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Alexandra

Royal Ballet style

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What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for Royal Ballet Style? Head, fingers, knees and toes, please. And for men as well as women.

Sub-question: once "Royal Ballet style" was synonymous with Ashton style. Is that still true? If not, what are the differences between current Royal Style and Ashton Style?

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There's a debate on whether there is anything left of the Royal Ballet style -- but there are shreds of it, or people wouldn't be reacting so strongly to the "differences" Makarova has brought in with her new "Sleeping Beauty."

The first season I saw the Royal, I was disappointed in the dancing because I didn't think it was very exciting (this was my first season seeing ballet, and "exciting" to me was Nureyev in "Le Corsaire.") A few years later, talking to an older critic about the company's style, he said, "It's never been a virtuoso company." I had to mull that one over for a few years. What's a nonvirtuoso company? Why would anyone want to do that -- how could that be a hallmark of style?

With that introduction, I offer a few observations.

First, the shape of the dancing is square or circular, not rectangular or elliptical. And by that, I mean that if you take a dancer in arabesque, you can draw a circle or a square around it, but no other shape. Arabesques are at 90 degrees, NOT because the poor little things couldn't do any better, but because that was what Ashton wanted.

Second, epaulement, which was integral to the style. The body is always turned a bit, you see the dancers at an angle, not head on. The dancing is three dimensional.

Third, footwork. Ashton choreographed for feet. Many of his variations for women were made for women in skirts, and the leg is not visible. The footwork is extremely fast.

Fourth, musicality. It's a melodic musicality (I think this comes form Cecchetti; that's the one link I've found among Ashton, Tudor, and the Volkova-influenced Royal Danish style of the late 20th century.

David Vaughan wrote (paraphrase) that Ashton's style had the clear melodiousness of English speech. He used virtuosity -- the Blue Boy in "Patineurs" -- but he used it as a spice, in contrast to the harmony of the whole.

The sense of harmony is key to the whole line, and to other aspects of technique. Arms en couronne, for example (when the dancer lifts the arms above the head and curves them so that they suggest a crown) are directly over the head; the arms are aligned with the ears.

I've seen some film of Ashton coaching, and geometry was crucial to him. There's a film of him setting "Monotones" and he explains, in his patient, crotchety way, that if the arms of three dancers -- standing next to each other, arms en couronne, interlaced -- are not crooked EXACTLY at the elbow then the whole thing is all wrong. "Monotones" is an essay in geometry, as much as "Scenes de ballet." It was written for three dancers who had exactly the same proportions, height and line (when the woman was on pointe).

When Ashtons' style was a living, breathing thing, the dancing MOVED -- there is film evidence of this, for those who weren't around to see it on stage, but most of it is archival, not on commercial video.

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Alexandra wrote: once "Royal Ballet style" was synonymous with Ashton style. Is that still true?"

my answer: no

and "If not, what are the differences between current Royal Style and Ashton Style?"

my answer: aaargh! :-(

very hard Q to answer - of course! ;)

try this: take what you are calling the old RB/ashton style, add onto it what macmillan's choreography (in particular) required...then begin to train the new young dancers in the school via vaganova method(s)...introduce various other international choreographers works...and hey presto, there you are! whatever THAT is, that's what they've got. ;)

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May I respond from another perspective, I hope it's appropriate? One of my teachers is a former senior ballet mistress at the Royal Ballet, and I see very, very clearly the differences between her 'style' and my other teachers.

1. The arms in arabesque are qualitatively 'wispier'/more ethereal than any others I've seen -- I realize that's not very clear, but it's the only way I know to describe it -- and there are never any right angles.

2. Re: penchee -- we are constantly told that the true arabesque, or for that matter, any developpe, goes no higher than 90degrees, anything else is a modern aberration. As a corollry, the upper body moves very conservatively -- there are no extreme angles or arches.

3. The impression I get from my teacher is that individual style is less important than the ability to move cohesively as part of a uniform whole -- the emphasis is on being able to function exquisitely as a member of a corps rather than as a soloist.

4. Frappes are taught with a flexed ankle and pointed foot at the point of extension (at least by this teacher now) and rises to pointe are sprung, not rolled.

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not contradicting you at all, plaeidies, but might we ask who this teacher is? judging from your point 2, it sounds as though she might be very old (?),... and therefore expressing some ideas which MIGHT no longer be generally held?

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You're right, she is well on in years, and while still vibrant, I'm sure that her perspectives reflect those of a different time.

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sure. :) i have to admit that the basic idea that 'the' arabesque is at 90 degrees DOES have some appeal to me! ;)

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Just bringing this up for the new ballet year. :gossip:

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This is really more of a question than a comment. I have yet to see the Royal Ballet actually :blushing: and so I am relying pretty much entirely on the video Sleeping Beauty with Durante and the entire company seems very stiff/jerky/rigid to me in some indefinable way. I notice it most in the smiles, which seem a little frozen, but it's more than that. Reading this thread it seems as though one of the salient characteristics of the RB was pliancy.

Mostly I wonder, am I imagining the stiffness?

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I doubt your imagining it -- it's probably a matter of perception. What is "stiff" to one person is beautifully, classically correct to another. What is free movement, or an easy style to one is undisciplined or sloppy to another.

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My word would be "staccatto" rather than "stiffness". Referring to that Sleeping BEauty video, it is most clear in the fairies variations as opposed to the same variations as danced by the Kirov (I am mostly recalling the Violente variation - the "finger" one).

It is also noticeable in the Wedding pdd: the port de bras with a side bend after the passe devant: very "stacatto"

silvy

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Well, Dido, I don't think that that video shows them looking very good -- though Durante is obviously very strong, i don’t find myself liking anybody in it very much.....

Is there any way you could get your hand s on one of the older videos -- like the one with Fonteyn and Somes in Swan Lake, or the one with Aurora's wedding -- also Fonteyn and Somes -- the point is not just Fonteyn, though she really was wonderful -- the whole company had incredibly fast and clear footwork -- the legs didn't go high, but they could MOVE, it was brilliant and astonishing and feathery.

They did have a "dry" way of dancing, and in poses they would "freeze" on the count -- it's kind of like the way Glenn Gould played Bach on the piano, where you could "SEE" the bar lines; but it gave their rhythm a taut energy, very different from City ballet or Russians but vivid, clear, and exact -- and they were SILENT, very quiet footwork. (Freeds are made in London.)

Bu the feet did very lacy things -- on the Aurora's wedding, a very young Merle Park is flashing around all over the place as some kind of fairy doing (I guess) sissonne battus -- I don't remember what they are, but I do remember the effect of knowing that she was doing beats that were so fast I could not see them, but I knew they were there....

Aurora's Wedding is really quite wonderful because the whole thing is SO old-fashioned, but GORGEOUS, sumptuous to look at -- what a fantastic polonaise-processional when they all come in, it IS a big deal, all those courtiers like Catalabutte and the queen (young Gerd Larsen, I think) really register as significant people....

Some of the dancers don't film very well -- Brian Shaw as the bluebird, for example, doesn't measure up to his reputation -- but Antoinette Sibley is THE MOST BEAUTIFUL Princess Florine I shall EVER see, and hter4e you’ll see everything you could want t o see about Royal Ballet style -- the accuracy, the strong pointes, the beautiful correct action, AND also the pliancy -- she does the passage with the toe-hops (where the leg folds through from devant to arabesque) with an incredibly beautiful, bird-like shimmer in the back and arms, and continues with the most astonishing dancing: double ronde-de jambes leaning, with the MOST beautiful carriage of the upper body, probably, that I've ever seen. It's all over in a flash, but it's like with the Nicholas Brothers, you just want to scream and make her do it over and over till you can believe you've actually seen it..... And of course with video tape, you CAN encore it over and over again, run it in slow motion, check out her timing, LOOK at those tilts in the upper body while the lower body is doing such difficult things....

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Paul,

Is the video featuring Antoinette Sibley as Princess Florine still available to purchase? I would love to have it!

She's always been my favorite from the Royal Ballet. Such a sensitive and beautiful dancer. I love reading recollections of her dancing days.

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Thanks for all of the replies. I guess I was thinking also of (how embarassing again) the Red Shoes, because Moira Shearer (well, ok, Dowell too) is the only earlier RB dancer I've seen much of.

I know what silvy means about the "stacatto" effect, and I don't think it was that I was reacting to, the Violante and Canary are two of my favorite variations. Upon further viewing and reflection I realize that it isn't the whole company at all (what a dumb generalization!) and not even all the time. Just in certain places, certain times I spot something that I find something jarring, something that makes me uncomfortable to watch, as if I were worried for the dancer(s).

Mostly I guess I was expecting something very like what Paul so beautifully described, and wondering if my imagination was demanding the impossible.

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perky, the video is "An Evening with the Royal Ballet" and it is available (I just checked; it's on Amazon). Also on the tape are Ashton's "La Valse," "Les Sylplhides" (with Fonteyn and Nureyev), "Le Corsaire" (also with F&N) and "Aurora's Wedding" with Fonteyn and David Blair. Anthony Dowell is in the corps in this - he's a courtier.

dido, I think what you wrote about your second thoughts is very interesting, and often happens. We see one thing that jars -- and we generalize from that particular, and remember the whole picture that way. It's hard not to do!

The urante "Sleeping Beauty" is several generations away from the "Fonteyn" one, and the things that you all are noticing are things that those who complain about changes in company style often talk about. The classical dancing doesn't "sing" any more -- it often isn't, as Paul wrote, " brilliant and astonishing and feathery." Why? One theory -- a company dances in the language of its choreographer, moves the way that choreographer wants to move, and what became known as Royal Ballet style was Ashton style. They danced the 19th century classics very much the way they danced his contemporary neoclassical works. But he hasn't been around in awhile, and later choreographers, even those who, like MacMillan

used the classical vocabulary, didn't revel in that vocabulary for its own sake, and it's, if not a foreign language, at least a special, company-manners-accent now for the dancers.

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What happened to the hands? They used to be held almost with all four fingers together, there was nearly no 'point-y' index finger. This gave the arm lines a lovely, unbroken, rounded, SOLID quality which I associate especially with Fonteyn.

Watching the Sleeping Beauty Act III video with Fonteyn: wow, the speed! So perhaps not 'virtuosic' in the sense of billions of turns and space-age lines, but very exciting. I think that this sheer energy has been lost a bit to technical stuff and 'virtuosity'.

IS there a Royal Ballet style nowadays? British company style seems to be less well-defined than, say, the Russians and the French, whose dancers are mostly home-schooled from the start and not simply 'finished off'.

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IS there a Royal Ballet style nowadays? British company style seems to be less well-defined than, say, the Russians and the French, whose dancers are mostly home-schooled from the start and not simply 'finished off'.

I don't know whether he still feels this way, but in late 2001 Clement Crisp gave an interview in which he gave a very dim assessment of the Royal Ballet:

What are your feelings about the future of the Royal Ballet?

CC: My feelings are of despair. I really think the Royal Ballet has been denatured. The great point about the Royal Ballet was that it had three bases, which were the old classics, in honourable productions; the work of a house choreographer, Ashton and then MacMillan, and Cranko, very important; and a sense of history - Dame Ninette’s own historical perceptions about choreographers like Fokine, Massine, Nijinska, masterworks that people ought to see and know about. As far as I can see, we have now traduced classics: the ‘Swan Lake’ is hideous to look at, the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was a disaster, malformed, destroyed. I’m glad to see that ‘Coppélia’ came back looking all right, the ‘Nutcracker’ is okay. But of course what has gone is the ability to dance these works properly. There is not a single dancer in that company of native training who I think is fit to dance those ballets.

Not Bussell?

No.

Yoshida?

No. They are no more than First Soloists, essentially, if we look at performances of ‘Swan Lake’, ‘Beauty’, ‘Giselle’, ‘Coppélia’, with the eye of time and by the absolute standard of the world. And this is the thing one could do, from very early on, with performances by Fonteyn, Grey, May, and Shearer, who were all world-quality; and then of Nerina and Beriosova, and then of Seymour and Sibley, and Park. I do not think now there is a single dancer in that company of world quality who has been produced by the native tradition.

The interesting thing is that they did get Mukhamedov, and now they’ve got Tamara Rojo, which is wonderful. They have Cojocaru, Acosta, Kobborg.

But these are all outsiders.

Yes.

It’s Dowell’s fault, and Park’s at the school.

Yes, indeed, and the school.

A 70th birthday lunch with Clement Crisp

Of course, the situation is not exactly the same as it was five years ago, and the people in charge have changed, but no doubt many of the issues and problems remain.

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Actually, the situation has changed markedly, including the Ashton Centennial in 2004 that raised the company's level with those ballets (merely by having them danced frequently. Imagine that.) and importantly the appointment of Monica Mason to Artistic Director in 2002. It may not yet be a bed of roses, but there does seem to be a consensus that Mason has greatly improved the situation at the Royal Ballet from where it was in 2001.

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How about THIS (from Crisp):

At its best, English lyricism can be very beautiful, you see it in the work of Ashton. My prejudices contra are pretension, messages, the week’s good cause, flat feet, unstretched bodies, dancers with no necks. Unmusical dancers. Dancers who are not old enough - sending out boys to do men’s work, sending out girls to do women’s work.
This must be true because, as Crisp tells his interviewers,
I don't have a temper of course, I am the soul of sweetness and light.
Did somebody put a grumpy pill in that champagne he served for lunch? :clapping:

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IS there a Royal Ballet style nowadays? British company style seems to be less well-defined than, say, the Russians and the French, whose dancers are mostly home-schooled from the start and not simply 'finished off'.
Do you have an accent? You don't but I do -- or is it vice versa?

Same phenom. You can't hear it, because the way you speak is "normal" compared to what you hear (I presume :clapping: ). So it is more difficult to see the peculiarities of style with the company/ies we know best. It's the default style.

I think we may have slowed -- even if temporarily -- the great rush to the generic middle that balletic nationalities had been on for some years. But when I last saw the RB in 2004, I could still see the free and easy epaulement which, to me, had been it's great and treasured distinction. The soft, lyrical arms. Because of the expansion of styles demanded by newer repertoire, these hallmarks will probably never be what they were 30 or 40 years ago. But it's reassuring to know that efforts are made to keep them, to the degree possible.

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What happened to the hands? They used to be held almost with all four fingers together, there was nearly no 'point-y' index finger. This gave the arm lines a lovely, unbroken, rounded, SOLID quality which I associate especially with Fonteyn.

I've never been a fan of the "spoon" hands, as Balanchine described them. While I don't like the extreme extension of the index or the exaggerated rose petals some dancers employ (I've even heard of the separated fingers described as "claws"), I find the Barbie paddle hands unexpressive.

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Can't say the spoon hands are my favorite either, but I think when they are done properly (not held stiffly with the fingers glued together but with the fingers softly lengthened with a little space between them) they can look very natural and unpretentious. What gets me is the when the hands are "placed" in a position that suits the textbook rather than the dancer, but that goes for any method or style.

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I find the Barbie paddle hands unexpressive.

Well I really I can't imagine them in Balanchine or Macmillan, but atm I'm really into them in the classics! (Footage of Fonteyn, Merle Park, Lucette Aldous et al) I don't know why, they just look more dignified.

There is not a single dancer in that company of native training who I think is fit to dance those ballets.

Not Bussell?

No.

Yoshida?

No. They are no more than First Soloists, essentially

(bold type added by me, just because)

:o Harsh words indeed!

Style is going, so that you must accept dancers kicking their legs up in the air in entirely the wrong places. That occasionally happens in St Petersburg too, of course.

Well, that dates this article :P In fact, since this was written during Ross Stretton's brief stint as AD of the RB, Crisp's morose tone is (partially) explained: I didn't imagine him to be one to welcome Stretton with open arms.

This is a fascinating interview, and I will probably post more comments after I have done my history homework. :)

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The interview reminds me of Lewis Segal's piece in the LA Times on "what's wrong with ballet." Not that they agree on anything -- but that they set out to be so very provocative. The Segal piece has produced a long and fascinating thread on Ballet Talk. I expect the Crisp interview will do the same for those on BT who follow the Royal. Do we still use the term "gadfly" nowadays?

:):o

Here's the other thread: Lewis Segal on What's Wrong with Ballet

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Do you have an accent? You don't but I do -- or is it vice versa?

Same phenom. You can't hear it, because the way you speak is "normal" compared to what you hear (I presume :devil: ). So it is more difficult to see the peculiarities of style with the company/ies we know best. It's the default style.

I'm not sure. I think I'm aware of my default accent (perhaps because I made an effort to purge any remnants of Noo-Yawkese from my own speech). Whenever I hear a newsreader at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation pronounce "Canada" with a vaguely American accent (stretched out, twangy first vowel), I practically climb the walls. On the other hand, I would have absolutely no objection to an American newsreader pronouncing it that way.

I would think someone particularly familiar with a given style would react just as sensitively to any deviation from it. Or have I misunderstood your point?

As for the hands, if I had to choose between Barbie hands and the claw, I'd go with Barbie. Knarred-looking hands take away from the illusion of effortlessness. Of course, my earliest teachers were British, so I've probably inherited their prejudices, and I still remember corrections about "hamburger-grip hands" :).

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