"... It's ballet plain and simple," reflected Charles Askegard, as he relaxed in an open repose, wide and easy as if gazing across Lake Superior in his home state, Minnesota. We were seated around a table at Casa Nonna, near the theater district in Manhattan, and close to DANY Studios, where Michele Wiles was rehearsing later in the day. Askegard then smirked subtly, leaned forward and admitted, "of course there's nothing plain or simple about what we do."
When you are at the top of your field -- like Wiles, former principal dancer at American Ballet Theater, and Askegard, former principal dancer at New York City Ballet -- the natural question is, "what's next?" For these two, who began a conversation several months ago while working together in the studio, it was not enough to voice their frustrations, pose this question, and do nothing. They quickly found that they were kindred spirits and that their answer was simple -- envision something different that addressed their concerns.
Encouraged by Wiles' husband James R. McCullough, the CEO of Exosome Diagnostics, a biotech company he created two and a half years ago, Askegard and Wiles began to shape what would become Ballet Next.
Ballet Next is a company built on a foundation of pragmatism, with one overarching mandate: the work must be of the highest balletic quality -- nearly everything else is open for change. As Askegard commented during a seminar last summer, as reported in the New York Times, "We don't want to waste anyone's time or money... It's good not to promise too much."
Wiles and Jacoby rehearsing Mauro Bigonzetti's La Follia
Wiles and Askegard made clear that they will hold true to the formalism of ballet. While including new works in their repertory, they do not want to forgo performing classical pieces. Therefore, they are somewhat hard to categorize. Dance is a field wherein labels matter. Ballet, modern, ballroom or Broadway are all forms of dance that are extremely distinguishable, particularly to those in the field. Strains of each discipline -- in this case, classical, neo-classical and contemporary ballet -- are particularly important to those in charge of booking, funding and promoting work. However, Askegard and Wiles share a more expansive vision and are interested primarily in sharing what inspires them -- to both watch and perform.
"Audience members from our evening at the Joyce were excited," shared Wiles. "Many people told me that they received quite an education that evening." By experiencing classical work like The Sleeping Beauty Pas de Deux -- which was choreographed by Marius Petipa and premiered in St. Petersburg in 1890 -- on the same stage as works like Mauro Bigonzetti's La Follia -- a duet for Wiles and Drew Jacoby, which was created specifically for Ballet Next during the summer of 2011 -- audience members were able to understand the differences and connections between classical and contemporary ballet.
Broadening audiences and exposing new people to high caliber ballet is also an emphasis of Ballet Next. Wiles described her desire to create a tour that pairs traditional theater venue performances with site-specific, charitable outreach performances. Wiles, seemingly reserved until this point, was nearly giddy as she described this idea. The energy around her shifted and made clear the impact an audience has on performers. Often we see this as a one-way relationship; the dancers give and the audience receives. But here, as Wiles spoke, I was reminded of the reciprocal nature of performance. New, fresh, and appreciative audiences energize performers and, in so doing, they nourish the art form.
And this type of rejuvenation is a part of their dancer-focused practice. On Saturdays they hold a Ballet Next Class with renowned ballet teacher, David Howard. They invite fellow dancers -- from top companies in NYC and other companies on tour in New York -- and just have fun. Across the board, Ballet Next concentrates on the joy of moving. Both Wiles and Askegard emphasize that "it's important to remember why you do what you do."
In speaking about their rehearsal process for the inaugural performance at the Joyce, Wiles and Askegard share their excitement about working closely with the small orchestra they assembled for the evening. None of the musicians had worked with dancers before and dancers, because they are from large companies, had never communicated directly with musicians. Generally, choreographers and directors confer with composers and conductors. But during this process dancers and musicians spoke and worked out tempi, finding nuance together.
The history buff in me had to ask one last question: is Ballet Next perhaps comparable to The Ballets Russes -- the touring company that boasted the likes of Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Alicia Markova, George Balanchine and Michel Fokine. The Ballets Russes was recognized at least equally, if not more, for its dancers as it was the choreographers whose works they performed. Askegard was quick to politly decline such a comparison. "We're trying something new," he said, "I don't want to compare us to other companies."