Outdoors Ballet – some different responses to Lockdown from around the world

Alonzo King LINES Ballet's <I>There Is No Standing Still, Part 1</I> - screen grab from <a href="https://youtu.be/vC67mWXKW5w">video</a>.<br />© Alonzo King LINES Ballet. (Click image for larger version)
Alonzo King LINES Ballet’s There Is No Standing Still, Part 1 – screen grab from video.
© Alonzo King LINES Ballet. (Click image for larger version)

Dance Theatre of Harlem: Dancing Through Harlem
New York City Ballet dancers: Inside Out
San Francisco Ballet: Dance of Dreams
Alonzo King LINES Ballet: There Is No Standing Still
DistDancing (RB Dancers): Ad hoc works
Meaghan Grace Hinkis: Ballet at Athelhampton
The Royal Ballet: Live in Concert (Not outdoors! Ed)

During these challenging times of confinement, how could ballet dancers make use of their specialised skills by performing out of doors? We’ve had enough videos of dancers indoors on mats, exercising in their kitchens or hallways. If they go outside, as Impressionist artists did to paint en plein air, they alter their art form. Wearing sneakers, they resemble contemporary or street dancers doing little that resembles classical ballet.

I’d thought that San Francisco Ballet was going to buck the trend by commissioning ‘some of the finest choreographers of our time’ to contribute to a film, Dance of Dreams, with company dancers performing in iconic San Francisco Bay locations. More later, but it turned out be a disappointment (to me, at least), surpassed by Dance Theatre of Harlem‘s film of dancers in its neighbourhood of New York, Dancing Through Harlem (YouTube link).

The six-minute film was produced by two young DTH members, Derek Brockington and Alexandra Hutchinson, who appear in it as well. The choreography is by Robert Garland, the company’s Resident Choreographer and Director of its school. Set to the third movement from JS Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, it combines baroque-influenced ballet with square dance steps and patterns. Wearing face masks, four men and four women perform in different locations: 145th Street subway station, outside the (currently closed) Apollo Theatre; in the City College of New York campus; Riverbank State Park and an impressive office building. Whether wearing white sneakers or brown pointe shoes, these are emphatically ballet dancers, performing intricate beaten steps and formal enchaînements in urban contexts. Proud and buoyant, they are elegantly and defiantly celebrating who they are and how they choose to dance.

Also in New York during lockdown, this time filmed in the boarded-up Flatiron district in central Manhattan, four New York City Ballet dancers bound, twist and fling themselves into the air for the camera of Craig McDean, fashion photographer. It was his idea to set them free to express themselves during lockdown in June. British Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Edward Enningful, suggested costuming the women in fringed skirts by Azzedine Alaia that flare around them as they improvise their own choreography. Other fashion houses are credited at the end of the 3 minute black-and-white film, Inside Out, on Vogue’s site, (YouTube link)

The four corps de ballet members, Emma Von Enck, Eliza Blutt, Jonathan Fahoury and India Bradley, put on a mask or a scarf around their faces once they’ve introduced themselves. They wear soft ballet shoes and sleek black or white outfits; Fahoury has on a white singlet and black trousers. Practically no pedestrians are around to witness exuberant ballet dancers performing in the streets and sidewalks; anonymous vehicles wait for them to move out of the way. Expertly filmed and edited, Inside Out is both stylish and unpretentious.

San Francisco Ballet‘s Dance of Dreams, directed by Benjamin Millepied, lays claim to entering ‘an era of unprecedented digital engagement via uncharted territories, grappling with what is lost while ushering in new future possibilities.’ Three established choreographers, Justin Peck, Dwight Roden and Christopher Wheeldon, and Janie Taylor, former dancer, were commissioned by SFB’s artistic director, Helgi Tomasson, to work with company dancers under shelter-in-place conditions. Each of the four contributions lasts for just over a minute. More time is taken by introductory speeches from Tomasson and Millepied, and by extensive credits at the end of nine minutes. (YouTube link)

Millepied, former dancer with New York City Ballet, artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet (2014-2016) and of LA Dance Project, chose the music and the settings for the film. He is a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) that takes place in San Francisco, with a haunting score by Bernard Herrmann. For Dance of Dreams, a 6-minute extract from the film score, Scène d’amour, was recorded remotely by 60 musicians from SFB’s orchestra (over 150 tracks in all). The locations included a spot by the Golden Gate Bridge, a stretch of seashore in nearby Sausalito, a view of Telegraph Hill from the San Francisco Art Institute, and the urns and columns of the Palace of Fine Arts, which features in Hitchcock’s film. All the choreographers convey the effects of vertigo, the off-balance sensation of dizziness often associated with a fear of heights.

In view of the trouble it must have taken to record the music, teach the choreography to the chosen dancers and film them in misty, open-air conditions, the results are tantalisingly brief. Two solos, two duets for co-habiting partners; everyone wears sneakers and there’s no reference to classical ballet, other than swirling lifts. Spot the choreographers’ work, if you can. Wheeldon’s pas de deux for Madison Keeler (ex-English National Ballet for four years) and Benjamin Freemantle is recognisable mainly because of its typically ungainly tumbling on the ground before the participants part, fingers slipping away from their final embrace. Apparently, all the contributions are about love, community and perseverance. Maybe you need to be a local to appreciate the brief film as an ecstatic postcard from San Francisco Ballet to the world.

Far more entrancing are the videos made by Alonzo King LINES Ballet, based in San Francisco since 1982. King’s is a tight-knit contemporary ballet company of 11 dancers. Five short films are planned under the title There Is No Standing Still: three are already available made during June and July 2020 – YouTube link

The dancers have been sheltering at home, in ten different cities on four continents. They perform on their own (mostly) in stunning outdoor locations, urban as well as natural, improvising their own choreography and adapting phrases from the company repertoire. Some wear sneakers on rough terrain but most are barefoot, displaying the long lines of their ballet training. The meditative scores for each video were commissioned by King and Robert Rosenwasser. co-founder of the company, who directs the filming.

The dancers connect with their landscapes through expert camerawork. (How do they do it?) The cumulative results are deeply personal, a portrait of each performer’s love of dancing and of the settings in which they find themselves. There’s no evidence of despair in their isolation, though they must be longing to be together as a company once again.

Though the Royal Ballet’s official creative offerings have been pitifully sparse during the past five months, some of its younger members are being more enterprising. They’ve set up DistDancing events via Instagram, performing on a pontoon stage on Regent’s Canal in north London. DistDancing is the brainchild of Chisato Katsura, 23-year-old first soloist, whose landlord owns Hoxton Docks, a former coal depot that now serves as a performance venue. Katsura and first soloist Valentino Zucchetti have assembled programmes by dancers and circus arts practitioners, who give free shows at weekends to audiences assembled across the canal or in kayaks, along with water birds.

Royal Ballet members have so far included Matthew Ball and Mayara Magri, Harry Churches and Annette Buvoli, Lukas Bjorneboe Braendsrod, Giacomo Rovero and Joshua Junker.

DistDancing plans to keep going until October with information on Instagram. But beware, this is all rather ad-hoc and social distancing/crowd control may be a problem as it all becomes more known about.

Meaghan Grace Hinkis has organised an upcoming weekend of outdoor ballet in a country house in Dorchester (full details) to raise money for the arts. Twelve members of the (Royal Ballet) company are due to perform on 5th and 6th September, with Dane Hurst as a guest artist. Tickets for the shows in the gardens of Athelhampton House are of course expensive, unlike the free performances at Hoxton Docks.

It might not be outside but worth noting that The Royal Ballet‘s first official show on the Royal Opera House stage in seven months will be on 6 October. A concert programme of ‘heritage and modern highlights’ will be streamed live via Vimeo to subscribers. Further details will be forthcoming on the Royal Opera House site.

About the author

Jann Parry

A long-established dance writer, Jann Parry was dance critic for The Observer from 1983 to 2004 and wrote the award-winning biography of choreographer Kenneth MacMillan: 'Different Drummer', Faber and Faber, 2009. She has written for publications including The Spectator, The Listener, About the House (Royal Opera House magazine), Dance Now, Dance Magazine (USA), Stage Bill (USA) and Dancing Times. As a writer/producer she worked for the BBC World Service from 1970 to 1989, covering current affairs and the arts. As well as producing radio programmes she has contributed to television and radio documentaries about dance and dancers.

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