Tag Archives: New York City Ballet

In Pursuit of Perfection

Ashley Bouder, Principal dancer of New York City Ballet, is known for her dynamic and daring performances; yes, she sometimes falls, but she’s happy to accept those as a by-product of taking risks. She said in a recent interview that ballet isn’t about achieving perfection and that the excitement of live theatre lies in the fact that things may go wrong, which is acceptable if a dancer is going all out: I’m inclined to agree with Ms. Bouder.

The training of classical ballet technique is the pursuit of perfection; always reaching for the ideal – pushing for a little more turn-out, a higher extension, that extra pirouette. We all know the reason the discipline has lasted so long is because once perfection is neared it moves that bit further away, which is why dancers and teachers return day after day to the studio in the hope that they might be the one that gets there. A simple extrapolation of this idea is that of the perfect performance.

Pristine execution is what dancers strive for. Companies like L’Opera National de Paris are known for this; and it is their most common criticism. To make something too perfect, removing its every flaw, is to eradicate its human-ness. A dancer doing 5 pirouettes, with aplomb, is a thing of distant beauty; a dancer going for 5 pirouettes, veering slightly off-balance and pulling it back to finish triumphantly, is exciting and engaging. So many times teachers tell dancers that ballet is about concealing the effort, but an audience can’t be expected to appreciate something which looks like its being tossed out with nonchalant ease.

When you are drawn to a performer, it is because you see their intention; you sense their intense commitment to the moment and you become party to their efforts. When you are involved like this, you root for the dancer – if they fall because they get carried away in the moment, you love them even more. Those dancers that are known for their charisma are never the ones that are concerned with perfection.

It is easy to become blinkered trying to get to that unreachable goal, but if you don’t give yourself wholeheartedly to the journey, it’s all in vain. So, Ms. Bouder, if you’re reading this, long may you give yourself to the moment – you may not stay upright, but you’ll still have our hearts.

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It’s Tough At The Top

The majority of dance company directors have served their time as senior dancers, whether in the company they now head, or another. If history has taught us anything it’s us that being a good dancer has little bearing on one’s capacity as an effective director. There is no well-worn track to such a position; most directors take their own route, but the most successful ones are those that strike the right balance between being responsible, savvy, sensitive and knowledgeable.

Taking on the role of director means both taking care of  and carrying forward the vision of those that have gone before; every decision must be made with the interests of the former directors in mind, while keeping an eye on the current artistic climate and taking informed steps towards the future. This is the reason so many companies have former dancers at the helm; they grew up with the repertoire and have a thorough knowledge of it in its context: As well as knowing the ballets in the company history, for more established companies there will be a certain style that is inherent – this will always be evolving and for someone that has come of age alongside that style, there will be an innate knowledge of what direction in which to take it, keeping an eye on the training and coaching the dancers receive. Suitable casting and promotion will also be informed by this knowledge. Two examples of this type of journey to artistic direction are Peter Martins of New York City Ballet and Monica Mason of the Royal Ballet – both were dancers in their respective companies for their entire careers, and then worked their way through the ballet staff ranks, taking with them a lifetime of knowledge. Wayne Eagling, director of English National Ballet, came from outside the organisation, but his experience as a dancer in the Royal Ballet and as director of Het Nationale Ballet would have given him a broader frame of reference. Either way, a thorough understanding of the art form, and to an extent the heritage of the company, is of paramount importance if the director is to take it on an appropriate trajectory.

Dancers are sensitive creatures; although they can be tough when it comes to their work, long days looking in the mirror means a soft-touch can go a long way. A career as a dancer will, hopefully, leave one with a lasting memory of the daily anguish that tends to go hand in hand with being under constant scrutiny. Once a dancer retires, their dancing life remains imprinted on their mind and body – for a dancer that goes on to direct, this imprint will inform their every decision. They will have peoples careers in their hands, and will have to remember what it is like to be in such a precarious position. They are also in the important position of being responsible for giving generously of their knowledge, passing on what they have learned to another generation; this is most important for those directors involved in coaching roles they themselves have danced. The director is someone to whom every member of the company looks for leadership – they should never forget what it is to be a dancer, or they run the risk of being unable to communicate sympathetically with their dancers.

Aside from the human and artistic understanding that is demanded for such a position to be effective, the role of director is also one of management. Knowledge of the organisation is required; in bigger companies there is a specific hierarchy, among both dancers and administration. While some of the more prominent organisations will have dedicated staff for the purpose, the areas of funding, philanthropy, outreach, development and marketing need to be  considerations in taking a company forward in the competitive world of the arts. With dance companies being such public entities, the director is the one that will take the backlash of any failures: the position requires someone decisive, resolute and at ease with the fact that every decision made will have its detractors.

It’s hard to imagine a recruitment advertisement reading: “Wanted: Artistic Director. Must have in depth knowledge of company heritage, repertoire, coaching and arts administration. Parental warmth and clinical decisiveness needed on an ad hoc basis”, but this might just sum up what is needed.

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Merce: The Final Stretch

As the Merce Cunningham Dance Company approaches the last weeks of their Legacy tour, they are turning the final pages of a volume of work that has been instrumental in the development of both classical and contemporary dance for over half a century.

Rarely has a choreographer been so prolific right up until their demise: his body of work is vast, revered and always distinctly Merce. Not only is his legacy this rich library of choreography, but a widely practiced dance technique. The Cunningham technique, a most classical contemporary dance language, is lauded for both its strength and poetry.

A dancer with the Martha Graham Company in his formative years as a dance-maker, his choreographic and technical lexicon spans the divide between the heritages of the classical and contemporary disciplines. To watch his work is to see a distillation of clean, classical line merged with a modern sensibility. It is this timelessness which has bolstered its longevity within the repertoire.

Merce’s long life gave all involved with the eponymous dance company the time to adequately organise what was going to happen on his passing. The Merce Cunningham Foundation would be replaced by the Merce Cunningham Trust, which would hold and look after the rights to his work and the Company would fold after a two year, 40 city Legacy tour.

The disbanding of the company seems unnecessary from one aspect, as the company could carry on performing his works indefinitely. However, his company was borne of a true vision, and carried on with purity of purpose – trained in his technique, the dancers danced his work, his way and constantly under his watchful eye – how could they possibly carry on without his leadership. From this viewpoint, it is the most respectful way for a company to behave. With other such companies, created from such a singular view, Balanchine’s New York City Ballet for example, this might, in retrospect, have been the most suitable option after the departure of their esteemed creators: companies who find themselves suddenly without omnipotent leadership can very often falter spectacularly.

Without a company to concern themselves with, the Trust is now in a perfect position to see the advancement of the Cunningham repertoire throughout companies worldwide. His work has informed so many choreographers in both classical and contemporary dance, and everything in between: as an shining star on the dance walk-of-fame, his legacy has a worth all of its own, so long may the Trust keep his vision and beauty alive.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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Homage à Mr. Balanchine

Next season, The Royal Ballet will once again dance Balanchine’s Ballo Della Regina, an 18-minute whirlwind of virtuosity. The ballerina role is probably one of the hardest in the entire repertoire, and to be approached with grit and determination. The steps for the rest of the ensemble aren’t the easiest either. The score is a divertimento from Verdi’s Don Carlo – this exemplifies one of Balanchine’s talents; mining the classical repertoire for passages that spoke to him, that he could assemble dances to.

Since Balanchine’s demise in 1983, his works have been carefully looked after by the Balanchine Trust. Merrill Ashley has looked after Ballo; apt, as the ballerina role was created on her, and she has overseen its various stagings. The Balanchine bloodline is transmitted through her to the dancers she teaches, every nuance being generously handed down. His ballets are notoriously difficult; they are, for the most part, purely steps, and their impact depends on the choreography being performed with precision and clarity. They are the archetypal abstract ballets and represent a hugely important gateway from his classical past.

In and of themselves, the Balanchine repertoire is one of the most important bodies of 20th century choreography; it represents the birth of neoclassical ballet and it’s resultant development and his work was the launching pad for most ballet choreographers since. The direct effect of his work is obvious in those who worked directly with him or his company (New York City Ballet), for example Jerome Robbins, Peter Martins, Christopher Wheeldon and Benjamin Millepied. Looking further afield, his work is felt in the more contemporary ballets of Jorma Elo and Alexei Ratmansky. Even in those choreographers where there is no discernible link to Balanchine’s work, we can thank him for setting the journey of ballet on a new course, opening up a mine of opportunity for those wishing to express their choreographic identities through non-narrative work.

So the next time you see a ballet that has been choreographed sometime since the middle of the last century, give a nod to Mr. Balanchine, somewhere along the line he probably had something to do with it.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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