Limitless Potential: The Future of Ballet

15 May 2018 Published in News and Announcements
A group of Ballet students from the Dance Studies Working Group attended the San Francisco Ballet Unbound Symposium. Sydney Joy, a Ballet Major, wrote about her experience.

What does ballet look like today? Where is ballet going? What does it mean to be boundless? Those are the questions that seven other ballet scholars and I heard throughout our time attending San Francisco Ballet’s Unbound choreographic festival and Boundless symposium. Over the course of three days, four panels, and twelve pieces of boundary-breaking choreography, those questions were explored and pushed beyond previous confines.

The first night in San Francisco began with a panel entitled “Unbound: A Conversation on the Future of Ballet” featuring two prominent names: Helgi Tomasson, artistic director of SFB, and Virginia Johnson, artistic director of Dance Theater of Harlem and founder of Pointe Magazine. Two influential voices representing a variety of the American dance scene, guided the discussion through the complex issues of honoring ballet’s rich and valuable history while striving for more inclusion, more diversity, and more innovation. “There’s this great fear that ballet will stop being itself if it changes,” said Johnson, “the fear of change is hurting ballet more than it’s helping.”

Following the initial panel was our first look at the choreography attempting to answer those illuminating questions. Each of the three works in Unbound C had an entirely different response to the questions, highlighting a different facet of what ballet could mean today. Bespokeby Stanton Welch showcased the beautiful specificity of classical technique juxtaposed with the emotional idea of fleeting careers. Trey McIntyre’s naturally grounded earthiness and superb attention to musical dynamics shone inYour Flesh Shall Be A Great Poem, a tribute to his grandfather’s life. The last piece of the night presented the work of one of the two female choreographers in the festival, Annabelle Lopez-Ochoa, whose piece Guernicaexplored the ideas of cubism, bullfighting, and violence through a sensual intensity and powerful breadth of jarring technique.

With the first three pieces in mind, we headed into our second day of the festival including two panels and two performances, a whirlwind of analyzing and appreciating the art and thought emerging around us. Our first exploration of the day included the relationship of ballet to contemporary politics through the panel, “The Aesthetics and Politics of Ballet in a Globalized World,” featuring diversely experienced speakers such as choreographers Marc Brew, Dwight Rhoden, and Myles Thatcher, dance scholars Jill Nunes-Jensen, Ph.D, and Ariel Osterweis, Ph.D, and dance journalist Marina Harss. Moderator Jennie Scholick, Ph.D. (associate director of audience engagement at SFB) directed the conversation to answer the ever elusive questions of where ballet is today and where it will be tomorrow. 

In defining “contemporary ballet,” there is the struggle of using the term to describe either the aesthetic angle or simply ballet being made today. When posed with this task, the panelists eloquently presented both aspects of the definition, with Nunes-Jensen articulating that contemporary is of the moment and dance is always of the moment as we never see the same thing twice, and Osterweis pointed to the referring to queerness and Africanist aesthetics in current ballet which challenges traditional conventions. Another idea of contemporary within ballet includes the vulnerability demanded of performers and choreographers, and how it creates a sense of trust not only in the choreographic process, but also onstage. That kind of deeper honesty and connection to the movement is something that the current generation is craving, according to Thatcher. 

Before heading into the War Memorial Opera House to observe three more new pieces, we were left with the lingering ending to the panel: where do you hope ballet is in 50 years, in 2068? Some answers were simple, such as Nunes-Jensen’s hope for ballet to still be performed in theaters, or Rhoden’s wish for ballet to continue talking about the world we live in. Others pointed to hopeful solutions of ballet’s current problems, such as Brew’s vision of barriers being removed and making ballet accessible to all, or Harss’ wish for ballet to retain the capacity to surprise.

We may not be able to speak for the ballet of tomorrow, but the ballet of today certainly has some surprise left in it. Watching the vast differences present in Unbound D, with Edwaard Liang’s The Infinite Ocean, Dwight Rhoden’s LET’S BEGIN AT THE END, and Arthur Pita’s Björk Balletcould not have been a better representation of the aesthetic diversity in contemporary ballet. From a Liang’s sweeping, circular, and almost amoebic energy, to the mesmerizing technique Rhoden expertly interspersed with moments of emotional exasperation, and Pita’s dazzling, kaleidoscopic ballet rave. Nothing about these three pieces could be easily compared to the other, yet all fit beautifully in the term of contemporary ballet.

Next up was the panel “Silicon Ballet: Bringing Ballet and Technology Together on Stage, on Film, and Online.” Of all the panels we attended, this was a topic that students don’t typically explore in our education, yet it is extremely relevant considering our generation’s dependence on technology and the correlation between being online and social survival. Moderator Rachel Sibley (futurist, immersive technologist, and AV/VR faculty at Singularity University) hinted to a problem of tech being that “the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet,” and organized the conversation to explore how ballet can look with tech involved and how the two fields can grow and inform each other. Through the contributions of the panelists, Arthur Pita (choreographer for Unbound), Judy Flannery (Executive Director of San Francisco Dance Film Festival), and Sydney Skybetter (choreographer and Public Humanities Fellow at Brown University), we were able to discuss topics such as current technology in dance, access to technology, intellectual property, and archiving the dance canon. Skybetter noted that the future of ballet informed by technology would mean finding the balance between honoring the history of the art form while making space for innovation and allowing space for criticism.

Having spent two semesters closely analyzing dance through many different lenses, my classmates and I relished in having these panels provide us multiple layers with which to evaluate each of the weekend’s performances. With Christopher Wheeldon’s work for Unbound A (Bound To), a commentary on society’s deathgrip reliance on phones and technology, following the panel dedicated to the relationship between ballet and tech, we dug into each aspect of tech involved, the lighting, the set, the actual phones used by the dancers. However, we also found ourselves inspecting the often overlooked aspects of technology used every day in dance. In Alonzo King’s The Collective Agreement, the architecture of the choreography and narrative was fascinating with the way King created a physical embodiment of a conversation, through the stages of individual thought, reasoning, compromise, and resolution. Justin Peck’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreamingoffered an insight into ballet with tech in the music, using tracks from the electronic band M83, and exploring how that particular music can inform the movement and community displayed onstage.

The third and final day of the weekend presented us with a fourth facet through which to think about the future of ballet with our last panel, “Fostering New Voices in Ballet Choreography, Leadership, and Audiences,” moderated by the ever eloquent, Virginia Johnson. She lead panelists Helgi Tomasson, Patrick Armand (director of San Francisco Ballet School), Celia Fushille (Artistic Director of Smuin Ballet), Dwight Rhoden, and Andrea Yannone (Director of Education and Training at SFB) through a conversation on diversity and representation in ballet training, companies, and leadership. As Fushille noted, one of the first steps toward more inclusive ballet is identifying the barriers in place and removing them. One of those main barriers include the cost of training and performance tickets, to which many companies have implemented outreach programs or racial equity programs. Yannone added that importance also lies within financially supporting those programs because the schools have a responsibility to provide a diverse pool of candidates for companies. Without representation within schools and companies, diverse voices and audiences will never grow because as Fushille mentioned, people will attend performances based on what they can relate to.

Our last performance of the weekend was one my classmates and I had been hotly anticipating. All three choreographers had something unique to bring to the table, as both Cathy Marston (Snowblind) and David Dawson (Anima Animus) worked with SFB for the first time, and Myles Thatcher (Otherness) is a current dancer for SFB and choreographed on his peers. Marston’s mesmerizing and haunting piece was the only narrative in the Unbound festival, creatively telling the Edith Wharton short story, Ethan Frome. Each character’s essence shone through their movement quality, like Zeena’s crippling dependence on others until she finds strength in her dominance over the other characters, or the way the corps materialized the many textures of snow, sometimes playful, romantic, or unforgiving. Dawson’s Anima Animusinvestigated the world of grey between black and white, the shared space in a polarized world. He allowed these contrasts to show from dancer to dancer, through classical technique performed with emotional virtuosity. Thatcher’s work also explored the divisiveness of strict binaries through the lens of gender, with gender neutral costumes and a gender fluid role set on both a male and female dancer. My fellow classmate and dance scholar, Madeline Driver, described it as “the definition of boundless.” With quirky, almost cinematic storytelling, Thatcher tackled the question of what happens when we challenge the status quo?

With our time attending the symposium and festival at a close, reflecting on the whirlwind of events brought me back to something Virginia Johnson mentioned at the very first panel. When asked about the outlines of ballet as an art form, she stated that she is more interested in what ballet does to the human spirit. The theme of the connection of ballet and humanity surfaced consistently throughout the weekend. Celia Fushille called ballet an art form that feeds the soul. Judy Flannery mentioned that “whatever technology we have, we’re still trying to get back to that humanity.” Helgi Tomasson noted that dance is something that can transport you to a different place through the dancers’ passion. Wherever the future of ballet is going, it will be boundlessly passionate, vulnerable, and real.

By School of Dance Ballet Major Sydney Joy