Power and fragility of ballet: three months after the conference in Stockholm


Inta Balode

Ballet within the contemporary world – it is always an interesting issue to discuss. Any well-planned and well-meant event dedicated to the role of ballet become like an avalanche continuing to add new and new considerations and ideas even the even itself happened a while ago. So it is with me and the international conference BALLET: WHY AND HOW? hosted by Balettakademien in Stockholm from September 13 to 15, 2012. Right after the conference my head was so full that there was no way to offer more or less logical thoughs. Besides, all the things discussed kept coming up on daily basis while writing and watching ballet and contemporary dance. So this will be extremely subjective listing of just a few topics discussed during the conference which still feel very important even after almost three months of digesting of information. Some questions discussed in the conference came back even more sharply because of the latest events in Latvian dance such as the Gala concert dedicated to 90th anniversary of Latvian National Ballet, which took place on December 15.

The conference “Ballet: why and how?” was organized in partnership with ArtEZ School of Dance, Arnhem, Netherlands and in co-operation with The Juilliard School, Dance Division, New York, U.S.A. The aim of the conference was to provide an international forum for the exchange of ideas and expertise concerning the role of ballet in the professional life and education of the dancers of the future; specifically those whose goal is contemporary or commercial/jazz dance. After mentioning just some speakers there is no more need for further comments about the scale and ambitions of the conference. They were: Sungsoo Ahn, Choreographer and Artistic Director the Pick-up Dance Company, Ohad Naharin, Choreographer and Artistic Director, Batsheva Dance Company, Israel; Lawrence Rhodes, Director of the Juilliard School’s Dance Division, USA; Cristina Caprioli, Founder of the independent dance company CCAP and Professor of Choreography at the University of Dance and Circus, Stockholm; Elisabeth Platel, Director, the Paris Opéra Ballet School; Johannes Öhman, Artistic Director the Royal Swedish Ballet; Ana Laguna (Dancer of the Swedish Court).

Here come my top of themes/problems discussed during the conference. Most of them are commented based on both the conference and the situation in Latvia. I thought about making at least some conclusions but then I realized that all those are still only questions:

1. Target groups and contents of the conference or what it was for?

This question turned out to be not that simple even if it sounded very clear from the announcement where it was said: “How to maximize the benefits of ballet training for their students; which methods to choose, what differences there should or should not be compared to “traditional” ballet training and other related issues. “How” to train ballet? “Why” to train ballet? “Why and how” should ballet classes be available for the professional free-lance or company dancer? “Ballet: Why and How?” will offer is open debate, the opportunity to gain from others’ experience and to see established practices in a new light.”

Those are very important questions to address in a very constructive way. Still not everything went that way. It seemed that with almost every speaker the atmosphere heats up more and more. And not because  of meeting of different pedagogical approaches and nuances in training of dancers with different aims. Conference (here I mean mainly what happened in the audience not speakers) turned into the most cliché thing of the last decades in ballet – harsh protection of the art form through saying that others are wrong/unprofessional/not-ballet/not-dance etc. I don’t know exactly why it happened but it definitely reminded how important it is to talk, to talk till other side starts to listen.

My guess is that may be wrong people came, wrong for the offered topic? Instead of teachers working with non-ballet dancers the majority was clearly very classically oriented pedagogues who would never question the role of ballet because they work only for and with ballet? May be the title was wrong “Ballet why and how?” turned to be a little too much provoking – without reading further it just sounds as discussing should ballet continue existence and if should may be it should change. And it was not exactly what the organizers wanted to discuss. Perhaps some of the “goings wrong” brought up even more important topics, may be ballet’s destiny in contemporary world worries people much more than specific discussion about teaching? Of course, themes are interrelated, but maybe there is just not enough time spent on figuring out what “each dance” is and what it does and should they compete or not, should one be over others or not etc.? It links further to the fact that in order to take part in the conference people had to pay a lot, so the question is about willing to pay for something what gives answers to the most crucial questions. This is in case person pays himself/herself. Other thing is if the organization pays and the organizations who can afford paying are the big and stable and state funded ones – in many countries ballet schools, academies, large ballet companies. I don’t know many contemporary freelance dancer/teacher who could afford paying. And they might be good target group for the themes offered. Also in contemporary dance field informal networking is so much more developed than in ballet that may be they didn’t see particular reason to participate in formal events? From Latvia none of dance teachers came. And they knew that the event takes place, and it is so close. One more reminder how badly linked we are despite the different foundations promoting Nordic Baltic collaboration. I still know much more what happens in dance in the USA than in Sweden.

What can we do to make dance united? How to make clear that even if there are different dances, dance as an art form where human body is in the center is one? Is there are hope that the right and possibilities for all dance forms will be the same one day? Is it possible that one day contemporary dance and ballet people will talk in a way that they hear and appreciate each other?

2. Is ballet linked to the politics?

Quick answer is yes, of course, it is! When getting into details many things come up. On the top level ballet is always a prestigious thing – not that people care a about quality so much but it often happens in decorated with gold theaters and it’s must go to meet other members of elite. As the marketing director of one ballet company said: “We sell ballet to the people who buy pearls and Mercedes”. And it’s very right, ballet has always been part of upper class entertainment and had and still has nothing to do with the middle and lower class preferences in arts and entertainment. Except the latest trends where ballet becomes like a circus, then it fits everyone who would like to watch circus – the wish to see tricks is as old as the world – still the “Swan Lake” version where ballerina stands on point on the head of the man is not my favorite.

On the other hand people doing ballet don’t think and don’t see things from this political angle, they believe in their job, they do it and they protect it and they don’t like all those freaks from contemporary world claiming that they are also professional. Still it is so often mostly about – who gets money? Small countries, for example, Luxemburg, Cyprus, they don’t support ballet, don’t see any reasons to start investing in arts form which has no history in their countries. So we can conclude that ballet doesn’t enter new places, it’s more about sticking to power. That’s why so many companies are for ages run by the same people. That’s why so many myths and demagogies are kept about ballet. Quite from the director of Latvian National opera: “We should be proud that such a small country as Latvia has such a big ballet company”. Why should we if many Latvians have never been to ballet, if there are only couple boys sent to ballet school lately? Can anybody explain why ballet is so politically and culturally important? On our side of the world nobody really tries to explain because the usual discourse about the ballet is “big words without any explanation”.

How to provide the balance in ballet between money, influence, tradition and quality and sustainability of art form? Should ballet become more open in talking about why it is great and in confessing that not everything is great only because it’s ballet? Is ballet which climbs over the ballet and becomes acrobatics or something else perversion or development of the ballet arts?

3. Where do dancers go after the school? What happens if they don’t get the expected job?

There are fields in which young people are more flexible than in others. Ballet, especially in small countries like Latvia, has very special situation. If you go to the state ballet school (Riga Choreography School) you expect to be taken to Latvian National Ballet company. Of course, you know that it might not happen but the aim is clear. It’s not that you are becoming dancer to later decide where to work, you have one option for a job (there are no other fully paid dance jobs in Latvia). Following if not the only ballet company, most likely young dancer feels disoriented about what to do.

This topic got discussed within the conference, only some schools think about teaching dancers to feel fine if they don’t get in the company they expected to. It’s not such a big problem with large schools which prepare dancers for international market but with national ones it’s a real trouble. Of course, we can always say – world is global go wherever you want but it’s not right that at home there is only one option. In Latvia there is another option – to take the route of contemporary dancer and/or choreographer and study contemporary dance at the Latvian Academy of Culture. And some ballet school graduates do that (also some who would get into the ballet company), but in contemporary dance once you are out of the academy, the option is actually being only freelancer. Besides – as freelance status is not legally defined yet, it means having trouble with social security.

How to teach students in a way so they don’t feel paralyzed once they don’t get into the ballet company? How to provide normal circumstances for the ones who choose to take the route of contemporary or jazz dancer? Should ballet get over the old style attitude – don’t talk just do it!?

4. Is ballet technique or aesthetics? Can one live without another? Does ballet aesthetic posses copyrights to the movements?

The discussion around those questions was very important and there is no way for fast and easy answers. But it’s definitely worth to continue asking. After the above mentioned ballet Gala concert at the Latvian National Opera I though about what happen with the technique and aesthetics within the ballet, especially in Latvia. Our National Ballet has always presented itself as classical repertoire company performing most of the big classical ballets. Within the gala concert excerpts from “Nutcracker”, “Bayadere”, “Giselle”, “Swan Lake”, “Corsair” were shown. Next to our dancers guests from Moscow and Hamburg were also performing. Even if Latvian critics for last years try tell than not everything is great with the technical skills of the company nobody really listens. This concert perfectly demonstrated the differences between our dancers and guests (not all of whom were superstars). Our dancers seem to be doing ballet more as a stiff, tensed, dead dance: hands don’t live, faces are not happy, performing hard elements is complicated and not fun at all. I am exaggerating a little bit, but just to lead towards the sense of different training. Not that our teachers don’t know what the pure, classical form or Russian ballet is. It is more about that they are so tired and exhausted, and not updated about new ways to talk to people. Sparkle is lost – technique without pleasure of dancing is not only gymnastics its forced early morning gymnastic for night owls.

Regarding aesthetics I see differences in classical ballet performances in the level of truth and in the way dancers present themselves. By truth I mean the extent to which dancers are to believe and become princes and princesses. By the way dancers present themselves I mean little things as the way of bowing (not in sense of shape but attitude), as facial expressions, as joy and pride for success, and decent way of accepting some imperfections in their performance. When we look at those aspects we can see the combination of the preserving and evolving in the ballet. People change we cannot be people of 19th century anymore, we cannot have body of that time and attitude and brain of that time. And it’s not that the old glory is lost, it is just so much fun to look at what happens if contemporary person tries to play with that particular time and style. And it makes easier to believe that I am princess, the sadness of the times when there were real princesses goes away.

How to make ballet alive even within the ballet itself, within the most classical productions? Does ballet’s alternative life outside ballet (in contemporary, jazz etc. training) is something for ballet world to look at and bring back in things that are fresh yet still fitting both technique and aesthetics? Is the following quote I heard in the conference right: “Good dancer is when you don’t see the school she comes from”?

5. What was first human body or ballet?

I know the question sounds very funny and impossible, but there was a moment during the conference when the discussion got to that point. So great that there were speakers who could remind and prove that body is first. Also the good news are that already for decades many teachers have realized that body matters and that knowledge of body not only provides healthier life for a dancer but also adds quality and beauty to the dancing. Knowledge and smart use of the instrument (human body) makes happy both sides – audience and dancers. Why it is so hard to introduce body work methods into the curriculum of the ballet schools? Why there is resistance to modern knowledge? Should ballet always remain very bloody and traumatic in order to keep its elitism? I doubt people care so much about how hard it is, they care more about what they see. So starting from the human body seems logical to get to the ballet, but unfortunately still in many cases ballet resists to what we know about human body. When I see hands of our dancers I know that even couple classes where they would be told about the energy lines coming out from each finger and linking hands to the universe, would add so much of life. I know what I’m talking about – I was shy and uncomfortable for years that I have so long arms. I was shy till I went to the good dance class and started feeling my arms, hands and fingers, and I got proud and happy that I have such beautiful hands.

What is the best way to integrate body work techniques into ballet and other dance training? What is natural, healthy body and does it resists ballet? Do we see dance arts as overcoming body limits or exploring and finding our body in its full and harmonious use?

6. Does dancer has right to be professional without ballet?

On one hands it seems long answered because there are so many companies in the world that dance modern, jazz, contemporary etc. and are professionals and get paid, and are just great. On the other hand once we start looking deeper in very many cases we see that skill in ballet technique decides whether it is professional dancer or not. Do we call experts in folk dance professional dancers, even if they know everything in smallest detail? Very many dance schools even if none of their students will do any classical ballet in their lives, they still include ballet classes in the curriculum. And this was the main question conference posed – is it needed and if it is then in which way ballet should be taught? I think having ballet in the programs is easier and already taken path. Ballet has been taught for much longer than other techniques so it’s easier to know what it gives, how it develops body. It is as a stable reference point. Other techniques which are not so old might be able to achieve the same thing and may be in faster and better way but they still need to be researched. At the same time we see that better dancers are the ones who’s training integrates some new methods both in ballet training as well as the total layout of the curriculum. Many participants of the conference would say that you can dance without ballet but you will never be professional. I see the phrase: “Ballet is the base of everything!” as pure demagogy. Recently a ballet teacher in Latvia said that you need to be trained in ballet in order to do hip-hop! She is said in some press conference during dance fair. Later I told her that this is bullshit. She said that, of course, she knows it is bullshit but this is something you need to say.

Where lays the professionalism of folk and hip-hop dancers because they don’t do ballet? Does ballet is the only professional dance because it usually lives within best funded arts institutions – is professional one who gets paid more?

I could go on and on writing for pages about different aspects, about particular sessions, about how we all danced together, how we had coffee together, how we could not leave and go to sleep because there was something else and again something else to discuss. And each answer opened doors to five more questions. Still there is one conclusion next to thousands of questions which need lots of thinking and analyzing, and implementing.

The conclusion: Dance is, dance is one, all people who dance are family, they all know something special about what dance is and that’s why it’s so great that the people were brought together and talked. No matter who came, no matter where the talks led to, no matter how much resistance was against one or another idea of statement. I am absolutely sure that for those who came together many seeds for future thoughts were planted and those thoughts are contagious. I truly believe that the times of dumb ballet dancers are over and smart ballet dancers are making world not only more beautiful but also better place to live in. Million thanks to the great organizers! Waiting for the next one “Ballet: Here and Now”, which will be held in Holland and hosted by the ArtEZ School of Dance in 2015! I think here in Latvia we also need a conference called “Ballet: Here and Now” – the Gala concert convinced me that without talking and analyzing, and listening things just go who knows where.