This semester, I have the wonderful privilege of interning in stage management at Boston Ballet. I grew up dancing, started around 2 years old and competed on the studio’s dance team from age 9 to 17. It’s been wonderful to be immersed in dance again, and I am learning many interesting things about the world of professional dance and what it’s like to operate as one of the largest performing arts companies in town. So far, one realization is predominant in my mind – the emphasis, when presenting a ballet (that has already premiered), on the recreation and replication of the original product.
Take for example the Ballet’s current production onstage, Lady of the Camellias. Commissioned by Ballet Florida, The ballet was conceived by choreographer Val Caniparoli and was commissioned by Ballet Florida. He re-arranged some of the music (Chopin) and included scenes scored only by silence or sound cues, and also added certain threads to the story line. The ballet premiered in 1994 as a co-production with Ballet Florida and Ballet West. (source) These companies built scenery and costumes, designed the props, and established the calling script for the show.
Since its premiere, the ballet has been performed by ten companies in the US and Canada. Each of these companies assumed the task of specifically recreating the original artistic product. Val Caniparoli travels to each location with his assistant and teaches the choreography to the new company of dancers. He will critique their execution of the moves as well as the lighting, scenery, deck run operations, and any other technical or artistic aspects until all elements of the production fall in line with his original vision. Boston Ballet first produced Lady in 2004, and our current team constantly refers back to memory of that production despite it having occurred over ten years ago. (Several members of the design/production staff and backstage worked on that show as well.) The packet of stage management paperwork we received includes several pieces from our 2004 production that have been maintained by the other companies since.
Another thing one may not realize about professional dance is that the dancers learn the choreography for several roles and continually rotate through them. In our current production, we have four established casts comprised of the same company of principals, soloists, second soloists, and corps de ballet dancers. This procedure helps prevent dancers from becoming overworked and gives the company plenty of options in the event that a dancer becomes injured or can’t participate in a performance.
So, the dancers have already been essentially established as replaceable. But in a presentation of a pre-existing ballet, the name of the company, the city, year of the performance, and the members of the production staff and running crew are also entirely exchangeable. The idea is that an audience member can expect a certain experience from a “name brand” production, and can receive that experience almost anywhere. Lady is next set to perform in Cincinnati, Ohio later this year, and I’m sure if next year we were to compare archival videos of the two companies’ performances there would be very little noticeable difference.
This concept is very different from the only other “remount” I have been part of, the KCACTF remount of The Whitmores. We used the same script, set, costumes, and relatively the same props, and incorporated three new performers. The director and I taught the original blocking to the new actors, but the emphasis throughout was always on making the performances their own – acting on their own impulses and finding new moments to explore. And it cannot be denied, a change in casting makes a real, noticeable difference in a play. In ballet – not so much.
Even with most commercial musicals, for which patrons book tickets on name alone and receive a relatively standard experience, changes in casting are noticed. A change in cast in a play or musical not only means a change in physical features, but also their voice, inflection, and style of performing. In ballet, the most you will notice is the quality and style of the dancer’s facial expressions – and even those are not really discernible from the majority of seats in the house.
However, my analysis about reproduction and replicability in ballet is not a critique. It is not a successful commercial model and helps eliminate some of the risk a company may assume in programming its season. Based on a previous production, the company can evaluate how much the show will cost and can even get a sense of what kind of revenue it might bring in. This model also gives audiences more of what they want. For example, I can go to Starbucks and order a venti mocha almost anywhere in the world and I’ll know how it will taste. When a new Starbucks opens up in my city, I am excited because I now have an even more convenient location where I can get my mocha. The demand for the mocha is already there, just as the demand for a certain ballet hopefully is. Finally, artistic opportunities are created for the local performers. A ballet dancer doesn’t have to travel to America to dance Christopher Bruce’s Rooster (which played at Boston Ballet in 2012); the choreography was transferred to Rambert dance company in London, who toured the UK with it in 2014. (I had the privilege of seeing both productions.)
So, while to some it may seem like a corruption of core artistic values to reproduce a certain experience ad infinitum, the practice actually well-serves both performing arts companies and their audiences.