Monthly Archives: August 2012

Choreographer’s Conundrum

Of all the new works of dance being produced around the world, surely the percentage of those falling into the category of ballet (whatever that means to you) is ever decreasing. Here in London there are several platforms for presenting new contemporary dance, and a huge number of independent choreographers and small companies working in that hemisphere of the dance world, generating innumerable exciting works. In the classical domain, there are but two companies of note in the city – English National Ballet and the Royal Ballet, which present an embarrasingly small number of new works each year, especially given the latter’s government subsidy.

Ballet has faced an uncertain future for a while now. At various points in the past it has looked extinction in the eye, but thanks to timely and innovative choreographers and directors, Balanchine and McMillan to name but two, it has lived to tell the tale. Once again it finds itself at a fork in the road, one branch veering towards the past, the other rolling towards and exciting, if uncertain, future.

Ballet companies have always depended heavily on a roster of established classical ballets, those ones that represent almost guaranteed ticket sales, and that for some reason most are keen to  disassociate themselves with as the 21st century ploughs ahead. Choreographers like Michael Corder and Christopher Wheeldon, prolific and talented though they are, create work that keeps the classicists happy, but only because it’s almost all been seen before – and while a certain demographic is politely pleased by these kind of works, it’s not going to be enough to get any new faces in the audience or send sparks flying in the arts pages.

On the other hand, the works of Wayne McGregor et al represent a new approach and forward-thinking physicality that has gotten people talking – but for most of us, it has little enough link to the classical heritage that it doesn’t warrant the ballet seal of approval. Monica Mason showed a lot of gumption when giving McGregor the coveted role of Choreographer – in – residence at the Royal Opera House, and it’s easy to see that she was trying to inject some pace into the institution. I’m certainly not alone in thinking that he was not the right choice for the job, as a company with a long heritage such as the Royal Ballet needs a sense of continuity to tie it’s present to it’s established past.

Once hives of bold creativity and invention, our extant ballet companies find themselves in a rough position. Spend their money on something safe and derivative, or splash the cash on something that will cause as many sneers as grins. Both approaches will have their detractors – that’s just what happens when you’re spending public money – but sadly it’s not just a question of numbers. The decisions choreographers and artistic directors make are driving forces not just in the survival of individual companies, but of the artform in its own creative ecosystem.

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No Such Thing As Bad Press, Right?

Once again “ballet” took the limelight recently and was brought to the masses; this time to an audience of millions as part of the Olympic closing ceremony. As a Darcey Bussell fan, I had held high hopes for the success of her involvement and given the setting, it could have been spectacular. I stand disappointed.

Ms. Bussell, five years on from her retirement from the Royal Ballet, showed she still has it. Sadly, the choreography (the only word that adequately describes this is “naff”), costumes and music were a puerile attempt to get viewers to swallow the bitter ballet-pill. I was once of the opinion that so long as dance was being represented in such a public arena, all was well – I have now revised my thinking. A very dear friend once said to me “it doesn’t matter that people are reading books, if the books they are reading are awful”; the same goes for ballet – it would have been better had it been absent from the closing ceremony, rather than being present in such a cheapened form.

An artform, such as dance, can only survive if it maintains its standards. If its popularisation depends on lowering these standards, then the artform is doomed to failure. Ballet is not what we saw in the Olympic Stadium on Sunday evening, and trying to say it is only serves to under-cut what dancers and choreographers have strived for centuries to promote and preserve. And it wasn’t only the production that I must find fault in, but some of the dancers – many of whom seemed very unfamiliar with the pointe shoe. I’m all for giving something a go, but when an audience of millions is watching, there’s no place for ballet-dilletantes.

I am fully aware that with the opening ceremony and athletics taking precedence, there wasn’t much time to rehearse in the performance space. Such details being known very much in advance should have served as an opportunity for the production team to pare down their ambitions. Classical Ballet, and Darcey Bussell, both have suffienct integrity to stand their ground in such a setting, without all the hoopla that we witnessed. It would have served both better to have been given something more in keeping with the art’s heritage, rather than dragging dance further into the gutter and away from it’s lofty past.

 

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