When most people think of ballet, and dance in general, they often picture little girls in pink tutus, but here is so much more to the art of dance and ballet. People must look further to see how dance functions as a lens through which choreographers comment on society. Art can evoke emotions from an audience through immersive performances that remove language as a social barrier. In many cases, words are not enough to express emotions as intense as grief and heartbreak. The arts allow people to experience those emotions in a safe space, reflect on the injustices in our everyday world, and act on those reflections.
One of my favorite non-classical ballets, The Green Table choreographed by Kurt Jooss, depicts the futilities of peace negotiations in the 1930s. The 1932 choreography is subtitled a "Dance of Death in Eight Scenes" and comments on the horrors of war. It covers war itself as well as separation from loved ones, loneliness and misery, the emotional void, forced entertainment, and wounded survivors. Although Jooss created the ballet with a specific context, the themes and messages of the ballet are universal. This ballet, like many others, draws attention to injustices through performance and serves as a starting point for conversations about issues like poverty, death, and war.
In a new 1996 version of Sleeping Beauty, Mats Ek explores addiction and drug use through his innovative storytelling and choreography. In this modern version of a classic fairytale, Princess Aurora is pricked by a heroin needle rather than a spindle. Even after she works to overcome her addiction, Aurora must create her own happy ending. Contrary to the original version where a man rescues her with true love's kiss, this version empowers women to stand up for themselves. Mats Ek's choreography transforms an incredibly dark topic into a beautiful performance that has inspired many important conversations about modern issues.
While ballets like these bring up many important social issues, the ballets themselves have historically been inaccessible. Whether cost, time, or location are a barrier, a large number of people are unable to experience dance performances. However, over the past year dance has become a lot more accessible. Throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic, many prominent ballet companies released online versions of old and new works. Companies like New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and The Royal Ballet presented performances online. In many cases, choreographers got creative with filming to follow safety guidelines for their dancers, and this only added more context and commentary on the current state of the world.
As a result of these online performances, many companies expanded their audiences and exposed people to new modern works. Ballet is only one art form of many that has the power to inspire change. I encourage everyone to step outside of their comfort zone and expand their perspectives on dance and the world around them.
Links to works
The Green Table
Mats Ek Sleeping Beauty
Written by Alex Lindsey