Positioning Ballet: Behind the Velvet Curtain

This is part 1 of a series inspired by the ‘Positioning Ballet’ Working Conference, hosted by the Dutch National Ballet, February 16 and 17.

March 02, 2019


Last weekend, I was invited to attend ‘Positioning Ballet’, a working conference hosted by the Dutch National Ballet, which gave industry professionals, artistic directors and members of the press the opportunity to discuss the direction of ballet and the state of the art in the modern world.

This not only gave insight into the workings of an elite organization, and the structures and pressures of an enclosed community, but provided broader lessons about the way cultural organizations are caught in a constant negotiation between reflecting and rejecting wider society.

The panel began by addressing current threats to the arts, namely the external threat of the anti-social and isolating tendencies of modern populism and nationalism to art forms such as ballet. This isolating tendency stands in stark contrast to art forms like ballet, which aim to bring people together through a common code of etiquette, and thus generate something greater than themselves. This conversation evolved into examining the threat of ballet’s own inward-looking tendencies, and its failure to perceive dancers as artists in their own right, rather than mere conduits to the artform.

“Ballet has allowed the exploration of gender and sexuality beyond the pace of general society”

The bread and butter of modern repertoires are still largely classical works, dictated in part by audience preference and a necessary deference to revenues. Many non-ballet-goers will have heard of Swan Lake or The Nutcracker (composed by Tchaikovsky nearly 150 years ago) – fewer will have heard of contemporary ‘classics’ like Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations or Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. But like all art forms, the reliance on the canon risks overshadowing the innovation, complexity and cultural relevance of contemporary creations. True balletic tradition is about overthrowing the past: adapting it, rather than simply adopting historic choreography and performing it ad infinitum.

Dancers and choreographers have historically reacted to socio-political crises, responding to external challenges by developing their own craft and articulating the anxieties of a culture within their own form. Ballet has allowed the exploration of gender and sexuality beyond the pace of general society – the male duet in Hans Van Manen’s 5 Tangos demonstrates how ballet has been a forum in which to challenge and confront boundaries. The piece was first performed in 1977, 24 years before the Netherlands legalized same-sex marriage.

However, beyond continually creating new works, how can companies ensure the relevance of existing repertoires? History cannot be dissolved, and heritage should not be lost: to simply dismiss old works for their occasionally problematic storylines is a disservice to both artists and audiences of past and present. However, canonical ballets can, and should, be reworked and reinvigorated for contemporary audiences. Matthew Bourne’s reworking of Swan Lake with an all-male cast demonstrates this well.

As we move further into the 21st century, ballet finds itself trapped between innovation and its own history – and within this conflict, it also needs to be aware of societal developments. Alistair Spalding, of Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, noted that ballet companies cannot be seen as microcosms of society, as they operate within their own rules, structures, and histories, but have the potential to be creative and artistic utopias. Yet with the world radically changing around it, ballet is caught in an existential dilemma: as the dance dramaturge Peggy Olislaegers noted, simply relying on prestige and authority isn’t enough anymore. But we can choose our own inheritance.

From Brexit to Trump, we can see how sharply poor leadership affects not only society and communities, but arts and culture. Kevin McKenzie, of the American Ballet Theatre, argued that a national ballet company must be a leader – meaning its directors, in turn, need to be aware of not only its repertoire and revenue, but its location within society, and the importance of relevance and diversity to that position. 

Theresa Ruth Howard, founder of MoB Ballet (Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet) noted that “the lack of diversity [in ballet] is only a symptom of a culturally systemic problem.” She elaborated that sustainable change can only emerge through a study of both ballet’s modern leaders and of “the historical roots of the culture of ballet.” By confronting these roots, a more progressive and bountiful balletic tradition may be able to bloom.

It is encouraging and exciting that working conferences of this scale are happening, and the weekend felt charged with energy to drive change within this important, yet sometimes insular, world. However, it would have been encouraging to have more members of the general press there, as well as directors of non-ballet artistic organizations. There is so much to gain from one another – I certainly learned a lot about the world behind the velvet curtain, and of the pressure ballet feels to respond to and reflect society. Events such as the ‘Positioning Ballet’ conference are a proactive and preemptive means to challenge current values, and take new lessons into the future.



Interested in more? Read other parts of this series by clicking on the options below.

Rebecca Took is a Masters’ Student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.

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