Richmond Ballet: From Celebrating the Sublime to Defining the Dysfunctional

by Ann McLean

Who does not love “The Nutcracker” performance by the Richmond Ballet at Christmas? The beautiful costumes and magnificent stage sets, the grace of the Sugar Plum Fairy and Clara, the drama of the Mouse King and the delightful vision of the prince and princess traveling in the sleigh together, are visions many look forward to experiencing. White tulle tutus,  dancers on “point,” a hand held just so…a lift, a twirl, a gracefully held arm… the precision and careful movements of classical ballet transport the viewer out of the mundane to a place where the human spirit can soar with possibility.

Human potential — a vision of the goodness and promise of mankind — is on view with classical ballet. Viewers can enjoy the vocabulary of the practiced movements, beautiful set designs, and the carefully choreographed arrangements. Classical ballet is a transformative experience. Nothing quite heals from the drudgery of a long winter like the ballet, especially when combined with the musical arrangements and skill of Pytor Tchaikovsky.

So, it was with tulle and tutus in mind that I attended the Ballet’s February 18th Studio Series performance. After nearly a year of COVID restrictions, social distancing, masking diktats, sheltering at home, and disappointingly small Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings, I needed the ballet. The fall production had, sadly, featured only one “classical” piece — but that magnificent opening dance had lingered in my memory for months. The contemporary pieces, though athletic and skillfully performed, did not transport the spirit in the same way.

After being reminded to wear masks and sit several seats apart, we were first treated to a video of the dancers describing their COVID practice sessions in the studio. “Flashdance” came to mind.

The following pieces, all choreographed by the dancers themselves, kept me wondering what form of human dysfunction would be described next? Would it be alienation, with a young girl longing for some unnamed thing? Would it be androgyny and gender confusion in tones of grey, with swimmer’s hair and suspenders blurring male and female? Would it be a strange inter-office romance, with psychologically distressing overtones? Would it be homosexuality? Or suicide? Or depression?

I kept waiting for the loveliness of the classical ballet to make even a cameo appearance. The swans never swam onto stage.

The culminating piece simulated a group exercise class. Male and female dancers, clad in black leotard shorts, jumped and writhed with ungraceful movements. They were expertly performed but coarse. The thought crossed my mind: was I at Gold’s Gym?

Is this where we are? Have the arts — even ballet — gone completely woke in the post-modern world? I had hoped to have a lovely evening, but as we filed out one by one, six feet apart in our blue and white masks, I felt hollow and sad. Where is our humanity? Do any of these dancers cherish the classical idiom that must have enchanted them in some way not so long ago as dance students?

The goodness, beauty and truth that undergirds their art form was absent just when we needed it most. Have these dancers, skilled as they are, replaced the classical ideals with a bleak and banal Nihilism?

We can only hope that next time the troupe will empathize with its audience. If they fail to provide light and uplift in future performances, the enterprise risks being called a “ballet” at all.

Ann McLean, retired head of the Hunter Classical Christian School, lives in the Richmond area.