Ballet’s Think Tank (Finally)

As I said in my book, dance is at once a private and public act. While the “public” component of that statement may seem self-evident, most Americans don’t consider the extent to which that’s true beyond presentation/performance. Few move into deeper considerations of the inherent importance of concert dance in the history of western culture—that’s true in society as a whole, and even within the academy, despite the significant number of collegiate dance programs. Having taught inside a range of universities, I’ve often found other faculty who may have respected the dance professionals in their midst, but who still did not perceive dance as a serious, rigorous academy pursuit. Our place in the academy is as hard-won as is performance funding and audience members in the public sphere. All of that contributes to dance professionals being the lowest paid artists in America by most measures.

Those concerns, coupled with rapid changes that have taken place in ballet over the last couple of decades (e.g., the impact of fusion and improvisation on ballet), make it clear that it is time to consider dance in a new way. To that end, New York University announced this week that it has established The Center for Ballet and the Arts. Jennifer Homans (author of the seminal book on ballet history, Apollo’s Angels) will serve as the Center’s founder/director.

The Center is “designed to accomplish two things: first, to bring to the art of ballet new ideas and the full resources of a major research university; second, to bring ballet into the university as a serious subject of study and research—to define it as a field in the history of culture.”

From the website, it is clear that over time the Center will examine ballet from a range of perspectives:

Ballet today is adrift: even when it is good—fine dancers or choreography—it is relegated to the margins of culture and thought of as “elite” and “inaccessible.” It has become increasingly specialized and has lost its connection to people and the ways we live. Universities, for their part, have given little recognition to ballet. Its history, skills, and practices have been marginal to the study of the life of the mind. This represents a significant gap in the history of culture.

The Center is a significant step toward bridging that gap. Others are needed, but this is a much welcome start.  I know that a major point of concern will arise in the dance world, I hear the question already: why is NYU singling out ballet? Are they privileging ballet over other concert dance forms like modern and contemporary?

Ultimately, no. It is impossible to talk about ballet post-1900 and not talk about modern dance anymore than one can ignore that ballet technique is deeply woven into many modern dance techniques. Similarly, you can’t talk about ballet post-1928 and not talk about the inclusion of Africanist aesthetics. (That, in fact, leads to a second concern: the Center will have to include persons of color in future groups of Fellows.) And, clearly, the Center will have to discuss the concept of contemporary in detail. While the emphasis on fusion in contemporary work is potentially invigorating, it also demands vigilance against the specter that is homogeneity. I say it often:

Homogeneity will be the death of dance.

This Center arrives at a vital moment in American dance history. Let’s hope that moment’s not too late.