What’s going on with these newly announced institutions? Are ballet and modern dance retrenching back into their separate silos?
Just when the dance world has become so stimulating with its jumble of influences from all over the world, and when classical ballet and contemporary dance are criss-crossing in interesting ways, we have recently seen announcements for two major initiatives that stake out claims for a certain kind of dance—a limited kind of dance that is easy to name.
The two are Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance and Jennifer Homans’ Center for Ballet and the Arts. There’s a ring about each name that implies that the form in question is endangered, and that these initiatives are meant to protect them in their purity.
Some of the most exciting dance I’ve seen lately would not fit into either category. Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, Arthur Pita’s Metamorphosis, JR’s 8-minute Les Bosquets for New York City Ballet, Mats Ek’s Bye for Sylvie Guillem. I suspect that these hybrids are exactly the kinds of things these two initiatives are protecting against. But if you take a quick look at the most successful festivals, they are the ones that juxtapose different styles next to each other, for example Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, NY City Center’s Fall for Dance, and the Vail International Dance Festival. Audiences—especially young audiences—like seeing the mashup of genres that reflects our current culture onstage.
It seems to me that both Homans and Taylor want to stop time. Clearly when she wrote the notorious last chapter of her book Apollo’s Angels (posted as “Is Ballet Over?” in The New Republic in 2010), she was mourning the loss of Balanchine. Her book judges all of current ballet against that frozen standard. But it’s a different time now and we’re seeing an explosion of vibrant experimentation from Crystal Pite, Helen Pickett, Akram Khan, and many more.
Regarding the Taylor effort, modern dance morphed into postmodern decades ago when Merce Cunningham broke from Martha Graham. His aesthetic was so entirely different that we needed a new name. Merce blew two big ideas wide open: structural unity and the close relationship of dance to music. Neither has been the same since. Of course there’s a historical value in the grounding of Taylor’s company in American Modern Dance, but the American influence that has spread across Europe is that of Cunningham’s and post-Cunningham dance artists like Trisha Brown and Steve Paxton.
At the most visible modern dance company in the world—Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—Robert Battle is breaking boundaries. He’s extending beyond the modern dance idiom with works by Rennie Harris, Aszure Barton, and Wayne McGregor, while still carrying the torch for Revelations.
In the case of Homans, she seems not to be aware of what’s going on in the dance world. Ballet companies have been embracing contemporary dance for years. The Royal Ballet, which commissioned Wayne McGregor’s astounding Chroma in 2006, just announced that it is acquiring Israeli choreographer Hofesh Schechter’s Uprising. In years past, the Paris Opera Ballet has commissioned Trisha Brown, Sasha Waltz, and Saburo Teshigawara. I’ve heard that, with the arrival of Benjamin Millepied, the dancers of the world’s oldest ballet company may be improvising gaga-style.
In addition to classical dance companies, some of the top international ballet stars are getting tired of dancing the classics and are seeking stimulation in contemporary dance. Three current examples are Wendy Whelan’s Restless Creature, Osipova and Vasiliev’s Solo for Two, and CONTEXT: Diana Vishneva, a festival of contemporary dance that she inaugurated last year in Moscow.
The description of the Homan’s Center for Ballet and the Arts makes it clear that it will elevate ballet, albeit in collaboration with the other arts, as the form of dance worthy of serious study in the university.
While it’s necessary and wonderful to preserve existing art forms, it seems to me like these two initiatives are going backwards, holding on to a time that is past.
The good news is that since Apollo’s Angels was published in 2010, Homans has discovered some of the leading lights of ballet, like William Forsythe (with whom she conducted a mutually admiring BAM talk last fall) and Alonzo King. These two key figures have exerted a huge influence on the ballet world for decades, but in Homans’ 600-page history of ballet, Forsythe was mentioned only in an endnote on page 440, and King not at all. So I say kudos to Homans for beginning to open her eyes and seeing what’s around her. This bodes well for the think tank—because before you can think you have to see.
Likewise, Taylor has changed too. When he first announced his idea in February, he was quoted as saying he wanted to remount masterworks from Graham, Humphrey, and Limón. Well, someone must have clued him in to the fact that the Graham and Limón companies themselves are struggling to find audiences for their masterworks, because the later announcements have shifted the emphasis to supporting a new generation of choreographers.
Hopefully, once these two centers are up and running, their initial ideas will continue to evolve. But the similarity between the two makes me ask, What would I want to protect in the dance world? I think it would be the cross-pollination between ballet and modern dance. Since 1973, when the Joffrey dancers joined the Tharp dancers in her ground-breaking Deuce Coupe, the intersection has been exciting to me. But tracing that history is another story….