BWW Blog: Meet Stephen Campanella of American Repertory Ballet - On Varied Repertory
I have often heard the statement that "a ballet company should not be a museum," or words to that effect, whenever dancers or directors are discussing the repertory that should be performed, particularly in regional companies. It has always made me vaguely uneasy so I thought I would take this chance to work through some of the implications. I certainly understand and approve the philosophy of creation that underpins it; a museum is generally responsible solely for the display and maintenance of existing work, not for the creation of new work, whereas a ballet company not only performs the existing but is constantly involved in the creation of the new. My concerns about the statement come more from its tone, which generally implies two things: first, that work being produced now is by definition superior to, or at least more interesting than, work that was produced a century ago, and second, that audiences are uninterested in seeing those supposedly dry old dinosaurs.
Before going any further I must address a complaint commonly made about classical ballets, which is that they are stilted, overly mannered, artificial, merely technical vehicles, or all of the preceding. First, let us be honest and acknowledge that some are. Luckily, those are the ones that usually disappear. However, in general it is not the ballets themselves that suffer from those faults, it is the manner in which they are performed. A classical ballet is still a dance. It should not be treated as an academic exercise. If the emphasis is placed on, say, the height of the extension at the expense of dancing from the heart and the expression of humanity so essential to any form of dance, then it becomes a cold, boring, technical vehicle. Once that happens, people do indeed have good cause to question the value of classical work.
Obviously new work must be created; if it is not, then the repertory will indeed become stale with repetition. The number of ballets available from the past is finite, the number we can create in future is infinite. However, the age of a ballet has absolutely nothing to do with its quality. Old means old, not bad or good, and new means new, not good or bad. Both Balanchine's Serenade and Tudor's Jardin aux Lilas were choreographed in the mid 1930s and are as achingly beautiful and relevant today as they were then; time has done nothing to diminish their impact. This is true of other, lesser known works as well. Of course not all ballets are like fine wines, improving with age; after seeing certain pieces, even some by great choreographers, I understood perfectly why they had fallen out of the general repertory. That said, the only way I am able to judge is to see for myself, and seeing for oneself requires that those pieces be performed.
This leads me to point out the importance of exposing both dancers and audiences to the widest range of work possible. When I was a child, my mother had a simple rule for new food: I had to try it. If I did not like it, I did not have to eat it again, but she said, "You won't know until you try it." It works the same with ballets. The more you have seen, the better you know what you like and the more discerning you are in judging the quality of the work. Every generation also brings new audience members, who have not yet seen the same old ballet that we have all been performing forever. An eight year old's first Nutcracker is magical, whereas a dancer's three hundred and first Nutcracker is... ah... well... none of the adjectives that come to mind are acceptable in a public forum.