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.
Dance is about the audience more than it is about the dancer. For a dancer, ballet is a jealous lover that requires constant attention and leaves you for someone younger in the end no matter what you do. Consequently there is absolutely no reason to commit to the sacrifices it requires without loving it completely, utterly, and without reserve. Dancers do not go on stage, though, solely for their own fulfillment. They go to give our love of dance to all those who are watching. In order to share this love with the widest audience possible, they must appeal to the great variety of taste that exists in any large group of people. That entails doing a variety of work, from classical to contemporary. I remember reading that Fokine once raged that Diaghilev had no taste, that his choice of repertory for the Ballets Russes was a hodgepodge of random works displaying a complete lack of an aesthetic vision. Deliberately or not Fokine seems to have overlooked the fact that this varied repertory, composed of everything from the classicism of Petipa to the experimental work of Nijinsky, was an integral part of what made the Ballets Russes so memorable. When a company is in a large city with a vibrant arts scene, it has much more freedom to specialize, as there is an audience for practically every type of dance imaginable. Most regional companies do not have that same luxury. Granted, the standard of classical work in a regional company is not going to be the same as at the major companies. However, that does not mean it cannot be of a high quality, and it is in any event unlikely for the audience of a regional company to have regular access to live performances by the major companies.
Ballet is not as other art forms. In all other arts, performing, visual, and literary, there is almost always some sort of physical record that allows a work to survive. A painting may require cleaning, or a sculpture repair, but short of being torn to shreds or smashed to bits, they will survive. A symphony has a score that allows any musician who knows the standard notation to reproduce it. Ballet is still primarily dependent upon an oral tradition. The choreographer creates a ballet on the dancers, who, in that choreographer's absence, will later restage the work on other dancers. This is a chain composed of the fragile links of memory. Yes, video and notation can help. Unfortunately the former is often unreliable as a source; dancers make mistakes, the camera angles are odd or the quality of the recording is poor, the choreographer set different versions for different dancers, or changed it based on the size of the venue. The latter has a much better chance of being accurate, but there is no simple, universally accepted system that is taught to all dancers everywhere in the same way as musical notation. As things stand now, notating a ballet requires calling in a well trained specialist, which can be time consuming and expensive. Ballets therefore have a shelf life of about one generation before they are lost beyond recall. Granted, some ballets deserve to be confined to the footnotes of a choreographer's career, but not all, and it would be a pity to ignore a diamond just because it might be a rhinestone.
I do not in any way wish to disparage contemporary ballet in favor of ballets either classical or classic. Nor do I wish to suggest that a regional company with a full commitment to cutting edge work should change its mission. But what was once new is now old, and what is now new shall one day be old; the great classical works were once new, and the contemporary work being created now shall be old. I merely want to point out that to focus on one to the exclusion of the other impoverishes the dance world rather than enriching it, especially as it is all too easy for any ballet, new or old, to descend into oblivion.