Just over a year ago, I found myself in the familiar setting of a dance audition. As with many auditions, the first challenge to be negotiated was a classical ballet class. Having been through ballet school, I thought I knew what to expect from this, indoctrinated into thinking that the formula was always more or less the same. The teacher, Patrick Wood, stood at the barre in 3rd position and did, what was for me at that moment, an unusually simple but alien ports de bras exercise. I recognised all the elements, but I had never seen them assembled in such a way or with such a focus on the use of the torso; and 3rd position, one of the 5 basic positions of the legs in classical dance, had thus far been treated dismissively, to my eyes, as just for children, who can’t yet manage 5th. Far from being a frustrating and disorientating experience, that simple exercise instantly changed something in my mind and body: I finally started to understand the technique of classical ballet.
This audition led me to three more people who have become instrumental in how I have approached dance since: choreographer Susie Crow, dancer and teacher Bethany Elliott and the man who in turn has influenced the other three, Roger Tully. Taking class and discussing with Patrick and Roger, and creating work and dancing with Susie and Bethany have lifted the veil to show me the true workings of this beautiful discipline, which I was in danger of falling out of love with. Initially I thought I was privy to some cutting-edge radicalism – the line of aplomb, en dehor and en dedans as positions of the body, oppositions, spirals, the real application of épaulement – but really they are just the principles of classical ballet. Not to insinuate that I had bad teaching, far from it in fact, but it was through these teachings that I began to understand that it is not about feet and legs, but that everything is instigated by the body – this may sound obvious, but as an aesthetic, physical artform, ballet has become consumed by its obsession with the lower limbs. The irony is that once you pare it back to the true principles, turn-out and extension are easier and the “dance” becomes inherent in every position: that’s the beauty of the pure classical form – even in stillness there is dancing.
Ballet class has taken on a whole new dimension for me; it had become, lamentably, about fitness and maintenance, but now it is more about questioning and discovery. In Frederick Wiseman’s documentary, La Danse, a repetiteur comments that “Suzanne Farrell’s faults became other’s qualities” – like everything else, our artform is subject to trends, but rather than continuing blithely down these forks in the road, we could do ourselves a favour and bring it back to basics.