Don’t Think, Just Dance– Pondering the Future of Ballet

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As my old pointe shoes hang in my office here at the Greater Hartford Arts Council, and as I mentally choreograph dances while I listen to my Pandora station, I often daydream about dancing. It was a major part of my life for 13+ years, something I loved so much that I had to come back after leaving the studio for a few years to pursue other athletic interests.  And while I wish that my feet and legs were better so that I can join them, I still stare open-mouthed when I watch a ballet performance. So, when I saw the New York Times article about a think tank focused solely on the future of ballet, my interest was piqued.  Ballet dying?  It can’t be!

According to dancer turned historian Jennifer Homans, that may just be the case.  Her sweeping history of ballet titled, Apollo’s Angels, provided unique insight into more than four centuries of dance.  However, her last few pages of the epilogue painted a grim picture when she wrote, “I now feel sure that ballet is dying.”  How could this be?  Girls and boys alike flock to mirrored studios.  New companies continue to be formed.  But in her historic look at ballet, it seems as though there is evidence of this art form dying down, or at the very least evolving.

Thus, the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University was born.  With the help of a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Center is getting off the ground with other scholars and former dancers to consider some serious questions.  What place does this art form have in our ever-changing society?  Where is this art form going? How can it be made relatable to a new generation of art appreciators?  Fellowships will be granted each semester to dancers, academics, and other from related areas to pursue a broad range of projects all aimed at answering some of these questions and understanding ballet in the broader cultural context.  As one of the first fellows, former New York City Ballet star Heather Watts, will be working to contextualize some of George Balanchine’s ballets.  While Balanchine often reminded his dancers “don’t think, just dance,” she agrees that some of this analysis is necessary.  Did you know that Balanchine created “Stars and Stripes” around the same time John Jasper was painting his flag series?

Now, it’s hard for me to imagine the death of ballet, or even a Sleeping Beauty-type “deep sleep”; however, this type of research, cultural contextualization, and revamping may be just what ballet needs to hold onto its place in the arts world.  With local centers of ballet, like Connecticut Ballet, Hartford City Ballet, Connecticut Dance Conservatory, and many other wonderful studios, I think ballet is here to stay and grow with a new generation of dancers and appreciators alike.  As Philip E. Lewis, Vice President of the Mellon Foundation said, “We hope that ballet, like the other high performing arts, will eventually become a form of cultural expression that’s more accessible to the public at large, and not so much understood as a kind of aristocratic art form.”

In the meantime, I encourage you to get out and appreciate this exquisite, fascinating, and athletic art form by visiting a local performance.  I’ll be here daydreaming about tutus and pointe shoes.

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