We’re only 11 years into the 21st century—yet in that short time, there’s been a remarkable shift in the ballet world. For decades, Balanchine’s plotless neoclassical works were the ideal to which choreographers aspired. They saw abstract dance, driven only by music and the architecture of the body, as a form of pure expression. The postmodern dance movement, running on a parallel track, also influenced them. Narrative dance was “out.” But now it’s back. And it’s had a deeply thoughtful makeover.

Story ballets will always be at the heart of the ballet repertoire, because audiences will never stop loving stories. (“It might be a good idea to call all ballets Swan Lake,” Balanchine once quipped; that way, “people will come!”) But the sea change that’s happened over the past 10 years isn’t just a way to boost ticket sales in dreary economic times. Choreographers are finding new life and energy within the confines of a plot. They’ve also learned from the choreographers of the past century: They’re avoiding the literalism that Balanchine and his colleagues renounced. Rather than telling a story step by step, they’re getting at its essence through dance.

The “modern story ballet” isn’t a new idea. Frederick Ashton told stories organically, without complicated miming sequences; Kenneth MacMillan’s turbulent, psychologically driven stories are still repertoire staples; and Balanchine himself, even as he pushed abstract ballet to its limits, produced the exquisitely crafted Coppélia and La Sonnambula. In the 1970s, John Neumeier, then newly at the helm of the Hamburg Ballet, began creating a (still-unwinding) string of narrative ballets—often revisions of iconic classics—that pushed against the traditional mold. “I  look at old story ballets not as museum pieces, but as something to do with every generation,” Neumeier says. “What is Swan Lake about? It’s about an unfulfilled love, an impossible relationship. You can preserve that central idea, and then give the ballet a new life.”

In the 1980s and ’90s, however, the plotless ballet was especially trendy, thanks in part to William Forsythe’s eye-popping dissection of classical technique. “When I started choreographing in the ’80s, it had to be abstract to be avant-garde,” says Jean Grand-Maître, artistic director of Alberta Ballet. “No one would touch stories.” Christopher Wheeldon—whose recent Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was a smash hit at The Royal Ballet and The National Ballet of Canada—grew up in a classical story ballet tradition at The Royal, but left for New York City Ballet as a teenager, in part because, as he says, “I was a little bit tired of skipping around a maypole.” At NYCB he steeped in the plotless works of Balanchine and Robbins. Their influence is plain in Wheeldon’s early ballets, which are geometric, angular and almost universally abstract. And it wasn’t just dancers coming to Balanchine; Balanchine’s influence went the other way, too. In the decades after his death, a diaspora of Balanchine’s dancers spread out across the U.S. Many of these disciples ended up as choreographers or artistic directors; all were influenced by Balanchine’s abstract approach.

So why the shift? What made stories interesting again? Grand-Maître, whose streamlined, lyrical take on Romeo and Juliet is now in the repertoire of several ballet companies, thinks storytelling is a natural reaction to a post–September 11 world. “Maybe when the economy and other crises calm down, artists will feel like they can go to the theater and just experiment,” he says. “But right now, you want to go to the ballet and be comforted. You want stories of heroes and examples of courage; you want to see people and characters who are familiar to you.” Stories provide stability in unstable times.

There’s also new technology that frees choreographers from some of the humdrum aspects of storytelling. Video projections and digital “sets” let them communicate complicated ideas quickly, efficiently and relatively cheaply. (Need Alice to fall down the rabbit hole? No problem: Create a virtual one with clever digital projections. Wheeldon did just that.) As a result, today a story can go pretty much wherever a choreographer wants it to. “There’s a lot on offer to us now that wasn’t around even a few years ago,” Wheeldon says. “Theatrical technology is not only fun to play with—it can also make the dance experience feel more contemporary.”

And there’s a pragmatic angle to storytelling: To make it as a modern choreographer, you need to be able to do it all. “Choreographing story ballets and abstract ballets is very much like being an actor who can do different accents,” says Stanton Welch, artistic director of Houston Ballet, who’s made a name for himself as a choreographer with both plotless works like Clear and large-scale story ballets like Marie. “You want to be versatile.”

Some choreographers have begun to think of narrative dance as the final frontier. The aftershocks of the postmodern earthquake are tapering off; the need for abstraction, felt so urgently for so long, is easing. “Balanchine brilliantly stripped away all of the trimmings of the story ballet and produced something just as interesting—but nobody can match him,” Grand-Maître says. “To make our own path as modern choreographers, we have to try different directions.” Choreographers now can see the aesthetic value in narrative dance. “Maybe we have post-Balanchine, post-Cunningham syndrome,” says choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. “We’re leaning a little more towards narrative.”

Even those who still love plotless dance see large-scale story ballets as the ultimate challenge. “It’s this thrilling new way to approach my artform,” Wheeldon says. “It’s a fascinating puzzle to solve: how to tell a story through dance, rather than to just sculpt the music.” When a neoclassical choreographer brings his excitement about pure dance into a narrative context, the tension generated by the effort to reconcile those two forms can make for electrifying storytelling. “If you’re doing a story, there are moments when you can allow the piece purely to dance, and then there are moments when you have to be propelling the story forward,” Wheeldon says. “The sticking point is finding that structural balance without being literal”—and that’s where much of the new story ballets’ momentum comes from.

The ballet world is smaller now than it was even 20 years ago: Nearly every company dances the works of Balanchine and Forsythe, as well as the big classics. At this point most choreographers who grew up in a classical tradition have also experienced abstract ballet, and sometimes the urge to combine the two seems inevitable. Ratmansky, who trained at the Bolshoi, and has choreographed for (it feels like) everyone, is one of the products of that hybridization. Russian stories are his bread and butter, but he’s a man of the modern world, and his style reflects that. “Classical steps can be colored in a million ways and tell emotionally complicated stories,” he says. “There are certain movements that are very expressive, that clearly show the state of the person who does them—in stories they work perfectly.” Ratmansky’s abstract ballets, like Namouna: A Grand Divertissement, are full of tantalizing whiffs of plot; his story ballets, like The Bright Stream, are propelled by his innovative neoclassical choreography.

When done well, today’s story ballets tug at us powerfully. One of ballet’s strengths is its ability to distill a feeling without being explicit or literal. The 21st-century story ballet makes full use of that strength. “In literature you read the words and then feel the emotion after,” Grand-Maître says. “But these story ballets can get the audience in the gut—in the nervous system—first.”


Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo by Theo Kossenas, Courtesy The Washington Ballet

You made a deal with your mom to take ballet classes in exchange for a ride to tryouts for the football team. How did that work?
I thought that I would take ballet for a couple months, become a master and then leave that alone and concentrate on football. Ballet had other ideas, which perplexed me, and ultimately, I think, made me fall in love with it.

How is The Washington Ballet evolving under Julie Kent's leadership?
It's still early, but I think that the company is growing stronger classically. And we have Julie, Victor Barbee, Xiomara Reyes and Rinat Imaev—a great team of people who are giving their input and expertise, which is quite helpful.

Mack in 'Swan Lake.' Photo by Theo Kossenas

Keep reading... Show less
Summer Study Advice
Summer intensive students at the School of American Ballet. Photo by Rosalie O'Conner, Courtesy SAB.

As a young student, Shea McAdoo's classes at the Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona, were “strict, straightforward, very classical and purely Vaganova." She appreciated the Russian rigor and precision, but when she was accepted to the School of American Ballet's summer course at 13, she leapt at the chance to learn something new. The vastly different emphasis on Balanchine technique at SAB was illuminating: “It changed my whole way of thinking about musicality and accents. I'd never known there were so many ways to do a tendu! And the épaulement—I loved how they talked about light hitting your face, tilting your chin to show off your diamond earring."

McAdoo's experience was transformative, even when she returned home. “Of course, I lowered my arms back down in second and didn't cross my wrists," she says, “but there were stylistic choices I brought back with me." Today, as an apprentice with Oregon Ballet Theatre rehearsing Balanchine's Serenade, she credits her ease with the ballet's fluid port de bras to her summer at SAB.

Learning about ballet's various styles and techniques is an important part of a dancer's development. With summer intensive auditions approaching, it's a perfect time to consider broadening your training. While it can be initially confusing, immersing yourself in a style outside your comfort zone can be eye-opening and influential for your future training and career. And the benefits of diversifying your training can last beyond a single summer.

Shea McAdoo in OBT's production of "Paquita." Photo by James McGrew.

Let Curiosity Be Your Guide

Keep reading... Show less
Summer Study Advice

As summer intensive audition season starts up, I've been reminiscing about my own experience as a young dancer—way back in 1993—and how challenging it was to navigate. In fact, I think it's safe to say that my first summer program audition was a complete disaster.

I was almost 16—a little late by some standards—and was still pretty clueless as to how I compared to others outside my hometown. That weighed heavily on my mind as my parents and I made the hour-long drive to Milwaukee. The audition was for a school in Pennsylvania, and as I scanned the big-city studio, my mind slipped into exaggerated teenage self-consciousness. Dancers lined the barres stretching, showing off their flexibility as if doing some sort of war ritual. Many were chatting in groups, wearing trendy warm-up jumpers and donning perfectly shellacked buns. I tried to act like I knew what I was doing, but inside I was a wreck.

The teacher clapped his hands together to begin class. He was fast-paced, no-nonsense and not one for smiles. During pliés, he stopped in front of me with his clipboard as I emerged from a cambré back. He looked me up and down, frowned and kept going. I, of course, freaked out—what did that mean? I still had an entire hour and a half left of class to prove I was still capable, but instead I completely lost my concentration. I just couldn't shake that frown. I forgot combinations and even started with the wrong foot in front a few times in center. By jumps, the adjudicators had stopped watching me altogether. Needless to say, I spent the majority of the ride home trying not to cry.

Keep reading... Show less
via YouTube

It's finally the weekend, and we're celebrating the best way we know how—a new ballet video. Juliet Doherty (who trained with San Francisco Ballet and Master Ballet Academy, and is set to star in the dance film, On Pointe), teamed up with Cartoon Network for her latest project.

"Cartoon Network contacted me about their show, Steven Universe, which was coming out with a new vinyl album of the soundtrack of the show," Doherty shared with Pointe. "They told me about one of the show's main characters named, Pearl, who is a strong-willed character but has the grace inspired by a ballerina."

Keep reading... Show less
Mr. Jeremy FIsher, from Sir Frederick Ashton's "The Tales of Beatrix Potter."

Animal roles might not typically be what dancers dream of performing…but they're oh-so-fun to watch. You can't help falling under their spell (and perhaps aspiring to dance one someday). Here's a round-up of some of our favorite furry and feathered roles.

Bunny Hop

Run. Dance in a circle. Pretend to be a rabbit. It might sound like a creative movement combo, but don't let that fool you. The role of Peter Rabbit in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Tales of Beatrix Potter requires fierce technique—not to mention the ability to project personality while wearing an animal head and fur suit.

Four-Legged Interlude

Who do you turn to for halftime entertainment during a quartet of fairy variations? Dancing lizards, mice and a frog of course! This charming quintet of creatures light up the stage in David Bintley's Cinderella.

Keep reading... Show less





Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox


Win It!