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what is contemporary ballet?


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#1 cgc

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Posted 31 May 2014 - 07:15 PM

Perhaps this has been discussed often here before, but I couldn't find it on a search. Would love for someone to point me in the right direction here! Tonight I wrote up a few thoughts on my blog (cgaisercasey.tumblr.com), which I will reproduce below. But my real question is, can anyone point me to a helpful, substantive discussion of what we mean when we say "contemporary ballet"? 

 

 

What is Contemporary Ballet

Does anyone have an answer to this one? I see (and use) this term a lot, but I don’t think anyone really knows what it means. OR, it means a lot of things to a lot of different people. I am going to use this format to think out loud in list format about two meanings of “contemporary ballet” that I have come across or that are in my head. (Looking forward to the Society of Dance History Scholars mini-issue on this topic…maybe that will help me out.) 

Contemporary ballet is:

1. Ballet choreography being created currently that, like Balanchine, uses a classical base but adds “twists” from other genres, in other words, an expansion on neo-classical ballet - e.g., Wheeldon, Ratmansky, Scarlett. [This definition seems overly broad to me. Ballet choreography throughout its history has drawn from other sources to enrich itself. The other problem with this definition is that it is Balanchine-centric, which could cloud out the importance of other influences.] 

2. choreography drawing from a classical ballet base, but using composition techniques and performance practices drawn from the 1960s avant-garde (Cunningham, for example).  Here I am thinking of Wayne MacGregor’s experiments with consciousness, neuroscience, and the body, and William Forsythe’s use of improvisation and aleatory procedures. I see reference to how movement conveys the “intention” of the dancer frequently in the essays of my students who work with Alonzo King, for instance. In these works, the dancers appear hyper-focused, almost meditative, not portraying any specific emotion, but concentrating rather on the mind-body interaction as they perform. [Hmm. Could be a helpful definition, although it leaves out, potentially, a lot of choreographers…needs more thought]

Like so many “genre” questions in dance, you bump up immediately against its multi-media nature. On what basis do you make the definition? Is it dance vocabulary, steps? Is it artistic lineage? Is it decor? Is it narrative vs. abstract? Is it a common choreographic intention or preoccupation? 

 



#2 Quiggin

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Posted 03 June 2014 - 08:11 PM

Very interesting question. There was a discussion on what contemporary art is at e-flux, which might be helpful here.

 

One of the problems is that the avant-garde no longer operates on the outside, in the distance, bringing startlingly new things back with it. Instead it has been incorporated within the contemporary experience – in small comfortable doses – like truffle oil at Whole Foods, or like the hints of once-radical Braun design at the Apple Store.

 

The contemporary still has some of the characteristics of modernism, but no longer promises utopia and transcendence as modernism once did. ("To be sure, 'contemporary' fails to carry even a glimmer of the utopian expectation—of change and possible alternatives—encompassed by 'the new.'": e-flux.)

 

In dance in the 40s to 50s, Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine were importing the big heady ideas of the European and Soviet avant-gardes to the United States. Cunningham at Black Mountain College and afterwards was influenced by Oskar Schlemmer, Kurt Schwitters (via Robert Rauchenberg), as well as Marcel Duchamp ("found dance") and Erik Satie (acerbic stops and gos and pivots). Balanchine was importing Meyerhold and Eisenstein experiments and borrowing from his own Young Ballet choreography when he constructed his great 1948 ballet The Four Temperaments. That was high modernism.

 

In contrast, contemporary ballet seems fluid, "unstructured" in the way a jacket can be called unstructured, nodal (1+1+1+1) and is egalitarian rather than hierachial.

 

Wayne McGregor (whom I like) is sort of the Frank Gehry of contemporary ballet. Someone says at e-flux that, as with Gehry's buildings,"the contemporary suggests movement but does not itself move."

 

Wheeldon, who I don't really understand, is according to Alastair Macaulay, the Swinburne of choreographers (he makes an exception of The Winter's Tale). Wheeldon, he says, is gifted and loquacious but unmemorable. Which might be something else about the contemporary.

 

But Alexei Ratmansky's works are a different matter. His ballets involve a community, have proportions and modules and remnants, or ruins, of classicism and over-arching architectural structures. He fully develops, rather than just presents, choreographic ideas. So he's a different face of the contemporary.

 

http://www.e-flux.co...-art-issue-two/



#3 Buddy

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Posted 04 June 2014 - 04:18 AM

 But my real question is, can anyone point me to a helpful, substantive discussion of what we mean when we say "contemporary ballet"? 

 

 

 

 
It looks like you might have started one right here with Quiggin's response.
 
I haven’t had a chance to follow this topic, but hope to. Dirac posted this link yesterday entitled  “Judith Mackrell gives a warm welcome to the influx of modern dance choreographers in ballet,”  which might be interesting. I read it a few days ago but don’t recall all its specifics. 
 


#4 Stage Right

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Posted 04 June 2014 - 09:48 AM

Re: Quiggen's comment about Christopher Wheeldon's choreography being "unmemorable": Without addressing whether or no that is true in Wheeldon's case (I haven't seen enough of his choreography to know), it does seem that a lot of contemporary ballet is "unmemorable". New choreography gets performed for a season, often to good reviews, but then drops into a black hole and is never, or rarely, seen again. Where are the contemporary ballets that are performed again and again, that get incorporated in the repertory of other companies, that become iconic "must see" dances? Am I just getting old and curmudgeonly (it's OK to say so:), or is a lot of contemporary ballet simply "unmemorable"? Or is some other dynamic going on?



#5 Helene

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Posted 04 June 2014 - 11:19 AM

I don't think of Wheeldon as choreographing contemporary ballet.  He is a neoclassical choreographer in my book, just as Ratmansky is. I'm not sure how Forsythe's post-ballet work is classified.  The harder ones are the modern choreographers who choreograph specifically for ballet companies.  The Mark Morris works I've seen at SFB and PNB wouldn't be confused with anyone else's, but he uses classical vocabulary expensively, as do Tharp and Crystal Pite in "Emergence" (made for NBoC).  Cerrudo, Goecke, and Lopez Ochoa haven't choreographed ballets, as far as I can see, even though they rely on classically trained dancers with stellar technique and occasionally someone is wearing point shoes, but there's little difference in the vocabulary or approach I see from the work of Lopez Ochoa whether it's danced by PNB or Olivier Wevers' Whim W'him or betwwen Goecke's "Mopey" (Peter Boal and Co.) or "Break a Chill" (PNB), while there are big differences between Morris' "Sylvia" (SFB) or "Kammermusic #3" (PNB) and "Love Song Waltzes" (MMDG), or Tharp's "Golden Section" and "Nine Sinatra Songs" made for her own company vs. "Brief Fling" and "Push Comes to Shove" (ABT), "Waterbaby Bagatelles" (Boston Ballet), and "Opus 111" and "Waiting at the Station" (PNB).  Her "In the Upper Room" is a compare and contrast work, where half the work was the secondary if not alien tradition to whatever company dances it.

 

So far I can't remember seen any other modern or contemporary choreographer who has been a freelancer, done work for ballet companies outside his or her own company,  or has had his own non-ballet company's works adopted by ballet companies, where even a few of whose works have had legs in the ballet world since Kylian and Duato, like Jardi Tancat (most widely performed), which is over 30 years old.  PNB is reviving "Rassemblement," which Russell and Stowell acquired for PNB in the late 90's, and I'm not sure when the last time ABT performed "Remansos," which is mainly remembered from one of the few commercially available ABT videos. Most of the Kylian performed today outside Amsterdam is decades old; "Petite Mort" is ubiquitous, but over 20 years old, and one of its partner works, "Sechs Tanze" is five yeas older than that.

 

Among today's ballet choreographers, Wheeldon and Ratmansky are the most performed aside from house choreographers'.  Caniparoli is active.  Millepied was getting commissions before he took the POB job.  Corder's choreography has been danced in Great Britain and Europe.  Peck and Scarlett are considered great new hopes.  Liang was getting various commissions for a while. (I'm not sure if he's mainly concentrating on BalletMet now.)  Kudelka was let back in this year.

 

Most work being choreographed now/recently and performed by ballets companies, is still done by AD/choreographers or resident choreographers and only rarely makes it out of the home company. (Examples are Ib Anderesen, Peter Martins, Mark Godden, Stanton Welch, Robert Weiss, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, Jorma Elo, Ben Stevenson, Jean Grand-Maitre, Helgi Tomasson, Victoria Morgan, and before them Gerald Arpino, Christopher Stowell, Kent Stowell.) Occasionally works escape -- Kansas City Ballet performed Ib Andersen's "Romeo and Juliet;" some of Peter Martins work has been performed elsewhere -- and Hubbe has staged "La Sylphide" around the world, but only Elo's is relatively widely performed, aside from Ratmansky's. 



#6 kfw

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Posted 04 June 2014 - 03:03 PM

In contrast, contemporary ballet seems fluid, "unstructured" in the way a jacket can be called unstructured, nodal (1+1+1+1) and is egalitarian rather than hierachial.

 

Is it accurate to say that the flip side, so far, of this egalitarianism is sometimes relatively weak - perhaps less intimate - pas de deux? I'm thinking of criticism I've read of both Wheeldon and Peck. It wouldn't be surprising that a choreographer engaged by egalitarianism, which is currently a very popular concern, would be less engaged and stimulated by a tried and true, go-to, standby, other form of relations.

 

And what about same-sex partnering, or same and opposite sex partnering in the same work? Isn't that fairly common in contemporary work?

 

Macaulay writes that

 

the major issues for ballet today lie in its presentation of sex, gender and race; these are not matters to which the art form can shut its doors. [ . . . ]

breakthroughs have been made onstage with varieties of same-sex dances, some emotionally charged and others relaxedly expressive in other ways.

 

He goes on to write that the art "to some extent transcends gender", although 

 

the core essence of ballet can only really be conducted in terms of male-female dualism.

 

That seems a bit like having it both ways to me, but it's an interesting thought. Anyhow, there is more on contemporary ballet at that link, but I want to observe our rule of not quoting large chunks.



#7 Quiggin

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Posted 04 June 2014 - 08:57 PM

kfw

 

And what about same-sex partnering, or same and opposite sex partnering in the same work?

 

I liked the same sex partnering in Scarlett's Hummingbird. In the middle movement the two males shadowing the main couple – who were stuck in an endless agument – were very natural and effective, cartwheeling, doing everyday things, "agreeing to disagree" etc.

 

Macaulay in the "Duets of Disconnection" link says that all Wheeldon couples look adolescent and lack depth and understanding – they don't romance each other. (In his SF Chronicle review of Cinderella Allan Ulrich says that the Prince and his friend "roughhouse so elegantly ... you may wonder if this isn't the real love story in this ballet.") 

 

But egalitarianism isn't a problem, McGregor creates interesting situations to offset this. What I do think is interesting is how Ratmansky has dealt with the "contemporary" and its limitations by creating different voices to his choreographies – romantic, sarcastic, vernacular, elevated (of course Shostakovich is a great help here) – and how he enriches his ballets by using different sized groups or communities to counterpoint each others' movements.



#8 leonid17

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Posted 05 June 2014 - 06:41 AM

 

But my real question is, can anyone point me to a helpful, substantive discussion of what we mean when we say "contemporary ballet"? 
 
It looks like you might have started one right here with Quiggin's response.

 
I haven’t had a chance to follow this topic, but hope to. Dirac posted this link yesterday entitled  “Judith Mackrell gives a warm welcome to the influx of modern dance choreographers in ballet,”  which might be interesting. I read it a few days ago but don’t recall all its specifics. 
 
http://www.theguardi...temporary-dance

 

You write," Judith Mackrell gives a warm welcome to the influx of modern dance choreographers in ballet,”
 
Modern dance is modern dance and ballet is an historic art form in itself and rightly described as Academic Classical Ballet.
 
Too often we see works described as ballets when they should only be described as "Dance Works."
 
Dancing 'en pointe' doesn't make a "Dance Work" a ballet in fact, there is most frequently not a shared identity between the two genres.
 
I know there is an historic context going back to Diaghilev, but that still doesn't make a correct description.
 
Right around the world the are numerous Academic Classical Ballets that are attended in there millions and the same ballet lovers would not cross the road to watch a modern "Dance Work."

“In terms of how 'dancer' and 'choreographer' are understood, I think it is very important to make a distinction between ballet and modem dance at the level of these basic concepts. The concept of the dancer is not the same in modem dance as the concept of the dancer in ballet. And the concept of the choreographer in modem dance is not the same as the concept of the choreographer in ballet. That is, one may use the same terms but be speaking a different language.” See, Gendering discourses in modern dance research by Sally Gardner originally published on 1 July 2004 in Dance rebooted: initializing the grid



#9 bart

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Posted 09 June 2014 - 07:53 AM

leonid17, you write:

 

Modern dance is modern dance and ballet is an historic art form in itself and rightly described as Academic Classical Ballet.
 
Too often we see works described as ballets when they should only be described as "Dance Works."
 
Dancing 'en pointe' doesn't make a "Dance Work" a ballet in fact, there is most frequently not a shared identity between the two genres.

 

I can understand where you are coming from.  But the effect of this is to create a dichotomy in which "Ballet" (strictly defined) is one one side of the dichotomy and "Everything Else" is on the other.  I wonder how useful this is, except to the extent it builds walls around what has been called Academic Classical Ballet.  What would you do, for instance, with the large number of "neo-classical" works produced in the 20th century?  Though some of these contain only a few deviations from classical ballet, others go much further afield.

 

Many would dispute your broad definition of "Modern Dance," which, if I read your post correctly, you take as a synonym  for everything people dance today that is not academic classical ballet.

 

I tend to use "contemporary ballet" as to describe a limited range of dance dance works that are intentionally and organically connected to classical ballet -- steps, line, placement, epaulement -- and for which serious and specifically ballet training is required to dance well.  The amount of divergence from classical ballet will vary according to the piece.  But the over-all connection has to be visible.    cgc's opening post expresses quite well, I think, the most important areas of "extension" that have occurred during the 20th century.  

 

The works I've seen by such choreographers as Ratmansky, Wheeldon, Peck, Scarlett, Millepied, and  others may vary in quality and interest, and may have a different look from piece to piece.  But each connects visibly, respectfully, and even lovingly to the ballet tradition from which the choreographer has emerged.  That's a tribute to Classical Ballet.  Not a threat to it.



#10 Helene

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Posted 09 June 2014 - 09:15 AM

I don't see how "modern dance" encompasses "everything else."  Aside from classical vs. neoclassical -- I don't see from Leonid17's post specifically where he'd categorize neoclassical ballet, but I'd guess differently -- most dance traditions -- classical/court and folk -- stem from centuries before ballet and certainly before modern dance, and I don't know who would lump these into a "modern" category.

 

Modern dance, which was emphatically "not ballet" has its own philosophy, movement vocabulary, and often distinct techniques from the mush that describes "contemporary" dance, which is a much more of a lump-it-all-together category than "modern dance."  I don't think anyone would experience watching dance would confuse "Appalachian Spring" with most of what is presented as "Contemporary" on "So You Think You Can Dance." Even SYTYCD distinguishes between their choreographers' brands of "Contemporary," "Hip Hop," "Jazz," "Bollywood," "Disco," etc.  Hip-hop and its subcategories, for example, may be "contemporary" int he sense of "currently created and performed," but they are a specific genre and have very distinct and specific movement vocabulary and techniques.

 

Neoclassical ballet is a continuum from classical ballet, but it is rooted in danse d'ecole.  While classical ballet traditionally makes the distinction between classical and character dances and emploi -- something that Balanchine and Ashton did by integrating vernacular dance traditions into some of their works instead of separating them  --  Vaganova, when she was AD in Russia, allowed classical ballet to be changed to adding much more gymnastic and circus-like elements into the ballets, updating her pedagogy to support this and allowing changes to the original choreography and stripping it of mime to make it more palatable to her contemporary audiences, until the trend crossed a line that even she couldn't support, where she reverted back to the other side of that line.  Influential Mariinsky dancers vetoed the reconstruction of "Sleeping Beauty" because they liked the more recent version they had grown up with.  We've had many discussions about how modern bodies and technique have imposed neoclassical aesthetics on classical ballets, example extensions, tempi, changes in the kind of steps, jumps, number of turns, etc. done in variations.

 

I think the question has shifted from "Should ballet companies perform dance that isn't ballet" -- sadly, in my opinion, that ship has sailed aside from Paris, where there are almost two companies making the distinction, and Russia, and maybe Denmark -- to "How can people distinguish where on the neoclassical-to-contemporary continuum the dance stops being ballet?"  Maybe that's a distinction that much of the audience feels is artificial, unnecessary, and even harmful, but I haven't seen much contemporary dance -- to be distinguished from modern dance, which doesn't aim to come out of ballet -- that is all that interesting as a direction in which classically trained dancers and ballet companies should go.  Individual pieces can be interesting, but as a movement or direction, not so much.



#11 Buddy

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Posted 09 June 2014 - 11:04 AM

The works I've seen by such choreographers as Ratmansky, Wheeldon, Peck, Scarlett, Millepied, and  others may vary in quality and interest, and may have a different look from piece to piece.  But each connects visibly, respectfully, and even lovingly to the ballet tradition from which the choreographer has emerged.  That's a tribute to Classical Ballet.  Not a threat to it.

I tend to agree with your statement, bart. Without drifting too far away from trying to simply define “contemporary ballet” — Where should ballet, or dance in general, go? We are loosely exploring this at the Modern and Other Dance topic. I wouldn’t mind seeing at least a parallel, alternative movement towards reducing some of the extreme physicality in ballet and other dance, if for health reasons only, and introducing more emphasis on the artistry or poetry. Does anyone see this happening anywhere in “contemporary ballet” and could it be added to the definition?


#12 sandik

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Posted 09 June 2014 - 11:09 AM

A very sketchy history:

 

In the past, there has been a fairly clear distinction between “ballet” and “modern dance,” mostly coming from the origins of American modern dance, where the foundational generation consciously rejected pretty much everything they thought of as ballet.  This extended into their artmaking practice as well as their movement style -- tey did a different kind of dance in a different kind of place.

 

This distinction hasn’t read in quite the same way in European studios and theaters – although Rudolph Laban and Mary Wigman worked mostly outside of ballet conventions, many of their colleagues like Kurt Jooss were willing to incorporate elements from multiple sources.  Post WWII the institutional support shifted, so that it was mostly centered in opera houses and their attached schools, which were primarily ballet-oriented, but there were still cross influences.

 

Although there were hybrid works in US ballet companies from time to time, most of that work found a home in musical theater productions.  But around the middle of the 20th century, a number of choreographers who had training in ballet as well as modern dance (like Glen Tetley and John Butler) began working, first mostly in the states, but eventually finding more consistent support in European theaters.  They were joined by a new generation of European choreographers like Jiri Kylian and his descendants, that continued to combine vocabularies.  This wound up taking the name “contemporary dance” or “contemporary ballet,” to clarify its differences from modern dance traditions, many from the US, that were still removed from ballet influences. 

 

In the US, a new generation of modern dancers were busy defining themselves as different from their ancestors – Yvonne Rainer’s famous “no” manifesto (“No to spectacle, no to moving or being moved”) was as dismissive of Graham’s high drama as it was of Balanchine and Petipa.  But if you work with a performance aesthetic where anything and everything is possible vocabulary, ballet technique is a possible ingredient along with anything else.  Twyla Tharp is often credited as making the first true hybridized work for a ballet company with her "Deuce Coupe" for the Joffrey.  For quite awhile, this kind of work was identified here as “crossover,” combining vocabulary from many sources, and requiring a dancer that was cross-trained in multiple disciplines.  More recently, we’ve started calling this style “contemporary,” especially as we’ve seen more and more work coming from Europe.  Rather than continuing developments in a neoclassical vein, which may borrow movement qualities from other sources, but is essentially descended from classical ballet, contemporary dance places the fundamental elements of modern dance and ballet in equivalent positions.

 

Like I said, sketchy.



#13 cgc

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Posted 09 June 2014 - 07:41 PM

Rather than continuing developments in a neoclassical vein, which may borrow movement qualities from other sources, but is essentially descended from classical ballet, contemporary dance places the fundamental elements of modern dance and ballet in equivalent positions.

Thank you, Sandik, I find that very helpful along with much of what is written and discussed above. Thank you, everyone. There is so much here to think about. 

 

I am curious if other people associate the term "neoclassical" with Balanchine. I find it perplexing, perhaps out of habit, to consider Ratmansky "neoclassical" because of this association in my mind, as his choreography to my eyes does not appear to come out of a Balanchine lineage. Yet as someone who is working (lovingly, it seems to me, and as someone else pointed out) with the classical tradition in a very interesting way, and incorporating other movement forms, he undoubtedly qualifies as "neoclassical" in that definition. 

 

His reworking of the classical tradition also seems to have a different flavor from that of Wheeldon. Yes, his movement vocabulary incorporates other forms, as does Wheeldon's; but Ratmansky seems to be grappling with the narratives, the themes, the heritage of the older works - both from the Petipa/Ivanov era and from Soviet ballets of the 30s; this is a different kind of engagement entirely. 



#14 Buddy

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Posted 09 June 2014 - 11:41 PM

cgc, sometimes creativity eludes definitions. Also 'love,' that you recalled from bart's description, can really go outside intellectual consideration. I think that your discussion of Alexei Ratmansky does factor in the emotional, perhaps also the indefinable, as well as the intellectual, and is a good thing.

 

 

Added:
 
I also join you in thanking sandik for his attempt to clarify the historical picture which is probably what you most wanted. His use of the word “crossover” seems very meaningful and then we get into the degrees of this. Sandik’s concluding statement seems to have a lot of truth and interest.
 
“Rather than continuing developments in a neoclassical vein, which may borrow movement qualities from other sources, but is essentially descended from classical ballet, contemporary dance places the fundamental elements of modern dance and ballet in equivalent positions.”
 
A figure that continues to interest me from my personal bias is Ruth St. Denis, considered one of the founders of "modern" dance. My knowledge of her is mostly based on one video cassette of her works performed by more recent dancers and I’m not sure how representative it is. Again we get back to “crossover” and degree of “crossover.” Sandik has stated his feelings at our other discussion, “Although she [Ruth St. Denis] had some training in ballet, any actual resemblance was more coincidental than intentional.” Aside from her extremely religious beliefs, which aren’t my focus, she did seem to be trying to combine the best of ballet’s sensitivity and sense of restraint with the naturalness and freedom of expression that I associate with “modern” or “contemporary.”
 
[typo corrections made]



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