Positioning Ballet 2019: Compact Report

Positioning Ballet, Saturday February 16 2019

The first day of the working conference was opened by the Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Ingrid van Engelshoven, and the artistic director of Dutch National Ballet, Ted Brandsen. First, Jennifer Homans gave a keynote speech about threats to the arts in general and to ballet in particular. Later in the day, Theresa Ruth Howard gave her keynote speech, deconstructing the anatomy of culture and leadership in ballet. Besides the two keynote speeches, several questions were discussed in sub-groups in a number of breakout sessions, after which the results were discussed during plenary sessions.

Read Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven’s opening speech here.

Read Ted Brandsen’s opening speech here.

Keynote address Jennifer Homans
Read the summary of Jennifer Homans’ keynote speech here.

First round of breakout sessions and plenary discussion
Question: To what extent can you innovate and take risks with your company and its repertoire?


  • How much freedom do you feel, as an artistic director, to take risks? How would you define risks, within the history and context of your company?
  • To what extent do audiences, subsidisers and sponsors give you that freedom, or else prevent it?
  • As an artistic director, with whom can you discuss your vision and therefore also the risks you take?
  • How do you evaluate your artistic policy and with whom?

Because of differences between the companies (in terms of funding and stakeholders, etc.), the answers to these questions are contextual. However, all participants recognised that these questions had much to do with how their ballet company connected to its audiences, both current and potential. Can audiences be seen in a certain sense as gatekeepers of the company? Which threats and opportunities are posed by social media for the development of the relationship with citizens who may or may not consider themselves audience members?

Question: How do you keep informed of broader artistic, cultural and social developments in your own country and the rest of the world?


  • With whom (inside and outside your company) are you in dialogue about developments within ballet and the broader dance field?
  • How do you keep informed of developments within other art forms?
  • Do you share this responsibility to keep broadly informed with others? (e.g. your artistic staff, a dramaturge, dancers, external parties.)
  • In what ways do you meet the audiences who enjoy your work? And do you also discuss your work with people who don’t consider themselves members or potential members of a ballet audience?
  • Do you take an active part in the broader discourse on culture and society in your country?

Time management is an issue for many of the participants. For artistic directors, it is important to be surrounded by a flexible team; not only to be able to delegate, but also to be able to enter into dialogue with people who share a certain curiosity with them.

As for the participation of directors in a broader cultural discourse, it was remarked that sometimes it concerns finding a language to explain the artistic values embodied in ballet to people who do not recognise them immediately. There is a risk of lapsing into ‘mantras’ and forgetting what you really believe in.

The importance of finding a language to explain the value of ballet is also felt within companies. As ballet companies become more corporatised (with large departments for marketing and development, for example), they will tend to include more people who are essentially foreign to the art form. It was noted that the craftsmanship of ballet is something that many people can connect with easily.

How can ballet companies embrace the call for the development of a more inclusive society, in which every citizen could have access to art and ballet, and could feel represented by their national ballet company?


  • What developments are your company’s ballet audiences undergoing? Take, for example, the composition of the audience (age, class, colour) and their knowledge, prior knowledge and expectations.
  • To what extent is your audience local, national or international? Do you have a regularly returning audience?
  • Are there citizens in your country, region or city who would never consider themselves a ballet audience member? If so, why is that?
  • Is it important for you to diversify your audience?
  • How would you describe your desired audience?
  • What influence does your existing audience, and the possible absence of certain groups of citizens within your audience, have on national support for the art of ballet and for your company in particular?

Many other questions emerged in the discussion: How do we define nationality? Should national ballet companies support a homogeneous or a diverse view of nationality? How can we attract new audiences without falling into tokenism? Should it be a moral imperative to reflect society? Should we reflect on how society should be, rather than on how it is at present? How should we deal with the heritage of our repertoire, which is often uninclusive?

Another question raised was who decides on the values of the company: the artistic director, the board or the government? It was noted that we have to start by gaining a clear view of the current values of our organisations. Then we can start to reflect on them and eventually change the policy. Often, directors’ conversations are ‘kidnapped’ by emergencies, tasks and finances, etc. Many directors do not have conversations about their company’s values with the board.

The issue of the public image of ballet (e.g. as being posh) was raised. Social media can help in communicating that our houses are open to everyone, as can participatory or educational projects with local communities.

How do you maintain the relevance of your existing repertoire in the 21st century?


  • What determines your relevancy in the 21st century?
  • Which thoughts influence your choice of existing repertoire?
  • Should the re-enactments of the established canon of ballet be influenced by the society we live in nowadays? How do you choose the version or interpretation you present?
  • How do we contextualise choreographic works for our diverse audiences, now and in the future? Do we need to explore new ways of engaging and educating audiences?
  • How does your existing repertoire influence your commissioning policy?

It was noted that at least part of the relevance of the repertoire lies in how the dancers – as people of today – connect with their roles: enabling new people to own these roles. 

Is it a matter of course that the art of ballet should remain at the top of the dance pyramid? What responsibilities are involved in holding this position?

Sub-questions: What role does the company fulfil or what role would it like to fulfil:

  • For the future development of ballet?
  • For the existence and support of other dance forms and idioms?
  • For the art climate in general and for art education in schools? For the national art infrastructure of fellow institutes ?
  • For the citizens in the city, region or country? For its audiences and future audiences?

There is a tension between the possibilities of a dance company. On the one hand, there is the responsibility (which often comes with the funding) to keep the repertoire alive. On the other, there is the responsibility held by companies in their specific region, as part of society, culture, the arts community and the dance community.

Keynote address Theresa Ruth Howard
Read Theresa Ruth Howard’s keynote speech here.

Mrs. Howard’s talk was followed by a discussion about the possibilities of forming alliances between companies to agree upon certain ethical principles and to support one another. It was remarked that there is a need for more than just a ‘book of ethics’: it is important to embody the values of the company and to invest in the daily practice of living by these values.

Second round of breakout sessions and plenary discussion

How do you stimulate choreographers to innovate? How do you make sure that your dancers are equipped for opening up new territories?


  • Do you talk to choreographers who come to create a new work about their interaction with the dancers? If so, do you discuss your existing company culture with them, and do you set conditions or limitations for the process?
  • Do you have a code of conduct within your company?
  • Can you give an example of a process that caused a stir or confusion? And how did you deal with that as an artistic director?
  • Can you give an example of a process that enabled the dancers to grow?
  • What, in your eyes, is a dancer who gives input? What competencies do they need? Are there different ways of giving input/helping to create?
  • As an artistic director, can you always recognise the potential of a process straight away? Or do you sometimes need to see the end result first?

The discussion inspired new questions such as: How does a choreographer enter the organisation? To what extent do you control the energy that a choreographer brings in (which can be uncomfortable but may stimulate changes within the company)? How do you deal with people you don’t know as yet? How much time do you give the choreographer to develop a working relation with the dancers? It was remarked that more and more companies are facilitating research and allowing for artistic experiments. With this comes the responsibility to create a safe environment, in which a choreographer feels that the collaboration is not ended after one artistic failure.

What are the responsibilities of artistic directors in taking a critical look at existing methods of training and rehearsing?


  • How would you describe the ethics of your work?
  • Can you give an example of a working situation you experienced that opposed your company values?
  • What sort of commitment do you expect from your dancers?
  • What sort of commitment do you expect from your artistic staff?
  • And can you describe your own commitment as an artistic director?
  • What limits are there to the physical and mental commitment that can be required of a dancer?
  • With whom do you discuss the norms adhered to within your company?
  • How, in the age of #metoo, do you enter into dialogue about these issues with society in general?

An elementary part of the work is to become aware of the values you want to work by. There are some obvious values or moral codes, like being humane, showing respect and treating everybody as moral equals. Even if there is never much time for explanation, it is important to be clear towards the company about why we do what we do, and to admit when a mistake has been made.

There was a discussion about the development of a culture of feedback. Do you need to look for casual information moments, outside of the working practice (e.g. parties)? Or should feedback time be scheduled, like some companies do? It is important to think about the times and places of feedback sessions: in the studio or in a conference room? With the director leading the sessions or with an external chair?

How can you co-develop the artistic and pedagogical values of national ballet academies?


  • To what extent should the training of future generations of dancers be the co-responsibility of ballet companies?
  • Do you feel co-responsibility for developing a more diverse palette of future dancers?
  • How does training continue to develop once young ballet dancers start their professional career?  Do companies have an extra responsibility to support the further personal development of these teenagers?
  • Is the support of ballet dancers (both physical and mental) up to date when compared to the support system of top sportsmen and women?

It is currently the companies that set the tone, but as the pupils are the new generation, the question was raised as to whether it ought not to be the other way around. In many countries, interactive forms of learning have been developed in recent decades, but ballet schools have not revised their methods likewise. It was asked whether the functions of ‘teaching the steps’ and (mental) coaching should be separated, as happens in certain branches of sport. Some ballet companies already have a model for mental training for performance. Furthermore, it was remarked that there should be more diverse role models in companies for a diversity of potential ballet dancers to relate to.

To what extent should we revise the image of the ballerina, which is still strongly determined by white romantic ideals of femininity and beauty?


  • How would you describe the public image of the ballerina? (Think of her appearance and the qualities ascribed to her). To what extent does this public image correspond to the reality of daily practice?
  • Male dancers seem to offer today’s choreographers a wider range of possibilities, because the ballerina retains a specific movement vocabulary, due to pointe shoes and her role in the classical pas de deux. Is this a problem?
  • Do men and women have equal opportunities to develop during their career, both physically and artistically?
  • How many dancers of colour are part of your company and what is their gender and rank? Do men of colour and women of colour have equal opportunities to develop?
  • As an artistic director, which male and female images would you like to present to the coming generation of audiences?

Certain things we may have believed to be true are becoming less self-evident. There is a need for discussion about the aesthetic values that belong to the ballet tradition, including ideas about ideal physical proportions. Where do these values come from and what do they mean for us today? How should young female dancers deal with the difference between the person they are and the personality of the young female as she is represented in the ballet tradition? How can we continue to learn from the ways companies in the past have already worked on revising the image of the ballerina?

Dancers nowadays want more insight into the company’s artistic policy and into the path their career takes. How does this affect the daily practice of the artistic director?

• In relation to this, do you have any recent examples of questions from dancers that were unimaginable 10 years ago? How did you, as a director, deal with these questions?
• Does this development influence your dialogue with the artistic staff?
• What kind of information do you share with your dancers and what do you deliberately withhold from them?
• What kind of additional information is offered to you in the dialogue with the dancers? And how is the information you get from this dialogue helpful to you?
• Are dancers more autonomous nowadays, having a direct relationship with their audiences through their personal Instagram accounts?

Things are changing. Dancers are asking more questions and contributing a productive open-mindedness. Conversations within companies are getting more reciprocal.

Positioning Ballet, Sunday February 17, 2019

During the second day, the working conference was opened to a larger group of dance professionals, such as dancers, choreographers, critics and scholars. They started with a panel discussion, followed by a plenary session.

The panel comprised: Adesola Akinleye, Choreographer and Dancer; Laura Cappelle, Sociologist and Journalist; Sarah L. Kaufman, Chief Dance Critic The Washington Post; Ernst Meisner, Choreographer and Artistic Coordinator Junior Company and Interim Artistic Director Dutch National Ballet Academy; Wendeline Wijkstra, dancer Dutch National Ballet.

Topics discussed by the panel

Dance and reflection

- Learning and reflection within physical ballet practice are very specific. The question is therefore not how we can start to reflect but how we can apply that physical knowledge in the wider world.

Recent developments in dance criticism
- Whereas in the past the focus was mainly on the performances and artistic processes, nowadays it is more on personal stories and dancers’ lives, etc.
- There are many things we take for granted that we could share with the public; things that readers and viewers can relate to (e.g. the drive for excellence, the discipline and the high awareness that dancers need to develop.
- The #metoo movement has made excesses visible and increased editors’ awareness of the importance of writing about these stories as well.

Diversity of dance practices
- Many of the topics discussed at this conference have already been explored by ballet companies in recent decades, for example by Dance Theatre of Harlem, or through gay interpretations of the classics. Sometimes the diversity of these practices is overlooked, due to a narrowed definition of what ballet is.
- Moreover, there is also much to learn from dance practices that clearly exist alongside the ballet tradition, across the world. Certain topics that interest us are already strongly embodied in other dance practices. 

Hierarchy in the ballet company
- How should choreographers relate to the existing hierarchy of dancers in a dance company? For example, should they always give the solos to the principals, etc?
- Hierarchy has a function, but it does not mean that the positions towards the top are more important; it is mainly about different roles. The corps de ballet, for example, is of crucial importance to the identity of a company.
- There is a great value for a dancer in experiencing the corps de ballet work in Swan Lake or La Bayadère, for example. A dancer can feel valuable without being visible as an individual in the performance.

Creation and co-creation
- In the past, co-creation in the artistic process was not a hot topic of discussion. Nowadays, however, there is growing awareness of its importance.
- Co-creation can be seen as a circular movement. Dancers have a certain agency in the way they shape the movement, then the choreographer / ballet master responds to that.

Schools and training
- How do we bring the latest insights in education and pedagogy into the practices of the dance academies?
- If we want to change the training culture, how do we deal with the fact that the current staff of the academies and the companies are the product of that same culture? A first step seems to be to acknowledge that we are part of the problem. Secondly, it appears important to enter into dialogue with people from outside the ballet world.

Opportunities for male and female dancers to develop as choreographers
- There are many factors that may account for the fact that there are more male than female choreographers active in the field. Some of these are:
- In ballet training, women are usually required to conform, whereas for men there is more scope for creating.
- In the final stage of their active dancing career, male dancers are more often considered for their possibilities as a choreographer.
- Scheduling of choreographic workshops may limit the chances for female dancers to participate, for example when the workshop is scheduled at the same time as corps de ballet training.
- Authority is often expected from men in advance, which gives them a head start in the studio.
- It is important (for both male and female dancers) to have repeated opportunities. Residencies, for example, give choreographers security, as they are given another chance if a performance did not work out so well.

Plenary discussion

Organisations are people
- It is important to realise that if we want to change, we need to do it with and for the people that make up the organisation. Not just for the press and the donors, etc.
- For directors, it is important to invest in a good team with complementary areas of expertise, and to invest in the dialogue with this team.
- Changing times also bring a changing relationship with the dancers. Nowadays, individual dancers expect individual feedback in the studio and a personal development plan.

- Leadership is not only a matter of expertise but also of competencies: the ability to share a vision, to acknowledge failure, to connect and to communicate.
- The fact that leaders have a decision-making role does not mean they should take decisions without entering into dialogue with their staff and – on an even wider level – with the dancers and the staff from the different departments.
- The mission of the company can be an important guideline in making difficult decisions.
- Dialogues such as the one that took place at this conference are important: exchange ideas and share experiences.
- The example was given of the creation of an (informal) board of advisors: friends, colleagues and mentors, who can tell the director the truth.
- It is also a director’s responsibility to think about the way he/she will leave the organisation one day. How do you prepare the organisation for your successor?