The ballet dancers of today are amazing. They can turn, jump, and lift their legs higher, better, farther, faster, and more than ever before. Many of the most accomplished of them now dance with American Ballet Theatre, and their achievements were on show during the company's recent season at City Center in New York. ABT has always been known for its roster of stars, but today even its lowliest ranks are thick with talented dancers who regularly up the ante with dizzying displays of technical prowess.
The dancers are great. Why, then, was the season so dull? The company offered a series of mixed bills that included classical pas de deux and works by twentieth-century choreographers. Night after night we watched Paloma Herrera, Julie Kent, Nina Ananiashvili, Maxim Belotserkovsky, Jose Manuel Carreño, Angel Corella, Ethan Stiefel, and many others pour on the tours, leaps, and throws. The performers were energetic, technically impeccable, and eager to please. The audience cheered them on and shouted bravos. But all of this effort only made the truth more glaring: we were wowed, but rarely moved; impressed, but almost never inspired. Where was the edge, the exhilaration, the sense of having been a part of something larger than a masterful pirouette? Has ballet been reduced to a series of sensational athletic moves, a gymnastics of turns, jumps, and splits--and are audiences content to be cheerleaders? Are we so seduced by pyrotechnics that we have forgotten that ballet might also offer something more complex and daring?
That classical ballet in New York is in a state of crisis is not news. Arlene Croce mourned the end of ballet in articles throughout the 1990s, and for years ballet aficionados across the city have been grumbling nostalgically about the good old days when Baryshnikov, Nureyev, Makarova, Gregory, Farrell, McBride, d'Amboise, Tomasson, and the rest sent them home electrified. The current impasse is often attributed to the passing of a great generation of dancers and choreographers: Balanchine, Robbins, Tudor, and Ashton are all dead, and the dancers that they nourished are long gone from the stage. An era has ended, it is said, and we are now waiting--waiting for the next genius to emerge.
But we may wait a long time, for it is not the absence of a genius that ails contemporary ballet. The problem is deeper and far more pervasive: ballet has become a crushingly conservative art form. In the course of the past twenty years, we have watched dancers retreat into tight technical perfection, petrified beauty, and contrived imitations of past glories. We have seen a vibrant, complicated, and playful art form lose its inner life and settle into a glamorous complacency.
The ways we think about ballet make this conservatism seem normal. Ballet is conventionally presented as the prototypically aristocratic art. After all, it emerged in the French and Italian courts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and was used by kings and courtiers to assert social hierarchies and to display their own prestige in fantastic spectacles of affluence and power. Dancers working in the court of Louis XIV famously codified the basic positions and (we are told) laid the groundwork for all that followed. In the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (so the story continues), dancers extended their technical range, and court dance developed into what we now recognize as classical ballet, with its jumps, turns, adagio, and point work. In this view, ballet is an evolved elaboration of baroque dance forms: inherently elitist, conservative, and restrained. No wonder we think of it as prestigious, black tie, and unquestionably "uptown."
But this is a serious misreading of the origins and the character of classical ballet. Ballet was born of rebellion, of conflict and radical ideas. It was a rejection and a complete transformation of aristocratic court dance. It did not elaborate the art of kings, but broke with it vigorously and deliberately. It is a modern art, which grew up in the context of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. The cultural cauldron that gave us Voltaire, Rousseau, and Chateaubriand, Gluck, Meyerbeer, and Berlioz, Laclos, Hugo, and Gautier, also gave us ballet. If ballet is now in crisis, it is not because we have no "genius" choreographers; it is because we no longer intuit the values that made it a viable and interesting form of human expression for the past two hundred years. And if we are to understand how things at our best ballet companies can go so wrong when they look so right, we must cast a backward glance at the tumultuous career of the art.
The highest and most respected dance form in the late seventeenth century was the danse noble, and its most vaunted practitioners performed at the court of Louis XIV. The danse noble was court etiquette writ large: its steps were woven through with rules for how a well-bred nobleman might stand, sit, or walk in the presence of others; how he might enter or leave a room, pass a person on the street, offer a greeting, or otherwise assert his place in the social world. A plié was not just a bend of the knees, it was a gesture of humility; and the deeper the bend, the greater the mark of respect. Épaulement was not just a turn of the shoulder, it was also a moment of polite self-effacement. To offer a hand to a woman was not just to invite her to dance, it was also an act of courtship.
The danse noble was a revelation of nobility, an abstracted physical representation of cultivation, taste, and hierarchical social relations. Not surprisingly, it privileged men--especially kings. It is no accident that Louis XIV was the most admired dancer of his generation. Silk stockings showed off a man's shapely legs, and the best dancers were known to unfold their long, elegant limbs with deliberate and solemn majesty. A danseur noble was god-like, composed, and regal. He never jumped or pranced about; such antics were the province of less exalted genres of dance.
Women did not perform at all until the late seventeenth century, and when they did take to the stage, they demurred. A man might embellish a step with leg beats and complicated footwork, but a woman refrained from elaborations. Her tiny feet were barely visible beneath her fashionably long, heavy skirts. Tight corsets and towering headdresses (piled high with jeweled fruits and other accoutrements) made larger movements precarious, if not impossible. But these sartorial complexities were not considered a hindrance. Quite the contrary: the grand architectural shape of her body only enhanced a woman's stature.
When a woman and a man danced together in a pas de deux, they joined hands, faced the audience, and moved in perfect symmetry. The man did not lift, hold, or support the woman. Instead the man and the woman moved together, as if joined by an invisible thread. They might pull away or play off each other, but only in complementary, matching ways. They danced side by side or in mirror image, their steps differing in degree but never in kind. The man deferred respectfully and paid homage with his bravura; the woman accepted his admiration and discreetly lowered her eyes. A pas de deux was a formal display; private feelings might be hinted at, but they were otherwise inappropriate to the form.
When the philosophes launched their criticism of culture and society in the eighteenth century, they came down hard on French ballet. Many found it mechanical, dull, and empty. The stylized etiquette of the danse noble seemed to them irrelevant and uninteresting. The German critic Sulzer, writing in Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie, explained the problem with customary bite. What, he asked, were audiences to make of bizarrely costumed, madly gesticulating dancers with their forced movements? Dance, he complained, was just a series of meaningless steps; it did not "imitate" anything but itself. "Scales," chided Diderot, "are not the same as song." Rousseau was even more dismissive: if this was all that ballet had to offer, he argued, it ought to be banned from opera.
There were calls for reform. Louis Cahusac and Jean-Georges Noverre led the charge, insisting that ballet should rid itself of pomp and circumstance, of plots "solved" by magical effects and deus ex machina, of artifice and frilly bows. It should express real human emotions and rationally coherent dramatic situations; it should take on tragedy and not be content with mere divertissement. Dance, the reformers suggested, could become a serious art with expressive qualities surpassing those of poetry, prose, and song.
Hitherto dance had generally been performed as part of an opera, since it was thought incapable of telling a story without words: it needed aria and recitative. But now it seemed possible that dance might break free of opera and stand alone. Language, Noverre argued, had become flowery and corrupt, but movement was primitive and transparent, and it would not lie. Movement bypassed the intellectual faculties and pierced straight to the heart. Stories told in pure dance and pantomime set to music would be a new art for a new age: freed from opera and artifice, ballet would use the body to reveal a more "natural" human drama.
In 1760, Noverre published his ideas in a multi-volume treatise called Lettres sur la Danse et les Arts Imitateurs. He joined forces with Gluck (whose ideas about opera made them natural collaborators) and corresponded with Voltaire. He created dozens of new ballets, many of them "serious" tragedies.In 1776 he won the coveted position of ballet master at the Paris Opéra, where he staged ballets such as Jason et Médée and Les Horaces.
For all his forward-looking ideas, however, Noverre was also (like Voltaire) a classicist. He could never bring himself to forsake the danse noble. He defended its aristocratic character, insisting that it was as grand and eloquent as history painting or tragedy. The problem with the danse noble was only that it was incomplete: it needed pantomime to make it a theatrically convincing art form capable of telling a story and expressing the full range of human emotions.
Such high-minded debates, however, were not enough for the revolutionaries of 1789, much less the radical men of Year II. They were concerned with the look and the style of the danse noble itself. To them, no amount of pantomime or theory could disguise a hateful aristocratic form. Two days before the storming of the Bastille, angry crowds rampaged through the Paris opera house. Subsequent manifestos made the revolutionary agenda clear: ballet was corrupt, indecent, an affront to Spartan republican sensibilities. It had to be abolished or radically transformed.
And so, in effect, it was. Dancers shed their heavy costumes, undid their hair, and jettisoned their high heels. They performed in flat shoes, Grecian tunics, and light, almost transparent materials. They eschewed anything reminiscent of court or aristocratic display. Pageantry, political theater, and folk dances increasingly pushed the danse noble aside. In 1792, Pierre Gardel, the ballet master at the Paris Opéra during (and after) the Revolution, produced a stage version of La Marseillaise called L'Offrande à la Liberté. L'Offrande later became part of the Festival of Reason, and Gardel went on to choreograph dances in other productions commemorating revolutionary moments, with titles such as Sans Culotide (a staging of the Fête de la Réunion du 10 Août, 1793) and Le Triomphe de la République. In these works, groups of peasants, workers, soldiers, women, and children, arranged by sex, age, profession, or geographic origin, predominated. They gathered, marched, and danced the carmagnole. The hierarchical spatial arrangements that had characterized court spectacle were swept away, and le peuple flooded in.
Clusters of young women in simple white dresses and flower wreaths were especially popular actors in these political dramas: they represented republican virtue, simplicity, and devotion. Choreographers had always been interested in nymphs, sylphs, and the like, but these girls were different: they were no longer pretty ornaments in a gilded spectacle, they were instead groups animated by a common dramatic purpose and character. In ballets for years to come, groups of women would play an important role in offsetting the claims of individuals. They were united, cohesive, and strong-willed. At their most extreme, Noverre later noted, they could be like an infantry regiment, "ordered, exact, and subordinate." They were the first modern corps de ballet, and the Revolution's most enduring legacy to dance.
Napoleon's taste for grandeur looked as if it might open the way for a return of the danse noble, but contemporary dancers such as François Decombe, who perfected the danse noble style, were less and less sought after. Instead male dancing veered in a different direction, exemplified by an enormously popular demi-caractère dancer named Auguste Vestris. Vestris could leap, spin, and extend his body as no one before him, and he developed a style that was powerful, athletic, and exaggerated. Following his lead, male dancers such as Antoine Paul (and later Jules Perrot) turned out their legs one hundred eighty degrees, lifted them hip-height, raised their arms, whipped through multiple turns, and threaded steps into combinations that we use to this day.
When Vestris retired in 1816, he became a celebrated teacher, and passed his "method" on to another generation of dancers. Unpublished notes left by one of his students, August Bournonville (who studied with Vestris in the 1820s), show a rigorous new system of training premised on rational physical principles: it began with small, simple steps and moved systematically to more complex and demanding exercises. Etiquette had all but dropped from the equation.
These male dancers were aesthetically radical. They broke the mold of the danse noble and violated everything it stood for. They were brash and unrestrained. Critics were exasperated by their crass manners and their abandonment of traditional grace, balance, and precision. Writing in 1806, a critic in the Journal des Débats set the tone: "We must condemn ambitious, audacious pirouettes which end in jumps and bring the dancer crashing to the floor off balance and against the music; we must mock floppy, puppet-like extensions, which are better left to monkeys; they are an affront to artistic dignity and good taste."
The athletic character of the emerging technique was evidence that the more gymnastic movements of the popular boulevard theaters had taken hold. But more significantly, it was also a pointed comment on aristocratic style. Auguste Vestris and his followers forced and distorted the fine lines of the danse noble to the point of caricature; their movements were a flagrant insult to elegance and grandeur. Their style was emphatically ignoble. Indeed, it was a form of derision and mockery.
It was also modern ballet: we would recognize these men. Their steps, their training, and their geometrically configured movements are our own. They are the "fathers" of ballet as we know it.What is familiar to us, however, was disturbing and strange in its original context, and these athletic dancers found themselves in an awkward position. By ridiculing the danse noble, they also undermined their own stature. The danseur was no longer a clear symbol of strength, power, and nobility. Instead he was an ambiguous, dandy-like figure, whose forced, extreme technique was a parody of ancien régime elegance.
The compromised position of the male dancer generated a crisis in the art. The danse noble had been the foundation of ballet; without it, there was no guarantee that the tradition would hold.Contemporaries worried that dancers had sold out to sensationalism and boulevard antics. "I fear," a professor of dance lamented in 1825, "that the new school will mean the total ruin of true dance." Women mostly held their own by taking the high road of drama and emphasizing their skills as actresses, but the men seemed to be racing toward an ever more distorted demi-caractère style. Pierre Gardel and Louis Milon, ballet masters at the Opera, mounted a rear-guard action to save the danse noble, but by the mid-1820s it was clear that they had only managed to delay its inevitable decline. The problem persisted: with fewer and fewer distinguished male dancers practiced in the old style, could ballet continue to rank as a fine art--or would it finally dead-end in gymnastics, more fitting to the fairground than the opera house?
Marie Taglioni in La Sylphide, 1832
In 1827, Marie Taglioni made her debut at the Paris Opéra and put an end to these vexing questions.People were awestruck by her performances, and she quickly became an international star. What did Taglioni do that was so extraordinary? She feminized ballet and shifted its structural axis. Ballet would no longer be centered on the public image of noblemen and kings: henceforth it would be about women. It would no longer display social relations, but paint a landscape of inner feelings and secret desires. It would not flaunt strength, but turn it to illusion. Taglioni galvanized the ailing tradition and re-made it in her own image. For the next one hundred fifty years, the idea of the ballerina--Taglioni's ballerina--would define ballet.
As a ballerina, Taglioni was not sui generis; she built her dancing on the tradition that was bequeathed to her. She mastered the restrained, rigorous, and aristocratic style of the danse noble, and trained herself to rival any man in power and endurance. She took on the new physical geometry that pried the body open at the hips, lengthened lines, and embraced elevation. Crucially, though, she was careful to avoid multiple turns and to cloak her formidable technique in a soft, feminine style. She inveighed against un-ladylike dancers who made their skirts fly up and ogled men in the gallery.
Taglioni never displayed her strength, but made it the hidden source of otherworldly femininity. She rose on her points and skimmed across the floor. She did not jump, but appeared rather to float up to the clouds. Her elevation had a moral dimension: she was so airy that she seemed chaste, and almost metaphysical. One critic rhapsodized in 1831 that she had "Christianized dance." In her lexicon, ironclad strength was a condition of feminine grace, and both were attributes of high art.
But Taglioni's femininity was a bundle of contradictions. If she was modest, simple, and pure, she was also fraught with yearning. Taglioni infused her movement with a vague, aching desire for love and life. This was most famously evident in La Sylphide in 1832, the ballet choreographed for her by her father, Filippo Taglioni. The ballet opens with James asleep in a chair on the day of his marriage to Elfie. A sylphide (Taglioni) kneels quietly at the foot of the chair. James dreams and Taglioni dances.He sees this delicate, winged creature of the air flitting across the stage. She is free, boundless, and impulsive. When he wakes, she does not disappear, but continues to dance. He loves her, but he cannot have her--she evades his every grasp. She loves him too and will die if he marries another. Her only hope is to make him leave Elfie (the village, marriage, society) and follow her into the woods. She succeeds: he gives up everything and goes. But she remains elusive--running, leaping away, disappearing and re-appearing like the poetic phantom that she is. James finally captures her by wrapping a scarf around her shoulders; she perishes instantly. Without freedom, she cannot survive.
But her freedom was never absolute. Part of Taglioni's genius was her ability to use the strictures of classical technique to show the relationship between freedom and limits in her own body. She contained and concentrated the virtuosity that was so problematic in her male counterparts. No matter how high she jumped or how long she perched on her toe, she always stayed within the perimeter of classical positions. Contemporary lithographs and portraits often show Taglioni poised in a low arabesque; she balances on an exquisitely arched foot, with her other leg stretched out behind and an arm reaching poignantly forward. It is an emblematic moment: we feel her body pulled in two directions. She wants to go, but her leg and her arm counteract each other, and instead she balances perfectly on one foot, caught between fleeting desires. The impulse is to fly, but the symmetry of the position will not allow it. The boundaries of classical technique are clear, which made it all the more interesting when she strained to escape them.
To create this kind of internal physical dynamic, Taglioni had to have an extraordinarily strong body.Her training regime was grueling, even by today's standards. She worked for six hours daily: two hours on exercises to build strength and flexibility, two hours on adagio movements and balances, and two hours on jumps. Lithographs and drawings show her calves and thighs thick with heavy muscle. Here was a woman whose body was all power, weight, and manly proportions, but who moved in ways so exquisitely refined that she seemed the epitome of angelic femininity. Material and spiritual; earth and air; masculine and feminine: big ideas and fierce oppositions ran through her body. Audiences felt this, and marveled at her ability to contain and transcend them.
With the coming of Taglioni, the fate of the male dancer was sealed. As her reputation soared, men were increasingly marginalized. By the 1830s many critics felt that the male dancer cut such a ridiculous figure that he ought to be banned from the stage. Jules Janin, an ardent "Taglionist" and among the most outspoken critics of male dancers, proclaimed in 1832, "Under no circumstances do I recognize a man's right to dance in public." At best, the male dancer might be a useful partner. He could help the ballerina in her pursuit of the ideal. He could lift, hold, or balance her in her pursuit of the unattainable. He could be a foil to her emotions. In the pas de deux of the 1830s, men and women no longer danced side by side, in symmetrical perfection. Instead the woman draped herself over her partner, entwined her body with his, pulled and pushed against him.
So the mold of modern ballet was set. The ballerina was its protagonist, and the male danseur was destined to live in her shadow, in spite of (or because of) his spectacular tricks. The tensions inscribed in Taglioni's dancing have characterized ballet ever since: she was mysterious, powerful, and free, but also constrained, yearning, and restless; she was physically strong but aesthetically ethereal; sensual but chaste; charming but remote. Deeply individualistic and independent, she cherished private impulses and eschewed social obligation.
These oppositions ran through the ballerina's body and made ballet dynamic, complicated, and alive.Classical choreography then and since has typically built on the image of the ballerina to forge visual, musical, and physical tensions between a central woman and a lover, a corps de ballet, villagers, princes, or other representatives of social cohesion. These ideas are built into the technique and the ethos of classical ballet; they are not rigid prescriptions but flexible, loosely spun qualities that give ballet its aesthetic identity. Petipa, Balanchine, Ashton, even Tudor and Robbins upheld these tenets.They pushed the limits, but remained largely committed to this nineteenth-century vision.
Over the past twenty years, this vision has slowly faded, and ballet today is a shadow of its former self. Which is not to say that it is necessarily doomed to extinction. To watch American Ballet Theatre this season was to see the "old" idea of ballet in the final stages of decline; but it was also to be reminded that ballet is a radical art, and may yet renew itself from within.
For a start, there is the matter of the ballerinas. ABT is a company of magnificently trained dancers, and one would expect to find scintillating ballerinas; but this season there was none. Not a single one.Consider Susan Jaffe, one of ABT's most senior dancers. When she begins a variation or pas de deux, she invariably crooks her head slightly, lingers, and then begins to emote. What follows is dramatic affect masquerading as "interpretation." She bends a bit too far, flourishes too grandly, accents the music too deliberately. Her second act of Swan Lake is a parody of lyricism. Not a single phrasing rings true, honest, or genuine.
It is not that Jaffe is not trying. Indeed, she is determined to "make something" of her roles and not just pummel her way through the steps. This is what made her dancing seem so promising fifteen years ago. But now that she is a seasoned performer, it is clear that she has learned little about how to infuse movement with meaning. She has become a strange, affected creature: a pink music-box dancer. Misty-eyed, syrupy, and sentimental, she is not a ballerina, she is a cliche.
Julie Kent and Paloma Herrera have a different problem. They are lovely, lovely, lovely--and utterly empty-headed. Or so it seems from watching them move. They have smoothed out the tensions that made ballerinas from Taglioni to Ulanova to Farrell so interesting: there is not a hint of mystery, desire, or power; not a glimmer of complexity; not a moment even of playfulness. Instead, all is ease and glassy perfection. Indeed, their technique is so seamless and their bodies so flexible that it is hard to see what they are doing. Every effort and edge is hidden, tucked in, sewn up with the threads of mastery. Great ballerinas always show us the character of their bodies: we see the particular ways that their legs straighten, backs bend, wrists flex. We get to know their difficulties as well as their strengths. This is not idiosyncrasy; it is personality. But here there is none. Kent and Herrera have sealed themselves tight into their bodies. We have no access to anything but the bows and ribbons of a pretty exterior.
Nina Ananiashvili and Irina Dvorovenko have more sophistication and weight, but they seem to have fallen prey to the same obsessions. In previous seasons, Ananiashvili has danced Giselle to great effect, but faced with the more exacting demands of Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, she smiles too hard and works overtime to gloss over the slightest slip or imperfection. And with perfection comes fear: when Ananiashvili or Dvorovenko or Herrera approaches a difficult balance or turn, we can see it coming. But bright eyes and feigned ease cannot disguise the fact that every muscle is trained to avert a dreaded misstep. And then comes the relief: Bravo! She did it! She balanced for ten whole seconds! Mind you, there is something gripping about watching Herrera conquer the female variation in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. Her performance is a showstopper; but that is all it is. She has no greater ambition, no deeper goal. Her steps are just steps.
This narrow-minded approach is fatal to the classical pas de deux. A complicated interaction between a man and a woman is reduced to a simple exercise in trust: the ballerina agrees to relinquish a bit of her precious control on condition that the man save her from any lopsided turns, tottering balances, or other embarrassing lapses. This arrangement works plausibly well in a simple romantic dance such as the White Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake. And so we saw Julie Kent lean her full weight into Guillaume Graffin; he enveloped her thin, lithe body and held her tight--really tight. She led, and he followed her every impulse with perfect synchrony. They were flush; a pair of lovers locked in trust.
But trust alone cannot do justice to Sylvia Pas de Deux, Diana and Acteon or any of the pas de deux from Symphony in C or Clark Tippet's Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1. Here a fuller emotional palette is needed: wit, passion, disdain, teasing, affection, desire, irony. The ballerina especially must have range: she must carve out her realm, tell us who she is, exhibit a degree of character. Alas, the ABT ballerinas proceed with colorless monotony, as if every ballet were the same.
Is this what it means to be a ballerina? These women do not see their bodies as sensitive instruments trained to respond to music with an intuitive physical intelligence. They never feel the pulse or reveal the inner workings of a variation. They do not even try to pull us into a mysterious, theatrical world of their own making. It seems not to occur to them to turn their difficulties into something interesting.Nor do we ever get the sense that they are enjoying the chase, or even--God forbid!--hamming it up a bit. Fun can lighten a dancer's load and bring the audience into her camp, but these dancers are too serious about perfection to indulge in such pleasures. The ABT ballerinas are so absorbed in workaday pursuits that their dancing is spiritually impoverished. They can do anything, but what do they believe in?
Yet all is not lost. For the ABT men are a force of nature. Gone is the retiring danseur as princely partner. Gone is the restrained, Eric Bruhn-style bravura. Gone are the days when Nureyev and Baryshnikov were the exception rather than the rule. Since the early 1990s, ABT has attracted one extraordinary man after another: Belotserkovsky, Carreño, Corella, Graffin, Malakhov, Stiefel, Cornejo, de Luz, Gomes, Molina.
They break every mold: they are too impatient to defer to a ballerina for long; they are too exuberant and youthful to be noble. Their bravura has none of the weight, tradition, and sophistication of Baryshnikov or Bruhn. Instead they are macho, raw, and utterly driven: they do not stop at double tours en l'air, but go for triples; they are not content with quadruple pirouettes, but turn until you have lost count and then stop on a dime. They devour space and tear into steps with rapacious abandon. Their energy is unabashed and exciting. They are refreshingly naive, and they love to dance. If ballet has a radical edge today, these men are it.
Ethan Stiefel is particularly remarkable in this sense. He is direct, honest, and flush with the physical sensibility so sorely lacking in ABT's principal women. Technically, he can do just about anything, but that is not what makes him so interesting to watch. Stiefel carries his intelligence across his shoulders, which are open and relaxed. His disposition is free and clear, unencumbered by worries, fears, or calculations. He is just there, and we see every impulse, motive, and reaction. He has a sharp instinct for movement and follows it unwaveringly.
And he is not alone. Jose Carreño has a winning freshness. There is nothing jaded about his movement. We have the feeling that he marvels at every step-- we see the spiraling architecture of his tour en l'air, and the precise physical motive animating his grand jeté. Malakhov, Gomes, Belotserkovsky, de Luz, and Corella have similar skills. They forage through movement and push fearlessly to the frontier. Sometimes they even fall. Their performances are live.
Is the ballerina-centered Taglioni axis of ballet changing at last? Will ballets of the future be "about" men? Some choreographers seem to be experimenting in this direction. Clear, a new work by the Australian choreographer Stanton Welch to music by Bach, has a cast of seven men and one woman.The men are bare-chested, with fitted bell-bottom pants. Every movement shows, and that is the point: we see the big muscle groups pushing, flexing, propelling the movement. There is a primitive energy to the steps, which thrust sharply and retract; the body rebounds as if to absorb bolts of electricity sent straight to the gut. There is lyricism, too: backs and arms bend, ripple, and flow with the force of whitewater in a duet for Belotserkovsky and Malakhov.
The same is true, in a different key, of Kirk Peterson's Amazed in Burning Dreams, set to a score by Philip Glass. (The ballet was originally choreographed for Pacific Northwest Ballet in 1993, and is new to the ABT repertory this season.) Here male virtuosity turns to hard militant purpose. The dancers are so strong, the movement is so relentless, dense, and anti-lyrical, that it is almost uncomfortable to watch. The driving score never lets up, and the men force their way through the music with fierce determination. There are women too, but they look pale and wan in such harsh movements and cannot sustain the vigor. The ballet's melodramatic lighting and contrived themes are also obscure and anyway beside the point. Like Clear, the ballet is a creation of its male cast.
Clear and Amazed are showcases: well-crafted and engaging, they push the men to their limits. If the male dancer is to re-invigorate ballet, however, he will need even more. Traditional pas de deux and nineteenth-century classics (including the bravura La Corsaire) will not help. Nor will Balanchine classics such as Symphony in C: these are still a ballerina's world. The ABT men are a new breed, and they cannot be caged in old ballets. Letting them dance their hearts out will always be a good show, but it will not lead to anything more significant. They need to be trained, directed, and turned to purposes bigger (even) than their own prowess.
Robert Hill's Marimba takes us in the right direction. Not because it is "about" men (it is not), but simply because it is a fine piece of choreography that uses dancers in strict, interesting ways. The ballet begins by defining limits: sharp lights cut horizontally across the dim, smoky stage, creating a low ceiling that weighs heavy on the dancers. The vibrant tones of the composer Minoru Miki's Marimba Spiritual ring out and mesmerize us with rhythmically complex designs.
The choreography is fast, asymmetrical, and tense; balletic control harnessed to propelling energy and tinted with African-style release. It builds steadily, with dancers pouring into streams of light and then disappearing in semi-darkness. The dancers are riveted by the choreography and they dance with vivid commitment. At one point, two women and two men rush to the front of the stage. The women pose on point, back leg in arabesque. One holds the man's hand, then lets go as if to balance; the other goes it alone (her "partner" turns his back). The women never do balance, exactly: instead they waver and totter, legs and arms groping the air for stability. They do not fall, but show us how they might. We watch them hang over a cliff, and the suspense is gripping.
In Marimba, the cluster of ideas and tensions that constituted the "old" ballet no longer applies.Instead individuals are lost in a fray of movement; groups are broken, diffused, far-flung; lights, thick air, and low ceilings close in and open out with cinematic momentum; symmetry and proportion are obscured by speed; there is no tonic, center, or rest--the whole thing is a huge chaotic balancing act with no apparent purpose. And it is totally absorbing. Robert Hill's work is evidence that ballet can re-invent itself according to new ideas and timely principles.
Hill has an important advantage. He is a distinguished classical dancer who understands ballet from the inside. In this sense, he belongs with other classically trained choreographers, such as William Forsythe or Alonzo King, who are interested in using the dictates of ballet technique in new ways. It is crucial for a classical company to have such people, especially now. The nineteenth-century and twentieth-century "classics" look paler--more anachronistic and conservative--every year. Importing choreographers from modern dance, while interesting, will not revolutionize classicism. We need people like Hill, who do not impose ideas from the outside, but look for new content within the old forms.
Will there ever be great classical ballerinas again? Perhaps not. To become such a ballerina these days a woman would need more than mere talent: she would need the courage to throw the full weight of her career against an entrenched cultural preference for slick perfection and packaging. Given the number of flawlessly trained ballerinas in the pipeline, it is hard to imagine a dancer having such audacity. Judging from the women rewarded by ABT's directors, there is little incentive to be different. If a young dancer took a risk and failed, a more reliable substitute would always be waiting in the wings.
What seems clear is that ballet can never be the same. What began with Marie Taglioni is over. The ballerina is now a thin, empty shell of her former self. She no longer has the force or the intelligence to steer an art. Whether that is good news or bad news depends on the self-knowledge of artists. If they stick to the barren path of perfection, classical ballet may perish. But if they have the courage to establish a complex physical and theatrical agenda, great things may still await us. History, after all, is on their side. Dance is a radical art, which has survived many previous deaths. And anyway, who are we to hold old memories so tightly? Perhaps it is time to stop mourning and move on.
Jennifer Homans is the dance critic for The New Republic.