Today ballet dancers are better than ever. In order to “make it” in this highly competitive market, it is necessary to have the whole package: technique, versatility, artistry and desire. But no matter how gifted and brilliant today’s dancers may be, not all of them can be stars. Ballet administrations cannot afford to pay all of their dancers top salaries so most companies end up with a hierarchical ranking of dancers: the prima ballerina, the principals, the soloists (which in some companies are divided into two tiers of first and second soloists), the corps de ballet and lastly, the apprentices. With the outstanding male and female talent present at all of these levels, ballet companies must get creative in how they provide audience access to dancers who may otherwise be hidden. For the New York City Ballet’s current production of Romeo and Juliet, artistic director Peter Martins specifically cast young dancers (members of the corps and even some from the School of American Ballet) to play the title roles, bringing these ‘unknowns’ to center stage. Another way is to move towards more egalitarianism in dance, focusing on choreography and repertory that highlight the ensemble, provide gender balance, and as a result gives more dancers the chance to shine.
San Francisco Ballet’s offering at the Stern Grove Festival this year had the promise of egalitarianism with three choreographic masters of the ensemble: Paul Taylor’s Spring Rounds, George Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15, and Lar Lubovitch’s Elemental Brubeck. This promise, however, was only partly fulfilled. Two of these three works provided the audience with the true feeling of the company en masse, with the starring role being filled not by one but by many. What was disappointing was the piece choreographed by the late prince of parity, George Balanchine. For someone who prided himself on revolutionizing American ballet by introducing a more democratic approach to the dancers, he failed to illustrate this in Divertimento No. 15.
When Balanchine came to
In Paul Taylor’s Spring Rounds, images of nature, seasons, and the circularity of time were apparent within the choreographic structure, movement choices and costuming. Unlike Divertimento No. 15, the entire cast was given equal choreographic treatment, and in the several occasions where the seven women danced in unison and the seven men also danced together, the men clearly shone brighter than the women did. Some of the jump combinations appeared to be too fast for some of the women who danced on Sunday. It was almost as though they did not have time to land completely from one jump, and then plie adequately to give buoyancy and support in the next jump. But, this did not appear to be an issue with
Lubovitch’s Elemental Brubeck is a masterpiece, illustrating his wonderful quality of movement, which is like a strange combination of Fred Astaire, contact improvisation and quasi-Twyla Tharp. His choreography is cool and laid-back, a perfect match to the jazz music of Dave Brubeck. Some of Lubovitch’s inventive signature lifts were present, like the Walking Lady Lift, where the woman is lifted in the air so that she looks like her legs are walking through water. Without a doubt, a highlight of Elemental Brubeck was the solo danced on Sunday by Rory Hohenstein. It was a retro throw-back to dance of many different decades as well as snippets of Broadway dancing such as All That Jazz and Fosse. But the real draw in Lubovitch’s piece was the group dynamic when all the dancers performed together. Again, both men and women were given equal footing in the choreography, and the main group sequence was particularly striking in its energy and flow. It was like the gym scene in West Side Story without all the animosity and contentiousness.
The program on Sunday had potential. If not for Balanchine’s obvious bias against men in his choreography, the performance could have reached a democratic pinnacle. It could have represented pure dance egalitarianism by a truly ensemble company, which is important when there are such talents at all levels of rank. Paul Taylor and Lar Lubovitch may not perceive themselves as purveyors of consensus choreography, but they certainly embody this belief much more than the man who claimed that title for himself.