The Business of Ballet
Long before Eric Ries and “The Lean Startup” shaped today’s American entrepreneurs, a legendary Russian ballet choreographer plodded through his own version of Reis’s minimal viable product (MVP) strategy.
George Balanchine had to flee his Russian homeland in the 1920s and landed in America in the 1930s with the drive, and some financial backing, to grow ballet as an art form in the U.S. He co-founded the School of American Ballet, which became a feeder for the New York City Ballet and other companies around the world, all while choreographing new works of his own.
In developing his first American ballet, Serenade, in 1933, Balanchine was forced to do just what so many daring entrepreneurs do today - put out a product that was not perfect, but merely good enough to start. At the time, there was not much balletic talent in America and Balanchine had to work with what he had, about one-and-a-half dozen dancers with minimal ballet experience; and he found a way to carve a dance narrative around them. One, more recent, New Yorker story about those early days of Serenade described the dancers as “plump and bewildered.”
With a true artistic and entrepreneurial spirit, Balanchine went to work and remained flexible. When dancers left or got hurt or if ideas for improvement came to him, he tweaked and changed movements, even adding or cutting numbers when needed. Fortunately, Serenade quickly evolved into something great – a serious and sophisticated ballet created on American soil with American blood, sweat, and tears – thankfully overseen by a Russian choreographic genius.
Over the years, Balanchine created some less serious, even playful works, but all of it held to the rigid baseline of amazingly technical dancing as its core. Balanchine did not care about the audience understanding a plot and even less about one great dancer; dance as a whole, as a group, needed to rise above those less important elements of storytelling and individual greatness. If you see Balanchine’s work for the first time, you might find yourself wondering “what’s the story?” But you’ll be intrigued by colors and background sets – not quite sure where you’re going narratively, but then ushered along by that ever-dependable Balanchine thread of explosive dance.
Some of Balanchine’s critical work will be on display November 11th and 12th at the Smith Center for Performing Arts, when Nevada Ballet Theatre presents Classic Americana. Serenade is part of the three-ballet sampler, along with lighter counterparts, Balanchine’s Western Symphony and Paul Taylor’s Company B, which includes the singing of influential swing vocal performers, the Andrews Sisters.
“When programming, [you] try to have a diversity of styles and make them whole.…Serenade is so beautiful and romantic…and then the Andrews Sisters and Company B and Western Symphony are so fun, a very different style and flavor,” says Roy Kaiser, Nevada Ballet Theatre’s artistic director.
In touch with ballet’s history
Classic Americana brings together professionals with ballet roots, which rubs elbows with the art form’s history in the U.S. These aren’t ballet professionals who studied the greats; they either worked with them or were taught by those whom the greats shaped.
Richard Tanner, a repetiteur, or ballet coach, working with the Las Vegas dancers in Classic Americana, comes to the program from the Balanchine Trust, which has worked to maintain the integrity of the performances by helping dancers and coaches understand the ballets as well as their intent. As a dancer, Tanner worked with Balanchine himself for about a decade before the choreographer’s passing in 1983. Now working with the trust, Tanner takes Balanchine’s genius seriously. He learned from the great choreographer that performers are not helped by praise that isn’t earned.
“If you knocked on that door of his office and you wanted something like a part, he would tell you what he thought. You took your life into your hands. He was very direct.…If he thought you weren’t good enough, he told you.…There was not a lot of beating around the bush, yet he had wonderful manners. … He had European manners and was very gracious,” Tanner recalls.
Tanner’s work with the light-hearted Western Symphony, which is performed against the backdrop of a Western saloon and with cowboys and dance hall girls as characters, has its share of serious fun. The ballet is anything but pretentious, even though the dance is intensely skilled.
“It’s accessible from the get go, not intimidating. It’s lively. The audience gets it right away…and there’s real dancing going on out there,” Tanner says.
Both Balanchine’s Serenade and Western Symphony will be set to a live orchestra with members of the Las Vegas Philharmonic performing. In the name of budget, too often today’s dance companies perform to taped music, Tanner says, but a live orchestra encourages a new intensity for the dancers that pre-programmed music cannot replicate.
“The difference between a live orchestra performance and a taped one is night and day,” Tanner says. “Tape is easier for the dancer who has been rehearsing to it, to know exactly what’s coming.…But for the dancer, live music is absolutely thrilling.…That dancer is on edge.”
Making ballet meaningful for today’s audiences
Like orchestras around the country, the Nevada Ballet Theatre is tasked with helping today’s audiences find relevance and meaning in a classical art form. Kaiser, who has only been in the artistic director position for less than a month, sees ballet as having an advantage over other art forms in attracting younger audiences.
“The artists on the stage are vibrant, young, attractive, talented people,” he says, “and once people are exposed to it, they realize how accessible it is.”
Arriving from the Pennsylvania Ballet, Kaiser is impressed with the Smith Center, and he also sees an opportunity to merge ballet with the creative talent on the Strip.
“The depth of the artists that are working on the Strip, on stage and behind the scenes, that’s really exciting to me to have them in such close proximity, and we may be able to find new ways to collaborate,” he adds.
He also sees more contemporary work coming to Nevada Ballet Theatre in the future, or updated takes on classics.
“There’s so much we can do to make it contemporary and updated and still be true to those roots,” he says. “It’s a flexible art form. … People think tutus, point shoes and the Sugar Plum Fairy. That is part of it, but it can be so much more.”
For Kaiser, Classic Americana wasn’t his first time working with Tanner. In fact, early in his own dancing career, Tanner actually coached Kaiser in a production of Western Symphony.
“You want someone who, first, understands the material. That’s the basics, but if you understand the choreographer’s intent,” Kaiser notes, “that’s like a home run that makes the dancer feel complete.”
Complete. Yes, and far from a minimally viable product.