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Choreographic Diversity in American Ballet,


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[Admin Edit: this post originally appeared in the San Francisco Ballet 2015-16 Season Announcement thread.]

When I read the first link about the 2015-16 season, I thought someone had inadvertently posted the choreographers for the Paris Opera Ballet's 2015-16 season, a list which includes Balanchine, Forsythe, Peck, Ratmansky, Robbins, Scarlett and Wheeldon. But then I realized there was no mix-up -- the San Francisco Ballet's 2015-16 season also features Balanchine, Forsythe, Peck, Ratmansky, Robbins, Scarlett and Wheeldon. When you cast the net wider to include the recent Miami City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet 2015-16 season announcements, you see the same names again and again and again. No Ashton. No Fokine. No Tudor. No Ballets Russe heritage works. I'm honestly to the point where I feel like these companies should just merge into one big company performing the same general repertory.

The only 2015-16 season announcement for an American company that has interested me so far is Sarasota Ballet's.

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When I read the first link about the 2015-16 season, I thought someone had inadvertently posted the choreographers for the Paris Opera Ballet's 2015-16 season, a list which includes Balanchine, Forsythe, Peck, Ratmansky, Robbins, Scarlett and Wheeldon. But then I realized there was no mix-up -- the San Francisco Ballet's 2015-16 season also features Balanchine, Forsythe, Peck, Ratmansky, Robbins, Scarlett and Wheeldon. When you cast the net wider to include the recent Miami City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet 2015-16 season announcements, you see the same names again and again and again. No Ashton. No Fokine. No Tudor. No Ballets Russe heritage works. I'm honestly to the point where I feel like these companies should just merge into one big company performing the same general repertory.

The only 2015-16 season announcement for an American company that has interested me so far is Sarasota Ballet's.

I've noticed the same thing, and although I haven't really considered the merger option (!) I have wondered what this says about any distinctions between companies.

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Interesting points. Personally I think it's a good idea for any company to have some masterpieces in the rep for the sake of dancer development and audiences who wouldn't otherwise be exposed to the work. Some Balanchine makes sense. Ashton and Tudor also make sense. Tudor is somewhat problematic because there are not a lot of ballets and they take a lot of rehearsal time. Personally I'm fine with no Fokine. I don't think the works are audience pleasers or foster growth in dancers.

The part that troubles me is the selection of live/trendy choreographers. Peck, Ratmansky, Wheeldon, Scarlett. They are not big enough names to attract an audience and they have mixed critical reaction. I'm not sure why AD's hire them.

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Two of the ballets I've hoped SFB would do are La Fille mal gardée (and Froustey at least has performed this before), and Tudor's Pillar of Fire. Fokine's Petrushka was perfromed by SFB a couple years ago, and Pascal Molat did a fine job as the lead. Since SFB performs Possokhov's Firebird, it's not likely we'll be seeing Fokine's orginal version. I've already made this gripe before, but why do Swan Lake again when there are other classics that need more attention?

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I've already made this gripe before, but why do Swan Lake again when there are other classics that need more attention?

Maybe to give an opportunity to Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets to dance it one more time while they still can. I don't mind Swan Lake that much since it might be the last time we can see these wonderful dancers perform it.

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"The part that troubles me is the selection of live/trendy choreographers. Peck, Ratmansky, Wheeldon, Scarlett. They are not big enough names to attract an audience and they have mixed critical reaction. I'm not sure why AD's hire them." ~ Vipa

Are there working ballet choreographers who attract bigger audiences that you would rather see? Or are you saying give more chances to lesser known newcomers because these names are not attracting audiences anyway? not sure what you mean, unless you are saying not to program living chorepgraphers... Which surely you aren't suggesting... (maybe I better go back and read the original thread this was broken off of?)

Please explain...

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With regards to the Royal Ballet (commissions, not the rest) and the Paris Opera Ballet, I think the fact they are subsidised organisations makes the lack of variety even worse. Arts Council England said the RB had to nurture more talent to try and secure additional funding (they were cut), which it sounds like Kevin O'Hare is responding to through mentoring, but personally I hope ACE were really referring to work on the main stage. It will sound harsh, but I really believe in 2015 major performing arts organisations have a duty to constantly prove there are individuals out there who couldn't otherwise create without the backing of a subsidised company. Otherwise what is the point? Does a production by Christopher Wheeldon really need public funding, if he is everywhere? This is especially relevant now more and more states are adopting a system where your funding is calculated based on your proposals for the year ahead. I'mm not sure theatre critics or the more openly critical actors, playwrights and directors would take too kindly to the National Theatre and its peers going down the same road, so I'm still baffled by how little criticism there is towards standardised ballet programming.

I don't know if somebody like Ratmansky pulls in a significantly larger audience, or how you would measure it. Would it be to do with the choreographer, the production itself (e.g. Alice), the company, the dancers billed, or a combination of these factors? I don't believe sandwiching somebody new in the middle of, say, a Wheeldon and a Balanchine would significantly affect ticket sales, especially if the programme is marketed with a title, like PNB and Dutch National Ballet do. But it isn't happening. We are aware there is talent there though, no? Terence Kohler, Jean-Guillaume Bart and Kader Belarbi are three.

The marketing aside, we don't really know if dancers are happy with the way programming's going. The rep certainly changes but the people do not. Not everyone is the same, but if I was a dancer, I'm not sure I'd feel fulfilled by that, and you could argue part of the reason choreographers are working with so many different companies is to work with different people. I get the impression from recent interviews with Sylvie Guillem she is a little baffled by what she perceives as a 'reluctance' amongst dancers to explore possibilities, but not everyone has the finances to do that. Although I should add I find Guillem and Tamara Rojo's programming pretty standardised too...

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Here's another interesting stat. Of the five companies I mentioned, there are (by my count) 83 works programmed. Of that number, only 9 are by women. (I counted Alexandra Danilova as .50 in two instances where her co-choreographed version of Coppelia w/ Balanchine is programmed twice.) Peter Boal at Pacific Northwest Ballet has the best record w/ 3.5 women programmed (Danilova, Jessica Lang, Crystal Pite and Twyla Tharp.)

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"The part that troubles me is the selection of live/trendy choreographers. Peck, Ratmansky, Wheeldon, Scarlett. They are not big enough names to attract an audience and they have mixed critical reaction. I'm not sure why AD's hire them." ~ Vipa

Are there working ballet choreographers who attract bigger audiences that you would rather see? Or are you saying give more chances to lesser known newcomers because these names are not attracting audiences anyway? not sure what you mean, unless you are saying not to program living chorepgraphers... Which surely you aren't suggesting... (maybe I better go back and read the original thread this was broken off of?)

Please explain...

Sorry, I was not clear I can see that. I meant that companies should give more opportunities to lesser known newcomers and encourage local talent. Within any company there might be someone with a choreographic talent. I just think this would be a way for companies to differentiate themselves, instead of being just another company doing new works by the same people every other company is hiring.

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I couldn't agree more, Vipa...

And I think some of the trendy choreographers have been spread a little too thin for their own good... I'd rather see them working longer and more intensively with one company instead of jetting around the world pressured to create a big hit with every new commission.

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I couldn't agree more, Vipa...

And I think some of the trendy choreographers have been spread a little too thin for their own good... I'd rather see them working longer and more intensively with one company instead of jetting around the world pressured to create a big hit with every new commission.

I also agree on that point Amy.

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All good points, Vipa and Amy - I definitely wonder how Wheeldon, and Peck especially, are going to be creating quality ballets if they are constantly moving among companies to satisfy the demand. Art on demand generally doesn't turn out well.

Although the large companies are monetarily in a better position to support riskier, and more diversified projects, they are often the last ones to take any actual artistic risks. Big companies have to make the "shareholders" happy. IMO, ABT is probably the biggest offender: it's "American" ballet, only it really isn't so very much. Reinforcing the European classics, and using mainly foreign-born dancers, is their stock in trade.

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It puzzles me why Jean-Guillaume Bart receives so few offers to choreograph new works. I can understand the situation in France, where there are so few ballet companies left. But he receives no offers outside of France, either. Is it because French choreographers are so identified with European contemporary (non-ballet) dance?

One thing I will say for ABT is that it is one of the few companies in the United States where you can see Ashton and one of the very few where you can see Tudor. I would like to see them delve deeper into the Tudor repertory than they do (namely, reviving the Tudor Romeo and Juliet) but better a constant recycling of Jardin aux Lilas, Dark Elegies, Pillar of Fire and The Leaves Are Fading than no Tudor at all.

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I share many of the concerns voiced above, but just want to balance the discussion a bit.

For many years, Martins at NYCB regularly programmed a slew of new works by a huge variety of choreographers -- though many in the NYCB mold, NOT all by any means -- the Diamond project. People complained bitterly about the mediocrity that all too often dominated the stage. I used to defend the effort (and still would) but the fact remains that many ballet lovers proved very eloquent on the meager results of this attempt at increasing choreographic opportunities.

I also think it's a little optimistic to assume that even Wheeldon or Balanchine (let alone Petipa and Bournonville) don't need subsidizing. Maybe Wheeldon's more commercial efforts don't, but the fact is that ballet is insanely expensive to produce, even mediocre ballet--and, at its most commercial, rarely has the commercial appeal of, well, a Broadway hit.

My local company's repertory--I mean Atlanta Ballet--is based as much in contemporary (eclectic if you will) ballet/modern and outright modern dance (Naharin) as ballet. Honestly, I would be delighted with a little more trendiness if it meant more genuinely neo-classical ballet. I will say that Atlanta Ballet supports women choreographers (Helen Pickett and Gina Patterson as well as Tharp and their own leading dancer Tara Lee) and their choice of outright modern dance choreographer to focus on in the last few seasons (Naharin) has definitely proved interesting and fun. They have also reached out to ballet choreographers seen a little less often in the repertories of American companies than those mentioned (Bintley and Kudelka as well as Maillot and Mcgregor; I missed it, but also Elo who IS seen all over the place). But still, I think the company's foray into Ratmansky remains a high point--if that's the "same old, same old" then more please.

One other thought--related to points Helene has made elsewhere as well--I am very fortunate in that I can afford to travel to see ballet -- not as much as I would like, but some. If I couldn't then I would be completely dependent on my local company for exposure to what is happening in ballet and to quality ballet choreography. (Video is not the same thing.) For example: I would NEVER see Balanchine if I could not afford trips to other cities (in my case usually NY). I think that has to be part of the picture as well.

Again, I'm all for more diversity in rep and, most especially, older companies maintaining their own historical traditions, but there are other issues worth considering that the companies and their audiences also have to consider.

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I share many of the concerns voiced above, but just want to balance the discussion a bit.

For many years, Martins at NYCB regularly programmed a slew of new works by a huge variety of choreographers -- though many in the NYCB mold, NOT all by any means -- the Diamond project. People complained bitterly about the mediocrity that all too often dominated the stage. I used to defend the effort (and still would) but the fact remains that many ballet lovers proved very eloquent on the meager results of this attempt at increasing choreographic opportunities.

I also think it's a little optimistic to assume that even Wheeldon or Balanchine (let alone Petipa and Bournonville) don't need subsidizing. Maybe Wheeldon's more commercial efforts don't, but the fact is that ballet is insanely expensive to produce, even mediocre ballet--and, at its most commercial, rarely has the commercial appeal of, well, a Broadway hit.

My local company's repertory--I mean Atlanta Ballet--is based as much in contemporary (eclectic if you will) ballet/modern and outright modern dance (Naharin) as ballet. honestly, I would be delighted with a little more trendiness if it meant more genuinely neo-classical ballet. I will say that Atlanta Ballet supports women choreographers (Helen Pickett and Gina Patterson as well as Tharp and their own leading dancer Tara Lee) and their choice of outright modern dance choreographer to focus on in the last few seasons (Naharin) has definitely proved interesting and fun. They have also reached out to ballet choreographers seen a little less often in the repertories of American companies than those mentioned (Bintley and Kudelka as well as Maillot and Mcgregor; I missed it, but also Elo who IS seen all over the place). But still, I thought the company's foray into Ratmansky remains a high point--if that's the "same old, same old" then more please.

One other thought--related to points Helen has made as well--I am very fortunate in that I can afford to travel to see ballet -- not as much as I would like, but some. If I couldn't then I would be completely dependent on my local company for my exposure to what is happening in ballet and to quality ballet choreography. (Video is not the same thing.) For example: I would NEVER see Balanchine if I could not afford trips to other cities (in my case usually NY). I think that has to be part of the picture as well.

Again, I'm all for more diversity in rep and, most especially, older companies maintaining their own historical traditions, but there are other issues worth considering that the companies and their audiences also have to consider.

Nicely stated. In thinking about companies around the country and rep, my take is that every company should have and maintain acknowledged masterpieces. Those works help dancers develop and help audiences understand ballet. Having Serenade or 4 t's or Apollo in a rep can be invaluable regardless of how many other companies are doing those ballets. When it comes to having new works done on a company, I think most companies could be a bit adventurous and not simply go to the 3 or 4 choreographers everyone else is using.

NYC is a different animal IMO. The company has such a rich and varied rep or wonderful pieces that fans and audiences feel cheated when too many performances are given over to experiments. Most companies do not have that problem.

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I'm late to the discussion here (I had a nasty case of bronchitis in April) -- many of you have brought up some juicy topics here!

For years, the dance world had an incredibly hard time maintaining anything like a repertory. When you depend of word-of-mouth for the preservation of your heritage, you wind up keeping only the really important parts -- you don't have the luxury of redundancy. So we made a virtue out of necessity, and continued to make new work.

I don't have the time to do any specific research right now, but just thinking back on what I remember reading about people programming in the 50s and 60s, I think there's always been more homogeneity than we might think, off the top. Back in the 50s and 60s, when so many small companies around the country were the home of former Ballet Russe performers, their repertory depended on the works they knew from that experience -- if you look at back copies of Dance Magazine, you'll see production after production of Les Sylphides, Boutique Fantasque, Graduation Ball, and variations on Gaite. These were not always really accurate productions -- they were often modified to fit the resources and skills available, but the aesthetic was pretty universal.
The advent of the Ford Foundation money, and the influence of other nation-wide elements (like the Dance in America programming on PBS and the Dance Touring Program support from the NEA) started a shift in what people were programming, what they thought dance should look like, but it didn't really foster an incredible sense of aesthetic diversity. Things have been evolving away from the Ballet Russe expressionism for quite some time, towards a neo-classical aesthetic -- I think this is one of the reasons that we see so little interest in Tudor, as well as the other BR heritage works.

So this year we’re seeing a lot of Forsythe (especially since he’s returning to the US, and turning his attention to that part of his repertory), alongside Balanchine and Robbins as an established figure; Wheeldon and Ratmansky as the most experienced of the next generation; and Peck, and Scarlett as the new kids on the block.

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I think Sandik makes good points about clusters of artists and styles dominating the scene for a while, reacting against what went before - in music for example the astringency of the minimalism of Glass and Reich, in opera the motel rooms of Sellars, in art the recent return of Abstract painterliness. I welcome the 90s cobweb clearing of Ratmansky and Peck (Wheeldon is harder for me to read - except for "Carousel" I can never find my place in his work). So I don't mind that everyone's getting on board.

I especially appreciate Ratmansky's and Peck's deemphasis of the pas de deux and building instead on groups of threes and fives. You could say they begin where Balanchine left off in Kammermusik #2:

http://www.nycballet.com/ballets/k/kammermusik-no-2.aspx

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