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The Crisis in Contemporary Ballet

How emotion left dance

John D. McHugh/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Millepied, who spent his early career in the United States at the New York City Ballet, has said that he wants to do something different. Rather than crossing over to the world of contemporary dance, he wants to return the emphasis to ballet itself—and to classically trained artists. Not, I think, in the sense of conservation or preservation: true to the legacy of Balanchine, he seems to believe that ballet itself can be a radical art. He has said, understandably, that when he worked at City Ballet he yearned to work on more “conceptual” projects, which sounds like a nice way of admitting that he was bored and did not always feel intellectually or artistically engaged. So he wants to broaden ballet and open it to cinema (Millepied choreographed the movie Black Swan and married its star, Natalie Portman), the Internet, technology, and contemporary movements in art. Echoing Diaghilev a century ago, he wants to make the “ballet of today.”

This all sounds ambitious and good, but a recent performance in Paris of the L. A. Dance Project—a company that Millepied founded last year as an “artist collective” with the composer Nico Muhly, the art consultant Matthieu Humery, the producer Charles Fabius, and the film producer Dimitri Chamblas—pointed in a disheartening direction. The program featured the world premiere of Reflections, which Millepied himself created “in collaboration” with his dancers, to original music by David Lang (including sections called “diet coke,” “cello,” “beach”) and with original costumes and designs by Barbara Kruger. The second piece was an old Cunningham dance from 1964 titled Winterbranch,to music by La Monte Young (2 Sounds) and with décor and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg. The evening finished with Forsythe’s Quintett, choreographed in 1993 while his wife was dying of cancer, to a passage from Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, by Gavin Bryars. 

Millepied says in the program notes that the choice of these dances, and of the Cunningham piece in particular, is an artistic manifesto of sorts. Yet seeing Winterbranch at the Chatelet Theater in a sold-out house of Parisians eager to glimpse Millepied’s taste was like entering a time machine. What are we today to make of Rauschenberg’s car headlights scanning a bleak, empty stage (he operated them differently at every performance), or of the music, an aggressively unpleasant collection of sounds and scraping noises screeching through the auditorium? The movement is no help: it is simple, abstract, and performed in half darkness, as if the dancers were objects or shapes—sought out by the headlights—coldly manipulated in space. At one point, a robotic monster machine (constructed, it turns out, of “found objects” from around the theater) propels itself across the stage.

Many of Cunningham’s dances revolved around chance and his famous rolls of the dice before a performance to determine which dances would be performed to what music with which sets. Performances were designed to be unstable and in flux—to come together on stage, in the moment, and the dancers had to find their way within the limits “set” by chance and circumstance. This made the performers hyper-sensitive and aware of each other, and gave each performance the quality of a live experiment. There was an almost utopian quality to his project: behind the disorder lay a deeper man-made order—and we watched it come into being. Winterbranch was one of Cunningham’s darker visions, a kind of dystopian nightmare—provocative at the time, perhaps, but not his best work. Today it just looks dated and hard to follow. I can understand it as an historical artifact—Cunningham died four years ago at the age of ninety—but is it really interesting or worth doing in 2013? The opportunity cost seems very high. And I doubt the people who walked out of the performance at Chatelet were shocked; more likely they were annoyed and bored. 

To judge from Millepied’s Reflections, though, Winterbranch is not only worth it, but precisely the point he wants to make. On the surface, his affinity for Cunningham might seem surprising: Millepied has so far shown himself a capable if conventional choreographer, with a firm command of classical vocabulary. But here he abandons what he knows in favor of a Cunningham-like experiment, absent Cunningham’s rigor, to silly music by David Lang, and with a predictable and not particularly interesting or attractive—or shocking (or anything)—pop-artish design featuring a bright red backdrop covered with words (“Stay,” “Think of me thinking of you”) in large print letters. Worst of all, the dances—or rather, the steps that he and his dancers came up with—consist of tedious pedestrian movements and lots of simplistic back-and-forthing—walking, skipping, falling to the floor, noodling around.

If this is a new manifesto, it is strangely beholden to old ideas, reminiscent not only of Cunningham and Rauschenberg, but of the Judson Church dancers (Rauschenberg was there, too) and even of the choreographer Yvonne Rainer’s notorious “NO” manifesto (which she later repudiated), in which she loudly proclaimed NO to everything that ballet and past performance traditions stood for: no to spectacle, no to virtuosity, no to the heroic, no to the anti-heroic, no to style, no to eccentricity, no to transformations and magic and make-believe, no to involvement of the performer or spectator, and finally (after a few more no’s): “NO to moving and being moved.”

As with many avant-garde moments, the idea was in part to liberate—to free dancers and dance from the perceived constraints of artifice and technique, of bourgeois entertainment and commercial culture. It was a distinctly leftist attack, made on a supposedly aristocratic art in the name of something new and forward-looking, a dance that emerged above all from the everyday movement of ordinary people. The idea at the time was not “accessibility”—today’s catchword—but something more sharply political.

William Forsythe, the second pillar in Millepied’s performance, is a different story. An American trained in ballet who has spent most of his career in Germany (more work, better conditions), he was the artistic director of the Frankfurt Ballet from 1983 to 2004 and now runs the Forsythe Company in Dresden and Frankfurt. Forsythe spent years rigorously and meticulously analyzing—some said deconstructing—classical ballet, working from within its formal structures to extend, invert, and at times undermine the art. Drawing on a range of artistic and intellectual sources, his fascination with improvisation, tension, and release, unfolding interconnected movements, all came together in early works such as In the Middle Somewhat Elevated, to a score by Thom Willems, created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1987. But although his dances can appear shattered and disjointed, the movement is in fact highly organized and coordinated: physically and intellectually complicated, with multiple and competing impulses and a sinewy and elastic style.

Forsythe set a new standard and style in ballet—a new aesthetic normal—with which we are still for better (Forsythe himself) and worse (his imitators) living today. He has long since moved on from In the Middle, and although his ballets are now standard repertory in major ballet companies around the world, his more recent work—which uses sound, voice, spoken word, images, improvisation, and dance—is performed only by his own company of dancers: it is collective, experimental, non-transferable. And if over the years his work drew deeper into theater and away from ballet (even as he himself had redefined it) and could at moments be alienating, his dances are always still dances, with rhythm, swing, kinetic movement. Forsythe knows more, and more deeply, about ballet and its codes, gestures, limits, and possibilities than most choreographers working today. And he has not said NO to skill, technique, rigor, or even—see the powerful reflection on mortality in his I don’t believe in outer space—emotion. 

What we are seeing, I suspect, in Millepied’s evident admiration for Cunningham and Forsythe has more to do with their experimental approaches than any particular dance. He seems to be looking for an avant-garde stance that might free him—and us—from the dull lockstep and conventions of so much ballet today. In a way, Reflections is not a new manifesto but an old expression of anxiety—a fear of irrelevance and a desire to “connect” somehow with the society and the culture at large. This may explain in part the appeal of pedestrian movement (what better way to reach “real people,” or so the thinking goes, than to move as they do?) and a Cunningham- or Forsythe-like real-time experiment instead of a polished or fixed dance.

The irony is that reviving Winterbranch is if anything artistically conservative and deadening, whatever the dance’s historical merits. Forsythe is a harder call since he often re-stages his own dances, but here again the ballet as danced by Millepied’s company pales by comparison with its original production with Forsythe’s own dancers. Dance is like that: it is easy to reproduce steps, but it is very, very difficult to reproduce the emotions and the ideas that made the work in the first place, and even harder to reproduce the experiment that created them. What we are left with is strangely cerebral and form-driven, a theater of shapes and images rather than of emotions and people—the opposite of what Millepied seems to yearn for.

Millepied is not alone. Many choreographers today are preoccupied with form and with pedestrian movement, with improvisation and “process” over set performances. In Brussels, Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker, founder of the company Rosas in Belgium and a prominent figure on the European dance scene, has based the training at her prestigious and impressive school P.A.R.T.S. on two pillars: ballet and the release-techniques and practices that grew out of the Judson Church movement. Physically and intellectually, this makes some sense—ballet is the base, the rules, the linear symmetries that postmodern choreographies undo—and indeed the idea recalls the earlier work of Lucinda Childs (another Judson Churcher) and others who found a similar affinity for ballet, even as they also opposed it. A revival last year of Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach with Childs’s beautiful and translucent dances—pure, non-narrative, balletic in their formal arrangements—was a reminder of the power of this kind of thinking and dancing. 

Yet a recent performance of Partita 2, a new work by De Keersmaeker and Boris Charmatz to music by Bach, was depressing—and depressing in ways that brought to mind the kind of thinking, and lack of feeling, behind Millepied’s Reflections. It is difficult to know what de Keersmaeker, who has made better dances than this, was thinking or trying to achieve, but the movement in this piece is so diminished, so lackluster (skips and hops and running around in tennis shoes for no apparent reason), so self-consciously serious and obtuse, and so far from dancing, that it seems like a kind of renunciation. NO to everything! But why? 

Wayne McGregor, who directs his own company, called Random Dance, and is now also resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet, is another case in point. His dances ask us to care about a series of unfolding physical movements, which have no discernable point but their formal appearance and the process of unfolding. In a recent TED talk, McGregor explained his approach by making a dance with two of his dancers based on the letters T—E—D. First he improvised on the external shapes of the letters—body riffing on a theme. His dancers in turn imitated and ornamented his movements until they had a phrase and, finally, a dance. The movement is seductive, febrile, full of physical tension and release. Many of McGregor’s finished dances are like this too, and we feel that the movement should somehow lead to human drama or emotion. But it doesn’t, and it is not clear that he wants it to. In the end, we are left wondering if all that “process,” all that focus on external appearances, and how one movement morphs into the next, isn’t an artful way of avoiding the inner life of dancers and the dance. YES to moving, but NO to being moved?

Another big idea in ballet today is stories. We all live by stories, it is regularly said, which are easier to absorb than straight-up knowledge or facts—or dance for the sake of dance. So alongside McGregor and his highly abstract dances, and in keeping with its own traditions, the Royal Ballet is also throwing its weight with renewed vigor behind the full-evening story ballet. Thus in 2011, Christopher Wheeldon created Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to an original score by Joby Talbot, and he is scheduled to premiere The Winter’s Tale this year. The objective, presumably, is family entertainment—nothing wrong with that—except that Alice is a very long and very dull parade of sets and costumes, interspersed with trivial character dances, presumably in the tradition of English pantomime but utterly lacking in charm and wit. 

It is hard to see this ballet as anything but a sleight of hand and a dumbing down—as evidence of a strain of cynicism across the ballet world that comes, I think, from what might be called the curse of The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. Story ballets sell—Alice sold out at Covent Garden—and have become a kind of tourist industry. Artistically, though, the story ballet is hard to defend in its present form. We think of it as a nineteenth-century taste, and dances such as Alice do little to change this. 

It is worth recalling that when Sleeping Beauty premiered in Russia in 1890, it was like watching Technicolor for the first time: controversial, visually overwhelming, a new way of seeing. When Kenneth MacMillan made Romeo and Juliet in 1965, it was breathtaking for its harsh realism. (He coached the dead Juliet: you are like a slab of meat.) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has none of that excitement and no new ideas. And it is not alone: contemporary productions of Sleeping Beauty at ABT and at NYCB, or the new restaging of La Corsaire at ABT, all uncritically reproduce old ideas in old ways. Which is one reason why Matthew Bourne—not a choreographer of any note—has had such tremendous success with his multi-media remakes of the ballet classics. No one else is doing it. And what about The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius’s moving silent and danced film—a story ballet if ever there was one? Or Black Swan, which for all its faults at least attempted to rethink Swan Lake?

Even the Russian- (more precisely, Soviet-) born Alexei Ratmansky, who invested much of his early career in making conventional evening-length narrative dances, seems to be slowly abandoning, or at least reconsidering, the form. His most recent work at ABT is an ambitious and serious full-evening ballet called Shostakovich Trilogy—not a single work, but three separate and related ballets, Symphony #9, Chamber Symphony,and Piano Concerto #1, that take on themes of Shostakovich and the broken Soviet twentieth century. It is as if Ratmansky had decided that for this kind of vast theme—a memory ballet expressing a man and his century—the story ballet is too much (or perhaps too simple), but pure “abstract” dance is not enough.

So he gives us something in between, a hybrid half-story of gesture-laced dances made up of fragments and images, memories and patterns. There is agitprop imagery and decor, movement heavy with Soviet-style melodrama, and even a protagonist—a tormented artist, perhaps, although he appears only in the second ballet. There is of course Shostakovich’s own story along with the controversies over his politics and musical style, which might be brought to bear on the understanding of the work, but do not really emerge clearly from the dances. Even the dances of the second ballet, the Chamber Symphony, which anchors the trilogy, and whose music, an arrangement of the String Quartet No. 8, written by Shostakovich after touring the wasteland of Dresden as a kind of requiem and reflection on his own mortality, feel cut off, the inner despair dimmed by the outward melodrama. The evening pulls between this kind of overwrought movement and a cool dance exposition, but we are not sure why. The little emotion that does come through seems evasive. We are far away; we can watch the fragments pass before us, but we cannot enter or follow, much less feel.

Emotions do exist in ballet today, but they are often hidden, marked off and secluded in inner sanctuaries. The most obvious example is the pas de deux. Traditionally, ballets were structured to show public lives and private feeling, social circumstances and love, and they built up and out from the group to the individual, from the individual to the couple. The pas de deux could be formal and social (say, a wedding dance) or private and intimate, the summit and apex of feeling. 

Today this is rarely the case. Ratmansky has little feel for the pas de deux, and his dances all but ignore it: his subject is society and the individual. For Wheeldon, the opposite is true: his lens is focused on the couple, and the rest disappears. Consider his most recent ballet for the Royal Ballet, Aeternum, to Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, with décor by Jean-Marc Puissant. The ballet as a whole is unremarkable, but the pas de deuxperformed by Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli is extraordinary. And yet it is not a climax to anything. Indeed, the group dances and the pas de deux—the public and the private—seem to have nothing to do with each other. Wheeldon’s ballets are often broken-backed in this way: After the Rain was also two unrelated ballets stuck together—we don’t know why—and today the pas de deux is generally performed on its own. It has no society.

The pas de deux in Aeternum works because it makes ballet look normal—not pedestrian, but contemporary, the way we might imagine ourselves moving even if we never will (or could). It has no nineteenth-century manners, nor does it recall Balanchine-style jazz and nonchalance. It is clean, clear, intensely physical, sexual even, two bodies in a sustained manipulation to Britten’s understated yet passionate music. The dancers are almost nude, bare-legged with simple dress that shows the body but not the clothing. The detail of bare legs and feet in toe shoes without tights makes the point: the dancer has a direct connection with herself, with her partner, and with the floor—something grounded and organic, not airy or costumed.

Wheeldon has been criticized for making duets that are old-fashioned and sexist—men manipulating women, women who never support themselves or dance on their own; men who spend their time maneuvering women and fail to explore other possibilities fully, homosexual or otherwise. While it is true that Wheeldon’s duets involve a man and a woman and that the partnering is deeply dependent, this seems to me a misreading. The man and woman in Aeternum are each other’s other halves, sensually engaged in a moment of mutual dependence and intimacy that comes from the ways their bodies mold and move together. If anything, the old power dynamics—man supporting a woman, woman on a pedestal—are lost in the pure sensuality of the moment. It is erotic but plainspoken, a constant unfolding and refolding of limbs and skin. Not flesh—that would be the bedroom and Romeo and Juliet. Here we are inside the body—or bodies—his and hers at the same time. It is a dispassionate erotics, a physical fact.

Wheeldon is not the only one. Justin Peck recently made a new ballet for NYCB titled Paz de la Jolla, to Bohuslav Martinu’s Sinfonietta la Jolla. The ballet itself is perfectly fine, if a bit confused, with lots of energetic dancing and Ratmansky-like wisps of story and ideas that never quite cohere. The pas de deux for Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar, however, is in another league. Here again the ballet doesn’t really build to it—it is just there, hidden in its outer shell. Hyltin was once like that too—hidden behind a competent technique and girlish appearance. But in the course of this dance, she (more than he) is transformed.

Suddenly the girl is a woman. There is weight and focus, and yet she is also translucent, transparent almost, in the fluidity of the movement, which is so fleeting and airy that it can hardly keep up with itself—she can hardly keep up with herself, and loses herself in its momentum. There is nothing showy or self-conscious here, and the choreography pushes her, without force, into a pure physicality at the edge of her capacities. It is a dance that gives her no time or wherewithal for anything but dancing. The selling, the smiles, the seductions, the girlishness: they all fall away. We are—finally!—inside of a dance. YES to moving, and being moved. 

What are we to make of all these choruses of yes and no, the ambivalence about emotion, the preoccupation with appearances and surfaces, the cult of form, the fraying of old balletic habits and assumptions? What about the desire to renew, to experiment, and to innovate, and the impulse to rely on old ideas to do so? Artists are rifling through the past even as the past caves in beneath them; it will not support them, because it does not entirely make sense anymore. I am not thinking about the old and by now comfortable postmodern instability, the cracking up of modern certainties for the sake of uncertainty. Something more is taking place. We are in the midst of a technological and social revolution that is changing how we think and feel—together and in ourselves: no wonder ballet is in a state of doubt and rethinking. If  there is an underlying mood in the field, it is anxiety, a nervous-to-the-quick fear of being out of touch, or out of sync, or “not connecting” with people, audiences, a new generation, ourselves.

If it is fair to say that art is not a calculation but an instinct, a series of small choices backed by knowledge and skill—this color, that step—then it must also be fair to suppose that the instinct is not blind, that it has a direction, however vague. An artist’s instinct might aim toward idealism or realism or surrealism, more toward form or more toward expression, or art for the sake of art, or art for a political cause. But it never aims at nothing—even nothing would be something, a kind of nihilism. The problem in ballet now is that it is hard to say who is aiming where, or if there are any clear signposts at all. There is ambition and curiosity, too much athleticism, and too many cold shapes and hard surfaces. Above all, there is a confusion about form and a fear of feeling. 

Jennifer Homans is the dance critic for The New Republic.