The Pennsylvania Ballet is either going to die, like so many others, with the dust of tradition slipping through skeleton fingers, or it’s going to dig its feet in and bite down hard, losing old fans and gaining new ones. Pleaseprettyplease may it pass through a gross and sticky metamorphosis into something we haven’t seen yet and can’t yet imagine.
I would feel so much more stoked to fist pump over the PA Ballet taking steps into the lesser known, if one of its recent shows (one I had the chance to witness, in performance and rehearsal) wasn’t called, with unapologetic hyperbole: Revolution. That’s right: Revolution. The unfortunate timing of the ballet opening the weekend after the election, was even more yucky. The PA Ballet’s marketing firm is Maven Communications LLC, btw.
A Revolutionary Ballet
What would a Revolutionary ballet look like? Am I supposed to consider Balanchine a revolutionary? The PA Ballet was historically a Balanchine Ballet. If Balanchine was a revolutionary, who was he empowering? It wasn’t women, queers, people of color, healthy bodies, or sustainable careers. (Alastair, am I wrong?)
Maybe a better word for a Balanchine revolution would be coup d’etat? What values did Balanchine’s revolution support? He applied his Hollywood experience to making ballet, he made some really beloved dances, moved bodies around in space with algorithmic intelligence, and legs and lines got straighter, cleaner, higher, and thinner.
So perhaps this is a revolution in the physics sense, rather than the social. As in, the earth revolves around the sun. Maybe the PA Ballet is revolving back around to something? Back to when royalty and aristocrats paid for it all and designed content as a form of courtly entertainment?
Um. The PA Ballet is the dance organization with the largest operating budget in our city, as far as I can tell based on 2014 tax returns (and I may have missed something, please correct me.) This is not to imply anyone is getting rich. But it has resources, that is to say, capital, no small portion of which comes from private donations. Also grant funding.
As Jill Johnston wrote in 1968, “The tyranny of ballet, by the way, lies not only in its institutional authority (it commands the field in numbers, in financial support, in critical acclaim) but in its insistence on the superhuman; on the claim that only a streamlined body of extraordinary prowess is worth our time and money to look at.”
A Dance, a Technique
Though many of us resist it, we live in a world where dance credibility (for women especially) is largely evaluated by ‘technique’ and that ‘technique’ is still, in general, a derivation of ballet forms. I want to live in a world where ballet and its derivative Modern techniques exist on a horizontal spread with all the other techniques of folk and vernacular dances. Our current contemporary technique implies an ability to point toes, lift legs, or memorize choreography quickly.
I haven’t sussed out the connection between the hierarchy of techniques and the hierarchy of funding. A horizontal model would mean ballet has to change its scale. Producing a ballet is expensive: live orchestra, big set, big lights, lots of performers, multiple casts, seated audience watching it all unfold in comfy chairs.
Watching local choreographer Brian Sanders’s “Chicken Bone Brain”, I wanted very badly to climb and spin vaingloriously on the long white bones/dental picks hanging from the ceiling of the Merriam Theater. Sanders makes sense on the ballet, because his dancers have the recognizable technical virtuosity mainstream dance-going audiences have been trained to watch and appreciate. These dancers are superhuman. It’s been normalized into our cultural programming (THANKS BALANCHINE) that long legs and long lines = Dance, rather than a dance.
I’m stoked that artistic director Angel Corella is not afraid to loosen the grip on Balanchine and bring in folks like Sanders. A local commission mean resources back into the community! Whoop! I haven’t seen much of Brian’s work, but I admire his attempt to steward a performance venue, provide dancers with salaries, and be honest about his taste.
In this instance, what Sanders has made constitutes a ballet because it’s performed by ballet dancers. I get a little itchy as the embrace of what Susan Fraiman might call a “heroic gay male sexuality” that eclipses queerness and feminine procreativity. Not necessarily Sanders’s fault (right?).I emailed Sanders to ask what makes a ballet a ballet. Brian’s response to my question about the ontology of ballet: “It’s so hard to say. I have a pogo stick ballet.”
Euro-hip David Dawson’s “Third Light” is…nice? The partnering has some sweet, if not a little uncertain, moments. But I can’t ignore age differences in a heteronormative duet on stage. Am I supposed to? Why?
The lighting is…nice. But, if you admit we live in an age of experimental dance/theater/ visual arts, if you’ve seen what young kids can do with some headlamps in a black box, Dawson’s use of lighting is… meh. Props for using different sources, tungsten and fluorescent etc, but the ballet’s choreography doesn’t interact with light in a way that rises to the level of the metaphysical questions Dawson claims motivate the dance. Moreover, how can we attempt to take his ideas about light as ernest and philosophical, when we’re watching (and teaching all the tiny bodies in the audience) the same old move where a dude puts his hand out and a woman walks into it, struggles, than folds and reverses back the way she came.
My favorite moment of Revolution was the bow at the end of good ol’ Balanchine’s “Square Dance.” The orchestra, those sleepy rascals, played two full measures of extra Vivaldi. There’s Amy Aldridge, bless her hard-working fierceness,sitting on a young fella’s shoulders with the entire cast assembled in symmetrical tableau around her. Tadah! And the string section just keep on going. The curtain starts to come down. Then it goes back up! Gotchya! The audience reeled back, confused, and then most of us laughed, startled by the joyful humanity of the moment.
[The Merriam Theater, 250 S Broad Street] November 10-13, 2016; paballet.org.