In Conversation with Hope Muir and Barry Hughson
January 21, 2022
Hope Muir and Barry Hughson. Photos by Karolina Kuras.
We’re excited to share the first installment of our In Conversation series, which engages Hope Muir, Joan and Jerry Lozinski Artistic Director and Executive Director Barry Hughson on topical issues in ballet and their vision for The National Ballet of Canada. In this installment, Hope and Barry discuss the importance of new productions, the company’s commitment to the classical canon, and strategies for preparing dancers to perform a wide range of work.
Increasingly, The National Ballet of Canada is expanding its repertoire with new productions and acquisitions, and the organization has taken a leadership role nurturing choreographic talent within its own roster and externally, through creative partnerships and community initiatives such as CreativAction. How does new work serve artists, audiences and the art of ballet?
With new work, and by that I mean creations on the company, I think it’s really important to choose collaborations that help to establish a company identity. Having new creations in your repertoire distinguishes you from other companies and helps to manifest the artistic vision.
For artists, being a part of the process in creating new work is extremely rewarding. Some of the most gratifying moments in my performing career occurred when something was made on me. You feel essential to the creative process and, in the end, your DNA is in it. It is so empowering as an artist to be part of the wider landscape of dance, to be participating in the evolution of the art form.
With acquisitions I have the opportunity as Artistic Director to really prescribe things that will enhance and also challenge not just our artists but our audiences as well. Acquisitions also help us achieve balance in our programming. Being able to pick and choose from work that already exists helps to mitigate the unknown factor of creating something from scratch. That gives you a better chance of achieving a well-rounded programme or season.
I agree. I think new work is the lifeblood of the art form and incredibly important for the development of our artists. I also feel it’s important for our audiences in terms of keeping our work relevant and interesting from season to season. We’re fortunate to have a robust and loyal subscriber base and they’ve proven to be hungry for new work. Under Karen Kain’s leadership, we really invested in commissioning new work and we’ve come to a place now where we’re on a three-to-five-year planning arc, particularly for large scale works. This is an area that Hope and I will continue to develop in the years to come as we work to keep the company repertoire as vibrant as possible.
One of the things I really respect about Hope’s vision for the National Ballet is her sense of balance in terms of protecting the canon of works that form the bedrock of classical ballet. Those big ballets, which still attract large audiences, are also vitally important for the development of our artists. Hope wants to push the company into the future and she also has great respect for what’s come before. Preserving those anchor works in the repertoire and our art form is also part of our programming mandate.
I sometimes have to remind myself, as we keep moving forward with new work, that there’s a whole generation of dancers each year who perhaps haven’t experienced our heritage works. So, you do have to put the brakes on from time to time and just look around to be sure that everyone has the knowledge and skills to be able to access the work in the most meaningful way.
Do you envision a similar education process for audiences, so that they also have a foundation from which to access new work?
Definitely, and one way we can achieve that is through balanced programming. That might mean including a heritage work or anchor ballet alongside a new work, something that will invite new audiences in but also prove challenging or rewarding for connoisseurs. If I include a third piece, say in a mixed programme, I always try to find something that will complement the other two, whether that’s through music or design or a familiarity of language.
Every season we have to ask ourselves, what experience are we offering from November through June? It’s a journey for our audiences, as it is for our artists. More than anything, we want people to know that every time they see The National Ballet of Canada they’re going to have a high-quality, world-class experience. Not everything in our repertoire will appeal to all audiences, but you hope over the course of each season that you’ve offered enough variety to give everyone something to feel passionate about.
There’s also the financial reality to consider. One of the things this company prides itself on is that we pay our artists a living wage. We’re the last major ballet company in North America to offer 52-week contracts to ballet dancers. We have a huge responsibility to ensure that every season is artistically ascendant while also being fiscally sustainable. The art will always lead us, but there also has to be a conversation about making sure we can uphold our financial commitment to the artists.
The dance world is seeing more and more crossover between contemporary and classical realms that, historically, have been quite separate in terms of choreographers, movement vocabularies and dancers. What do you think has prompted this change and what are some of the effects?
What we’ve seen over time is a pivot to repertoire that is reflective of a broad vocabulary and spectrum of work. I remember in my early days at Boston Ballet and even at the National Ballet, there was some resistance to the more contemporary work with certain audiences fearing it could dilute the importance of classical ballet technique and the classical canon. Today, audiences around the world are much more open to how they define what ballet is and what it can be. There are still purists who lean in one direction or the other, but the bulk of our audience is actually somewhere in between. They want to have a great experience with the art form and they want to see world-class artists. They’re more open, I think, than they’ve ever been before in embracing a new definition of what ballet can mean.
I was someone who chose to leave a classical company to do contemporary work, so I really can relate to this question. What drove me to Rambert Dance Company at that time was the opportunity to participate in the creative process with choreographers working at that time.
Watching classical companies absorb more contemporary repertoire and seeing the development of dancers as their range expands and their work becomes more hybrid has been incredible and encouraging. But it has also put a lot of responsibility on directors and teachers to maintain the classical technique. It’s not that one form of dance is better than the other, it’s that one informs the other.
Dancers entering the profession today must perform a wider range of choreography at a higher level than ever before. How do we prepare them for this challenge?
Choreographers today are coming in with the requirement that dancers be stylistically nimble and we don’t always have the rehearsal time to devote to that skill alone. Because it’s more than a physical shift – it’s a mental shift.
We are looking at offering cross-training in a more dedicated way, so that the dancers can dip in periodically, through a few classes each month, to really hone their skills or remember the way they worked with a certain choreographer. That way when rehearsals begin they’re ready to go. In the past I have offered dancers additional classes to support the work or style of an incoming choreographer in the weeks leading up to rehearsals, but this would be a more continuous effort to provide access to that training year-round.
I would add that our Health and Wellness Programme is critical to the success and length of the dancers’ careers because the demands really are considerable. In our fall season, for example, you had the dancers shifting from Serenade to Angels’ Atlas in one evening, works that require a completely different use of the body. There is a physical cost to that, for sure, and that’s where our Health and Wellness Programme has been invaluable in supporting the dancers in a preventative way, rather than merely responding to injuries after they happen.
I think back to when Baryshnikov was Artistic Director of American Ballet Theatre and he invited Twyla Tharp to be Resident Choreographer there. He hired nearly the entire Tharp company to become members of ABT so that they could perform her work. There was a cohort of classicists and a cohort of contemporary dancers and they rarely crossed. No company can afford to do that today. The future requires artists to train in way that reflects the variety of repertoire they will be expected to dance. We can see that training happening at The National Ballet School right now. The more they introduce contemporary dance theory into classical ballet training, the more prepared these young people will be for company life.
I would also say that this broader range of work has been incredibly gratifying for artists. The kind of career you can have now and the diversity of experiences you have access to are more exciting than ever before and this enriches the career considerably.
Many believe that classical companies like ours have a responsibility to uphold the technique and traditions of classical ballet and ensure that legacy ballets endure. How would you describe the National Ballet’s responsibility to the past?
We have a huge responsibility to preserve the canon of works that helped to develop our art form. We also have a responsibility to examine the stories we’re telling and how we tell them in a world that’s quite changed from when these older ballets were created. We have to provide context for stories from the past and continually examine tropes in the classical canon, such as characterizations and costuming, for the meanings or values they impart today. I think you can do that in a way that protects the integrity of the classical form while also making those older ballets more relevant to the society we live in. It doesn’t mean we have to make a really contemporary Swan Lake to be relevant. You can still make a beautiful, historic Swan Lake that also moves away from some of the things that are no longer acceptable today. It’s a conversation we’re having all the time.
I agree completely. There’s just so much more work to do upfront in ballet. We need to show that we’re having these conversations, put our work into context for our audiences and educate them as to why we’re doing it. In presenting an historic or heritage ballet, we’re not saying that we support its vision of the world – a vision that in many cases was more imagined than real. But we do have to be upfront about the themes and the “why.” We have to do this with newer work as well. I don’t think ballet can be this effortless art form anymore. We have to show that we’re doing the work.
More About Hope Muir
More About Barry Hughson