I tend to get looks of politely disguised disgust when I communicate my appreciation-but-not-adoration for ballet.
Yeah, yeah. I get it. I took ballet 4-5 days a week while I was at UI my first time around. I spent two summers in Seattle at a ballet intensive with PNB instructors. It’s hard. It requires a great amount of control and body awareness. It’s the sort of thing that a few decades of hard work cannot perfect.
My beef with classical ballet isn’t so much the technical aspect of it. Ballet does give us a much better body awareness; it gives us access to muscles that most of us wouldn’t otherwise recognize or be able to control. Ballet teaches a great vocabulary for a dancer, as well as combining strength and grace in a way that teaches us to look like we aren’t working as hard as we are. Beauty shines through the sweat.
Ballet is essential to any dancer’s training.
But it’s not the end all, be all of dance. Ballet has had its time in the limelight too long, and when the majority of the public is asked to think of “dance,” they think of ballet. Students are told to practice ballet more often than other techniques, and they start younger. Ballet is put on this cultural pedestal.
Take it down.
Ballet is sort of like the “math” of the dance world. There’s a right and a wrong way to do everything, and ballet makes it very easy to put oneself in a box. Nothing is left up to interpretation. This sort of principle is helpful when the dancer is young, but there are so many “mature” dancers who have a hard time taking artistic liberty with choreography. In ballet, the character one plays is often put atop the dancer; it’s not really about the character, or the dancer, it’s just a general guideline for the tone of the variation. Is the difference between the sugar plum fairy and the lilac fairy really so great? (yes, I can see the differences, but an outsider would have no idea that they’re watching two very different characters) Great ballerinas have brought their own artistry to these roles but the difference between them is still negligible when comparing it to something contemporary like the sacrifice in the Rites versus the chorus in Night Journey.
The dissertments in ballet serve to show off the technical finesse of the dancer – this athletic feat is always appreciated, but after watching ballet after ballet, they all really run together. With a very specific cannon of movement to choose from, classical ballet is limiting to the artist. Dissertments in classical ballet are really the literary equivalent of a character doing something because the plot demands it versus the character doing something because it is what they would truly do. The second scenario leads to a much richer experience for the reader.
I’m not saying we should do away with classical ballet – on the contrary. It is a beautiful piece of history that should continue to be practiced and promoted. But, as I said before, it is not the end all be all for a dancer or choreographer. We’ve seen high extensions. We’ve seen 32 fouettes – we’ve seen 32 fouettes done in triplet. We’ve seen Aurora balance in her attitude for a solid minute while her princes come forth to take her hand. We’ve seen the perfect jete and the perfect assemble. We’ve seen incredible feats of athleticism and grace and ferocity within this vocabulary – but there is so much more out there!
Even staying in the realm of ballet, Fokine was making waves all the way back in the early 1900s. Having his Firebird flap her arms wildly like a lost turkey instead of a graceful swan (and putting the lady dancer in pantaloons instead of a tutu) – great! Break the rules! Nijinsky took his ballet dancers in Jeux and put them in a angular, sporty love triangle instead of making a romance where they pirouette around each other. One does not even have to move away from ballet to create something interesting. More recently, Crystal Pite’s Emergence made interesting and intense use of contemporary ballet dancers and pointe shoes. Look at the BalletBoyz and what they’re doing with ballet – the choreographers came from a classical background, but that doesn’t mean they only did classical work.
Ballet itself isn’t the problem, but the cult surrounding it can be very limiting, and it’s something that I have come across a startling amount in my travels. I have met ballet dancers who struggle to loosen up enough even to do an old school modern dance class. I have met ballet dancers who have never heard of Martha Graham and assume that modern dance is just rolling around on the ground and pretending to be a tree. I myself am not a ballet dancer, nor am I a hip hop dancer, nor am I a jazz dancer, but I can give at least a brief history of each while being aware of a few important aspects of the technique. Girls who grow up in ballet studios are often unexposed to what else is out there. Ballet is a very useful tool to have at one’s disposal, but putting on blinders to anything except classical ballet is a hindrance. It’s a handicap.
This cultural unawareness seems to be lessening as the genres run together, as dancers are expected to be able to do a little bit of everything, including choreograph and improv. As dancers, we have a responsibility to understand what we are doing and how we came to be doing it.
Why is cultural awareness important for the dancer?
We have to know where we came from. Knowing the context for the technique you study is just as important as being able to perform the technique itself – it adds another dimension to the movement. It adds awareness to your own understanding of the movement, which brings more fascination to your performance.
As much as we would like to think otherwise, dance is not very appreciated among the general population. We need to know where we came from in order to promote ourselves. We need to advocate for dance, and we cannot do that based on purely a technical explanation of the art form. The uneducated dancer is a dangerous dancer, and not in a sexy dangerous way.
Choreographically, it is important to have a solid understanding of the path dance took, from folk dances to ballet into modern dance into jazz and so on. Nobody needs to keep an encyclopedia’s worth of dance history, but it is important to be aware of what has been done and why it has been done so that one can make educated choices in the studio, artistically and choreographically. Would you read a book by an author who had never read anything before? Being ignorant to the art one claims to practice is not going to produce good or fulfilling work.
Being aware of our past makes it possible for us to move forward, and ballet cannot remain static. Like modern dance, it has to continue to evolve. The cult of classical ballet is harmful to dance in general in this sense. We have to keep exploring and pushing and changing to accomplish anything.
Ballet won’t be going anywhere for a long time – which is great – but let’s open our eyes to all the possibilities, not just the ones laid out in the technical dictionary of ballet.
Having said all this, here is my favorite bit of classical ballet