Constant motion and emotion
The many cultures in the US have enriched the identity, artistry and energy of the American Ballet Theatre, its artistic director tells Richard James Havis
What is it that makes the American Ballet Theatre so "American"? According to Kevin McKenzie, the former dancer who has been the company's artistic director since 1991, it's not a patriotic, flag-waving approach to dance, although the company is the United States' official national ballet. McKenzie says the label refers more to its progressive attitude, its versatility and its openness to different styles.
In short, the progressive qualities that inform the ballet are the same ones that characterise the best of the country as a whole.
"The word 'American' in our title does not stand for patriotism. It's more about the cultural melting pot of energetic cultures," McKenzie says at the company's offices and rehearsal studios just north of New York's Union Square. "It's an outlook whereby you constantly redefine what excellence is, rather than doggedly follow tradition. The American style is not about a physical look - it's more about an energetic approach. The thing that Americans put on the map was versatility: Americans have taken a melting pot of cultural backgrounds and turned it into an advantage."
The American Ballet Theatre (ABT) certainly has a distinguished history of innovation, even if it has sometimes been affected by serious financial problems. The company was founded around 1937 by a Russian émigré, Mikhail Mordkin, a former director of the Bolshoi Ballet. It started its rise to prominence in the 1940s, under Mordkin's student Lucia Chase and former Hollywood agent Richard Pleasant. The duo, McKenzie says, had planned to turn it into an international "museum of dance" which would feature different styles of dance, including ethnic and ballet.
A shortage of funds interfered with their plans and the ballet reconfigured to focus on performing classic ballets from the past - such as Swan Lake, which was staged in the US for the first time in 1926 by Mordkin, and is still a staple for the company - as well as original works. The company has never made a distinction between old and new in terms of artistic validity.
Hong Kong audiences will get a taste of both when the troupe presents two mixed-bills as well as a full-length ballet, Romeo and Juliet, to officially open this year's Arts Festival. The two Dance Gala programmes will include works by Antony Tudor, George Balanchine and the Asian premiere of Alexei Ratmansky's Shostakovich - Symphony No 9. They will also be performing Kenneth MacMillan's version of Romeo and Juliet to the renowned Prokofiev score.
"People think of us as a company that stages the big classics, but we have only been thought of in that way for the past 25 years," McKenzie says.
"We gained our international legitimacy by being able to do Swan Lake, as all the big national ballet companies do. But before that, we were equally known for our innovations. When there is a level of innovation going on, it generates energy, and that spurs further innovation," he says proudly.
That innovation included an invitation to modern dance choreographer Twyla Tharp to work on a ballet in 1976, which set the standard for such modern/ballet collaborations. Tharp had already fused modern dance with ballet in Deuce Coupe, a ballet piece set to the music of the Beach Boys, which she created for the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. At the ABT, she choreographed Push Comes to Shove for Mikhael Baryshnikov, the Russian dancer who defected to the West in 1974 and became the company's principal dancer. Push Comes to Shove is still considered one of the best examples of crossover ballet. Tharp merged her own modern dance company with the ABT in 1988.
"Back then, outside of our organisation, modern dance was clashing with classical ballet. The Joffrey, and others, said that the two should merge, as it would make something unique," says McKenzie.
"That's how Twyla Tharp, and the choreographers like her, emerged. Tharp had been a downtown avant-garde figure, and the Joffrey Ballet was the first company to employ her. She came to ABT as she wanted to work with Baryshnikov, to 'show that Russian a thing or two', as she said. And look what happened. That melding sparked something so unique."
The ABT had been at the more contemporary end of ballet long before Tharp arrived. During the 1950s, it benefitted from the talents of English choreographer Antony Tudor, who brought a modern, psychological approach to the art in works such as Pillar of Fire. Although ballet had started to modernise in Russia as far back as 1909, when Sergei Diaghilev founded the Ballets Russes, Tudor brought modern themes and a psychologically raw approach to the form at the ABT.
"Diaghilev had shown that ballet could portray something other than the classics. But when Tudor, and that generation of choreographers, came along, they started doing ballets about everyday people," McKenzie says.
"There were no dead fawns, or swans floating about in the air. It was about people in street clothes - people that an audience could recognise themselves in, and people in situations they could relate to."
Innovation, as usual, was the handmaiden of controversy. "Tudor's themes, like frustration, for instance, were not deemed proper material for ballet," says McKenzie. "It was not Giselle - but actually, it was. Tudor's work made it clear that ballet deals with universal themes. In the end, ballet is a theatre without words, and the dancers are actors who don't use words."
The art of dance, says McKenzie, always brings something from primitive times with it. "Before we as societies developed language, we used body language to alert ourselves to one another's feelings of love, and so on.
"The company tries to exist on both ends of the dance spectrum," he says. "We are aware that what is going to keep, say, Swan Lake relevant is the cognoscenti, the little part of the audience which is going to appreciate the refined lines, and so on. But it's important that it is accessible, too. Ballet can't get so blinkered and inward-looking that it can't appeal to a mass audience."
The company hopes to appeal with their main Hong Kong show, a performance of MacMillan's choreography for Sergei Prokofiev's ballet, Romeo and Juliet. The ballet was commissioned in 1935 for the Kirov Ballet in Russia. MacMillan's version was created for Britain's Royal Ballet in 1965, where it was danced by Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.
The ABT has been performing the piece for more than 25 years, and a 2012 review of it in the New York Post described it as miraculous. "When MacMillan came here as associate artistic director in 1984, he staged it for us with some slight changes. We have done it for a long time, and so it has evolved with us and been infused with our culture."
McKenzie began his career at the ABT as a dancer with a view to becoming a choreographer. But in 1992, when the company was facing financial ruin, he found himself elevated to the position of artistic director with a mandate to save the company. Using business skills he didn't know he had, McKenzie turned the company around.
By 1993, according to a report by the Associated Press, the company had paid off a US$2 million bank debt and raised an extra US$1 million on top of that.
Modestly, McKenzie says that saving the company was a joint effort. "I'm the symbol of it, but it was actually achieved by around 137 people. Everyone wanted me to succeed. But we all did it, from the person who buzzes you in at the front door to the star performer. Everyone here is in it for a higher purpose than their own benefit."
At the moment, McKenzie is excited about the company's latest Russian import, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. Previously the director of the Bolshoi Ballet, Ratmansky is the ABT's artist-in-residence.
"We have come full circle," McKenzie says, "and we have got the real deal. In Ratmansky, we have one of the greatest choreographers in the world. He … can ignite the imaginations of performers and audiences alike, and that synergy will redefine us yet again."
About 75 years after its foundation, the ABT is still progressing, says McKenzie. "Ballet is simply a language, the language we use to convey our art form. Our art form, as our name suggests, happens in the theatre. But it is not there to simply entertain. It's there to challenge your assumptions. That is what we do every day."
Dance Gala, Thu-Sat, 7.30pm; Romeo and Juliet , Feb 27-Mar 1, 7.30pm, Mar 2-3, 2.30pm, 7.45pm, HK$280-HK$780. Cultural Centre, 10 Salisbury Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui. Inquiries: 2824 2430