Created by the Dance Committee of the International Theatre Institute, the main partner for the performing arts of UNESCO, International Dance Day is a global celebration of dance that takes place every year on 29 April - the anniversary of the birth of Jean-Georges Noverre, the creator of modern ballet.
Most every dance season presented by Michigan Opera Theatre at the Detroit Opera House offers a diversity of dance genres, from classical ballet to contemporary dance to culturally specific dance forms. Due to COVID travel restrictions, our 2021-2022 dance season does not include any international dance companies. But rest assured, they will be back with the 2022-2023 season.
Michigan Opera Theatre has a rich history of presenting world-class international dance, and in celebration of International Dance Day, we would like to focus on three specific dance genres: classical ballet, contemporary ballet, and African dance.
Although ballet originated in the court of Louis the IV, the Russians have long been considered the epitome of classical ballet. The two foremost Russian ballet companies are the Bolshoi and the Kirov, and Michigan Opera Theatre has presented them both at the Detroit Opera House.
The Bolshoi Ballet danced Swan Lake in 2002; the Kirov (now called the Mariinsky Ballet) danced La Bayadère (featuring the infamous Kingdom of the Shades) in 2003, and returned to the Detroit Opera House with The Sleeping Beauty in 2005. Swan Lake and The Kingdom of the Shades both represent a specific era of classical ballet called “ballet blanc.”
Not to be outdone by the Russians, France also has notably one of the top classical ballet companies in the world - the Paris Opera Ballet. But perhaps the best known exports of dance by France are the many compellingly creative contemporary ballet companies such as Lyon Opera Ballet, Ballet Preljocaj, and Malandain Ballet Biarritz.
Ballet Biarritz was the last dance company we presented before COVID closed the Detroit Opera House. The repertoire, which included Estro, set to the music of Vivaldi, and Nocturnes, set to the music of Chopin, concluded with a fascinating piece of choreography by artistic director Thierry Malandain set to Ravel’s Bolero. Malandain takes classical ballet and tweaks it just enough to be purely fascinating, and his Bolero features twelve almost soulless naked-looking dancers in a closed and restricted space, subjected to the haunting repetition of Ravel's orchestral theme. The dancers present repetitive movements in perfect synchronization within the confines of the set pieces. In rare moments, a handful of dancers escape through the invisible walls, only to rush back into their imprisonment—until the end, in a mad rush they escape, only to then be locked out. Sometimes you have to be careful of what you wish for…
While the French are known for great contemporary ballet, so are the French Canadians. Montreal has long been a hot spot for creativity in contemporary dance, ranging from the contemporary ballet of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens to the fantastic experimental dance of Marie Chouinard. Les Grands has been to Detroit several times, dancing repertoire that included a fantastic evening of contemporary pieces by internationally renowned Czechoslovakian choreographer Jiri Kylian – a true leading force in dance today.
Les Grands Ballets Canadiens unveiled a new program in Canada called Dancing Beethoven just before COVID brought dance globally to a halt. Creating a true opportunity to visually discover two masterpieces by Ludwig van Beethoven, this program features two separate pieces. The first is choreographed by Garrett Smith (an American) to the remarkable Symphony No 5; the second is choreographed by Uwe Scholz (a German) to Beethoven’s Symphony No 7. Look for this exciting program to come to the Detroit Opera House in the future.
Last, but certainly not least, we would like to focus on African dance. In 2003, Michigan Opera Theatre presented Les Ballet Africains, featuring traditional African dance performed by artists from Africa. Les Ballet Africains is the national ensemble of the Republic of Guinea. The company was formed in 1952 and is recognized as Africa’s most accomplished touring company. For the 2003 performance at the Detroit Opera House, Les Ballets Africains produced a new work celebrating the company’s illustrious 50-year history. The 35-member strong ensemble presented an inimitable blend of traditional dance, music and story-telling, laced with a superb demonstrations of spectacle, acrobatics, comedy and drama.
Another MOT presentation of African dance in 2008, titled African Footprint, featured the more contemporary choreography of David Matamela. When Matamela was 19 years old he was a dancer in Tina Turner’s concert in South Africa. He caught her eye and she knew he had “it.” She gave him a year’s scholarship to the Ailey School in New York (the official school of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater). He has since become a well-known choreographer and educator. He co-wrote and choreographed the musical African Footprint and even performed it as the lead dancer more than 350 times. He was the resident choreographer for the 2007 musical production of The Lion King South Africa, and is a judge on the South African version of So You Think You Can Dance reality competition show.
While we have focused on international dance companies, International Dance Day focuses on international dancers. The majority of professional American-based dance companies also include dancers from countries beyond our own borders. So for this International Dance Day, we would like to celebrate all dance and dancers around the world.
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