'Think Tank' for Ballet Opens at NYU

'Think Tank' for Ballet Opens at NYU

A new "think tank" for ballet will open this month at New York University with the aim of inspiring new ways of thinking about the history, practice, and performance of ballet in the twenty-first century, the New York Times reports.

Launched with the help of a three-year, $2 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Center for Ballet and the Arts will work to establish ballet as a subject of serious academic inquiry; draw new voices into a discussion of its past, present, and future; and expand the conversation beyond the confines of the dance world, according to founder and director Jennifer Homans, a dancer-turned-historian and a scholar in residence at NYU. The center will award fellowships to people from the worlds of dance, academia, and beyond to enable them to pursue a broad range of projects. "One of the main points of the center is to bring minds from other disciplines and art forms to focus, and to bear, on ballet," Homans told the Times.

The first cohort of fellows includes documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who has made several films about dance, including Ballet (1995) and La Danse (2009) — and who, in a collaboration with the choreographer James Sewell of the Minneapolis-based James Sewell Ballet, plans to turn one of his early films, Titicut Follies, about a state prison for the criminally insane, into a ballet. Another fellow, Heather Watts, the former New York City Ballet star, said she would spend her time at the center thinking about new ways to analyze and contextualize the ballets of George Balanchine for twenty-first-century audiences, exploring not only choreography and biography but also the broader cultural themes at work in the field.

In her 2010 book Apollo's Angels, Homan explored ballet's struggles after the deaths of many twentieth-century dance icons and the form's diminishing cultural footprint in the United States. However, she told the Times that she now sees reasons to be optimistic — from the quality of the dancers performing today to the strong passion many still have for ballet — and hopes that inviting people from different fields to participate in an ongoing conversation will lead to new ideas and make ballet part of a wider cultural discussion.

Philip E. Lewis, a vice president of the Mellon Foundation, said that there was a hope that the center would survive beyond the initial three years of the grant. "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," Lewis added, "and not so much understood as a kind of aristocratic art form."

Michael Cooper. "Think Tank to Ponder a Future for Ballet." New York Times 09/03/2014.