Conversation: The State of Ballet in America, Part 1

BY Tom LeGro  June 24, 2010 at 12:01 PM EST

Ballet in America was once dominated by a few major companies and concentrated in New York and a handful of other cities. But today there are more than 65 professional, million-dollar-budget ballet companies all around the country.

Last week, nine of these companies brought together for a series of performances titled ‘Ballet Across America’ at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

I spoke to three of the companies’ artistic directors about the state of ballet in America: Dorothy Gunther Pugh, founder and artistic director of Ballet Memphis; Ashley Wheater, former ballet master of San Francisco Ballet and current director of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet; and Ib Andersen, artistic director of Ballet Arizona and member of the George Balanchine Trust, the organization responsible for preserving and licensing the late choreographer’s work.

Part two of our conversation will be posted Friday.

A transcript is after the jump.

 

JEFFREY BROWN: Though ballet in America was once dominated by a few major companies and concentrated in New York and a handful of other cities, today there are more than 65 professional, million-dollar-plus-budget ballet companies scattered around the country. For a festival titled “Ballet Across America,” the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., has brought nine of these groups together for a series of performances. Three of the company’s artistic directors join me now to discuss the state of ballet in America: Dorothy Gunther Pugh, founder and artistic director of Ballet Memphis, Ashley Wheater, former ballet master of San Francisco Ballet and currently director of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, and Ib Andersen, artistic director of Ballet Arizona and member of the Balanchine Trust, the organization responsible for preserving and licensing the late choreographer’s work. Welcome to all of you.

Dorothy, when you look around the country, what’s working, what’s exciting when you think about the state of ballet in America?

DOROTHY GUNTHER PUGH: One thing that’s very exciting to me is the amount of young choreographers now I feel like who are starting to be tapped to do new work. And I think that’s really important. And it may be, as I was joking with Ib earlier about maybe I’m reaching my old crone years, but I think it’s really important that we nurture young people and give them the right gifts.

JEFFREY BROWN: You were just telling me, Ashley, that tonight’s performance, there’s is a young Taiwanese-American. So how do you find these new young people and the new choreographers?

ASHLEY WHEATER: I think that it’s having your radar very sensitive to what’s going on, not only in America but across the world. And for me one of the things about running the Joffrey is that it has always been known as an American classic, that Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino were always pushing the boundary, and so to discover young American talent is something that I feel very strongly about. I think that, you know, we are based right in the middle of the country. I think it’s a great place for us to have a new work and then take it across America, and so I’m thrilled that in the last couple of years I’ve had two young American choreographers be able to do world premieres for us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ib Andersen, you have this connection to one of the great masters of choreography through George Balanchine. How do you connect the classics and the younger choreographers, the younger dancers?

IB ANDERSEN: Well, I’m in Arizona — the company is 25 years old, 24 actually — so my job right now is very much a job of educating the audience. Running a company, of course, you have to make it financially feasible. You have to get the people in the seats. For me, it’s been a slow sort of way to introduce new work. You can’t just do a lot of ballets that are a sort of risky because the audience is not going to come. Not in Phoenix.

JEFFREY BROWN: Most of the time you are presenting some standards.

IB ANDERSEN: We are using, you know, “Swan Lake,” and then I do some things that I know are going to bring the audience in. Usually one that is maybe a little more risky, but it’s tricky, you know. For me, in Phoenix, it’s really about educating the audience. Maybe 10, 15 years from now we will have educated the audience enough that they will come to things that are much more risky. But you can’t afford, we cannot afford, you know, to put something on that the audience is not going to come. Simply we will fold.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I mean this idea of connecting to an audience, but also a particular place. You’re in Memphis, how do you use place and try to build audience?

DOROTHY GUNTHER PUGH: It may seem like it’s a no-brainer, because the part of the world that I’m from has changed the world culturally. If you think of it — it’s the home of rock ‘n’ roll —

JEFFREY BROWN: — Right, but we don’t think of ballet though, we think of the blues and —

DOROTHY GUNTHER PUGH: — And I have the white European art form and an audience that is accustomed to the bubbling up underneath of art that’s really sort of populist and it comes from the not-so-lovely voice of the people. It’s not the coastal wealth that determines the voice of the people there, and so it’s been my job for years to think, to listen to what they sing about and what we say, what we sing about, what are our stories, what literature has come from our place. And so we’re dancing to Roy Orbison’s music, and when you listen to those things you meld them with what you know, which is the incredible, beautiful technique of ballet. But you really have to navigate a difficult ocean to find the work and reflect it back to the people who are your constituency, because it’s their — to me they have voices that we need to listen to. They inform who we are and then we try to make work that includes them somehow. And this particular piece has been successful that way, and so Roy Orbison was like the Placido Domingo of country music — he was, you know. And if you listen to that voice, it’s very, very compelling and that’s kind of what we’ve done. We do this thing called the Memphis Project and this is part of our Memphis Project work.