By Nicole Duffy Robertson
10 December 2020
What makes a ballet a classic? Is it earning a permanent place in the history books, or is it being worthy of the Herculean investment of hours in the studio, the tireless work of the dancers and coaches, the resources, media and marketing machine required to bring it to life, or both? Who decides, and more importantly, what goes into that calculus? Today the re-evaluation of the Western theatrical dance canon continues as ballet and modern dance are challenged in the academy. In concert dance, these questions are a matter of survival: the performed repertory consists mostly of “classics” and “new work,” and everything else tends to disappear. So, the question of what makes a dance a classic, i.e., a dance worth remembering, either by restaging or through written discourse, takes on a bigger significance.
Two works by the founders of the Joffrey Ballet, Robert Joffrey’s Astarte (1967) and Gerald Arpino’s Light Rain (1981), provide a lens for exploring the question of what qualifies as a “classic,” while also addressing ideas about shifting cultural definitions of violence, taste, and timelessness. A closer look at these works may complicate our ideas of what dances should survive, be studied, and/or be performed. These ballets exist outside of conventional ballet’s classic/canonic paradigm, in part because of their sexually explicit, “anti-balletic” underpinnings. First as a dancer, and now in my work as a répétiteur for the Gerald Arpino Foundation, and as a co-founder and director of New York Dance Project, I continually wrestle with these questions. Which dances to teach, pass on, and present to the public is not a trivial matter for our art form.
Each of these ballets has a different sort of existence today: Astarte is in the dance history books, and Light Rain lives onstage. One is for the most part critically respected, while the other tends to be dismissed. But there is another reason I propose that these ballets have significance beyond their roles in ballet history and performance: they provide an essential bridge from foundational “classical ballet” training (the particular methodology or school is irrelevant) to understanding and mastering key elements of the current, multi-genre contemporary dance world. In other words, these ballets persist, whether as classics or “in the canon” or not, based on their unique pedagogical value, for both dancers and audiences.
Ballet canonicity has been largely determined by success in institutional promotion and financing, coupled with plentiful support from the critical establishment. For example, Royal Ballet founder Ninette de Valois’s astute creation of a “ballet tradition” in the 1930s (with the help of Arnold Haskell’s writing) and George Balanchine’s unassailable status (protected by Lincoln Kirstein, the Balanchine Trust, and the New York City Ballet) continue to survive and thrive through uninterrupted institutional support and critical writing. These two main drivers of ballet survival (the institution and critical attention) create a somewhat narrow discourse that keeps a firm grip on what gets performed, and therefore have an outsized influence on the creative direction of ballet today.
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