For years, the difference between ballet and modern dance was clear: Ballet descended from the courtly social dances of the 16th century, and brought that sense of nobility with it even when it dealt with more current issues. From its beginnings at the start of the previous century, modern dance defined itself by being everything that ballet was not—primal rather than pristine, it rejected almost every element of classical practice. Fast forward to 2018, though, and most of those fences have been torn down. Dancers train across disciplines, perform hybrid works, and incorporate movement influences from multiple sources on a regular basis. Are we moving toward one big practice that we could just call “dance performance,” or are there still stylistic distinctions? What makes contemporary ballet contemporary? What makes it ballet?
As the big company in town, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s repertory has followed these changes since its founding in the 1970s. Previous artistic directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell added some works from the modern-dance canon like José Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane and ballet/modern hybrids like Glen Tetley’s Rite of Spring to their growing collection of classical and neoclassical ballets, but current director Peter Boal has really pushed the traditional envelope. He has brought in works by artists like Ulysses Dove and Jiří Kylián, choreographers who use the technical skills and amplitude of ballet-trained dancers in a broader context. But he’s reached even further than that, commissioning new works from Victor Quijada, who began his dance life in hip-hop, and Twyla Tharp, whose influences come from almost every aspect of human movement. Dances like these leave the semi-regal trappings and courtly manners of classical ballet far behind, but they keep the fundamental skill set of the performer: their articulation, strength, and range. It’s still ballet because of that facility, not the pointe shoes or tiaras.
But while ballet has been borrowing material from other dance practices, it’s also been lending itself to the rest of the community. While earlier generations of modern dancers looked at ballet training like cod liver oil—it was distasteful, but good for you—it’s become one of the standard disciplines for training, especially for dancers who work with a variety of choreographers and need to shift fluidly among multiple personal styles. And since those choreographers will use whatever skills their dancers have to offer, those ballet-inflected bodies influence the work that gets created.
When we see companies like Spectrum Dance Theater or Whim W’him, we see performers who—while not officially “ballet dancers”—have a significant command of that technique. So this spring, when we watch choreography by Spectrum’s Donald Byrd or Olivier Wevers of Whim W’him, it will likely reflect that particular aspect of physical virtuosity. Other local dancemakers like Marie Chong of ARC Dance and Natascha Greenwalt with Coriolis Dance have similar resumes—they’re both extensively ballet-trained, but like many of their colleagues, they’ve stretched the art form to a point where the term “ballet” may no longer really be appropriate to describe what they’re doing.
PNB offers an incredible collection of these difficult-to-categorize works in their spring season, including Dove’s Red Angels, Alejandro Cerudo’s Little mortal jump, and works by two of the most in-demand choreographers working today, William Forsythe and Crystal Pite. Forsythe began his career by continuing to extend Balanchine’s neoclassical style and just kept on stretching—his works are some of the most difficult, and unusual, in the contemporary repertory. Two of his pieces highlight PNB’s upcoming “Director’s Choice” program. Slingerland Duet is an unconventional duet, but still recognizable as ballet, while One Flat Thing, reproduced is a wild experiment danced under and on top of a collection of metal tables. Pite’s Emergence feels like a dystopian nature documentary about animal behavior, in which the corps de ballet is a swarm of bees.
Meany Center and Seattle Theater Group continue to bring in dance artists that share in this same flexible aesthetic. When the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater comes to the Paramount this spring, even their heritage pieces like Ailey’s Revelations reflect the highly burnished skills of their performers. It’s not surprising that two of their former dancers went on to form Complexions Contemporary Ballet, which we’ll see later in the season at Meany. While Ailey still identifies as a modern-dance company, the two groups’ repertories and performance styles are almost identical.
On one level, labels are just that—words that help us put things in categories, but don’t necessarily describe the fullness of an individual work. PNB seems acutely aware of this state of flux, and its April audience-education program will focus on contemporary ballet, allowing us to consider what things change and what things remain the same. But as time passes and the art form evolves, a moment will come when these works are no longer unusual examples of a traditional category, but a whole new thing.
Pacific Northwest Ballet Director’s Choice, March 16–25, McCaw Hall
Emergence, April 13-22, McCaw Hall
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, April 27–29, The Paramount
Complexions Contemporary Ballet, May 17–19, Meany Center