Footloose ballet stars leap to different troupes to expand their global reach

Footloose ballet stars bound for glory

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 5:51pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 5:51pm

A wave of international ballet stars are increasingly leaping from company to company, creating their own brands and becoming more like world-travelling conductors and opera stars.

In doing so, they are upending ballet's traditional professional path and changing an art form long defined by national styles that dancers perfected as they grew up with - and stayed loyal to - a single company.

"The talented people belong not to one company, but to the dance world," says the Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova. "In opera, this happens already. You have a chorus, but principals from all over the world."

Osipova, 27, is a prime example. She recently danced her first Juliet as a member of Britain's Royal Ballet, the fourth dance troupe she has joined in two years.

Her virtuosity and charisma has taken her from the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow to the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St Petersburg, Russia, to the Royal, even as she belonged to New York City's American Ballet Theatre, and was a guest dancer with La Scala in Milan and the Australian Ballet.

Ballet has always had a handful of major stars, including Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Sylvie Guillem, whose fame and box-office appeal allowed them to maintainjet-setting careers.

But the practice has grown in recent years, with some of the biggest names in the ballet world - Osipova, David Hallberg, Sergei Polunin, Ivan Vasiliev, Alina Cojocaru - now not only switching among troupes, but often belonging to more than one company at a time.

This is already affecting traditional ballet company structures. Dancers are leaving companies like the Royal or the Paris Opera Ballet, which once would have been considered permanent homes, and no longer trusting their career paths to troupes' all-powerful directors.

It also means that audiences have a chance to see more international stars, and that the dancers receive more lucrative financial rewards.

Those flagship companies are the incubators of national styles that have accrued over generations through training methods and the influence of homegrown choreographers.

The Royal Ballet is known for its pure classicism and strong acting, the Paris Opera for its elegant lyricism, the Bolshoi Ballet for its large-scale bravura.

But as star dancers now fly in and out of these companies, and others jump ship at earlier ages, the purity and continuity of these styles is becoming harder to maintain, leading to fears of homogeneity.

Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, says that the shifts in the dance world reflect "the sort of globalisation that's going on all over society", noting that people in all walks of life are less likely to stay in one place, or even in one career.

Dancers say they move around to experience different styles, try new choreography and build international reputations.

"We see more options," says Cojocaru, who recently decamped from the Royal Ballet to the English National Ballet, and also holds a contract with the Hamburg Ballet. "Instead of waiting for something to happen in the place where I am, I can go to where it is happening. If companies don't find a way to challenge their principals, we will find those challenges for ourselves," Cojocaru adds.

The New York Times