Do Ballets Have a Life Span?

November 22, 2016

If you were a subscriber to a respectable repertory theater company, you would never tolerate a diet of lustful Saracen princes, troops of tots running around in blackface, upstart Roman slaves versed in Karl Marx, dark-skinned serving girls with bejeweled navels and superwomen who destroy any man passing their way.

Ballet lovers, however, are more tolerant, too much for my taste. For a few minutes of vivid, occasionally masterful choreography, the devotees of Terpsichore are willing to put up with nonsensical, dated or offensive librettos, and they lose their qualms (if they entered the theater with any) in a flood of tours jetés and grandes pirouettes à la seconde.

Face the fact: Many of the ballets that audiences cherish today have simply aged out. The reasons are both political and social, and the dances that have not adapted to espousing contemporary values somehow look like stale period pieces.

So let’s take a stroll through the repertoires of the world’s major ballet companies. The certified classics—Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Nutcracker and Giselle—survive in some manner relatively unscathed, possibly because they have remained in the repertoire for most of the past century, and have been adjusted by each new generation that confronts the material. Even here, you can find dissenters. Years ago in an interview with Mats Ek, the acclaimed Swedish choreographer surprised me by expressing his distaste for The Sleeping Beauty, because, for him, the libretto’s value system extols the ruling hierarchy. Some might argue that Nutcracker possesses racist elements, with its pointed-finger Chinese dance and slithery Arabian number.

Viktoria Tereshkina and artists of the Mariinsky Ballet in “Raymonda.” Photo by Natalia Razina, Courtesy Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts.

But then we come to all those relics, mostly from 19th-century Russia. They share a passion for national and religious stereotyping, which should be unacceptable today. Take American Ballet Theatre’s Le Corsaire, which, after its revival some years ago, maintains its hold on today’s repertoire. The ballet was first staged in France, then it traveled to Russia and the West. The ABT version, containing bits of its predecessors, portrays Turks as slave keepers, and what is even more ignoble, in this fantasy world—Muslims.

Sometime, two centuries ago, adherents of Islam became the most dependable ballet villains. In Raymonda, Abderakhman is not just a believer in Islam (which the 19th-century arts associated with sexual potency), he is aggressively seeking the hand of the pure Christian heroine. That is enough to make him the bad guy. Often, in performances of Raymonda, our response is complicated by the fact that Abderakhman gets the most exciting choreography.

Then, we arrive at La Bayadère, which sums up the era’s ambivalent attitude towards Eastern religions. Except for the wonderfully mind-bending “Kingdom of the Shades” act, this Petipa work was unknown in this country until Natalia Makarova staged the complete version opulently for ABT in 1980, then re-created it all over the globe. The principal baddie is a Brahmin high priest, who hungers after temple dancer Nikiya. But the pseudo-Indian dances, filtered through Russian sensibilities, can also be culturally offensive.

If it’s any consolation, Rudolf Nureyev’s staging of La Bayadère for the Paris Opéra Ballet, with its array of fake skin tones, is even more racially troublesome. Fortunately, the imperishable “Shades” scene, by itself, has entered the repertoire of several major American companies.

Blatant propaganda is another factor that makes ballet age faster than a week-old croissant, and much of it has come from Soviet Russia. Most recent settings of Romeo and Juliet (notably Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s) have derived, in some way, from Leonid Lavrovsky’s 1940 version of the Shakespeare play. The original wears its political biases with cape-swirling aplomb. The last time I saw this Romeo and Juliet I was a bit shocked. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, the company had retained the first-act marketplace episode, in which the slimy aristocrat Tybalt kicks a bunch of poor beggars. The moment is irrelevant to the narrative, but back in the ’30s, the episode probably pleased some hack commissar.

However, the master of Soviet propaganda kitsch remains Yury Grigorovich, the choreographer of that raucous 1968 extravaganza Spartacus, with its pounding Khachaturian score. A generation ago, when Bolshoi Ballet visits to America were increasing, we would laugh at the overheated marches, the wiggly dances of the evil Aegina and the crucifixion of Spartacus, while admiring the performances of phenomena like Maris Liepa and the unforgettable Nina Timofeyeva. But their time has passed, and in the era of perestroika, so has the equating of Roman slaves with the Soviet proletariat. Spartacus has not transcended its era.

American Ballet Theatre in a 1973 production of Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo.” Photo Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.

Then, there’s that category of works of undoubted artistry, which find themselves at odds with contemporary social customs and standards. Age has simply overtaken them. I hesitated to include Agnes de Mille’s 1942 Rodeo, because it was a landmark in American ballet and because of Aaron Copland’s rousing score. But feminism has flourished in 2016 America. It is difficult to get excited about a young woman who wants to be both a cowgirl and an object of male desire in an era when Iowa has elected for U.S. Senator the hog-tying Joni Ernst. I’m not alone in my reassessment of the de Mille. The other year, the great millennial dancemaker Justin Peck jettisoned the Rodeo libretto, retained the Copland music and produced an acclaimed ballet.

Fresh take: NYCB dancers in Justin Peck’s “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes.” Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

Speaking of changing gender standards and expectations, it has become increasingly difficult to swallow the dyspeptic, anti-feminist tone of Jerome Robbins’ The Cage, where an insect woman destroys all men who cross her path. Sixty-five years after its premiere, it seems sour and unforgiving, one of the great choreographer’s pieces that should disappear into the dance history books.

What should keep ballet fresh, young and relevant is historical reassessment, a return to the source, a reconsideration of the social values in which a ballet emerged and a canny fusion with our contemporary values and standards. Yes, I am talking about Alexei Ratmansky. He transformed a propaganda show like The Bright Stream into a warm, humane farce, and he continues to reimagine the standard dance repertoire. It can be done. Look to Ratmansky for more ageless experiences on the ballet stage.

Old also meets new brilliantly in Sir Frederick Ashton’s 1960 comic masterpiece, La Fille mal gardée. Ashton turned a rustic 1789 French tale into a timeless survey of life and love in the French (really English) countryside. He started with all the stock figures of classic farce (young lovers, disapproving mother, village simpleton, etc.) and imbued all of them with such humanity that La Fille will never date. The characters exude internal life and that should keep them fresh forever.