American Ballet Theatre is the latest victim of dance company reinvention. Their recent tour to the West Coast demonstrates an attempt by this company to embrace the current re-creation trend, moving away from specialization and toward fusion. The goal is to shape a group of artists equally proficient at classical works and contemporary choreography, with its characteristic mixing of different genres.
From an economic perspective, this move makes sense. Ballet companies are struggling, and the primary goal for most companies now is simply filling the seats. The hope is that a bold new vision will appeal to audiences who see classical ballet as an elite art, making little contribution to the changing canvas of performance. To re-frame this attitude, ballet is being sold as exciting, inclusive and accessible. The most obvious way to accomplish this objective is through the production of sexy, daring and risky choreography. American Ballet Theater has this part of the task down pat. Their recent program at Zellerbach Hall included two works from the Queen of Fusion, Twyla Tharp (Baker’s Dozen and Sinatra Suite), and new pieces from two up-and-coming choreographers, Jorma Elo (C. To C.) and Benjamin Millepied (From Here On Out). But, choosing ground breaking repertory is only one small part of the equation; the company itself has to be able to deliver the breadth and flexibility required of such a varied repertoire. American Ballet Theater has insufficiently prepared their dancers for the increased artistic range required of this choreography. Therefore, the audience does not see the risks of the new work; instead, it sees the dancers struggling with inadequate preparation. It is not the dancers’ fault; their technique is brilliant, but they do not appear to be receiving the mentorship needed from the artistic staff of this company.
Twyla Tharp pieces are steeped with expectations. The audience anticipates much from this woman, including inventive ballet and modern sequences, a seamless flow of movement, smooth, creative transitions, extreme changes in tempo and of course, humor. Unfortunately, ABT’s disappointing version of Baker’s Dozen was missing the Tharp essence. The characteristic flow was absent and the transitions between movements were uncomfortable. Fluidity was lacking, and instead was replaced with choppiness. In addition, the dancers looked far too classical for this piece. The movement sequences were too academic and carefully placed, with hardly any release of the upper body. Even the unison sections were sloppily executed. It was as if the company had to come up with a piece to present at Cal Performances’ Focus on Tharp series and threw this together without much attention to detail. Perhaps ABT was relying on the fact that some members of the current artistic staff have had significant one-on-one experience with Tharp. The hope being that they could accurately relay information to the younger dancers. If they did attempt to teach the company about Tharp, it was a haphazard effort. Clearly, what this presentation illustrates is that there is no substitute for individual in-depth coaching from the original choreographer. Technology and second-hand information do not produce the same results. In short, the company had learned the steps, learned the sequences and learned the staging of Baker’s Dozen, but they had not learned Tharp.
Equal time must be spent educating and training the dancers in each new movement style, otherwise, the re-creation of any company will not work. Everyone loses. The dancers lose the opportunity to physically understand the work, the audience loses the chance to see new pieces as the choreographer intended, and the company loses financially because they will not be developing new patrons and donors. Reinvention cannot happen halfway; it needs to be all or nothing. ABT must decide whether they are willing to invest the necessary time and effort needed for the edification of their dancers and if they cannot commit to this, maybe a new image is not for them.