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Search for Tomorrow.

A FEW MONTHS back, I seem to have caused a certain flutter in the dovecotes by suggesting that we were suffering not so much from too few good choreographers, but ironically enough, from too many mediocre practitioners of a necessarily public art. The choreographer is a comparatively rare artist, certainly as rare, experience would suggest, as the composer. Not many dancers are true choreographers, any more than many orchestral players, or even great soloists, have a bent for composing.

The interpretive artist and the creative artist are usually quite different animals--a Martha Graham or a Sergei Rachmaninoff being exceptions rather than rules. Modern dance choreographers seem to develop from apprenticeship with a master--rather in the fashion of Renaissance painters. And it is interesting that modern dance in the past fifty years has been rather more successful in developing original choreographers than has classical ballet.

Of course, one reason for this could be that modern dance is normally a career embarked upon by mature men and women, frequently of college age. Classical ballet is a career largely chosen for children by parents--if it becomes a vocation it may well gel into sincere dedication and involvement. But there is, I think, a difference in that first moment of choice, a difference eventually relaying into a matter of attitude and approach.

Moreover, let's face it, the necessarily codified discipline of classical ballet hardly lends itself to the same atmosphere of creativity --perhaps even to a false or pretentious creativity--pervasive in the modern dance studio. Which is perhaps why classical companies line up to employ the likes of Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris or Paul Taylor, whereas classical choreographers are scarcely sought after by their modern dance contemporaries.

However, classical ballet has to look at its future--both in developing dancers and nurturing choreographers. So what is it doing? Living in New York, I'm naturally talking about my hometown companies, New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, although I realize that what they are doing is not that dissimilar from other classical companies across the country.

City Ballet has recently announced plans to raise more than $50 million, the largest capital fund-raising effort in dance history. Called "The Campaign for New York City Ballet," at its projected completion in 2004 it will have effectively doubled the company's present endowment to $80 million. Part of the money raised will go to the care and preservation of the Balanchine and Robbins repertoires, unique to City Ballet. Whereas many ballet companies across the world have been careless of their heritage, City Ballet seems determined to hold onto its own.

But however important you deem a heritage repertoire, the future also lies with new works and new choreographers. Consequently, Peter Martins has announced as a major new initiative the formation of The New York Choreographic Institute, founded by arts patron Irene Diamond and Martins himself, with leadership support from the Irene Diamond Fund and other gifts from the general campaign. This new institute will serve as a supportive work arena for choreographers at all levels of experience across the world.

Other important initiatives announced for the future include the creation of an Artist in Residence program at the City Ballet (the first to be selected is former company soloist and rising choreographer Christopher Wheeldon), and the creation of a New York City Ballet archive that will collect, preserve and document the facts and artifacts of the company's history. And of course, City Ballet continues with its occasional series of Diamond Projects, which almost force-feed new ballets into the repertoire, many admittedly disappearing like stones dumped in water.

The Diamond Project this summer has, I think, proved the best yet, with four or five really good ballets presented. But such success, while welcome, is not the scheme's sole justification. That impresario extraordinaire, the late Joe Papp, in his palmy days was once faced with a press complaining vociferously that too many of the new American plays he was energetically producing were clinkers. He loudly insisted that it was not too many that were duds, but too few. "I'm in the failure business," he once said to me. What he meant was that the price of experimentation, the sheer cost of seeking new voices, was that most artistic experiments fail and, sad to say, most new voices sound flat.

But it doesn't matter. Many new ballets fail. City Ballet has the standard repertoire to ensure that the rest of the program is dandy. The public gets its money's worth. What counts is that the attempt to create something new was made. So it's back to the drawing board. But thank heavens, City Ballet still has a drawing board. As Papp might have said, many, many failures only increase the always-slender possibility of genius success.

ABT takes a different approach to the search for the new--call it a farm team, or rather call it, as they do, the ABT Studio Company. Directed for the last four years by John Meehan, himself a former ABT principal, this small, carefully picked troupe of eleven young classical dancers functions partly as testing and weathering ground for prospective entrants to ABT. It also offers educational programs for schools and colleges, as well as being a company of a size and with a classic repertoire capable of appearing in cross-country venues where larger troupes could never venture. But the ABT Studio Company is a good deal more than a testing ground for dancers; it also tries out young choreographers, as it virtually subsists on a diet of specially created works.

City Ballet bloods its future dancers very differently. Each year its affiliated School of American Ballet gives a weekend of so-called "workshop performances." Almost all of the top talent of City Ballet undergoes this rite of passage, as do quite a few dance stars across the country and the world. This year, for happy example, the SAB surpassed itself. Anyone who wanted to start a new ballet company from scratch could, I honestly believe, take the present ballet school and form a complete teenage troupe that would rank instantly--well, within a couple of years--among the best companies in the country.

So in dancers and choreographers, for classical ballet, the future lies ahead. But then, as Samuel Beckett's tramps might have said, it always does, doesn't it?

Senior editor Clive Barnes, who covers dance and theater for the New York Post, bas contributed to Dance Magazine since 1956.
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Author:BARNES, CLIVE
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2000
Words:1070
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