Yesterday I had the opportunity to sit through the final dress of the new show, Memento Mori, by the company Ballet Deviare. It was unlike any ballet I've seen, and probably unlike any you've seen, but it left me leaving the Baruch Performing Arts Center thinking one thing:
I wish I was that hardcore.
Most like to think of ballet, of ballerinas, as flighty, fluffy, graceful, always beautiful, always just beyond the movement of mortals, and therefore somehow closer to the divine. Working with the same movement vocabulary and the same rep offerings over and over again (Swan Lake, Giselle, Swan Lake, Giselle...), watching ballet can sometimes feel like watching a dead art form something to be revived every so often in order to show the beginnings of this kind of choreographed movement. Various productions of Commedia dell'arte or classical mime can have the same affect. Don't get me wrong--these productions can still be inspiring and do serve their purpose (I'll always be the first person in line for a showing of Shakespeare done in tights and doublets, no doubt, and when there's a good period piece on Master Piece Theatre, just try to get me out of my house on a Sunday night--you'll not succeed.). But over time, as an audience member, things can get a little stale. And the stereotype surrounding the artform has alienated a large part of the theatre-going, dance supporting public. So it was great to see an original work, that threw a well-manicured middle finger up against the grain, while at the same time inviting in a new kind of audience.
Ballet Deviare was founded in 2003, by Laura Kowalewski and Andrew Carpenter and since then has been offering up work that would do any anarchist proud. Namely, it has been setting classical ballet to heavy metal music. Oh yes, that's right: pointe shoes and death metal. The live band that plays intermittently during the performance, Gwynbleidd, is billed as "a dark/aggressive/progressive metal music project." They're very good, and had me head-banging between dances. The final piece is actually danced while the band performs live, rounding off a show that feels more like a rock concert than a night at the ballet.
There is probably an argument against this sort of work in the ballet world, which probably deals with the great tradition of the art form, and the attempt to maintain it's old standards and ideals. But the people who make that argument seem to forget, or do not appreciate a simple truth that has also existed since the first company: Classical ballet is extreme. The very nature of this most beautiful movement is slightly masochistic. Ballerinas are essentially putting their feet, and the most fragile part of their feet, down into a piece of wood over and over and over again. Compound that with gruelingly long rehearsals in a company setting, outside classes to touch up technique, and any number of eating disorders that plagues the entertainment industry but always seems to be focused here, where the body is on display for constant wonder or constant scrutiny, and you come to realize that this is not the sort of thing for the weak of heart. Theatrical legend has it that dancers in a center very well known company would actually have their feet broken and set by doctors to gain a more perfect arch. So it's entirely appropriate that a company of ballerinas would work like this--with movement and music that is just as extreme as the art form itself. Co-founder and choreographer Kowalewski herself has a strong and long classical background, as well as a full length sleeve tattoo covering her left arm (which I was very sad to see was covered up in the one piece she was featured in, the only piece she did not choreograph from the show).
So if you're in New York and want some of your old ideas broken down, drop by some evening this weekend, and give it up to the ballerinas.