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Ballet Must Make Room Onstage for More Than One Genius

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 10, 2009

Magic spells, poisons, potions and enchantments may be frequent plot devices at the ballet, but the art form itself is under a bewitchment of its own making. It's the Curse of Balanchine.

We are cursed with George Balanchine, cursed with an overload of his ballets as well as with the ubiquity of the sinewy style he favored, his preference for plotless works on a naked stage, his taste for fast, skinny, emotionally guarded dancers.

Maybe that doesn't sound so bad -- after all, that, in a nutshell, is what ballet looks like in this country. But it wasn't always so. Before Balanchine's dominating influence, in the early to middle years of the last century, ballet was more of a lively American folk art -- cavorting to music by Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson -- than the highbrow prize of the connoisseur it became after Balanchine swept in, bringing Bach and Stravinsky with him.

Ballet started out here on a decidedly human scale: It nosed around gas pumps (Lew Christensen's "Filling Station"), sailing ships (Eugene Loring's "Yankee Clipper") and farm folk (Catherine Littlefield's "Barn Dance"). Its subject was the life of the times, and, in concise half-hour works, it centered on personalities: ranch hands, servicemen, outlaws and murderers.

Seen any of them onstage lately?

Balanchine's avant-garde creations knocked ballet sideways, changing it forever. But here's the problem: In his wake, ballet's range of expression has narrowed, not expanded. Gone, in new work, is theater, spectacle, satire, flesh-and-blood characters, the ache of real life, the escape offered by a sharp, piercing little story. Now more than ever, American ballet, artistically speaking, is a homogeneous entity. We are a thoroughly Balanchine nation.

That's pretty impressive considering that the New York City Ballet co-founder created his last work in 1982 and died a year later. Today, Balanchine isn't merely a legend -- he's a hot property. His ballets circle the globe, and in the United States are being danced by chamber-size and larger troupes alike, from the Richmond Ballet to American Ballet Theatre.

Balanchine's ubiquity creates a particular problem for Washington. The Kennedy Center presents more touring companies than any other venue in the country and, with other local stages in the picture, conditions are ripe for overload. In the past six months alone, audiences have seen the annual Balanchine-heavy runs by New York City Ballet and the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, along with Balanchine works danced by ABT and the San Francisco Ballet. This week at the Harman Center, the Washington Ballet essays "Rubies," an excerpt from Balanchine's "Jewels."

From a marketing standpoint, this is not a surprise. Balanchine is the blue-chip stock of ballet. And unlike a lot of blue-chip stocks nowadays, it is still a stable investment. As the old saying goes, no one ever got fired for buying IBM -- or for licensing a Balanchine work. After all, who can argue against the visual and musical joys behind his innovations in the speed, virtuosity and urbane glamour of ballet?

Look at the man's background: Balanchine, born in 1904, created his streamlined, stretchy, leggy style by merging old-school Russian technique with modern-art principles and the sex appeal of the Broadway chorus line. He was a product of St. Petersburg's famed Mariinsky Theatre, whence would later come Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Serge Diaghilev made him chief choreographer of his Ballets Russes -- the trendsetting troupe of expatriate Russians who counted Picasso, MirĂ³ and Stravinsky among their collaborators. After it folded, Balanchine landed in New York in 1934, where he founded the School of American Ballet, now the nation's top ballet school. He dabbled in choreography for movies and musicals before launching the group that in 1948 became New York City Ballet.

All of those experiences -- the high-art chic, the showbiz, the forceful physicality of Russian ballet and the broken lines and fragmentation that Picasso and Stravinsky were exploring -- surface in Balanchine's work. The bulk of his ballets are abstract, musically driven "pure dance." Even his few narrative pieces are little concerned with reality. Most of his works evoke a cool, purified, distant universe. And always, refinement: He loved tutus and tiaras ("Theme and Variations," 1947), showgirl legs on untouchable goddesses ("Concerto Barocco," 1941) and bracing simplicity. His ballets costumed only in leotards and tights ("Agon," 1957) had the angular, dramatic shock of a Mies van der Rohe house.

Of the more than 400 ballets Balanchine created in his 79 years, roughly 75 are still actively performed. And they are, for the most part, so exquisite it's hard to complain about seeing them over and over. Who can tire of the radiant stasis in "Serenade," the spacious, deconstructed architecture of "The Four Temperaments," the mass precision of "Symphony in C"?

But his aesthetic is so firmly established that it's crowding out other forms of thinking. One need only look at K Street to see how completely commercial architecture has fallen captive to Bauhaus and the pared-down art of poured concrete, turning its back on decorative detail and human scale. Ballet, too, has to break out of the Balanchine box.

Here's how the art form has been reduced: Balanchine's emphasis was on swift, sharp movement and on the body creating long, thin lines, the better to show off his choreography. He demanded greater flexibility and attack than had been seen before in classical dancers, with the legs slicing higher, jumps soaring, turns whizzing. As his aerodynamic style became the norm, so have those dancers with powerful technique and the greyhound proportions best suited to the revealing attire Balanchine liked (another trend he set). Meanwhile, a different kind of dancer, one who may be deliciously expressive and move like an angel but is rounder or shorter-limbed -- well, she's gone.

Balanchine, with his focus on the legs, cared little for "epaulement," literally "shouldering," or the harmonious use of the upper body, shoulders and neck. It's become a rather old-fashioned notion nowadays -- a flourish that adds to the life and warmth a dancer projects. English choreographer Frederick Ashton, a contemporary of Balanchine's, prized it, as does Russian and Danish training. Epaulement softens up the squareness of ballet, giving a dancer a responsiveness that is so subtle, you may not realize why you've fallen for someone who has it. But you never forget it when you see it -- as in American Ballet Theatre's Cuban-born Xiomara Reyes, so approachable you can all but hear her purr. But it's not a highly valued asset in today's speed- and technique-driven dancers.

Balanchine's streamlining of the dancer also extended to the content and look of his productions. Gone, under Balanchine, are the folk heroes, the common men and women. Gone is any kind of story, really; his brand of "neoclassical" ballet turns on atmosphere, musical response, pattern. There may be notes of spirituality, wit or romance, but his work is more about the body, less about the person. And the body -- the dance object -- needs no fixed realm. With some exceptions -- the woods of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the drawing room of "Liebeslieder Walzer" -- Balanchine's ballets exist on a bare stage. This emptiness represented a whopping change to what had been a richly theatrical art form.

Let me be clear: The Balanchine aesthetic looks splendid. But what he started has spread to the whole of American ballet. A generation of choreographers fanned out after Balanchine, following his lead. Among the results: William Forsythe's splayed, cranked-open limbs; Twyla Tharp's musical dissections and layers of counterpoint; Christopher Wheeldon's clean geometry. With Balanchine disciples directing companies around the country and his school grooming dancers in his aesthetic, it's hard to name a choreographer who hasn't been swayed by the sleek Balanchine look and pure-dance approach.

Some of the post-Balanchine work has been interesting, much of it has not. But ballet has not become richer.

The art form is suffering through a dearth of daring and imagination. Critics and audiences alike have been complaining about a prolonged fallow period. Yet the artistic sclerosis didn't just happen. One inescapable reason for it is Balanchine's dominance, overshadowing other avenues of creativity -- for instance, the one-act short-story ballets that almost no one creates anymore.

Today, new ballets come in two forms, either the plotless 20-to-30-minute piece or the evening-long, three-act "story" ballet. These full-lengths treat familiar tales -- "Dracula," "Peter Pan" -- with mixed results, or rework the time-tested "Swan Lakes" and "Sleeping Beauties." Most ballet companies perform one or two a year -- they are expensive to create but they sell the most tickets. Do they really tell a story? Typically, no. If you don't already know the plot, you are sunk. The narrative rarely unspools through either the dancing or the gesture-speak of mime, because today's choreographers, steeped in abstraction, are not storytellers. And today's dancers are not actors, for the same reason. The storytelling tradition in ballet has virtually dried up.

A glance at history shows that it wasn't always this way. With the centenary of the founding of the Ballets Russes a week away, it's good to remember that the one-act dance-drama was a Ballets Russes staple. It was, in fact, key to building ballet audiences in this country.

These were works such as Michel Fokine's "Sheherazade" and Vaslav Nijinsky's "Afternoon of a Faun." Balanchine also contributed a host of mini-dramas, such as the biblical parable "The Prodigal Son."

The one-act drama continued to thrive long after Diaghilev's troupe disbanded, with choreographer Antony Tudor arriving here from England in 1939 to help establish Ballet Theatre (which later became ABT). With such box-office hits as his fiercely distilled "Pillar of Fire," a tale of repression and shame in small-town society, as well as Agnes de Mille's ranch romance "Rodeo" and Jerome Robbins's shore-leave caper "Fancy Free," ballet became a living, modern force in this country. The public knew nothing of the full-length "Swan Lakes" and "Sleeping Beauties" yet to arrive from the Old World -- and even after those three-act works gained an audience here, the short-story form was a big part of ballet repertoires.

ABT was a storehouse of these one-acts, into the 1970s and '80s. Yet it's rare for a choreographer even to attempt this form now.

What does Balanchine have to do with that? There have been, to be sure, other factors at work. The demise of the one-act ballet parallels the waning of the short story in literature, and a trend in fiction away from character-driven realism. The human psyche was being probed in all areas of the arts in the 1940s and '50s -- in ballet as well as in film, painting, music, writing -- and that interest gradually gave way to irony, angst, distortion and all the other postmodern trappings. But there can be no question that in ballet, Balanchine radically changed the fashion. Champions of one-acts see the physical excitement Balanchine ignited onstage as having helped condemn the slower-burning dramatic works to the margins.

"First and foremost is Balanchine creating all of those non-narrative works that were pure dance, abstract, neoclassicism and whatnot," says Sally Brayley Bliss, trustee of the Tudor estate. Admittedly, she has a personal stake in this discussion. But "not putting down Balanchine," she continues, "I think it was easier to copy Balanchine than to copy Ashton, Tudor and Robbins." Citing the preparation the last three put into their narrative works -- the research, people-watching and painstaking experiments at getting ballet to mean something -- she says, "It's harder to choreograph something narrative than anything else."

Wheeldon agrees. "It's kind of easy to rely on the physical beauty of dancers these days without having to find a way to tap into the human condition or without finding a way to express anything," he says. "It's a trap a lot of choreographers fall into. I've fallen into it myself."

Wheeldon's plotless works have focus, a certain logic -- you can understand how one section leads to another -- and often there is a lyrical, even romantic, depth of feeling. Still: "I'm slightly resistant to storytelling, because I don't want to end up with ballets that look like ballets of years gone by. I guess it's finding a language of storytelling that would successfully convey to a modern audience. . . . I hope in the next few years to put some stories up onstage with Morphoses," he says, referring to his company. "But story ballets take time and money, neither of which we have."

They also take dancers who can deliver more than rapid-fire steps and 6 o'clock extensions. Even choreographers interested in story have a hard time finding dancers who can act. Mark Morris has created brilliantly etched, believable character works for his modern dance group. But they aren't for the ballet troupes who hire him, he says.

"Most [ballet] dancers in general aren't comfortable anymore as actors. It's not required of them," Morris says. In fact, it's in the modern dance world that you'll find the imaginative storytelling that ballet used to value -- from Morris, Paul Taylor, Bill T. Jones and others.

How do we break the Curse of Balanchine? One thing's for sure: It won't happen by waiting for Prince (or Princess) Charming to kiss it away.

What's needed is the antidote to all curses: Ballet has to get its humanity back. Telling a story may be viewed as unhip in our postmodern age, but human cravings don't subside just because artistic manifestos tell them to. We'll always love stories, especially when they're about us. Look at Tudor's "Lilac Garden," in which a woman must give up the man she loves for the one she doesn't: Done right, it's not a dramatization of Edwardian society, it's a heartbreak happening now. It's so real, it hurts to watch. Choreographers ought to study the old masters, particularly Tudor and Ashton, whose entwinement of movement, drama and feeling are unmatched.

So much post-Balanchine ballet is about nothing beyond itself -- about the ideal, not the real. Enough of the less -- bring back the more. Pile it on a little (or a lot): Delve into the full, complicated knot of human experience. Give us textile indulgences, the eye-filling backdrop, the set design that captures the imagination.

You find those now almost exclusively in the full-lengths. But that's not where the choreographic creativity lies -- the new-made story ballets are largely unwatchable yawns, and rewriting classics doesn't stretch the art. Why not invest in a luxuriously appointed evening of short stories? Hire a dramaturge or a theater director for fine tuning. And think outside the box: Turn to a logical but perplexingly untapped source like Matthew Bourne -- the hugely successful British choreographer who turned "Edward Scissorhands" and "Swan Lake" into nonspeaking, all-movement musical-theater sensations.

Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky's "Concerto DSCH," which New York City Ballet performed here in March, is the most provocative recent exemplar of human relationships explored in ballet. It was by no means a narrative, but it had true characters and a palpable sense of drama, and you believed in his jittery, dark-shadowed world the moment the curtain went up. Having just begun his tenure as ABT's artist-in-residence, perhaps Ratmansky will take a shot at refreshing that company's dramatic origins.

Think what a spell-breaker that could be.

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