Agon. The Goldberg Variations. In the Upper Room. We hear these titles today and think, “Classics.” But at what point does a ballet achieve that status?

For Peter Boal, when the ballet was Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH, almost instantly. “I had a really strong reaction to that work,” says Boal of first seeing DSCH at New York City Ballet, shortly after its 2008 premiere. “It felt as fresh as some of the Robbins premieres that I’d seen, some of the Balanchine premieres I’d seen. It tapped into humor. It had strong classical technique and elements of experimentation. It used the ensemble incredibly well. I felt like I was seeing one of the greats unveiled.”

It wasn’t long before Boal, the artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, brought the brisk, bright, architectural work to PNB, presenting it on a mixed bill titled Contemporary 4 in 2011. The Seattle Times critic Moira Macdonald greeted the program with a simple request, echoing the rave reviews that DSCH had received in New York: “More Ratmansky, please.”

Every generation has its classics. Ratmansky is one of a handful of contemporary choreographers making ballets that, if their rapturous reception and increasingly global presence are any indication, might prove to be the classics of tomorrow. Right up there with DSCH—which, in addition to its Seattle run, has traveled overseas to the Mariinsky Ballet and La Scala—are Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia and Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. Fourteen companies in six countries, have acquired Polyphonia since New York City Ballet first performed it in 2001. Chroma, which premiered in 2006 at The Royal Ballet, has entered the repertories of San Francisco Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Boston Ballet and, most recently, Alvin Ailey. Whether we’ll call these “classics” decades from now remains to be seen. But at the very least, as Ib Andersen, the artistic director of Ballet Arizona, puts it, “They have legs.”

Which raises a simple question: Why? What accounts for how widely these ballets are performed, for their appeal to artistic directors in search of new repertory? Is it some objective “greatness”? Or more practical assets, like the ease and efficiency of producing them? Is it the excitement they bring to audiences, the artistic challenge they offer dancers?

In the case of Polyphonia, all of the above. At once strident and playful, the 10-section work, set to Ligeti piano pieces, shuttles eight dancers between demanding solos, duets and trios. The costumes are spare—a nod to Balanchine’s “leotard ballets”—and the set nonexistent, save for a muted backdrop, letting the eye focus in on the blade-like mechanics of the body. As Wheeldon says, “It’s low on production and high on dance, which makes it easy to stage yet a rich experience for both audience and dancer. Plus it offers eight dancers soloist roles.”

And not just any roles, but richly layered ones: “Each dance has its own little story,” Wheeldon adds, “so it demands dancers with a great sense of theater and imagination in order to transcend the technical demands of the choreography.” He observes that the ballet “seems to take pleasure in new interpretations. It allows the individuals to shine and their own personal character to come out.”

“It has good bones,” says Andersen, who brought Polyphonia to Ballet Arizona in 2009. “It’s structured in such a way that your mind keeps itself busy. It is not so predictable—there aren’t many choreographers who are not predictable after a while.”

That sense of invention also impressed Boal, who brought the work to PNB—the company’s first taste of Wheeldon—in 2007. “It’s interesting when you feel like you can see the world in just eight bodies,” Boal adds. “Polyphonia really runs a gamut of expression and unexpected form. You think there’s only so much you can do with two legs and two arms, but Chris came up with a whole lot more.” Like Wheeldon, he notes that the ballet “wears its multiple casts well,” suiting new dancers as much as its original interpreters. 

McGregor’s Chroma, with its barely-there beige costumes and austere set by the British architect John Pawson, may also seem “low on production”—but deceptively so, says Helgi Tomasson, the artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, which gave Chroma its U.S. premiere in 2011. “You can call it minimalist,” Tomasson says of Pawson’s set, which frames the stage with three towering white walls, one open at the back to serve as an entryway for the 10 dancers. But despite the “linear and clean” aesthetic, he explains, “it’s very complicated to put up.”
As, too, is McGregor’s famously pliant choreography, which prods the body into creaturely realms, often thrusting dancers into sensuous confrontations. “He really challenges and stretches the dancers, bends them—you name it,” Tomasson says. “He has them going into positions that, again, we don’t normally see the body going into—like a rubber doll sometimes.”

“It’s not easy dancing, and it took them a little while,” he adds, referring to the dancers cast in the piece, “but they got it.” Joby Talbot’s clashing, brass-heavy score was difficult in a different sense: not something that Tomasson would “sit down and listen to on its own,” he says. Layered with McGregor’s preening, elastic movement, though, it clicked: “I felt the score fit very well what he was doing. They came together.”
For the moment, Chroma, Polyphonia and Concerto DSCH have a broad appeal—which also stems from what they offer even the most accomplished dancers: a steep challenge. But for Tomasson, the term “new classic” inspires some skepticism. “It’s fantastic. It’s very now,” he says of Chroma. “Will it be very now in 20 years?” Andersen takes a similar stance. What makes something a classic? “Time,” he replies. “Time, time, time.”

Siobhan Burke is a New York dance writer. She contributes frequently to
The New York Times and Dance Magazine.






















Career
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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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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.

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They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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Summer Study Advice
The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.

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Pointe Stars
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

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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.

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