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By Lindsay Alissa King

In the epilogue to her 2010 book Apollo’s Angels, Jennifer Homans wrote, “We are watching ballet go, documenting its past and its passing before it fades altogether.” Homans’ opinion, one that was perhaps not uncommon at the time, was that ballet was experiencing a slow and inevitable decline.

In the decade preceding the publication of Apollo’s Angels and in the nine years since, ballet companies in places where ballet has traditionally had its home–especially Western Europe and North America — have experienced devastating budget cuts and difficulties securing enough funding to sustain themselves. Financial setbacks threaten the future of the art form, underscoring Homans’ ominous observation. 

This state of affairs begs the question: is it worth investing in ballet initiatives in places where ballet is not a leading art form? Why spend time learning about ballet in places like India and Brazil if dance in traditionally ballet-centric locations needs support? 

Curiously, when Homans made her diagnosis in 2010, the ballet world was already being transformed by a handful of choreographers and a new generation of dancers. Since then, ballet has undergone a change that in 2010 one could hardly imagine. Instead of fading from existence, ballet has surged in popularity. New audiences go to live performances. Viewers around the world connect to ballet through social media and YouTube. A host of new, young choreographers–many not originally trained in ballet–are being commissioned by major companies to produce new works.

What’s caused the revitalization?

It’s not that audiences have returned to a “fading” art form or felt nostalgia for ballet as it existed in the final decades of the twentieth century. Rather, ballet itself changed. Ballet dancers no longer hail exclusively from the same, small handful of countries. Companies and casting are slowly becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Although choreographers have always integrated other forms of dance into balletic pieces, ballet dancers and artistic directors are seeking out new collaborations with artists who perform street dances like hip-hop and breakdance, eroding barriers between “elite” and “non-elite” dance styles. Ballet dancers are breaking the fourth wall, connecting with audience members around the world through social media and developing fanbases far beyond the cities in which they regularly perform.

All these changes teach us that ballet benefits from change, experimentation, collaboration, and broad interaction between dancers, choreographers, and audience members.

The revitalization born of experimentation, collaboration, and diversification demonstrates an important fact about ballet today. Although there are significant differences between national styles, ballet does not rely on a national model to fuel its future. Instead, expanding ballet beyond its “traditional” boundaries, into regions where it has historically had a smaller following, has an invigorating effect on ballet in the United States and Europe.

Today many major ballet companies are largely international, drawing from a global talent pool, and in recent years European and American companies have increasingly hired dancers from countries outside ballet’s traditional zone. Brazil has become an established training ground: the Royal Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, the Dutch National Ballet, and the Stuttgart Ballet–to take four of the best-known and best-regarded ballet companies in Europe–are all home to multiple Brazilian dancers, several at the rank of principal. Dancers from South Korea and China are also well represented. Brazilian dancers like Marcelo Gomes and Roberta Marquez or Chinese dancers like Yuan Yuan Tan have enriched the ballet world: with access to good training and ample resources, there is no doubt that dancers from new locales could have the same impact. Similarly, the establishment and expansion of ballet companies around the globe would provide exciting new terrain for artistic growth.

Encouraging international interest in ballet broadens the fanbase for companies and individual dancers around the world. Ballet companies no longer rely exclusively on international touring or the circulation of print media to increase their reach. Instead, fanbases are built through social media, often through the content that individual dancers, rather than company public relations teams, produce. Thanks to new digital tools, fans are now exposed to a wide variety of companies and dancers, even if geographical or financial constraints prevent them from attending performances.

Supporting ballet outside North America and Europe changes the perception of ballet as the property and activity of white-skinned people. At the same time, ethnic and racial diversity in ballet not only dispels racist assumptions about ballet as the purview of white people, but it also encourages audiences to ask new questions and experience new emotions when they watch ballet. Ballet has always benefited from choreographic change and aesthetic or visual experimentation. Similarly, ethnic and racial diversity has the healthy effect of allowing audience members to experience ballet, even pieces that are well known, in a new way. 

From a practical standpoint, expanding ballet outside traditional zones can help secure the future of the art form at a time when ballet and other arts-initiatives are experiencing financial setbacks. For instance, ballet dancers often struggle to find employment after they retire from the stage. A larger global ballet community increases the need for ballet teachers, choreographers, and repetiteurs around the world, providing job opportunities for dancers post-retirement. Likewise, growing global interest in ballet expands demand for companies and individual dancers to perform far beyond their home turf, offering new sources of income.

Perhaps the most important observation when it comes to understanding the benefits of investing in ballet on a global scale is historical. Ballet has never been an art form that held fast to geographical boundaries, a fact that Jennifer Homans outlined in Apollo’s Angels. From its origins in the French court of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ballet has made its home in many different locations: revolutionary France, imperial Russia, Denmark of Bournonville, jazz-juiced America of the 1960s and ‘70s, behind the Iron Curtain, and more recently the rise of Cuba. Ballet is not, in fact, indigenous to most countries, but few dancers or fans would deny that the expansion of ballet outside of France enriched and improved the art form. If we insist that ballet remain trapped within specific boundaries, we’re limiting what may well be an even more vibrant future.

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