And while an art museum might be be able to thrive on its permanent collection, how many dance companies really could—or should? As much as I kvetch about the quality of most new ballets, I’d rather have them in all their mediocrity than see happen to ballet what happened to opera. Talk about a museum! It’s like a whole art form just ground to a halt. Putatively avant-garde restagings of centuries-old works do not a vibrant genre make, and the few genuinely new compositions that make it to the stage (much less survive in the rep) are only the exceptions that prove the rule.
There have been a lot of new opera works, many of them in English, that have been produced in the last decade: off the top of my head, in the past few years, I've seen productions of Vancouver Opera's "Lillian Alling", San Francisco Opera's "Heart of a Solider", Dallas Opera's "Moby Dick" -- co-produced with four other companies, the last of which, SFO, will produce it in the Fall -- Seattle Opera's "End of the Affair" -- originally Houston Opera and revised for Seattle and Madison Opera" -- Seattle Opera's "Amelia." Bramwell Tovey's "The Inventor" was presented in Calgary last year and in a concert version with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra -- Tovey is the Music Director -- earlier this month. (Sadly, I had to miss it.) Vancouver Opera does four operas a season, and this season, along with Boheme, Magic Flute, and Pirates of Penzance -- the usual suspects -- it is presenting Tan Dun's "Tea". The Metropolitan Opera has had a handful of commissions, but apart from some Tan Dun and "Ghost of Versailles," (from 20 years ago), I don't think any of them are finished yet. (Operas are like massive infrastructure projects with fickle deadlines, while, in general, ballet commissions go on when scheduled, and scope, subject, and music, among other things, can change.) New York City Opera traditionally was the company that did new work, and not just to open the opera house.
Opera, especially in North America, without much government subsidy, has a much higher bar for new operas: composers don't often coach, unlike choreographers or their stagers, all of the music has to be parted, copied, and changed with revisions, super-titles need to be created for a moving text, and audiences expect more than a lit cyclotron and leotards. Singers aren't on salary and have to be contracted individually.
If no one were to perform "Lillian Alling" in the next three decades, someone in 2042 could pick up a score and listen to rehearsal tapes -- I suspect Vancouver Opera has internal tapes of the actual performances -- and put it on without much problem, given the thousands of capable classically trained singers and musicians that far out-number trained ballet dancers. The original physical staging is pretty much irrelevant to re-producing a work. If there is a question of musical style, there are hundreds of thousands of recordings and, now DVDs, to give it context.
In music, if fashion demands Stokowski's ponderous Bach, the score still exists to be able to gauge the composer's intent with regards to orchestration, dynamics, and tempi. This is not true of ballet, where continuity lies in two places: schooling and passing down style and intent through generations of coaching, and where the rarely-used notational systems capture much less of the nuances, like, for example, some the Stepanov notations that have steps and floor patterns, but none of the choreography above the waist.
It was serendipity that Stepanov notations survived and were accessible and that Hans Beck codified Bournonville choreography in his training and created productions of the key Bournonville works. The early French rep, including "Giselle," was tossed aside and "Giselle" was saved through Petipa's re-working, possibly only because the first Albrecht was Petipa's brother.
In my opinion, the companies for which masterworks were created by choreographers with key ties to the companies have the highest responsibility to preserve that rep, and it should be their core, especially when there is a training academy that teaches the style. For NYCB it's Balanchine and Robbins, for ABT it should be Tudor -- through ABT's neglect now on life support through the efforts of New York Theatre Ballet and Sarasota Ballet -- and the mixed bill rep created for it before the full-lengths took over -- for Royal Danish Ballet, the Bournonville rep, and for the Bolshoi and Mariinsky, the classics. (Which they do: despite the "new" choreography -- the Balanchine and the occasional Forsythe and Bejart -- the classical rep is the overwhelming part of their schedule.) Even if the core collection is small, preserving it should be their key mission.
Regarding the Balanchine rep, we are three-fold lucky: like in other major companies, when the performances of the main company falter, the school still has teachers that maintain the continuity and produce great dancers, so many of his disciples have spread across the continent to run their own companies, and there is a Foundation to vet and send stagers to companies that want to perform the rep. It's always good that if there is a fire in the museum and most of the collection is lost, for example when Mariinsky management in the '90's decided that they should misinterpret Guillem as an example, there are ways to re-group. Tudor, whose ballets are much more delicate to preserve, should have been so lucky.