This is an excerpt from History of Dance 2nd Edition With Web Resource by Gayle Kassing.
"Should we agree with the choreographer George Balanchine (1904 - 1983) that ’ballet is woman’? Or do we qualify this, as the choreographer Pam Tanowitz (born in 1969) has recently done, by saying that ballet is a man’s idea of woman?"
Alistair Macaulay, "Of Women, Men and Ballet in the 21st Century," New York Times (Jan. 12, 2017)
In the early 21st century, ballet has become a global and contemporary dance genre that mirrors the world through its artists and choreography. Throughout much of the 20th century, ballet dancers and companies performed internationally, laying the groundwork for a century in which Balanchine and other 20th-century ballet choreographers and their works have meshed with 21st-century choreographers and their works to create a global ballet repertoire.
Dancers and Personalities
Through the first decade of the new millennium and beyond, ballet dancers and personalities began to expand the vision of ballet from its previous classical and neoclassic foundations into a contemporary art form of global dimensions. Dancers from across the globe began to appear as guest artists and dancers in companies far from their homelands. These diverse dancers brought their training, their backgrounds, and their regional styles. In new performance environments, dancers’ training and styles comingled with other dancers and choreographers to express ballet in unique and expanded ways. Their intent was to honor the classics and 20th-century works but through new points of view. Dancers and choreographers moved fluidly from performing in classical to contemporary artistic works to the Broadway stage and entertainment media through works that mirrored a quickly changing global world.
Major Figures in Ballet
Through their choreographic and performance vision, early 20th-century ballet artists transformed ballet on the stage and in the media. Pioneers whose body of work began in the 20th century became the inspiration and conduit for others to build upon and extend through their creative ideas and repository of works. This generation of dance artists reveres the past while continuing to develop ballets as an ever-changing reflection of contemporary times.
Current ballet choreography is eclectic and depends on the choreographer’s vision for the work, the dancers, and how as artists they approach their works guided by their training and their point of view for the dance. International ballet choreographers create works for companies across the world. Ballet choreography of the 21st century includes an array of works from dramatic, full-length story narratives, to shorter ballets. Some ballets contain only allusions or traces of characters or a plot. Specific choreographers invent powerful statements, convey sensitive feelings, or express raw emotions through their dances. Abstract ballet styles continue with their focus on pure movement. This array of ballets stretches from the dramatic, cutting-edge creations to personal and universal to comedic compositions. Music choices either relate directly to the work, coexist with, or counterpoint to the ballet. Often choreographers draw from their native countries’ arts, history, and culture and intertwine these ideas with themes from contemporary life and times.
William Forsythe (1949 - )
A New York native, Forsythe trained in both ballet and modern dance. He danced with the Joffrey Ballet, and in 1976 he was appointed resident choreographer for the Stuttgart ballet. In Europe, he created new works for Stuttgart as well as other European and U.S. ballet companies. In 1984, he became the director of Ballet Frankfurt until it closed in 2004. Beginning in 2005 he established and directed the Forsythe Company for 10 years. In 2015, he joined the Paris Opera as Associate Choreographer. During his career, Forsythe’s choreographic works, grounded in neoclassic ballet, have received many prestigious awards in European countries and the United States. He received the Bessie Award for this work in 1988, 1998, 2004, and 2007. Forsythe’s unique vision and understanding of choreography and his dance works have been instrumental in moving dance into the transmedia era. His dance works have spanned contemporary ballet and modern dance, moving beyond these dance genres in new directions. Forsythe has expanded choreographic forms based on his vision of choreography.
Alexei Ratmansky (1968 - )
Russian-born dancer and choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky studied at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet and became principal dancer at the Ukrainian National Ballet, Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and Royal Danish Ballet. His choreography has been performed by ballet companies in Russia, Europe, Australia, and the United States. Beginning in 1998 he has been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards for his choreography in Russia and in Denmark, where in 2001 he was awarded knighthood.
From 2004 through 2008, Ratmansky served as artistic director for the Bolshoi Ballet. During this period he created contemporary works, and he restaged ballet classics and 20th-century works with a new vision. In 2005 and 2007 under Ratmansky’s direction the Bolshoi received numerous prestigious awards as a ballet company and for his artistic direction and choreography. Beginning in 2006, Ratmansky choreographed five works for New York City Ballet (NYCB). In 2009 Ratmansky joined American Ballet Theatre (ABT) as an artist in resident. He has choreographed a prodigious number of works for the company that reveal his personal experiences and his interest in ballet history.
Ratmansky’s choreographic style often gives dancers complicated steps with surprising accents, more movement than counts, and the coordination of body parts that move at different timing. He selects Russian composers for his works. Recently he has re-created his version of The Sleeping Beauty and The Golden Cockerel ballets. He reveres the ballet classics. He researches them and shares this research with his dancers to create renditions of ballets past for 21st-century audiences. Three Ratmansky ballets - Bright Stream (2003; restaged by ABT in 2011), Shostakovich Trilogy (2013), and Pictures at an Exhibition (NYCB, 2014) - represent a wide range of choreographic works that use drama, vignettes, and character sketches to enhance the music and to create memorable dance moments.
In the summer of 2016, ABT staged a Ratmansky festival featuring three works using Shostakovich’s music, a world premier based on Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade After Plato’s Symposium, Seven Sonatas, and Ratmansky’s version of Firebird.
Alexei Ratmansky’s new production of the classic ballet, Le Corsaire.
Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images
Christopher Wheeldon (1973 - )
Ballet soloist and then choreographer, Wheeldon was born in England and trained at the Royal Ballet. In 1990, at age 17, he won the Prix de Lausanne prize. In 1991 he entered the Royal Ballet as a member of the corps de ballet. In 1993 he joined the New York City Ballet (NYCB) and became a soloist. From 2001 to 2008, Wheeldon served as resident choreographer at NYCB. At least one of his works is part of each season. These ballets have been described as music inspired with hints of characters.
In 2007, he cofounded Morphoses/the Wheeldon Company, for which he was artistic director until his departure in 2010. Wheeldon collaborates among dance and other artists and designers to initiate new perspectives and innovation into classical ballet. Wheeldon is an internationally acclaimed choreographer whose works populate ballet companies across the world. He has created a prodigious legacy of ballets that capture contemporary audiences. His works include Swan Lake (2004), Estancia (2010), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2012), and Polyphonia (2012). Wheeldon’s adaptations continue, and they include the Broadway stage. He both directed and choreographed the musical An American in Paris, for which he won the 2015 Tony Award for Best Choreography. The following year, for the NYCB, Wheeldon mounted American Rhapsody, an abstract ballet to Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue." In 2016 Wheeldon created The Winter’s Tale, a powerful retelling of Shakespeare’s play as a ballet.
Christopher Wheeldon’s Rhapsody Fantaisie.
Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images
Claudia Schreier (1986 - )
New York born, Claudia Schreier trained in ballet in Stamford, Connecticut, and graduated from Harvard University in 2008. A freelance choreographer, her work has been commissioned by a number of companies and the festivals. Schreier combines neoclassic ballet technique with other contemporary dance genres. Her work has a strong connection to the music. She has won numerous awards and was a 2008 recipient of the Suzanne Farrell Dance Prize and the second Virginia B. Toulmin Fellowship for Women Choreographers. In 2014, Schreier won the Breaking the Glass Ceiling Award. In 2015 she won the Dance Magazine Reader’s Choice Award for Best Emerging Choreographer. Her works include Chaconne (2011), Traces (2012), Harmonic (2013), Requiem Adagio (2014), Claudia Schreier and Company (2015), and Solitaire (2016).
In the 21st century dancers come from diverse backgrounds, body types, races, and training. These dancers face different challenges in becoming ballet artists in companies across the world. Stereotypes of male and female ballet dancers that were developed in the 20th century are changing in order to meet the expansive standards of contemporary ballet and dance works. Classically trained dancers now perform in a variety of dance genres and forms.
The role of African American, Asian, and Latin American dancers has gained a stronger presence in ballet companies. More diversity exists among soloists and principal dancers in ballet companies in the United States and across the globe. Some female ballet dancers are embracing a healthier, stronger appearance. Both male and female dancers understand the importance of conditioning as part of their training regimen; it keeps their performance edge, enabling them to dance diverse choreographic requirements demanded from contemporary ballet and dance works.
African American, Latino, and Asian dancers have been part of major dance companies since the mid-20th century. The Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded with the intent that African American dancers would be the primary focus of the ballet company. Likewise, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater focused on talented African American artists. In the last decades of the 20th century a major migration of Hispanic dancers transformed national and regional American ballet companies. (The term Hispanic refers to people from Spanish-speaking countries such as Spain, Cuba, Mexico, and other South and Central American countries, regardless of race.) During this same period, Asian and Asian American dancers joined national and regional dance companies. In the early 21st century, Complexions Contemporary Ballet defined its artistic and aesthetic position by its multicultural dancers as the cornerstone of the company. Although some companies have made strides in expanding racial diversity, challenges in gaining social and racial equity in national and regional dance companies continue to exist.
Pointe magazine’s June/July 2014 cover featured Ashley Murphy of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Ebony Williams of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, and Misty Copeland of American Ballet Theatre - all dancers of color, and each with a unique body type and life experience. In the cover story, "Beyond Role Models," these three dancers discussed the lack of diversity in ballet companies and offered ways media could support future generations of black ballerinas. For more information on this topic, see Brown (2014).
Ballet Companies and Schools
Major ballet companies and schools that formed in the 20th century continued to expand their presence in the United States and internationally. To remain current, ballet companies have invited artists in residence or resident choreographers to join them in pursuit of a repertoire that combines the past with current and future directions of ballet. Currently male choreographers dominate the scene, but female choreographers are gaining presence onstage.
American Ballet Theatre
In 2015, American Ballet Theatre (ABT) celebrated its 75th anniversary. Earlier in 2006, Congress recognized ABT as America’s National Ballet. The New York - based company continues to present the classics, 20th-century master works, and 21st-century contemporary ballets by international choreographers. Former ABT dancer Kevin McKenzie has served as the artistic director of the company since 1992.
In 2007, ABT embarked on a new direction by partnering with New York University to create a Master of Arts in Dance Education program focusing on ballet pedagogy and ABT’s National Training Curriculum. In 2013, ABT initiated Project Plié to increase diversity within ballet companies nationwide and to create opportunities in ballet for underserved students and teachers.
New York City Ballet
New York City Ballet (NYCB) was founded in 1948 by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein. Although Balanchine classics continue to be the foundation for NYCB’s repertoire, Artist Director Peter Martins’ ballets extend his neoclassic, abstract ballets from the late 20th into the 21st century. New century choreographers such as NYCB’s Justin Peck (who is also a soloist), France’s notable choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, and others provide contemporary works that continue to attract audiences.
Beginning in 2000, the NYCB initiated a Choreographic Institute. Founded by Peter Martins and Irene Diamond (a patron for the arts and ballet), the purpose of the Institute was to promote choreographic interests in dancers to help develop future choreographers. The 2016 season of the NYCB features a host of new choreographers - male and female - ready to show their works.
Dance Theatre of Harlem
A former NYCB principal dancer, Arthur Mitchell founded The Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, which became an internationally acclaimed ballet company. The Dance Theatre of Harlem closed its doors in 2004 because of financial difficulties. In 2005, the ballet reopened with over a million dollars in donations; the following year, the company acquired a Ford Foundation grant.
In 2009, Virginia Johnson became the new artistic director of the company. Formerly a dancer, soloist, and then ballerina in the Dance Theatre of Harlem, she has been with the company from its beginnings in 1969. For more than two decades, she performed a broad repertoire of roles from many choreographers who embraced romantic, dramatic, and contemporary dance styles.
The Dance Theatre of Harlem continues to expand its repertoire through the works of contemporary choreographers and masters of the 20th century in both ballet and modern dance. Harlem Dance Works 2.0 is an initiative made possible through a Rockefeller Foundation NYC Cultural Innovation Grant in 2010. The purpose of Harlem Dance Works 2.0 is to support expanding contemporary choreography through aiding the development of young choreographers who are in the processes of building their bodies of work.
America’s premier ballet company, Joffrey Ballet is housed in the Joffrey Tower in downtown Chicago. The company’s repertoire includes major story ballets, reconstructions of masterpieces, and contemporary works. Joffrey Ballet has had a range of many firsts as part of its history - from performances to film, to multimedia, to livestream, and posting dance on YouTube. After the death of Gerald Arpino, artistic director and choreographer for the Joffrey Ballet in 2007, Ashley Wheater became the company’s artistic director.
Originally from Scotland, Wheater trained at the Royal Ballet School. He danced with English and Australian ballet companies before he joined the San Francisco Ballet in 1989. Retiring in 1998, he continued as ballet master, then assistant artistic director for the company. As the artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, Wheater continues presenting new choreography from new full-length ballets, American modern works, and international contemporary works performed by a diverse group of dancers.
Joffrey Ballet points out that the company is inclusive, diverse, and committed to supporting arts education, engaging in the community, and providing opportunities through the Joffrey Academy of Dance and programs for accessibility to ballet.
In 2015, these five ballerinas from major ballet companies announced their retirement: Wendy Whelan (from NYCB), Brazilian-born Carla Körbes (from Pacific Northwest Ballet), Argentine-born Paloma Herrera (from ABT), Cuban-trained Xiomara Reyes (from ABT), and Julie Kent (from ABT).
San Francisco Ballet
The San Francisco Ballet’s touring and international classical and contemporary repertoire expanded in the last part of the 20th century. In 2008, the San Francisco Ballet Company and School celebrated its 75th anniversary. Under artistic direction of Helgi Tomasson since 1985, the diverse company presents over 100 performances a year.
San Francisco Ballet, Richard C. Barker Principal Dancer (2002) Yuan Yuan Tan.
Yuan Yuan Tan for San Francisco Ballet (Photo by Erik Tomasson.)
Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet was founded in 2003 and funded solely by Wal-Mart heiress Nancy Walton Laurie. This New York - based avant-garde company of international dancers worked with a wide range of mostly U.S. and European choreographers. The company performed for audiences in the United States and on tour across the world. From 2005 until 2013, former Ailey dancer Benoit-Swan Pouffer was the artistic director of the company. Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet disbanded in 2015.
Alonzo King LINES Ballet
Alonzo King LINES Ballet is dedicated to original, contemporary choreography. Since the company and its San Francisco Dance Center started in 1982, it has rapidly become an internationally recognized company, with Alonzo King’s works in premier ballet and modern dance companies across the world. His contemporary choreography embraces a global view of dance yet is grounded in classical dance with modern dance propulsion. King creates a unique point of view in his choreography that he calls "thought structures" for his contemporary ballets. In 2016, celebrating 10 years, Alonzo King LINES Ballet and Dominican University have offered a joint educational and artistic BFA Dance program. King’s choreographic works form a prodigious repertoire of contemporary dance that has further expanded to opera, television, and film and includes collaborations with international artists. Alonzo King has received many prestigious awards for dance choreography, artistic vision, and education initiatives. Some of his latest works include the following:
- Triangle of the Squinches (2011): A dialog between the forms that dancers create and their inner meanings.
- Concerto for Two Violins (2014): Bach’s music transformed into King’s neoclassical ballet. George Balanchine originally used this music in 1941.
- Biophony (2015): King’s ballet transformed the natural soundscape of artist Bernie Krause and composer Richard Blackford, whose work captures the sounds of the earth and its creatures, into dance.
- Sand (2016): Two generations of jazz musicians and LINES Ballet dancers share the stage to bring the past of jazz wealth into the present.
Significant Dance Works and Literature
Dance works in the 21st century span from abstract ballets to story ballets. In between, ballets may offer a hint or more of story or characters. In other words, there are ballets for everyone’s taste. However, crafting story ballets for today’s audience takes some finesse from the choreographer; connecting the story to meet today’s audiences and their expectations, which are formed by media performances on television and the Internet, is a challenge.
Ballets presented by today’s companies embrace a wide range of works. They include the classics or restaged ballet classics as well as 20th-century masterpieces from ballet and modern dance giants. They also include contemporary ballet or modern dance choreographers whose individual styles depend on their training, the topic, the dancers, the music, and the intent of the work.
For a list of some of Forsythe’s significant works, refer to the later Significant Dance Works and Literature section of the contemporary modern dance portion of this chapter.
- Bright Stream (2003; restaged by ABT in 2011): Based on the 1935 librettos for the original ballet, this comedic story ballet set to a Shostakovich score takes place in a Russian agricultural collective with charming characters who create a community and renew relationships.
- Shostakovich Trilogy (2013): Russian composer Shostakovich is the central character in one of three parts of this dance drama that imaginatively expresses the complicated relationships between Soviet society and artists during this period of the 20th century.
- Pictures at an Exhibition (NYCB, 2014): Mussorgsky’s music as the foundation becomes the connection to the dancers as they create moving works of art to interpret each of the pictures.
- Swan Lake (2004): Set in the 1880s (the same time period for the original Swan Lake), Wheeldon’s version takes place at the Paris Opera during the period of Degas’ drawings of dancers. Many ballet companies have performed this reinterpretation of a classic.
- Estancia (2010): This is a story ballet about a city boy who wants to wrangle horses and a country girl he meets on the Argentine plains. The music, by Alberto Ginastera, was originally commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein in 1941, but the ballet remained unproduced. Wheeldon brings to life this story for NYCB.
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2012): This ballet is a mega episodic extravaganza that is a wildly inventive version of the classic story.
- Polyphonia (2012): In this abstract ballet, dancers create movement designs like pencil drawings as counterpoint to the music’s seemingly disordered rhythm.
- Chaconne (2011)
- Traces (2012)
- Harmonic (2013)
- Requiem Adagio (2014)
- Claudia Schreier and Company (2015)
- Solitaire (2016)
The new millennium has had an explosion of dance literature in the areas of dance education, dance sciences, history and biography, theory, and a host of other subjects in which dance was the focal point or an avenue of research. Dance journals cover dance research, dance science, dance education, or dance related to a wide variety of disciplines such as health, psychology, and many other topics and disciplines. They provide an array of worldwide publications through their continuing issues of new viewpoints about dance. With the move to digital literacy came a continuing expansion of dance literature, philosophies, opinions, positions, and critical reviews. Beyond the text, numerous video platforms offered how to perform dance, historical to contemporary, and showcased international dance company performances, choreographers’ works, films, television shows, documentaries, interviews, and other types of education and entertainment. From nondancers to professionals, a wide range of people continue to post videos of their dancing or choreography or their views of dance on the Internet for all to view.
In the 21st century, ballet has undergone many global interactions as a dance genre. Training to perform ballet requires a wide range of technique not only in classical ballet but also in modern dance and other contemporary dance forms. Choreography demands in ballet require the dancer to be versatile in technique and to participate in the choreographic movement dialogue between the choreographer and the dancers and among dancers. Professional rehearsal and performance time lines demand intuitive understanding of the dancer’s body, a clear mind, and vision to express complex topics often in multimedia environments.
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