NO IT'S NOT THE TOE SHOES, CHRISTOPHER WHEELDON!

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Here’s a Sarah Crompton interview with Christopher Wheedon in the London Telegraph. Morphoses is about to open their fall season there, debuting a new ballet by Wheeldon and one by Australian choreographer Tim Harbour. At the end of the month, New York audiences will get to see those premieres.

In the article, Wheeldon talks about trying to increase ballet’s appeal to new audiences. He surmises it may be certain ballet aesthetics, such as the toe shoes, that are a turn-off, that may make ballet inaccessible. I strongly disagree though. I think people are generally awed by the toe shoes and by the beauty and immense athleticism of the art form. They’re all the more awe-inspiring when you see them up close, a thought I had recently in the Guggenheim’s tiny theater watching ABT, their studio company, and the students at ABT’s Kennedy-Onassis School of Ballet perform in a Works & Process event there.

I really think people in general are drawn to stories. That’s what I hear anyway from other dance-goers, or would-be dance-goers (who patronize theater and opera but shy away from dance). I think abstract ballets can definitely be intriguing but I think if your repertoire consists of only the kind of story-less ballets Balanchine made it’s going to suffer. I’ll be very excited to see the Alice in Wonderland that Wheeldon’s doing for the Royal.

15 Comments

  1. I think you’re right that audiences look for a narrative and appreciate some entry point for emotional involvement. It’s like how I can’t watch tennis unless I’m rooting for one of the players (maybe the American, or the feisty underdog, or some other mini-narrative). I think Wheeldon has a good point too, though.

    I think the general public feels like they have ballet figured out: tutus and toe shoes; Nutcrackers and guys in tights. That’s certainly what I used to think. They think they know what it is and who it's for, and that’s not them. Anything that can get people to take a new, fresh, or even a first look at it is a good thing. New approaches from companies like Morphoses can help with that. (Their SummerStage performance/concert was a great example.)

    I “converted” my best friend by dragging him to 21st Century Movement at NYCB. Not much narrative structure there, but he was blown away by the athleticism (Ulbricht as the Man in Black in Hallelujah Junction!), the variety, and, OK, the women. (Obviously, he knew there would be women, but I think he expected them to be pink princesses on pointe.) He recently moved to Chicago and he’s already making plans to see The Joffrey and report back.

  2. From talking to a few non-balletomanes, I have discovered that many of them have no idea that there is such a thing as a plotless ballet. When I tell them that I'm going to see a mixed repetory ballet consisting of different dances they always ask some version of “ok, but what's the story”. The irony is that I think the same people who are turned off by the idea of the old war horse ballets with their tutus, tights and myriad dying swans, are exactly the audience for the shorter plotless ballets which usually rely less on grand costumes and scenery. I have tried on numerous occasions to tell people the structure of “Jewels” and they always want to know who the main character is, I usually tell them it's dance itself.

  3. I think a valid question to ask is: What is the public face of ballet, and how does it challenge people who have no interest in going to change their minds? People know the big story ballets are there, and only a small percentage are going. That's why the occasional popular breakthroughs, like Baryshnikov or Billy Elliot, are so important. It would be great to start stringing them together. (Now those are stories: Glamorous Russian defector! Working-class Brit battles stereotypes!)

    Getting back to the original post, where Tonya says, “I think people are generally awed by the toe shoes and by the beauty and immense athleticism of the art form.” I think that's true once people see it up close. The question is how to get them in the theater. I don't think Wheeldon is necessarily talking about people seeing pointework in person and disliking it. I think he is also talking about the set ideas that people have about the ballet that prevent them from giving it a fresh look.

  4. Fascinating discussion. I agree that first timers will find it easier to break into the art form with story based traditional ballets, complete with toe shoes and classical dance language. I recently took a male friend who had never seen ballet to see Giselle and he loved it. Just a few days ago I took him again to the ROH to see Mayerling and he left unimpressed. He found the choreography “much less exciting”. He told me that had he started with MacMillan he would not have returned to see another ballet. I was surprised but then I remembered it took me a while to fully embrace MacMillan's modern classic, somehow I had to evolve into those. So I think the difficult thing about ballet is that – beyond a Swan Lake, a Sleeping Beauty and a Nutcracker every so often – it requires a certain commitment from the audience, a certain degree of preparation and lots of trial and error, which I guess that's why it eludes so many people.

  5. I think is not only Wheeldon but the companies, that need to realise that even if the average person walking on the street thinks ballet is about tutu princesses and swans, there are some (few and some more) that have discovered ballet and have gone beyond Petipa & Tchaikovsky, and furthermore, are “passing the word”.

    Now if one wants that the “word” to be spread even further, then the big companies have to put some money & work and put ballet on mainstream media. These days there are many ways, and plenty of those are low in the financial aspect. Look no further than to Wheeldon himself. He wanted to dance after watching Fille on TV!

    Finally, I am also one who thinks is not about the pointe shoes, since at the end, we are there to see ballet. And about the future, I am optimistic and think ballet will survive even if it is only for the people who now write, blog, tweet and drag their friends to a performance!

  6. Yeah, I think these examples are very interesting, but they are all about people who were brought to the ballet by friends and what they thought. I think the question that Wheeldon is asking is why aren't they going on their own, and what can be done about that.

    I'm sure the answer is very complex, but I think it's great to have people like Wheeldon thinking about it.

  7. Hi Benita, I was wondering if you'd read Laura Jacobs' article in Ballet Review on Jewels? She makes a rather good argument that it's all about Balanchine's relationship with Farrell and based on Medieval unicorn tapestries. Don't know if it's online but I'll try to find it. But I still know what you mean — I mean, to most it's a plotless ballet paying homage to the three main styles of classical ballet.

  8. Thanks for the very thoughtful comments you guys! I didn't mean to suggest that companies should stick with the classics but that new choreographers like Wheeldon should make new ballets but ones that are dramatic along with the ones that are storyless (which seem to predominate amongst new choreographers, at lesat in the US).

    It is definitely interesting to try to figure out what draws people to the ballet. Some people definitely prefer the classics, and some the modern, but I think it's human nature to seek some kind of story.

    It's interesting what Emilia and Linda say because I do think Europeans in general have more appreciation for classical ballet than the average American does. I think most balletomanes here had ballet training as a child or took up dance in adulthood and developed appreciation for ballet as an adult. I think it's less common for someone here to be dragged to the ballet and then end up liking it so much that they go on their own. When I bring non-balletomanes it's usually like they are being kind to me and are agreeing to spend one evening doing my thing.

    I have more to say but this computer is possessed and it won't let me write much! Cursor relocating without warning, closing out pages, logging me off — I need my own computer back! Back later :)

  9. Do not EVER buy Toshiba — this is the fourth time I'm writing this comment.

    Basically, agree abt Barysh & Nureyev creating real-life stories. There was a discussion on the Winger or Foot in MOuth or somewhere abt 2 yrs ago debating how much Cold War was responsible for ballet becoming popular for a time here. Some thought the political intrigue was what attracted people, others thought it was simply the excellent dancing. Was interesting discussion.

  10. Yeah, I think the Cold war put it on people’s radar and made it seem pertinent to the general public. It was almost like nations were battling over these dancers! And with Baryshnikov, here was a guy who was graceful and artistic, but also masculine and athletic. I remember my brother and I watched White Nights and thought, basically, this guy is pretty cool. But then that was probably the last fully formed thought either of us had about ballet until adulthood. (Then Matt married a dance fan, and I got drawn in by what was, at the time, a random copy-editing job.)

    Down with Toshiba!

  11. Interesting conversation – I took a newbie to a ballet recently, and he liked the story ballets more. He said that he knew what was going on in the story ballets, whereas the plotless ones, he didn't know what they were trying to “say”. I wonder if the story gave him something tangible or familiar to hold onto as a launching point to be able to admire the rest of the dancing, so he didn't feel lost. While watching plotless ballets (in this case, Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto), he felt like the ballet was asking him to be a part of a conversation that he didn't understand.

    I also kindly disagree with Wheeldon that it's pointe shoes that make ballet inaccessible to audiences. I see his point(e) though, and maybe it's true to a certain extent. I don't think flat ballets are more popular than pointe ballets. Personally, I love Wheeldon's After the Rain pdd not because it's a ballet in flat ballet shoes, but because it's a more beautiful piece than any of the other pointe ballets that don't grab me as much emotionally.

    Growing up, for me at least and I'm sure other little girls, we're inundated with pictures of pointe shoes. Angelina the Ballerina (the mouse, in the children's book series) also goes up on pointe! http://www.comcast.com/MediaLibrary/1/1/About/P

  12. P.S. Also, I can't get the link to work. Am I the only one? I'm interested in reading it – thanks!

  13. Sorry Jolene, I don't know why it's not working. Does this work: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/danc

  14. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Sorry Jolene, I don't know why it's not working. Does this work: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/danc

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