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April 8, 2006

Ballet Builders – Building Ballet?

I helped out in some rehearsals for one of the pieces in this year’s Ballet Builders showcase (Helen Heineman’s Badlands Suite - Mary and Abe, two dancers I've worked with a long time, were in it) so I’ll just say I’m pleased with the performance of it and thought the dancers pulled it together nicely. Of the other pieces, Cupid Revealed was a brief, sweet duet to Handel choreographed by Joseph Jeffries and danced by Travis Bradley and the lovely Crystal Brothers, all three associated with Ballet Memphis. It didn’t break new ground but it had charm and freshness all the same and for Brothers, underneath the charm was a core of solid technique. It was a bright spot in what was mostly a weak evening.

One of my disappointments with Ballet Builders has always been that it’s never done much to build ballet. One piece on the program wasn’t a ballet at all; two more qualified listlessly, a fourth was at too low a level to mean much. It’s a bit much to dump the task onto one small independent choreographer’s showcase in New York City, but the name inspires the question: What are we doing to build ballet?

Ballet is an art form with a history and a memory. It’s an imperfect memory but the chain still exists. We take from the past, add our contribution and pass it on to the future. What is our contribution? Balanchine died in 1983, Tudor in 1987, Ashton in 1988. We’ve had about 20 years now; time enough to have made a mark and formed a style. What have we produced, what can we pass on?

It’s a short list. The list is never incredibly long, and it usually doesn’t consist of one-offs but of people like Balanchine or Ashton who worked for an extended period of time with a single company until they had a style of their own. William Forsythe is probably the most influential of the current choreographers and In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated and The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitiude will probably persist in repertory. Both of those pieces are now at least ten years old and he hasn’t made much ballet since. He isn’t really interested in ballet beyond as a tool; he certainly isn't interested in it as an institution. Worse still, his style is a dead end for ballet; works he made in 1989 look dated already and he stripped several aspects of technique (adagio, for instance) out of ballet. Christopher Wheeldon, the anointed hope of ballet, is acting like a guest choreographer instead of an artistic director. If San Francisco Ballet is going to move from being a top quality importer of ballet to a company that produces its own works and its own style, that hope lies in Yuri Possokhov but it’s too soon to know. There are other names out there; people like Christopher Hampson or Michael Corder whose work I haven’t yet seen. We need people to make classical dances, dances where the form is essential to the meaning and most importantly dances utilizing the corps de ballet. If there’s someone you’d like to mention, by all means do so in the comments. It’s been 20 years without someone to take the baton and run. How much longer can we jog in place?

Posted by Leigh Witchel at April 8, 2006 11:42 PM

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What do you mean by saying that Wheeldon is acting more like a guest choreographer than an artistic director? I thought one of the criticisms of his more recent work for NYCB was that he was thinking too much like an AD. For instance, doing money makers like "An American in Paris' instead of 'real' ballets.

Posted by: GWTW at April 10, 2006 11:45 AM

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