How to Save Ballet

Crystal Pite’s Emergence begins with a woman quietly convulsing on the floor. Her whole body quakes as her partner—a shirtless hulking man with thick black stripes painted on his arms—scoops her up and holds her over a shoulder with one arm, as if she weighs no more than a child. In the next scene, dancers emerge from a nest-like structure painted on the backdrop. Their bodies in silhouette against a blinding light in the nest’s depths, they dart onto the stage. The women run into the wings, as if fleeing. When the men emerge–arms adorned with those thick painted stripes, faces covered with beaked masks–they remain.

Already, Pite has us hooked. Her shirtless men then start moving to a pounding, reverberating beat. Throughout the whole piece—right up to the end where all of the dancers stand onstage, stare into the blackness, and relevé in unison while literally hissing at the audience—the tension doesn’t falter.

Upon leaving the theater, I heard an elderly couple chatting. The woman said, “they reminded me of ants, and it was boring.” Her companion: “I thought it was fascinating!”

 I would bet money that most young people in the audience agreed with the latter.

 And I can tell you why there aren’t that many young people in ballet audiences. Simply, programming isn’t keeping up with the times. Not enough. Companies are trying too hard to make everybody happy, to please the woman who saw Emergence as a group of boring ants rather than a thrilling trip into a swarm. I was enraptured–the insect-ness, the darkness, the bare legs and chests and feats of technical brilliance. And Pite’s large casts—in Emergence and other works of hers like 2015’s Polaris—help. A mass of moving, organized bodies stands out in the grandiose Russian ballet tradition, though it replaces jewels and grace with body paint and hard-hitting physicality.

 It’d be easy to sell tickets to shows like Emergence to my millennial friends. We young’uns have short attention spans, right? I scroll through my life on screens. Thanks to video games and Hollywood, I’m desensitized to violence and sex. You could say I’ve seen it all. (And hey, is this my fault? We didn’t invent porn.) I can appreciate subtlety, but it doesn’t define my generation. So what’s left to capture my attention—really grab my focus and hold it—but the overt? The extreme? The grotesque, even? So, ballet marketing teams, make a “Game of Thrones”-like poster with chiseled legs instead of swords. Create a trailer that flashes to rippling muscles. Show a mass of masked faces. Set it to that pounding beat that’s reminiscent of what drives ravers to stages. Use sex: “Impress your Tinder date” plastered in bold letters across images of arched feet and backs would do nicely. Make it extreme. Make it entertaining. It’s about time we stop being afraid of the word “entertainment” for fear of alienating “cultured” people. À la Andy Warhol, let’s make pop art worth talking about again.

 Former generations had their chance to influence dance. And they did. And plenty of millennial ballet lovers will break from the devices glued to our thumbs to appreciate these works of art and their historical contexts.

 But the present context is our making. And face it, dance world, you’ll have to cater to us.

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