Yale Author Zoe Anderson introduces World Ballet Day 2015
‘Ballet now crosses boundaries, in technology and in style’
World Ballet Day, held this year on 1 October, is a sign of just how international ballet has become. Five companies – the Australian Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet in Russia, The Royal Ballet in Britain, the National Ballet of Canada and San Francisco Ballet in the United States – will stream live footage of rehearsals, adding up to a full 24 hours of online footage. It’s a chance to look behind the scenes at some of the world’s leading companies, but it also reveals the way ballet now crosses boundaries, in technology and in style.
Ballet has always been international. Stars were in demand in more than one country. Marie Taglioni, the great Romantic ballerina, was the daughter of an Italian choreographer and a Swedish ballerina, trained in Vienna and became a sensation in Paris. She danced as far afield as London and St Petersburg – where besotted balletomanes ate a pair of her pointe shoes, cooked and served with a sauce. Taglioni’s greatest rival, the Austrian Fanny Elssler, was even more widely travelled, visiting North America.
It wasn’t just ballerinas. The French dancer and choreographer Marius Petipa was proud of the time he spent in Spain, boasting that a real Andalucian audience had applauded his Spanish dancing. He went on to become a great architect of ballet in Russia. Similarly, the Russian George Balanchine left his homeland for Europe and then New York.
With the 20th century’s improvements in travel, it became easier for entire ballet companies to tour, to find new audiences and exchange ideas. The Ballets Russes, the company created by Serge Diaghilev in the early 20th century, offered a new, cosmopolitan vision of ballet – starting with Russian dancers and choreographers, but collaborating with composers and artists from Ravel and Richard Strauss to Pablo Picasso and Coco Chanel. In its travels, it helped to revitalise ballet across the world, with new companies springing up in its wake.
At the same time, 20th-century ballet companies tended to have local accents. Teachers and choreographers often stayed with a single company for most of their careers, helping to develop a distinctive local take on the ballet vocabulary. So The Royal Ballet’s style blended the precision of its founder, Ninette de Valois, with the lyricism of choreographer Frederick Ashton. The Bolshoi Ballet had the heroic athleticism demanded by the “dramballets” of the Soviet era. Even when dancing the same ballet, they’d do it in their own way.
Those identities are still there: you might spot them as you look from one company to another on World Ballet Day. But the fact that you’re watching dancers from all round the globe shows how easy it now is to exchange dance ideas. Local identities are less hard and fast.
Most companies look back to the shared classical repertory. We’ll see the Australian Ballet rehearse The Sleeping Beauty, which Petipa created for the Mariinsky Ballet in 1890, and which all five of the World Ballet Day companies have in their repertories. But now they exchange more recent works, much quicker.
Sometimes sharing is part of the plan from the start. The Winter’s Tale, which we’ll see rehearsed by the National Ballet of Canada, is a co-production with The Royal Ballet. San Francisco Ballet’s live stream includes an interview with the Royal Ballet-trained choreographer Liam Scarlett, who is making a new work for SFB this season. They’ll also be interviewing William Forsythe, an American choreographer who made his name with In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated for the Paris Opéra Ballet before spending much of his career in Germany.
As ballets and choreographers travel, so does their influence. The Russian-born choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who started his training during the Cold War, remembered the revelation of seeing videotapes of Western companies: here was a whole different way of dancing ballet. As technology changed, videotapes were followed by DVDs and YouTube, information crossing the ballet world faster than ever before.
Images comes from Creative Commons