabilities, as well as the presence of abandon in form, and torsion of both the body and space. The diagonal at the 1½-minute mark is ‘modern' ballet personified in my opinion.
Alisa Aslanova filmed the work in Moscow (2019) with a visual starkness that allows the observer to focus on the content. Kochetkova is dressed by Chloé in a tights and leotard combo that shows the body in movement and doesn't sully the physicality or evoke nicey-nicey ballet. Less codified – more clean slate.
If Dawson is a classical choreographer exploring modernism, then Pam Tanowitz is a (post) modern dance maker conversing with classicism – in a deconstructed manner. Her most recent work Dispatch Duet (November 2022) for the main stage at the Royal Opera House saw a 7½-minute pas de deux of zeitgeist modernity, described by me as “fresh as fuck”. Anna Rose O'Sullivan and William Bracewell worked as highly skilled mannequins communicating the emotionless, pure dance. As expressive as Dawson can be, Tanowitz is architectural, with a kind of movement minimalism that draws the engaged eye to the absolute necessity of the energy being expelled. One wonders where Tanowitz will go within the ballet company context though. Could her current choreographic approach uphold a mainstage, full-length commission? Would such detached work keep the observer attached for an elongated period of time? If the situation dictated a methodological shift, would we be getting the same kind of thought-provoking, context-questioning creativity? Furthermore, how are we defining full-length of late? Crystal Pite's Light of Passage came in at just 60 minutes!
Tricky decisions to contemplate for both management and talent. There's no envy from the auditorium – but there is inquisitive concern.
The way forward?
In 2022 we, as an art form and sector, don't have the luxury of creating and sharing work that feels archaic. Of course, all artists need the space to explore, fail, succeed etc., but what's actually put out there is of the utmost importance, especially on big platforms, both in live performance and digitally. As it's going to be our calling card to avoid extinction, and we don't want anything potentially speeding up that fateful process. Arts Council England, for example, is always at the back door it seems…
It's imperative that all involved have continued respect for each other, and if people feel individually, or collectively, that maybe their institution needs some further guidance… the advice is to call Karen Berry.
And if a choreographer's eye can't see what needs to be discussed creatively, then someone needs to enlighten them, albeit sensitively, as soon as possible… for the sake of our beloved – and seemingly insecure – art form.
Top illustration: choreographic design by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Maria Kochetkova in David Dawson's Styx photographed by Jack Devant