Some things never change, so the saying goes, but that has rarely been said about dance.
The acrobatic displays and breathtaking pyrotechnics that abound in the contemporary repertory are a far cry from the ethereal lifts and elegant posturing of classical ballet. Dancers have changed, too. Pavlova, the reigning goddess of her day, would have been hard-pressed to compete with any contemporary ballerina in technical feats and sheer stamina, despite her charismatic presence and extraordinary performing brio.
Today’s dance designs reflect today’s dancers. The new breed is better trained and more in tune with their instruments than its predecessors. And, like most athletes these days, they have greater strength and endurance. Legs extend higher, back bends dip lower and torsos stretch with the suppleness of Pla-Doh. As a result, contemporary choreographers have pushed the boundaries of their art form to the maximum in recent years.
“If you look at ‘Les Sylphides,’ there was a lot of posing and running back and forth, and plenty of mime,” said Dance magazine correspondent William Fark. “And there were much fewer physical demands on the dancers. Men would walk to the center of the stage. Now it’s all very technical dancing. The change in men’s dancing is really incredible.
“Nureyev sparked a lot of it when he defected in 1957, but, if it hadn’t been for Nureyev, Villella would have been the one to start the trend,” said Fark, an ex-dancer himself. “I couldn’t do the lifts they do now when I was dancing.”
During the last decade, dancers have made even greater strides in their physical development, as Fark noted. And dance-makers are using these abilities in their cutting-edge choreography. He attributes the quantum leap to a combination of factors.
“Better nutrition and better builds have a lot to do with it,” he noted. “Dancers are much more capable. And now, with mass audiences that are not attuned to the nuances of dance, everything is more exhibitionist. Margot Fonteyn had a beautiful back, and you concentrated on fine points like a dancer’s line in her day.
“Now dancers do things that only contortionists used to do, like some of the splits in Arpino’s ‘Light Rain’ (danced in San Diego last season). That kind of thing was unheard of a few years ago.”
The ever-increasing technical demands on dancers may mean more thrills for concert-goers. But they can wreak havoc on the dancers.
San Diego’s Denise Dabrowski had a taste of life with the prestigious Joffrey Ballet. However, the punishing demands of big-league dance aggravated a back problem that Dabrowski keeps in check with the light performance load she carries at the California Ballet.
“Choreographers are breaking new ground now, and they’re breaking some backs, too,” she said with a nervous laugh. “I saw a high turnover while I was there from injuries and just plain burnout. It’s exciting that they’ve come so far technically, but it was a lot easier doing the classics, where you don’t have to see how far you can distort your body.”
Even world-class dance companies are feeling the pinch. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a modern dance troupe known for its heavy accent on state-of-the-art virtuosity and no-holds-barred physicality, is one of many contemporary companies whose ranks are getting harder to fill these days--due to these new challenges.
When the Ailey company dances a five-performance run at Symphony Hall on Wednesday through March 5, the men will be outnumbered by the women, 15 to 13.
“We’re in need of men in the company,” Ailey soloist Renee Robinson said in an interview from the road. “It’s become harder to find good, strong men to handle our choreography. Women have to work hard, too, but these days there is more and more lifting--and the lifts are much more complicated than ever.”
“The problems are very different today, since the dancing is more risky,” Masazumi Chaya, Ailey rehearsal director and a former principal, said by telephone from Alaska (one of many faraway stops on the Ailey touring trail). “You still need a lot of personality and a sense of style and line. That hasn’t changed. But the trickier choreography and our broad range of styles make it harder to find men. They need all these qualities, not just technique--and not just from the book.”
The grueling schedules exacerbate the situation, Chaya noted.
“We do eight performances a week in New York, and others for the kids, and then we do a lot of traveling. It’s really hard,” he said. “And we rehearse two to three hours a day.”
How do the dancers cope with the rigors of dancing with the best in the nation--performing choreography that thrives on high-velocity moves, near-miss collisions, and devilishly difficult lifts?
“They need more knowledge of their own bodies, and a lot of stretching in the warm-ups,” said Chaya, chuckling. “It takes a lot of rehearsals, too, so they learn to control their falls and make it safe. Our dancers understand about body training and physical therapy.”
In spite of the improved training techniques and nutritional knowledge, a dancer’s days are numbered, said Ailey dancer Andre Tyson.
“You can only hope for 5 to 10 years, but you probably won’t be able to dance beyond 30,” said the 28-year-old Tyson. “I’m pretty lucky, I’ve been with the company for almost four years. I’m very careful about nutrition, and I’ve had a few injuries, but I learned through the injuries.
“You really have to be in good shape. I work out in the gymnasium, and I do some weight lifting, but that can have an adverse effect, because you don’t want so much bulk. Overall, today’s dances are more difficult, and our company is more physical. We do a lot of high-energy things and technical partnering, but we also have to create mood and do a lot of theatrical acting.”
“Today, careers are often short-lived,” said Jack Cheever, director of the Center for Sports Medicine in San Diego. “The dancers are so hyper-mobile now, and all that flexibility takes a heavy toll on their bodies. In addition, dancers are chronically trying to starve themselves, because of the pressure to keep their weight down.”
FOOT NOTES: San Diego dance fans can have a field day with the Ailey company oeuvre . The troupe will dance five different programs at Symphony Hall, doing 18 separate works spanning much of the history of the celebrated company. Signature pieces, including Ailey’s vintage masterworks--"Revelations” and “Blues Suite"--will be performed along with such recent additions to the repertory as “Shards,” a complex choreographic potpourri created by Donald Byrd, and “Tell It Like It Is,” Kelvin Rotardier’s solo for virtuoso Gary DeLoatch.