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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Animated, Autumn 1997. Ballet into the 21st Century, classical and contemporary. Jennifer Jackson ponders how the familiar can be remade strange?
What is classical in dance? How casually familiar is the partnering of the label classical with ballet? What is essentially classical in ballet? If, as Alastair Macaulay writes, ballet "has classical principles even when its practice is unclassical"(1), what are those principles and when is its practice unclassical? Why contemplate classicism now? When Macaulay was writing about dance classicism ten years ago he was warned that the subject would "open a can of worms."(2) Today as he returns to the subject in a changed world, he concludes that he "cannot help wondering if the plant of classicism is dying."(3)

Investigating notions of classicism today and ergo - the creation of new classical ballet choreography in a contemporary world and its survival into the 21st Century, was the drive and focus for Classical and Contemporary, a three day choreographic course at Blitz 97. Commissioned from Ballet into the Twenty First Century by the Royal Festival Hall Performing Arts Education for their annual dance festival, it built on previous collaborations for the South Bank between Susan Crow and myself.

Earlier in the year, to link in with Yoko Ono and the Fluxus Exhibition, we led students in Findings, a fluxus-style and aptly subversive probe into how and where ballet is made and seen. And at Blitz 96, Susan curated our first course, which examined the movement vocabulary of classical ballet as a progressive choreographic tool and provided the model for this year's study of the Classical and Contemporary.

The core activities - practical choreographic sessions - were targeted at vocational students, all aspiring choreographers working with classical ballet technique and nominated by their schools. In addition there were non practical elements also open to the general public. These comprised guided viewings, presentations, discussions and a workshop for non professionals. The aim was to provide a 'pressure free space for creative experiment and debate about the nature of classical ballet and its future development.

Course faculty for the practical workshops included composer Glyn Perrin, choreographer/dancers Patrick Wood and Jo Chandler and ourselves. As course leaders we recognised the impossibility, in three days, of unpicking specific manifestations of classicism through time, across different cultures and artistic and expressive media. Diaghilev is quoted as saying that "classicism is a means - not an end." We approached classicism as a sensibility and, our task as one of exploring aspects of classicism as stimulus for creating contemporary ballet choreography. During the course we looked at classical structures in dance and music, then related and conflicting concepts in art, architecture and digital technology. The spatial and methodological implications of colliding yet 'apparently different' worlds, formed the spin off for a series of choreographic tasks for the students. These always incorporated or started with essentially balletic material - a framework, resulting in richly diverse duets set in unusual places and spaces in and around the Festival Hall, encouraging development of ideas which subsequently emerged in lecture events.

Public presentations dovetailed with practical work. In their accounts of Concepts of Classicism choreographer Richard Alston and Professor Graham McFee challenged ideas of classicism as academic and lacking in passion - a fixed, immutable concept informed by characteristics such as order and nobility that he associates with classicism. Richard led us to a personal, and diverse, view of what is classical in works by six 20th Century choreographers from Balanchine to Trisha Brown to Shobana Jeyasingh. Graham, wary of labels, highlighted relativism of the whole concept, classicism according to whose knowledge, whose set of references? Petipa, so often evoked in the context of ballet classicism, was discussed only in relation to Matthew Bourne and Mats Ek, whose re-interpretations of familiar classical narratives challenge the sanctity of the 'classics'. Dislocation, the familiar in the unfamiliar, old forms in new contexts, re-definition according to new rules, altered perspectives and awareness, were amongst the themes that emerged from the presentations by Terry Braun and architects from Fashion Architecture Taste (FAT) on Contemporary Space for Classical Ballet. Terry, a multi-media producer/designer and FAT, an interdisciplinary creative team, led the debate out of the conventional theatre spaces into new arenas - pointing to the territory that was the focus for the last day in the course.

Closing the events was a round table discussion hosted by Ballet Independents' Group on The Place for Ballet, where and how we see ballet now and in the future. Robert Penman chaired a panel of five choreographers and directors, working in a range of environments and the media, in debate about the artistic, creative and ultimately political implications of working in different settings on the development of ballet.

In his opening remarks, Robert put in context the relatively recent appearance of the proscenium arch in the history of theatrical presentation. By the variety and provocative nature of their presentations, the panel emphasised the range and diversity that has been and is the potential for ballet (and that was a positive feature of the students' choreographies). A common thread? Talk of money and a widening gap in the relationship between the needs of artists and the financial risk takers. The panel worried about retrenchment in promoting and funding new work in many areas. David Bintley, speaking from his love for producing dance in conventional theatre spaces, deplores the dominance, driven by economics, of a few 19th Century classics in the repertoires of most ballet companies. Mainstream classical dance and creativity he said, made uneasy bedfellows. Ross MacGibbon commented on a more sympathetic climate for new dance that existed ten years ago on television and the problems deriving from a pre-occupation with the 'right angle' in filming ballet - ballet won't compromise! In Richard Slaughter's experience of adapting works to different touring stages, the key work was compromise, to ensure their work remained accessible to the many who want to see it. Mark Baldwin's (highly productive) venture into CD - ROM and computer technology had been driven by the negative economics of funding rehearsal space to work with dancers. Needs must, he also devises dances on screen.

And with characteristic integrity, Rosemary Butcher describing in her life's work a long journey away from 'understandable' forms such as ballet, led the discussion back to the site of the dancing - the body. How the body will be the site of virtual work or work in new technologies poses further questions and other possibilities for choreographers and viewers. The opening up of new spaces in, on and beyond the body is stimulating the appetite for discovery. And of the old spaces? Glyn's workshop, examining selected works by three great composers, Mozart, Beethoven and Stravinsky, highlighted important themes that recurred over the three days - the notion that classicism evolved and that renewal is hidden in the old. For me the course was both an affirmation and a challenge. How much is there still to discover about what we think we already know? How can the familiar be remade strange?

Susan Crow and Jennifer Jackson, freelance choreographers and teachers and co-founders of the Ballet Independents' Group (BIG), an umbrella organisation which initiates and supports a range of independent ballet activities including a Discussion Forum.
Web site:Ballet Independents' Group

1 Macaulay, Alastair, Further notes on Dance Classicism, Dance Theatre journal, London 13:3, 1997.
2 Macaulay, Alastair, Notes on Dance Classicism, Dance Theatre Journal, London 5:2, 1987.
3 Macaulay, Alastair, Further Notes on Dance Classicism, Dance Theatre, Journal, London, 13:3, 1997.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001