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The Dance Insider Forum, 10-20
Is Ballet Irrelevant?

Edited by Veronica Dittman
Copyright 1998, 2006 The Dance Insider

(First published in the Dance Insider's debut print edition, Summer 1998. Posted online for the first time today. And still relevant.)

"We would never think of throwing away a Renoir, and saying this is not valid, or a pre-Columbian dog sculpture. Why in dance is this always a question? This is our history and legacy. We can tell so much about our history and memory and society by looking at a Petipa "Swan Lake," or a Baroque dance. (Whether ballet is irrelevant) is a moot question, but it will always be asked because we are dealing with an ethereal art form. People will pay millions of dollars to put an old painting on the wall, but we are always having to beg, borrow, and steal to mount one of these classics."

-- Mark Dendy

Welcome to the first ever Dance Insider Forum, in which we gather leaders of our community, serve them snacks, and with a tape recorder running, attempt to focus their discussion around a single topic. Our first participants were Christian Holder, a member of the Joffrey Ballet during its formative years who now choreographs, teaches, and designs costumes; Robin Hoffman, who danced with the Joffrey Ballet, Louisville Ballet, and Milwaukee Ballet before assuming her current post as in-house notator (Laban) at the Paul Taylor Dance Company; Ethan Stiefel, who now dances with American Ballet Theatre after notable stints at New York City Ballet and Zurich Ballet; and Paul Ben-Itzak, publisher of The Dance Insider. The panel was moderated by Veronica Dittman, a ballet and modern dancer who is, not coincidentally, the editor of The Dance Insider. The talk took place at The Dance Insider's Manhattan offices, which are located, completely coincidentally, just a few doors from the Greenwich Village Loft of the late Robert Joffrey.

Paul: Several presenters have told me recently that they think ballet is irrelevant, because most of the audience they see at their ballet events is older. They don't see enough young people. So I'm curious how each of you, as children, first became exposed to that world of dance, so that it pulled you away from the football game, or the television, or whatever?

Robin: Well, I saw it on TV.

Ethan: Growing up in Wisconsin, I would have had no clue if I hadn't had a sister. It deals with people's perceptions and education. When you don't have things presented to you, or you don't even know they exist, how can you know if you're interested or not?

Christian: You find that more in Europe; it's just part of life. Here it's spread out and you have your car and your house in the suburbs, so you only get what's fed to you through the tube, unless you make the effort, or unless you watch PBS. But in general, I don't think it's a priority. You can tell by the way Congress addresses the issues and funding.

Ethan: Not that all Americans fit into this, but many times people look to their government as far as what they should support. In Europe, when you're subsidized by your city as well as your country, it automatically lends itself to being more acceptable.

Robin: If you want it bad enough you'll pay for it, rather than, it's coming out of our taxes anyway; it's ours, it's part of our culture.

Veronica: Given that it's not built into our system like that -- structurally, geographically -- it brings to mind crafty attempts to get at this widespread, disinterested audience with something like the Joffrey's "Billboards."

Christian: Had that been marketed really well, that would have been wonderful. The choreography's fine, but I didn't feel it was produced wisely, in a sense that you don't sit down and get bombarded with Prince, all on one level. Also, so it's not all four ballets every night, because then if you like Prince, you see all four ballets but you've seen nothing else. They could have split it up and done two of the ballets on one night and then slipped in Ashton or something. Use the Prince as a hook and then feed in something that balances the program -- then I think they could have cultivated a larger audience response. It was, Let's do this, grab the money and run.

Paul: It paid the bills.

Robin: It didn't pay the dancers.

Christian: And the audience doesn't come back.

Paul: Is it enough to bring in the modern element? Does that make it relevant?

Ethan: No. The work has to have integrity. But it's also diversity. If you bring in only choreographers who are making ballets in the same idiom, then who are you going to satisfy except the people who've already been coming in the first place? When the choreographers are the same ones who've been there before, or have danced in the company, or made works on the school, or are making works that lean toward what's already being presented, it's boring. What kind of interest is that going to spark?

Veronica: The flip side of that is, how much can those ballet dancers be expected to master? Will they be shown off if you bring in a Doug Elkins or a Bebe MIller? Will they be able to do it? Are you talking about that kind of diversity?

Ethan: Sure. That comes down to, you have to meet in a certain place. You've also got to give the dancers credit, because they probably can do it.

Paul: I think "meeting" is a good way to put it. Mark Dendy is a downtown person, but with some of his ballets on Pacific Northwest Ballet and elsewhere, there is a meeting there. It is possible; they still retain that wildness and the dancers are on pointe.

Robin: That's always been one of my favorite things to do in my career: meeting somewhere between. The choreographer had different ideas, maybe we had a different technique than he or she was used to, but that sparked ideas.

Ethan: Or else the choreographer makes the piece in the same way that he would anywhere else, and you just accept that this is on another company and they're dancing it in their own way.

Paul: Which is legitimate. San Francisco Ballet, where I first saw Paul Taylor's "Company B," does it very differently than the Taylor company.

Robin: Oftentimes it's a valid interpretation.

Christian: It's fascinating too, to see (Jerome Robbins's) "Moves" now. It's not completely different -- the steps are the same -- but the aesthetic is different. When we did it, it was more human. It was still abstract, but it was more relationship-oriented. Now when I see it I feel it's more about line. I'm not saying it's better or worse, just different.

Paul: But the focus is less on the human relationship part of it?

Christian: Yes; it's approached differently, it's set differently.

Paul: "Serenade" on City Ballet is incredibly well danced, but when I saw it on Dance Theatre of Harlem, there was a story going on there, a human relationship between the three principal dancers or characters. I can't say exactly what it was, but there was something going on and I found it riveting. To me, that made the ballet relevant; it involved my heart. It wasn't just interesting, sort of beautiful, nice lines, musical. I don't know if it's sacrilege to say that.

Robin: I don't think so. There are a million incarnations a dance can take, but it has to be relevant to the cast first, so that the cast can make it relevant for the audience.

Paul: As dancers, how is a "Swan Lake" relevant to you, or a classic Balanchine piece that doesn't have a narrative?

Ethan: You find something that has meaning to you. I'm not saying in an abstract ballet I'm going to make up a story and tell one, but there may be a line that weaves its way through the whole ballet that makes sense to me, and that people hopefully can see.

Robin: There's going to be something there that makes it relevant to you emotionally or intellectually.

Christian: Case in point, there's a ballet called "Parade": When Leonide Massine set the Chinese Conjurer solo (on the Joffrey), the only people in that studio were Gary Chryst, myself, Massine, and his assistant. We got the information from God's mouth to our ear: what the steps meant, what the story was, what the subtext was, all of that. There are references to the sinking of the Titanic. There are all sorts of things that the audience wouldn't even get, but it fills you as a performer, and that's not being passed on. They take it off the video; it's five-six-seven-eight. But the younger dancers pick up the phone and say, "Can you get with me this weekend because I'm absolutely out at sea. I don't know what's going on here."

Robin: You're trying to guess. You're trying to find something to make it relevant, but if you can't and if the people in charge don't seem to care.... Take "Swan Lake" as an example again.

Paul: Even in "Swan Lake," you can't just pick up on the basic story?

Robin: The best "Swan Lake" I was ever in, I was just in the corps of the white acts. It was amazing and wonderful because all 18 of us were literally breathing together. What made that happen -- we rehearsed and rehearsed and we knew every note of music, and finally someone came in to coach. There was a question about how exactly should the head be? Does it go like this or does it just go like that? And he said, "As long as you show the suffering. You all must show the suffering." It really made the difference, just some emotional thing that meant something to every one of us. And the audience gave us, the corps, a standing ovation.

Paul: So it wasn't just going on in your heads, it carried across.

Robin: Yes! Whereas I think if you're just going through the movements gymnastically, the audience may be able to say, Oh wow, they're doing amazing things, but it's not going to be relevant to them. Because they can't move like that; they have no idea what it feels like to do multiple pirouettes or to fly in the air. But that, that thing, makes it relevant.

Veronica: A lot of people go to ballet for the virtuosity of it, to see people do these exciting tricks that are a thrill in the way that Michael Jordan jumping really high is thrilling. I wonder if that's more what an audience is looking for, or how much they are attuned to this other, more emotional level?

Ethan: Depends on who you go to see. When you have "Don Q" or "Corsaire," that virtuosity is going to be a major element. If you see Netherlands Dance Theatre, it's going to be a different physicality. It just comes down to a matter of taste, or what is relevant for each person.

Paul: So you think some people are going to the ballet actually to see that, to see the jumping, the 12 fouettes, the circus tricks?

Veronica: The incredible extension?

Ethan: I've sat out in the audience many years and watched ballet, and seen people react to one step which was impressive, but not really meaningful.

Paul: When there's this incredible technical feat, most of the audience seem to love it. So maybe that does bring them in, but it leaves me hollow if it doesn't have that other element.

Robin: You hear a lot of people yell and scream for technical feats, but when it isn't something that moves you, it does leave a hollow feeling. When you go to the theater with a friend who's never seen much dance, do they ask you, "That was good, right?" or do they just know?

Ethan: It also may be a comment on society. What are we geared to appreciate? Are we geared to instant gratification?

Paul: Faster, bigger.

Ethan: Who won, who lost? Not, was it a good game or not? Was there beauty within?

Christian: You see Entertainment Tonight, you see Extra: What's it about? Brad Pitt, the new opening, Hard Rock Cafe, Bruce Willis, how many explosions, what's it like to have a sex scene with ten people standing around, did you kiss him, who was naked in Playgirl?

Robin: Get free stuff.

Paul: Stephen Petronio says that he wants to glamorize dance. I think the glamour is there, and we in the media need to do a better job of revealing it to people. For instance, an actor may be on the cover of Entertainment Weekly just because he looks good, but if he's promoting a worthwhile movie, what's wrong with that? If sexy magazine covers make people go and see that work of art, then it's okay to bring people in that way. The analogy for dance would be showing beautiful pictures or putting beautiful dancers on TV to get people to see a truly wonderful performance. And, on that subject, in terms of ballet bringing people in but retaining its integrity, what is it doing right?

Christian: ABT's in a good place. Splitting the company is good -- they can play more venues and make it accessible.

Robin: It's nice to see in New York recently showcases for new choreographers experimenting in the ballet idiom. They're on a small scale, just to scare things out of the bushes.

Ethan: The ABT Studio Company has five new creations, which will draw the ABT audience to new work. In general, ballet isn't the problem. People are doing incredible things, the level of the dancers is fantastic. Ballet isn't over.

Endnote from Alonzo King, director and founder, LINES Contemporary Ballet:

"Things based on a universal truth can never be irrelevant. Ballet is based on universal themes, the same things that informed Copernicus, that informed geometry inform ballet. Most people think of ballet as a style, and they connect that style with (centuries-old) romanticism. They don't realize that ballet is not a style, it's a science of movement. It can be manipulated and explored in a million ways -- it's inexhaustible."

Christian Holder performed most recently in the Joffrey Ballet's new production of Frederick Ashton's "Cinderella," reviewed here today. To read Francis Mason's Ballet Review interview with Ethan Stiefel, click here.

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