The Classics: Help or Hindrance?

The Classics: Help or Hindrance?

             Earlier this year, several European Directors were asked their views on the place of the ‘Classics’ (Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker) in modern repertoire. Whilst all agreed that it is important to respect and preserve the heritage of Ballet, it was highlighted that the expense and time involved in staging the Classics can leave little opportunity for new works, particularly new full-evening ballets. Christopher Hampson of Scottish Ballet said: “I’d like to semi-retire the classical version of Swan Lake so that companies have more room to produce new works,” and Assis Carreiro, Director of Royal Ballet of Flanders, went further, saying: “the three Tchaikovsky ballets should be given a rest…it would be great for every company around the globe to just do triple bills for three years: to educate audiences and bring them on a journey.” Certainly, a commitment to perform only new works would result in increased creativity but the question remains whether companies who rely on an annual boost from Nutcracker ticket sales could continue to operate at the same level without this dependable income.

            Historically, Diagilev’s Ballet Russes is an example of a period of almost unparalleled productivity, with almost fifty ballets premiered over their twenty year history, some of which still survive in modern repertoire. At the time, ballets such as ‘The Rite of Spring’ caused uproar and near-rioting in the theatre in 1913, with one critic dubbing the whole premise ‘a disconcerting adventure,’ yet such was the interest in what this innovative and dynamic company was doing that the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées paid the company double, compared to the previous season. Certainly, the reality is very different for today’s Directors: Diaghilev was uniquely placed in a circle of wealthy benefactors and patrons who were keen to offer support, and many of the dancers were initially hired during their summer holidays from other jobs, motivated by the excitement of collaborating with such a broad spectrum of talented artists. Today’s major companies, with their formal employment structures and advance planning, have to ensure the revenue to maintain themselves, and for many Directors this means scheduling Classics which are reliably going to sell out, sometimes at the expense of staging new works. 

            Humans, by nature, are creatures of habit. The Nutcracker has become a crucial part of Christmas tradition, and many people are simply not interested in trying something new: why change when Nutcracker is certain to please? Similarly, we are unwilling to take risks. If, in a difficult economic climate, we chose to spend money on a ballet, it seems far more sensible to opt for a classic such as Swan Lake than to risk seeing something untried and untested by a new choreographer. Such, educating audiences on what modern choreographers have to offer is a great challenge. New ballets are essential for the health of our companies and the development of our dancers, but what chance do they have of flourishing, when constantly in the shade of 19th Century pieces?  

            Christopher Moore who founded and directs UK based touring company, Ballet Theatre UK, finds that striking a balance is particularly hard with regional audiences: “Outside of major cities, theatres and audience members tend to favour well known, classical ballets, regardless of how many times they have seen them. It is often a case of convincing them to take a chance on a new production, by finding a popular and well-known story to turn into a ballet and building a loyal audience base who will trust that the work will be good, even if it is new.” This tactic, of offering audiences a story that they know, in the format of a new ballet, has been employed successfully in recent years by several UK companies, notably Birmingham Royal Ballet with Aladdin, Scottish Ballet and The Royal Ballet with Hansel and Gretel and Ballet Theatre UK with The Little Mermaid.   

            Another viable option, to strike the balance between the new and old, seems to be in re-imaginings or updated versions of the classics. The name provides the Box Office draw to audiences, but the version can be different to suit the company’s size and style, or to better represent and reflect modern society. This strategy too, has its critics, who would argue that the Classics should not be altered. Speaking to the Guardian, Daria Klimentova recently noted: “What I see around me is a lot of choreographers who are destroying the classics. I wish that instead of doing Sleeping Beauty in some crazy new way, they would just go and invent their own full-length ballet story…They destroy the magic when they change them, say by putting Juliet in shorts. Maybe I am old-fashioned. I know you have to go forward. But there is a reason why these ballets are called classic.”

            So where does that leave us? Looking at The Royal Ballet’s 2014/15 season, there is a refreshing balance of works, including 20th works by Cranko, Ashton and MacMillan, new work by McGregor, Scarlett and Shechter, and only one twenty performance run of Petipa’s Swan Lake. Other projects taking place in the Linbury Theatre of ROH include a re-imagining of La Bayadere by choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh, and a selection of choreographies by Royal Ballet dancers, entitled ‘Draft Works.’ This programming displays a confidence, not only in the journey that ballet still has to travel, but of the audience’s capacity to enjoy and embrace new work. It remains to be seen whether success will follow.

            Cutting out the Classics all together would be a great disservice, not only to the new generations of audiences and dancers who deserve to experience them, but to the companies that rely on their revenue and the works themselves, which form such an intrinsic part of ballet’s heritage. Yet it is crucial to find a balance between what Christopher Hampson so eloquently describes as: “displaying the family silver” and forging new developments, thus ensuring that in a hundred years time, we, like Diagilev, have left a legacy of ballets that shall be remembered.

                                                                                                                 by Julia Davies