You have to know a little Cincinnati Ballet history to appreciate the risk Victoria Morgan, the company’s artistic director and chief executive, is taking and the milestone of this moment.
This weekend, when “King Arthur’s Camelot” premieres at the Aronoff Center, a new full-length work enters the canon of contemporary ballet.
That, itself, is news.
Even the largest American companies tend to introduce new ballets in dollops, as parts of larger programs or bundled into “evenings of new work.” Cincinnati Ballet does the same (Kaplan New Works opened the company’s current, 50th season).
With “Camelot,” Morgan is investing all she’s built in her 16 years steering the company—creative capital, financial capital, reputation and public trust in her vision—to unveil what she describes as a “pinnacle” of her career.
It’s been 20 years since the company’s last all-new evening-length work, "Peter Pan." For this, before the curtain opens on "Camelot," Morgan deserves a standing ovation.
In 2008, when Morgan tacked the title of CEO onto a nameplate already reading artistic director, Cincinnati Ballet carried an $800,000 budget deficit. Mounting anything near the scope of what she imagined for “Camelot” would have to wait. Mounting anything at all was a challenge.
Morgan cleared red from the budget the following year. At the same time, she rolled out a $1.6 million investment in an original version of “The Nutcracker,” which has paid huge dividends every holiday season since.
Unlike “The Nutcracker,” where even new choreography can lean on the support of familiar music and characters, everything about “Camelot” is unknown to ballet audiences (Queensland Ballet, in Australia, staged its own version of the tale in 2011). There’s new music, puppetry (watch video of that here) , costuming, sets, video projections, even the narrative focus. Unlike Cincinnati Ballet’s season-opening medley of new work, staged from the safe confines of the company’s studios, there’s far more riding ($1.25 million) on “Camelot” with only five performances scheduled for the Aronoff Center.
With “Camelot,” an idea brought to her by a key board member, Rhonda Sheakley, Morgan is both going with ballet convention—making an old story new—and going against it by training the spotlight on the men in her company.
I spent time at “Camelot” rehearsals where the entire company of men danced their way through choreographed scenes of swordplay while handfuls of women would sit to the side, watching with detached boredom.
“It’s sort of ironic that a pinnacle piece in my career is so male-oriented, and I do feel a little guilt about that,” Morgan said. “I’m one of the few female artistic directors in the country and I have a quest to bring more female leadership into our art form.
But part of the power in our art form comes from the men and, at this moment, we have such power in our men, and we need to show that.”
“Camelot” has also presented artistic hurdles. Early in the process, to dress themselves in motion that falls outside the balletic realm, the men of Cincinnati Ballet spent time with a fight choreographer and also with a member from the hip-hop dance crew of Elementz. Because the music and moves are new, Morgan and her associate, Johanna Wilt, have at times had to retrieve the score on paper to confirm the musical time signature with the steps they’re placing on dancers.
Nobody can predict whether “Camelot” will find a home in the revolving repertory of American ballet. For Cincinnati Ballet and Morgan, it’s already a triumph of resilience and resolve.
IF YOU GO
Who: Cincinnati Ballet
What: "King Arthur's Camelot"
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 13-15 and 2 p.m. Feb. 15-16
Where: Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St.
More information:cballet.org or (513) 621-5282