Letters to John Rockwell
Update: An essay on crossover dance, "Crossover, a Few Thoughts," by Alexandra Tomalonis, was published in DanceView Times, January 31, 2005.
In today's New York Times (January 23, 2005), John Rockwell refers to and quotes from two letters, one from me and one from Leigh Witchel, a frequent writer in these pages, in an article "Crossover Dance? It's Not a Big Deal."
Since the full text of the letters (emails, actually) obviously couldn't be published in the Times I thought it worthwhile to reproduce them here. One correction. Rockwell wrote, "The arguments of Alexandra Tomalonis, the editor, and Leigh Witchell [sic] were similar, clearly a result of shared beliefs and mutual consultation," is inaccurate. There was no "mutual consultation".
For the record, I'd also note that I referred in my email to Rockwell to a thread on Ballet Alert!'s forums. I've directed those forums for over six years, but was in the process of withdrawing from them and turning them over to others at the time that Rockwell's Sunday piece ("The Intimate, Unified Universe of Dance") that sparked the letters appeared. As of January 15, 2005, I'm no longer the administrator of Ballet Alert!—A.T.
The text of Alexandra Tomalonis's email to John Rockwell, January 11, 2005:
Dear Mr. Rockwell,
I enjoyed your piece in Sunday’s paper very much. It’s good news that the Times’s new chief dance critic is going in with an optimistic attitude instead of its opposite. (And I'd like to thank you for subscribing to DanceView, and for, I hope, reading the DanceView Times.)
I’m quite sanguine about the future of experimental dance, and very glad that the Times will be committed to cover it; I look forward to reading your articles. I’m afraid I’m less optimistic about ballet, and am writing to offer a different perspective on several issues you raised in your piece.
One of the things that concerns me about the trend to crossover dance as a repertory staple in ballet, and the idea that there are no distinctions among the genres worth making, is that the many ballets created between “Sleeping Beauty” and last week are being lost, tossed out to make room for works that own no style or vocabulary and are generally created for very small casts, leaving the majority of a company’s dancers badly under utilized. This is a huge problem in Paris this season and is being decried at high pitch by French ballet fans. I heard more anger and frustration than excitement about the recent contemporary dance program. I'm told that many people left after the first intermission (and so, I think, never saw the Trisha Brown work) because when you pay $150 for a ticket to see a ballet, you generally want to see a ballet, in the same way that when you go to a tennis match, you expect to see tennis and not ice hockey. Why is it considered good for a ballet company not to dance ballet? Would we be as excited if New Loft Dance Group! put on a meticulous reconstruction of “Swan Lake?”
Repertory is certainly an issue. There hasn’t been a first-rate classical ballet created in 25 years. Is this because there's no one interested in creating classical choreography? No. It is because classical choreographers are being actively discouraged to the point of being driven out of the field. I know young choreographers who have approached companies with the idea for a ballet that actually uses the language the company’s dancers have been trained to dance, only to be told, “We hired you because we want something trendy.” Where have the directors gotten this notion, unless it’s from 40 years of reading critics who describe any new work based on the danse d’ecole as “just classroom steps” and stories that start with, “No tutus and toe shoes for Joey Brown! This dashing young rebel has smashed through the boundaries and turned classicism on its ear!” It's a new century. Isn’t it time for classical ballet to stand on its feet again?
Ballet dancers are trained to dance ballet. They don’t really do modern very well—they don't have the weight for it, among other things—and if they’re fed a steady diet of contemporary dance their classical technique starts to tank. Which brings me to one last point (and please forgive the length of this letter, but these are important matters and you are an important man). I think many Americans see the dance world through the prism of the modern dance structural model, which is ex-institutional; a constant process of revolution, of renewal and invention, is its very life blood. But ballet is an institutional art form, dependent on continuity of training and repertory, and the dancers and works that are in its care need tending. There must be novelty, of course, but not as a substitute for works using the classical language. Ninette de Valois' recipe was a simple one: a repertory should be equal parts the [19th century] classics, new classics, national works (perhaps an outdated notion, but crucial during her time) and novelty. The repertories now have been reduced to “the classics” and novelties, and this is not a positive reduction. The “trendy” modern works created in the past quarter century have been not only negligible, but disposable; it’s the “new classics” that we need now. Another 25 years without them and not only will the 20th century repertory be dead, but so will ballet.
I've found in my dealings with editors over the years that there is a belief that the Masses prefer modern dance to ballet, and that ballet coverage is a hangover from the bad old days of elitism. To bring in new readers, especially the cherished young, editors think they must cover popular culture at the expense of everything else. But my experience with DanceView Times indicates that the Masses think otherwise. [Two sentences with site statistics omitted.] Does this mean I won’t cover modern dance? No, not at all. I wish I had the writers to cover more, and cover it well. I’ve been looking for people to cover the New York downtown beat, and just signed one on. I’m not a commercial site, and I have no space problems. I cover what I can of what I think should be covered. We write about ballet not because it’s popular but because I’m trying to do what major papers and even dance publications have stopped doing, and that is to cover ballet as thoroughly, and in as many interesting ways and with as many different voices, as I believe it can and should be.
Your article has sparked a lively discussion on Ballet Alert (another of my unprofitable ventures). There have been 23 comments on your piece, and the thread has been read 705 times: http://balletalert.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=18347 (when I last checked the board early this morning).
I hope you do see a lot of exciting new work and make readers excited about seeing it too. I also hope you do not ignore ballet, nor dismiss its concerns.
Thank you very much for reading this.
With his permission, this is Leigh Witchel's letter quoted in full (January 9, 2005)
Dear Mr. Rockwell:
I read your piece in the Times of January 9 with interest, but also with concern.
Quoting from your piece: "The less-than-400-year history of formal dance offers no such richness, but no such millstone, either." I think you are describing the history of dance in terms of a 20th century model, primarily that of modern dance: choreographer driven. When the choreographer is gone, the dance disappears. But this is only one model, and a young one. It overlooks the entire institutional nature of classical ballet; and that's the one that the greatest ballet choreographers of the 20th century sprang out of. There would be no Balanchine nor for that matter Ashton without the Maryinsky and the imperial institution that fostered it.
The hunt for novelty from choreographer-driven repertory has been a painful problem for ballet since the death of both choreographers. Topical and novelty pieces including crossover are an important part of ballet repertory; they always have been. But they are novelties, not core repertory, and we have not been tending to that at all. We're watering leaves and leaving the roots to shrivel. Ballet is looking to choreographers with no facility for ballet vocabulary and they are producing short-lived repertory on dancers ill suited for their work. It would be difficult name five crossover pieces made since 1983 that will persist in repertory until 2033.
I applaud your determination to seek out dance at uncommon venues in New York; there is great dance out there in unsuspected places. Right now, some of the most energetic work is happening in the burlesque revival downtown. It saddens me that ballet doesn't have this energy today, but I would not blame the artists, I would blame (as you imply in your quote of Virgil Thomson) the economic situation that allows one failure to sink a dance company. The burlesque artists are wonderful, and they can afford to take risks. They're also often trained dancers from Oberlin, Juilliard and SUNY Purchase. Many of them know their ballet. But that doesn't make burlesque ballet, nor reporting on burlesque the same as reporting on ballet. And no, these wonderful artists are not going to make "grand new ballets". We need to tend to that vacuum, and it should be done within the academy, not constantly outside the walls, wildly hoping that someone who has never partnered a woman on pointe or put on a pointe shoe will understand the nature of that technique.
Your position as the chief dance critic of the paper of record gives you enormous power both direct and indirect; I am sure this is something you realize. Many of us who love dance but see the differences among genres and find those distinctions as important and essential to maintaining the quality, health and continuity of the art as judicious and careful cross-pollination. Having omnivorous tastes does not mean one needs to be indiscriminate.
Wishing you success in your new position, I remain,
Very truly yours,
Leigh Witchel -
3, No. 4