Forward Momentum

In contemporary ballet, choreographers and dancers work together to redefine the limits of the art form.
Published in the June/July 2008 issue.

It’s an exciting time to be a ballet dancer—if, that is, you are someone who likes to venture off the beaten path and explore the unknown. As contemporary ballet, long popular in Europe, takes a stronger hold in the U.S., the number of purely contemporary companies is on the rise.

In the 1990s, Complexions and Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet were two of the main American contemporary troupes. But now, with the creation of Dominic Walsh Dance Theater in 2003, the remaking of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in 2006, Christopher Wheeldon’s Morphoses in 2007, and Trey McIntyre Project going full-time this year, it’s clear that innovation is on the upswing.

Like traveling with an explorer always in search of the next discovery, contemporary ballet gives dancers a chance to live and breathe at the boundaries of their art form, continuously working with a choreographer to make something new. It can advance the genre, revolutionize how audiences perceive ballet and challenge dancers to take their training as far as it can go. And in companies that only do contemporary fare, dancers have the opportunity to focus on a particular movement style and artistic sensibility, without having to shift to accommodate the specific physical demands of a classical and neoclassic repertoire. 

These are the reasons Trey McIntyre plans to keep his company exclusively contemporary, even after it makes its much-anticipated debut at Jacob’s Pillow in August as a full-time company, followed by a 30-city tour. 

“It’s hard for dancers to be creative in ballet companies,” says McIntyre, whose company has been touring during the summer since 2004. “If it’s a repertory company, it’s Giselle in the morning and a contemporary choreographer in the afternoon—in not a lot of time. I need dancers to sit with things longer and really inhabit them.” 

Working in a small company like TMP, where all or the majority of work comes from one choreographer, gives dancers the luxury to explore new movement, because the majority of their days are spent dancing in a way that is specific to that choreographer. Dominic Walsh, a former Houston Ballet principal who’s been running and dancing in his own contemporary company since 2003, says this kind of company fosters an environment of intimacy and ownership.

“I enjoy having a small group that understands my style of movement,” he says of his DWDT. “The dancers feel like they’re big stakeholders in the company. Their own voice, their way of moving, their language, their way of responding to their bodies are observed and appreciated, and that provides a springboard for real growth.” 

For dancers and choreographers, the opportunity to work closely over time can yield positive results beyond one particular work by helping dancers push beyond their own boundaries. “Working with dancers,” says McIntyre, “is about tearing away layers and getting past all those things people hold on to that stop them from being remarkable.”

For example, McIntyre once created a solo for 2006’s A Day in the Life for former Washington Ballet principal Michele Jimenez that purposely ignored her facility for large and luscious movement. Instead, he required her to be still. “She was silent and quiet and gestures had to be tiny,” says McIntyre. “It was incredibly fulfilling for both of us, and her dancing became more nuanced. So even in creating choreography and knowing where I’m going to go next, I consider the dancers as people and where their journeys need to go.”

Likewise, contemporary company members can be sources of revelation for their directors. Walsh, for instance, decided to create an entirely contemporary version of Sleeping Beauty, which premiered last October, simply because he was inspired by one of his dancers, Dawn Dipple. “I didn’t have the idea until I worked with her,” he says. “I thought, ‘She could bring a really interesting quality to a role like Aurora.’” 

Mauro Bigonzetti, director of Italy’s Aterballetto, says that dancers are always his principal source of inspiration. “The idea is not important for me, and the steps are the last thing,” he explains. “It’s the dancers. I need to feel the energy of the dancers.”

Since taking the helm at Aterballetto in 1997, where he also danced in the 1980s, Bigonzetti and his company have enjoyed a decade of international attention. But he’s also made a point of creating work on other companies—which included a third new work for New York City Ballet earlier this year—in order to continue developing as a dancemaker. 

“When you work with the same dancers all the time, it’s difficult to discover new possibilities with the body,” he says. “When you work with different dancers from different companies with different styles and experiences, you can learn.”

Because contemporary companies like Aterballetto essentially exist to develop new work, dancers become adept participants in the creation process. Unlike classical and neoclassical ballets, in which dancers draw from a long performance tradition to find their own interpretations, new ballets allow them to them to start from scratch to fulfill a choreographer’s vision. “If you’re a choreographer, your work only exists through the dancers,” explains Jean-Christophe Maillot, artistic director of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo in Monaco. “There is a rich period where I work in the studio with the dancer, and that is what excites me the most. It’s only about sharing and generosity.”

It’s an exhilarating and rewarding task—imagine what it must have been like for the original casts of George Balanchine’s Agon or William Forsythe’s “in the middle, somewhat elevated.” Balanchine, Forsythe and their dancers redefined what could be considered ballet and changed how audiences perceived it.

“Art should give us the possibility to think differently,” says Maillot, who danced for the Hamburg Ballet before retiring in 1983 to choreograph for and direct the Ballet du Grand Theâtre in his native Tours, France. According to Maillot, it is the responsibility of contemporary ballet to surprise audiences and inspire them to pause and reflect.

For ballet as a whole, new work pushes the art form into uncharted territory—not just artistically, but also technically. When Balanchine was the contemporary choreographer of his day, the teacher Stanley Williams extended ballet’s classical vocabulary to prepare dancers for Balanchine’s work. Today, as choreographers like Bigonzetti, McIntyre, Maillot and Walsh explore new ways of using the body, dancers will also achieve ever-greater technical accomplishments. 

Artistically, this means that each day in the studio is accompanied by an electrifying sense that anything is possible. “There are a million more ways that haven’t even been thought of or discovered yet in which we can use dance,” says Walsh, “whether we have to speak, or scream or roll around on the floor, or get up and do 20 entrechats six.”

Kristin Lewis is an editor based in New York City.