Tag Archives: Giselle

Pointe: From Trick To Trade

The pointe shoe, along with the tutu, has its place firmly in ballet iconography. One of the most common questions posed to ballet dancers, male or female, must be “do you dance on your toes?” While dancing en pointe is required of every female classical dancer, if it is to avoid becoming an artefact, new ways of employing the technique will have to be introduced.

What is now a finely-honed technique began life as a gimmick. After Charles Didelot’s contraption that allowed dancers, suspended on wires, to stand on tip-toe, choreographers began experimenting with ways of recreating the illusion in different ways. Marie Taglioni first danced on a prototype pointe show in the opera Robert Le Diable – it was no more than a satin ballet shoe, heavily darned at the tip. Today pointe shoes offer much more support, which in turn allows more freedom and variety in the choreography that can be performed in them.

Technique has always been the servant of repertoire. The technical feats and impressive control we associate with pointe work today were arrived at through ballets such as La Sylphide, Giselle and the works of Marius Petipa: the requirements of the choreography dictating the rigours of the training.

The training of pointe work is an integral part of classical ballet training, and the two have developed simultaneously. From the romantic and classical to the neo-classical of Balanchine and the de-constructionist of Forsythe, pointe work progressed in tandem with the choreographic demands.

While the pointe shoe is being largely left behind by modern ballet choreographers such as Carolyn Carlson, many choreographers, such as Christopher Wheeldon, continue to employ it in a traditional way. Given the fragile nature of ballets, those which feature the point shoe most prominently are the classics, those ballets where the pointe technique came of age. If the technique is to continue to grow and to be artistically relevant, we need to look outside the classical tradition.

Wayne McGregor, the controversial resident choreographer of The Royal Ballet, is very much from outside the classical tradition. His schooling and influences are free from the shackles of the Royal Ballet heritage; his works show little deference to the resident choreographers who have gone before him. The result of the meeting of his background and the pointe shoe-clad dancers is an entirely new movement vocabulary and the pointe show has been given a new lease of life. After looking back to move forward for so long, if we want to keep the pointe shoe from the museum shelf, we need to start looking elsewhere.

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Pliés Win Prizes

When, oh when, did ballet become a competitive sport? The performing arts developed from man’s in-built desire for an expressive emotional outlet and were surely never intended to make combatants out of their participants. Another facet of man’s innate needs, that of our requirement to establish hierarchy within a group, has made a battle for supremacy out of many pursuits, including classical dance: it’s big business now, with high stakes but sometimes questionable values.

On the surface, ballet competitions are marketed as platforms for young dancers to expand their performance experience while being exposed to the discerning eyes of school and company directors, with elusive scholarships and contracts up for grabs.

Scratch the surface, and the realities aren’t so straightforward. Most have a pre-selection stage, where dancers are heavily scrutinised on their physical attributes: this directly mirrors the audition scenario of most companies, but to impose this level of body-fascism on young dancers, most of whom are still in vocational training, could be detrimental. While having the requisite facility to go through a full classical schooling is important, seeking out those dancers who have something approximating the “ideal” ballet body, has, in my opinion, little to do with dance, and may, in the future, have devastating effects on the practice of ballet.

Over a short space of time, such as the timeframe under which these competitions are conducted, it is difficult to impose hierarchical structure on a group. In the setting of a company, over months and years it becomes apparent who the most consistent and reliable performers are – hallmarks of true professional dancers. These qualities are not apparent from watching a few classes and some variations, and ultimately it’s difficult not to assess the dancers based on their relative technical and physical capabilities: surely a dancer who can turn more, or with nicer feet will score higher than their peers in such situations. At this juncture I should point out that my knowledge of the scoring of ballet competitions is zilch, but the results generally speak for themselves: the males are full of slick bravura and the girls all bulging insteps and wild extensions.

Some of these competitions have professional divisions, where company members get international exposure, which is entirely appropriate. That you may see a 10 year old on one stage dancing the same Flames of Paris variation as a professional on another isn’t. I agree that it is important to get dancers on stage early, to get a feel for the craft, it really shouldn’t be about dancing principle variations from the get-go: dancing a solo from a pre-approved list admittedly makes the job of the jury easier, it can sometimes smack of kids beauty-pageants – what can a 15 year old bring to the role of Albrecht or Giselle except their technique and body?

Though there is scant evidence to support it, it is widely known that Mr. Balanchine was not a supporter of ballet competitions and didn’t want his variations to be performed in them. The Prix de Lausanne seems to be the exception. Mr. Balanchine saw ballet as a physical expression of beauty, for enjoyment on its own merits, not as an arena for an artistic tug-of-war. However, when you look at the structure of the ballet company, it’s hierarchy already suggests competition: the Paris Opera Ballet even uses adjudicated competition (the annual Concours) to promote dancers up the ranks.

With such competitive stratification evident in the oldest ballet institution in the world, the ballet competition seems like a natural rite-of-passage for young dancers hoping to break into the professional ranks. Companies support them as there are rich pickings for new talent, schools too as it is a showcase for their training, but as much competition as there is within a ballet company, we (dancers, schools and companies) would do well to remember that this art form of ours is about physical and emotional expression, not about who is number one.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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Battle of the Sexes. Or Should That Be Ballet of the Sexes?

Is it any wonder that ballet is seen as a predominantly female pursuit? Still represented in the collective imagination as a flurry of girls in tutus, it is easy to forget that a stereotype takes a moment to establish and generations to allay. Take Black Swan for instance: the film has probably been seen by more people than the entire choreographic output of the last year, so a straw-poll on the street would indicate that ballet in 2011 is more closely associated with this film, than with, let’s say, the premier of Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland, a major event, and what’s more, an actual one; the public perception doesn’t always match up with the reality.

I digress; the point I’m trying to get to is that the role of the male dancer in the classical ballets of centuries past still affects the perception of men in ballet today.

Balanchine proclaimed “ballet is woman”: he was moulded in the Imperial Theatre tradition of St. Petersburg, a child of Theatre Street, where the ladies were top bill; Aurora, Odette/Odile, Giselle, Raymonda and the Sugar Plum fairy. Yes, they all had their cavaliers, but in comparison, the were always playing second fiddle.

Take Raymonda for instance: she has a whopping six solos, Jean de Brienne has one. While Aurora and Odette/Odile enchant and seduce, Princes Florimund and Siegfried mope. Admittedly Albrecht is the meatiest role here, but he’s portrayed as a fickle infidel. As for our man in The Nutcracker, he doesn’t even have a real name – how’s that for equality? In comparison to the exhibition the ladies are giving, the gentlemen really are upstaged: it’s hardly an endorsement of manhood, even if they’re given the lavish title of danseur noble.

Since these ballets were choreographed the male in ballet has been better represented: mainly through personalities such as Nureyev and Baryshnikov, but also thanks to the works of choreographers like Kenneth McMillan who wasn’t afraid to employ strong male leads with depth of character. Regardless, people like to cling on to stereotypes, and once established, they’re tough to deconstruct.

Ballet has been called misogynistic, owing to its objectifying of the female. Never has it been called philogynistic for its portrayal of proud women nor misandristic for its portrayal of insipid men. (Indeed those two words are bandied about so little compared to their more common antonym that I hardly even know of their existence).

Men have always danced ballet; men danced ballet before women did. Somewhere along the timeline from Louis XIV to now, people became of the opinion that it is the preserve of the fairer sex. The men-folk will continue dancing, and hopefully someday the public opinion will catch up with what actually goes on.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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Can you tell a story through ballet alone?

Sure, most of our most popular ballets fall into the narrative ballet bracket, in that they tell a story, but is the storyline conveyed through the actual ballet steps? Or is it through the other dramatic devices that go to making up a “Ballet”?

Let’s look at the ballets of Marius Petipa, unquestionably the most successful ballet choreographer since the accepted inception of the dance form, as we know it. His work in the classical idiom is undeniably beautiful; corps de ballet, pas de deux and solo work of such purity that it has managed to survive being handed down through generations in a more intact condition than the work of most choreographers since. This classical ballet technique, does not however tell a story all by itself. The dramatic dynamo behind these narrative ballets was mime – naturalistic gesture which was intended to inform the audience of the story; when it is done with the correct intention and clarity (as it rarely is) it can fulfill it’s brief and advance the plot towards the next piece of choreography. So, rather than a Ballet being a story told through the technique of classical ballet, it was, and is, primarily advanced through mime, with the dance a frequent, ornate diversion (hence the term divertissement).

Some steps from the classical technique are often employed to express a particular emotion; none moreso, or with more versatility, than the classical arabesque. A shape of such simplicity, the arabesque has been used to convey longing (Prince Florimund in his Act 2 soliloquy in Sleeping Beauty), joy (Lise in La Fille Mal Gardeé) and even the tortured purgatory of a scorned woman (the Wilis in Giselle Act 2): but how much of the meaning is pregnant in the step and how much is the acting that accompanies it?

It’s not too often that a step by itself will translate drama to the audience: it’s in the acting too. There’s not a whole lot of drama training at ballet school, but most dancers pick it up along the way, watching, learning and emulating. The steps are the scaffold around which the dramatic facade is draped.

Classical steps can speak by themselves, but it takes a master craftsman to know how and when to employ them. For example, Balanchine managed it in his Apollo: three women performing chassé arabesque while linked to the man’s arm and you have a chariot being pulled by three horses – it’s a simple step and it’s readable. Ashton too has achieved this; the idiosyncratic choreography in Enigma Variations gives an unambiguous account of the characters, without resorting to pantomime.

There are a limited number of steps in the classical repertoire, but the permutations and combinations are endless. Ballet alone can tell a story, convey an emotion and establish a mood; it’s all in the hands of the dance-makers – sometimes the simplest of steps can speak volumes.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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