Teamwork: The Power of the Dance Ensemble | To dance

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Duets can often be the emotional heart of a dance performance and solos can add virtuoso sparkle, but the collective dance of an ensemble can often produce the most transcendent effects. Classical configurations adorned with ballets by Marius Petipa; the minimalist geometries of Lucinda Childs; and the roaring percussive forces mobilized by Hofesh Shechter are among the wonders of the dance world. The might of the ensemble might be why the Dutch National Ballet is celebrating the might of the ensemble this month in a mixed group dance program called, simply, Corps.

The disciplined timing and coordination that allows dozens of dancers to move and breathe in unison is itself a phenomenon. To see the Mariinsky corps de ballet at Swan Lake or Giselle is to witness a whole history of training and tradition in action. This is the essence of style. A large number of dancers moving together can also magnify other choreographic elements. The production lines of identical glittering tap dancers in Busby Berkeley musicals create a visceral experience. The choreography of the body in Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty evolves from a dramatic framing device to a pure musical motif. Then there’s Mark Morris, who creates a common ecstatic emotion in the folk dances of L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato and in the fierce crescendo of Grand Duo. Meanwhile, in Maurice Béjart’s Kabuki ballet, 47 samurai engage Hara-kiri in a single suicidal stab, it’s a blazing coup.

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All of these effects are wonderful. But it is ultimately the paradox of individuals united in a group that makes the whole so moving. It connects ordinary people with forces greater than themselves. Take the seemingly random but meticulous patterns that give the dancers in Merce Cunningham’s work the mysterious look of a flock of birds or an urban crowd. Or consider Pepita’s constellations of mathematical movements and the work of her choreographic descendants George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton. Then there are the group dances in Drumming by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. In the latter, the reckless but ingeniously mapped ground patterns followed by the dancers seem as necessary as the laws of physics, but as selfless as child’s play.

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