The newly opened Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University is a unique institution that aims to combine artistic and academic perspectives to reinvigorate ballet’s place in contemporary culture. What exactly does this mean, and how might it happen? Executive Director Emily Rasmussen recently spoke with The World Dances about the Center’s vision and the means by which it hopes to facilitate and inspire creative new art.
What are the needs the Center is trying to meet and how are you meeting them?
The center’s mission is two fold: to be a think tank and to be an incubator for ballet. It’s focused on research and scholarship on ballet on the one hand and the practice and creation of new work on the other. Concerning the latter, the need we’re trying to serve is to provide space and support for the early ideation of new work. There are a lot of organizations that can commission works and support artists to create new work with dancers or companies. We’re not trying to play in that space. What we’re focusing on is the period before that, in which people can explore new ideas before getting to the production phase. That pre-development phase for the creation of new work provides an opportunity to share ideas with others coming from different arts and sciences backgrounds and to take time to think through new concepts before getting to the process of actually choreographing and setting a new work on a company.
For the research component, the need was that a think tank for ballet didn’t exist. This is a way to bring together minds from a variety of arts and science backgrounds to think about ballet in some new ways. It brings together diverse, outside perspectives—new ideas and new ways of thinking about ballet, what it is and what it can be.
The unique part of all this is that we’re bringing the artists together with the scholars. Having those interactions, those curated collisions, people can engage with other artists and thinkers to hear and think about ideas that maybe they wouldn’t have encountered otherwise, and that might influence their work in new and unique ways.
How does the Center define ballet?
That’s a great question. The key here is that we define it very broadly. For us it’s about a system of training based on a linear and geometrically proportioned organization of the human body. It starts with that basic balletic training, and what art comes out of that is up to the artists. So, whether you stick within that geometric organization of the body or your work is completely about countering that, it is totally the artists’ choice. It’s very open.
It has been argued that artistic evolution is more important than the conservation of ballet. Does ballet remain sufficiently culturally relevant
to merit this level of intellectual investment?
I think that the concept of its being outdated is actually more about outdated repertoire, or maybe outdated ideas, than the art form itself. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to address. We think that this system of training is an incredible foundation for innovative work and creation. It’s not outdated in itself; it’s more about what you do with it. That’s where we’re trying to help, to enable people to do more with it and explore new ideas in interesting ways. Ballet—the form and system of training of ballet—is actually something that’s very empowering for creating new and interesting work.
What are some of the Center’s programs that most excite you?
The fellows are working on a variety of exciting projects [including new ballets based on documentaries and studies on the theme of ballet class as home to dancer. To learn more about these, click here.] That’s our core program at this point and we’re planning to develop it more fully. Additionally, we have Conversations, which we launched last fall in collaboration with the New York Public Library. The program basically gets dancers and choreographers to talk about their work with a public audience to open up the understanding of what goes into making dance and the whole process of it. It also challenges the artists to really articulate what they’re doing and why it’s important and to share that with people. We’re also finding ways to offer open classes, where a master choreographer can teach a class and a public audience can come watch. Through discussions and Q&A afterwards, the audience can learn more about this core training and what connections might exist or be cultivated between it and ways of thinking that relate to other art forms.