Old Is the New New
The Cold War and Don Quixote at Pacific Northwest Ballet
A t first glance, Don Quixote looks like it wants to be a Nutcracker for grown-ups. Its three acts have little to do with the majestic irony of the Cervantes novel—they meander through a few Quixote fever dreams and linger on a romantic rivalry between a barber and an aristocratic fop. But it sure is opulent and riddled with chances for Pacific Northwest Ballet to show off its stuff, Sugar Plum Fairy–style.
And, to get it out of the way: Yes, the movie star Tom Skerritt makes his ballet debut as the title character. He doesn't dance, but stumbles around the stage, gaping at the spectacle around him. He's got plenty to gape at. More than 40 dancers—playing toreros, dryads, prostitutes, Gypsies, cactus-monsters, and other creatures—leap and spin through the ballet's taverns, town squares, and quixotic hallucinations. Don Quixote is a pirouette and en pointe bonanza, a jubilee for principal dancers and the corps alike. It's also one of the most financially extravagant ballets in PNB history. The Dutch National Ballet built Don Quixote—a restaging of the 1869 original by Marius Petipa—for $3 million in 2010. PNB spent $860,000 just bringing it to Seattle.
On paper, Don Quixote is extravagant and exciting—a US premiere, choreographed by new hot commodity Alexei Ratmansky, who grew up in the Bolshoi Ballet and was described in a New Yorker profile last June as "the most sought-after man in ballet." (The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have also poured on the praise. An article in the latter announced that Ratmansky "has arrived to revitalize ballet.") But in the flesh, despite its huge cast and energetic dancing, Ratmansky's Don Quixote feels like a step backward, a tour through Ye Olde Tyme Museum of Mothballs and Tutus. As an acquaintance in the dance world wrote in an e-mail: "Even a rock-star choreographer and a well-meaning actor can't save narrative ballet."
In one sense, she's right. You can't push back the ocean with a squeegee, and many have considered narrative ballet passé for decades. But that might be changing—the rise of Ratmansky and a few other indicators (including the popularity of Black Swan and new versions of classics like Nutcracker, including one by Ratmansky) suggest that the tides are changing.
American dance might finally be stepping out of the long shadow cast by abstract expressionism—a shadow that was substantially lengthened by CIA subsidies during the cold war. As art historian Eva Cockroft wrote, the CIA colluded with granting organizations and museums to promote abstract expressionism as an advertisement for liberty and freethinking, "to sell the rest of the world on the benefits of life and art under capitalism." Meanwhile, McCarthyism pressured artists away from overt political and social commentary. The result was a strong lurch against narrative and literalism and toward abstractionism.
On the other side of the cold war, the Soviet Union denounced abstraction and wanted to see only socialist realism, overtly political work that glorified the people and the revolution. An enduring rift was born—or at least given some hefty grants. In America and Western Europe, antinarrative and style-driven dance became the fad. In Russia, they hunkered down into ideologically inoffensive stories and technique.
"Narrative, that way of thinking about dance, is not currently fashionable, not the dominant aesthetic sensibility," choreographer Donald Byrd, who has nothing to do with Don Quixote, said in an interview last week. Byrd cut his teeth in New York City, hanging out with devotees of Merce Cunningham and Alvin Ailey, but has been dinged over the years (along with Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp, and other prominent choreographers) for being anachronistically narrative, and sometimes heavy-handed, in his choreography. "But," he adds, "I think of myself as not interested in what's fashionable. I feel like I'm outside of a lot of things anyway, so I just embrace my outsideness."
When we spoke, Byrd was between rehearsals at the 5th Avenue, where he has choreographed the famous "dream ballet" at the end of the first act in Oklahoma!—one of the most famous pieces of narrative choreography in the history of American theater. The dance, originally choreographed by Agnes de Mille—niece of Cecil B. DeMille—was a revolutionary moment in American theater that dove into the troubled mind of a female character while she struggled with her attraction to two different men. It was the first time a musical used pure dance to get inside a character's head as well as push its plot forward, and it kicked off an interest in dance on Broadway and beyond. Immediately after Oklahoma!, Byrd says, "musicals had to have a dream ballet. The audience started to expect it." De Mille's dream ballet premiered in 1943—just before McCarthyism and abstract expressionism tilted American aesthetics.
"I would hope that dance would become more diverse in its artistic expression," Byrd said, "but audiences look at narrative as old-fashioned. And it can be (like in Oklahoma!, which is old-fashioned), but there are modern and contemporary ways to do it—like the French novel, or even Burroughs, nonlinear narrative. But audiences have to be trained."
Or, as Twyla Tharp put it in an interview with the New York Times last week: "I'm not satisfied sitting in just the world of abstract work... I'm all in favor of massive structural reality, but I also feel that there are many ways to skin a cat. Will one do? Sure, if you've only got one cat."
Ratmansky's Don Quixote may look old-fashioned—but it could be a trip back to the future.