Ballet's Not Dead

By Ulrich, Allan | Pointe, December/January 2014 | Go to article overview

Ballet's Not Dead


Ulrich, Allan, Pointe


Here's why it's alive and thriving

How long has the "ballet is dead" movement been plaguing US? How long have we swatted away such a preposterous conceit, much as we might swat a pesky mosquito? This obituary has been inflicting annoyance at least since the late 1950s. But the assertion has always come as a surprise to the thousands of dancers who have raised technical standards to unimagined heights a generation ago. The statement has always astonished ballet company directors around America who have watched their audiences grow over the decades. No corpse has ever seemed giddier.

Even Jennifer Homans, who famously declared ballet a doomed art in her 2010 book Apollo's Angels, is reconsidering her position. Her announcement this fall that she has founded The Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University suggests that she is prepared to question ballet's viability and to restore life to the art form.

But lets be clear about what we're talking about. Ballet as a technique, as an esthetic, as a codified series of movements and gestures that idealize the proportions of the body, will probably never die as long as evolution grants humankind legs to leap. The death of ballet as an art form? Well, that's a more contentious issue.

Ballet, simply, is a language, and it survives as long as the body communicates it. Ballet is not one of those languages that goes extinct when the only person still speaking it expires at 103. The mistaken belief that the elaborate vocabulary and adherence to rules that are part of ballet's beauty somehow mitigate against the pure, unfiltered instinct of the moving body is still propounded (verbally and otherwise) by a segment of the public. The charge of elitism which-considering ballet's rise in the 17th-century court of King Louis XIV-has some validity, won't go away.

But we don't live in courtly times, and it is, ultimately, the uses to which the ballet lexicon is put that matters most. The rise of postmodernism, more specifically, the Judson Dance Theater, found ballet accused of artificiality and fustiness. Yet although ballet is based on universal principles, it has been a dance form susceptible to evolution. Our own era has seen classical dance twisted, spindled, deconstructed and ultimately capable of incorporating aspects of modernisms.

As I live in the Bay Area. I have had the opportunity over the past three decades of reveling in the many glosses on classicism which artistic director Helgi Tomasson has brought to the San Francisco Ballet. Even when a dance has pushed the envelope into the realm of anti-ballet (try Wayne McGregor's Borderlands), at least we could find some satisfaction in the fact that the primacy of ballet may have inspired the choreographer's contortions. Just this past season, in his Hummingbird, brilliant young Brit Liam Scarlett moved bodies around the stage in a manner that might have unnerved Sir Frederick Ashton a generation ago.

So. ballet has changed in our time beyond national styles and even beyond Balanchine's neoclassicism, but not always for the best. Ballet has always been in a state of transition, and the best choreographers (like Balanchine) built on what they found. Oddly. I often meet choreographers who sneer at the mere mention of ballet, visions of droopy swans running through their heads. Yet if pressed, they will admit their early experience learning ballet has been beneficial to their career in some way. I occasionally wonder why. despite their qualms, so many of these artists sign on when offered a commission from a ballet company. …

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