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.