Monday, 13 April 2015

Ballet: a Museum or Creative Powerhouse?

Ballet: a museum or creative powerhouse? (debate), Dance UK industry-wide conference, Trinity Laban - 11th April

The panel: Kevin O'Hare, Christopher Hampson,
Assis Carreiro, Adolphe Binder and Ismene Brown
As part of the UK’s first ever industry-wide dance conference, a panel - chaired by dance critic Ismene Brown - discussed the state of ballet in 2015. Is it a museum or a creative powerhouse (as per the session’s title), in a good state or in need of reinvention, a success or a failure?
  
Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare argued that while describing ballet as a museum conjures up images of something outdated and old-fashioned, the preservation and performance of older works is vital:  “The Royal Ballet is custodian of an important classical ballet heritage – the works that grew the company into what it is today…  It’s a balancing act between tradition and innovation.”
   
Scottish Ballet artistic director Christopher Hampson said “I love a good museum! But we need to recalibrate our definitions of classical ballet. The current definition is of ballet pre-1950s, but some newer works are now classics.”
  
For conference creative producer Assis Carreiro, the session’s title was designed to be “a provocation”. When she was director of the Royal ballet of Flanders between 2012 and 2014, she had to balance “performing works that made sense for the company and also filling a big theatre, creating classics of the future and not just asking dancers to reinterpret old works”. For her, companies don’t need to define themselves as ‘classical’ or ‘contemporary’ but simply as ballet companies. “Ballet is a technique and it’s what you do with this technique.”
   
Hampson described being "nervous" when Scottish Ballet performed Matthew Bourne’s Highland Fling, as it was the first ballet company to take on one of Bourne’s creations. But choreographer, dancers and audiences loved the result: “Classical technique brings a new flavour – a language – to the work. It’s something different.”
  
In Inverness, one of Scottish Ballet’s main touring cities, the average audience journey time to see the company is 90 minutes, with many people travelling from further afield and staying overnight. “The weight of responsibility [to provide a work that will please audiences] is huge,” stated Hampson. As Scottish Ballet is Scotland’s national dance company, it has to “cater to public taste” but is also a well-trusted and highly regarded brand. “We’re creating opportunities for audiences with new works.”
  
Marianela Nunez in Aeternum
Photo: Johan Persson / ROH
For O’Hare, “it’s heartening that people are embracing the new but that we can also balance this with our heritage. New works take an extra push in marketing but they do sell out”. In 2013-14, the Royal Ballet sold 98% of tickets, and O’Hare believes “dancers are stronger in Sleeping Beauty [and other classical ballets] for having worked with Wayne McGregor and other modern choreographers”.
    
Another of ballet’s key priorities is in reaching new audiences. O’Hare described the Royal Ballet's cinema programme as serving to “build up the whole dance sector”, developing interest in the art form and inspiring people to visit local theatres and see other ballet/dance companies. In terms of offering value for money for the public subsidy it receives, O’Hare asked people to “look at the audiences we’re reaching… Come and see us at Thurrock with the Chance to Dance programme. Go to Northampton and see us in the cinema. And then come and see us at the Royal Opera House in the slips!”
   
So is ballet a museum or a creative powerhouse? Whilst the panel made no conclusion, it’s clear that it is both. Ballet needs to balance the conservation of heritage works – which can’t simply be ‘stored’, as they only exist in performance – with the creation of new choreography for the 21st Century. And perhaps it also needs to be less concerned with labels, and focus simply on engaging audiences - old and new alike - with the diversity of ballet as a modern art form.

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