New ballets are risky endeavours, requiring significant investment in talent, time and money. Yet do classical companies give them the best chance to shine? Performance Monkey asks companies around the world about previews, rehearsals and revivals.
How do you create a ballet with legs? One that will appeal to audiences, satisfy dancers and find a lasting toehold in the repertoire? The question has nagged at me since I saw Christopher Wheeldon’s tantalisingly flawed Strapless at the Royal Ballet (as I wrote here).
When I interviewed Kevin O’Hare, the Royal Ballet’s artistic director, for the Sunday Times I asked him about this. O’Hare has placed new work at the centre of his artistic programme, scoring successes with full-length ballets (Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale and Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works), but narrative one-act premieres often look underdone, with plot and character points frustratingly unclear. O’Hare admitted that studio time was tight – just six weeks for a one-act piece – and described his role as ‘watching, being the ear, being the eye,’ and offering advice that isn’t always taken. The transfer from studio to stage is, he said, ‘a tiny window, a week.’
One way to get a work in the best possible shape would be preview performances – a chance to test a piece before a paying audience, an auditorium of eyes and ears. Major theatre productions (Spiderman on Broadway, the Cumberbatch Hamlet) can programme weeks of previews, but even fringe shows will typically have two or more before opening to the press. Some dance productions may have an out of town opening before their official premiere, but, as in opera, this is rarely the case.
‘We don’t have the benefit of previews,’ O’Hare confirmed, ‘which is just the way an opera house works, it would be impossible to do that.’ His solution to unfinished business is ‘bringing work back and having a look at it again.’ Often, he said, there will be changes on first revival – small or large, choreographic or musical – ‘something maybe needs to be recalibrated, so it’s worth spending the time and looking at that. That’s why I think it’s important to bring work back and give it at least one more good go and see if it can really work.’
It’s a risky strategy – if reviews or word of mouth are tepid first time round, will audiences rush to a revival? Last autumn, I wanted to see if McGregor’s Raven Girl would fly better, but couldn’t subject myself to another dose of Alistair Marriott’s Connectome. Carlos Acosta’s lurid dud of a Carmen, though popular with audiences, isn’t scheduled to return – but could more have been done to save it from itself? Banking on a first revival to iron out problems seems a laborious and wasteful strategy, unfair to artists and audiences alike.
Why not have previews?
If ballet previews aren’t the British way, how about elsewhere? I contacted prominent classical companies across the world to discover a broader picture. Six European companies responded to my questions, along with seven in the US and Canada, and one each from Australia and New Zealand. But of these 15 companies, only one schedules preview performances on the theatrical model. Who and why? We’ll get to that…
Why not have a preview? Ballets typically have short runs, so any extra performance represents a considerable outlay: four companies specifically mentioned that previews would be a prohibitive expense. ‘Preview performances are never done in the ballet world,’ said Patricia Gelinas, Artistic Coordinator at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. ‘I have only seen this in the theatre, for plays and for Broadway shows for example. Ballet performances are very costly and doing preview shows would incur a lot of expenses, costly time in the theatre, technicians, etc.’
Companies without their own theatre have additional headaches. Ballet BC (British Columbia) mentioned this, as did Queensland Ballet, whose spokesperson explained, ‘there are only two theatres big enough in Brisbane for us to perform in and we’re often competing for performance time, so the likelihood of being able to schedule in more performances for audiences is slim.’
I get that. Of course I do. But I also wonder if companies are allowing new work to be seen to its best possible advantage? Few dance companies aim for one-off happenings or pop-up wonders. The ideal is a work that will be revivable, and may enter the repertoire for seasons to come. In which case, why not create an environment in which you get it right first time?
The Mariinsky Ballet told me that some choreographers request closed rehearsals, and Dutch National Ballet’s spokesperson recalled closing rehearsals on just two occasions in recent years (both technically complex productions). Still, I’d hazard that for most dancers and creatives, there must be huge amounts of information gleaned from performing a work with an audience. Moments that land or fall short; fluctuations in rhythm and structure.
Outreach and tweet meets
As with the Royal Ballet, most rely on rehearsals for final tinkering. Although not open to the general public, many dress rehearsals take place before an invited audience. In some cases, this becomes an extension of outreach work. Schoolchildren, students or young people can attend rehearsals at La Scala, Dutch National and Finnish National Ballets. The first two companies also offer seats to staff: when tickets are expensive, this must be a boon.
Rehearsals can also enable fundraising, or offer a benefit to supporters and sponsors. Queensland Ballet and La Scala have both recently introduced a benefit rehearsal (Queensland reminds visitors that these are working rehearsals, and that artistic director Li Cunxin may interrupt it if necessary); at Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB), the Friends of the Ballet group use it as a fundraiser. Such is the lustre of St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Ballet that on tour their rehearsals can benefit the host theatre: on a recent visit, the Kennedy Center in Washington sold tickets for the morning dress rehearsal, and similar events have taken place on tours to the UK, China and Brazil.
Theatre previews can let public word of mouth build up steam before critics pour their cold water over the official opening. Ballets don’t have that opportunity, but RNZB have started using dress rehearsals for a ‘Tweet Meet’ (Cullberg Ballet also sometimes stages a social media event). The RNZB press representative explained that the company will invite up to 10 people with ‘a strong following on social media to come to the dress rehearsal and tweet live during the performance. This helps build momentum and excitement ahead of the opening. The tweeters are not allowed to take photos, just tweet their thoughts on the show – ideally in a witty, enthusiastic way.’ They invite different tweeters each time: ‘often it’s people who haven’t come before and sometimes it’s people who are new to the ballet.’
No meat in the schedule
To some extent, a premiere run can function like a series of previews, and the first revival of a piece is where that information can be fed back into the work. I asked each company if it allowed extra rehearsal time for first revivals, and some do: especially if the choreographer is involved, as at Staatsballett Berlin. Cullberg Ballet allows extra time for a first revival, though the choreographer may not return; some choreographers, Pennsylvania Ballet told me, will build provisions for a return visit into their contract. Dutch National Ballet always try to involve the choreographer on revivals, adding that Peter Wright has returned for every revival of his Sleeping Beauty since it opened in 1981. The National Ballet of Canada’s spokesperson said that ‘for a company or world premiere there are often two dress rehearsals and for a work’s first revival, while case by case depending on the choreographer and schedules, extra rehearsal time is given.’
Patricia Gelinas from Montreal notes extra time may be scheduled ‘if the casting has changed or if new dancers must learn the ballet, or if it hasn’t been remounted in years.’ The choreographer does not always return to stage a revival, she says: Jiri Kylian will send an expert ballet master to oversee rehearsals, and the company’s in-house ballet masters can remount frequently-performed pieces. ‘Sometimes choreographers insist on revisiting their work: such as Mats Ek who must always see and rehearse the piece himself before allowing it to be performed.’
As this suggests, extra rehearsal time isn’t consistent: rehearsals are just as tightly scheduled and budgeted as performances. A spokesperson for San Francisco Ballet explained, ‘We don’t budget for additional time above and beyond as here at least, pieces remain the same once they’ve been performed. The exception might be someone like [William] Forsythe who tweaked Pas/Parts for SF Ballet quite a bit from the original Paris production.’ ‘We have a very tight schedule and a relatively small company,’ said the Queensland Ballet’s spokesperson; although a choreographer or their approved colleague will be invited to work on a revival, ‘we don’t have any meat in the schedule to add in extra rehearsals.’
With all these factors in play, the ‘first revival’ strategy for perfecting a work seems as compromised and uncertain as any other.
A brutal business
When Roslyn Sulcas saw the premiere of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s contemporary dance work Golden Hours last year, she wrote in the New York Times that it was ‘something of a mess. But it’s a mess by an important and deeply thoughtful choreographer trying to carve out new terrain.’ She identified the way in which dance works are prepared as a decisive factor in their evolution. ‘Think about theatre, where works old and new often get several tryout weeks to iron out the kinks. Dance is a far more brutal business. New dance pieces are usually evaluated the very first time a paying audience sees the show, and they rarely run for long enough to allow choreographers to work on problematic elements. Often, dance pieces aren’t really ready by opening night.’
Even so, only one company I spoke to regularly schedules previews. Drumroll… it’s Washington Ballet. Their spokesperson told me that the company ‘holds a preview performance on the Wednesday night that directly precedes Thursday’s opening night performance. This is true for all company productions.’
When I mentioned that this was the only example of theatre-style previews that I’d encountered, I was told that ‘the Washington Ballet stole the idea of preview performances from the theatre world roughly 15 years ago! The artistic team then realised that performers learn so much by performing on stage and are able to grow significantly in their roles by doing so that it would be beneficial to hold preview performances in order to refine certain elements of the show before presenting to critics, donors, etc. on opening night. The artistic team gives extensive notes to the dancers after the preview performance and in some cases, makes modest changes to the choreography.’
A single public preview hardly seems revolutionary, yet it could mark a decisive sea change in giving new work the chance it deserves. After I raised this question on Performance Monkey, I had an exchange with a leading ballerina. Would she appreciate previews for a new piece? ‘Yes, yes and more yes,’ was her unequivocal response. ‘I think everyone involved would benefit from a preview or six.’ It is, she added, ‘a bonkers attitude to think that because they have never happened in ballet before, they just don’t need to.’
With thanks to Ballet BC (British Columbia), Berlin Staatsballett, Cullberg Ballet (Stockholm), Dutch National Ballet, Finnish National Ballet, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, Mariinsky Ballet (St Petersburg), Miami City Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Pennsylvania Ballet, Queensland Ballet, Royal New Zealand Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, La Scala (Milan), Washington Ballet. Photo shows Daniel Roberge in Washington Ballet’s Bowie & Queen (photo: Dean Alexander).
Follow David on Twitter at @mrdavidjays