Saturday, 30 July 2011

Ballet Gets Rocked. Or Not

Ballet is to dance what superheroes are to comics. Retaining popularity over decades, dismissed by the connoisseur, still used as a basic definition  for study, ballet and superheros are merely a strand within a broader heritage, yet remain iconic. Contemporary dance - another useless blanket term that contains a variety of mutually competing styles - often reacts against ballet, rejecting its form while taking advantage of its technique. Meanwhile, audiences still prefer to see a ramshackle version of the classics than a pristine modern choreography. 

Rock the Ballet is, probably inadvertently, at the centre of this problem. Main man Rasta Thomas claims that "We have held on to the beauty and strength of the technique and let go of everything that can be boring!" By this he means "We use pop and rock music, wear funky clothes and break down the walls of what you would get going to the ballet! We yell and expect you to do the same! We "ROCK" the Ballet."

Of course, I am suspicious. I have had my own war with ballet - mainly a rebellion against my mother's love of it, but also because the moment I saw Les Ballets C de la B I believed that I had seen the potential of dance freed from convention. Thomas is obviously considering what limits appreciation of ballet, but his idea that using modern music - which can be painfully bad (hello Paolo Nuntini) - is revolutionary translates into a simplistic rejection of a rich heritage.

Given that Rock the Ballet advertises itself with fit guys leaping, tops off, his real rivals at the Fringe are going to be Flawless, not Scottish Ballet. And it is great that ballet is being reinvented to appeal to a younger audience. However, since he admits that "We select very versatile dancers. They are what we call "hybrids". They can do many styles of dance, as well as acrobatics & martial arts," it is questionable whether Rock the Ballet is ballet at all. Is it a cynical attempt to throw together two words - rock and ballet - that sound good, without actually having any ballet content at all?

Ballet conjures up a very specific image: tutus, slim girls on pointe, romantic duets, swirling, lush orchestration, men in tights with big packets. It means Romeo and Juliet, Giselle, the pas de deux, Nureyev and rows of swans in tight formation.

Of course, this isn't ballet. It's romantic ballet, one of the great genres. Ballet itself has been experimenting for the past century. Ironically, when the Ballet Russe, now regarded as a great example of the romantic model, hit Europe, their choreography was seen as influenced by Isadora Duncan. In the 1980s, ballet companies even employed post-modern choreographers(a movement rooted in 1960s avant-garde antics). Ashley Page revived Scottish Ballet by stripping down the floaty dresses.

So when Thomas adds that "I feel we are the future. The past is great to learn from but I wanna keep moving forward and stay on a path that's only meant for us," is he really comparing his work to Page's Cinderella or a notional idea of "ballet"?

It is unfair to single out Thomas. There are plenty of intellectual types who do the same - and there are plenty of balletomanes who insist that Romantic Ballet is Ballet, and everything else is circus tricks. A recent interview with Michael Clark's dancers - lovely though they were - was frustrating for me when they insisted, despite belonging to a company that was nearly entirely made up of ballet-trained dancers, and used ballet technique and vocabulary as a foundation of style, that they were contemporary, not ballet.

That they went on to make a solid working definition of contemporary dance - locating it on the floor rather than in the air - was only more disturbing when those "floor work moments" in Clark's shows were performed with an almost perfunctory lack of grace. But once the dancers were up, flinging their legs about... brilliant.

Chances are that Rock the Ballet doesn't need the ballet or contemporary audiences. Thomas is, himself, a talented performer: he won a bunch of competitions as a teenager, guested with the Kirov and has had a successful Broadway show. His wikipedia entry tells that his dad sent him to ballet as a punishment. That he took this and made a career is impressive. He is obviously as driven as he is hot, and the hype of the interview might reflect that energy rather than the aesthetic. In any case, it is his wife who is doing the choreography, not him. She probably gives interviews about how she digs Fokine and Bausch.

No comments :

Post a Comment