Discuss: Is ballet over?

The Lexington Ballet's Lauren Tenney in August's Ballet Under the Stars performance in Woodland Park. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Herald-Leader staff.

The Lexington Ballet's Lauren Tenney dances in Ballet Under the Stars in August at Woodland Park. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Herald-Leader stadff.

During my post-WEG vacation last week, much of which was spent on various home improvement projects, I fell in love with Q, a CBC Radio culture show that airs at 2 p.m. weekdays on WEKU-FM 88.9. Each show, host Jian Ghomeshi takes on a handful of topics from the worlds of film, recordings, stage, art, books and current affairs.

Jian Gohmeshi

Jian Gohmeshi

During a week of projects such as installing a new laminate floor in my living room, I heard guests from members of Gorillaz to Gloria Steinem to Rick Springfield – yes, another Aussie from the ’80s – and topics from the use of Facebook for spying to the new Broadway play about legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi.

But the discussion that really caught my ear during the week was Is Ballet Over? It was a debate between New York-based ballet critic Jennifer Homans who wrote a New Republic article that posed that question and Karen Kain, director of the National Ballet of Canada. Homans’ position was that ballet has become a tired, self-referential form quickly losing its lustre, while Kain responded that she sees a vibrant environment for dance outside of ballet capitols like New York and Moscow, where tradition may hinder creativity.

It’s an interesting discussion I’d encourage you to listen to and then participate in, here. (Click here to listen. I couldn’t find an individual sound file for the debate, but if you click play on the Oct. 21 episode, you will start to hear the debate about five minutes into the episode.) Comment below and tell us what you think – I can think of a few people here in Lexington who should have strong emotions on this topic.

(Note: If you tried to comment a while ago – bet. 2 and 3 p.m. Oct. 25 – there was a problem I was not aware of, and it should be fixed now. Please try again. Thanks.)

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4 Responses to Discuss: Is ballet over?

  1. Interesting podcast about Ballet
    Ballet in my opinion is far from over we are just scratching the surface with new works.
    The excitement that I see in new audiences when they see committed works is the fuel needed to continue forward.
    I think Jennifer is trying to sell her book and Karen is right on!

  2. Jayne says:

    Ballet is NOT over, nor will it ever be over! It is a beautiful art.

  3. Lorne Dechtenberg says:

    What an interesting debate – thanks for sharing this, Rich!

    I, for one, am a fan of ballet and an avid believer in the power of dance. But I think that, while Homans and Kain both make valid points, each one’s position is a bit narrow-minded (probably because of their respective agendas in the interview):

    On the one hand, Homans is right that performers can sometimes become “constrained by the past rather than liberated” – especially in our time, when there is more “past” than ever before to learn (and creativity is all but absent from the curriculum). On the other hand, Kain rightly points out that there is also great innovation in the world of dance (in both technique and production). Hence the dichotomy to which Homans refers: one subgroup within ballet focuses on “classics” (thereby making its purpose one of preservation, not unlike a museum), while the other focuses on new works (which sometimes jettison traditional elements of the art form and reduce overall accessibility [or "relevance"] for audience members). The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but they also tend to attract somewhat different audiences.

    But both Homans and Kain seem to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room — the fact that music is an integral part of ballet in its current form. The dance is designed to work in tandem with the music and to be made more powerful by the music. Therefore, in order to tackle the issue of relevance in ballet, we first have to acknowledge that the same issue exists in the music. We can re-choreograph Swan Lake a thousand times, but the music will still be that of Swan Lake – a great work to be sure, but a work whose language is over 130 years old. The world has changed a little since then. On the other hand, one would have to give up a great deal of the essence of ballet (i.e., the etiquette and culture that Kain references) in presenting a ballet based on today’s popular music (though Britney Spears did make use of choreography…).

    But there is also a middle ground, where some living composers write music that is moving, meaningful, accessible, and danceable, and where ballet companies put that music to great use. Does the dearth of composers in the middle ground stem from the dearth of ballet companies looking there, or is it the other way around? It’s a chicken-and-egg question to which I’m not sure there’s an answer. But I know that, while I haven’t yet had the opportunity to write for a ballet company, I intend to be a proud resident of that middle ground if and when the opportunity arises.

    I fervently believe that both the classics and the new works have an important place in our world today, and that both can ultimately survive, but only if the leadership of each presenting entity (ballet, orchestra, opera, theater, etc.) seriously considers the question of what balance of the two the company seeks to present and then is honest with its audience about the answer. If we market a classic as a classic, then people who like classics will show up, appreciate it, and come back. If we market something new as something new, then people who want something new will show up, appreciate it, and come back. If we market a middle-ground piece as a combination of the two, we might even have success with members of both groups. But if we try to market something as something it’s not, then the people who show up may or may not appreciate it, and they probably won’t come back (once bitten, twice shy). And when they don’t come back, that’s when we’re in trouble.

    I look forward to reading everyone else’s comments, and thanks again for sharing this with your readers!

  4. Eric Thomas says:

    Ballet just needs a reality show. “So You Think You Can Glissade”, “Pas de Deux With the Stars”. Worked for Ballroom.

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