I’ve watched a fair bit of live ballet in the last few years: everything The Australian Ballet has performed (more than once), a Royal New Zealand Ballet performance of Christopher Hampson’s Romeo and Juliet.
I’ve watched a lot on DVD as well: the Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, The Australian Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Paris Opéra Ballet, the Kirov Ballet, and the Bolshoi Ballet.
My “local” company, The Australian Ballet, has promoted six dancers to principal in the last eighteen months (Daniel Gaudiello, Kevin Jackson, Lana Jones, Andrew Killian, Amber Scott, and Leanne Stojmenov). In that time, two principals have retired (Robert Curran and Kirsty Martin), Danielle Rowe has gone to Houston Ballet, and two more have been on maternity leave (Lucinda Dunn and Olivia Bell).
Paris Opéra Ballet recently promoted Josua Hoffalt to étoile: on stage at the Opéra Bastille, after a performance of La Bayadère in which he danced Solor for the first time.
In Australia, Gaudiello, Jackson, and Jones were promoted on stage at the end of a free performance in a football stadium, while Killian, Scott and Stojmenov were elevated on stage in the Sydney Opera House after a performance of a triple bill.
I ask myself, what should be the criteria for elevation to principal rank? Do I have the same criteria, as a reasonably ballet-educated, keen audience member, as an artistic director? I don’t know the answer to my second question – shall have to enquire.
First and foremost, I believe, should be the ability to dance leading roles. Not just the technical ability, but to dance with authority, conviction, and artistry.
I also believe a principal should be capable of carrying a full-length ballet. By this, I mean he or she takes on the role so thoroughly that the audience, however well they may know the dancer, can forget that it’s X up there and only see Des Grieux, or Pinkerton, or Solor.
Whether a dancer is too young at 19 to become a principal (see the recent furore surrounding a certain brilliant but immature former Royal Ballet principal), or too old at 30-something (what suddenly made them good enough in the supposed twilight of their career?), I don’t think chronological age really has much to do with it. A young dancer may just be that good, and an older one might suddenly find their groove, or a life event may act as a catalyst. Longevity shouldn’t be any sort of criterion.
I understand Royal Danish Ballet requires all its dancers to retire at 40. Company policy. But does it deprive audiences of some golden performances? One of the most moving things I’ve ever seen on stage was Steven Heathcote (with Kirsty Martin) in Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain. It happens to be the last role he danced before retirement, but he was over 40 at the time. Leanne Benjamin was born the year before me, but she’s still a principal at the Royal Ballet, and was over 40 when I loved her in Manon in Sydney a few years ago. And then there’s Sylvie Guillem, and Margot Fonteyn.
Dragging myself back on topic: I think the French term étoile (literally, “star”) is more appropriate than “principal artist”. Someone dancing leading roles should truly shine. It’s terrible when you’re watching Giselle, for example, and the peasants are more riveting than Albrecht and Giselle.
Looks don’t really count in my criteria. I wouldn’t call either Mikhail Baryshnikov or Irek Mukhamedov handsome or beautiful, but I’d rather watch either of them than the undoubtedly gorgeous Roberto Bolle.
If your principals are your stars, they’re the ones you expect to fulfil the box office draw criterion as well. If people aren’t enthused by a particular dancer, seats to their performances won’t sell as well, nor will they be able to access guesting opportunities elsewhere.
So are my criteria sufficient? Are they the same as for an artistic director? Please let me know.