Ballet is Dying. Can the Mellon-Funded Center for Ballet and the Arts Save It?

Ballet is dead. Long live ballet. Maybe.

In "Apollo's Angels," a sweeping exposition on the art of ballet, its author, Jennifer Homans ended the book with a dire prediction: "I now feel sure that ballet is dying."

Pretty depressing stuff, especially coming from Ms. Homans, who is widely considered one of the world's preeminent ballet historians and critics. But ballet's predicted imminent doom may not actually come to pass. And that's because Homans will be heading up a new ballet think tank at New York University's Center for Ballet and the Arts, whose charter is nothing less that the revitalization of this classic art form.

Homans summed up the challenge ahead, saying, "We’re in the middle of a completely changing world, and where is this art form? What is it going to become? And I think that is a question that we’re all answering now, and the center can be a part of the answer. It’s trying to create a place for us to say this really matters — what can it become?"

And how will the center, made possible by a $2 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that will fund the center for its first three years, attempt to answer these vexing questions? Here are a few of the center's goals:
  • Support the cross-pollination of ideas. Revitalizing ballet will be an intellectual exercise as much as a physical one. For example, in 2015,  when the center presents its first Lincoln Kirstein lecture, it will be delivered not by a dancer or choreographer but by the poetry critic and Harvard professor Helen Vendler, who will talk about dance and poetry.
  • Reinterpret canonical works. A center fellow, Heather Watts, plans to spend her time at the center thinking about new ways to analyze and contextualize the ballets of George Balanchine.
  • Embrace new technology. Watts is considering developing an online lecture or an app delving into not just the choreography and biography of Balanchine, but also some of the broader cultural themes at work in the field.

And what does Mellon think of all this? It's simple. Ballet's revitalization and sustainability is inextricably linked with its ability to reach new audiences. Philip E. Lewis, one of two vice presidents of the Mellon Foundation, noted that, "We hope that ballet, like the other high performing arts, will eventually become a form of cultural expression that’s more accessible to the public at large, and not so much understood as a kind of aristocratic art form."

In other words, from a branding perspective, ballet needs to be associated less with "Downton Abbey" and more with, say, Stephen King's "The Shining." Don't laugh, though. Mellon just gave $750,000 to Minnesota Opera's New Works Initiative. Its goal is "invigorating the operatic art form with an infusion of contemporary works," such as, yep, "The Shining."

We're not arguing that we'll see a ballet interpretation of "The Shawshank Redemption" anytime soon (though it would be cool). But with Mellon's funding making the new center possible, we expect a concerted effort to make ballet resonate with the general public at large.

Perhaps that explains Homans' newfound quasi-optimism. "If we are lucky, I am wrong," she said, "And classical ballet is not dying but falling instead into a deep sleep, to be reawakened — like the Sleeping Beauty — by a new generation.”