- English: Dorothée Gilbert (étoile from Paris Opera Ballet) dances ‘Don Quixote’ in Rio de Janeiro Municipal Theatre. Français : Dorothée Gilbert (étoile du ballet de l’Opéra de Paris) interprète Kitri dans ‘Don Quichotte’, à Rio de Janeiro. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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Think about any ballet performances you have seen. Which is the most visually stimulating for you? A typical performance of ballet can include a variation, several variations from different ballets or the same ballet, such as Paquita. It can include an excerpt from a ballet of 19th century Russia, a full-length ballet production, a short contemporary ballet, character dancing from many countries, one of Russia’s odes to its many nations, such as one of Borudin’s (including folk dancing from many nations), a contemporary ballet, such as Rodeo (DeMille), which attempts to capture the “American” in ballet, maybe a child’s fairy tale, brought to life by characters ranging from human snowflakes, to a mad mouse and ballet soldiers. One thing is for sure, the lifetime of any individual can find itself mirrored in a ballet.
More contemporary pieces and stagings, reach out to us on a “pure dancing” level, technical level, and an emotional level, trying to find something more in the abstract, or more meaningful in technology, from lights to telephones. It’s all there. But it wouldn’t be there unless there was a language of dance which attempts to make sense of the associated movements in dance, so that other dancers could understand it, and people could see patterns. How do works from Twyla Tharp find a home, and works like those of the great ballet master, musician, and choreographer (and dancer), Petipa? How and why do new dancers learn to dance these old ones, and how do they find the range of movement with their existing tools to tackle all of the varying styles and expressions?
Dancers may be clothed differently, wear different shoes, or no shoes, they may be acting in a subdued and pained or a grand and noble fashion-and they may tend to hug the earth, slither across it, fly through the air, turn and dart, skip and jump, roll and tumble, connecting many movements and expressions together, in the most careful and slow way, or breathtakingly fast, and hard to follow. These differences in movement may make you want to rise out of your seat and join them, cry and sink into your chair, go home and write a story, make your own dance-it doesn’t matter to the viewer, who is inspired by these effects of dance, but it has to matter to the dancer who does them. It has to and it does. All theatrical dances that blend movement, music or sound, decor and are performed by dancers who have been trained primarily in what is called classical ballet technique, are called ballets, no matter the differences. They are all connected.
Dance comes from many cultures, civilizations, and periods of history. Through the ancient times and the middle ages to the present, there have been ballets. The definition of “ballet” has changed, but not the elements, experience or intent of the dancers and choreographers. These, we hear repeated in history, music, and art, photography, on the stage, and film. Ballets have included many things: singing, acting, art, costumes, and they have been styled similarly throughout the ages, but different styles of dancing have evolved, new dialects, and in ballet, a few of them have stuck, new ones have been added temporarily, many have been tried and failed to work or be accepted, and many more have not been thoroughly explored. By different means and persons some forms of ballet have been set aside, such as the banquet ballet, a ballet for every course of a meal-no dinner dancing, or the coeur, and many others! Once upon a time, these were the rage in the courts of Europe. Others, such as Cecchetti’s method, Vaganova’s techniques, Bournonville’s transitions, and Balanchines’s lines, have become acceptable in most of the ballets we perform today and we see them all the time-we just don’t know what they are. Others will follow. Why? It seems that every choreographer and major teacher, or promoter of ballet has tried to leave his or her stamp on the art, but only few have become essential. They gain acceptance through use and performance. Louis XVI was intrinsic to ballet, and yet many of his other ideas did not last.
A lot of this has to do with the public-what they like to see, whether they are involved or not, the level of skill required for the effortless appearance of the movement, and how the actual steps are put together to facilitate this disguise-to engage the viewer. So it really comes back to what we see, and hear, and feel. People can feel, instinctively, if something isn’t quite right, or doesn’t work, even if they have no knowledge of dance at all. A more educated dance viewer may sense if technical skill is lacking, harmony is off, or lines are not flowing into space.
The contributions of dance icons in the ballet world have made it possible for ballet dancers to express things in a believable way by training the dancer’s body to perform movements that otherwise are not possible, to music that is otherwise un-danceable, to choreography that requires skill beyond even the finest ballet dancer’s ability to accomplish without assistance, and to encourage practice of it over and over again until it looks unrehearsed, natural, and conveys the ideal of the meaning of the piece. What a tough job! But, this hard work, is primarily the reason ballet is still in vogue today, the reason parents take their children to ballet, and the goal of most doe-eyed beginners in little pink tutus at recitals-but they often do not realize this until much later, and some of them still do not understand it all, many years later, as professionals. Many of the long instituted precepts of ballet have been forgotten, and it is primarily for this reason that I am writing this, to remind people of how it all comes together, and has relevance today, for those who want to bring more into their ballet training and performances.