by David Slade
January 2003 – The issue of creativity in ballet is a somewhat vexed one. Why is it that an art form that consumes the energies of so many performers, choreographers and directors seems to find it so problematic to produce works that both engage its audience and are of artistic merit?
Nowhere else is the dichotomy between ballet and contemporary dance more stark. Irrespective of the quality of the choreography; be it good, bad or indifferent, contemporary dance is buoyed up by a plethora of works, both original and derivative. Its historical precedence is built on the creative prowess of choreographers such as Graham, Humphrey, Cunningham and Taylor. Further generations of new choreographers such as Bourne, Morris and Khan reinforce its modern pre-eminence. But any study of the history of ballet will reveal how much it too was shaped by the great choreographers who worked in the medium, from Bournonville and Petipa through to Ashton and Balanchine. Today's ballet companies have a repertoire of works partly created by such historic figures but also augmented by modern choreographers such as Forsythe, Duato and Page. However, the depth of creative development so evident in the contemporary genre seems to be absent from ballet, raising the obvious question, why?
Whilst there may be a multiplicity of possible reasons in this article I will focus on just three and by so doing hope to stimulate the kind of debate that might encourage those involved to consider how ballet can encourage both individual and organisational creativity. These are the nature of balletic education, the costs involved in the production of balletic works and the nature of the audience for ballet.
Creativity and Balletic Education
The answer to some questions may appear so axiomatic that they are never really asked or they might have never been thought worthy of consideration. So let us ask one very simple question and see where it leads us. What is the purpose of vocational balletic education? The answer seems obvious, to produce a dancer capable of performing the present balletic repertoire in a ballet company. So far so good, but this one question raises a series of others, not the least of which is what is the nature of the kind of dancer that balletic education produces to fulfill this objective? Well most graduate students will be looking to be taken into the corps de ballet of a company, so it makes sense that the student on completion of his or her studies should be an acceptable addition, both physically and technically, for this body of dancers.
Certainly individuals emerge who transcend this aim and go on to soloist and principal ranks and they may or may not have received particular support in their training that furthered this advancement. However, it does seem that there is a clear 'look' that is being sort of the nascent ballet dancer and it is this that is being pursued by the vocational establishments. It creates a singular mindset, one that is dominated by the desire to achieve the single goal of being employed by a company almost to the exclusion of being involved in ballet as an art form that exists within the context of the wider cultural environment.
Contextual studies place the creative artist at the forefront of the modern cultural zeitgeist, a person who questions its accepted boundaries and challenges its preconceptions whilst interacting intimately within its cultural framework. Whilst it might not be necessary to perceive the totality of this framework the singular goal of becoming a company dancer to the exclusion of all else seems to divorce the ballet dancer from the very cultural ethos from which creativity derives. The art form needs dancers who are less insular, who see ballet in its overall cultural context and can draw from this wider framework to stimulate and enrich their own creativity. The ballet schools are in the best position to achieve this aim if they are both willing and able and, most importantly, if the companies are willing to support schemes that encourage new choreographers within the educational system, rather than seeing it merely as a source of fodder for the corps.
The Cost of Ballet
The production of new and original dance works is a risky enterprise, with little assurance that they will be a success. The costs involved in even the smallest ballet company mean that a calculation has to be made between the desire to engage new choreography and the need to balance the books. This is often the lot of the Artistic Director who is put in the position of balancing his or her creative output against the need to maintain a repertoire that equates with the position of the company with regard to both its funding agencies and its audience.
With the stakes of financial failure so high the tendency is to commission new work from established choreographers where the level of risk may be considered lower. The corollary of this is that potential talent, particularly within a company, has further barriers to overcome before it reaches fruition upon the stage.
Because of this it is not uncommon for ballet companies to have what are designated as workshop performances in smaller venues that allow artists within the organisation to try experimenting with their own creative output. How far this truly gives opportunities to progress to a higher level is a moot point, but at least it holds out the chance of revealing choreographic ability that might have gone otherwise unnoticed. It then becomes a matter of having the courage to take the risk of giving new choreographers the chance to succeed or fail in the more unforgiving environment of the main stage.
As a generalisation the ballet audience tends to be more conservative than that for contemporary dance. This is perhaps most acutely bourn out by the ructions that occurred throughout the artistic directorship of Ross Stretton at the Royal Ballet. This is not to either support or be pejorative of his directorship, only to note how vituperative comments amongst critical elements within the audience can strongly influence the course of a major company.
The expectations the audience has of a company will, of necessity, shape its repertoire and the ballet audience has a series preferences for works most of which are well established within the common canon. Indeed outside the larger metropolitan areas and even to a certain degree within them new unknown works are considered to be box office poison.
Yet this truism need not always be the case, as can be seen in the work of Forsythe at the Ballett Frankfurt. There a company with a traditional repertoire including many of the 19 Century classics was transformed into an instrument for choreography that created a cross over between ballet and modern cultural idioms. Around this vitalised institution an audience developed that appreciated the significance of having art of this significance within its borders (something that the board of the company now seem to have resolutely ignored).
However where the conservative tendency holds more sway it tends to react negatively to experimental and challenging new works, creating another block to the creative output of new choreographers.
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