Editors’ note: The following is an edited version of remarks delivered at a dance demonstration on May 11, 2023, at The New Criterion’s spring soirée.

I have a theory that if ballet were done a little bit differently than it’s done today, we’d talk about it a lot more. We’d think about it a lot more. And it would mean a lot more to us. I believe we’re all drawn to beauty, the experience of exhilaration, and what exalts the human soul. When done right, this is what ballet can achieve.

I’m now the director of my own ballet company, American Contemporary Ballet, which is based in Los Angeles. But I came late to the art, seeing it as an adult before ever doing it myself. At the time, I didn’t quite get it. I thought it was a strange mix of the beautiful, mysterious, boring, and awkward, yet I was compelled to do it myself and to try making it. To do that, I realized I had to figure out something I didn’t yet know: what ballet is. So I thought an interesting place to start would be with that fundamental question: what is ballet?

First of all, ballet is dancing. That seems obvious, though it wasn’t immediately clear to me from the first ballets I saw. Ballet is dancing that is made to be watched, an attempt to maximize the value of the spectator’s experience. But that raises the question, what is dancing? This question is as easy to answer as it is impossible to explain fully. The short answer is that when we hear music as human beings, we feel a certain way—whether that be elation, annoyance, or something else. And sometimes that feeling makes you want to move, sometimes rhythmically. When you give in to that feeling, you are dancing.

When you give in to that feeling, you are dancing.

So the simplest “dance move,” if you will, requires nothing more than listening to music and moving a little bit to the pulse. From there, the most basic dance step entails simply shifting our weight, as we do when walking. When you think about it, even something as unexciting as walking allows for nearly endless stylization. A member of the French court in the seventeenth century would have walked one way, for instance, and a fashion model in the 1990s another. In the 1920s there was a dance called the one-step, which is as easy as it sounds: the man walks forward and the woman walks backward in front of him. We can build a more interesting dance from walking—we might have a dancer take two steps forward and then two steps backwards. To make it even more interesting, we could offset the pattern: one step forward with the right foot, then one step back with the right foot; next, one step back with the left foot, then one step forward with the left foot. This is known as the Charleston, which was invented in the 1920s but is actually very popular on social media today.

As fun as a well-executed Charleston may be to watch (or do), our attention will soon wane without some variety. Luckily, there are endless variations. We can make the dance bigger, kicking the legs up. We can get down low, or up on our toes; we can turn the knees inward and outward (all things that dancers have done with the Charleston). But we can take it even further: break up the rhythm, move across the floor, add interesting and complementary movements of the upper body, even utterly change the movements of the legs while using the same basic pattern of forward, back, back, forward. Just like a composer can turn a musical theme upside down or backwards, stretch it, compact it, break it up, or make any number of other changes to hold our interest, we can use basic movement themes to create a dance that is interesting for two minutes, twenty minutes, or longer. And when these steps and variations correspond to the motifs and structure in a musical piece of depth, the result can be transcendent. Dance can give visual form to the feelings that music inspires.

In a ballet production, the choreographer assumes the job of the composer in music, not just offering variations on steps, but keeping an eye on large-scale composition. But that happens in all kinds of dance. What makes a dance a ballet?

We might frame the question in terms of execution. When most of us hear music, feel something, and want to dance, will our bodies execute the full extent of what our souls feel? If it’s a Charleston, maybe. If it’s Bach, maybe not.

Through years and years of practice, a ballerina’s whole body becomes an organ through which the soul can speak. By training in a particular way, with a heightened degree of awareness of every part of her physical self, a ballerina attempts to create an instrument that responds as articulately, energetically, and rhythmically as possible. To perform even a single pose, say an arabesque, a dancer must take active control of every part of her body. Left unattended, every part of her would likely do the opposite of what she needs it to do: her legs would turn in, her knees would bend, her pelvis would tilt, her elbows would sink, her fingers and shoulders would tense, her eyebrows would lift unnaturally, her ribcage would rotate toward her extended back leg, her neck would project forward.

But when she adds strength, energy, and tautness to the proper areas—ease to the shoulders, face, and hands—the resulting look is one of lightness and grace. She gives, through concrete physical form, a sense of beautiful, teeming life. Through it we can feel our own potential, not just as physical beings, but spiritual ones. Her body is a strong, sensitive instrument, with her soul in command. Now it is ready for Bach.

I said I didn’t get ballet at first, and here’s why. I think very often ballet doesn’t live up to its potential. You can see how much attention, preparation, and physical effort goes into a single pose (which is why one takes years of layering muscle memory to master). As ballet has progressed from the fifteenth century to today, its demands on the dancer have increased exponentially. We have reached a point where it is difficult to keep up with the technical demands and also convey the human feeling that makes the whole enterprise mean something.

The ideal ballet combines the most disciplined preparation and the most impulsive execution. But that’s extremely rare to see. Certain choreographers such as George Balanchine have prioritized this approach, and when it succeeds, ballet is sublime. But when it isn’t prioritized, ballet is emptied of its reason for being. It ceases to be beautiful and becomes merely pretty. It ceases to be art and ceases to be dance. You might take your aspiring young ballerina to see it, but it doesn’t mean much to the rest of the public.

I think as ballet practitioners, we have a lot of work in front of us to bring this art form to its potential. Instead, priorities seem to be shifting away from dance altogether.

The contract the dancers and I make with each other upon their joining the company is an artistic one.

In June of 2020, when the whole country was talking about the death of George Floyd, a phenomenon took place that some may remember as the “black square.” Everyone in the arts world was expected to post a black square on social media, not just mourning George Floyd, but specifically in support of the organization Black Lives Matter. I didn’t post the black square because I didn’t think it was my prerogative to represent the dancers in my company politically. I’ve received some criticism for referring to the issue as “political,” but when I looked at the website for the Los Angeles chapter of blm that summer, it said their goals were to abolish the police and dismantle the nuclear family (I may not have that language exactly right, as it was deleted from their site soon after). These were clearly political aims; the contract the dancers and I make with each other upon their joining the company is an artistic one. I did not feel empowered to change that. Nor did I want to.

When people go somewhere to experience art, what they are very often seeking is a vision of themselves outside of the context of the everyday world. So if we bring constant reminders of the everyday world into the experience, we diminish that possibility. Our society needs political thought, we need activism, and we need art. We don’t need them—nor can we have the best of them—in a single experience.

Unfortunately, the posting of the black square was not, collectively speaking, a spontaneous expression of desire for social justice; it came with all kinds of pressure. Because I did not post the square, the company and even individual dancers were threatened. Some called me in tears.

Meanwhile that summer, arts companies across the country announced new or intensified commitments to “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” or dei. I’d discovered what this meant a few years prior when a grant renewal came with a new dei requirement. I did some research, and it boiled down to using criteria other than merit in hiring and advancing dancers, staff, and board members. All the dancers on the acb roster have been training from a very early age. Every day they come into the studio and work for hours at perfecting their craft, under the most stringent criticism. I couldn’t imagine letting them know that there is now a new standard by which they’re going to be judged or advanced—especially a new standard based on something other than merit.

By September 2020, we still couldn’t perform live due to lockdown orders. I figured I would write a short film based on acb’s very unusual Nutcracker. I didn’t want it to be just a film of us on stage; I wanted it to be real cinema. So we pitched it to an agency, and the script generated interest from some major directors. Then the agency came back and said that if they were going to facilitate this production, I would have to replace some of our dancers with dancers of a different skin color—to which I said no. The agency responded that if I made my position known, I’d never work again.

I founded acb twelve years ago, and I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can say no when I need to, though not without cost; we have lost funders and even the ability to apply for most major arts grants due to their sponsors’ now-prevalent dei requirements. But at least I didn’t lose the company. For a while, even individual fundraising conversations seemed impossible without the inclusion of social justice in our mission. It has taken perhaps as much creativity to find and develop new funders as it has to make the ballets.

And yet our audience doesn’t seem to care about any of this. Our performances usually sell out, and my individual fundraising conversations are now mostly just about art. But many artists at larger institutions aren’t in the same position. They can fall victim to a situation in which there’s no one person able to put a foot down, or where those who speak up are kicked out. That atmosphere of fear makes the idea of dissenting very lonely and unappealing.

I think we all have a sense of fairness and desire justice, but the idea of requiring artists to shape their work, their institutions, or their output to conform to a very specific and narrow idea of social justice does not make for a healthier society. There seem to be a few genuine ideologues pushing these ideas, but most people I meet are just scared. I spoke to an executive director of a prominent ballet company who said, “Nobody really wants to go along with this, but you have to. It’s suicide not to.”

It’s unbelievably hard to get a job as a ballerina, and if you say the wrong thing, it seems you can lose it in an instant. When I spoke out about this (the first time on a podcast for the Philanthropy Roundtable), I thought there was a good chance it would end my career. But the process of creating art is one of deep feeling and careful reflection. So what happens to art when you can’t even say what’s on your mind?

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 3, on page 35
Copyright © 2024 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
https://newcriterion.com/issues/2023/11/what-ballet-is

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