Contemporary ballet

Crisis of contemporary ballet: essay by Jennifer Homans

This meant the company was still doing the classics, from baroque dances to Gisele at Balanchine, but Lefèvre has also opened the doors of the Paris Opera to contemporary choreographers such as Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown and William Forsythe; and more recently to Wayne McGregor, Emanuel Gat and Anne-Teresa de Keersmaeker – few of them, with the notable exception of Forsythe, have relied on ballet. She even pushed the company into German dance-theatre, commissioning works from Pina Bausch and Sasha Waltz. This season has seen a New Bolero by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, whose background lies in voguing, hip-hop and the Belgian contemporary dance scene. He collaborated on the piece with conceptual artist Marina Abramovic. No one could accuse Lefèvre of not following.

The results were mixed and reflect the problems the ballet has faced for several decades. As art struggled to innovate from within, Lefèvre therefore wisely turned to contemporary dance, making his company a laboratory, even if he also concentrated on the classics. The downside was that the choreographers she invited to the Paris Opera did not always know or care to make full use of the formidable physical and technical skills of her classically trained performers. This could give rise to ballets like that of Sasha Waltz Romeo and Juliet (2007), which is more of a concept than a dance – the story is mixed up, the sets designed to disorient, the movement more walking, posing, swish and parade than real dance. Watching some of the most trained dancers in the world perform this kind of simplistic movement, and with so little effect, is frustrating and disheartening. Waltz created powerful dances for her own company, but here the collaboration waned with both her and the dancers performing the work.

Millepied, who spent his early career in the United States with New York City Ballet, said he wanted to do something different. Rather than crossing the world of contemporary dance, he wishes to put the emphasis back on the ballet itself and on classically trained artists. Not, I think, in the sense of conservation or preservation: true to Balanchine’s legacy, he seems to believe that ballet itself can be a radical art. He said, quite rightly, that when he worked at City Ballet he aspired to work on more “conceptual” projects, which seems like a nice way to admit he was bored and not feeling always engaged intellectually or artistically. So he wants to expand the ballet and open it to the cinema (Millepied choreographed the film Black Swan and married its star, Natalie Portman), the internet, technology and contemporary art movements. Echoing Diaghilev a century ago, he wants to do the “ballet of today”.

This all sounds ambitious and good, but a recent performance in Paris of the LA Dance Project—a company Millepied founded last year as an “artist collective” with composer Nico Muhly, art consultant Matthieu Humery, producer Charles Fabius and film producer Dimitri Chamblas—pointed in a daunting direction . On the program, the world premiere of reflections, which Millepied himself created “in collaboration” with his dancers, to original music by David Lang (including sections titled “diet coke”, “cello”, “beach”) and with original costumes and designs by Barbara Kruger. The second piece was an old Cunningham dance from 1964 titled winter branchto music by La Monte Young (2 sounds) and with sets and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg. The evening ended with Forsythe’s Quintetchoreographed in 1993 when his wife was dying of cancer, a passage from The blood of Jesus has never failed me yetby Gavin Bryans.