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Behind the Curtain

Now or Never: Ballet must shift to survive Covid19
By Hannah McCarthy
Posted on 10/30/2020 11:35 PM

From time to time, NDEO features guest blog posts, written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a contribution by Hannah McCarthy, Dance Educator, Freelance Choreographer, and Researcher. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please visit this link

 

Now or Never: Ballet must shift to survive the Covid era

Hannah McCarthy, Dance Educator, Freelance Choreographer, Researcher


In mid-June, I heard the ping of a notification from my phone. The resulting email and waterfall of news articles I saw soon after would resonate as an important moment in ballet history and performance in general.
 

The cancellation of American Ballet Theatre’s and New York City Ballet’s Fall Seasons may not have been the first of the year, but they were some of the first to be highly publicized and seal the fate of ballet for the rest of 2020. It’s as if the performing arts community knew this would happen all along, yet we lamented the solidification of our fears into realities. An all-too-familiar feeling during this pandemic, which has affected so many of our friends, neighbors, families, and colleagues. 

As expected, once one major ballet company announced the season’s cancellation, many others followed suit, even adding that dancers would be furloughed and administrative employees laid off. Cancellations came with commission dreams deferred for choreographers and uncertainty regarding ballet’s survival, as the art form was already losing audience and donor participation. 

With Nutcrackers cancelled, budget cuts increasing, and theaters tightly locked, the impending doom of a 600 year old art form weighed heavily on my heart and the hearts of fellow dance educators, artists, and ballet lovers. We weren’t ready to lose the craft that had seeped deeply into our identities, lives, and passions...or were we? 

In early June, George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police officers reawakened a movement which has percolated through American soil for almost 600 years, since colonization by Europeans began. The fight for equality and equity in this country is as old as this country, still some traditions have yet to change. 

Today, the Covid-19 outbreak continues to disproportionately affect women and POC. The numbers directly illustrate the existence and persistence of a patriarchal, inherently racist system. 

The trouble is, ballet is one of the key living art forms that still embraces that system. In fact, it thrives upon it and often caters to it. If we’re going to change it, the time is now. 

In mid-August, I heard the ping of another notification from my phone. The resulting email and trickle of articles I saw soon after would resonate as the glimmer of hope in a bleak-looking, locked down world. 

BalletX, led by CEO and Founding Artistic Director Christine Cox, unveiled an all-digital season run on a subscription-based model that is both affordable and internationally accessible. The selected choreographers include multiple women and men of color, representing different cultural and artistic backgrounds.

This smaller Philadelphia company was surely not the first to announce an innovative approach to a Fall Season, but for the first time, I saw a glimpse of the future of ballet: 

Dancers and choreographers from various backgrounds coming together to produce exciting new work that would be accessible to audiences across the globe. 

A hold placed on “the classics” that bring in the big bucks but can’t seem to change with the times to represent the audience supporting them. 

A shrug of the shoulders to the exoticized, eroticized Nutcracker because behind all the Christmas magic, cultural appropriation still runs rampant. 

A goodbye to the rape scenes and excessive violence against women. Not in an effort to censor or “to only depict people behaving correctly” but, perhaps, because the romanticization of the demeaned woman is a tired, unimaginative plot line. 

And, maybe, a hello to innovative, new work, instead of the same old rep that pops up across the board. 

This will be the break in tradition that ballet has needed since it was created. This is the time to change ballet for the better, to reinvent it from every angle. This includes the foundation which we educators guard, protect and now have the obligation to recreate. 

Finally, we might be able to wake up to the fact that blackface has been rightfully cancelled everywhere except on stages where tickets cost upwards of $200 per seat. We might be able to stop questioning ballet’s sexism problem, due to the fact that a study by the Dance Data Project® indicates that female artistic directors earn 63 cents for every dollar earned by a male, and start taking measurable strides to change it by looking outside the inner circles at the abundance of women choreographers in the field. 

This year has been and will continue to be different, and I, as an audience member, dancer, researcher, and educator, am very okay with that. In fact, I hope this year informs ballet as an industry and an art form for years to come so that my colleagues and I may release the next generation of thoughtful, talented ballet dancers into a better, safer ballet world.

 

Hannah McCarthy (she/her) is a Nashville-based dancer, choreographer, and teaching artist. Her choreography and improvisational works have shown at multiple venues across the south. She is a member of Numinous Flux Dance Company and has just been announced a resident artist at CONVERGE Nashville for 2021. She has taught for studios such as Artistry in Motion Dance Center and Baila Dance Studio, in partnership with the nonprofit Hispanic Family Foundation. She also works with the nonprofit Dance Data Project®, which informs gender equity in ballet through data analysis, advocacy and programming. McCarthy received her B.A. in Dance and Journalism from Western Kentucky University. Headshot by Kolby Schnelli.
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