Ballet excels at defying gravity. Lightness, ethereality, wispiness, symmetry, lineal order, chivalry and blissful endings to well-worn tales bestow on ballet a reputation as an art form that embraces divine beauty and design. But themes of grief, trauma, death, war, annihilation, exploitation, abuse, oppression and genocide do not frequently skim the surface sur la pointe. Bearing weighty burdens has traditionally found a place in the realm of modern dance in works such as Martha Graham's Lamentation, or Paul Taylor's image of Armageddon in Last Look.
But beyond shimmering tutus and pristine arabesques, there are other reasons why heavy issues seldom appear on the ballet stage. Taking on a serious subject requires a serious treatment. A ballet about terrorism could easily trivialize the subject through melodrama or prettification. Classical vocabulary was born from noble demeanor in the royal courts; in the wrong hands, it can seem limited in registering the mood of a sordid subject or for expressing disturbing behavior. Add to that the industry's marketing directors and board members, tempted towards steering directors and choreographers away from challenging ballets for fear of poor ticket sales.
Still, there is a small, but potent, tradition of ballets that have embraced dark themes. The late Antony Tudor, who served as American Ballet Theatre's choreographer emeritus, gravitated towards disquieting topics. His Dark Elegies, set to Gustav Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, is a masterwork, a ritualistic meditation on mass death affecting a small European community. More than any other piece of choreography, it spoke to the inexplicable losses after the terrorist attacks on 9/11: How do we absorb and move on from such grave loss?
Many of Tudor's ballets ventured into deep, unsettled waters. He insisted on unadorned simplicity, allowing the movement to speak for itself. No operatic gestures or mugging. No pyrotechnical feats. Just pure ballet vocabulary, connected by the honesty of eloquent transitions, woven into art, reflecting life and human character. An arabesque in meaningful context is not just an arabesque. And that's why it works.
Another ballet that transfigures simplicity into genius, Kurt Jooss' The Green Table from 1932, still sends a penetrating anti-war message. All the archetypes (apart from the squabbling diplomats)—soldiers, a profiteer, a guerrilla insurgent, an elderly woman, a vulnerable girl—are usurped or impacted by the figure of Death. When I danced with the Joffrey Ballet in the mid-1970s, we performed The Green Table in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Russian audiences, startled that ballet could speak this language, wholly grasped the universality of the message: War destroys. Robert Joffrey always programmed The Green Table last on repertoire evenings. Anything else seems frivolous and empty afterwards.
At the end of the 20th century, Kenneth MacMillan dabbled in darkness. His Mayerling depicts the murder-suicide of the Austrian Crown Prince Rudolf's mistress and himself. William Forsythe's Love Songs, one of his first successes, examines the ugly trysts of yuppies, darkly and humorously at odds with the Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick songs to which it is set.
Which brings us directly into the present. Two choreographers, Jessica Lang and Stephen Mills, have stepped into the dark with some success both artistically and commercially. At first, both were wary about creating anything concerning the subjects they explored. For Lang, it was post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers; for Mills, it was the Holocaust.
Three years ago, Jessica Lang Dance's board president, a former marine, told the choreographer he wanted to see the arts highlight more issues that veterans face. For her research, she interviewed soldiers with PTSD and therapists who specialized in its treatment. "I didn't want to try anything literal and I didn't want it to be an imitation of war," says Lang. The resulting work, Thousand Yard Stare (referring to the term for the unfocused gaze of a shell-shocked soldier), is one of the most requested works in her repertoire. The ballet, set to the passionate third movement of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 15, evokes the interplay of discipline and exhaustion through its militaristic formations, soldierly camaraderie and slogging bodies.
Above all, Lang wanted to respect the soldiers' experiences. "I wanted to make sure it was honorable without exploiting anything," she says. "I wanted to come from a place of realness, and I did because of my connection with the veterans."
Is she surprised that audiences embrace Thousand Yard Stare? "It's interesting it has resonated with so many," she says. The work has been greeted by cheers and tears in both red states and blue states, because it presents a physical, multidimensional view of the issue. For the dancers, the responsibility of the task and the intensity of the movement have been challenging. "They can't not bring their soul onto the stage every time we do it," says Lang.
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the American instigation of war in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Stephen Mills, the artistic director of Ballet Austin, questioned what he, an artist, could do about these serious situations. A professor friend introduced him to Naomi Warren, a survivor of three Nazi concentration camps. "She told me that we are all citizens of the world and that artists have every responsibility to use whatever platform and influence they have to contribute in socially responsible ways," says Mills. "It was with her I began the journey."
After two years of exhaustive research trips to Holocaust museums, visits to eight Polish, German and Czech concentration camp sites, and time spent in Israel with survivors, Mills was ready to focus on Warren's story. "It was a narrative I could handle safely," he says, "without fear of co-opting someone's story or standing on a landmine." The greatest challenge, he says, was to process so many ideas and convincingly relate Warren's tragic, emotional story with authenticity.
Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project, premiered in 2005 at Ballet Austin, acts as a metaphor for Warren's journey. It begins with Warren's early life and moves into a world of fear and degradation. But from the horror, a spirit triumphs. Everywhere it has been performed, the work has spurred discussions about citizen responsibility when confronted by acts of bigotry and hate, a timely subject, indeed. Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project has been performed by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Colorado Ballet, and, this season, Nashville Ballet will present it.
In 2018, Mills will premiere another full-length ballet called Exit Wounds, a triptych of stories about courageous people, including those who have faced the AIDS epidemic. "Art is in a different place in the world," says Mills. "The only way we'll continue to be viable is if we remain relevant in people's lives. When I develop and curate work, I keep that in mind." Right on, I say.
Fluffy story ballets have their place, especially in satisfying budgetary and escapist needs. But let ballet be a thinking art form, either through masterful composition and musicality, bold imagination, smart collaborations—or by relating to contemporary issues that allow us to reckon with lives filled with both light and darkness.