While choreographers and dancers would be quick to remind us that ballet was still a live art form in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it is safe to say that during those years ballet had lost much of the mass popularity that it enjoyed from the 1960s through the 1980s, when individuals like Mikhail Baryshnikov were household names. Lingering lack of direction after George Balanchine’s death in the early 1980s, coupled with major loss of funding, were problems from which some observers believed ballet would never recover. The art form was increasingly seen by would-be audience members as out of touch.
That is why the past five to seven years may have come as a surprise to audiences and professionals alike. Ballet, despite the period of uncertainty, is experiencing a renaissance that launched it out of the bleak period and toward a rebirth of choreographic energy, explosive diversification, and widespread popularity.
Evidence of this renaissance abounds.
Audience members no longer have to visit major metropolitan hubs to view great ballet. The internet, experimental videography, streaming services, and social media have brought ballet directly into homes around the world, and ballet professionals, filmmakers, and community engagement managers are developing new ways to experience ballet. Filmmakers have been especially hard at work. The 2000 smash hit “Billy Elliot,” a rags-to-riches fictional drama about a young boy, born to a British miner during the 1984-1985 Coal Miners’ Strike, who eventually becomes a ballet star, launched a wave of ballet-related movies and documentaries. Ralph Fiennes recently directed and starred in “The White Crow,” a 2019 biopic about Rudolf Nureyev, that featured a host of ballet dancers as the principal cast, and Cuban ballet legend Carlos Acosta was the subject of acclaimed biopic “Yuli,” also released this year. Meanwhile, several recent Hollywood blockbusters, including “Red Sparrow” and “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum,” boasted ballet segments choreographed and performed by leaders of the ballet world. The ballet content in “John Wick” was so popular that Keanu Reeves is now planning to produce a spinoff called “Ballerina.” A film version of “Cats,” starring Judi Dench, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, and Taylor Swift, in collaboration with Royal Ballet dancer Francesca Hayward, is slated for release this Christmas. The Royal Ballet now hosts a “Live Cinema Season,” during which they broadcast live performances in movie houses around the world – and invite viewers to discuss the broadcast on social media in real time.
A range of documentaries, covering stories like Wendy Whelan’s retirement from New York City Ballet in “Restless Creature,” Justin Peck’s early choreographic endeavors in “Ballet 422,” Tiler Peck’s work as a curator in “BalletNOW,” and the history of the famed all-male company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo in the documentary “Rebels on Pointe,” have received widespread acclaim. Along with Feature-length films there are several new dance series in the works, such as “Tiny Pretty Things,” an upcoming series based on the book by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton about elite ballet training, that will be released by Netflix next year. This comes on the heels of “Flesh and Bone,” a harrowing ballet-themed series released by Starz in 2015. A number of major companies have also jumped on the ballet bandwagon, joining forces with filmmakers and ballet dancers, to advertise products as in Apple’s recent short video promoting the iPhone 11 Pro Max. At the same time, choreographers are working with filmmakers to showcase their work in different ways. LA Dance Project delivers unusual film projects that feature ballet in urban and rural settings. Choreographer Justin Peck and filmmaker Ezra Hurwitz have joined forces to produce music videos with dance sequences. Dance companies even regularly release trailers for their upcoming premieres.
It isn’t just ballet on screen that’s exploding. Although ballet choreographers and dancers have long collaborated with artists in other dance forms, we’re seeing a new generation of choreographic innovation and cross-pollination between dance styles. In a recent, striking example, postmodern choreographer Pam Tanowitz – who believed she would never be invited to choreograph on New York City Ballet – produced what would become a highly acclaimed work entitled Bartók Ballet for the company in May 2019. In September 2018 Kyle Abraham, an eclectic choreographer who draws from multiple genres, brought music by Kanye West and Jay-Z to the NYCB stage in “The Runaway.” Another example of new crossbreeding is Akram Khan’s work for the English National Ballet. A contemporary dance and kathak choreographer by training, Khan developed a version of Giselle for ENB that blended classical ballet and kathak, to widespread applause. Meanwhile ballet is making a comeback in a big way on Broadway, a trend jumpstarted by Christopher Wheeldon’s stage version of “An American in Paris” that opened in London in 2015.
Ballet dancers are breaking the fourth wall and using tools like social media to explore new dance terrain and connect with the audience members. Their efforts have multiplied the number of ballet fans exponentially.
Royal Ballet principal Steven McRae, for example, has racked up tens of thousands of followers with the inspiring ballet-oriented workout clips and stills he posts on Instagram, and Royal Ballet of Flanders soloist Shelby Williams, otherwise known as “Biscuit Ballerina,” uses her humorous account to show clips of badly performed ballet to bring levity to a sometimes high-stress profession. A number of high-profile celebrities in other fields have also become outspoken ballet fans and promote the art form through their social media content. Jennifer Garner, who puts out a weekly “Tutu Tuesday” Instagram post, is a prominent example.
As ballet on social media gains speed, ballet dancers are developing new projects that promote ballet and raise awareness of ballet as an art form to a younger generation in entertaining new ways. Royal New Zealand Ballet company member Madeleine Graham teamed up with choreographer Corey Baker to perform the first-ever ballet on Antarctica – a project that resulted in a stunning film designed to bring attention to global warming and climate change. Merritt Moore, a professional ballet dancer who doubles as a quantum physicist when she’s not dancing, hopes to dance in space one day. American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland serves as an ambassador for MindLeaps, a non-profit organization that uses dance to inspire at-risk children in Africa. Copeland’s co-company member Stella Abrera has organized a number of charitable and non-profit endeavors in the Philippines.
The ballet world has been wrestling with its inner demons, as well. New York City Ballet experienced a multi-part #metoo moment that resulted in Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins’ resignation and the termination of three male principal dancers. (NYCB was ordered to reinstate two of them after arbitration). Paris Opéra Ballet has also been rocked by complaints of bullying and sexual harassment, communicated through an internal poll that was leaked to the public, and the English National Ballet has come under fire from dancers who claimed that company leadership fostered a hostile workplace environment. Tensions at the Bolshoi Ballet imploded in 2013 when Artistic Director Sergei Filin was attacked with battery acid – a horrific event that was ordered by a disgruntled Bolshoi dancer who later confessed.
Artistic directors are finally recognizing what many individuals have been pointing out for years: young women are rarely encouraged to exercise their choreographic muscle, and the few female choreographers who do balletic pieces are often excluded from annual programming.
Not only are more women creating their own companies, but some are finally being commissioned to create work for existing companies. American Ballet Theatre’s Gemma Bond, NYCB’s Lauren Lovette, and Australian Ballet’s Alice Topp have made major waves with their choreography in recent years (though evidence suggests that there is still a wide discrepancy between the number of works by male choreographers and the number of works by female choreographers performed on stage each season). Women are also accepting leadership roles in major companies. Wendy Whelan’s recent appointment as associate artistic director of NYCB and Julie Kent’s appointment as artistic director of Washington Ballet are two recent examples. In 2017 NYCB Tiler Peck also became the first woman to curate the Los Angeles Music Center BalletNOW program, an achievement that was documented in a feature film the following year after movie star and producer Elizabeth Moss decided to pick up the story.
Ballet dancers, directors, and administrators are also slowly addressing the racism that has long been a part of the art form, as well. ABT’s decision to promote Misty Copeland to the rank of principal was a watershed event, and Copeland’s work has since been outspoken about the problem of race in ballet. She has, in some ways single-handedly, brought ballet to a broader audience and forced ballet leaders around the world to take a hard look at their hiring practices. Dutch National Ballet soloist Michaela DePrince has made similar strides. A new generation of black dancers, including Calvin Royal III, Brooklyn Mack, Precious Adams, Francesca Hayward, Preston Chamblee, and a number of young corps de ballet members are reshaping the image of ballet. Organizations like MoBBallet are documenting the contributions of people of color to the art form, and, shortly after the death of pioneering black ballet dancer Arthur Mitchell, Dance Dance Theatre of Harlem, The International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA announced the launch of The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet. Likewise, dancewear companies are finally beginning to produce clothing and shoes for different skin tones.
Although exposing a history of racism, sexism, and other problems in the ballet world reveals painful truths about the art form, the fact that community members are becoming more and more willing to confront these problems indicates that change is on the horizon. As more people of color are represented on stage and female choreographers create work that resonates in new ways with audience members, fans and professionals have become more enthusiastic about the art form. Ballet has become more relevant to ongoing conversations about gender, sexuality, race, and equity in the workplace, and ballet’s popularity, among young people especially, has risen.
The major lingering question, in light of this recent upsurge in the mass popularity of ballet, is what it means for the future of the art form. Curiously, despite the renaissance that ballet is experiencing, ballet companies are losing funding. It’s becoming more difficult to maintain companies and to put on major works. Many companies are still unable to offer their dancers full-time employment and benefits like health insurance.
As choreographers, dancers, and directors push the boundaries of the art form, It is imperative that we also begin to push the boundaries of traditional funding and traditional publicity. At Ballet Rising we’re hoping to do both. It’s crucial that we continue to build a global ballet community that self-supportive, collaborative, and open to innovation. Although some critics have lamented some of the recent changes in the ballet world, the majority of audience members and professionals have welcomed these changes wholeheartedly. The momentum that pulled ballet out of a bleak period in the late 1990s was fueled by efforts to rethink tradition, to cross borders, and to encourage new habits. Ballet Rising is part of the effort to reimagine ballet for the 21st century.