Matthew Paluch contemplates the conflict he feels on taking his seat for New York City Ballet
A trip to New York City Ballet isn't a simple thing anymore. It's a conflict of sorts if you're a conscientious centrist as one can feel totally, artistically at home, but equally distressed at what your simple presence there could equate to others. Why? Baggage and advocacy.
The company has been marred in controversy since 2018, concerning conduct of both male dancers and management, brought into the public conversation off the back of the #MeToo movement, gaining momentum in 2017 to date.
And the discussion is still prevalent. The focus now primarily on Balanchine himself, and what some feel he's responsible for. The birth of American Ballet, yes, but also all that comes with it. The many topics of dialogue include: abuse of power (personally and professionally); unacceptable demands on the dancers in relation to physical requirements; and the subsequent impact on their physical and mental health.
Team Balanchine argues this is either all in the past, or never happened in the way some seem to believe it did. Team Feminism (as this is the overarching theory most of the thinking is perceived through) disputes this wholeheartedly, proposing what he demanded back in the early 20th century is in fact systemic, and as problematic today as it ever was.
I make a point of reading most, if not all published literature on both sides of the argument, as I (problematically for me, and others) reside somewhere in the middle.
Do I want dancers to have a voice and agency? Categorically.
Do I want to keep watching Balanchine repertoire performed by empowered dancers? 100%.
Do I believe in cancel culture? No.
Do I hope there's a way of reframing work that has a troublesome past so it can survive? Absolutely.
But where are we currently? I'd argue that the majority of published rhetoric is about the problem as opposed to a solution. Many of the big discussants are from ‘outside' the NYCB fold. I've pondered over this a lot. Is it possible for true insiders to have enough distance to contemplate if their perspective is actually based on (external) reality? Equally, can an outsider separate (plausible) baggage from critical analysis? I've heard phrases like “victim shaming”, “she isn't/wasn't a dancer”, “it's a cult” etc. The dialogue is passionate, ongoing, and often in CAPS LOCK.
So how did I frame my thinking over an extended weekend in New York City at NYCB? I refer back to the opening quote of this extended, three-part piece: “See the music, hear the dance.”
I aimed to engage with the work, not in denial of what potentially came before and is currently being discussed, but rather in the belief that it's possible to connect with the repertoire on a primarily choreographic level, and with the performances offered by the dancers in 2023. All in order to contemplate a form of viewing that could support a future trajectory. Well, that was my intention at least, as my conscience allowed me to be in that specific auditorium, as opposed to not. And to be clear: as the debate rages on outside, the dancing rages on inside. Fact.
So where does this all leave us? I'll admit – a place of confusion at times. But at least there's a dialogue of discombobulation, as opposed to nothing.
I feel equally passionate about calling out mistreatment and championing rigour. Take the recent Ashley Bouder debacle – modern-day mistreatment in relation to historical, systemic ideals of rigour? The hardline proposition(s) from British critic Mark Monahan about classical aesthetics, and what they need to constitute in order to be deemed acceptable. The extensive analysis of abuse in ballet by Alice Robb, and the ideological possibility of female empowerment in (ballet and) Balanchine choreography by the New York Times dance critic Gia Kourlas. It's definitely a two-sided dialogue, full of both personal accounts and opinions, but does any of it help the present-day dancer in the studio, or on the stage, practically speaking? I'd hope yes. Purely in the knowledge the debate is actually taking place at all, and the reassurance it's in order to improve, and hopefully safeguard our beloved ballet. But, as all of the above reaffirms, the dance continues regardless… some for, some against.
Note – it was such an honour to review New York City Ballet. A company and repertoire I hold in the highest esteem. Massive thanks to our own Graham Spicer and NYCB's Kina Poon for making it possible. And here's to many more opportunities!
Matthew Paluch reviews New York City Ballet's Spring Season 2023
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers' Teaching Diploma in 2007, and was fomerly on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011 and has been a freelance writer since 2010. He is a Trustee (2021) of the Royal Academy of Dance and works in the Law Sector.