Turning Point: Re-Defining Bay Area Ballet

By Kathryn Roszak

January 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

BALLET IS DEAD, bemoans dance historian Jennifer Homans in her latest opus, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet. Homans grew up in the Balanchine era and now finds the contemporary ballet scene to be an arid desert, bereft of choreographic vitality. Many argue that Homan’s 600-page tome declares the opposite—that ballet is alive and well—and in some ways she’s right. Ballet companies abound, offering accessible fare for audiences whose main experience of ballet has become the annual ritual of The Nutcracker and enrolling their tutu-clad three year olds in toddler ballet classes. Ballet traditionally held attraction through the teen years for what it offered, mainly girls (and a few boys) in form and poise; this has been replaced by a smorgasbord of activities like soccer, karate, kids yoga, girl’s empowerment classes, and technological distractions like computer games and instant messaging.

Programs like Dancing with the Stars, Glee, and So You Think You Can Dance bring dance to the masses. There is seemingly more dance than ever, but its orientation has shifted dramatically, and so has the perception of ballet. Ballet is more popular but less artistic. Part of the reason may be its accessibility. People are not necessarily attending live performances but rather, are grabbing their information about dance and ballet from mass culture, the media, and the internet. Major ballet companies are investing their energy in slick websites and marketing strategies, such as developing an online presence through Facebook and blogs. Yet the ballet world is sadly lacking in artistic innovation. The major academies have not given themselves a mandate to innovate and break new ground in how dance is taught and how choreography is created. Dancers have achieved the pinnacle of technique, can dance almost anything, and yet, some would argue, have very little of substance to dance. Can this culture produce another Diaghilev—someone not only in touch with, but also ahead of the zeitgeist, and who can forge the creation of new aesthetics? Much contemporary ballet choreography seems intent on the virtuosic contorting of conventional ballet technique in the guise of innovation. And is this type of kinetic innovation really relevant in today’s fragmented world where people are longing for meaning? The arts, including ballet, can provide meaningful dialogue about today’s changing roles for men and women, the tyrannical glut of technology, and yes, even topics like war. Renowned international ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon claimed he could not imagine creating a ballet about the war in Iraq. Too bad for the world of ballet, and the world in general, that he is so limited.

With their identity in turmoil, Bay Area ballet companies continue to proliferate and many are the incubators for new work. While we have yet to see any ballet company, locally or nationally, truly grab the challenge of re-envisioning the ballet paradigm, both aesthetically, institutionally, and thematically, it may be a good time to check out the local ballet scene’s barometer.

The Bay Area’s major company, San Francisco Ballet, continues to receive worldwide acclaim, placing San Francisco firmly on the international ballet map. Under Tomasson’s lengthy leadership, one of the most innovative programming initiatives was United We Dance, bringing a host of international companies to San Francisco to celebrate the historic signing of the U.N. charter. Tomasson has produced several successful full-length contemporary ballets such as Mark Morris’ Sylvia, Lar Lubovitch’s Othello, and John Neumeier’s controversial version of The Little Mermaid. However, much of the company’s other repertory while distinguished, rarely takes a chance.

How does the ballet nurture new choreographers? In the past, choreography workshops and showcases gave new talent a chance to develop. Now many of San Francisco Ballet’s new choreographers must deliver a new work at the Opera House in a high stakes game of sink or swim. The result is a series of promising works, but none of them are thematically groundbreaking, or reinvent movement language to the extent of the Balanchine repertoire.

Without the burden of filling the Opera House, the smaller Bay Area ensemble ballet companies can take more risk and lead the way. In order to survive these companies must innovate, and this season provides an opportunity to check out exactly what these companies are offering.

The Oakland Ballet Company, under Artistic Director Graham Lustig, had to find a new space this past year and is entering into a partnership with Mills College in Oakland. “The way forward is collaboration,” says Lustig, who danced for the Royal and Dutch National Ballets, and ran American Repertory Ballet in New Jersey for over a decade. Mills College has a renowned history in modern dance—choreographers Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham both taught there. Oakland Ballet will rehearse at Mills, and is commissioning Dance Department Chair Sonya Delwaide to create a new work. The company will offer classical ballet training to Mills students, who may take on small roles in Oakland’s productions. Oakland Ballet’s founding director Ronn Guidi built Oakland’s reputation on revivals of rare ballets, many from the Diaghilev era. Lustig says that those productions’ sets and costumes languish in a warehouse, so he intends to focus his spring season on new works by West Coast choreographers, particularly ballets by women.

Space is not the issue for Peninsula Ballet Theatre, with its facility including five huge dance studios. New Artistic Director Bruce Stievel says the dancers love the new space. Stievel, former director of Nevada Dance Theater, has built a reputation both as a choreographer and as a commissioner of new works. Next season brings Stievel’s Peter Pan and a repertory program to the South Bay.

Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet has always been guided by the idiosyncratic choreographer. King, who has an international career choreographing for companies such as the Frankfurt and Monte Carlo Ballets, set up a dance laboratory for himself and his dancers when he created the LINES Ballet in San Francisco. The company survives by touring and is eagerly followed in Europe. Many of King’s works rely on collaboration with composers and designers. Interestingly, one of LINES’ most acclaimed productions was Scheharazade, created to celebrate the Ballets Russes’ centennial in Monte Carlo. Composer Zakir Hussein was commissioned to re-envision the Rimsky-Korsakov score. King’s latest foray for LINES will be a collaboration with architect Christopher Haas. The company recently entered into collaboration with the Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, spending an afternoon in the studio with dancers from both companies, experimenting with King’s quirky rendition of ballet language.

Smuin Ballet seems to have successfully made the transition from a company showcasing Tony-Award winning choreographer Michael Smuin’s work, to being a repertory company premiering new works. The company is very popular with audiences and lately has set ballets to music by the indie-rock group The Shins, and bluegrass artist Bela Fleck with bassist Edgar Meyer. These ballets will be performed this spring in Carmel, Mountain View and Walnut Creek. Smuin Ballet has come under fire from critics for its populist approach. “We are not a museum,“ says artistic director Celia Fushille Burke. “We do not possess a classical ballet cookie-cutter mold. It was never Michael’s intent. We are the athletically-intense multi-abled dance company based in the beauty, strength and timelessness of our daily classical ballet class, but that is merely a launching point for us. Michael Smuin was a maverick artist and he knew he couldn’t use his artistry to please everyone. He always believed that the choreographer should have freedom. I nurture choreographers by giving them a safe platform from which to fearlessly create. We are funding creativity here at Smuin Ballet. I give opportunity to Amy Seiwert, but also to other rising talents across the country.”

Two East Bay ballet companies offer their own distinct approaches to presenting repertory works. Lauren Jonas’ Diablo Ballet performs repertory works in intimate settings in their home community of Walnut Creek, while Charles Anderson’s Company C Contemporary Ballet tours to large presenting arenas in the Bay Area with mixed repertory programs featuring world premieres.

Diablo Ballet has found success with its innovative up-close and personal way of presenting programming. Inside the Dancer’s Studio presents performances followed by a reception and Q & A with artists. This spring the company will perform at Shadelands and the program’s highlights include dances mainly created by company members: Kelly Teo’s Dancing Miles, Tina Kay Bohnstedt’s Tango Tchak, and Victor Kabaniev’s Carmen. Jonas’ programs are meant to appeal to all ages and offer the chance for the audiences to actually meet the dancers.

Charles Anderson’s Company C focuses on world premieres. Gamelan music is the inspiration for a new work by James Sewell, a choreographer often seen in New York, and Joffrey Ballet’s Jodie Gates creates Slip-Ring, a sleek, athletic premiere. Charles Anderson hopes to redefine ballet for a new generation of audiences. “Ballet is no more dead than classical music is dead,” says Anderson. “There’s always the belief that the age of the giants is past, that’s it’s always the era just before you. Robbins, Balanchine, Kylián, are all geniuses, but that doesn’t mean we’ll never have another genius. But trying to reinvent Balanchine—even a work that is super crafty—that time is over.” Anderson sums up what a small Bay Area ballet ensemble can do: “Contemporary ballet takes from modern dance and is more off-balance; it redefines the body types being used. It’s not the idealization of the male or female body. We’re more interested in the complexities of relationships. There are lots of fabulous choreographers out there. I can bring the ones that aren’t being presented by San Francisco Ballet. I can be riskier, still present quality, and present the adventure that is life in San Francisco.”

This article appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of In Dance.

Kathryn Roszak, Artistic Director of Danse Lumiere, also directs the Women Ballet Choreographers Residency at Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, California. dlkdance.com