Written By EMILY HITE, Voice of Dance, Oct. 8, 2008
For one week a year in a remote desert of Nevada, nearly 50,000 nomads form an ephemeral community that is dedicated to radical self-expression. Ask someone who’s been there to explain it and you’ll probably be told you have to experience Burning Man’s Black Rock City to understand its community-centered art and gift-based economy. As a participant, you would encounter enormous outdoor sculpture, interactive installations and elaborate art cars. It’s not unusual to wear a costume, or nothing at all, or to be handed a snow cone from a stranger in the 107-degree heat. In addition to the abundant visual art works, Burning Man has an opera company and a circus, and, as of August 2008, a ballet company. Black Rock City Ballet was born of the imaginations of several professional dancers from Bay Area dance companies: Smuin Ballet, Sacramento Ballet and the Oakland Ballet Company. The group began in a shared living and working space in San Francisco called the Urban Art Farm (UAF).
At “the warehouse,” as the UAF is commonly known, the dancers spent the summer preparing for their Black Rock City debut. Ethan White, Ilana Goldman, Nicole Trerise and Gabriel Williams headed the project and collaboratively choreographed a dance piece that was aligned with this year’s Burning Man theme, “The American Dream.” Their work explored two interpretations of the dream: a consumerist, achievement-oriented mentality and a pastoral vision of freedom. They prepared a repertory program for twelve performers with works by Goldman, White, Williams, and Diablo Ballet’s resident choreographer (and Burning Man veteran) Viktor Kabaniev, as well as a pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet. White says that part of the draw of staging classical ballet in the desert is that it is bizarre in such an environment. It’s also a clever way to introduce a new audience to ballet who might not otherwise know they were interested in it. At Burning Man, people arrive willing to try things.
The dancers constructed their own stage, complete with sprung floor and marley, and secured full lighting and sound for their three outdoor performances. Large crowds arrived on foot or in art cars and stayed after the show for a guided improvisation session with live music. Following that, other community members were welcome to use the stage. One night, a burlesque show transpired.
Burning Man’s theme camps and lessons (all free to the Burning Man community) allow artists and craftsmen to share their interests with the aim of creating a participatory environment. Trerise taught a pre-ballet class to adults—“For the five-year-old in all of us” —which was a surprise hit. White recalls, “A ton of people showed up, and everybody fully acted the part of a five year-old. Nikki had a game and a song for everything.”
BRCB’s pointe shoe tree—a sculpture built from nearly 1,000 pair placed on and around an eight-foot tall patio umbrella skeleton—was also a hit. Dancers from local companies as well as from New York, Chicago and Atlanta, donated the worn, signed shoes. Within five minutes of setting it up, close to 100 pair were gone (people were encouraged to take them), and White spotted several Burning men and women walking through the desert in their newly acquired footwear.
Burning Man could be the ideal culture in which to build ballet’s next generation of supporters. “People have this idea that it’s a bunch of hippies or people that like to party. I think people are shocked when they realize what the people they meet at Burning Man do for a living,” White says, referring to accomplished professionals with disposable income who support the arts and want to be involved in a meaningful way. Several viewers approached the dancers to talk about expanding the project in the future in order to secure the presence of their “local” ballet company when they are residents of Black Rock City.
The plan to increase ballet’s visibility and revise its elitist image extends beyond the Burning Man project. White describes the BRCB cooperative as “a bunch of dancers recognizing that we need to expand our audience,” and proposes that Burning Man is a perfect market where ballet should be represented. The artists are motivated not only by a desire to share their work, but also out of concern for the state of their art in a slumping economy.
Emily Hite is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, CA.