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Thoughts on dancing, teaching, and watching ballet
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A few quick impressions of the performance:
Ballet Memphis: Good dancers. Appropriate music (Roy Orbison) with slick choreography, although at times overly literal. The choreography did not show off the dancers' ballet technique, but they did look strong and very well rehearsed. I'd like to see this company again in a better ballet.
Ballet Arizona: Did not care for the choreography at all. Felt long, tedious, some sections appeared lifted from MacMillan and Balanchine. Ugly costumes for the women--feathered bustles. (What ballet dancer wants to have larger hips?) Choreography did not flatter the dancers, some of whom had trouble with footwork. Not always in sync.
Pacific Northwest Ballet: Highlight of the evening. Excellent dancers with beautiful, clean, strong technique. Carla Korbes was particularly pure, radiant, otherworldly--would love to see her as Aurora, Terpsichore, Chaconne, &c. Would love to see more of the whole company in fact. The piece had a very polished, sophisticated look, both in terms of sets/costumes and choreography. Looked inspired by Balanchine's black & white ballets without being derivative. Not a masterpiece, but a pleasant enough end to the evening.
I did not look forward to this performance with high expectations. The Mariinsky has mostly disappointed me the last few times it's visited, and while today's performance had some nice surprises, it was mostly in line with what I expected. Anastasia Kolegova (Aurora) is a perfectly lovely dancer with pretty line, strong technique, and apparently no acting ability. In Act I, she seemed nervous, and she glossed over any technical challenges (she would have been better off not attempting the balances). In Act II, she was bland rather than ethereal, but in Act III, she seemed relaxed and confident, although still devoid of personality.
Anton Korsakov was an appropriate match--beautiful, strong, clean technique, but only one facial expression. I couldn't understand why either of them is listed as a principal dancer; the lack of stage presence makes them seem more like soloist material to me.
Alexandra Iosifidi (Lilac Fairy) was warm and caring, but otherwise not memorable. Of course, one must also bear in mind that she is hampered by the production, which has her dressed in a sort of evening gown/nightie for half the ballet, performing boring choreography.
I was surprised and pleased to see Maya Dumchenko listed as Princess Florina, and it did indeed appear to be her. She looks quite thin and frail, but in her one pas de deux, she gave a performance worthy of a principal dancer, and told more of a story with her choreography's little hints of narrative than Kolegova did during the entire ballet. Her technique has also not diminished, and her Florina was delicate and graceful.
Vasily Scherbakov was appropriately airborne as the bluebird. His petite batterie during the coda was especially nice.
Vasily Tkachenko and Valerya Martinyuk as Puss 'n Boots and the White Cat were witty and funny, turning a duet one usually suffers through into a highlight of the third act.
I agree with others who dislike the production. It needs new costumes, and the wigs ought to be thrown out. The almost total lack of mime means it ends up being performed basically as a plotless ballet, and even the few dancers who bothered to act weren't given much material to work with. There were a lot of cuts in this production, which is understandable given the time constraints, but it was nice to see that they found some children to perform in the Garland Waltz and also as the eight violinists during the Rose Adagio. I was surprised that they included the entr'acte for solo violin, as it is very long. I always enjoy hearing it, and the violinist played well, but it divided up the already short second act with an unnecessarily long pause.
Kenneth MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet" is a ballet that relies on its two leading dancers more than other ballets do. In Petipa, if the leads are mediocre, one can still be delighted by the elaborate patterns of the corps, the brilliance of the soloists' choreography, or the grand spectacle his ballets generally present. MacMillan's choreography is weaker than Petipa's, and I spent a good deal of the ballet waiting for the principal dancers to come back on as the choreographer fumbled about with the crowd scenes, trying to create a lively, exciting atmosphere but never really succeeding. Fortunately, the leading dancers were worth waiting for, even though the performance got off to a slow start.
In my opinion, Juliet is one of Julie Kent's best roles (I also enjoy her Giselle). In this performance, I did not find her totally believable in Act I. As a fairly tall dancer with a calm stage presence, she does not project that sprightly, childlike energy of a girl who has just entered marriageable age (perhaps 14) in the Renaissance, so the business with the doll did not really seem plausible. The ballroom scene was better, as it allowed her to display her smoothly polished classical line (Kent has perhaps the purest line in classical ballet today; never a harsh moment) and gave us a look at how easily she is able to communicate what her character is thinking and feeling.
Marcelo Gomes is, of course, the ideal Romeo, with his elegant line and noble presence, and he, too, did not really come alive until the ballroom scene. That is an understandable way to play the role, but I think it would be more effective for us to get a sense of who Romeo is before he meets Juliet so that the contrast registers more strongly.
Mercutio is the sort of role in which Herman Cornejo specialises, and he played it very well tonight. It's easy to go over the top with MacMillan, but Cornejo struck just the right note of witty playfulness without coming across as overly caffeinated or annoying. His quick, agile technique allowed him to zip right through the sometimes oddly put together steps, and his death scene was realistically but not melodramatically played. It felt right.
Act III is where the drama really gets going for Juliet, and here Kent really let loose from the decorum of the ballroom scene. During the bedroom pas de deux, I had the sense that her Juliet felt she was not going to see Romeo alive again, and she used that to create a kind of inarticulate, almost irrational desperation that was very effective.
Victor Barbee was a commanding, majestic, threatening presence as Lord Capulet--perhaps the strongest personality in the ballet. His Lady Capulet (Stella Abrera) did not have the same regal manner or acting skill, and mainly resorted to stylised swanning around.
While this is not my favourite ballet to watch due to its many weak points (essentially everything the corps has to do as well as MacMillan's feeble attempts to tell the story through either dance or very abbreviated, vague mime) Kent and Gomes brought out the best in the choreography and created a moving, heartfelt drama.
Lately I have been trying to challenge myself during class, so for the last two classes I've taken, I made a rule that I would use the barre as little as possible. That doesn't sound so difficult, but I soon found out just how much I rely on the barre, even when I think I don't. A simple battement tendu exercise in first suddenly required quite a bit more effort, and it only became more difficult from there. If I truly need the barre (for a very fast exercise, or one entirely on demi-pointe, for example) I use it, but otherwise try to do without. While I'm sure it isn't as pretty to look at, I've noticed one important benefit: the less I use the barre, the better my balance is in the center, particularly during pirouettes, because there's no "adjustment" period of trying to figure out how to get to demi-pointe without support.
I'm certain I'm not the only one who has experienced this, but I think it's an idea that could be used more often in ballet classes. Even when one is doing everything right, the barre ends up providing more support than it should simply because one's hand is on it, so the dancer ends up using it more than s/he is aware. There is also a great temptation to make the barre work as clean and neat as possible, which is an appropriate goal, but not when it comes at the expense of gaining strength and balance. Barre work is a tool, not an end in itself, and if the concepts one practises there do not transfer to the center, what's the point?
Ballet class--especially barre--is always a work in progress. One isn't there to present a perfectly polished performance but to challenge oneself and grow. When creating art, one frequently has to make a mess in order to make something beautiful, and ballet is no different. So make a mistake, lose your balance, miss a pirouette, yet always with the finished product in mind. That's how you get better.
In preparation for auditions for dance pedagogy programs, I have started taking classes again, mostly at the American Dance Institute in Rockville, MD. So far I have had two classes, each taught by a dancer with Washington Ballet: Runqiao Du and Elizabeth Gaither.
Both classes involved a long barre--45 minutes to an hour. Normally this is not my cup of tea, but as I am still pretty weak, it was nice to have the support. There were many combinations focusing on battements tendus and dégagés. Very good for precise footwork. By contrast, we did not do much in the way of jumps, which was also fine with me as by that point in the class I was running out of energy!
I've noticed that I seem to have a lot of trouble with combinations involving lots of battements fondus as I'm finding it difficult to plié on one leg with control. Not sure why that is, maybe I just need to get strength back. Pirouettes are also not working well, and I have trouble using good épaulement at the barre.
On to the positives: My foot articulation is still good, perhaps even better than before now that I've had to teach students to do it for several years. I can pick up combinations easily in my head, even if it doesn't yet always translate to my body. And I still have some flexibility, although it needs work. I'm basically doing a complete overhaul on my arabesque, as I don't think it's ever been placed quite right.
The important part, though, is that class is still fun, even after all these years!
I have taught my first class of the year, and I am afraid it is going to be an uphill battle. The first problem is that the students are only in ballet class once, or in some cases twice, a week, so building strength and coordination will be a challenge. I've decided to give them the same lesson for several weeks in a row so that they will be able to concentrate on correct technique while performing familiar exercises. They will also write down their classes so that they learn to spell and use ballet terms correctly.
For the first lesson, I was very strict about doing each exercise as perfectly as possible. This is not something that has been demanded of them before, and it took some getting used to: we ended up spending the entire 90 minutes at the barre. However, next week they will be more familiar with the exercises, and we will get to do center, and hopefully next week and the week after we will get through allegro. Then on to a new lesson!
I am also choreographing a dance for four girls to be performed in competitions and at the end of the year. I am considering using a section of 'Danse Macabre' by Camille Saint-Saens, as I am trying to get them to be more expressive in their dancing. Right now their idea of 'performing' tends to be gluing on a smile.
Unfortunately, all the competitions they do don't really leave much room for a Kennedy Center field trip to watch professional ballet, but I will still look for opportunities. I received nothing but positive comments when I took them to see Veronika Part in ABT's 'Swan Lake' last year. Maybe this year we can see something more unusual. The classics are important, but I want them to experience newer works as well.
I will update again when I've taught some more, seen a performance, or taken a class.
I think I have finally, at long last, got my students to begin to understand turnout and how the legs move to the side. It has taken a while, but last class I used some ideas from the Teachers forum on BTfD to help them understand. A yardstick was very helpful.
First, I repeated something I've done before: have the student stand in 1st position, place the yardstick on the floor in front of him/her so it forms a horizontal line just touching his/her toes, and have the student tendu side along the line formed by the stick. This gets them to understand that the leg needs to move directly to the side. Otherwise, when they go from 1st to 2nd position, the legs will not be in line, glissades will move slightly forward, échappés will be a problem, &c. Also, it forces the student to use the appropriate muscles. A tendu that moves along the line of the foot will, in many cases, end up somewhat forward of 2nd, and it will not improve turnout, just reinforce what the student already has.
Second, once the student had established pointe tendue à la seconde, I held the yardstick vertically at his/her working toe and had him/her raise the leg as high as possible without moving the leg forward and without losing the turnout of either leg. To do this, they had to keep using their turnout muscles (which often get relaxed when the leg is held too far forward).
For a few weeks now, I have had my less advanced class do the following exercise:
Beat 1: Plié in 5th
Beat 2: Relevé to pirouette position
Beat 3: Hold the position
Beat 4: Close 5th on demi-pointe
Last class (after having them practice battement tendu and rond de jambe par terre en tournant) I modified the last two parts so that it went like this:
Beat 1: Plié in 5th
Beat 2: Relevé to pirouette position
Beat 3: Remaining on demi-pointe, turn 1/8 en dehors
Beat 4: Hold the position, or if necessary, close 5th on demi-pointe
It was not perfect, but they made a good start. Once they get stronger at that exercise, I can have them learn pirouettes, but I will continue to have them work on learning tour lent on demi-pointe. Having that control is very good for pirouettes, especially as the study of tour lent on demi-pointe will instill muscle memory of correct position.
I have been an advocate of less pointework in ballet for some time now, and here's why, in no particular order:
1. Having to dance en pointe limits possibilities for female dancers who may be very talented in every other way but simply don't have feet and ankles that are flexible enough to allow them to stand sur les pointes.
2. Pointe shoes ruin a dancer's jump, making it not just lower but also more noisy, no matter how well the feet are used during the takeoff and landing.
3. Pointework encourages/allows choreographers to rely on (neo)classical partnering, with the man standing behind the woman either supporting or manipulating her, rather than allowing the woman to dance for herself and freeing up the man to do the same.
4. Because modern pointe shoes are basically designed with only the idea of being sur les pointes in mind (thereby allowing the dancer to perform Petipa and Balanchine ballets) it is more difficult to perform Romantic and Bournonville ballets. Not only do these ballets use more jumps (see above) but also the necessary thickness and narrowness of the shank make it harder to perform an unsupported adagio, of which Romantic ballets make more use. The dancer may be very strong and stable, but when she is standing on what is essentially a tiny balance beam in her shoe, wobbles are inevitable.
5. Too often, pointe is used as a foot-strengthening/posture tool. While it is true that pointework makes your feet stronger and that if you are not standing properly you cannot stay en pointe, both of these qualities must already be in place before starting pointe--otherwise there is a greater risk of injury. Learning to perform various steps on demi-pointe has the same strengthening effect with a much lower injury risk.
I am not saying that pointework should be eliminated from ballet or that dancers should go back to wearing glorified technique shoes that do not properly support their feet. (Well, maybe a slightly softer shoe could be made for Romantic ballets that require more jumps and less pointe.) But as ballet moves forward, I think it is time to stop relying on what is essentially a "trick" and start focusing on developing movement that allows women to have the same freedom of movement as men.
I feel similarly about lifts--when used well they are beautiful and effective, but too often they are merely a substitute for dancing, not to mention that they are often used as an excuse to keep women thin. The fact that it is not actually necessary for a woman to be particularly thin to be lifted has not silenced this reasoning.
To discuss this performance, please go here.
This was my first live full-length "Bayadère," although previously I have seen the Royal Ballet, Paris Opéra Ballet, and Bolshoi Ballet productions on video, and I have seen the Maryinsky do the "Kingdom of the Shades" scene several times, both live and on video. This production is beautifully designed, with lush sets and beautiful costumes, and although there were too many obviously fake animals for my taste, at least it omitted some of the more racist elements of the original ballet.
Unfortunately, I found the staging (until the Grand Pas Classique and the Kingdom of the Shades) rather weak despite the deployment of more people onstage than most companies have the resources for. Nikiya is not given much to do in her Act I entrance besides saunter around en pointe for a while, and the mime between her, Solor, the High Brahmin, and the fakir was so vaguely sketched out that I had a hard time understanding what they were "saying," even though I understand classical mime and know the plot.
Act I, Scene II was not much better--lots of incoherent attempts to mime, which surprises me, given that the Maryinsky has been miming since before most ballet companies in operation today existed. A bright spot was the D'jampe dance, performed with spirit and precision by the corps. Less enjoyable was a mostly boring pas de deux featuring a little contortion toward the end, and by the time Act I was over I was beginning to see why certain people think old ballets ought to be scrapped. Lots of over-wrought, hand-wringing melodrama, hardly any choreography, and precious little logic or sense.
Act II was (eventually) an improvement. Aside from ladies dancing so carelessly with their taxidermied parrots that had the birds been alive they all would have had motion sickness, we had a tiger that appeared to be from Toys R Us, more taxidermied parrots hanging at bizarre angles from flower garlands, and a mechanical elephant with a dark-skinned mannequin attached to its head. This act featured a large corps dancing boring steps leading up to the Grand Pas Classique, which is beautifully choreographed for a couple and two trios, followed by Nikiya's sad dance.
Act III is, of course, an unsurpassed choreographic triumph. However, it is an unsatisfying ending to the ballet, as it leaves the gods' vengeance on Gamzatti, the Rajah, and the High Brahmin unresolved.
I was mostly unimpressed by the dancing, as the Maryinsky principals and soloists have been performing for a few years now as if they are competing at the Prix de Lausanne. Lots of big jumps, high extensions, careful preparations for pirouettes, student-like mistakes during relatively simple steps, and hardly any acting, refinement, or adapting one's style to suit the demands of a particular ballet or character. Tereshkina, with her small-featured, unexpressive face, was not, in my opinion, an appropriate choice for the dramatic, mysterious character of Nikiya. She did all the steps just fine, and often very well, but she has an overly long, un-classical line, and this combined with her willowy figure and careful way of moving prevents her from being powerfully expressive. Similarly, Korsakov as Solor had very neat technique, with soft, silent landings and precise footwork, but he is so intent on splitting his legs to 180º during every grand jeté that he often ends up looking as if he's auditioning for "A Chorus Line" rather than expressing nobility. I believe he could be a moving Solor with better coaching. The lady who danced Gamzatti was extremely pretty, with features that "read" up to the balcony, but she too was not a strong actress, and her dancing was riddled with technical insecurities.
The dancers I most enjoyed watching in this performance were the soloists and demi-soloists. Unlike the corps, which was very precise and detailed but whose steps were insultingly simple (I found myself thinking, "They were trained for eight years and mastered the difficult Vaganova syllabus to spend their days doing toe-pulls and jumping on one leg a few times?" Granted, technique at the corps level was probably not as advanced in 1877 as it was in the 1890's.) the soloists have steps that are just challenging enough to be interesting but not intimidating, and as they are not called upon to express anything in particular besides beauty and grace, they are able to just have fun and shine, and they excelled at this. Unfortunately, they too were subjected to the complete lack of attention to petit allegro that seems to have occurred at the Vaganova Academy about ten years ago, so their footwork was not as clean and precise as that of earlier dancers, but they were lovely to watch nonetheless.
In Act III, the corps danced, as always, perfectly, but the three soloists had problems. The first shade clearly wanted to dance at a faster tempo, and she would have been much better had she been allowed to. The second shade also had musical issues, perhaps due to the conductor not understanding how the steps fit to the music. The third shade was fine musically, but she was trying so hard to raise her leg during her opening diagonal that she unfolded it in two counts instead of one, landing from her sissonne in an awkward position before straightening her working leg. She had some trouble during the second part of her variation as well, but those steps are notoriously difficult. At the end, she floated down from her final grand jeté, making a completely seamless transition to her landing on one knee.
"La Bayadère" is, obviously, an important ballet, and it must continue to be performed. However, it must be performed as if it is still alive, not preserved in formaldehyde or treated with disdain (Kennedy Center orchestra, take note--Minkus's music is bad, but it sounds worse if you play it as if it's "Chopsticks"). The aforementioned ballet companies dance "La Bayadère" as if it's "Swan Lake" or "Sleeping Beauty" or "Giselle," and that is necessary if the audience is to take it seriously and stay until Act III.
To discuss this performance, please go here.
This topic may be a little premature given that classes will probably not start for most of us for another two weeks, but having recently come from an extremely productive, positive faculty meeting I am very excited about the new ballet school year. I still have some conferring to do with the other teachers, but I think that we are generally on the same page and poised to have our students excel. We have all agreed on the syllabus (it helps that most of us were trained at the same school) and we are to keep in close contact as some of us teach the same classes on different days to make sure everyone is progressing at the same rate. We have even agreed on such details as how the students should enter the classroom! It is a wonderful feeling to be part of such a group, and now that the foundations are in place, I am considering what (besides the steps) to teach and how to do it.
Things I would like them to learn include: how to spell ballet terms, basic music theory, knowledge of important people in ballet throughout history, and plots/characters of great ballets. I know I will have help from the other teachers in all of this.
But more than that, I am going to try to get my students excited about ballet. That may sound redundant--if they didn't like learning ballet, why would they be there? I believe they enjoy it, but the levels I teach are still fairly basic and the exercises can become monotonous. I don't have the opportunity to pepper the combinations with bits of variations, and my students only perform once, at the end of the year. In addition, they take several different types of dance and are usually involved in several other extracurricular activities as well, so making this ancient art form relevant and alive for them--even as they patiently execute my combinations--is a challenge.
It should help that my classes will be slightly larger this year. Small classes are wonderful for refining technique, but for the same reason they can also make it difficult to let go and "just dance," so even when, in an attempt to free my students from the confines of their endless battements tendus for a moment, I would have them chassé or otherwise move across the floor, they still maintained a rigidness, as if they were afraid of what I would criticize, and I was not able to bridge the gulf between "corrector" (as they saw me) and a benevolent person there merely to help them dance better (as I wished to come across). With a larger group, I am hoping it will be easier to form a rapport while still challenging them to work very hard. Their technique must be devoid of bad habits at this early stage, but it must also be alive, and perfect technique is of course useless without the enjoyment of dance and the desire to learn about all the elements that go into it--history, music, costumes, fantastic drama, and above all grace, elegance, harmony, and beauty.
Try teaching all that to the average thirteen year old who grew up in the suburbs and knows nothing of life outside middle school.
And yet, if they weren't already predisposed to the appreciation of grace and beauty, wouldn't they just take jazz? Something about this must speak to them already, and it is my job to draw that out and elaborate. Maybe once a month (I only see them once a week, although they have ballet with other teachers more often than that) I will end class fifteen minutes early to engage their minds in some way, either with a video, music, or a short lesson about an important figure in dance.
I came up with an idea to teach ballet terminology. At our first class, I'll give each student a folder, the kind that holds three-hole-punched notebook paper, and a list of basic ballet steps and their definitions. I will ask them to write down one combination we did in class that day in the car on the way home using the list as a guide. If they encounter a word they don't know how to spell that isn't on the list, they should sound it out as best they can, circle it, and at the end of the next class we will learn each word's spelling and its definition and add it to the list. By the end of the year, they should have a lot of terms, and by limiting it to one exercise, I shouldn't be taking up too much of their homework time/energy. The folders can also be used to hold information from the once-a-month lessons. Now all I need is a dry-erase board, some markers, and to be told that this is way too ambitious and unrealistic!
On Sunday, May 27, I returned to my hometown to watch the ballet school where I started dancing perform "Swan Lake" with guest artists Deanna Seay and Mikhail Ilyin (principal dancers with Miami City Ballet) as Odette and Prince Siegfried.
Both danced beautifully. Ilyin, trained at the Vaganova Academy, has clean lines, very fast, controlled pirouettes, a weightless jump with silent landings, and a grounded presence. Seay also has lovely lines, including a graceful arabesque, but most important to me was her exceptional port de bras. Each position was very clear and refined, but she moved between them softly, with a particularly "boneless" look at the end of Act II when she is turned back into a swan.
This may sound like a back-handed compliment, but I don't mean it that way: Seay's Odette was a pleasure to watch because she kept her interpretation simple. She danced the role as it is meant to be danced--she put the character first, and she proved Mel Johnson's statement true: that the most revolutionary thing a ballet company (or in this case, a dancer) could do would be to stage a plain-vanilla Swan Lake. She respected Petipa's and Ivanov's choreography, didn't flap when Odette is supposed to be human or during the Act III pas de deux, and she performed Odette's mime speech clearly. It was extremely satisfying to watch, and more people ought to follow her example.
However, this was not a stiff, slavish, "textbook" rendition of the ballet. Seay included small nuances that kept the dance alive, and she performed them so subtly that they fell into their proper place as nuances and were not blown out of proportion into anything more than what they were. For example, at the beginning of the Act II pas de deux, just after she sinks down onto one knee and bends forward, she didn't just lay there waiting to be picked up, and she didn't convulse the way some ballerinas do, making it obvious that I Am Not Just Laying Here. Instead, a tiny wave of energy pulsed through her, starting at the lower back and flowing with the music out through her fingertips. She barely moved, but it was extraordinary, conveying Odette's nervousness and hope all in that moment.
Later, at the end of the pas de deux, she did something I am thankful for: real petits battements serrés. So many dancers try and fail to make their battements so tiny that the foot appears to just vibrate against the supporting heel, and I have only seen that work once. Usually, they just end up being so small that no one can see them, and their effect is lost. Now, Seay didn't hack away at her supporting leg; it was still a small movement, but it was visible, and the foot was in exactly the right place--with the working arch covering the supporting heel.
Act III was a little bit problematic; the adagio went well (in fact the partnering was quite smooth throughout the performance) but Seay had some trouble with her pirouettes during the variation. Unfortunately, sometimes that just happens, especially when you are on an unfamiliar stage with taped-down marley and there isn't much you can do, but she got through it. I had thought that perhaps after that, she would not do the fouettés, or would maybe stop after sixteen or so, but although they did not go perfectly (there was some minor travelling) I have to hand it to her for sticking it out through all 32. That must have taken courage, and I was impressed!
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Note: I have to run for the moment, but I will come back later and write about Ilyin.
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Ilyin's Siegfried was also very well done, although in this production there was regrettably little for him to do, and I can relate to how challenging it is to try to create a character when all you are given to do is walk around a bit and stand there looking out into the audience. However, Ilyin made it work. He was refined without being feminine or light, and his gaze read all the way up to the balcony. One of the wonderful things about Vaganova Academy training is that the dancers are so used to mime that it flows from them conversationally, every gesture perfectly clear, but as effortless as speaking. This made the mime scene with the queen a pleasure to watch. Unfortunately he did not mime at the end of Act I when Siegfried goes off hunting, but his dancing made up for it. As I said before, tall jumps with silent landings, pirouettes that simply stopped on demi-pointe, and of course the famous Kirov port de bras and épaulement.
In Act II, we got more of the same quality. Crystal-clear mime with the hunters, and when he saw Odette (offstage) you knew it instantly. It's hard to describe, but instead of stretching out an arm and peering forward, he simply changed his whole body without (visibly) moving a muscle. Again, a tiny thing that read right up to the balcony.
In the pas de deux, Ilyin and Seay had good chemistry, and while he is a very little bit short for her, it was not a serious problem, and the partnering went quite smoothly, no choreographic changes necessary. One thing that struck me was that the pas de deux seemed to be performed all in one movement, and the scaled-back choreography for the corps helped create the impression that the pas de deux existed in its own world, seamless from beginning to end, especially the very end with the petits battements and pirouettes, into the lunge and final penché.
Act III was Ilyin's real shining moment. Here, the technical skill hinted at toward the end of Act I was on full display without being flashy or inappropriate. The only thing I regretted was that he was costumed all in black, and the stage was black, so it was difficult at times to see beats. During the coda, he covered the stage in about two grands jetés, so some choreographic finagling was necessary, but it worked well, and his double tour en l'air terminé en arabesque was stunning in its creamy smoothness. He reminded me a little of Herman Cornejo, but more regal and restrained. And anyone who complains about the way Russian men use their feet should watch Ilyin--his are impeccable.
Overall, it was an excellent afternoon (where else can you see MCB principal dancers for $9?) and Seay and Ilyin made it more than worth the trip. Hopefully they will return next year!
Students sometimes say:
"I don't have feet like Alessandra Ferri. Can I still be a professional?"
"My legs don't go as high as Sylvie Guillem's. Will any companies hire me?"
The answer, dear students, is no.
But not for the reasons you think.
The reason you won't be a professional is because you are too concerned how you look in photographs and not concerned enough about how you look in motion. Use your feet exquisitely, and no one will notice how they're shaped. Unfold your leg gracefully, and no one will pull out a protractor and count degrees. Make the audience laugh, weep, and sigh, and you will be loved and remembered for years instead of being relegated to a dusty textbook. Remember that Ferri is famous for her feet, but she is more famous for how she makes people feel, and Guillem does indeed have high extensions, but it's how she uses them that makes her great.
Above all, if your teacher does not tell you how to do this, find one who does!
Since "The Red Shoes" (and probably before) popular culture has displayed the message that Ballet Is Difficult. Sweaty, panting dancers remove tight, uncomfortable shoes to reveal bloody, blistering toes, and tyrannical teachers and artistic directors treat students as if they're soldiers and company members as if they're children. The ballet world has, apparently, come to believe in this mutilated vision of itself.
As with so many things, one can lay neither all of the credit nor all of the blame at Balanchine's feet, but he bears some responsibility. The emphasis on athleticism, giving 110% all the time, taking risks, not being "safe" or "polite" onstage created an incredible new era in ballet and gave us a treasure trove of beautiful, exciting works. However, the all-or-nothing mentality has spilled over into the classroom and classical repertoire, and now we have teachers who are not satisfied with their students unless they see perspiration and choreographers who create aerobic workouts and acrobatic contortions en pointe.
What happened to "everything is beautiful at the ballet?"
What happened to "effort must be invisible?"
What happened to grace, beauty, courtesy, and mutual respect?
Some of it is due to a lack of such concepts in society. When life was difficult for the masses, people wanted to escape to a world of exotic enchantment where fragile sylphs flew through the air and Turkish pirates stole beautiful harem girls from lecherous sultans. These days one barely has to lift a finger to change from watching America's Next Top Model to Survivor, anyone can pick up a fully prepared gourmet dinner at the supermarket that barely even needs to be microwaved, "sir" and "madam" have all but been replaced by "pimp" and "ho." Is it really any wonder, then, that when the majority of people live lives of comparative ease and luxury, they crave the opposite: watching others eat rats on deserted islands, "ordinary" people becoming overnight celebrities, and faceless, nameless people contorting instead of princes graciously offering their hands to refined ladies?
And since ballet must change with the times, why bother with reverance, port de bras, expressing any emotion other than, "Goodness, these steps are HARD!" Why bother teaching students manners and discretion (or exhibiting those qualities oneself) when it's "cool" to "keep it real" and be as refined and polite as a street urchin?
Because otherwise, "classical" ballet will continue down its present path of being relegated to the competition circuit, with high extensions, elaborate jumps, and dizzying pirouettes done for their own sake, and épaulement and port de bras performed meaninglessly, merely for "artistry points," with no relation to plot, character, or emotion.
Exciting energy or empty perfection--we need not choose between the two. Let's put the blood, sweat, and tears behind the scenes, where they belong, so that they fulfill their true function--to fuel a fire under the ice of dull perfectionism, to give meaning to the courtly deferences and elaborate etiquette of the dance. Let's make beauty exciting for what it hints at, not for what it throws in one's face. And as the saying goes, "make the audience gasp with joy, not relief."
Unlike my first post, this is not a daydream. I actually had a dream about teaching a ballet class, and I'm still not sure what that implies in terms of my sanity! I was giving an adagio, and the really crazy part is that I remembered it when I woke up! It's not the most interesting or creative combination ever, but I might use it for my class on Saturday. It goes like this:
Adagio, 4/4 time. 5th position croisé, R foot front.
Beats 1-2: Developpé devant.
Beats 3-4: Passé to 1st arabesque.
Beats 1-2: Plié, change arms to 2nd arabesque.
Beats 3-4: Pas de bourré dessous.
Beats 1-2: Developpé derrière to 3rd arabesque.
Beats 3-4: Plié, change arms to 4th arabesque.
Beats 1-2: Pas de bourré dessous.
Beats 3-4: Tombé forward on the L foot, R foot pointe tendue derrière, and port de bras bending forward with arms to 3rd. Recover, close 5th, arms to preparatory.
Measure 5: Developpé L leg to ecarté devant.
Beat 1: Rise to demi-pointe.
Beat 2: Tombé onto the L foot raising the R leg ecarté derrière, arms to 3rd.
Beats 3-4: Pas de bourré dessous.
Beats 1-2: Developpé the R leg to attitude derrière croisé.
Beats 3-4: Tour lent (promenade) bringing the working leg to retiré position.
Beat 1: Extend the working ( R) leg to effacé devant.
Beat 2: Rise to demi-pointe.
Beat 3: Tombé onto the R foot, raising the L leg in 2nd arabesque.
Beat 4: Pas de bourré dessous.
Now, if only I could plan all my classes in my sleep!
I'm growing (or perhaps just realizing that I always have been) disenchanted with the quality of boys' training. I feel that in mixed-gender classes, they do not receive the same quality of instruction the girls do, and I don't think there's any reason for this. Contributing to the problem, in my opinion, is the lax standard in terms of attire. Letting the boys wear soccer shorts is fine when they're 8, but even when they are 10 and in proper attire, they wear saggy tights and oversized shirts. Imagine if the girls came to class in leotards three sizes too big with the crotch of their tights somewhere around their knees--it would never be allowed, and for good reason: properly fitted ballet attire allows the instructor to see the muscles better so they can offer corrections.
What this boils down to is boys who do not develop the same work ethic girls do in terms of perfecting their technique, unless they are already very observant and self-motivated from a young age. By the time a boy is a teenager and has developed his own motivation, the foundation that good early training would have given him is not there.
How to fix the situation? It's simple: Hold boys to the same standards as the girls!
We have all heard, read, and seen in performance that petit allegro has started to fall by the wayside as dancers and choreographers focus on ever-higher extensions, larger jumps, and more pirouettes. This is to an extent natural and necessary as costumes become more revealing and we learn more about the way the body works (movement emanating from the torso instead of the extremities). However, it is possible to train dancers (who become choreographers) to be more attuned to the use of the lower leg and foot while still giving them the ability to perform larger-scale movements.
Such training begins (as do so many things in ballet) at the barre. Movements such as battement fondu, battement soutenu, and rond de jambe en l'air that used to be performed almost exclusively with the leg at 45º (toes level with the middle of the supporting calf muscle) now are often performed almost exclusively with the leg at 90º or higher. The position of the working foot sur le cou de pied creeps higher as well, almost to a demi-retiré position, so that during battement fondu at 90º or above the dancer does not draw the foot from a true cou de pied position to retiré before extending the leg; s/he simply raises it to a very high cou de pied/demi-retiré and extends it from there.
It is not wrong to practice these movements at heights above 45º; indeed it is a necessary part of a dancer's training, but it should be more the exception than the rule. Those three movements (along with battement frappé, which does not usually get distorted because it is difficult to raise the leg high while maintaining a strong, sharp movement) form much of the basis for petit allegro. For example, pas assemblé is a battement soutenu at 45º with a jump, and pas ballonné is essentially a jumped battement fondu. It requires a very large jump to perform rond de jambe en l'air sauté at 90º, and that would alter the timing and accents of most petit allegro combinations; therefore that step is more suited to grand allegro.
When practicing movements normally done at 45º, it is helpful to make sure they are done correctly. The foot sur le cou de pied must truly be on the neck of the foot, not on the calf muscle, and in raising the leg to a higher position such as demi-retiré or retiré (retiré position is different from battement retiré/raccourci, which may finish with the working leg in retiré, demi-retiré, or sur le cou de pied positions) one must take care to always pass through a true cou de pied position.
Pirouettes, too, can be useful in helping dancers become used to working with the legs at 45º and thus developing a greater awareness of the lower leg. Often, students first learn pirouettes from 5th or 4th position at retiré or demi-retiré height. When they learn grands pirouettes, AKA pirouettes in open positions, they generally start learning them at 90º. However, pirouettes sur le cou de pied without movement of the arms are useful even for advanced students to learn the appropriate action of the back muscles during all pirouettes, and students who can hold the working leg solidly at 45º but who are not yet able to do grands pirouettes at 90º can learn pirouettes in open positions at 45º. In fact, this would probably help them advance more quickly to pirouettes with the legs higher because of the control required of the back muscles.
I advocate for a greater focus on allegro during ballet class (and lengthening the standard class time to 2 hours instead of 90 minutes, but that is another blog post). A very common ballet class format for jumps is a "warm-up" combination consisting of small temps levés in 1st and 2nd positions as well as changements, then a "petit allegro" combination with assemblés, jetés, glissades, and pas de chats, then a "grand allegro" combination with grandes sissonnes, grands jetés, and jetés entrelacés (AKA grand jeté en tournant). I prefer a more gradual approach.
After the "warm-up" combination, one might do a combination of assemblés and small entrechats to reinforce the stabilizing muscles of the torso. This could be followed by perhaps two or three combinations involving small jetés, ballonnés, ballottés, emboités, ronds de jambe en l'air sautés, larger turning jetés, brisés, small cabrioles, small sissonnes, larger entrechats, and échappés. These would provide a transition from petit to medium (moyen?) allegro, for which one would do larger sissonnes, échappés, entrechat-six, and ronds de jambe en l'air sautés at 90º. Then, finally, a grand allegro with grands jetés, grands sissonnes, grands échappés, entrechat-six de volé, double tours en l'air, large cabrioles, fouettés sautés, &c.
Obviously it is not necessary to strictly pigeonhole every step as either "grand allegro" or "petit allegro" and there is no need to specify precisely where a step ought to occur in the progression of classroom exercises. Mixing and matching steps teaches students to handle a wide variety of choreographic styles with ease and grace. I provide the above paragraph to demonstrate the idea that allegro need not be rigidly broken up, that it can/should instead be a seamless progression of ever-larger and more complicated movements.
Finally, I realize that the negative examples I have provided above are not representative of everyone's experience and that many teachers are working against such technical mistakes and misplaced attention. There is much good training as well as bad and mediocre that occurs every day, and I provide examples of bad training so it may be seen, recognized, and corrected. I realize that bad training is not mistakenly exalted everywhere.
One hears a lot of talk about "good feet" in ballet, but what does that actually mean? What makes the shape of one foot "better" than another? What about those whose feet aren't particularly beautiful in themselves but who use them well?
Following is a short, general guide for those without classroom experience regarding what goes into creating a beautiful foot and using it well. It is not intended to be exhaustive.
The Well-shaped Foot
Several physical factors are involved in the architecture of a beautifully pointed stationary foot in ballet, including:
1. A high arch
2. A high instep (the top of the foot)
3. A flexible ankle joint
These attributes are usually all found together, although it is possible to have a high instep without much of an arch and vice versa. It is easiest to see when the foot is pointed in profile, for example in battement tendu à la seconde seen from the front. If there is a pronounced curve in the under-side of the foot, the dancer has a high arch. If the curve on top of the foot protrudes, the dancer has a high instep (for a good example of a high instep, see photographs of Alla Sizova on Ballerina Gallery).
A flexible ankle determines how well the dancer will be able to stand en pointe (if female). If the dancer's knee, the middle of the ankle joint, and the toes run in a straight line when the foot is pointed, the ankle has sufficient flexibility. Too much flexibility in the ankle is not usually a problem as there are pointe shoes made to assist dancers with this issue.
The Beautiful Foot in Motion
Of course, simply having beautiful feet is only one part of the equation. If a dancer has at least adequate feet, the most important thing then becomes how s/he uses them. Each teaching method has its own way of producing dancers who use their feet well, and each style of ballet has particular requirements for how the feet are used in order to fit its aesthetic. Nonetheless, nearly all methods and styles have certain basic similarities.
To use the foot in a truly refined manner, one must be aware of, and use, the ankle, arch, and toes coordinated with each other. This coordination is developed in the classroom starting with the barre exercises and continuing through allegro. When pointing the foot for a battement tendu, a relevé, or a jump, the foot presses against the floor as the ankle and arch extend. The toes provide a final push against the floor as they extend without curling under to finish the line.
This may be done at various speeds (depending upon the tempo and character of the music and the style of the choreography) and different methods and styles prefer different accents. Some prefer the foot to point slowly so the dancer may be fully aware of the movement. Others use a strong, sharp motion. Both have their merits and in this era when ballet companies perform Petipa classics alongside Balanchine and crossover works, it is best for dancers to learn as many different ways of using the foot as possible.
The way one points the foot is important, but not more important than the way one relaxes, or un-points the foot. When closing from a battement, coming down from a relevé, or landing from a jump, it is the toes that press into the floor first, immediately followed by the ball of the foot. Then the arch relaxes as the ankle gently allows the heel to lower. The entire foot and leg must act as a series of springs so there is a sense of pressure, of the foot not wanting to relax immediately as it comes in contact with the floor. This allows for both a silent landing from jumps and a buildup of potential energy for the next movement.
Placement of the foot on the floor and coordination of the foot with the legs and back are beyond the scope of this post, but I hope to write about them in the future.
Class on Wednesday was a little less successful as far as applying corrections went--the students were in a giggly mood. I can't blame them, as they've been dancing quite a bit for the past few weeks, so I didn't make things too difficult and just let them dance. Not sure when I'll be teaching them again (hopefully soon).
I gave the following pirouette and grand allegro combinations:
Pirouettes. 16 measures 3/4 time. Begin at pt. 6, R leg pointe tendue devant croisé.
Measure 1: Piqué soutenu (turning to the right) finishing with a demi-plié in 5th position effacé with the R leg front.
Measure 2: Relevé, developpé the R leg to effacé devant.
Measures 3-4: Tombé, pas de bourrée dessous finishing with a demi-plié in 5th position croisé, L leg front.
Measure 5: Chassé forward through 4th position and relevé on the L leg in 4th arabesque.
Measures 6-8: From 4th arabesque, temps lié en arrière so the L leg is pointe tendue devant croisé, circular port de bras (bend right, back, left, recover) and plié in 4th position in preparation for a pirouette en dehors.
Measures 9-10: Double pirouette en dehors to the right terminé sur le cou de pied derrière, pas de bourrée dessous en tournant.
Measures 10-11: Piqué en avant onto the R leg croisé with the L leg retiré derrière, plié 5th position, sous-su.
Measures 12-16: Tour degagé en dehors (piqué turn en dehors) to the right twice. Finish with a double tour degagé or chainés.
Grand Allegro. 16 measures 3/4 time. Begin at pt. 6, L leg pointe tendue devant croisé.
Introduction, 2 measures: On the last two beats of the introduction, glissade through 4th.
Measures 1-3: 3 grands jetés en avant (effacé) toward pt. 2.
Measure 4: Finish the last grand jeté in arabesque, temps levé in arabesque, chassé backward.
Measures 5-8: Pas jeté entrelacé, chassé, and entrelacé again, finishing in arabesque, traveling toward pt. 8.
Measures 9-10: Coupé, tombé, pas de bourrée dessous to 4th position en face.
Measures 11-16: Double pirouette en dehors and rond de jambe fouetté en tournant four times, finishing with the working leg effacé devant, the supporting leg in plié, and immediately run to pt. 2. (Alternate version: Grand fouetté twice, after the second grand fouetté, relevé on the supporting leg and bring the working leg from attitude derrière croisé through retiré to effacé devant and run to pt. 2.) The next group starts on the left from pt. 4. Continue until all groups have done both sides.
Class on Wednesday night was a success!
Alexandra Danilova wrote that in her opinion, a good class is one the student does not want to end, and judging by the eager response when I asked the students if they would mind doing the grand allegro combination again, I think it was a good class in the Danilova sense.
I've noticed lately that I seem to be improving as a teacher in two ways:
1. Building a class around 1-3 basic, important ideas.
2. Creating combinations that meet the students' needs for that day and that flow nicely with the music.
I started with a very simple battement tendu combination facing the barre and asked the students to visualize the working foot as a spring that is compressed when the foot is flat on the floor and extended when the foot is pointed. When pointing or flexing the foot, there is a pressure against the floor as the foot struggles to attain/remain in the pointed position. What keeps the foot from "popping" to a point is the control of the leg.
This achieved beautiful results. I have never seen an entire class before or since use their feet so well, and I was surprised at how dramatic and immediate the transformation was. It did not continue throughout the entire class as the combinations got more complicated, but the beginning is there, and it was very exciting to watch. I plan to build on it in this week's lesson.
Another thing I was glad about is that I was able to keep barre down to about 35-40 minutes. Some teachers see it as a point of pride that they spend an hour or more at the barre, but in a 90-minute class, that leaves very little time to work on pirouettes and allegro, and I notice that when I work with students who are kept at the barre too long, they have difficulty connecting movements in the center. I always do a complete barre, of course, and sometimes it is necessary to challenge them or fix basics, thus taking more time at the barre, but what's the point of even doing barre if you can't move in the center?
In the next class, I'd like to focus on how the arms work during pirouettes, specifically that the arms move down during the plié to strongly engage the back muscles.
Following are some of the combinations I used in this class that I'd like to keep a record of for future use:
1. Battements tendus and pirouettes. 16 measures 4/4 time. 5th position croisé, R leg front.
Measure 1: On the first two beats, two battements tendus devant in one count each, accent in.
On the third beat, one more battement tendu devant finishing with a brush through 1st position to pointe tendue derrière in demi-plié.
On the fourth beat, pas de bourrée dessous.
Measure 2: On the first two beats, two relevés to retiré position (aka sissonne simple dessous sur demi-pointe) traveling backward and alternating legs.
On the last two beats, pirouette en dehors in retiré from 5th position on the left leg, close 5th, R leg back.
Measures 3-4: Repeat the first two measures with the other leg.
Measure 5: On the first two beats, two battements tendus to the side traveling backward and alternating legs.
On the last two beats, sous-su, degagé à la seconde at 45º, demi-plié in 2nd position.
Measure 6: On the first two beats, pirouette en dehors in retiré terminé à la seconde (or ecarté derrière) in demi-plié.
On the third beat, pas de bourrée dessous.
On the fourth beat, glissade devant changée.
Measures 7-8: Repeat measures 5-6 with the other leg.
Measures 9-16: Reverse the entire combination
2. Pas jeté. 8 measures 4/4 time. 5th position en face, L leg front.
Measure 1: Pas jeté dessus and temps levé. Repeat with the other leg.
Measure 2: From cou-de-pied, jump to 2nd position, and from 2nd, sissonne with a half turn en dedans to the right landing on the R leg (L leg in cou-de-pied derrière). Again, jump to 2nd position and sissonne with a half turn en dehors to the right landing on the L leg (R leg cou-de-pied devant).
Measure 3: Pas jeté dessous, pas jeté en avant (landing on the L leg, R leg raised to attitude derrière croisé), assemblé derrière, entrechat-cinq (landing on the L leg, R leg sur le cou de pied derrière).
Measure 4: Pas jeté dessus, assemblé croisé derrière, entrechat-quatre, entrechat-cinq (landing on the R leg, L leg sur le cou de pied derrière).
Measures 5-8: Repeat to the other side.
I am about to start teaching at a local summer program, and one aspect of technique that students often struggle with is using their turnout correctly. Usually, they either try to turn out too far and end up rolling (allowing their arches to collapse, the result of turning out the foot but not the entire leg) or they place the foot correctly on the floor but do not engage the most important turnout muscles and only rotate their legs in a vague, passive manner. It usually only gets worse when they raise their legs, especially to the side. I thought up the following exercise to help students both rotate their legs correctly on à terre and en l'air.
1. Put the students in pairs, one student standing with the left hand on the barre, the other student standing at his/her side.
2. Have the student at the barre (Student 1) raise his/her leg to about 45º and have the other student (Student 2) hold Student 1's raised ankle or foot so Student 1 can relax his/her hip joint.
3. Have Student 2 slowly move Student 1's leg as far side as it will go without distortion of the hips and without the leg turning in (that is, with the knee facing the ceiling but not turned forward).
4. Have Student 1 engage his/her turnout muscles and actively rotate the raised leg, again without distortion of the hips.
5. Have Student 2 let go as Student 1 maintains the position, then lowers the leg to first position, keeping the turnout muscles actively rotated. Repeat on the other side using the "active turnout" feeling on the supporting leg.
This would require a relatively calm and attentive class to actually do in pairs, although with a less well behaved class a teacher could take on the role of Student 2 and use one student to demonstrate the idea for the class. Obviously this would not work in every situation, but students (especially younger ones) love to work in pairs and one cannot go around correcting every single student individually on exactly the same problem (takes far too much time unless one is working with the students for a series of classes or an entire year). I would love to hear if any other teachers have additional ideas.
EDIT: I tried it in class and it worked! To read more, please click here for my thread on BT4D.
In Baltimore last weekend, I drove by the new arts district, Station North, and saw an ad for artist lofts in a converted warehouse called the Copycat Building. Ironic name aside, I thought it might be an interesting place for a ballet school--lots of space, high ceilings, right in the middle of an arts community with constant art exhibitions all around. Baltimore doesn't have much in the way of serious ballet schools, and even one good teacher working alone could make a difference. There are various logistical problems: where the students would change, for example, and where could one put an office? But the thought is intriguing. Rent is stunningly low in Baltimore (although it's most likely on the verge of climbing sharply, as DC becomes too expensive for anyone who doesn't make six figures a year) and it's always had a large and vibrant arts scene.
Such a studio would have to be a fairly bare-bones operation, and unfortunately tuition would probably be high even if there was an alternate source of funding. One positive note: the Peabody Conservatory would probably supply a steady stream of pianists. Also intriguing is the idea of having a limited number of students attending class 4-5 days a week from the beginning (I know, I'm dreaming ) to shape into beautiful dancers with all the tiny details so often lacking from today's students, including not just qualities such as épaulement and port de bras, but also knowledge of technical theory and appreciation of arts other than ballet.
I think the program would be based on the Vaganova syllabus until the students were comfortable en pointe, and then I would add trickier combinations than one usually sees in a Vaganova class--unusual accents, for example--and I'd like to add a French accent to the petit allegro.
This perhaps isn't the best introductory post, but these ideas have been swirling in my head for a little bit, and it's nice to get them out. I promise less school-related posts in the future.
As we have had several discussions on the board lately regarding port de bras and épaulement, I'd like to offer a mini online lesson about the upper body geared toward audience members. I'll include technical information, but this will be by no means exhaustive, especially considering that there are plenty of textbooks that do a fine job of describing the various methods' stances as far as the upper body is concerned. What I'd like to do is give balletomanes who do not have classroom experience with ballet a bit of familiarity with basic positions and how a dancer moves between them.
PORT DE BRAS
Good port de bras begins, of course, with good posture. By the time one is a professional dancer, this should be second nature--lower abdominals pulled in and up; shoulder blades pulled down; ribs, neck, and face relaxed; eyes focused; and most importantly, a "core" of energy running vertically up and down the spine. When making even the tiniest movement of the wrist or elbow, one must feel energy flowing up the spine and out along the entire length of the arm though the fingertips (not to the fingertips, through them). Often, one may see a dancer shift his/her torso slightly to initiate an arm movement; this is a visible manifestation of that energy.
Ballet positions are not static, lifeless poses. The energy in the spine and focus of the eyes keeps the dancer "alive" even when not visibly in motion.
There are different names for the various positions of the arms depending upon which method or style one uses, and the specific details of each position vary accordingly, but I will write about them in only the most basic terms. A choreographer may add his own particular flourish or idiosyncrasies to each position, so what you see onstage may not match the drawings in a textbook; this does not mean the dancer is incapable of producing "textbook" positions but that s/he has been asked to dance this way by a particular choreographer in a particular ballet.
The most basic arm positions are as follows; I will describe them arrondis (rounded) but all of them may also be done allongé (extended):
1. Preparatory Position/Fifth Position en Bas: The arms curve down from the shoulders so that the hands rest either just in front of the thighs or just above the tutu.
2. First Position/Fifth Position en Avant: The arms curve forward from the shoulders so that the hands are approximately in front of the solar plexus.
3. Second Position: The arms are at the same level as first position, but held open to the sides so that each hand is just in front of its respective shoulder. This position tests how well the dancer uses his/her back, as the elbows must not droop and the forearms must be rotated so that the palms face forward.
4. Third Position/En Couronne/Fifth Position en Haut: The arms curve upward from the shoulders so that the elbows are slightly in front of the ears.
In addition to these, there are three "intermediate" positions: the arms opened halfway between preparatory and second (often called demi-second), between first and second, and between second and third. In the intermediate position between first and second, the palms may be turned up.
To make a position allongé, rotate the forearm so that the palm faces down, and relax the elbow so that it is softened but not bent.
When one considers that the spine extends through the neck and even up into the back of the skull, it is easy to see how posture and energy affect the way one moves the head. If energy is moving all the way along the spine and the neck is relaxed, the head will almost naturally place itself correctly, without the chin jutting forward or pulled back. In ballet, the head is usually turned, inclined, or both. To incline the head, simply tilt it from one side to the other or front and back. Different methods and styles prefer different degrees of turning and inclination. For example, RAD-trained dancers often turn their heads without inclining them, whereas Vaganova-trained dancers both turn and incline their heads, sometimes to the point of producing a gentle curve in the upper back.
Usually the eyes focus in the general direction of the hands (there are exceptions to this, for example at the end of a Bournonville variation where the dancer's arms go down as s/he does a plié in 5th position, then the eyes and head lifts as the arms remain low and the legs straighten) and the head is turned in the direction of whichever leg is front (that is, right or left, although sometimes the head turns in opposition to the legs) and inclined to the level of the arms (low or high). This relationship of head to arms begins to produce the polished look of a fully coordinated body, although true coordination depends upon how the dancer moves between these various positions, which are also coordinated with the movements of the legs.
One thing I've thought about lately is how dancers use port de bras and épaulement to relate to each other onstage. For example, during the coda of the pas de six from "La Vivandière," the lead female dancer performs a diagonal of turns and jetés (usually garnering quite a bit of applause) at the end of which she turns back to the upstage left corner and gestures to (and looks at) the lead male dancer, who is just beginning his diagonal of grands pirouettes à la seconde as if to say, "If you thought that was good, look at what's coming up next!" Dancers will often use port de bras to direct the audience's eye to a different part of the stage where something important is happening.
Port de bras can also be used to exclude, and the Wilis in Giselle are quite good at this. When Hilarion dances his way toward death in the lake in Act II, the Wili corps faces away from him and puts out an arm with the wrist flexed as if to push him along. In the pas de deux between Gulnare and Lankedem in Act I of Le Corsaire, Gulnare makes a number of gestures repudiating Lankedem (notably during her arabesques penchées in the first diagonal of the entrée, before the adagio).
In a well-staged production of a story ballet, port de bras and épaulement are used to indicate rank and class differences. At the start of Act I of the Kirov's Swan Lake, it is obvious that all the people onstage are nobility, not just from the way they are dressed (even peasants in ballet get elaborate costumes) but from the way they behave. When two dancers meet, they bow to each other with one foot pointed in front, one arm extended in front and the other to the side, and it's clear from this formal greeting that they are of equal rank. When a gentleman escorts his lady somewhere onstage, he might offer his hand or curved arm, but he does not get overly familiar and put a hand on her waist. To express even more formality, a lady might merely take her partner's allongé forearm instead of the hand, although this is not practical when it comes to pas de deux.
Another thing that struck me today as I watched the La Scala tape of Giselle (with Alessandra Ferri) is how much less refined the Milanese company's arms and hands are than those at the very best companies. While the shapes were generally correct, they were not terribly exact, but more than that, they didn't convey the same feeling. There wasn't as much weight in the arms--they lacked that aristocratic, light-but-substantial feel that POB and Kirov dancers convey so well.
Ferri, on the other hand, was a different story, especially in Act I where she integrated her port de bras into her portrayal of Giselle's character, using certain gestures (slightly trembling hands, for example) to convey fragility and then exaggerating those gestures during the mad scene. Her hands even took on different shapes: fingers splayed as she cringed after bumping into Bathilde, roughly rounded as she delicately plucked petals from an imaginary flower.