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Ballet: Is It or Isn’t It?
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Ballet: Is It or Isn’t It?

Tackling the question of what defines ballet in the 21st century, this essay includes excerpts of works by August Bournonville, George Balanchine, William Forsythe, and Nacho Duato.

By Maura Keefe
Miami City Ballet in George Balanchine's Allegro Brillante, 2017. Photo by Christopher Duggan.


We all know what we think ballet is. Codified technique. Series of steps. Classes around the world taught with the same words. A sense of verticality. Formal organization of the stage space. Does the name “ballet” matter? And even though we know it’s never been static, it has been a constant presence in western concert dance for literally centuries. Why is that? Ballet is ballet is ballet, right? A movement vocabulary stemming from social dances of the elite. So what does ballet mean in the 21st century?

We know that the first ballet dancers were not professionals. In the 16th and 17th centuries, members of royal courts in France, Italy, and Russia were expected—because of their very position in society—to have erect carriage and precise movements. Their embodied grace and poise established a standard shouldered by ballet dancers for centuries to come. As early as the 18th century, there was already a negotiation between technical virtuosity on the one hand and dramatic expressiveness on the other. In the early to mid-19th century, ballet ideals in circulation were led primarily by French and Russian artists. Dancers all around western Europe shared training ideals and delighted audience members with their grace, their beauty, their virtuosity. As Sol Hurok, the great impresario, proclaimed, “Ballet is glamorous. It is technical and complex; an exacting science. It is also highly emotional, on the stage, behind the scenes, and often away from the theatre. Temperament is by no means confining to dancing artists.”Sol Hurok, The World of Ballet, 1955.

With such a long and glorious history and ongoing commitment to the form and technique of ballet, one can ask where is the place for innovation in ballet? By the twentieth century, innovation and traditionalism were in constant negotiation, with questions posed such as who choreographs? Can ballet’s vocabulary expand? Can the dancing change within ballet? What are the varieties of relationships of ballet with music?

These are not new questions. Dancers and choreographers and dance writers and balletomanes, as ballet enthusiasts are termed, have probably wondered about the continuing tradition of ballet for the entire history of ballet. Lincoln Kirstein, arts patron and co-founder of the New York City Ballet, wrote:

Ballet, or the exact science of traditional theatrical dancing survived the French Revolution of 1789, 1832, and 1848. Nor did the World War kill it. It persisted during the Paris Commune of 1871. Its development has been uninterrupted in Russia despite 1905 and 1917. If any form of Western art is thought to remain in moderate health, then ballet is just as healthy.Lincoln Kirstein, Dance: A Short History of Classic Theatrical Dancing. Princeton Book Company, 1969.

The first ballet performances at the Pillow took place in 1941, under the direction of Anton Dolin, highlighting the Age of Romantic Ballet.

Program for The Age of Romantic Ballet, July 1941.
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And ever since those dancers did their first pliés and pirouettes, ballet has been a part of the dance festival at Jacob’s Pillow. Among the oldest extant ballet works performed at the Pillow have been those presented by the Royal Danish Ballet, in their first appearance in 1955 and as recently as 2018. (For more information about the rich decades-long relationship between the Royal Danish Ballet and Jacob’s Pillow, see the PillowNote by Scholar in Residence Erik Aschengreen on page 7 of the program below.)

When the company performed at the Pillow in 2007 as part of the 75th anniversary celebration, Pillow scholar Suzanne Carbonneau and Director of Preservation Norton Owen came across a letter written by then-Pillow press agent Richard Pleasant to television host Ed Sullivan, describing the dancers. Pleasant wrote: 

The Danish style differs from all others that our stages have known, by the aerial brilliancy of both sexes, flashing beats, and other precision footwork in the air. And, like the animal kingdom, greater splendor to the males than to the females…the difference between the lion and the lioness.Ted Shawn/Jacob’s Pillow Correspondence Collection, Box 9

Viewing two clips from appearances by the Royal Danish Ballet performing 19th century works choreographed by August Bournonville provides an opportunity to reflect on the persistence of a 19th century ballet aesthetic. The first excerpt is from 1955 of Konservatoriet (1849); the second was recorded 63 years later, A Folk Tale (1854).

A Folk Tale


If the two Bournonville works offer an example of 19th century ballet, how might it compare to a quintessentially 20th century ballet? For so many balletomanes, dancers, and scholars, George Balanchine is American ballet tradition, despite being Russian-born and despite being a radical experimentalist as an artist. In 2017, Miami City Ballet performed Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante (1956), with music by Tchaikovsky. In Repertory in Review, a wonderful book about New York City Ballet, dance writer Nancy Reynolds explains that “Allegro Brillante began as a last minute replacement for a cancelled work.” She says, “It offers a chance for virtuoso display, and is at the same time dancey and flowing…Dancers love to move and Allegro Brillante contains a satisfyingly large number of pure dance steps that follow one after another in a fluid outpouring. Balanchine himself remarked about the work, it “contains everything I know about the classical ballet—in thirteen minutes.”

Miami City Ballet in George Balanchine's Allegro Brillante, 2017.
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Contemporary Ballet

With Balanchine’s works representing 20th century neo-classical ballet, the next step on the continuum is contemporary ballet. But what does that even mean? Contemporary ballet has sometimes been more defined by what it’s not than what it is—it’s not classical ballet and it’s not modern dance. Arts scholar Carrie Gaiser Casey asks: “Now this question of labels and aesthetic rubrics is, some might argue, totally beside the point. As long as the performance offers compelling choreography and astounding dancing, who cares what we call it?”Maura Keefe, “Pushing the Boundaries of Ballet: ASFB Secures its Legacy in Contemporary Dance.” Twenty Years of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.

In September 2014, then Editor-in-Chief of Dance Magazine Wendy Perron posed the question, “what exactly is contemporary ballet?”Wendy Perron, “What is Contemporary Ballet?” Dance Magazine September 2014 Five choreographers responded in those pages, with Perron summarizing that contemporary ballet is a “style that remains ambiguous.” Dance scholars Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel and Jill Nunes Jensen took up a similar question for a journal titled “Network of Pointes,” part of the Conversations Across the Field of Dance Studies in 2015.

In contemporary ballet, the dancers’ understanding of and training in ballet is always apparent, but typically the choreography moves outside the crafting of codified steps. The balletic sensibility expands with a sense of investigation. Oftentimes there is a blending, with elements of modern dance and ballet exquisitely fused. For example, a movement phrase might combine balletic emphasis on line with modern dance’s weightedness. Unlike ballet in its most traditional sense, at times men and women share the same movement vocabulary. For example, bravura leaps done by everyone, and embedded into the choreography, rather than as showpieces.

Contemporary Ballet/Forsythe

Under the artistic direction of Glenn Edgerton, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago has been a leading company for asking what contemporary ballet might look like. In their 2016 appearance at the Pillow, Hubbard Street performed William Forsythe’s N.N.N.N. as the first company other than Ballet Frankfurt to ever present this particular work. In an interview with Chicago Tonight, Forsythe was asked, “Why haven’t we seen it done stateside more often?” He replied,

First of all, you have to find a company that’s willing to take the time because it’s insanely complicated. It’s like learning a string quartet by heart and playing an instrument you’ve never played before. It’s really a mental challenge. And none of us—the people who know the piece—have had the time up until now. Once I gave up the company in Frankfurt, we all were free to stage the work and [Hubbard Street Artistic Director Glenn Edgerton] is the first director to give the work the amount of time we thought it needed.Chloe Riley, “Choreographer William Forsythe: Why He’s not the ‘Heir of Balanchine’” Artbeat: Inside the Arts Blog October 2, 2015


Forsythe was at the forefront of asking ballet dancers to collaborate in the making of his work. This kind of collaboration is common in the modern dance world, but radical for ballerinas who are trained to be so disciplined and uniform. (Ballet B.C. artistic director Emily Molnar was one of those ballerinas who trained with Forsythe. To read more about her, see Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive: Women in Dance essay on Emily Molnar.

Ballet BC performed Forsythe’s workwithinwork (1998) at Jacob’s Pillow in 2015 to Italian composer Luciano Berio’s “Duetti per Due Violini.” Berio remarked about this music:

It can happen that a violinist friend tells a composer, one night, that, other than those of Bartók, there are not enough violin duets today. And it can happen that the composer immediately sets himself to writing duets that night until dawn… and then more duets in moments of leisure, in different cities and hotels, between rehearsals, travelling, thinking of somebody, when looking for a present…they are not necessarily based on deep musical motivations, but rather connected by the fragile thread of daily occasions.

Berio’s description, of duets written in moments of leisure, gives a sense of the episodic nature of Forsythe’s choreography. Duets and other kinds of pairings emerge and then dissipate, with dancers shifting between the line and form of ballet and the pedestrian. While the women are on pointe, which emphasizes the verticality and line familiar from ballet, they also have an expansive sense of their bodies. They expand in space, piercing and carving, reaching beyond their own spatial peripheries.

Ballet BC in William Forsythe’s workwithinwork, 2015
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Ballet? Nacho Duato

At a PillowTalk in 2003, dancer turned choreographer Nacho Duato commented that no one can be made into a dancer—one is either born a dancer or not. He was decidedly born that way. However, he went on to elaborate, under the political leadership of Franco, there was no good place to study in his native Spain. So, at 16, he headed to London. As he explains, “I was told I was too old to start dancing and that I had no technique, no training…then I was told, you don’t know much about dance, but you have something special that makes me look at you all the time even if you do everything wrong.”PillowTalk: Nacho Duato, moderated by Maura Keefe July 23, 2003 Moving image 2137

I would argue that right from the beginning of his training as a dancer, this Spanish-born dancer turned choreographer was preparing for the world of contemporary ballet. He simultaneously studied classical ballet and modern dance techniques, at diverse places such as Maurice Béjart’s Mudra Center in Brussels and at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center in New York. This kind of eclectic training served him well, landing him positions first with Sweden’s Cullberg Ballet and then in a long relationship with Jiří Kylián’s Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT), where he flourished both as a dancer and a choreographer (he made more than a dozen works for NDT). Companies from around the globe have performed his works at Jacob’s Pillow, from the Martha Graham Dance Company to the Hong Kong Ballet, with four notable appearances of CND2, the second company of Compañía Nacional de Danza, both of which he served as artistic director.

See Hong Kong Ballet perform Castrati:


To successfully perform his works, Duato believes that dancers need to have extensive classical training as a foundation. However, once they start dancing his choreography, they have to “move in a unique way and to be aware of their bodies in a way different to that they learned from their classical ballet teachers.”PillowTalk: Nacho Duato, moderated by Maura Keefe July 23, 2003 Moving image 2137

In an exquisite essay on Duato during his directorship of CND, dance writer Delfin Colomé writes: “The attractive plunge of Spain into modernity, through its transition into democracy after the death in 1973 of the Dictator Franco, has mirrored concrete milestones in almost every social field. In dance, a very significant role has been played by Nacho Duato, who…has cooperated, firmly and decisively, to build up choreographic modernity in Spain.”Delfin Colomé, “A Company with its Own Identity.”

See CND2 perform Gnawa:


Choreographic modernity means several different things in Duato’s works. It means innovation. It means fluid musicality in movement. It means making dances to music that resists Eurocentrism. It means valuing classical technique without being limited to it.

See CND2 perform Arenal:


Duato boldly asserted that the ballet’s classical vocabulary is “not fitted to the man of the 21st century. And contemporary work has that possibility and freedom to really connect to the people of our time.”

Ultimately, whether one calls it ballet or resists expanding ballet’s definition matters less than seeing the dancers dance.

Further reading

To read about women choreographers and dancers who have had an impact on ballet, see essays on Wendy Whelan, Emily Molnar, Nina Ananiashivili, Lourdes Lopez, and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa in the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive: Women in Dance collection of essays.

PUBLISHED April 2019

Maura Keefe is a contemporary dance historian. She is a scholar in residence at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, where she writes about, lectures on, and interviews artists from around the world.Read Bio

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