The Ballets Russes' great example
Collaboration is at the heart of great choreography
The Joffrey’s celebration of the Ballets Russes centennial, as well as the Valentine weekend, has me thinking about the power of unions, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, it takes a village…you get the idea. During its lifespan from 1909–1929, the Russes became one of the most influential cultural groups of the early 20th century. Today, I fear that artists and audiences are losing sight of a pillar of the Russes’ historic success: the understanding that to be its best, dance needs truly excellent partners from other artforms.
The greatest achievement of Serge Diaghlev—the founder and leader of the Russes—was supporting the creation of original material by leading-edge artists in every facet of the production of a dance work. Nobody bought costumes off the rack at Filene’s Basement or downloaded a song from iTunes for a soundtrack.
Stravinsky was rearranging musical scales while Picasso was reorganizing visuals on a backdrop, and Fokine and Nijinsky were sweating out new moves in the studio. Unsung seamstresses labored over beautiful costumes designed by the archaeologist and painter Nicholas Roerich or by painter-designer Léon Bakst. Artists challenged each other, enhanced each others’ work and made exciting creations that none of them could have accomplished alone.
The problem with collaborations of this nature, and why I think they are not emphasized enough, is they are expensive and time consuming and they take artists outside their comfort zones. Things can get unpredictable. Conflict can become part of the creative process. These days, who has time for an argument with the composer if the creation period is only one week? It’s much easier if the music is “done” and then the choreographer fits her dance to it.
Choreographer Merce Cunningham solved this particular issue in the 1950s in his legendary collaboration with composer John Cage. Cunningham simply choreographed his dances in silence and performed them to whatever sounds Cage provided on opening night. The same held true for the costumes provided by visual artist Robert Rauschenberg. Cunningham did not settle for prêt-à-porter or something off eMusic to frame his wonderful dances.
Not to say that original always means excellent and amazing. There are plenty of terrible dances with crappy scores and stupid-looking costumes, all of them 100 percent original. However, I dare to think the artists involved are on their way to becoming better, deeper artists because of brushing up against the needs of colleagues outside their own media. Nevertheless, it’s a tricky balance: The movement of the body in space should be at the heart of any choreographic work.
What troubles me most is the creeping normalization of a formula in dance in which the music comes first, the dance comes second, and the costumes are a final afterthought. This happens mostly among smaller troupes, but the mindset is pernicious, especially when we know that everyone is trying to cut corners. Dance needs to keep standing up for support that will bring it the best of cutting-edge advances in music, design and movement—just as the Ballets Russes did 100 years ago.