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New York City Ballet forges the art form’s future?

On Sunday, November 25th, 60 Minutes ran a piece on New York City Ballet in order, as it originally appeared to me, to promote the Nutcracker. I have the utmost respect for 60 Minutes and normally find their pieces to be thought-provoking and informative; I was thrilled to see that NYCB would be featured. But, as the feature began, the excitement I had been feeling slowly dissipated. Lesley Stahl began her report by disclosing she is huge fan of NYCB and has even served on the ballet’s board. This felt a little like a warning sign to me.

The report focused mainly on interviews with Peter Martins the current NYCB artistic director and a former George Balanchine dancer.  In her introduction of Martins, Stahl states that the future of the dying art form lies on his shoulders. That was the first comment that really rubbed me the wrong way. I can understand how the future of NYCB rests on his shoulders, but the entire art form? Please explain Leslie Stahl.

There is no substantial explanation throughout the piece given as to why ballet is dying. There is a fleeting reference to all arts suffering in the current economy and that the audience for the ballet is “graying.” Martins gives an odd theory that ballet was only popular because of the male Soviet defectors, Rudolph Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov (apparently Natalia Markarova was not interesting enough to warrant mentioning). It seemed odd that he attributes the most successful era in American Ballet to curiosity and patriotism as opposed to what I have always believed to be true, which is simply that the dancing was amazing and the American public was interested and more willing to buy tickets.

Fairly early in the piece, Stahl questions Martins about a quote attributed to him when he was younger, stating that ballerinas are “always bitches. They’re all tough, merciless, self-centered.” Though Martins laughs and says perhaps he would phrase it more moderately now; he does believe the statement to be, fundamentally, true. Therefore, a common stereotype of not just a ballerina, but of any successful woman is established and is never truly balanced with an alternate argument. Later in the piece, Stahl brings up a famous George Balanchine quote where he declared that ballet is woman. Martin dismisses the quote effortlessly and even uses it as a springboard to explain why he believes men can save the ballet by saying, “[Balanchine] preferred women, but knew he needed us.” I have always considered that particular Balanchine quote empowers women in ballet, making them more than a cake topping. Martin’s delivery felt as though he considered the quote to sexual connotations; perhaps, because of Balanchine’s tendency to fall in love with and often marry his ballerinas.

Stahl concludes the piece with a sequence on Robert Fairchild dancing the lead in Apollo for the first time. In her voice over Stahl states that, “promoting the male dancers is part of Martins’ push to woo young people.” There is no description of the ballet or of the role, or why the role is so important to Fairchild (other than to state that Martins made the role famous, which I thought was misleading and not entirely accurate. He danced it, yes, but made it famous?). Tiler Peck, one of NYCB’s more recognizable principles, is in many shots, but nothing about her either. Everything included seems to support Martins argument that male dancers will bring the public to their performances. The women are regulated to the background. I would have, in the very least, liked to hear the argument as to why men are being singled out in such a way.

Currently, I am reading Apollo’s Angels: A history of ballet by Jennifer Homans and have been thinking a lot about the development of ballet.  When ballet began men dominated the form and women were secondary; King Louis XIV was it’s greatest cheerleader and participant. Along the way women started to emerg,e particularly with Marie Salle and Marie Taglioni, and soon women became the main draw and the art form evolved closer to how we know it today.

The way I see it, women earned their place at the forefront of ballet; it wasn’t handed to them or created for them. So why should they not be celebrated beyond toddler girls dress-up regalia? Why does an art have to be negated simply because it has feminine undertones?

The complete absence of women was enough to get under my skin, but once I visited the 60 minutes website there was another layer. I found a sequence that was cut from the final piece, which features Wendy Whelan. It may have originally placed right after when Martins responds to his quote that ballerinas are bitches. Stahl’s voice-over comes in stating, “But to be good enough to dance for Peter Martins’s company a ballerina has to be driven and tough-minded.” This is heard over a shot of Whelan. In the finished piece, Martins suddenly begins speaking about how the challenge for a ballet dancer is to never show the work. It is a bit of a jarring transition and I would argue that the Whelan sequence would have been a nice segway. The inclusion of Whelan changes the view of women in the entire piece. Suddenly, the female is given a voice and she sounds intelligent, level headed, and seems to be a very friendly person, a complete contrast to Martins’ description. When questioned about the insecurities of dancers she answers that yes she can be insecure and sometimes she feels jealous of other younger dancers, but then she says something that is so brilliant that I think all women, not just dancers, could benefit hearing a successful woman articulate. She says, “But then you realize she can’t be you. You can’t be her. You’re the best you, you can be. She’s going to be the best her she can be. And that gives you the okay.”
In addition to highlighting the men of the company, Martins has also collaborated with musical icon, Paul McCartney (and his daughter Stella, who designed the costumes, but interestingly she wasn’t mentioned), to try to bring in audiences.  Together they created the ballet, Ocean’s Kingdom, which filled seats, but was panned by critics.  Martins was quoted on the Huffington Post saying, “Every single person in that theater…is there for one reason — not for the ballet, because of Paul.” Even his appearance in the 60 Minutes piece feels somewhat like celebrity worship as opposed to a true collaboration.

When Stahl is interviewing Martins, she asks him what it is like to be panned by critics and suggests that it hurts.  Martins responds with, “When you say “hurts,” that would suggest that you always think that they know better, that they know what they’re talking about. What matters really is what you think.” I wanted so badly to hear more of this discussion. What is it like to be an artist and have your work decimated by critics and then how you pick yourself up and keep going? As far as I know, I have never heard one of Martins’s ballets to be considered a success. Usually, Stahl pushes her subjects at these moments. I really wish she had not let Martins off the hook so easily during this interview.

This piece was disappointing because 60 Minutes knows how to put together a well-balanced, thought-provoking piece. Stahl and her producers needed to be able to look beyond their personal biases toward ballet. It appears that Stahl was entirely too close to this material to present an honest look into the problems of the ballet world. She clearly holds Martins in great esteem and had a hard time deviating from what he believes about ballet.  She did bring up good points, but she didn’t truly hold him accountable for his answers because, I assume, she didn’t want to be seen as someone who hurt NYCB. The piece felt very promotional under the guise of real journalism.

Clearly, this piece hit a nerve for me, but I worry this is the exact treatment of ballet that is hurting the art form.  There was nothing in this piece to make people think about ballet in a new way and shed their stereotypes.

Ballet is in trouble and could possibly be dying; doesn’t it deserve to be shown in an honest manner? Let’s give the art form a fighting chance instead of reinforcing the stereotypes that are already keeping people out of the theater.  If this piece were to be about NYCB then let it be about NYCB. If it is about Peter Martins then let it be about him. If it is about the future of ballet in general then in the very least American Ballet Theatre should have been referenced to represent how the other, New York based, major ballet company is combating empty seats.  Lastly, what happened to the Nutcracker? Wasn’t this supposed to be a happy holiday piece about the Nutcracker? I thought, clearly erroneously, that is what the teasers promised…well, warm and fuzzy Nutcracker with a side of bitchy ballerinas. Yes, every tease included that quote.

Written by Chelsea Wayant

Chelsea Wayant

Chelsea Wayant is an independent filmmaker and educator living and working in the Southeastern American town of Greensboro, North Carolina. She graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a BFA in film production and from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a terminal MFA in film and video production.

Throughout her career she has worked in all three forms in her field: the narrative, the documentary, and the experimental film. Regardless of the form her work has always explored the portrayal of women both in front of and behind the camera. Thematically her films most often involve women as central characters and often explore the visage of a dancer.