With a multi-disciplinary focus and bold ambitions, New English Ballet Theatre is a company on a mission.
“Feminism and female empowerment are buzz words in the press at the minute, and we have noticed a definite change in the way our ballets are received because of this,” observes Karen Pilkington-Miksa, the company’s Founding and Artistic Director, when talking about her focus on female choreographers. “We are always striving to include and promote those people who might not have any other opportunity to get themselves, or their work, noticed and the work of female choreographers definitely fits that bill!”
The company categorises itself as a modern ballet company, with a mission to present exciting new work to the widest possible audience.
More recently this has meant presenting work by female choreographers in particular, marrying this concept with new commissions and a distinctly modern approach to the classics. The company draws inspiration from the likes of Sergei Diaghilev and George Balanchine: notably two male choreographers, however two who changed the course of ballet through their work. A pioneer in every sense, Diaghilev – for example – founded the Ballet Russes, a company which brought together the best young Russian dancers of the day, additionally commissioning some of the most famous composers of the 20th century and creating ground breaking work.
This spirit of collaboration is echoed by NEBT today. Pilkington-Miksa has ambitions to develop further relationships with music festivals in addition to theatres and venues, in order to create a long-term influence on audience perception of modern ballet. “What makes us different is how we work with talented young people from a variety of disciplines; we seek out choreographers, musicians, designers and visual artists to work alongside the company’s dancers,” she explains.
Specific to 2016 is a focus on finding more talent to ‘involve and inspire a whole new generation of audiences’ through the work of up and coming choreographers. NEBT’s choreography lab in October saw choreographers meet the company of 14, as classically trained dancers, with a free rein to explore. “You never know what will come out of an experimental situation,” says Pilkington-Miksa, which is rather exciting. In this taking chances environment the company often discovers concepts for whole new ballets to commission for upcoming seasons, as a result of the explorative work with new talent.
In creating this fresh new work, using classical language to push the boundaries of what ballet can express, the company has always ensured it works with female choreographers. As a mid-scale company, this sets NEBT aside from The Royal Ballet – which recently commissioned a female choreographer after decades of males – and English National Ballet – which similarly commissioned an all-female programme in its first nod towards both celebrating and championing the work of female choreographers. As Pilkington-Miksa rightly advocates, “the industry will only truly have changed when it is no longer referred to as male and female choreography. Choreography is choreography – the gender of the voice should not matter.”
With the summer months behind us, NEBT is able to reminisce about its presence at Latitude Festival, and its all-female choreography programme for the thousands of festival-goers. “There was a particularly great response at Latitude to the announcement that the ballets were all-female-choreographed,” notes Pilkington-Miksa. “It is just not something you hear every day.” For NEBT, however, this is less of a rarity and more an everyday occurrence.
“It’s funny because we have always used female choreographers – we first commissioned Kristen McNally way back in 2012 as part of our debut season,” she explains, referencing a decision that planted the company securely on the map for female choreography and opportunity.
Pilkington-Miksa additionally produced an all-female programme at the Canary Wharf Summer Sessions this year, presenting to what she describes as the ‘oft accused, male-predominant banking community’.
With so much focus on (the lack of) female choreographers in the ballet industry in particular, it is ironic to think that female choreographers played a dominant part in the history of dance in the 20th century, and only recently has their absence been noticed, particularly in classical ballet companies. Bronislava Nijinska, Martha Graham, Agnes de Mille, Twyla Tharp, Pina Bausch and many others historic figures in the dance field have had major influence. Alongside these profound names are of course Ninette de Valois and Monica Mason to name just two female directors of major companies in the UK.
For Pilkington-Miksa then, it is so important therefore to commission and champion new work by female classical choreographers, and to promote their pieces on stages worldwide. Today companies are seeing statistics speak for themselves: it is 17 years since The Royal Ballet commissioned a work by a female choreographer on the main stage of the Royal Opera House, having this year commissioned Crystal Pite’s debut for March 2017.
Despite its more liberal approach, just four of the 16 associate artists at Sadler’s Wells theatre are women – and Pilkington-Miksa maintains that there is still a long way to go in terms of encouraging female choreographers from a young age.
This is the reason NEBT is so committed to the continual reinvention of classical ballet, giving artists the creative space to explore its boundaries. “As a new company, we have the creative freedom to drive ballet forward, showcasing the strength, athleticism and agility of the next generation,” says Pilkington-Miksa.
2016 is the biggest year to date for Pilkington-Miksa, and the company’s fifth anniversary season. There are five new ballets in progress for a full programme of new work at Sadler’s Wells Peacock Theatre in London, communicating five unique voices from a modern ballet perspective. Amongst those voices is the reappearance of McNally with her usual choreographic wit, and Daniela Cardim, with a piece heavily influenced by music from her native Brazil. In this dedicated approach to new talent, Pilkington-Miksa is able to promote these new artists with the sole desire to demonstrate the fantastic range of expression.
However, Pilkington-Miksa finds she – and her company – are still re-educating audiences in ballet, or in her words, “[we] are always ambushing a new audience!” Through the company’s work it is able to introduce new, and young, audiences to the athleticism and excitement of the art form and its adventurous possibilities. “Each of our choreographers has a fabulously different take,” promises Pilkington-Miksa, achievable through the athletic and thrilling musicality of modern ballet, which she will continue to champion.
Quint-essential – five new ballets by New English Ballet Theatre – are performed at Sadler’s Wells Peacock Theatre from November 9-12.