Ballet is a cruel business. After 10-15 years of monastic training, those few who win professional contracts face slim prospects of advancing from the corps de ballet to the rank of soloist. Even discounting the ever-present risk of a career-ending injury, dancers’ tenures tend to be brutally short. No wonder that so few of them feel they have the bandwidth to branch out into choreography –- at least, not until they have retired from the stage. And even then, companies rarely take a punt on the inexperienced.
Yet the ballet world direly needs fresh choreographic voices to boost demand for live performance. “Worldwide, the search for talented choreographers has become an important issue,” says Bolshoi Ballet spokeswoman Katya Novikova, admitting that the lauded Russian dance company has not built up as strong a pipeline of new choreographers as they would like.
This week, the industry has its eyes on Wei Wang. Trained at the Beijing Dance Academy and only in his third season at San Francisco Ballet, the 23-year-old corps de ballet member has just won a coveted promotion to soloist.
And earlier this week, Wang achieved a coup that lies well beyond the reach of most professional ballet dancers: he unveiled his first-ever choreographic work, created on advanced students of the San Francisco Ballet School, at the school’s annual showcase at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Few other SF Ballet dancers have been been given the choreographic reins in the company's long history. The very short list includes Myles Thatcher, James Sofranko, Francisco Mungamba and Benjamin Freemantle.
In Focus, Wang slices and engineers a recording of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to incorporate street and industrial noises, as well as the sounds of rumbling thunder. Thanks to Jim French’s dramatic lighting design, the overall effect is gripping, like listening to the great composer's music in a threatening storm. Later in the piece, the soundscape mimics being under the sea in a submarine, listening for the pinging of black boxes from a downed airliner. To this mercurial score, the very fine and committed quintet of Yumi Kanazawa, Shené Lazarus, Victor Prigent, Davide Occhipinti, and Nathaniel Remez slither, melt and twist their bodies into wondrous contours. The evanescent pairings, fluid yet sharply edged, are blessedly free of the romantic and sexual overtones that blight so many amateurish contemporary pas de deux. Wang presents each pair as a single organism.
Despite his lack of experience, the choreographer demonstrates a remarkable facility for movement invention, as well as a mastery of stillness and austerity. Will we be seeing more from this young man, who clearly has a lot to say?
How to grow a choreographer
It takes time for a choreographer to mature, and few professional ballet companies afford new dancemakers the luxury to fail in the current era of tight funding. It’s not a skill that can be taught, but rather a rare, innate talent that is cultivated through practice. You need far more young choreographers in the pipeline than we have now, because only a tiny percentage will grow up to be any good.
The world’s largest ballet companies do not systematically nurture new choreographers from within their ranks. Given the demands of the rehearsal process and the complexity of the artistic collaborations involved, the cost of mounting a new ballet can run from $100,000 into the millions for an evening-length production. Established choreographers, therefore, are an easier sell to backers.
And yet there’s a compelling argument for ballet institutions to nurture inside talent from the ranks, for dancers often know their company peers better than the seasoned choreographers who jet from commission to commission. And fresh, young voices can do a lot to move the art form forwards in new and unpredictable ways.
Though few large companies have placed bets on inside talent, their scattered efforts have been quite well received by audiences. Christopher Wheeldon and Liam Scarlett retired from the stage as soloists with City Ballet and the Royal Ballet, respectively, to step into full-time choreographer jobs with those companies. New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck and SF Ballet’s Thatcher are rare examples of young corps de ballet dancers whose home companies have given them several shots at choreographing works. The National Ballet of Canada’s Robert Binet graduated from the company’s school directly into a choreographic post, nurtured by stints with the Royal Ballet, Hamburg's National Youth Ballet and New York City Ballet. And fresh out of the Royal Ballet School last September, Charlotte Edmonds (at only 19 years of age) landed a choreographic apprenticeship carved especially for her by the Royal Ballet.
Whose job is it?
With the exception of New York City Ballet's 'Choreographic Institute' – which, starting in 2000, has given a handful of emerging choreographers two-week residencies – these opportunities remain, for the most part, sporadic. The Bolshoi Ballet has just selected nine participants, mostly Bolshoi dancers, for the first phase of a new choreographers program, spearheaded by departing artistic director Sergei Filin. Oregon Ballet Theatre launched a competition this year, exclusively aimed at female choreographers – a cohort that is shockingly under-represented.
Some nimble and forward-thinking companies have been tackling the pipeline problem assiduously. For example, London’s Rambert Dance Company is known for nurturing choreographers internally, and has supported the creation of the New Movement Collective – a group of dance artists (mostly current or former Rambert dancers) who make site-specific works. Out of Hamburg Ballet’s 60 dancers, 18 of them participated in this year’s Young Choreographers program. And Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal organizes Les Ateliers Chorégraphiques, programs that are entirely conceived, designed, publicized, and performed by a handful of company dancers.
To fill the choreographer pipeline is not only costly, but it also requires an appetite for risk. Few private donors are willing to throw that kind of money at emerging choreographers with potentially low batting averages.
But without nurturing dancemaking talent from within, companies risk a greater loss: an important opportunity for innovation and creativity. "It seems like the priority today is to sell tickets using popular, well-known choreographers," says Diana Byer, founder and artistic director of New York Theatre Ballet, whose company has been investing in new choreographers almost since its founding more than 30 years ago -- and often to critical acclaim. "Companies need to find new ways to bring in audiences to see choreographers who are not prominent dancers, but who might have a vivid imagination in creating new work that doesn’t just mimic the great dancemakers who came before them."