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TBA Online: News & Features: July 2015

Story Ballets for Our Times?

Monday, July 20, 2015   (0 Comments)
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By Jetta Martin

Ballet reinvents itself repeatedly—from classical to neoclassical, contemporary and beyond. Still, many of the most famous story ballets that companies perform today premiered in the nineteenth century. These include, but are not limited to, Don Quixote, recently performed by the San Francisco Ballet, La Bayadere, La Sylphide, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and Coppélia. The Nutcracker, one of the most well-known and often-performed classical ballets, premiered over 100 years ago. There is no doubt about the staying power of these works, many of which are based on literature; these classics remain staples of the ballet canon. Nevertheless, it would be exciting to see an updated story ballet, set in the twenty-first century.

Photo: "George Balanchine's The Four Temperaments" by Steve Wilson on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.


George Balanchine, one of the best-known ballet choreographers of the twentieth century, spearheaded the movement toward what we now call “neoclassical ballet” by creating abstract and story ballets with changes on classical ballet movements like thrust pelvises and flexed hands. He too drew on literature, creating ballets like A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1962. His work was revelatory for the time and remains seminal.

Currently we see more choreographers pushing the technical envelope with contemporary ballet, and even beyond, with forms like post-structural ballet, led by innovators like William Forsythe. There are also choreographers, Mark Morris for example, who work primarily in the modern dance idiom, but have crossed over to set work on ballet companies.

What is missing are ballets that are daring not just technically but topically. Very rarely do we see story ballets that deal with contemporary themes and stories, or draw from contemporary literature—essentially, story ballets for our times. All forms of dance should be able to explicitly address current themes; I would like to see more story ballets that tell the stories of the here and now, which may in turn become classics of the future.

White Darkness, a ballet in one act by Nacho Duato. Mikhailovsky Theatre, 2014. Photo: Courtesy of Mikhailovsky Theatre


Some twenty-first century ballets display clear narrative arcs. I vividly remember one such piece performed at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley by Compañia Nacional de Danza. White Darkness, a one-act ballet choreographed by Nacho Duato in 2001, tackles his sister’s drug addiction. The subject matter was clear from both the performance and the program notes. This powerful and uncomfortable piece has stuck with me because it had an explicit, timely story to tell. The ballet’s impact went beyond the brilliant dancing, and seized a core human struggle through the lens of a particular contemporary narrative.

More often, though, newer ballet pieces are abstract. They are almost poetic, and can be interpreted in many ways without a clear story line or intention. While I personally enjoy this, I suspect this is one reason why theatre-goers may feel alienated or disconnected from the art form. If there were an increase in contemporary storylines, then perhaps there would be a new interest in ballet, especially among a younger and more diverse audience.

I have always loved ballet for its beauty, clarity and grace. At this juncture, we need more ballets that deal with our current times without losing the emphasis on the classicism: works that stretch the definition of the story ballet beyond the confines of the past into the rich possibilities of our future.


Bay Area-based Jetta Martin is a performer and choreographer who has toured nationally and internationally; an educator who serves on the faculties of Brisbane Dance Workshop, the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts and The Ballet Studio; and a writer who contributes to Conscious Dancer magazine and Theatre Bay Area. Visit