Summary

The conference took place from Friday 10 to Sunday 12 February 2017, in Dutch National Opera & Ballet, Amsterdam.

Working Conference Positioning Ballet

At the conference, organised by Dutch National Ballet, we discussed three themes: heritage, diversity and identity. As there is considerable overlap between these subjects, some important questions came up regularly for discussion, lending depth to the dialogue during the working conference. This compact report groups and outlines the main insights, views, recommendations and questions. They include broadly held insights, as well as provoking questions and standpoints that need further discussion.

Heritage
Keynote by Wiebke Hüster, Dance Critic and Author

Panel members
Yuri Fateyev, Deputy Director of the Mariinsky Ballet
Kevin O’Hare, Director of The Royal Ballet
Krzysztof Pastor, Artistic Director of the Polish National Ballet and Resident Choreographer Dutch National Ballet
Luísa Taveira, Founder member of CNB and member of the Board of Directors of the Foundation Centro Cultural de Belém

Diversity
Keynote by Theresa Ruth Howard, Founder of Mobballet.org, former member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem

Panel members
Kevin McKenzie, Artistic Director of American Ballet Theatre
Alistair Spalding, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Sadler’s Wells
Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director English National Ballet
Paul Liburd, Dance Teacher
Monique Duurvoort, Artistic Director & Choreographer MDDance

Identity

Panel members
Karen Kain, Artistic Director The National Ballet of Canada
Assis Carreiro, Independent Cultural Producer & Consultant
Laura Capelle, Dance Critic and Researcher
Johannes Öhman, Artistic Director of the Royal Swedish Ballet
Ted Brandsen, Director of Dutch National Ballet and Resident Choreographer

Moderator
Peggy Olislaegers, International Dance Dramaturge

Heritage:

Ballet companies have a responsibility for their own heritage and for heritage in general, in addition to their responsibility for commissioning new work. Everything hinges on a well-balanced repertoire. (‘Companies with a long tradition have a greater responsibility.’) In the discussions, a distinction was made between ‘world heritage’, ‘national heritage’ and ‘20th-century ballet heritage’.

Defining a classic

Some definitions:

  • A work that follows the canon of Greek classicism.
  • A work that has survived the era of its creation and remains relevant today.
  • A work that we see differently every time we experience it and is continually reinterpreted.
  • A work that has the quality of surviving, although implicit changes take place.
  • A work from a company’s heritage that is still relevant to the company today.
  • A work that embodies a movement idiom and stays true to that idiom. ‘That is why the works of Cunningham touch upon a classic.’

Style is also part of a company’s heritage, and style is not frozen in time and space. ‘A classic changes every time it is performed; ballet being an art of not just the choreographers, but of the performers as well. This is why the classics keep on developing, and these transformations will happen whether you want them or not.’

Why do we bring back the classics?

  • ‘The big works of humanity must be shown. There is always a new generation that has not seen them.’
  • ‘The audiences long for them. New audiences are reached each time a classic is brought back to life.’
  • ‘The dancers need them in order to develop and share their technical and artistic skills.’

Recommendations and questions:

  • ‘Let‘s not get stuck in the present and let’s make a more thorough study of the works that have been created over the last 100 years.’
  • Articulate and share the artistic choices of the artistic director. ‘Why is this work important? Why is this version shown on stage?’
  • ‘Today there are intellectual property rights that sometimes last 80 years after the choreographer dies, and I believe this to be the greatest danger to the 20th-century repertoire. How can we be free to reinterpret?’
  • Whose heritage are we curating and for whom?
  • Why do we always show the same classics?
  • How do we reconstruct? ‘How can we reconstruct not only that which is left?’ ‘How do you train dancers and choreographers to understand questions of style?’
  • Should we minimise/reduce our canon, in order to make room for more new works? ‘What would happen if we stopped dancing Petipa for five years?’

The art of commissioning

Choreographers, their working processes and their creations have a great influence on both the dancers and the company. By commissioning new works, the artistic director influences the development of the art form and its audience. It turns out that most artistic directors discuss a commission with their choreographers beforehand, but give them complete freedom in the studio. They provide dancers, time and the best possible working conditions.

Recommendations and questions:

  • Artistic directors should not make their decisions in a vacuum. They have to be well informed, and search for works that resonate with the company staff, the artistic community and the audience.
  • It is important to bring back newly commissioned work, in order to understand its impact and create a relationship with a choreographer, and to commission several works over time.
  • In order to connect to the next generation and new audiences, it is important that choreographers from any background and idiom are invited to work with these established institutes in future.
  • Since music is a key element for the classical canon, artistic directors should actively commission new music as well. ‘As choreographers, we have this enormous library of existing music, but we tend to forget that in the past all music was newly created.’
  • How do artistic directors commission choreographers in relation to their company’s heritage? ‘When you choose a choreographer, he already has a style. So you know whether it clashes with the main style of the company.’
  • What kind of relationship/dialogue do artistic directors develop with their choreographers? What guidance or feedback do they give? And who else is involved in this dialogue?
  • How are new commissions archived? Does the company document only the result or also the process?
  • Why are female choreographers not regularly commissioned by the major companies?

The role of the artistic director

‘Taking theatre as an example, you would never ask a playwright to write the play, to train the actors, to direct the play and to be the director of the theatre where the play is staged.’

‘We still expect an artistic director of a ballet company to manage a hundred people, to be creative, to commission colleagues, to choreograph and to find the funding. Can we change the management style in ballet companies?’

‘We need to be ready to take risks.’

Questions:

  • Do artistic directors have enough time to study, exchange and prepare their work? ‘People sometimes have to bubble to the surface before they catch our attention, instead of us going out there and discovering someone before they have drawn attention.’
  • Is there enough time for the dialogue between the artistic director and the artistic staff?
  • How do we scout and train future artistic directors?

Diversity

Read Theresa Ruth Howard’s keynote on diversity here:
we are still unicorns

 

‘… and then I got asked to paint myself lighter. To fit in the corps de ballet.’

‘As the national ballet company, we should be reflecting the nation.’

‘The value assigned to ballet is disproportionate to anything else. When you go to see hiphop, you see it is not necessarily a brown face anymore. And it doesn’t seem strange to you because there is less of a value placed on it as a form.’

Recommendations and questions:

  • If we want to become more inclusive as an art form and diversify ballet companies, we should increase racial and ethnic representation in ballet in an integral way, by looking at the staff, the board members, the choreographers, the dancers, the repertoire and the audience, outreach and education programmes.
  • We should question our preconceived notions about what a ballet company is supposed to look like. ‘I do think we really are ready to break the line, you know. The white acts of the ballets are not really about white people; they’re about white tutus, they’re about dead people, they’re about... a group of people who are in the same status of being, as opposed to what they actually look like.’
  • To achieve more diversity, artistic directors have to think about their approach, strategies and goals within their organisation. The gatekeepers decide on the terms and on the extent of inclusiveness in the profession. But if we don’t really question our codes, nothing will change.
  • What and whom does ballet represent? ‘Ballet is based on very Eurocentric aesthetic values.’ ‘Very often – too often – it represents an idealised version of reality. That doesn’t always resonate with the social reality of the companies.’
  • Can we have more than one definition of physical and artistic excellence? Can the classical canon still be representative of our modern-day societies?
  • Should we detach the classical technique from the repertoire and its stereotypes?
  • Are we ready as an art form to be far more inclusive in who we represent, and to create roles for people with learning disabilities or physical disabilities too?

Identity

What defines a ballet company’s identity? And who defines it? Is it the culture surrounding that company? The artistic director? The artistic staff? The choreographers? The specific style embodied by the company? The national heritage and the specific repertoire? The span of one season or of several seasons? The dancers? The funding parties who have their own agenda? Or the next generation of dancers and audiences?

Recommendations and questions:

  • Companies should actively reflect on their identity, and share that with the choreographers they commission, their audience and their supporters. ‘We need stronger storytelling.’
  • How do you build up trust with an audience? How can you make them part of your artistic journey?
  • How do you communicate with your local audience, as well as your national and global audience?

Competencies of dancers today and in the future

Which competencies should our dancers have, today and in the future? And what can we do to develop them?

Recommendations and questions:

  • Help students to study the wider context of the art form at a young age already. ‘Because that is when people’s mindset is created.’
  • Focus on physical expression from an early age, alongside focusing on technique. ‘You want them to be able to enjoy and express themselves. Joy is the most important part of it.’
  • Integrate alternative practices in the educational training. Bring in people with different opinions, who embody different idioms, from different ethnical backgrounds. Are we training dancers to be thinkers who will bring an innovative perspective; who are open to the unexpected and the new?
  • Invest in outreach programmes. ‘Give them access to really good training early on.’ ‘Support the teachers who teach in communities of colour.’
  • How can we empower dancers, (young) choreographers and team members within the company to question?
  • Do we need contemporary principles alongside classical principles?
  • Should every dancer get the opportunity to find out if he/she has competencies as a choreographer as well?