The ballet world has had no better superstar friend than Prince, who gave the art form money, celebrity and irresistibly danceable music–and treated it with respect.
Years before she became famous for her commercials and her top-rank status at American Ballet Theatre, ballerina Misty Copeland caught Prince’s eye. In 2009 he flew her to Los Angeles to dance in his music video for “Crimson and Clover.” He asked her to improvise to the longing in the song, and the result was a spectacular fever dream of shifting colors with Copeland at its center, the ideal woman, poetic and intangible.
This wasn’t a one-off bit of novelty. In 2011 Prince featured Copeland’s dancing in his “Welcome 2 America” concerts at Madison Square Garden and New Jersey’s Izod Center. The ballerina also toured with him in Europe. Around this time, Prince made a sizable donation to ABT.
Maybe he was thinking back to when he’d first caught the ballet bug, back in 1991. He was lured to a performance by a member of the Joffrey Ballet’s board of directors, and the rock star was so smitten that he offered his music for a new work. He even wrote an extended version of his song “Thunder” expressly for the Joffrey’s use. The result, which premiered in 1993, was a four-part, full-length rock ballet called “Billboards,” accompanied by more than a dozen Prince songs, from such platinum albums as “Purple Rain” and “Diamonds and Pearls.” Choreographers Laura Dean, Peter Pucci, Charles Moulton and Margo Sappington each devised a section of the ballet.
This wasn’t exactly new territory for the Joffrey, which had premiered rock ballets in 1967 (“Astarte,” created by founder Robert Joffrey) and in 1973 (“Deuce Coupe,” by Twyla Tharp, using Beach Boys songs). “Billboards” suffered a bit from the patchwork creation, but it was a transporting experience. I especially remember the shimmering, erotic dreamscape that accompanied its opening song, “Sometimes It Snows in April.” And in the “Thunder/Purple Rain” section, with its crashing organ chords, a horde of wanton ghouls in a clouded underworld evoked a parody of society’s sexual mores.
Crowds flocked to it, and they saw Prince’s glorious music in a fascinating new frame: so sensual and danceable, its mix of propulsive, tender, and bone-deep funkiness given full-bodied expression by a troupe of young, appealing, abundantly skilled dancers. When I saw “Billboards” at the Kennedy Center in 1993, more than 100 seats had to be added in the Opera House’s orchestra pit for each of the performances to accommodate demand. With this ballet, the Joffrey had a much-needed hit and national attention, at a time when its finances were sinking.
“Billboards” was such a boon for the Joffrey that it toured the production almost as if it were a Broadway road show. That ballet became its centerpiece. Yet when the rights to Prince’s music expired and “Billboards” dropped out of the Joffrey’s repertory, it faced a quandary. It had trouble attracting audiences back to its classics and other works, and this created a new financial crisis to overcome.
Today, the great success of “Billboards” remains a cautionary tale. A ballet company needs to approach a radical new direction with care, and a view to the future. But what also remains is the generosity and inspiration of a singular musical artist, who saw new possibilities for classical ballet. Prince knew that ballet could tell a lot of stories, and he helped spin them in new directions.