Ballet Today

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April 12, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

It is a striking fact that intimacy and emotion are so hard to find in ballet today. This was not always so, even in the twentieth century, when choreographers from Nijinsky to Cunningham and Balanchine were intensely preoccupied with form and abstraction–with taking the body apart, sending it off balance, turning it askew. They made human physics and architecture–the mechanics of how we move–the subject of dance. This might have been a dry formal exercise, but it wasn’t, because the best of them were also emotionally and intellectually fearless, and they made dances about feelings and things in life and our society that mattered–not just to them, but to us all. Love, loss, eroticism, anger, betrayal, chance, fate, daring: these were the kinds of words their dances and dancers brought to mind.
The curious thing about dance now, and ballet in particular, is that it has taken the form but left the feeling. Artists today seem more attached to form than perhaps ever before – wedded to concept, abstraction, gymnastic moves and external appearance. There has been some dissent, to be sure; but mostly what we have seen is a strange reverence for pure physical form, and a deeper bow to detachment than the moderns or postmoderns themselves dared–or wished–to make. Is this a slow trailing off and misconceived tribute to the twentieth century, or is it the beginning of a new way of thinking?

We are about to find out. The guard is changing in ballet. A new generation is taking the reins of power in its most venerated institutions. The Paris Opera Ballet, which has been directed by Brigitte Lefèvre for the past eighteen years, has just announced the accession—and in France it is an accession—next year of Benjamin Millepied, who is just thirty-six. At the Royal Ballet in London, Monica Mason recently retired after eleven years and the company’s new director, Kevin O’Hare, has settled on an artistic team led by the choreographers Wayne McGregor (forty-three), Christopher Wheeldon (forty), and Liam Scarlett (twenty-six). In New York, the change is softer: American Ballet Theater (ABT) and the New York City Ballet (NYCB) have been led by Kevin McKenzie and Peter Martins for twenty-two and thirty years respectively, and although—astonishingly—there is little sign of change at the top, new voices are coming to the fore. The Russian-born choreographer Alexei Ratmansky (forty-five) has become the leading artistic voice at ABT, and at City Ballet the young choreographer Justin Peck (twenty-five) is being hailed as the latest new talent.

Russia, where ballet probably matters more than anywhere else in the world, might have joined the change, but instead it has fallen captive to the distracting and at times violent political intrigues characteristic of Putin’s Russia. The Bolshoi’s new director Sergei Filin (forty-two) began by boldly recruiting dancers, including the American David Hallberg, but was then attacked—and nearly blinded—by an acid-throwing thug and is now recuperating in a German hospital. In St. Petersburg, the once progressive Mikhailovsky Theater is now run by a billionaire oligarch, and the ballet recently looked westward and imported the well-meaning but predictable Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato. Meanwhile the Maryinsky’s glorious dancers seem to have very little new choreography of value to perform.

All eyes are on Benjamin Millepied, poised as he is to take on the leadership of one of the most powerful cultural institutions in France and probably the best ballet company in the world. He will inherit Brigitte Lefèvre’s powerful legacy. Unlike Millepied, who is French but never danced at the Paris Opera, Lefèvre was a consummate insider. Trained at the Paris Opera Ballet School from the age of eight, she entered the company in 1960 at sixteen and went on to become its director of dance in 1995. But in between, like so many of her generation, she broke ranks, and in 1972 she left the company for more than a decade to found and direct (with Jacques Garnier) a new company devoted to experimental choreography. When she returned to the Paris Opera, she aligned the company on the principles that had governed her life and art—which also, not coincidentally, describe France itself: tradition and revolt, Louis XIV and 1968.

This meant that the company still did the classics, from Baroque dances and Giselle to Balanchine, but Lefèvre also opened the doors of the Paris Opera to contemporary choreographers such as Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, and William Forsythe; and more recently to Wayne McGregor, Emanuel Gat, and Anne-Teresa de Keersmaeker—few of them, with the notable exception of Forsythe, grounded in ballet. She even pushed the company into German dance-theater, commissioning works by Pina Bausch and Sasha Waltz. This season saw a new Bolero by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, whose background lies in voguing, hip-hop, and the Belgian contemporary dance scene. He collaborated on the piece with the conceptual artist Marina Abramovic. No one could accuse Lefèvre of not keeping up.

The results have been mixed, and a sign of the problems facing ballet for the last several decades. The art has had trouble innovating from within, so Lefèvre wisely looked out toward contemporary dance, making her company into a laboratory, even as it also focused on the classics. The downside was that the choreographers whom she invited to the Paris Opera did not always know how, or care, fully to use the tremendous physical and technical skills of its classically trained artists. This could result in ballets such as Sasha Waltz’s Romeo and Juliet (2007), which is more concept than dance—the story is jumbled, the sets designed to disorient, the movement more walking, posing, swooshing, and parading than real dancing. To watch some of the most highly trained dancers in the world perform this kind of simplistic movement, and to so little effect, is frustrating and dispiriting. Waltz has made powerful dances for her own company, but here the collaboration diminished both her and the dancers performing the work.

Adapted from newrepublic.

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Have a great day.
Jack Westin
MCAT CARS Instructor.
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22 Comments


  1. MI: ballet = form, not feeling (CW). new movement? Lefe = keeping up with contemporary. Waltz = simplistic.

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  2. Lef promotes new & experimental dance

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  3. MI: new movement –> simple, emotionless ballet
    Tone: author frustrated

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  4. Ballet has moved from expressive to repetitive.

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  5. There has been changes and problems in ballet today, all the focus is on physical form w no emotion. Changes are seen in Russia, France and NYU

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  6. MIP: Today = physical form = ballet =/= emotion; Lef = +/- = keep up w/contemp dance

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  7. Ballet today =/= emotions + intimacy due to Lef’s experiment with dance.

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  8. Ballet today = form not feelings. Lefevre = wise because add contemporary choreography, (-) side = ballet more concept than dance.

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  9. Ballet today = pure physical & little emotion b/c the guard/leader is changing/younger
    Lefevere = kept some transition but also opened doors to contemporary = mixed results -> ballet as an experiment + less dance + frustrating

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  10. MIP: Ballet has changed, does not take full advantage of skill.
    MIP II: Form > meaning today.

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  11. ballet = change = problem /=/ emotional —> contemporary = wasted talent; author (-)

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  12. MIP: new voices in ballet will show if loss of emotion = continuing trend + Lefevre = contemporary + classic ballet; tone = neutral

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  13. Ballet evolved from physics and form that includes artistry, to simply emphasizing form. Political, and executive changes have caused different troupes to evolve. France remains as one of the last standing able to produce works that echo artistry as well as form.

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  14. MI: Modern ballet =/= emotional + heavy focus on form

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  15. Ballet =/= feeling
    Ballet incorporation = diminished performance

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  16. MI: mod ballet lack emotion and foc on phys forum; L incorp contemp=lack classical skills=bad perform
    tone: –

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  17. Modern ballet= form focused+ no emotion. New leadership + politics + open to straying from tradition= loss of traditional ballet as we knew it. Milliped= hope

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  18. MIP: intimacy+emotion =/= ballet today —> all bout form + past = form + emotion; new young talent = change

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  19. intimacy+ emotion in ballet= gone
    gone= due to generation and experimentation (L)

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  20. Ballet today has seen a decrease in the emotional expression and intimacy found in its dance, with a main focus on form. To the author this is unfortunate, and gives several examples of dance companies around the world, which have emphasized a focus on the human physics and architecture of these dancers with a lack of emotion. The author questions whether this is now the way ballet is turning into.
    The author continues to talk about the notorious dance company in France, and how its previous leader did so much to incorporate different forms of dance by hiring many choreographers with different backgrounds. However, the dancers have now shown less of dancing, and more choreographed “dances” that lack the physical strength that these dancers are capable of, and the author expresses an aversion to this.

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  21. ballet=had emotion+no emotion now, b/c Guards in ballet are changing in America, Russia=political influence, and France. In France, the old guard=openness+diminish dancer skills+author feels disappointing.

    Reply

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