In previous generations, ballet dancers trained with the expectations that they would be dancing Sleeping Beauty for the rest of their lives. Thanks to the changing choreographic landscape of the 21st century, however, today’s dancers must often adjust to new approaches and ways of organizing movement in order to work with a professional company. Either as a strategy to attract a broader audience or from a genuine interest in evolving the art form, ballet companies are programming works by choreographers as diverse as Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp and William Forsythe and commissioning work from innovative contemporary choreographers such as Dwight Rhoden and Karole Armitage. A broader range of skills than those encompassed by traditional training is required to dance these works well.
Contemporary choreography asks the dancer to look outside the box, beyond perfect form, to see the qualities movement itself can possess. To thrive in this environment, dancers must be willing to take risks and to do things differently—not just physically but mentally as well.
Rhoden and Armitage are two choreographers who push dancers to explore new territory. Both have their own companies—Complexions, which Rhoden cofounded and codirects with Desmond Richardson, and Armitage Gone!, which Armitage formed last year when she returned to her home base in the U.S. after several years choreographing in Europe. Both use ballet as a base and demand solid classical training.
“Even if you’re doing a développé that’s turned in, the way you unfold, the way you create line, relies on classical method, timing,” says Armitage.
And while ballet dancers are expected to excel at pirouettes, extensions and jumps, those things are only 50 percent of what is necessary, says Rhoden. “You need that foundation, but you [also] need to be able to then let them go.”
Where traditional ballet emphasizes the limbs—especially the legs—while the torso remains relatively unchanging, contemporary choreographers ask for an expansive use of the whole body. This involves freeing the upper body, which can be a challenge for the classically trained.
“How you think about the movement totally changes what it looks like,” says Armitage. “The preparation is really having an open mind and trying out different things. You have to understand the process of making shapes instead of just copying. Imitating shapes, that’s really of a bygone era.”
To create his movement, Rhoden draws on a broad background in dance including dancing for his mentor, Alvin Ailey, in the Ailey company. Rhoden’s choreography often originates in the center of the body and flows into the limbs, with an organic quality that can be likened to an amoeba. In his teaching, he identifies “missing links” in the evolution he envisions for ballet. For him, these links enable dancers to see the possibilities that can be drawn from ballet technique. For example, classroom steps are executed and then repeated off-center. Dancers learn when to pull away, when to release the tension and how to feel different energy levels.
Demonstrating a movement, Rhoden moves through fondu to front tendu and his upper body contracts as his arm reaches forward to greet the foot. “The total body performs the step,” he says, always referring back to the center line even while pulling away from it.
Redirecting energy is key to Rhoden’s work. And, although the concepts are logical, the result will be unfamiliar to the classically trained dancer accustomed to constantly lifting away from the floor. “Spiral down, find the floor,” “Bear the weight” and “The dynamics have to be clear” are all instructions that Rhoden calls out in rehearsal.
Armitage’s movement is a fusion built on her early Balanchine-based ballet training and her years with Merce Cunningham. Though she is leaning away from pointe shoes, she still considers herself a classicist, because her preoccupations are with structure, beauty and metaphor. She fuses the thoughtful approach of modern dance with the technique, rigor and refinement of ballet.
Armitage encourages dancers to aim for fluency in both ballet and modern and to explore awareness-building techniques like yoga, as well as other practices that offer an edge in finding the common denominator of the body’s universal language.
“What I do is [create] expression through form,” she says. “The concepts are very logical. You’re using all the training you’ve had and putting it toward a different picture.” Her dancers “trace movement rather than making shapes. You show where the movement originates,” she says. “Transitions are the new movements.”
Knowing how it’s arrived at is key to being “in the movement.” By doing something very rigorous and precise, the dancer’s personal expression can be achieved.
Another aspect of contemporary dance that may be disorienting for the classically trained dancer is the collaboration that many contemporary choreographers expect. Both Armitage and Rhoden involve their dancers in the process of developing new and expressive movement, calling on facets of their company members that are often forgotten in the push to excel at technique.
Rhoden begins with a concept. The dancers’ creativity in interpreting his direction is an essential part of the collaborative process. As a company director, he may have his pick of classically trained dancers, but he looks for imagination along with solid technique, selecting only those “who can be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he says. “It’s only then you can grow. You’re not learning a routine.”
In the quest for the beauty of fully realized movement, Rhoden has praise for a dancer that he worked with recently. “He can move freely. He’s willing to bare his soul,” says Rhoden. “And he’s not afraid to look ugly.” The dancer understood, as Rhoden says, “how to take something beautiful and cave in on it.”
For classical dancers, learning to work with contemporary or modern choreographers may be a matter of letting go of the notion of perfection so that they can embrace the expressivity of movement itself.
“Everything is a product of its historical moment,” says Armitage. “The way that Frank Gehry has exploded the volume of architecture so that it’s not just a square box—I’m trying to do the same kind of thing. Instead of the body just being vertical and horizontal, it can move into all kinds of planes and angles.”
Lori Ortiz is a freelance arts journalist based in New York City.