When you think of ballet, how often do you think of tutus, pointe shoes and classical music playing in the background? If you do, you might have a question for the Twin Cities Ballet of Minnesota's artistic leaders after hearing about their next show: "How could you make a ballet out of Pink Floyd's The Wall?"
Their response: "How could you not?"
There will be no tutus or classical music this weekend at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis, when TCB premieres "Pink Floyd's The Wall: A Rock Ballet." Instead, Run Like Hell, a Pink Floyd tribute band based in St. Paul, will play live using click tracks to keep time with the dancers. Aside from that technicality, the dance company is approaching this ballet just as it would with classical music: by letting the sounds inform the movement.
Company leaders and co-choreographers Denise and Rick Vogt are bending classical lines to fit the British group's 1979 rock opera. Even though they communicate in ballet's French vocabulary, they are not beholden to old rules, Rick Vogt said. So the adult women dancers will be on pointe, but the pas de deux will ignore traditional gender roles.
"We could call pas de deux 'duets,' and we could stop using ballet words, and that doesn't change anything," he said. "To me, it's a pas de deux: 'a step of two' just the way music is in Italian. It's building blocks based on the same architecture; the same vocabulary of movement, but with contemporary elements."
When TCB's artistic directors work with composers like for their original ballet "Beauty and the Beast" they could ask for 16 more measures of a waltz when they needed it. Choreographing to a set album this time, they did not have that flexibility, so syncing the band with the dancers was key. That is why Run Like Hell's musicians will have the click tracks counting in their ears like little metronomes while they play, said Todd Berntson, the band's leader, guitarist and vocalist.
"There are laws of physics that affect how a body moves and falls and when you jump, how long it takes to reach the ground again," Berntson said. "We have to make sure, if it's choreographed to the music, that we can keep that timing absolutely precise."
Ballet and classical music share some misunderstandings of being caught in the past, unapproachable or elitist. With The Wall, TCB is reminding audiences that both forms have always been shifting.
"Yes, ballet was codified and developed 400 years ago, over the centuries, but it's changed radically over the years, like classical evolved into more contemporary music," Rick Vogt said.
He pointed to early-20th-century ballets that people found shocking enough to walk out of, like Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe," Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, or George Balanchine's neoclassical ballets that turned 19th-century Russian dance on its head. Balanchine kept the dancers on pointe but replaced flowery theatricality with a stark, modern feel.
By turning familiar stories into accessible ballets, TCB also wants to teach that ballet is approachable for everyone. This show is attracting rock fans who have never been to ballet, and, in turn, helping ballet buffs see rock music in a new light, Denise Vogt said.
While The Wall is young compared with most classical ballet music, it remains relevant for new generations.
"The themes and the elements are timeless," Rick Vogt said. "Alienation and isolation, fear, blocking yourself off; societal fear; fear of bullying or institutional oppression the names have changed, but the ideas, if anything, are more applicable now."
The Vogts said the themes apply to today's headlines of school shootings, mental health and social media harassment.
These artists wanted to make a ballet out of The Wall for decades, and when the timing was right, they produced it to tell a good story. Although they did not set off to knock down genre barriers and bring people together, that is exactly what they are doing: reminding us to look past our own walls between classical and contemporary styles.
"Pink Floyd's The Wall: A Rock Ballet" premieres March 1-3 at the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts in Minneapolis. Tickets and information are available at Twin Cities Ballet's website.
Hailey Colwell is a St. Paul-based writer who grew to love classical music while searching for composers from her childhood.