Ballet, it would seem, is everywhere.
Ballerinas pop up on reality TV as counterpoint to b-boys, while pointe shoes and tutus are abused in advertisements for everything from coffee to mobile phones. Even non-dancers recognise it in an instant: the paraphernalia, but also the elegant upright torso, extended legs and curved port de bras arm positions.
It is similarly easy to say what ballet is historically. Thanks to patronage from royal courts, the early history of ballet in France, Russia, Italy, England and so on is well documented. The style and spirit of the Romantic and Classical ballets have retained their appeal and continue to be popular today. It still requires some distance for a dancer to recognise the bizarreness of the fact that a ballet teacher today can correct a student by indicating that the erroneous gesture “does not exist in classical ballet”. It is ironically the opposite situation with the term “contemporary ballet” – which is much more difficult to pin down.
The issue is not so much about ballet’s relationship with its own past, as it is about ballet’s relationship with the present. For dancers in Europe, America, Russia and “Western”-style conservatories and dance companies across the world, ballet is ubiquitous in the training regimen. This is true even if many of them consider themselves to perform “contemporary dance” rather than ballet. The fundamentals of ballet placement and technique underpin many of the dance styles that described themselves as “modern” and “contemporary”.
Despite ballet’s prevalence, only a specific subset of choreographers and companies globally cleave to the label contemporary ballet, and position themselves as inheritors to the history of ballet – remaining within the form while moving beyond recreations of the courtly story ballets.
When did contemporary ballet start?
“Contemporary ballet” has different definitions, but it is possible to identify a starting point in the early 1900s when the Ballets Russes began to produce new approaches to ballet that deviated from conventions of courtly settings, conventional themes of love and tragedy, narrative structures, and use of music created specifically for the ballet. The works of choreographers including Michel Fokine and Vaslav Nijinsky caused sensation and even riots. The Ballets Russes also groomed George Balanchine, who became known as the father of neoclassical ballet, infusing ballet with modernist influences in his work with the New York City Ballet. Incidentally, this was also the period when the celebrated Russian ballet master Marius Petipa took his retirement and the mother of (Western) modern dance Isadora Duncan rose to fame. Dancers in that context may have considered three primary roads: to preserve the work of Petipa, to develop a new aesthetic for ballet, or to reject ballet altogether as many of the modern dancers claimed to do.
The magic of the middle road remains today. The mission of reinventing ballet is astonishingly promising because ballet has permission. From a clear vocabulary and strong technique, choreographers have the space to re-interpret and invent new styles and forms. I compare this to the challenges that practitioners of Asian classical and traditional dances face – how I have heard many stories of how dancers today are expected to step into the role of guardians of tradition and authenticity, and how any deviations from the accepted standard are criticised. Ballet doesn’t really face that today. Perhaps it is thanks to the historical de-centralisation of European ballet where there was no one centre, but many centres in competing courts – and therefore ballet is not the contested possession of any single nationality or ethnicity. Thanks to the bold ventures of the Ballets Russes, Balanchine and their successors, who took the initial step to “break” the form. Thanks also to the vagaries of history, so that in the course of colonisation ballet was on the side of the conquerors and not the subjected. Ironically, this same history has also made ballet so apparently internationalised that it can pass as a “neutral” idiom of expression.
In Southeast Asia, the dominance of ballet appears to be most relevant in Singapore and the Philippines. Other countries place a much stronger emphasis on local court and folk dance forms. Interestingly, a chinese dance scholar recently alerted me to the fact that the reconstruction of Chinese classical and traditional dances as we know them today relied very heavily on ballet technique and training methods.
Contemporary ballet in and from Singapore
Singaporeans apparently speak the language of contemporary ballet pretty well. We have a celebrated neoclassical choreographer to call our own – the late Goh Choo San, who was associate director of the Washington Ballet. His work is now a staple in the repertory of the Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT), alongside works by Balanchine, Jiri Kylian, Stanton Welch, Val Caniparoli and Edwaard Liang. SDT has also commissioned works by choreographers better known as contemporary dancers, including Indonesian choreographer Boi Sakti, Ohad Naharin (Batsheva Dance Company), and local contemporary choreographers Lim Fei Shen and Low Mei Yoke. Kuik Swee Boon is currently better known as the Artistic Director of the contemporary T.H.E Dance Company, but prior to establishing his company he was a principal dancer of the renowned Spanish contemporary ballet company Compania Nacional de Danza under Nacho Duato.
Contemporary ballet companies and performances that have visited Singapore have been warmly received. Some notable recent examples include: the Nederlands Dans Theater’s first and second companies have visited multiple times since 2008, including their October 2018 performance which featured the Statement by Crystal Pite; Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty showed here in 2014 and 2016 respectively; Ex-Paris Opera etoile Sylvie Guillem’s Life in Progress farewell tour in 2015; the annual international ballet gala performances regularly feature contemporary pieces alongside classical excerpts; and most recently, the Dresden Semperoper Ballet performed William Forsythe’s Impressing the Czar in March this year.
The Paris Opera Ballet: Contemporary ballet vs classical ballet
The oldest ballet company in the world (established 1661 by King Louis XIV) regards itself as an institution dedicated to the preservation of tradition, both in its classical ballet repertoire as well as the transmission of the distinctive French style of ballet technique. In recent years however the company has faced pressure to balance its classical repertoire with contemporary works so as to appeal to wider audiences and to show off the versatility of its dancers. The high-profile resignation of the previous company director Benjamin Millepied in 2016 after only two years was said to be related to this dilemma. Forsythe’s Blake Works I and Pite’s The Seasons Canon that will show in this June’s programme were, in fact, the most acclaimed of Millepied’s commissions. The Company has since gone on to commission works from choreographers better known as contemporary dancers, including Hofesh Schechter, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and Ivan Perez.
Given the reputation for rigidity in training and emphasis on classical repertoire, the Paris Opera Ballet’s dancers may seem unlikely candidates as flag bearers for contemporary ballet. They do however, acquit themselves well. This past October, the National Gallery screened the documentary In the Steps of Trisha Brown in conjunction with the Minimalism Exhibition and the reconstruction of several early Trisha Brown works. The film followed a 2013 project to set Brown’s Glacial Decoy on the Paris Opera Ballet. It’s hard to imagine a work further from classical ballet than Trisha’s, and the dancers’ struggle was visible. By the premiere however, their transformation was compelling. So although I can’t attest to witnessing the process for the June programme, Blake Works I and The Seasons Canon received rave reviews – the first for showing off the company’s deep history and connection to a vast classical and neoclassical repertoire, and the second for capturing a sense of a group body expressing a monumental force of nature. This will indeed be something to look forward to.
The Paris Opera Ballet at the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, 21-23 June 2019.
This post is sponsored by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.