In with the new
Barbara Newman surveys the innovative ways in which ballet companies are trying to attract modern audiences
Times are tough for ballet companies. Governments have their hands full funding vital services. Sponsors are thinking twice before committing themselves to discretionary investment. The people who, ideally, form the public for dance are pinching their disposable income ever tighter, if they have any to spare, and finding their entertainment in digital forms they can easily access, day or night, without travelling to a performance or hiring a babysitter.
To hold their interest, the companies must revive their known successes while manufacturing new ones to prevent even the most loyal viewers from growing bored. it’s a tall order, but when necessity and creativity join forces, the results can satisfy the artists involved as well as the public that watches them.
The Australian Ballet has chosen the path of putting new faces on old works. Returning to London after 11 years, the company wisely opened its short season with Swan Lake, the ballet everyone knows and loves, in a widely acclaimed production by Graeme murphy that overturns the viewers’ complacent familiarity with the story’s progress and gives them something wholly unexpected.
For a start, the action begins with Odette’s wedding to Prince Siegfried, a thoroughly joyous occasion until his mistress, Baroness von Rothbart, steals him from his bride. Odette goes mad, rather like Giselle, and spends Act ii in an asylum, dreaming of her lost love amid a demure corps of sympathetic swans. in Act iii, appearing unannounced at the ball thrown by the Baroness and the Prince, she steals him back again, yet her life and their romance still end in tragedy.
By comparison, Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella, which replaced this imaginative staging the following week, tilts the ballet toward humor, projections and fussy costumes rather than elegance and choreographic nuance. Pretty but pallid, Cinderella herself was overshadowed by the foppish Ballet master, the soignée courtiers and the menacing regiment of rolling topiary that, on the stroke of midnight, becomes ticking metronomes.
Both productions take their strength from the inventive use of ballet’s time-honored vocabulary, neither burying it in digital effects nor stretching and distorting its physical shape.
Although the company proudly fills its ranks from its own school, any dancer who hopes to perform expressively and to the highest academic standard should stay alert for vacancies. Years ago, when it brought maurice Béjart’s radically rethought Gaîté Parisienne to the Royal Opera House, seven men danced successive solos with such dazzling assur- ance and panache that they stamped the troupe indelibly on my memory. i imagine this engagement might have made the same impression on today’s audience.
As part of the Southbank Centre’s ‘Festival of Love’, Ballet National de marseille revealed another aspect of reinvention in Body.dance.nation.city, a fusion of classical ballet and contemporary dance conceived and choreographed by the company’s co-directors, emio Greco and Pieter C. Scholten. Since its last visit to the UK in 2008, the troupe has changed its focus, concentrating on a minimal style called ‘extremalism’ that the directors have developed together since 1995.
Describing a different piece, they wrote: ‘[A]s always the body will be the starting point, alongside the music that inspires the body, confronts it, supports and undermines it. We… instruct the human body to rediscover its own significance.’
Although this instruction could not be discerned in this mysterious work, the folding of recognisable ballet movements into sculptural poses and melting
Australian Ballet’s intriguing new take on Swan Lake, starring Amber Scott (centre) will have built a new audience for the company