A Future For The Past

Why classicism matters today.
Published in the April/May 2008 issue.

The 75th anniversary of San Francisco Ballet this year is a reminder of how much ballet has changed. This season alone, SFB company members are expected to dance a full-length Giselle, neoclassical works by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and contemporary fare from Jorma Elo, Val Caniparoli and Mark Morris, among others. And SFB’s repertoire isn’t the only one to ever-diversify. Aside from solely contemporary troupes, the major ballet companies of the U.S.—including keepers of the classics like American Ballet Theatre and traditionally neoclassical companies like Pacific Northwest Ballet—are giving dancers material that departs from the classical idiom. So in an age where ballet dancers must be able to do a lot more than 32 fouettés, why does classicism still count?

Though “the classics” hearken back to the 19th-century ballets of Marius Petipa, the aesthetic qualities of classicism inform works of today. “Even in contemporary works, you can see the sensibilities and the rudimentary technique dancers have learned in classical ballet,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet Artistic Director Peter Boal, who brought such thoroughly modern choreographers as Twyla Tharp and Molissa Fenley to PNB this year.

Still, as companies continue to present work that doesn’t make use of the classical vocabulary, dancers have to wonder if those sweat-filled years spent perfecting technique in ballet school were in preparation for an artistic future that is different than expected. “I’ve spoken to a lot of ballerinas at different companies I’ve worked with and they say, ‘Sometimes we go months without even putting our pointe shoes on,’” says Texas Ballet Theater Artistic Director Ben Stevenson, who stages and choreographs in the classical idiom. “There’s a lot of work being done without pointe shoes, but dancers still like doing pointework.”

Why bother learning how to dance La Bayadère if you’ll spend half your career in slippers or even barefoot? The answer is that the value of classical training is intrinsic, regardless of where you end up. “Let’s say you are cast in the leading role of Swan Lake—it’s quite demanding and you have to carry the whole evening on your shoulders,” says SFB Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson. “That is very different from dancing a third of an evening in a work that has only one act. That’s why principal dancers love to dance [the classics]. They want to be challenged; it’s an important experience in their development as artists and great dancers.”

Students intent on a professional career should continue to learn variations from 19th-century classics such as Sleeping Beauty and add a few from 20th-century classics such as The Four Temperaments, even as they broaden their physical horizons with knowledge of modern and postmodern works. New ballet works naturally reference what has come before, whether they pay homage to or subvert the classical aesthetic, which means dancers need to know what came before.

“Classical ballet” is a style, a genre, a higher aesthetic order—the term means many things to many people. Traditionally, it refers to the ballets created by Petipa from 1877 to 1898 in Russia, but it also encompasses works by August Bournonville, Jules Joseph Perrot and other 19th-century choreographers. At the very least, classical ballet has a distinct vocabulary that, when put together by a master choreographer, can transport both dancer and viewer into a sublime and beautiful world.

This is one reason audiences love the classics. As Tomasson says, “What’s not to like about the second act of Swan Lake?” For many balletomanes, work that makes use of the classical vocabulary continues to resonate, whether it’s Kenneth MacMillan’s full-length Romeo and Juliet or Peter Martins’s newest version.

But these works do have their critics. “There’s a sense of women just being manipulated in lifts,” says dance historian and critic Lynn Garafola. “Considering that women of a certain generation have all gone through second-generation feminism, there is a notion that, well, women can stand on their own two feet, even ballet dancers. There’s also a feeling that we don’t need to see that someone can get their leg up to their ear or do a penché that’s over 180 degrees. We’ve seen that already.”

Even so, century-old and older full-lengths continue to sell tickets. “Audiences revisit a work over and over again and build up very long viewing memories,” says Garafola. “”It’s much easier to take pleasure in what is familiar.” 

Yet as familiar as these works are, anyone who has seen several productions of a classic over the years has probably noticed how much it can change. “Ballet is not some timeless essence,” says Garafola. “The notion of a classical art as an art that is somehow impervious to change is wrong.” Even with the most meticulous attempts at preservation, ballets evolve.

Bournonville’s Napoli looks nothing today like it did in 1842. Likewise, the Serenade that premiered in 1934 differs from the one danced in 2007. Such evolution keeps ballets from becoming museum pieces. Instead, they are alive and culturally relevant.            

Of course, what we consider classics today were, at one time, contemporary with their times and thus reflect that era’s tastes and influences. For example, Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia is a comment on Balanchine’s Agon. Agon, in turn, is Balanchine’s commentary on court dances. “What’s so beautiful about this profession is that you can watch the progressions through time,” says Boal. “You can watch George Balanchine, who was influenced by Marius Petipa, taking that classical ballet form and pushing it and reinventing it. Then you can see William Forsythe, who wanted to take the aesthetic that Balanchine was building and push it out in new directions. It’s all progressive, but you can’t abandon the base, because it’s part of appreciating the present.”

Even though ballet dancers must excel in non-classical work, there is still a place for classicism in today’s dance world, as seen in the works of choreographers like Wheeldon, Tomasson, Stevenson and others. “You don’t need to abandon classical technique or the use of the pointe shoe or even the use of the tutu,” says Boal. “There’s still so much that can be done and expressed and said and commented on. It’s a language, and there’s no limit to what we can create with a language.”

For many, the question is not about the survival of classicism, but where it will go next. “It’s really up to these new choreographers to forge ahead in the same way Balanchine was using Petipa as a stepping stone,” says Stevenson. “There’s this wonderful tapestry that happens where all these things knit together. It’s like people writing music. Some of the best composers are doing movies, but without Chopin, these people wouldn’t have the background to go forward.”

Kristin Lewis is an editor based in New York City.