A recently forged partnership between Paris Opera Ballet and PONANT will enable ballet and travel fans to enjoy the best of both worlds.
Featuring prima ballerinas Valentine Colasante and Mathieu Ganio, a group of six dancers from Paris Opera Ballet will join approximately 264 guests aboard the luxury cruise line as it sails from Athens to Venice.
Titled “From the City of the Gods to the City of the Doges” the itinerary for this special Paris Opera Ballet and PONANT cruise will take its guests from the historic home port of Athens, Greece, through the Corinth Canal to Itea, on to the beautiful Mediterranean fjords of Kotor, and the Croatian cities of Dubrovnik Hvar and Rovinj before finishing its journey in Venice, Italy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended nearly every industry, but perhaps no sector more so than ballet and the performing arts. Planning is essential for ballet, and typically, companies and independent artists are doing so years in advance. In ballet, one must plan not only for future programs and seasons, but revenue targets and sources of funding. No one knows when theaters will welcome back audiences, and revenue is as precarious as ever, with box offices closed indefinitely.
Ballet must do everything it can to keep an already niche audience invested, both figuratively and literally.
From the start of the pandemic, companies were forced to reckon with uncertainty, as well as a new norm where we simultaneously forgive those of us who cannot be productive in this time, while implicitly pressuring those in creative industries to approach this moment as an opportunity to exploit rather than a crisis to endure.
The ballet world is undoubtedly pressured to produce more now than ever before, and the accelerated output of many companies’ social media accounts have made this evident.
One genre of “content” artists and companies are putting out these days – the newness being produced and filmed in alternative environments – is worth some deeper consideration as to its purpose.
Filmed dance seems to have fallen by the wayside in recent decades, with fewer made-for-film (or at least tailored-for-film) works being produced, and more behind-the-scenes content published for marketing rather than artistic expression. With the increasingly video-centric virtual landscape it only makes sense, and companies would be remiss not to explore film as a creative avenue to pursue.
Is the desire to film from the dancer's perspective artistically appealing or is it to make the dancer’s perspective itself the work?
American Ballet Theatre principal Herman Cornejo has recently done something about the lack of creative dance filmmaking in launching his new project DANCELIVE.
An artist-funded collaboration with newly promoted ABT principal Skylar Brandt and filmmaker Steven Sebring, Cornejo announced this project in a documentary-style video featuring interactive elements made possible by QR codes displayed throughout. The project utilizes a cylindrical studio with enough camera rigs to film and photograph the dancers from any angle imaginable.
Interspersed with interviews, the video presented two dances made for the space: a pas de deux choreographed by Joshua Beamish, and a solo Cornejo choreographed for himself to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” The way Sebring filmed the two dances could induce vertigo in some, but this feature does not appear inherent to the structures built for the project.
The thesis Cornejo and Brandt drive home in the video is that filming in this way – from as many angles as possible – presents ballet from the dancer’s perspective. Regardless of whether DANCELIVE provides that kind of experience, it is worth considering why they appear to believe centering the dancer’s perspective is so important, so artistically compelling.
Is the desire to film in this method a way to show dance in a different way, like Cornejo and Brandt say, or is it to make the dancer’s perspective itself the work?
We shall see what forms this collaboration will take in the future, but it remains unclear what differentiates this from behind-the-scenes content published by a ballet company’s marketing department, where the focus is very much on ballet from the dancer’s perspective.
The only difference is that one of these is self-consciously secondary to the dance.
This kind of ballet content did not come to us out of nowhere.
Throughout the pandemic, dancers have filmed themselves dancing in their homes – in spring and summer 2020, companies inundated their social media followings with stitched together videos of choreography performed by corps de ballet members in their apartments, principals in their penthouses, younger members in their parents’ backyards.
It was clear at the time this was less about the choreography than a way for dancers to stay connected with their coworkers, with the added benefit of appealing to audiences’ hearts in the meantime. The dancers we were used to seeing perform onstage were making the most of their hiatus from the workplace, just like many of us were.
This content, whether intentionally or not, centers the dancer’s unique experience of the pandemic.
As it became clear the pandemic would not go away anytime soon, companies invited dancers and choreographers to create more films to be shown on company social media accounts, but this time with the apparent acknowledgement that this was not only a way to gain audiences’ sympathy, but to continue to earn their support.
New York City Ballet did this initially with informal 30-second videos, and later a series of vignettes produced COVID-safely at Saratoga Performing Arts Center featuring choreography by Peter Walker (who has already debuted several works for the company) as well as pieces by Emily Kikta, Christina Clark, and Devin Alberda.
Of course, we can see which works were produced with the idea they would be enjoyed in perpetuity, rather than fleetingly on social media. But whether the film is directed by Benjamin Millipied and produced in curated outdoor spaces, or directed [and danced, filmed, and edited] by an apprentice in their kitchen, this content, whether intentionally or not, centers the dancer’s unique experience of the pandemic.
So what if companies are promoting more new work than usual!
If anything, what is made clear by all of this newness is artists and companies alike appear to believe that if they cease posting new videos, regardless of how they compare to normal programming, there will be no company to return to once the pandemic is over.
Pre-COVID, most companies would only present a handful of world premieres each year, and there is no reason to believe ballet audiences will stray if there are no new works for an indefinite period. Indeed, some companies have opted out of participating in this pivot-to-film, like The Bolshoi. It is unlikely The Bolshoi will lose favor after the pandemic ends just because they did not post videos of their dancers trying to stay in working shape outside the studio.
Some may not see the problem here – so what if companies are promoting more new work than usual! Once nameless dancers are now building a portfolio of filmed content, taking advantage of the opportunity to immortalize their work and do what traditional company life would not permit.
A critical characteristic of ballet companies as institutions, though, is that they are an inescapably collaborative work environment. New works do not get produced before they are scrutinized by multiple people – the dancers, the ballet masters, and the choreographers all feed off one another to create the works we see onstage.
At the risk of stating the obvious, audiences support the ballet by buying tickets to see the outcome of this work. Then seeing this, philanthropy funds the companies, allowing them the stability they need to continue producing entertainment for the community (or at least philanthropy wants to project that message).
The implicit message is “this is ballet now."
So the problem today is not just that the works being created now are reductive, but the companies pushing them out are forcing the audience to accept this as the new standard for ballet, if for the time being. The implicit message is: “This is ballet now. If you don’t support us now, we will have no choice but to stop paying our dancers, and then you’ll really be sorry because then they’ll be left alone and jobless in their tiny apartments.”
This development in the ballet world, where all new works are premiered in the same space as their advertising, has effectively collapsed the marketing and the product, and now the dancer’s persona and the product into one. This has made ballet itself feel like less of an art form in its own right and more just another aesthetic medium for personal branding.
Ballet companies must produce enough content to gain a foothold over the algorithm to prevent audiences from forgetting about them. Ballet is, of course, not the first art form to confuse itself in this way, but one would be forgiven for assuming the components of the ballet would make it resistant.
Artists and companies do not have to run themselves into the ground trying to make the most out of ballet in a pandemic.
And this does not have to be at the expense of producing enough virtual content to keep audiences engaged. Streaming past performances and films created pre-pandemic is an acceptable way to continue engaging audiences and is what ballet audiences would probably enjoy most in these times.
The fundraising pitch then references the company’s greatest asset to draw support – the caliber of work we have come to expect – rather than the individual artists trying their best to survive the pandemic.
Companies have every right to create films, and I am not saying none of the films produced during the pandemic are worth watching. But all good art requires deliberation, communication, and conversation. And none of us can do that these days. Institutions whose role it is to cultivate new works should not pin their livelihoods on dancers living in exile.
A common refrain we have heard in reference to politics, culture, and beyond the past year is that we will not go back to normal after the pandemic ends, and to take whatever lessons we’ve learned during the pandemic to come back stronger than before.
The ballet world would be wise to reflect on this cultural moment, and what it is doing to its sense of direction. Companies should stay true to their reason for being: to preserve, perform, and cultivate great art. No one will judge a ballet company’s worth by the content it has managed to post in this extraordinary time.
Ballet will always exist beyond the Internet. Unfortunately, the ballet world is projecting the opposite.
Gilda Edelman trained pre-professionally with Boston Ballet School and attended summer intensives with American Ballet Theatre. At 17, she decided against pursuing dance professionally, and in 2017 earned her B.A. in political studies and Arabic from Bard College. She initially attempted to find herself outside of dance, but soon realized ballet would always be a part of her life. She will never stop thinking about political culture, aesthetic theory, and ballet. She works in nonprofit fundraising, and lives in Brooklyn with her boyfriend and puppy.