A ballet not performed is a ballet soon forgotten. Unlike opera or symphonic music, dance has no written score. Most ballets are not notated, and even video recordings are limited in their usefulness: they cannot capture the details of a performance’s three-dimensional use of space, the nuance of its steps, the texture of its patterns. Other than a handful of ballets labeled “classic”–Swan Lake, La Sylphide, Giselle–and a fraction of the works created by a small group of twentieth-century masters (Fokine, Ashton, Balanchine, Tudor, Robbins), the vast majority of dances leave almost no trace of their passing. This fleetingness is a source of constant worry among balletomanes. Is the best behind us? Are we destined to a horizon of diminishing returns, of endless repetition of “classics” interspersed with short-lived novelties and intriguing experiments leading nowhere? Is the whole notion of dancing en pointe, using a series of recognizable traditional positions, a fading relic of a dim past?
I think there is reason for hope; in recent years there have been compelling works by William Forsythe, Twyla Tharp, Karole Armitage and, perhaps most encouraging, Christopher Wheeldon. Forsythe has profoundly redefined the ways in which the dancer’s body can be arranged in space; more recently, however, he has forsaken the vocabulary of ballet. Tharp, who began as an experimental choreographer, has invigorated ballet with her brand of athleticism, deadpan glamour and quirkiness of execution; but her interest lies mainly in the contrast between classical dance and more vernacular forms, not in the language of ballet itself. Armitage continues to experiment with the erotic potential of the dancer’s body and the tension created by ballet’s extremes of flexibility, strength and control. Wheeldon, on the other hand, is interested in ballet as such, particularly in how movement innovation and emotionality–especially in the realm of the pas de deux–can be combined for maximum effect.
But recently another choreographer has loomed large in the panorama of the danse d’école, reminding us of its vitality and appeal: Alexei Ratmansky. In the summer of 2008, after turning down an offer from the New York City Ballet, Ratmansky was named artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre. His arrival in New York has been the occasion of heated speculation and enormous excitement, in part because ABT has never had an official “artist in residence,” though it has benefited from lasting, complicated relationships with other choreographers, like Antony Tudor and Tharp. Ratmansky’s first full-length ballet for the company, On the Dnieper, premiered in early June, during the company’s spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House.