Don't believe the diagnosis in Jennifer Homans' Apollo's Angels. 

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 15 2010 10:11 AM

Is Ballet Really Dying?

Don't believe the diagnosis in a new history of the classical tradition.

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Throughout, Homans stresses that ballet "is a deeply conservative and insular art that resists change," linking it to beauty and nostalgia and noble ideals. But this truth is not the whole truth. As Homans herself documents, ballet was continually adapting, even as it retained certain core values. The Russian courts, for example, mimicked French high culture under Peter the Great, importing (and inevitably altering) ballet as a key element of a larger Westernization campaign that stretched from fashion to language. Roughly 200 years later, the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev electrified Paris with his star-laden, modernist-thinking Ballets Russes, in part offering the French an exotic fantasy of Russia.

The Russian-born Balanchine was part of this heady Ballets Russes cocktail. He spent the bulk of his game-changing career in New York, forging a new, American tradition—one that grew from his roots in Imperial Russia but soon encompassed a radical modern aesthetic. His choreography incorporated the speed, sexiness, and wit of his adopted city, drawing ballet into an exhilarating conversation with great composers like Stravinsky. In doing so, he forever changed the larger classical tradition.

It is fitting that Homans give this towering figure his due. But her writing at times tips into hagiography and leaves little room for American developments beyond New York. She devotes barely a paragraph or two to modern-dance choreographers like Twyla Tharp who have made some of the more culturally attuned contributions to ballet in recent decades. Perhaps Homans feels these hybrid examples fall outside her very narrow definition of the classical tradition, which increasingly backs ballet into the airless little corner she bemoans in her epilogue. (Likewise, she gives almost no mention to much more widespread European developments in combining the two dance genres.)

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Of course, in a survey of this sort, one must always pick and choose. But Homans declines to include any post-Balanchine developments except to vaguely lament today's "unimaginative imitation" and "strident innovation" as indicative of ballet's demise. Here, indeed, we see the tyranny of the beholder.

Chief among her omissions is the American choreographer William Forsythe, who is widely acknowledged to have changed the face of contemporary ballet at the end of the 20th century. By using (and often dismantling) the language and conventions of ballet itself, he pushed the form forward technically and intellectually, demonstrating how ballet could speak to a fractured world at a time when the great modern giants were going or gone. One can love or revile him for his dizzyingly layered worlds, where explosive, slippery movement is increasingly only one aspect of a larger theatrical exploration. To barely acknowledge his existence is mind-boggling. (Homans includes him in one footnoted aside.)

And what of the newest generation of choreographers: the Russian Alexei Ratmansky, who is pushing the muscular Soviet tradition in intriguing directions, mixing it with Western ideas in ways that would have been impossible to imagine during the Cold War? Or the Englishman Christopher Wheeldon, an heir to Frederick Ashton and Balanchine, who is searching for new ways of telling stories through abstraction? We don't yet know if what these artists are doing will stand the test of time (that dubious phrase). But in their hands, ballet—now far from a matter of state, and thank goodness—remains a mutable, livinglanguage.

Claudia La Rocco writes about performance for the New York Times and is an editor-at-large for the Brooklyn Rail. She is a member of the Off the Park press, where she is currently editing an anthology of poems by painters.