Tag Archives: The Royal Ballet

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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Will Fortune Favour The Bold?

English National Ballet gave the ballet world a jolt last week with the announcement that Royal Ballet principal dancer Tamara Rojo would take over as Artistic Director from Wayne Eagling when he steps down in the autumn of this year. However, at 37 and at the height of her dancing powers, she will be a director who still performs with the company. This has been done in the past successfully – Vladimir Malakhov, for example, is at the helm of Staats Oper Berlin and still performing; that?s not to say that it is always a winning formula. English National Ballet is a company that is fighting for survival as it is, with a dedicated and experienced director – how they will fare with a leader who needs time to do class, rehearse and sew her pointe shoes, remains to be seen.
It is no surprise that Ms. Rojo ended up as a company director. A few years ago she shadowed Karen Kain, Director of National Ballet of Canada and she has been very vocal in the past about her leadership ambitions. Indeed she has admitted that she applied for Monica Mason’s job as director of The Royal Ballet, so not only is she ambitious, those ambitions are lofty ones.
A director who is still dancing brings a lot to the table: they are in touch with the needs of dancers on a daily basis and have a full appreciation of training needs, the rigours of performing and the emotional investment it takes. So, for the dancers, having a director who is also a sympathetic colleague will be a boon. But a ballet company is far more than its dancers, and a director who is spreading herself thinly might not be the salvation a company like this need.
From watching Ms. Rojo performing over the years, and from what I have gleaned from interviews she has given, she is an intelligent, ambitious and fearless woman with a deep understanding of her artform: all attributes that go towards making her an ideal candidate for artistic director of a ballet company. However, I cannot shake the feeling that it is too much, too soon. Delegation will be the name of the game here, as the artistic staff of English National Ballet will have to take more responsibility than before, to cover the shortfall that Ms. Rojo’s own dancing career must surely result in. I’m not saying that she’s being selfish in taking this job and still wanting to dance, but merely that her ambitions may be tripping her up; her dream of leading a company from the wings being realised before she’s ready to relinquish her role of leading it from the stage.
Undoubtedly, Rojo’s international reputation as a dancer will open more doors for English National Ballet and hopefully it will attract new audiences and sponsors. It is a bold move on the part of the board and also Rojo herself, but we know what they say about those who are bold, so hopefully fortune will be on their side.  Here is a case of a series of events happening at just the right time; we just don’t know if all the elements will work until it hits the ground. I sincerely hope it does, because it could be spectacular.

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Work/Life Balance

Numerous explanations have been postulated in the wake of Sergei Polunin’s hasty departure from The Royal Ballet. His well-documented comments in recent interviews and on Twitter suggest he is harbouring some resentment at a life dedicated to ballet, feeling like he is missing out on life having avoided hanging out on street corners. Ballet can be all-consuming, but like other professions that require years of training to get to a professional level, it’s all about achieve a work-life balance.

While being a ballet dancer is difficult – to progress it takes constant work and maintenance over the course of a career – the hours aren’t excruciating. While it is true that on performance days you might not get out of the theatre until 11pm and be expected to turn up for class in the morning, large portions of the year are spent rehearsing, which would rarely top 40 hours per week. Many other professions require a significantly higher time commitment. That said, few take such a physical toll as that of a ballet dancer and with “rest” being a necessary component of the working week if optimum performance is to be ensured and injury is to be avoided, the aforementioned work-life balance becomes tipped in favour of the latter.

Most professional dancers will have started some form of dance training at a young age and will have taken it seriously from quite early on. Dance, broadly speaking, is a discipline which is quietly competitive and can easily become the focus of a young person’s life; when this does happen, it is difficult to give equal footing to academic studies or other hobbies. Professional dancers are usually the primary source of inspiration for young dancers, and quelling the desire to emulate one’s idols is very difficult. So, from a long way out, those dancers with professional aspirations can become restricted, sometimes by their own ambition and sometimes by proxy.

It is easy to see that dance, like other creative avenues, is a vocation: it is something you will only pursue if you truly desire it and isn’t something you can just fall into. A common result of growing up with such tunnel vision is that once you get to a certain point on the journey, outside influences can present themselves, and a whole world, which was previously intangible, becomes available for enjoyment and rebellion seems like an enticing prospect.

Dancers aren’t creators, they are interpreters. Every role or piece of choreography is enriched and fleshed-out by the dancers own life experience. While it might seem like 100% dedication is required to succeed, rebellion, albeit in it’s most self-aware and controlled form,  can go a long way into making a dancer more human – this will not only translate to the stage, it will come in handy when the last curtain drops and the ballet shoes are hung up for good.

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Of Their Time

 

Fonteyn and Nureyev in rehearsal for Marguerite and Armand

When something which is created for a specific event – inspired by and commemorating a special occasion – it should be enjoyed for that purpose and that purpose only, leaving after it a lingering image through which it can be remembered. Ballets created for such purposes, such as Ashton’s various pieces d’occasion, should be similarly treated, rather than being wheeled out every few seasons, their significance deteriorating with every performance.

Two particular works come to mind on the subject of pieces d’occasion: Ashton’s Birthday Offering, created for the 25th anniversary of the Royal Ballet, and Marguerite and Armand, again an Ashton work and a vehicle specifically, at the time, for Fonteyn and Nureyev. Both of these ballets were created for a particular situation – the first an important milestone, the second a legendary pairing – and longevity was never the desired quality. The fact that they are both in the repertoire of the Royal Ballet for the 2011/12 season shows that while it wasn’t what the choreographer originally intended, both works have enough choreographic integrity to ensure they have lasted.

Every choreographer has their first cast – those dancers that will dance the opening night and a majority of performances, but most ballets are choreographed to survive and have don’t have roles that “belong” to  particular dancers. These two ballets are exceptional in that sense. It wasn’t until Sylvie Guillem and Nicolas Le Riche were granted permission to dance Marguerite and Armand that anyone had dared touch those roles created by, and for, Fonteyn and Nureyev. The fact that this occurred after the death of Ashton and before the recent establishment of The Frederick Ashton Foundation surely says something on the matter. Birthday Offering did enjoy various revivals during Ashton’s lifetime, but the ballerina solos will forever be attached to their creators whose unique qualities they were designed to celebrate.

Balanchine never put together a ballet with a view to it outlasting him, but he did frequently revive previous works, changing the choreography as he saw fit for the current cast. Ashton was unlike Balanchine in that he showed more reverence for his original work, seeing the choreography in less of a state of flux than his trans-atlantic contemporary. Any revival of these pieces d’occasion can only ever be a shadow of their original as a result.

We may be half a century on  from the creation of these two ballets, and ballet training and technique may have moved to a different level – not a higher one, but somewhere else. Neither creation was intended as a technical exercise which would be extended over the years; both were about capturing a particular moment, a snapshot of a specific group of dancers, doing what they did most beautifully. Should these ballets not be performed any more, those who weren’t around first time miss out, but even when they are performed now, we are deprived of what they were intended to be: they were of their time, and there they shall remain.

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Pointe: From Trick To Trade

The pointe shoe, along with the tutu, has its place firmly in ballet iconography. One of the most common questions posed to ballet dancers, male or female, must be “do you dance on your toes?” While dancing en pointe is required of every female classical dancer, if it is to avoid becoming an artefact, new ways of employing the technique will have to be introduced.

What is now a finely-honed technique began life as a gimmick. After Charles Didelot’s contraption that allowed dancers, suspended on wires, to stand on tip-toe, choreographers began experimenting with ways of recreating the illusion in different ways. Marie Taglioni first danced on a prototype pointe show in the opera Robert Le Diable – it was no more than a satin ballet shoe, heavily darned at the tip. Today pointe shoes offer much more support, which in turn allows more freedom and variety in the choreography that can be performed in them.

Technique has always been the servant of repertoire. The technical feats and impressive control we associate with pointe work today were arrived at through ballets such as La Sylphide, Giselle and the works of Marius Petipa: the requirements of the choreography dictating the rigours of the training.

The training of pointe work is an integral part of classical ballet training, and the two have developed simultaneously. From the romantic and classical to the neo-classical of Balanchine and the de-constructionist of Forsythe, pointe work progressed in tandem with the choreographic demands.

While the pointe shoe is being largely left behind by modern ballet choreographers such as Carolyn Carlson, many choreographers, such as Christopher Wheeldon, continue to employ it in a traditional way. Given the fragile nature of ballets, those which feature the point shoe most prominently are the classics, those ballets where the pointe technique came of age. If the technique is to continue to grow and to be artistically relevant, we need to look outside the classical tradition.

Wayne McGregor, the controversial resident choreographer of The Royal Ballet, is very much from outside the classical tradition. His schooling and influences are free from the shackles of the Royal Ballet heritage; his works show little deference to the resident choreographers who have gone before him. The result of the meeting of his background and the pointe shoe-clad dancers is an entirely new movement vocabulary and the pointe show has been given a new lease of life. After looking back to move forward for so long, if we want to keep the pointe shoe from the museum shelf, we need to start looking elsewhere.

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Strange Bedfellows: Ballet and Contemporary Dance in Ireland

Ballet and contemporary dance in Ireland operate as two distinct entities, having two very different audience cohorts: the former has a loyal following of those who grew up with the established classical ballets and the latter a more curious breed, interested in broader artistic enrichment. Can these two disciplines operate and even interact? Or has the chasm between them widened to such an extent that both groups are effectively alienated and on very different paths?

Ballet has a rich history in Ireland, reaching back to the Abbey Ballet School in the 1920’s, led by Ninette de Valois, a Wicklow native who toiled her way to establishing what is now The Royal Ballet. There have been many bumps in the road which now sees two companies, the National Ballet of Ireland (formerly Ballet Ireland) and Cork City Ballet, operating in a professional, if part-time capacity. The intervening years saw companies such as Dublin City Ballet and Irish National Ballet grow and flourish, only to be met with successive funding cuts, ultimately spelling the end. At one point Irish National Ballet even graced the stage of Sadler’s Wells. The legacy of the various growth spurts in Irish ballet is a wide network of ballet schools, which produce a plethora of young talented dancers, further fostered by Arts Council-funded youth companies such as Irish National Youth Ballet and Youth Ballet West. The net effect of these various enterprises is a loyal audience for ballet in Ireland. The lack of a permanent professional ballet presence in the country means the drop off between enthusiastic hobbyist and aspiring professional is drastic.

Contemporary dance too has a long back-story, from pioneers such as Erina Brady promoting an innovative dance voice in Dublin. The movement has since been there, taking influence from imported and homegrown talent. The main voices in today’s contemporary dance scene were borne of the 1980’s obliteration of funding for the various ballet companies: John Scott, David Bolger, Michael Keegan-Dolan, Liz Roche to name but a few. In the wasteland that was the aftermath of a funding haven, these fertile young minds set in motion what is now a mature modern dance community. Ballet’s loss was contemporary’s gain.

Somewhere along this timeline ballet and modern dance in Ireland diverged. Many of the protagonists were from similar training backgrounds, but in the tumult of the late 80’s and early 90’s, these two communities drifted. While contemporary dance flourished, ballet once again floundered: between the end of the Dublin City Ballet and Irish National Ballet and the arrival of Ballet Ireland as it was at the time,  Alan Foley’s Cork City Ballet bridged the gap for part of the time. Once ballet found its footing again, the contemporary dance bandwagon was well on its way.

Both disciplines have suffered equally at the lack of vocational training offered here. Historically, any dancer with aspirations of a professional career have travelled abroad and, given the lack of opportunities, many have stayed away, career advancement being easier to achieve elsewhere. That is not to say that Irish companies must have national talent to stay afloat; the prevailing attitude among dancers is “have job, will travel”.  This is one area where the two communities could work together – the furthering of a national dance training centre: no dancer or teacher could nowadays contemplate a balanced training without voices from both classical and contemporary ends of the spectrum.

Public funding is indispensable in a situation where there’s no culture of private arts patronage; as is the case in Ireland. After the contemporary dance boom, it was very hard for ballet to attract funding because in order to guarantee audiences they had to stage productions of established, recognisable works; for funding decision makers, established and recognisable aren’t exactly buzz-words.

In the wake of such brave moves forward by our contemporary dance companies, for example Coiscéim Dance Theatre and Fabulous Beast, ballet might seem to some an anachromism, but the two will always inform and reference each other, even if it’s not deliberate. The cross-over between the disciplines isn’t much in Ireland. Look back half a century and Martha Graham and George Balanchine were collaborating on Episodes – although artistically poles apart, the pair recognised and honoured their common background: dance. This broad interest and crossover needs to be encouraged and actively promoted, the result may prove more symbiotic than the idea might suggest.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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