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Reevaluating Old Habits and Practices in Ballet
– An excerpt from the forum dedicated to the seminal Ballet into the 21st Century retreat

by Thea Barnes

January 2003 – Even a company of 5 years has its own history but ballet companies shoulder a tradition some 300 years old. They can measure up to this tradition, surpass it or get squashed by a legacy that everyone has an opinion about. This tradition is either the foundation for artistic decisions or an over cooked goose that is picked over, dismembered or discarded entirely. It is worrying though when a reviewer calls "The Nutcracker" a "cash cow" (1) or worse is geared to a junior audience to generate half the annual revenue but without any guarantee this same audience will come back when grown up (2). Just who is the ballet company to satisfy: tradition, budgets or inspiration?

Enter the 3 work program where an insightful artistic director along with nail biting board members and stressed out marketing managers can splice tradition with more contemporary, innovative approaches and present a smorgasbord repertory to appease diverse expectations. What do these choices do to ballet's art practise and the hierarchy of company structures?

Innovative approaches require revised ways of thinking about the way dance is made and viewed. Tradition is always present, stretching from the past and tailoring the present giving innovation scant chance especially when critics recognise "an exquisite piece of ballet classicism (3)" but ridicule choreography as "contrived, downright ugly manoeuvres; a mass of jumbled activity; macho posturings; lifts like heaving a sack of coal. (4)" Not all companies produce repertories that include works by Kenneth Macmillan or are fortunate enough to have Mark Morris mixing "academic ballet with unexpected twists to produce an unbuttoned, fresh classicism (5) that is engagingly unpretentious". (6) Ballet tradition is a tricky thing and not easily disregarded, nor should it be. Tradition though may lead current practitioners and viewers into believing there is only one history when in fact there are hundreds. The divisions are in aesthetic choices, which steeped in their own communal trappings give ballet its multiple identities. Can the integrity of ballet tradition be maintained despite present ballet dance makers' renovations?

Ballet's identity is diversifying. Meisner (7) reviewing Dance Theatre of Harlem noted the varied personalities of the dancers but also noticed how the dancers snapped to attention when Arthur Mitchell took his bow. Meisner did not discuss their "blackness" before reviewing their artistry, which is great, but Meisner may have unknowingly picked up on the "discipline" required to get a company to achieve the vision of one man on a quest to reshape the aesthetic preferences of ballet's tradition. What was gained and what was sacrificed in this quest? Maybe what was gained were new ideas about what ballet's aesthetic encompasses and new approaches to teaching, learning, choreographing, and selling ballet globally. All these elements influence revisions in the practice of a tradition and bring about new perspectives and new histories.

Meisner may also have perceived the hierarchical, autocratic, male-dominated, gender, and racialised politics that permeate the infrastructure of ballet companies and ballet practice. What pressures face the dancers to deliver the goods when the context is to prove a point? Everything is on the line when dancers have "changed" everything to suit one man's dream. "First they break your ego down, then they build it backup in their own image (8)" is a student's lament and may be a reflection of what is going on back stage and in ballet "institutions" all over the world. In the case of DTH, the dancers have definitely measured up and surpassed expectations but critics still refer to them as the "black classical dance company (9)". Just what are we asking our dancers to achieve when faced with such blatant aesthetic discrimination?

These varied outside in and inside out perceptions affect a company. The question arises are practitioners aware of how the practice of ballet differs or mirrors tradition? Are practitioners and critics aware of the differing histories that reconfigure or continue to enforce the tradition of ballet and how? I believe that most practitioners of ballet will agree that dance making is global. There is a lot of sharing of strategies for making dance as well as how to work with dancers. I wonder though are we really respecting and acknowledging the source and configuration of this borrowing?

Donald Hutera refers to Rhoden's "Twist" as "sub-Forsythe abstraction” (10) and this statement deserves some attention. William Forsythe acknowledges his debt to dancers who through a process of structured improvisation give their embodied knowledge to create the types of works Forsythe is known for. Forsythe's way of dismembering the ballet goose is intervention by using improvisation to reconfigure classical ballet movement. Dancers working with Forsythe are required to know his methods for building movement material for choreography as well as being proficient in classical ballet. Improvisation has its restrictions and freedoms but just how has this affected the hierarchy of Ballet Frankfurt and will this hierarchy remain unchanged when Forsythe leaves Ballet Frankfurt?

Rhoden has a different history. Desmond Richardson, Rhoden's partner spent 2 years with Ballet Frankfurt. Both these dancers toured with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in the late 80's until the formation of their company, Complexions, in 1994. These artists' built on their classical ballet, contemporary and jazz dance experience and embraced the energy of American dance clubs and street dance with its techno, hip hop infested music. Each in his own way has synthesised an aesthetic and cultivated compositional devices to dismember the ballet goose and define their own individual choreographic and performance approaches. Dancers working with them are required to be proficient in ballet, jazz and contemporary forms and possess the highest, most extreme technical prowess obtainable. Unlike Forsythe, Rhoden requires his dancers to follow his directions to the letter; there is no use of improvisation to vary the movement given. This way of working is more in line with the hierarchical pyramid most associated with the tradition of ballet. This is one of a variety of African American ways of knowing movement not Forsythe-ian. Rhoden's kind of dance making owes more to the community that gave raise to Balanchine than the accomplishments of Forsythe in Germany. Another question that arises from this is authorship and really, who choreographs a dance and then in view of the Protas vs Martha Graham Centre case (11), who owns it?

Context is what situates and clarifies a ballet company's aesthetic and its place in the tradition of ballet. Context also influences the making of dance, the shaping of a company's infrastructure and its particular hierarchical structure. There is no escaping ballet's tradition and the aesthetic this engenders. There is also no escaping the mix of contributing factors that support or work against a single company's dance makers, its choreographers, dancers, artistic directors, board members, administrative staff, and critic/reviewers.

Please join the discussion in our forum.

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