NYCB’s director of media projects looks at the art of the sneaker ballet
Mon Apr 9 2012
Photograph: Jody Lee Lipes
New York City Ballet, Ellen Bar
Ellen Bar has had a crazy year. In May, she took her last bow as a soloist with the New York City Ballet; two days later, she rejoined the company as the director of media projects. Currently, she’s in the process of overhauling NYCB’s website, which will include an extensive video component of ballet films shot by independent filmmakers. Clearly, it’s up her alley. Along with soloist Sean Suozzi, Bar created and produced the film NY Export: Opus Jazz, an excellent retelling of the 1958 Jerome Robbins ballet, with each section shot in a different location. On Friday 13, the 92nd Street Y hosts “Ellen Bar and NY Export: Opus Jazz,” a program devoted to the sneaker ballet. Along with a discussion, the program will showcase new works by NYCB dancers Troy Schumacher and Adam Hendrickson.
Did you propose this program to the 92nd Street Y?
They came to me. It’s flattering to be approached to carry a program. We came up with the concept of having people choreograph in sneakers. In the process of doing a lot of Q&As for the film, people have asked Sean and me, “Why this particular piece?” And while we were moved by the piece, there’s also the very practical thing that you can move dance off the stage if people are wearing the appropriate footwear. Sometimes Sean would say that in Q&As, and it would always make me laugh. I was also thinking about [Robbins’s] Fancy Free recently, and about how he put the men in jazz shoes and the women in heels, but kept a classical vocabulary. There’s something really satisfying about that. So in the 92nd Street Y program, we wanted to start with that and talk to the choreographers about how [sneakers] change what they do and how they think, as well as how the dancers feel. Troy’s piece is inspired by “Passage for Two,” the pas de deux [in Opus Jazz that was filmed] on the High Line, and he’s working with Robbie [Fairchild] and Sterling [Hyltin]. So we’ll show that excerpt of the film before Troy’s piece and talk.
Is Troy’s piece a reaction to “Passage for Two?”
He’s just told me that it’s inspired by it. I don’t really know anything else. I thought of Troy and Adam because they’re both in Opus Jazz, they both choreograph, they’re friends and I’ve liked their stuff. I thought it made a lot of sense. Especially Adam—he’s in the most shots. He was on set every single day that we were shooting, so he was a really integral part of the film. I’m not going to oversee their pieces. I want to be surprised. I like that feeling of, I trust you, I can’t wait to see what you do.
This is a chance for Adam and Troy to choreograph without Lincoln Center pressure. Was that in the back of your mind?
Yeah. Part of it was that it’s a quiet month. I wanted it to be really low-pressure: The only requirement is sneakers. Everything else, do whatever you want—any length you want, any music, any style. I just wanted it to be, Go have fun in a studio without a lot of stakes.
You mentioned Fancy Free. Is that something you’re thinking about in a bigger way?
No. Not in an Opus Jazz– type way, but I just watched it this past season. We shot it to have footage for the new website, and I also watched Sean’s debut in it. It’s just fun to re-see that ballet. I think of Opus Jazz and West Side Story as sneaker ballets, and it never really occurred to me that Fancy actually did that first—took the dancers out of the pointe shoes.
When is NYCB’s new website going up?
Hopefully, we’re launching in the summer or fall. It’s going to be really beautiful.
What will it include?
We’re going to have a ton more video-capable pages. I’ve just spent a lot of the year quietly building up our performance footage and shooting things in a way that we can pull excerpts, so that if someone’s thinking about going to a program, they can just click and see 30 or 60 seconds of something. I’ve been working with a lot of people who I worked with on or met through Opus Jazz— so really good camera people who get ballet. Each individual ballet will have its own page. We’re going to have dancer pages that will be video-capable. I think you can delve into how wide our repertory is by looking at the things that one dancer does. If you just made a montage of everything that Tiler Peck does, you would see how our rep goes from [George Balanchine’s] Theme and Variations to [Christopher Wheeldon’s] DGV [Danse à Grande Vitesse].
It also really fleshes out what a dancer is, especially at a company like this.
Yeah. People like Tiler and Robbie [Fairchild] come to mind: When you see them dancing, you think, They’re so right for that. But then you see them doing something completely opposite, and you’re like, Okay wait: It wasn’t just the perfect match of that ballet and them. It’s just that they can inhabit those roles.
Are you working with camera people mainly from outside the ballet world?
Yeah. It’s really interesting to have these visually artistic people reacting and responding to ballet. They get really caught up in how they [shot it] and say things like, “I missed this one moment, I’m so upset!” [Laughs] One of my best camera guys was shooting [Balanchine’s] Agon, and I was so excited for him to see it. I realize I love looking at ballets through a lens. I love watching the cameraperson following the dancer and seeing how that frame looks and how they’re making a new picture out of it. It’s satisfying for me to look at footage of ballet. It’s a weird crossing of two things I really care about.
What has that experience taught you about a ballet like Agon?
That’s hard to say. It’s just satisfying. Something that always bothered me as a performer was the fleetingness of everything. If you have a great show, you feel good, but then you wake up and you have to do it all over again. And if you have a terrible show, you’re like, Well, I’m glad that was fleeting. [Laughs] I’m just not as much of a live-in-the-moment person as other people are. It’s satisfying to have something you can take away, that can’t age. Having been retired for almost a year, now when I watch, I’m like, Did I really do that? That separation is starting to happen where it feels like it’s another person.
Does it make you appreciate your career more?
Yes. I’m like, Wow, I did do that. I think I did that. I’m pretty sure I did that. [Laughs] There’s something very satisfying about being able to capture it, and I like sharing that with the dancers. I tell them, “You might cringe now, because when you first see a tape of yourself you just hate it, but in a couple of years, you’re going to love that this exists.” That was what I liked about doing Opus Jazz. It’s there. People can see it. With performances, you’re in people’s memories. This is a different kind of memory. It’s nice to have that, and it’s nice to be able to supply it to my fellow dancers. They deserve it.
Do you use two cameras? One in the back of the house and one backstage?
Typically, that’s how it’s been done. When we start to use the Media Suite, things are going to really change.
What is the Media Suite?
It came in as part of the David Koch renovation. There are areas in the theater where we can put cameras, and it will enable us to do things in a completely different way, which I won’t even fully know until we start using it. That whole system is going to change how we capture things. Right now, we have someone in the first ring and we have someone in the wing or above the stage getting an overhead shot. I would love to expand that and get things to make longer clips out of. But that requires more planning and funding. It’s always a battle.
Does anyone work with you?
I did have one other person in the department, but right now it’s just me. But I work with a lot of freelancers, so I’m not really working by myself. When I make videos, it’s really nice to be able to decide who’s right for what project and not be using the same people over and over again. That’s one advantage of doing it on a project-by-project basis.
Who are you bringing in?
I mostly work with people in the independent film world because that’s what I was used to with Opus Jazz. There are a lot of different worlds in content-making: There’s TV, there’s commercial. This is the niche that I know. Independent filmmakers have a certain aesthetic, a certain taste. The people who work with me seem to really care about how it turns out. And they love getting to watch stuff and be around the dancers. The cameraperson backstage is always laughing about how the dancers have this face that comes on when they go onstage and as soon as they come offstage, they’re like, Ah. You know, the most beautiful ballerina just comes off and…
I know. It’s so great. You should do a montage capturing that.
You don’t even need the volume. Just find a great hip-hop song.
[Laughs] Except that inevitably when they see me back there, they’re like, “Don’t use that!” But it’s really fun for them to see the two faces: There’s a woman looking so serene and beautiful, and she comes offstage and is huffing and puffing and groaning and grunting. [Laughs] I always like that reaction.
I’ve witnessed rage, too.
Yeah. Sometimes that happens. You’re putting yourself out there. You prepare and you prepare and then you go onstage, and there are just things you can’t control. And there are things you know: I did that perfectly every time in the studio—it wasn’t even one of the things I worried about. And then you go onstage, and it’s like, What? Where did that come from? That’s performing. That’s another thing I really like about having switched to the filmmaking side of things. You can never fully control what happens with a video, because sometimes you don’t get things the way you want them, but there is something really satisfying about going into an edit room and tweaking it before anyone sees it. One of my favorite things about the job is working closely with editors. I like to give them the freedom to show me what they think it should be, but inevitably it requires a dancer’s eye. Sometimes if we’re doing a video where a dancer is explaining something, the editor will just pick what he thinks illustrates what she’s talking about, but he doesn’t really know. It’s such a nuanced thing. Now that I’ve sat in on enough edits, I’m actually capable of saying, “Can you try this instead?” instead of, “That’s not right.” I can suggest alternatives. To make a good film, you need to get people together that you can give enough freedom to—you’re open to their ideas, but at the end of the day, you put your own stamp on it. You can craft it. I look at these, and I’m like, I made this, and I made it by putting together people who knew how to make it well, but I also made it by polishing it and crafting it into this other thing. That feels good.
Do you show the camera people a video of the ballet before they shoot a live performance?
I would love to. It’s more of a resource thing. I can’t hire people for multiple days to really study something, which is why I have to get people who are good on the fly. Knowing what’s important in a given moment is a talent, but it also gets honed. I’ve been using the same people a lot, and they get so much better. Usually, I’ll go through an archival video with them, but it’s more of a guideline. If a rehearsal’s going on that day—because often we do our final rehearsal on the same day of the performance—I’ll ask them to come in early, and they’ll sit in the audience and watch, which inevitably makes the footage so much better.
What is your job right now?
I feel like it’s to get our house in order to prepare for this website, because it really is our face to the world. It’s how people interact with us; it’s how they buy tickets. It’s where you go to make that decision, and I think that video is going to change how people make it. I think that’s my goal right now: to use media to point to the live experience. To get people interested, to get people to understand what ballet is, to be that kind of catalyst [that makes the difference] between buying a ticket and not buying a ticket. We’re competing with so much now, and it’s hard to get people to go to anything. But I still believe [that live performance] is the best way to see dance. I love making dance films, but I feel like they have to be very specially crafted or adapted to the medium. I was in love with[Wim Wender’s film] Pina. Did you like it?
I thought technically it was beautiful, but I found it to be really sentimental. It wouldn’t have been the same film, of course, if Pina Bausch had been alive. But for me, it was so clear that the master was gone.
I can understand that. But having come through making a film, I was like, This is a staggering achievement. I actually got the opportunity to moderate a Q&A with Wim Wenders at BAM, which I was so excited about. I got to ask him that question, which was something that I’d been wondering about so much: “What was the structure of the film going to be before she died? How were you going to weave together all these pieces?” It’s kind of the problem of a dance film. How do you bring together disparate pieces? Or if you make just one piece by itself, and it’s only 30 minutes, how do you get people to see it? It’s a difficult length to get distributed. Ballet is made for a full evening, and [companies] put together three ballets, but if you do that with a film to make it a feature-length, it seems disconnected. He actually said that he had planned to look at the company through Pina’s eyes. They would be in rehearsal, but it wouldn’t have been about her. It would have been about process, not a biography or a tribute.
But it would have revealed so much about her. That’s the film I wanted to see. I think I was mourning that.
[Laughs] I would love to see both, but I was pleased that he structured it in a way that he was able to pull all those things together. It wasn’t so much the tribute or the sentiment that staggered me as just the visceral feeling of watching those works, which I love.
Why did you decide to stop dancing?
I was injured, and it was one of those moments where things came together. I had been thinking about it for a while. I’d had this experience doing something else that made me feel like I was capable of doing something else. At the same time, dancing was getting harder and harder and the injuries were depressing. I didn’t know that there was anything else I really needed to do.
Do you mean terms of roles you would dance?
Yeah. I’d been lucky. I did parts in Agon and The Four Temperaments and Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3 and Episodes. I was just kind of like, I don’t even think that there’s anything left that I have on my bucket list. What am I fighting to come back to? I’ve had these memories; they will just be more memories of the same thing. They will get harder and harder to do. I didn’t want to get to that point where everyone was looking at you like, Why are you still here? [Laughs] So I had been thinking about it and thinking about it, and this department didn’t have anyone running it for quite a while. I think Peter [Martins, NYCB’s ballet master-in-chief] was nervous about asking me, because he didn’t want to suggest that I should stop. We had to dance around each other. I said, “I’m kind of thinking about…” and he was like, “Well, there seems to be a need, and you seem to be the person, but I don’t want to suggest that…” I thought, This is the time. I know this is the time, and the fact that this is happening is so great. To still be wanted by your company after you can’t do the thing that you’ve been doing is special.
Did people regard you differently after you created the film?
It’s hard to say. I think some people did and other people…To them, it was really just like a side thing, and everyone does side things. Some people were like, “Wow, I didn’t know you had that in you.” And other people were like, “Yeah, side thing.” It really says more about the person and how they think about stuff than it does about the thing.
I’m so glad that I was able to watch you on the set, because that was no side thing.
[Laughs] Yeah. I think for the dancers involved, they had a moment of like, This is real. And that’s when their commitment was solid. When people were there and understood that process, they really did start to look at Sean and me differently; but at the same time, we wanted to make sure that we were still seen as dancers. That was so important to both of us. In Q&As for the movie, a lot of people would assume that I wasn’t dancing anymore, and that was upsetting. I’d be like, “No, no, this is still my full-time job.” In that sense, we wanted people to see it as a side thing—another aspect of us—and not to forget the primary aspect of who we were and have been our whole lives.
Yeah. I’ve been [at NYCB] since I was eight. [Laughs]
What was your last performance?
I did the first movement of Vienna Waltzes with Jared Angle. It was really special and so nice to have a real goodbye and to dance with one of my best friends. A lot of people don’t even know that their last performance is their last performance, so I was lucky to be able to actually feel that happening and to have a big party afterwards, which was great. [Laughs] It’s been a huge adjustment. It’s weird to not be a dancer anymore, and I think it would be a lot harder if I hadn’t immediately thrown myself into something else that’s still in the same place, surrounded by the same people. It’s a big thing, having this identity your whole life and then not having it. And being “a former dancer.” It’s just weird. It’s a big shift in how you look at yourself; you have to reevaluate what about you is you. What makes you tick? What makes you special to other people? It’s something we all want, to be special to other people or to have something that people look at you and say, “That’s your thing.” I retired early, but I think dancers of my age and generation are getting to that point where they are going to have to start thinking about it. I can never decide if it’s wonderful to be able to have a whole career and then start something else, or if it’s cruel to have to start something else at the time that almost everyone else is about to find their stride.
Did you go from regular classes and rehearsals to nothing?
[Laughs] Am I working out? Well, I have to tell you, I really love waking up and not having my whole productivity level be determined by how my body feels. I’m really grateful not to have to go to class when my body is screaming, “No!” I’ve been trying to do barre every now and then. I’ve been really remiss, because it’s just the first thing to go when I’m really busy or stressed, but I want to take class for fun. One thing I miss most about dancing is that feeling of a really great class. I’m hoping to build back up to that. I miss the feeling, but I haven’t exactly forced myself to do the work to get to the feeling.
What else do you miss?
What’s surprising is the thing that I really miss about being in the company is being in the corps. When we’re backstage and about to shoot something from the wing, I miss that feeling of, you’re with your friends and you’re not stressed out because it’s a ballet you love, it’s a part you love—something like [Concerto] Barocco. You just have that total comfort where you can try new things, you can give it your all, you just feel like the stage is your home, that ballet is your home. There was something about that camaraderie and that feeling of, we’re all doing this together, and my body feels so good in this that I can try anything today. Which you don’t always have as a soloist because you do things less frequently because there are two casts. When you only have two shows, you treat a role differently: “I can’t take as many risks, I have to find the thing that looks the best and I have to accomplish it.” Whereas when you do something over and over again, it becomes like home. And you have the freedom of not being the main attraction: I’m not in the spotlight, but if I dance my heart out, I know people [in the audience] are going to notice because this is the kind of ballet where people do. This is the company where people notice the corps. I almost wish I had known what a nice time it was. I want to tell people: “I know you’re tired, and I know you’re concerned about what part you’re going to get or what you’re going to do, but try and enjoy this, because it’s special.” It’s weird, because it seems like the goal is always to be in the spotlight and to do the bigger and bigger role, but I found that it wasn’t necessarily always the most satisfying thing.
I love watching the corps dance together at City Ballet. It’s so satisfying.
Yeah. And I feel like you can see dancers when they’re comfortable and eating up the stage. It’s fun to watch. You go through so many phases over a career here. You have to. There’s no way you can be perfectly on your game every moment, and there’s no way you would appreciate it if you were. There’s a life cycle to a career here.
It would be cool if you could somehow dig into that concept through your current job.
Yeah, That’s something that does fascinate me. It’s not that we’re a company that focuses on rank—it is more about life cycles, and I think that people want to know about that stuff. What it’s like to be an apprentice? What it’s like to be new corps versus senior corps? The first time being a soloist? There’s so much change that happens without it really being quantified officially.
I think that the rank of soloist is the hardest place to be.
It is. At the same time, it does feel really good to be given that. I was in the corps for eight years, which is long. I was definitely not ready any sooner. [Laughs] It does feel good to have that acknowledgment, but it does put you into a position where you feel there’s more pressure. The dancers I admire so much are the ones that can just go out there and deal with so much pressure. I just don’t know how they do it. The [Sara] Mearns and the [Ashley] Bouder and the [Tiler] Peck: I love people that are so cool under pressure. More than anything, I marvel at consistency. Talent is important, luck is important, but you start to realize: It’s the people that can get up and come here everyday and do it, and if they have a bad day, come back and do it again and not to let the pressure get to them. It’s a burden of the performing artist. All the talent in the world doesn’t really make up for that. I love Megan Fairchild for being so consistent and strong, and you feel a satisfaction just watching her do things like that; but then you have someone like Andy [Veyette] who is consistent in that he will consistently take a risk, and you’ll never know if he’s going to pull it off. And then he does, and that’s exciting. I just love that you can find satisfaction in watching someone who’s solid, and then there’s someone who’s solid just in the fact that they’re going to try to do something spectacularly. They’re going to die trying. [Laughs] And if it doesn’t go well, they’re going to smile and make you forget about it. I think that’s a really special quality, and I don’t think that’s ever something I had. The pressure was definitely something that really got to me. What I admire more than a great jump or a great turn or a great line is just those people that come here and they do it. [Laughs] I’ve had a lot of time to think about things.
You didn’t, as a dancer, immediately distance yourself from the company.
I like watching so much better now. It’s amazing. Now I feel a sense of pride of belonging to this place without it feeling personal. Because you’re always kind of comparing yourself. Even when you’re so happy for someone, and you love them and you love their dancing, you’re always kind of like, God I wish I could just walk in tomorrow and dance like that. And not having that anymore is so nice.
What a cool thing.
It is cool. The number one question people ask—they see me at intermission—is, “Does it make you cry? Do you want to be up there?” I’m like, “No. I don’t want to be up there. They’re doing a great job.” [Laughs]
You’re interested in exposing ballet to a bigger world. But why are ballet and dance always tucked under the rug?
There are so many people who study ballet, so it’s weird to say people don’t understand it. The primary demographic of people who watch our YouTube videos are girls aged 13 to 17. There are a lot of people who actually do know about ballet. It’s something that American children do. And then it kind of gets lost. I feel like people think of it as having a larger barrier of entry than it does. I don’t know why that is, and it does bother me. When I think of opening to a broader audience, what I really think of is trying to reach people who are artistically minded and are the people who do seek things out, but haven’t necessarily sought this out. They would go see an opera or a play because they feel a need to fulfill something. I don’t think of trying to make people come who are never going to like it, or trying to make it appear to be something it’s not. I like when people put pop music to ballet and try to make it look aggressive and cool, but at the same time people aren’t going to come to the ballet and actually see that. I don’t think that you can just put together a montage of ballet stuff with girls looking sexy with some track over it and it’s going to automatically make people want to come see the ballet. They’re going to be like, “That video’s cool.” That’s not going to make them buy a ticket. [Laughs]
So what do you do?
I actually think that when people are given a couple little entry points or just something by which to understand it—you go to MoMA, and you’ve learned somewhere in college or high school that when the Impressionists started using pastels and making things not realistic, that was a moment. I feel like people don’t understand the cultural continuum of dance and how dance has been mirroring that. We’ve had modernism, we’ve had postmodernism. People think of ballet as having remained preserved in formaldehyde for a really long time. It’s like ballet is still Swan Lake.
I do think contemporary ballet is stuck in a way. But talent is talent.
Yes. Talent is hard. We can’t expect choreographic lightning to strike every time. I think people like Balanchine and Robbins were the first people to say that, and they were considered geniuses. They would just be like, “Hey, guys it’s not all going to be great.” It’s been pruned away over the years so that we mostly see what is great, but they made so many ballets that didn’t come back. And I think we kind of have to give choreographers these days—
Yes. If Balanchine and Robbins couldn’t make a masterpiece every time, then why should anyone else be held up to that kind of standard? It’s not really fair. Maybe people, in hindsight, will be able to see something that was happening now that we can’t necessarily place. Or will be able to prune away all the noise and see that something was changing, something was happening. But it doesn’t always feel that way because you do see so many things that are stagnant or old. Maybe it’s just not clear to us now, or it will change later? I’ve been watching Chris [Wheeldon]’s choreography develop over the years and that’s been really satisfying, because he gets more and more into his own style. But it takes so many years, even starting with a huge level of talent, for a choreographer to get to that point. I think we have to make sure they have the resources and be patient. Going back, I find that when I bring someone to the ballet and give them any kind of entry point at all—to explain to them why this ballet was special or where it fell on the cultural continuum, they’ll start to be like, Oh, oh. And they’ll start to get it more. It sounds kind of boring and stodgy, but I actually think that’s more useful than just trying to put a pop aesthetic on something that’s not, and then hoping that will make people interested.
It’s so true.
That’s what I try to think about when I’m making a video or something. I like explaining this world. And I want to explain this world in a way that doesn’t feel dry or boring, but that you can connect to. You can look to that and be like, “Oh I see that now.” It’s small change. It’s a baby step, but I don’t know what else we can do. We can’t shove things down people’s throats. We can hope that people’s parents and communities will encourage them to go see stuff. And I also sometimes wonder—looking at the YouTube analytics of who’s watching and responding to our videos, there’s 13 to 17 and then there’s a break until about 34, and then 34 and up is when there’s another big chunk of people who are watching this stuff. I don’t know how much we can beat ourselves up that young people aren’t coming. They don’t have the money, they’re focused on other things. I think it’s more, can we lay the groundwork and have enough out there so that by the time they’re ready, and they need some kind of cultural food, they’ll come? I think it’s more that we have the stuff out there and once people are interested, they can really have an entry point. It’s cool to do things—like when Merce [Cunningham] worked with Radiohead, I think that was awesome. [NYCB dancer and choreographer] Justin Peck working with Sufjan Stevens: I’m super excited about that. Those are organic ways of reaching across culture. Working with contemporary composers is the oldest thing in the book: I mean Petipa and Tchaikovsky, Balanchine and Stravinsky. Working with contemporary composers is what people should be doing. That’s actually continuing a tradition rather than breaking one. I think those kind of collaborations are awesome, and I’m working with Justin to make a video to promote [his new ballet], which will be more conceptual and a little more along the lines of a less explanatory and more mysterious type of promo video that we’ve been talking about. I’m really excited about that. So stuff like that makes a lot of sense. I’m not sure that just trying to make videos that are of “sexy people”… [Laughs] Like anyone who’s trying too hard to be sexy—it’s not sexy. I think the natural sexiness of ballet is there.