CriticalDance Forum

Tradition - do we need to reconsider old habits and prac
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Author:  Stuart Sweeney [ Mon Dec 23, 2002 8:11 am ]
Post subject:  Tradition - do we need to reconsider old habits and prac

We are very grateful to another of our contributors, Thea Barnes, who is currently Resident Dance Supervisor for The Lion King in the West End and has prepared this introduction to the theme:

Are ballet companies steeped in tradition? Can we evaluate old habits and
traditions including the hierarchical pyramid of ballet company structures?

Even a company of 5 years has its own history but ballet companies shoulder a tradition some 300 years old. They can measure up to this tradition, surpass it or get squashed by a legacy that everyone has an opinion about. This tradition is either the foundation for artistic decisions or an over cooked goose that is picked over, dismembered or discarded entirely. It is worrying though when a reviewer calls "The Nutcracker" a "cash cow" (1) or worse is geared to a junior audience to generate half the annual revenue but without any guarantee this same audience will come back when grown up (2). Just who is the ballet company to satisfy: tradition, budgets or inspiration?

Enter the 3 work program where an insightful artistic director along with nail biting board members and stressed out marketing managers can splice tradition with more contemporary, innovative approaches and present a smorgasbord repertory to appease diverse expectations. What do these choices do to ballet's art practise and the hierarchy of company structures?

Innovative approaches require revised ways of thinking about the way dance is made and viewed. Tradition is always present, stretching from the past and tailoring the present giving innovation scant chance especially when critics recognise "an exquisite piece of ballet classicism (3)" but ridicule choreography as "contrived, downright ugly manoeuvres; a mass of jumbled activity; macho posturings; lifts like heaving a sack of coal. (4)" Not all companies produce repertories that include works by Kenneth Macmillan or are fortunate enough to have Mark Morris mixing "academic ballet with unexpected twists to produce an unbuttoned, fresh classicism (5) that is engagingly unpretentious". (6) Ballet tradition is a tricky thing and not easily disregarded, nor should it be. Tradition though may lead current practitioners and viewers into believing there is only one history when in fact there are hundreds. The divisions are in aesthetic choices, which steeped in their own communal trappings give ballet its multiple identities. Can the integrity of ballet tradition be maintained despite present ballet dance makers' renovations?

Ballet's identity is diversifying. Meisner (7) reviewing Dance Theatre of Harlem noted the varied personalities of the dancers but also noticed how the dancers snapped to attention when Arthur Mitchell took his bow. Meisner did not discuss their "blackness" before reviewing their artistry, which is great, but Meisner may have unknowingly picked up on the "discipline" required to get a company to achieve the vision of one man on a quest to reshape the aesthetic preferences of ballet's tradition. What was gained and what was sacrificed in this quest? Maybe what was gained were new ideas about what ballet's aesthetic encompasses and new approaches to teaching, learning, choreographing, and selling ballet globally. All these elements influence revisions in the practice of a tradition and bring about new perspectives and new histories.

Meisner may also have perceived the hierarchical, autocratic, male-dominated, gender, and racialised politics that permeate the infrastructure of ballet companies and ballet practice. What pressures face the dancers to deliver the goods when the context is to prove a point? Everything is on the line when dancers have "changed" everything to suit one man's dream. "First they break your ego down, then they build it backup in their own image (8)" is a student's lament and may be a reflection of what is going on back stage and in ballet "institutions" all over the world. In the case of DTH, the dancers have definitely measured up and surpassed expectations but critics still refer to them as the "black classical dance company (9)". Just what are we asking our dancers to achieve when faced with such blatant aesthetic discrimination?

These varied outside in and inside out perceptions affect a company. The question arises are practitioners aware of how the practice of ballet differs or mirrors tradition? Are practitioners and critics aware of the differing histories that reconfigure or continue to enforce the tradition of ballet and how? I believe that most practitioners of ballet will agree that dance making is global. There is a lot of sharing of strategies for making dance as well as how to work with dancers. I wonder though are we really respecting and acknowledging the source and configuration of this borrowing?

Donald Hutera refers to Rhoden's "Twist" as "sub-Forsythe abstraction” (10) and this statement deserves some attention. William Forsythe acknowledges his debt to dancers who through a process of structured improvisation give their embodied knowledge to create the types of works Forsythe is known for. Forsythe's way of dismembering the ballet goose is intervention by using improvisation to reconfigure classical ballet movement. Dancers working with Forsythe are required to know his methods for building movement material for choreography as well as being proficient in classical ballet. Improvisation has its restrictions and freedoms but just how has this affected the hierarchy of Ballet Frankfurt and will this hierarchy remain unchanged when Forsythe leaves Ballet Frankfurt?

Rhoden has a different history. Desmond Richardson, Rhoden's partner spent 2 years with Ballet Frankfurt. Both these dancers toured with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in the late 80's until the formation of their company, Complexions, in 1994. These artists' built on their classical ballet, contemporary and jazz dance experience and embraced the energy of American dance clubs and street dance with its techno, hip hop infested music. Each in his own way has synthesised an aesthetic and cultivated compositional devices to dismember the ballet goose and define their own individual choreographic and performance approaches. Dancers working with them are required to be proficient in ballet, jazz and contemporary forms and possess the highest, most extreme technical prowess obtainable. Unlike Forsythe, Rhoden requires his dancers to follow his directions to the letter; there is no use of improvisation to vary the movement given. This way of working is more in line with the hierarchical pyramid most associated with the tradition of ballet. This is one of a variety of African American ways of knowing movement not Forsythe-ian. Rhoden's kind of dance making owes more to the community that gave raise to Balanchine than the accomplishments of Forsythe in Germany. Another question that arises from this is authorship and really, who choreographs a dance and then in view of the Protas vs Martha Graham Centre case (11), who owns it?

Context is what situates and clarifies a ballet company's aesthetic and its place in the tradition of ballet. Context also influences the making of dance, the shaping of a company's infrastructure and its particular hierarchical structure. There is no escaping ballet's tradition and the aesthetic this engenders. There is also no escaping the mix of contributing factors that support or work against a single company's dance makers, its choreographers, dancers, artistic directors, board members, administrative staff, and critic/reviewers.

Some points for discussion:

- Can the communities of the world continue to use their individual aesthetic expectations to measure each other's practice?

- Can an individual community expect their revered ballet aesthetic to be the definitive and use this to measure all "Other" (12) companies?

- Can the dance makers of a single company afford not to talk to each other and those of other communities?

- Can artistic directors and their companies benefit from knowing the history, i.e. the diversity of ways of making dance and the discipline required from dance makers to measure up or surpass the tradition of ballet?

- Are artistic directors open to acknowledging the debt they owe to dancers?

- Are dancers open to discovering strategies to meet the challenges they face on both sides of the foot lights?

- Are their companies going to be there to support their spirit as well as their physicality?

Let me hear your thoughts……………!?!


1 Brown, I. (2002). "They haven't cracked it yet" Telegraph, October 15
2 Mackrell, J. (2002). "The Nutcracker". The Guardian, October 12.
3 Meisner, N. (2002). "A Cartoon take on a classic". Independent, October 22.
4 Dougill, D. (2002). "Dance: A twist in the tale". Times, November 10.
5 A question: What is "classicism" in 2002?; arabesque, glissade, pas de deux, Macmillan, Morris, Ballanchine?
6 Meisner, N. (2002). "Morris major". Independent, November 2002
7 Meisner, N. (2002). "Dance Theatre of Harlem, Sadler's Wells Theatre, London The smack of firm direction". November 8
8 Smith, C. (2001). Not Just Any Body Advancing Health, Well-Being and Excellence in Dance and Dancers. Ontario, Canada: Ginger Press (61)
9 Dougill, D. (2002). "Dance: A twist in the tale". Times, November 10.
10 Hutera, D. (2002). "Restraint and Liberation". Dance Europe, 8, December, (28-31)
11 First ruling, United Stages District court, Southern District of New York: Opinion by Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum, United States District Judge granted the Martha Graham Centre continued irrevocable right to use Graham's name in connection with its educational services (August, 2001, 18). United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit (Docket #01-9055, July, 2002) has upheld Judge Cedarbaum's opinion. Judge Cedarbaum's Opinion 01 Civ. 271 (MGC), August 23, 2002 granted the Martha Graham Dance Centre rights to 45 of 70 works that are fixed in a medium from which they can be reproduced. Ronald A. Protas, the purported heir to Graham's legacy can renew his rights to only one work.
12 I use this term to embrace any difference: nation, culture, ethnic, and race.

<small>[ 25 December 2002, 01:16 PM: Message edited by: Stuart Sweeney ]</small>

Author:  Stuart Sweeney [ Mon Dec 23, 2002 12:33 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Tradition - do we need to reconsider old habits and prac

Hierarchies – do we need them?

This posting is a complement to Thea’s piece above and discusses the hierarchy system that is feature of The Royal Ballet and most other ballet companies and examines whether there are any alternatives. In the business world there has been a remarkable turn-around over the past 20 years. When I first joined a major bank, it sometimes seemed that an employee in their mid-20s had to ask permission to blow their nose. Yet by the time I left, several layers of the hierarchy system had been stripped away and young professionals were regularly given great responsibility and achieved much success. Whilst the days have gone when the Artistic Director of a UK ballet company would insist that a visiting choreographer find a role for a dancer merely because of their Principal status, I still have the impression that the hierarchy system has changed less in ballet companies than elsewhere. For instance the Royal Ballet has five categories, English National Ballet has six, whereas Birmingham Royal Ballet has four now.

As an alternative it is interesting to examine the example of Ballett Frankfurt with Artistic Director and choreographer William Forsythe. This 36-strong cutting-edge Company has as high a reputation as any in Europe. Yet it only has one category, ‘Dancer’, and thus formal status plays no part in role selection. Although experienced performers of the highest quality, such as Dana Casperson, will regularly perform leading roles, selection is more clearly linked to ability and suitability rather than position in a pecking order. Perhaps this method of organisation also helps to create a different ethos – dancers actively participate in the creation of Forsythe’s work and are given credit for this.

A case can be made that the 90 strong Royal Ballet is a different animal, but I can see potential advantages for a less hierarchical system. Firstly, greater flexibility in selecting dancers, which may avoid some of the situations where we see a junior dancer with greater elan in a subsidiary role while a more senior dancer has a more significant part. Secondly, a streamlined hierarchy would hopefully result in less heartache from talented dancers who cannot be accommodated in the annual round of promotions. Some have suggested to me that there would be less opportunity to reward and motivate dancers, but Ballett Frankfurt has some of the most highly motivated dancers around who are stimulated by the quality of the artistic experience offered by the Company.

Another potential advantage concerns the scarcity of stage time for many Principals and First Soloists, which seems to present a problem for at least some artists. A less hierarchical system would make it easier for dancers to perform smaller roles without loss of perceived status.

A hierarchy can make administration easier in some respects. However, businesses have found ways around the problems associated with removing layers of hierarchy, such as salary level decisions, so I see no reason why ballet companies cannot do the same.

It can also be argued that change is necessary to counteract other recent artistic restrictions. In ballet, with the increasing use of notation and the rigid adherence often demanded by the major choreography trusts, it can be argued that ballet dancers have less part in artistic decision making than used to be the case. What a contrast to the situation in UK contemporary dance where choreographers such as Siobhan Davies and Wayne McGregor empower dancers to contribute to the process of artistic creation. Is it just a coincidence that McGregor’s ‘Symbiont(s)’ is seen by many as the most exciting new work made on Royal Ballet dancers in recent years?

By nature I am not a revolutionary, thus as a first step for companies like the Royal Ballet, a 3-tier structure would be a move in the right direction.

I offer the views above to stimulate debate and I’m keen that others are heard on these issues. What’s the experience in the US and elsewhere?

This is an adaptation of an article that first appeared in Dance Europe magazine

<small>[ 06 January 2003, 07:33 AM: Message edited by: Stuart Sweeney ]</small>

Author:  djb [ Mon Dec 23, 2002 5:17 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Tradition - do we need to reconsider old habits and prac

From Thea Barnes's article:

- Can the communities of the world continue to use their individual aesthetic expectations to measure each other's practice?
I suppose they can, but I wish they wouldn't. Many times I've heard dancers from certain schools or companies express the idea that that school's/company's style is the only really good style. It reminds me of a conversation between my mother and one of my childhood friends. My friend told my mother that the Catholic religion was the one true religion. My mother pointed out that many people of different religions feel the same way about their religions, to which my friend retorted, "I know, but the Catholic religion is the only one that really is."

When this view among dancers reaches the point where the dancers won't even consider going to see other companies because no other style can compare to their own - and I've known this to happen - then narrowmindedness has reached a whole new level. Without exposure to other aesthetics, the art would stagnate.

<small>[ 29 December 2002, 03:09 AM: Message edited by: djb ]</small>

Author:  librarian [ Sat Dec 28, 2002 1:03 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Tradition - do we need to reconsider old habits and prac

Akin to that is the statement that I once heard from some teenaged SAB students, who said "If I can't dance for the New York City Ballet then I don't want to dance at all". I was aghast.

Author:  citibob [ Sun Dec 29, 2002 6:14 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Tradition - do we need to reconsider old habits and prac

Yes, that's a rather juvenile attitude. SAB training gives excellent preparation to dance for Miami City Ballet, for example. And judging from what people say about the two companies, Miami might be more exciting to dance for these days.

Author:  Stuart Sweeney [ Fri Jan 03, 2003 6:45 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Tradition - do we need to reconsider old habits and prac

I have just read a delightful piece by Jack Anderson in which he compares Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet and Balanchine's company from the 1950s. Although the technical excellence and strength were with the Americans, he preferred Sadler's for its warmth and humanity. He had picked up the point that it is more important to observe what a Compnay is offering rather than what it is not.

While it is right that companies should maintain a distinctive aesthetic, which may of course change over time, perhaps if all fans, critics and professionals looked for the positive rather than the negative, we'd all enjoy a lot more of the dance we see.

Author:  librarian [ Sat Jan 04, 2003 6:21 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Tradition - do we need to reconsider old habits and prac

Thank you, Stuart. I like your last statement.

Taking this point:

"Can artistic directors and their companies benefit from knowing the history, i.e. the diversity of ways of making dance and the discipline required from dance makers to measure up or surpass the tradition of ballet?"

Dance in general might be better served if those who consider that their mandate is to 'surpass the tradition of ballet' (and there are those who do, well put) were to consider instead that tradition, what components of it that contribute to artistic development, and as related to making dance, is something that one builds on, not surpasses, so that to begin by assuming that one must surpass above all else might be the wrong way to approach the subject; if you're committed to little else other than being totally different, you might also end up flailing about with no anchor at all. Additionally, I think that if a choreographer has had a good education throughout his career, he or she will hopefully be very aware of dance history and the different ways to approach making a dance. However, if one were to examine what schools are teaching to see what kind of background they are giving young dancers/choreographers-to-be other than the teaching of the execution of steps, I dare say some would be found lacking.

<small>[ 04 January 2003, 07:32 AM: Message edited by: librarian ]</small>

Author:  Stuart Sweeney [ Mon Jan 06, 2003 6:31 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Tradition - do we need to reconsider old habits and prac

I wonder if anyone has any comments about my "Hierarchies do we need them?" where I suggest that ballet companies are over-burdened with layers of hierarchy for the dancers and it's time to look at this again. Am I barking up the wrong tree?

<small>[ 06 January 2003, 07:35 AM: Message edited by: Stuart Sweeney ]</small>

Author:  librarian [ Mon Jan 06, 2003 6:39 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Tradition - do we need to reconsider old habits and prac

I wouldn't say that, Stuart. But hierarchies, for the most part, are built on abilities, and of course not all dancers are capable of handling all roles. I do think that in companies where they have further fractured the lists by having, for instance, junior and senior principals and soloists, and coryphees and corps de ballet, there aren't enough performances in even the largest and busiest company to give both sufficient work and opportunities to grow to the dancers. Even in companies where the hierarchies supposedly don't or didn't exist, they seemed to assert themselves somehow.

Author:  Thinkerbell [ Mon Jan 06, 2003 9:26 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Tradition - do we need to reconsider old habits and prac

Originally posted by Stuart Sweeney:
...where I suggest that ballet companies are over-burdened with layers of hierarchy for the dancers and it's time to look at this again.
Hi Stuart,

Internal economic factors in the hierarchical divisions of some companies ought also to be considered here. In state-funded companies, dancers' duties are often explicitly defined and limited by their rank as well as their pay scales. Such systems lead to differing incentives to create specific ranks or to abolish ranking systems altogether, depending on the amount and type of dancing being done.

For example, a dancer under contract as a soloist in a German theater may not be required to dance group roles. Group dancers who are given solo roles, however, must be paid extra for their efforts. (Curiously, such extra pay is calculated by the number of measures danced, so some composers offer a better payoff than others.) Many German theaters skirt the potential financial burdens of higher soloist wages on one hand or extensive solo "overtime" on the other by offering dancers "group with solo obligation" contracts, under which group dancers can be made to dance solos without extra pay. Others, including many of those who have made the shift from ballet ensemble to smaller modern ensemble in the last decade or so, have eliminated all solo contracts and made all group contracts "group with solo obligation." The benefits or drawbbacks differ with the situations on the ground.


<small>[ 06 January 2003, 10:29 PM: Message edited by: Thinkerbell ]</small>

Author:  librarian [ Tue Jan 07, 2003 6:26 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Tradition - do we need to reconsider old habits and prac

However, as far as I understand, in the U.S., a corps member may be required to dance a solo role without extra pay, and a soloist a corps role without less pay; a principal a soloist role without less pay (although I suspect this is usually a more negotiable thing with a principal than with the others) but cannot be asked to do corps roles at all. It doesn't have quite the bureaucratic snafus here that it might in a state-sponsored company. For the corps member it's viewed as an opportunity, for the soloist as part of an obligation, for the principal as a favor they would be doing the company. (again my suppositions from observation). But it doesn't seem to offend anyone's sensibilities as I think it's pretty clear from the beginning that this might be asked of them. I don't necessarily think that a corps dancer who's given a shot at Sugar Plum or Cavalier once or twice in a long run to see how they handle it necessarily deserves extra pay for the opportunity, the company is taking a risk on her or him with the idea that it might serve as a springboard to promotion to a higher-paid level if he or she acquits him/herself well.

Author:  citibob [ Tue Jan 07, 2003 8:58 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Tradition - do we need to reconsider old habits and prac

I've come to conclude that hierarchies (more
>precisely: formalized rankings) are simply a fact of life for
>large corporate organizations. They seem to help with HR
>management in such organizations and are also helpful for
>labor unions seeking to set labor standards.
>However, they don't seem to affect the art much one way or
>the other. A good artistic director will treat dancers in
>a "ranked" manner, whether or not the dancers are formally
>ranked. That is, harder parts will be given to dancers
>considered better able to do those parts, etc. This is just
>a matter of making sure you get value for what you pay for.

Author:  I-H [ Tue Jan 07, 2003 9:07 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Tradition - do we need to reconsider old habits and prac

There's a very interesting letter written to from Lewis Segal concerning this issue which I'm posting a link to here:

Author:  citibob [ Tue Jan 07, 2003 9:14 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Tradition - do we need to reconsider old habits and prac

As for whether or not corps members get paid for soloist roles: this is all splitting hairs. In most corporate settings, including ballet, promotion is offered to those who achieve. But before you can be promoted, you must prove that you can handle the next higher level of responsibility. In most settings I know, you do that for a while without the next higher level of pay --- long enough to prove you can. Then you get promoted. If you don't get promoted, eventually you leave the company for some other company that will appreciate your skills better. If management doesn't promote people or pay them well, it will lose its best employees.

Ballet seems to be one of the few professions in which the professionals are incredibly concerned with not doing jobs that are "below" them. Of course it's not good in any profession. But in other areas of life, people don't usually complain so much if they're given a few "easy" assignments. We must not forget that the ballet company is there first and foremost to produce ballets for the public. Artistic development of the dancers is important, but definitely second. (Of course if artistic development is neglected, then the quality of the performance will suffer. But in the heat of the moment, the dancers must always come second to the audience)

The biggest two advantages I see of not using formal rankings (and these are possibly minor advantages).
1. It gives management more flexibility. If you're paying dancers, you should be able to use them as you see fit, to the betterment of the common goal.
2. It discourages the "diva" attitude. There's nothing worse than co-workers who think they're better than everyone else. Usually, they're only about half as good as they think they are. The best dancers I know are all very modest about it.

<small>[ 07 January 2003, 11:42 AM: Message edited by: citibob ]</small>

Author:  Stuart Sweeney [ Tue Jan 07, 2003 9:25 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Tradition - do we need to reconsider old habits and prac

Thanks for the new link I-H and, for the avoidance of doubt, I have no problem with anyone who wishes to discuss any themes from the articles here. As you can probably see we have gone for an approach which encourages discussion by theme and by accident the two approaches are complementary.

citibob said, "Ballet seems to be one of the few professions in which the professionals are incredibly concerned with not doing jobs that are "below" them." I know what you mean citibob and the strength of a company like Rambert with a flat structure is that this effect does not happen. One shining exception to this in the UK is Northern Ballet Theatre, where Principals regularly dance smaller and corps roles. It would be interesting to hear what they think of this - maybe they enjoy having the extra dancing days, the shortage of which can be the bane of dancers at the top of the pyramid.

<small>[ 07 January 2003, 11:33 AM: Message edited by: Stuart Sweeney ]</small>

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