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Ballet in the 21st century: What remains of the classical ?

Tutus, slippers, pointe shoes, and grand jetés: these are the images that come to mind when we think of ballet. But in a 21st century that questions its relationship with traditions, what is the current face of classical dance?

Schools teaching its technique are highly frequented, performances of The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Giselle still draw crowds, and major ballet companies still use pantomime. Unquestionably, classical ballet continues to attract audiences and inspire the youth. Romantic both in form and substance, it invokes a grandiose imagination that is yet only the tip (pun intended) of the iceberg of what ballet is today. Both its themes and methods are now the foundation of contemporary works that claim and challenge its legacy in the same gesture.

As four CAPAS companies will present a contemporary ballet during the upcoming Danse Danse season, we wanted to reflect on what this style has become in the hands of talented choreographers. To enrich our discussion, we spoke with Alexandra Damiani (Artistic Director of Ballets Jazz Montreal), Anik Bissonnette (Artistic Director of l'École supérieure de ballet du Québec), and Guillaume Côté (Performer, Artistic Director, and Choreographer at Côté Danse), each representing a face of ballet in 2023.

Note that, in this text, "classical dance" will be considered in its Western definition and "ballet" will adhere to its also Western classical perspective.

What is a Classic ?

When we think of a classic in dance, we often return to the ballets mentioned earlier, to names like Nureyev and Tchaikovsky. Thus, we associate the canon of dance with timeless works that have risen to the status of cultural heritage. To continue to consider it within the archetypical definition of classic, a staging of Romeo and Juliet, for example, must respect the original libretto, complete with orchestra, costumes, and the codified movements of classical ballet.

While it is important to ensure that this heritage is not forgotten by celebrating, teaching, and occasionally staging it, it is even more crucial to challenge its codes and themes. Yesterday's stories certainly have their universal aspects, but we must distill what belongs to the past: the meticulously parameterized structure, the stereotyped gender roles, the strict opposition of good and evil, the actantial model... The ways of conveying emotion have evolved and must anchor in a more fluid form, a more nuanced substance. Several companies and choreographers of our era have proposed works that have set a new standard: Sharon Eyal, Ohad Naharin, Hofesh Shechter, Alexander Ekman – or closer to home, Marie Chouinard, Crystal Pite. The notion of "classic" in the sense of "canonical" has thus gradually moved away from mere references to ballet: dare we say that Pina Bausch's Rite of Spring (a revival of a "classic" work by Nijinsky) or Joe by Jean-Pierre Perreault are not landmark works in the dance repertoire?

What is Classical Dance ?

Damiani, Côté, and Bissonnette are unanimous: classical dance is above all a technique. Therefore, it should not be considered only with its orchestral music and tutus, but rather focus on how movements at the barre and demanding forms sculpt the dancer's body. It is a language defined first by its rigor, virtuosity, and above all, versatility. Beyond this sometimes painful, sometimes frustrating process, it is a rich toolkit that awaits the performer who has dedicated years of their life to this form: understanding the musicality of dance, moving in unison, mastering a movement in every stage of its mechanics. We thus distance ourselves from the historical culture of this technique (which, a century earlier, rested on varying degrees of objectification of women, machismo, and racism) to retain its gestures and principles in a more inclusive, freer perspective.

This training—long separated by elitism from other types of training—is now an integral part of most career paths for aspiring dancers who include genre convergence. While the foundations of contemporary seek improvisation, fluidity, and feeling, the foundations of classical allow for the integration of precision, posture, and strength: complementary elements from one style to another. Just like heritage works, the techniques of classical dance must evolve through challenging their purpose. This learning thus enables artists to be more versatile in making their art available to a wider variety of both current and heritage (our proposed replacement for "classical") creations. It's a bit like learning scales and arpeggios to then create atonal music: you need to know where you come from to deconstruct, and finally, reconstruct.

How can Ballet be relevant today ?

Choreographers from here and abroad have taken the legacy of classical dance to create contemporary ballets, where the codes are revisited in light of cultural globalization, the hybridization of styles, the advent of abstraction, and the desire for dance to have an ever more contemporary commentary on the world. Some have chosen to revisit librettos from the classical repertoire to reinterpret them either in terms of content or form: consider, for example, Se méfier des eaux qui dorment by the company yvann alexandre, which brings Swan Lake into contact with the Amazon and redefines genres. Others—and they are many—have instead brought the rigor, precision, and virtuosity to meet sentiment, poetry, and new aesthetics. Whether we look at Forsythe, Cunningham, Pite, Chouinard, and many others, there is a rigorous and calculated gesture in a contemporary and cathartic rendering where spontaneity creates a bond between the mechanical and the human.

Contemporary ballet, by its capacity to move both through detail and through content, is part of the artistic identity of CAPAS, which represents multiple companies that claim both the classical heritage and contemporary explosion.

Whether it is the vertiginous Ballets Jazz Montréal with their delicate movements that scream raw poetry, the mesmerizing Sharon Eyal who pushes pointe work and unison to bodily limits with tanzmainz, the philosophical Andrew Skeels who brings ballet and underground dance to reveal the secret emotions of grief, the methodical Patin Libre with its acrobatics as surprising as they are sensitive, or many other choreographers under our wing. Our label aims to promote artists who know how to imagine works where the ease of movement impresses, touches, enchants, and fascinates.


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