Positioning Ballet: Within Wider Cultural Conversations

This is part 4 of a 4-part series on the ‘Positioning Ballet’ Working Conference, hosted by the Dutch National Ballet, February 16 and 17


We are all born into a multiplicity of cultures: some fixed, others adopted – so why does ballet reflect relatively little of what we all carry and embody in our lives?

For Theresa Ruth Howard, founder of MoBBallet (Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet), “culture is a system of patterns around hierarchies, religion, beliefs and values. It is the collective behavioral programming of a group of people that is considered to be the tradition and is passed on from generation to generation, often going unchallenged.”

Ballet views dance (and arguably, the arts as a whole) as a pyramid; positioning itself at the top, and leaving its influence to trickle down to those disciplines beneath. However, like the fallacy of ‘trickle down’ economics, this cultural model isn’t working. Ballet needs to reconsider itself as an artistic culture within a plethora of cultures, not only collaborating with other arts in order to produce amalgam works (which might reflect better the multiplicity of ourselves) but even more actively reach out to artists in other disciplines.

Ballet is inherently collaborative – a live orchestra brings music, stagecraft combines visual and electronic design, performance requires expressiveness and stage presence. To dance is to be an athlete with the soul of a poet, the eye of a painter and the persuasiveness of an actor.

And ballet is inherently international – companies may be ‘national’, but they are composed of dancers from across the globe, and this cross-acculturation makes them all the stronger, from both technical and artistic perspectives. A dancer is able to embody and perform multitudes – yet many dance companies are failing to similarly broaden their focus.

“Ballet views dance (and arguably, the arts as a whole) as a pyramid; positioning itself at the top, and leaving its influence to trickle down to those disciplines beneath. However, like the fallacy of ‘trickle down’ economics, this cultural model isn’t working.”

Dutch National Ballet corps de ballet dancer Wendeline Wijkstra argued that ballet shouldn’t ‘lower’ itself to the popular current; companies should create new works from within, rather than looking towards audiences for direction – with the insinuation that a reliance on audience preference generates inferior works. While returning to set repertoire pieces due to their assured revenue might feel creatively limiting, such attitudes somewhat belittle an audience’s ability to assess and appreciate the unfamiliar.

Ballet not only embraces but revels in its reputation as an elite art, however, there needs to be cross-acculturation and more communication between ballet and its cousins: literature and theatre. Art is being undervalued as a whole, and people often don’t realize how much they need art until it is wholly absent. Ballet needs to not only open up to new artistic developments within itself, but to culture in a wider sense – by becoming more receptive to other artists, reaching out, not only bringing singular artists in to ‘participate in the renovation of the societies that we are living in today’.

Companies should recognize the importance of external media covering their work – it is all very well having excellent internal press teams, but if popular media outlets are unaware of the developments and happenings in ballet, not only will dance continue as a closed-circuit system, limited by its own generative scope, but aspirations of seeking new audiences will be stunted. The current dance media is very industry specific – and ballet is all but absent from more general press outlets.

The Washington Post dance critic, Sarah L. Kaufman, emphasized that humans are interested in stories about humans – greater transparency ‘behind the scenes’ could drive people to become interested in ballet; profiles of dancers not only satisfy the public’s curiosity about their extraordinary lives – but could, in turn, translate into ticket sales.

Events such as the Positioning Ballet conference are invigorating and necessary – but I would love to see such an event focused on young people and youth media, making this demographic aware of the developments in the cultural sector which may – and should –  influence them. If there were greater avenues of communication between the students of specialist art academies and the wider student population, our generation would be better suited to create genuinely collaborative – and potentially revelatory – works.



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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