Since seeing Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake in February, I have been mulling over what exactly classical ballet is and how it fits into our thinking about both the arts and the society in which they are situated.
In ballet, in general, I am struck by the lack of diversity (specifically the lack of African-American dancers in US ballet companies), the obvious racism and stereotyping within ballet storylines (think Chinese and Arabian dances in the Nutcracker—cultural appropriation at its max), and the general patriarchal point of view of almost every classical ballet. These days we do not think that women need to saved by princes, and we don’t think they should be commodities to be traded for money and power. Moreover, within the ballet world there is a serious lack of female choreographers.
I am not alone in my line of inquiry. Last Friday I sat down and spoke with Oregon Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin Irving who is also bothered by ballet’s incongruence with modern day culture. In fact, he altered the storyline of his Swan Lake in February to draw the audience’s attention to some of those aspects. Even more directly, he created Choreography XX, a choreography competition to discover new women ballet choreographers. The two-night concert runs at 7:30 pm Thursday and Friday at the Washington Park Amphitheatre, and admission is free.
“It’s been important to me in a lot of aspects of our programming, to represent ideas and people that are in our community, and so it [Choreography XX] was a mechanism for me to fund more diversity and more female representation,” Irving said. The competition, funded by a grant from the Oregon Community Foundation’s Creative Heights Initiative, was launched last January and received over 90 applicants from across North America. The winning choreographers were Gioconda Barbuto, Helen Simoneau, and Nicole Haskins.
Interestingly Irving’s dance background is mostly in contemporary dance, which seems to afford him a broader vision to work through these discrepancies and create a new normal for classical ballet within Oregon Ballet Theatre.
Irving also pointed out that “classical ballet is a product of a very strictly organized social hierarchy in which the czar is at the top, and everybody filters down until you have the serfs.” When he looks at classical ballets, he see’s “rows and rows of women who have no individuality, no purpose other than to be background to more important people. And that reflects the society that supported the creation of this art form, and was unquestioned for over 100 years.” Although he loves the beauty in uniformity, Irving is also interested in drawing out individuality in his ballet company.
Choreographer Gioconda Barbuto, one of the three Choreography XX choreographers, is also interested in bringing the individuality and personality of each artist into the center of her work. “Because my work is so collaborative, it cannot be made without them. So this work represents who they are individually, as individuals, but also as a group.” Barbuto said in our conversation last week under the trees outside Oregon Ballet Theatre’s dance studios overlooking the Willamette River.
Barbuto has had an impressive career. Originally from Canada, she danced with the Minnesota Dance Theatre before becoming a soloist with Les Grand Ballets Canadiens de Montréal where she danced for 16 years. After she thought she was finished performing and was starting to build momentum on a choreography career, she was invited by Jiri Kylian to join Nederlands Dans Theater III in The Hague, Holland, a group of high-caliber dancers, all over the age of 40. She toured internationally with the company for eight years until the company folded, and worked two more years after that with Kylian Productions. Gioconda is featured in two of Jiri Kylian’s award winning films, Birth-Day and Car-Men.
In 1996 she was nominated for a Kennedy Center Fellowship and was the recipient of the Clifford E. Lee choreography award. She is a recipient of several grants from the Canada Council and in 2015 received the McKnight International Choreographer Fellowship.
Gioconda’s choreography has been presented at Ballet BC, Ballet Jorgen, Banff Festival Ballet, Danse Cite, Tangente, L’Agora de la danse, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, BJM Danse Montreal, Alberta Ballet, Minnesota Dance Theater, McKnight Fellowship SOLO Commission (for Abdo Sayegh Rodriguez), Bravo FACT, CBC Canada/Films Piche Ferrari, Ballet Kelowna, The Juilliard School, Arts Umbrella Dance Company, You Dance/National Ballet of Canada, Dutch National Ballet Academy, Nederlands Dans Theater Choreographic Workshop, the National Circus School, and Portland’s Northwest Dance Project, and she has created many solos and group projects for many renowned dance artists.
When I watch her choreograph, she is electric, on fire, always moving, always showing, always describing what she wants, over and over again. She is inexhaustible. I also observed how deeply involved and invested in the process the dancers were. Trying and trying again, not afraid to make mistakes. Just going for it and going all out.
“I like to have fun in the room,” she said when I asked how she set the mood in the studio to enable the dancers to feel comfortable enough to open up and let go. “If I’m having fun, then I think the dancers are having fun. And I want to have fun, especially now, as you get older, and I want to keep learning right? So I’m not going to do that unless I allow the energy to move forward to create an environment where we’re having fun, and were exploring, and we’re allowed to make mistakes, and there’s no right way to do it.”
Watching from the outside, I can see her process unfolding and how she builds layers of movement, images, and action. “I think of it like painting or sculpting” she says. “You’re building a score, … we’re always throwing down a sketch, a layer, the first notes, the first splash of paint, and then you start the first carve. Your intention was that you were carving this way, but the wood cracks, the clay doesn’t come out the way you wanted, it cracked but you’re thinking, ‘No I’m going to stick with this, look where it took me, let me follow that.’ And then you go with that. This is what I’m hoping I give them: Go with the cracks and see where that takes you, because life’s like that.”
Barbuto’s creative process begins with her own movement vocabulary (built from her incredibly varied performing career), different improvisational tools, object drawing (a verbal technique Barbuto uses to describe the space around the dancers and give meaning and texture to their movement), and a long list of different kinds of songs on iTunes. She uses the music as a way “to magnetize, to emphasize, to get them into a beat or a groove, or a feeling.”
Referring to the dancers she says, “I want them to work from the experiences and exploration and the push and pull that happens between them, from the process. Everyone is activated by each other because they’re all connected or affected by what happens.“
Inspired by Kylian’s dance company of older dancers, I asked her how she felt about being an “older” dancer,“ which happens to be my own situation. “All of a sudden you find out there’s another level, that it’s really exciting to be an older dancer,” she says. “It’s like everything comes together and then more, and then more. You just can open up, and you can hear things, and you can feel. You understand that mistakes aren’t mistakes. You understand that the way you move has so much history in it, it’s on a cellular level. You understand that your whole body’s moving like everything’s attached, affected, connected.”