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Is Ballet Over?

In the years following the Balanchine’s death his angels fell, one by one, from their heights. Classical ballet, which had achieved so much in the course of the twentieth century, entered a slow decline. It was not just New York: from London to St. Petersburg, and Copenhagen to Moscow, ballet seemed to grind to a crawl, as if the tradition itself had become clogged and exhausted. In part this could be explained by generational change: by the turn of the twenty-first century the artists who had made ballet so vibrant were dead and retired. Balanchine, Robbins, and Tudor; Stravinsky and Kirstein; Ashton, Keynes, and de Valois; Lupokhov, Larovsky, and Vaganova—they were all gone, and the dancers who had brought their ballets and so many others to life had left or retired from the stage.

Today’s artists—their students and heirs—have been curiously unable to rise to the challenge of their legacy. They seem crushed and confused by its iconoclasm and grandeur, unable to build on its foundation yet unwilling to throw it off in favor of a vision of their own. Contemporary choreography veers aimlessly from unimaginative imitation to strident innovation usually in the form of gymnastic or melodramatic excess, accentuated by overzealous lighting and special effects. This taste for unthinking athleticism and dense thickets of steps, for spectacle and sentiment, is not the final cry of a dying artistic era; it represents a collapse of confidence and a generation ill at ease with itself and uncertain of its relationship to the past.

For performers, things are no easier. Committed and well-trained dancers are still in good supply, but very few are exciting or interesting enough to draw or hold an audience. Technically conservative, their dancing is opaque and flat, emotionally dimmed. And although many can perform astonishing stunts, the overall level of technique has fallen. Today’s dancers are more brittle and unsubtle, with fewer half-tones than their predecessors. Uncertainty and doubt have crept in. Many of today’s dancers, for example, have a revealing habit: they attack steps with apparent conviction—but then at the height of the step they shift or adjust, almost imperceptibly, as if they were not quite at ease with its statement. This is so commonplace that we hardly notice. But we should: these adjustments are a kind of fudging, a way of taking distance and not quite committing (literally) to a firm stand. With the best of intentions, the dancer thus undercuts her own performance. There are, to be sure, dancers whose larger vision and more sophisticated technique set them apart—Diana Vishneva (Kirov/Maryinksy), Angel Corella (American Ballet Theatre), or Alina Cojocaru (Royal Ballet)—but too often they waste their talent in mediocre new works or plow their energies into reviving the old.

Especially the old. Today the modernist proviso “make it new” has been superseded. In dance as in so much else, we have entered an age of retrospective. This means, above all, the nineteenth-century Russian classics, and audiences everywhere are awash in productions of Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty. In one sense, this is nothing new. The twentieth-century Moderns, as we have seen, self-consciously set their art on these very same foundations. But they had a confidence and connection to these dances that today’s artists lack: they grew up in the shadow of the nineteenth century. Thus when Balanchine choreographed Raymonda Variations or The Nutcracker, he was drawing on nostalgic memories of productions he had seen as a child in St. Petersburg. Yet these stages were emphatically his own, never slavish reproductions. Ashton mounted Swan Lake so beautifully because he was at once emerged in Russian classicism and free from its orthodoxies. Even in the Soviet Union, where ideology often obscured choreography, many artists shared—and valued—their direct links to the Imperial past.

The current generation of dancers and choreographers faces a more difficult situation. They are far removed from the nineteenth century and know it only secondhand. Hence, perhaps, their anxiety to preserve the past, as if the tradition were at risk of ebbing away. There is a palpable desire to hold on: slippage and erosion are acutely felt and much discussed today. The result, however, is ironic: the world’s major ballet companies—companies that built their reputations on new work—have now become museums for the old. The ubiquitous presence of reconstructors, notators, and directors—ballet’s curators and conservators—rather than choreographers is further evidence of this obsession with preservation. London’s Royal Ballet and New York’s American Ballet Theatre have both devoted vast resources in recent years to new productions of The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. Even the New York City Ballet, vanguard of modernism, now has its own full-length productions of these nineteenth-century classics with new but blandly conventional choreography.

But nowhere have the classics been more important—or controversial—than in Russia. By the end of the Cold War, Russian artists were deeply ambivalent about Soviet culture and their own past, many were eager to excise or forget the dances they had grown up with, tainted as they were by totalitarianism and a failed social experiment. One way to do this was to “bracket” the twentieth century and reclaim the Imperial heritage. Thus the Kirov, named after Stalin’s minister, became once again the Maryinksy Theater (except for touring: Kirov sells tickets, Maryinsky does not).

Some years later the company added two “new-old” jewels to its repertory: lavish reconstructions of the original Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadere. These productions were painstakingly pieced together, like large mosaics, from fragments of past knowledge: Nokolai Sergeyev’s (incomplete) choreographic notes in a now-defunct notation system, old costume and set designs, printed and visual sources, interviews, snatches of memory. Where the texts fell silent, as they often did, ballet masters retouched “in the style of.” The result was historically and politically riveting but artistically moribund; what is gained in authenticity is lost in art.

The same is true of the more recent past. Today the work of Balanchine, Ashton, Tudor, Robbins, Zakharov, Lavrovsky, and Grigorovich is being preserved, filmed, and set for future generations. In this spirit, there has been an impressive effort to revive or document lost works, especially those of George Balanchine. His known works are now copyrighted and controlled by a trust established after his death (comparable organizations control the works of Robbins, Tudor, and Ashton). If a company wishes to mount one of his ballets, they must apply to the trust, which dispatches repetiteurs—dancers who worked with the ballet master directly—to stage the work.

In this way, many of Balanchine’s ballets have become standard repertory—classics—for companies around the world, perhaps most notably at the Kirov/Maryinsky, which has been eager to reclaim the St. Petersburg born Balanchine as their own posthumous prodigal son. The result has been welcome, if ironic: today Balanchine’s ballets are danced with at least as much vigor and interest in St. Petersburg, Paris, and Copenhagen as they are in New York.

The twentieth-century masters also remain the cornerstone of the companies they helped found. The ballets of Balanchine and Robbins dominate the NYCB repertory, Tudor has a strong presence at Ballet Theatre, and, after years of unforgiveable neglect, the Royal Ballet now dotes on Ashton. Celebrations of their work abound. “Balanchine technique” has even been codified and enshrined: there are books and DVDs by his dancers detailing its principles and practices. Here too there are problems, however. Balanchine’s style never stood still—it was an expansive and open-ended way of thinking that changed over time and with each dancer. The more the steps (and the ways to do them) have become fixed, the less they recall the era. Consequently, at NYCB the understandable desire to preserve its masters’ legacy has led instead to a stifling orthodoxy.

These old ballets are now housed in stately new theaters, steel and stone monuments to a fragile and ephemeral past. In the years following Balanchine’s death, the New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet acquired shiny new facilities as Lincoln Center. In 1989 Paris got the Bastille Opera House, a charmlessly modern tribute to the cultural ambitions of the French state; London’s Covent Garden, home to the Royal Ballet, reopened ten years later after a $360 million renovation; and in 2005 Copenhagen and the Royal Danish Ballet outdid them all with a palatial new $442 million state-of-the-art opera house built by a local businessman (the ceiling is studded with 105,000 sheets of 24-karat gold leaf). Not to be left behind, Moscow’s crumbling Bolshoi Theater is undergoing a major face-lift.

Ironically, however, the great national traditions—English, Russian, French, and American—these memory palaces are meant to house have all but ceased to exist. The Cold War is over: the “us and them” thinking that shaped Soviet and Western ballet styles no longer matters. Dancers from Russia and the former Soviet bloc, but also from Cuba and South America, are flocking to the West. Europe has no borders. Thus, to take the most obvious example, England’s Royal Ballet is not so very English anymore: Romanian, Danish, Spanish, Cuban, and French dancers fill its ranks. Indeed, by 2005 only two of its sixteen principle dancers were British. This has provoked hand-wringing and a halfhearted backlash: the recently established Fonteyn-Nureyev Ballet Competition, for example, was explicitly designed to encourage British children to take up the art. But nobody really believes this will happen. If anything, the Royal Ballet has been saved by its willingness to open its ranks to the world: what vitality the company now possesses comes from its international breadth, not its English depth.

Everywhere national distinctions have been flattened into a common international style. Dancers from St. Petersburg and New York, London, Paris, and Madrid are practically interchangeable. More than that, they want to be like each other, to absorb whatever they did not have before. The Russians want Balanchine’s speed and precision, the Americans want Russian grace, and everyone wants French chic and allure. It is not that all dancers look alike: the vestiges of national training remain—especially in Russia, which is still relatively isolated (the flow of talent is one way: out). But the lines have been visibly blurred. Rather than perfecting a native tongue, they speak a mellifluous hybrid language.

Living in an age of retrospective does not necessarily mean that dancers have an accurate grasp of the past. Consider the fate of Vaslav Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring, to Stravinsky’s celebrated score. After its original performance in 1913, Nijinsky’s choreography was completely forgotten. But this in no way diminished the ballet’s iconic stature, which only grew with time. In the 1970s Millicent Hodson, an American scholar and dancer from Berkeley, California, set out to bring the ballet back to life. Working with the designer Kenneth Archer, she meticulously reconstructed the dances. Since there was no record of the choreography, Hodson used Stravinsky’s annotated score, interviews, reviews, and contemporary sketches and rechoreographed the ballet, following Nijinsky’s ideas as she understood them. Her version was first performed by the Joffrey Ballet in 1987 and has since become a calling card of modernism: Hodson’s ballet has entered the repertory of the Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet in London, and the Kirov Ballet.

There is no reason to believe, however, that Hodson’s choreography has anything to do with Nijinsky’s. Her new Rite consists of ritualized stomping, sharply angled elbows, and flinging, free-form movements: it is American postmodern dance masquerading as a seminal modernist work. What was by all accounts a radical and shocking dance is thus rendered tame and kitschy, a souvenir from an exotic past. It is a sign of our times that some of the world’s most prestigious ballet companies rushed to embrace this travesty as a way to regain a past they had lost—or, in the case of the Kirov, never had. Rite was originally created by Poles and Russians in Paris; what the Kirov brought home was instead a “ready-made” pieced together from found historical objects by an American from Berkeley.   

Other periods in ballet’s history have been more fortunate. Since the 1970s Renaissance and baroque dances have returned to the stage, reconstructed by scholars and performers working across Europe and America. Here the ground is more solid. Although the dances are older, the notation systems developed at the time (and Feuillet’s in particular) remain legible today. Some of those involved have also found a foothold in American and European universities, where they have joined musicians interested in early music to spark a lively debate over interpretation and style. This is important, for the academy has traditionally focused rather narrowly on modern dance. The growing presence of scholarship on other periods represents a welcome expansion.

Never before, then, has the history of dance been so fully on display. If we cast an eye across the landscape of ballet today, that is what we will see. Through the frame of the proscenium arch, we can glimpse Renaissance or Baroque dance, Danish Romantic ballet, or the Russian Imperial tradition. There are, of course, vast gaps; we know little of the seminal ballets of Jean-Georges Novarre, and we have nothing from Pierre Gardel. Missing too are the danced dramas of Salvatore Vigano and the Russian ballets of Jules Perrot, among many others. Closer to our own time, we know little of Massine and less of Nijinsky. Even Balanchine is only partially represented—he created more than four hundred works, of which only a fraction remain today. None of this is really surprising: dances have always had a short half-life. The gaps are part of the tradition too.

However, thanks to technology, the gaps themselves may be a thing of the past. Film, video, and computers are changing the way dances are remembered. For the first time, we have a body of texts: many of the great works of the postwar era have been recorded on film, and today dances are routinely taped. Thus the problem of notation, which has vexed ballet for so long, may be resolved: who needs to memorize or write down a dance in an age of instant digital recall? Who needs an oral tradition—dancer to dancer—when you can watch it all up close, with options to pause and rewind? The electronic dissemination of ballets, foreshadowed by grainy bootlegged videotapes of American dances pirated by the Soviets and used to mount ballets they had barely seen in the flesh, has accelerated dramatically.

But film, video, and computer imaging may also be part of the problem. The dull, flat-screen look of today’s dances and dancers surely owes something to the media revolution. Learning a ballet from a screen, or even using film or video as a memory aid, can be disorienting and misleading. First, the dancer sees the ballet—a live three-dimensional form—as a two-dimensional image. Then she must transpose the flat, already diminished steps in mirror image, thus adding another layer of distance between the dancer and the dance. Moreover, the assumption that the film is true can be its own nemesis—rather like seeing the movie before reading the book: once the image of a performance is fixed in the mind’s eye, it is harder to imagine the ballet performed differently. Nor does video distinguish accidents and mistakes, idiosyncrasies and departures. Not surprisingly, some directors are using screens more sparingly, wary of closing off possibilities and encouraging the idea that the dance text is inflexible or fixed.

We are left with a paradox. We revere great ballets; we know—we remember—that ballet can be, as the critic Arlene Croce once put it, “our civilization.” Yet inside today’s brand-new theaters, a tradition is in crisis, unfocused and uncertain. We all know it; we talk reassuringly of patience and waiting, of safeguarding the past until the next genius comes along and lifts ballet’s fallen angels back into the sky. But the problem may run deeper. The old ballets look flat and depressed because the new ones do. If today’s ballets are mere shells, the reason may be that we no longer fully believe in them. We linger and hark back, shrouding ourselves in tradition and the past for good reason. Something important really is over. We are in mourning.

Classical ballet has always been an art of belief. It does not fare well in cynical times. It is an art of high ideals and self-control in which proportion and grace stand for an inner truth and elevated state of being. Ballet, moreover, is an etiquette as much as an art, layered with centuries of courtly conventions and codes of civility and politeness. This does not mean, however, that it is static. To the contrary, we have seen that when societies that nourished ballet changed or collapsed—as they did in the years around the French and Russian Revolutions—marks of the struggle were registered in the art.

That ballet could change from an aristocratic court art to one which captured a new bourgeois ethic; from pomp and ceremony to the inner world of dreams; and from Louis XIV to Taglioni, from Nijinsky to Fonteyn: this is a sign of its flexibility and malleability, and of its innovative character. Ballet has always and above all contained the idea of human transformation, the conviction that human beings could remake themselves in another, more perfect or divine image. It is this mixture of established social forms and radical human potential which has given the art such range, and which accounts for its prominence in otherwise divergent political cultures.

Today we no longer believe in ballet’s ideals. We are skeptical of elitism and skill, which seem to us exclusionary and divisive. Those privileged enough to obtain specialized training, so this thinking goes, should not be elevated above those with limited access to knowledge or art. We want to expand and include: we are all dancers now. Ballet’s fine manners and implicitly aristocratic airs, its white swans, regal splendor, and beautiful women on pointe (pedestals), seem woefully outmoded, the province of dead white men and society ladies in long-ago places.

Even the idea of a high art for the people and the twentieth-century ambition, lived out in different ways across Russia and the West, to open the gates of elite culture to a larger society has now stalled. Once again, as under Louis XIV, ballet is a privilege or private right largely reserved for connoisseurs and the wealthy. Tickets everywhere are costly; queues rarely form around the theater. In a small but telling departure, the New York State Theater, named for the people it served, was recently rechristened: it is now the David H. Koch Theater, for the millionaire whose ego and resources substitute for the public good. Balanchine had seen it coming: “après moi, le board.” This is of course not a new story: Balanchine also played lavishly to patrons. But then the tone was ironic and the dances superlative; now they are not.

As for the people, they have been forgotten. Not only in boardrooms preoccupied with the next gala, but by scholars, critics, and writers. Dance today has shrunk into a recondite world of hyperspecialists and balletomanes, insiders who talk to each other (often in impenetrable theory-laden prose) and ignore the public. The result is a regrettable disconnect: most people today do not feel they “know enough” to judge a dance.

The fragmentation and compartmentalization of culture do not help. We have grown accustomed to living in multiple private dimensions, virtual worlds sealed in ether: Myspace, Mymusic, Mylife. These worlds may be global and simultaneous, but they are by nature disembodied and detached. They are also fractured, niche environments and virtual “communities” based on narrow personal affinities rather than broad common values. Nothing could be further from the public, physically concrete, and sensual world of dance.

I grew up with ballet and have devoted my life to studying, dancing, seeing, and understanding it. I have always loved watching it. When I first began work on this book, I imagined it would end on a positive note. But in recent years I have found going to the ballet increasingly dispiriting. With depressingly few exceptions, performances are dull and lack vitality; theaters feel haunted and audiences seem blasé. After years of trying to convince myself otherwise, I now feel sure that ballet is dying. The occasional glimmer of a good performance or a fine dancer is not a ray of future hope but the last glow of a dying ember, and our intense preoccupation with re-creating history is more than a momentary diversion: we are watching ballet go, documenting its past and its passing before it fades altogether.

Could the decline be reversed? It is hard to see how. In western Europe and America ballet no longer holds a prominent place. The world of dance, moreover, is increasingly polarized: ballet is becoming ever more conservative and conventional, while contemporary experimental dance is retreating to the fringes of inaccessible avante-garde. The middle ground, where I first encountered ballet, is small and shrinking. In Russia and the former Soviet bloc ballet has greater stature: it still matters there more than anywhere else in the world. But there too, for different reasons, dance is polarized. Ballet represents the memory of a repressive and conformist Soviet state, and as a result, artists eager to embrace newfound freedoms have embraced the Western dance avant-garde (prohibited under the Soviets). Once again, the middle ground lies vacant.

For classical ballet to recover its standing as a major art would thus require more than resources and talent (the “next genius”). Honor and decorum, civility and taste would have to make a comeback. We would have to admire ballet again, not only as an impressive athletic display but as a set of ethical principles. Our contemporary infatuation with instability and fragmentation, with false pomp and sentiment, would have to give way to more confident beliefs. If that sounds conservative, perhaps it is; ballet has always been an art of order, hierarchy and tradition. But rigor and discipline are the basis for all truly radical art, and the rules, limits, and rituals of ballet have been the point of departure for its most liberating and iconoclastic achievements.

If we are lucky, I am wrong and classical ballet is not dying but falling instead into a deep sleep to be reawakened—like the Sleeping Beauty—by a new generation. The history of ballet, after all, abounds in spirits and ghosts, in hundred-year silences and half-remembered dreams, and The Sleeping Beauty has been its most constant companion and metaphor. At every important juncture, Beauty has been there: in the court of Louis XIV where ballet formally began; in late nineteenth-century St. Petersburg where Petipa, Tchaikovsky, and Vsevolozhsky awakened and elevated it to new heights; in the imaginations of Diaghilev and Stravinsky in 1921 as they clung to their own fast-receding past; and in the mind of Maynard Keynes as he sought to usher Britain back from war to civilization. The Soviets leaned on Beauty too, and George Balanchine began and ended his life with the ballet: Beauty was his debut performance as a child in Imperial St. Petersburg and his final dream at the New York City Ballet.

If artists do find a way to reawaken this sleeping art, history suggests that the kiss may not come from one of ballet’s own princes but from an unexpected guest from the outside—from popular culture or from theater, music, or art; from artists or places foreign to the tradition who find new reasons to believe in ballet.

But Beauty is not only about sleep and awakening, the court and classical ballet; it also tells of fragility and breaks in tradition—of sleep that may not wake. Over the past two decades ballet has come to resemble a dying language. Apollo and his angels are understood and appreciated by a shrinking circle of old believers in a closed corner of culture. The story—our story—may be coming to a close.

Jennifer Homans is The New Republic's dance critic. The following is an excerpt from her new book, Apollo's Angels: A History of Balletwhich has just been published by Random House.