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NYCB Style


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 28 March 2003 - 11:31 AM

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

Is NYCB style still synonymous with Balanchine style? If not, what are the changes?

#2 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 29 March 2003 - 07:15 PM

You know, 20 years of viewing the company doesn't feel like enough to answer this question!

To make my best shot at it, the basics about company style - the things you notice right off the bat are speed and the "legginess" of the dancers. It's a company that emphasizes leg work first. Watching a Balanchine style class shows more of what I mean. There are many, many tendues (moving the leg in and out from the standing position along the floor), but arm movements are not set, and the dancers generally hold their arms at their sides and don't move them during the combinations.

There is a matter-of-fact quality to City Ballet style that I happen to love as well. It reflects the culture and the personality of the city and I think Balanchine as well. His most famous corrections? "Too fancy" "Too sweet" "Just do, dear." To some people, this seems to indicate he was looking for automatons, I think it's more complex than that. I'm guessing from watching that what he wanted was naturalness.

Company style has changed subtly in the years that I have been watching it, and more perceptibly if you view older tapes. It feels to me like the emphasis now is on the shape of the movement (pointed feet, high extensions, etc.) than on the movement itself. The dancers are more inbred (for lack of a better term) and that is become central to the style of the company. In the years I have been watching the company, I think the movement style (and the musical phrasing) has become more emphatic and punctuated, but I think this says as much about the cultural milieu as it does about City Ballet itself.

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 29 March 2003 - 07:42 PM

Thanks! I'm with you on the "just dance it dear" comment being "matter of fact" rather than aggressively stonefaced. As well as that it is a style of legs.

There's a preference in the look of the leg, too -- calves are not overdeveloped.

I'd say it's also not a virtuosic style, although it requires a high level of technique. But it's not fllashy, and I've been struck by the difference in audience reaction at ABT -- where there are lots of cheers -- and NYCB, where the reaction is very appreciative, but comparatively muted.

Another word often used to describe Balanchine/NYCB style (I think they're still synonymous, although Balanchine isn't being danced today as it was in 1983 or 1963) is that it's "highly articulated." And I take that to mean that you are supposed to see the steps performed clearly.

#4 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 29 March 2003 - 08:29 PM

Yes, it's technical, but not virtuoso. There's room for the virtuoso in the company (there have always been a few) but I don't think they set the company style. It's also athletic, but not acrobatic. You'll see extensions, but you'll almost never see overhead lifts. I think this shows in the men in the company, who are almost never bulky, and I think that's the company look, and because the choreography doesn't require it.

To me, the doppelganger of NYCB style is Soviet style, which has a more expressive upper body than lower one, more acrobatic partnering, an emphasis on virtuosity and a different hierarchy to the choreography. Does anyone else see them paired this way? (I say Soviet not to lump Kirov and Bolshoi styles together, because there are differences, but to talk about the sort of style that spawned dramballets like Spartacus)

#5 glebb

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Posted 29 March 2003 - 08:33 PM

I've always noticed that the men do not run 'into the floor'. They are always very light on their feet.

#6 grace

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Posted 30 March 2003 - 01:12 AM

from a looooooooooooong distance (i.e. never having seen the company live), i would second leigh's description of a 'leggy' look - (which is amplified by the deliberate choice of long-legged dancers) - but also a 'free' use of arms, including very often STRAIGHT lines (not curved) with 'broken wrists - anathema to (for example) 'ashton' style).

#7 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 30 March 2003 - 07:59 AM

As far as I can tell, a Balanchine class is often taught with the arm at the exact side of the body. This differs from other styles where the arm is held to the side and very slightly forward. As Grace said, the lines are much more straight. This may also be further emphasized by the preference for dancers with long limbs. For a dancer like Wendy Whelan, holding the arms in a soft curve runs against what her body does, but there were dancers in the company like Judith Fugate or Nichol Hlinka who had shorter arms and they tended to use them in more canonical ways. But that style of port-de-bras and the very minimal use of epaulement are part of the profile of the company.

#8 liebs

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Posted 30 March 2003 - 02:54 PM

And there is a highly developed use of pointe work, the women tend to roll up rather than spring up to pointe - although this is a generalization.

The dancers also dance "big" even the ones who are smaller and with a high level of sustained energy.

#9 fendrock

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Posted 04 April 2003 - 09:06 AM

The Boston Globe recently had an interesting articile on Merrill Ashley coaching the Boston Ballet for their current Balanchine program.

Here's the URL:

www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/082/living/Belle_of_Balanchine_s_Ballo_teaches_piece_to_Boston_BalletP.shtml



One of her comments on NYCB style --

''Clean footwork at that tremendous speed'' is what Ashley cites as the Boston dancers' main difficulty with ''Ballo.''

''It's not second nature for them,'' she says. ''It's really only City Ballet dancers who have that urgency.''

#10 Hans

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Posted 07 April 2003 - 11:54 AM

I'll try to keep my comments on this thread minimal, as we all know my opinion of Balanchine and especially NYCB. However, I have technical experience with this style, so I can mention certain stylistic details that were taught to me.

I'd like to note re: the Ashley quote above that "clean" is relative and that NYCB's footwork, while certainly fast, is not necessarily clean, speaking strictly in terms of classical ballet technique.

Leigh is absolutely correct in noting that the arms are held further back than in other styles. Hands are rounded, in the old Romantic style, with the fingers spread well apart. Their basic relationship to each other is similar to the Vaganova hand position: the little finger is raised the highest, while the middle finger is lowest to connect with the thumb, for example. However, the thumb and middle finger are rounded to form a circle (they do not touch, however) the palm is rounded, and the fingers are spread so as to make the hand appear large. The use of the wrists is quite baroque; often they are flexed. The elbows are straight, not relaxed, in allongé positions, and the head is not necessarily coordinated with the arms in all movements, especially at the barre or during petit allegro. The weight is carried very far forward.

Pliés are usually performed with the heels off the floor, especially during jumps (though the extent of this can depend on the teacher); theoretically, this allows the dancer to perform a "3/4" plié and therefore perform a larger jump. Feet are often slightly winged, and when performing "a terre" movements, they do not go through the demi-pointe position; however, the demi-pointe is emphasized heavily in pointe work. Fifth position is crossed very far indeed, as are all movements in which one leg is raised to the front or back. In arabesque, particularly first arabesque, the shoulder above the supporting leg is allowed to reach forward, and the opposite shoulder is allowed to extend back. The hips are also opened in arabesque. Movements are quick and sharp, though not necessarily very exact. Balanchine dancers often dance just slightly ahead of the music unless it is extremely fast.

#11 BW

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Posted 27 September 2003 - 03:09 PM

Although this company is not performing on their home base, they are elsewhere. :cool2:

#12 artist

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Posted 25 February 2007 - 02:14 AM

I hope I'm not confusing w/ ABT, but I went to a performance lecture in '05 and one speaker said that they have their students - to find their correct position of the fingers - hold a mini golf ball between their thumb and middle finger. Once they understood that shape, she would tell them to "just let it go", referring to having a more relaxed and pulled out finger.

Each finger would have to be visible and the pinky finger would be "like having a tea party."

#13 bart

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Posted 25 February 2007 - 06:29 AM

Thanks so much, artist, for re-discovering and reviving this short but fascinating thread. There's been so much talk on BT in recent years about the way Balanchine is peformed at companies other than NYCB. Often this is expressed in terms of "Balanchinian" or "non-Balanchinian" ways of moving through and inhabiting the choreography.

It's a thread well-work re-reading and bringing up to date in terms of developments since the 3 1/2 years since the last post.

I was especially interested in Leigh's observation:

Company style has changed subtly in the years that I have been watching it, and more perceptibly if you view older tapes. It feels to me like the emphasis now is on the shape of the movement (pointed feet, high extensions, etc.) than on the movement itself. The dancers are more inbred (for lack of a better term) and that is become central to the style of the company. In the years I have been watching the company, I think the movement style (and the musical phrasing) has become more emphatic and punctuated, but I think this says as much about the cultural milieu as it does about City Ballet itself.

The first part of this (the reference to shape of the movement) certainly seems on the money. It's also a development that seems to have been taken even further by other companies that have moved into the Balanchine repertorie (Miami, POB, and Kirov are my own personal experiences).

In my own limited experience -- I actually saw a great deal more of NYCB 20-40 years ago than in the past 15 years -- I am not so sure about the second point: "the movement style (and the musical phrasing) has become more emphatic and punctated." I can't imagine anything more "emphatic" and "punctuated" than NYCB's dancing of Balanchine in the 60s and 70s. Or am I misinterpreting those terms?

#14 scherzo

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Posted 25 February 2007 - 08:50 AM

I would also like to know about changes in style since the 60s and 70s: from the Dance In America recordings I got the impression of definitely dancing big (which has apparently stayed), and also of great poise of the head and neck and almost exaggerated arm movements - very emphatic and punctuated indeed. There was a matter-of-factness, different from being aggressively stony-faced, but also different from simply being blank-faced: what do you think makes this difference?

but also a 'free' use of arms, including very often STRAIGHT lines (not curved) with 'broken wrists - anathema to (for example) 'ashton' style).

I have to say, the first time I saw this arm style (I have also never seen NYCB live) I thought it was really horrible. I've got used to it but I'm still not nuts about it. This does remind me of Soviet style, especially Natalia Bessmertnova. (Btw, artist, this post confirms your idea.)

#15 leibling

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Posted 25 February 2007 - 12:25 PM

I can see the differences implied by "emphatic and punctuated"...there is an old video of Agon with a nearly original cast- Todd Bolendar, Violette Verdy, Diana Adams, Arthur Mitchell. Anyway- there IS a tremendous difference in the way the ballet was danced as opposed to the way it is now danced. It is as if the dancers are dancing the steps without necessarily needing to "figure them out." It is really difficult for me to explain this but... I felt in watching the videos that the emphasis was on the work as a whole, and the mood generated by the combinations of movements with the music rather than a presentation of steps. Yes, the steps were still beautifully performed, but perhaps they were also more spontaneous. I am not saying that today's performances are not also spontaneous- just that the overall understanding of the work seems different. With the technical capabilities of dancers these days growing by leaps and bounds, it seems natural that the emphasis would change, and the audience would start to see more turns, higher jumps and extensions rather than a particular character or personality. I suppose it could be a difference in interpretation- the farther we are from the source of all of this material (Balanchine himself), the more we hear someone's particular idea of where the emphasis should be placed.

On another note, pertaining to this recording of Agon, the way the music was played even was different from what we hear today. If one was to compare the music in this recording with the music played for the Agon excerpts in the Balanchine Celebration aired in 1993(?), one can hear the difference in emphasis there as well. Different phrasing (in my opinion, the more recent recording had a more lyrical, singing quality to it as opposed to a consistent, even beat in the earlier one), and perhaps better acoustics and maybe more technically accomplished players (don't quote me on that, though!) create a sound today that IS as different from the earlier sound as the dancing is different.

Referring again to "emphatic and punctuated", and depending on which era you define as being so, the main difference between the two Agon videos (to me, anyway) was in the execution of the steps. The older video displayed all of the steps performed on a more even technical level- there weren't any heartstopping extensions or turns, etc, but I remember that the performance left me with images of movement- Bolendar's soft-shoe inspired movement, or Verdy's speed and precision, or the soft manipulation in the pas de deux where Diana Adams didn't seem to care that she was being twisted into a pretzal. And, the attack was "even" in musical terms, but it made me hear the music. The more recent video left me with memories of Darcey Bussel's fantastic extension, and Wendy Whelan's spidery approach to the second pas de trois- complete with deep plunges into second position grand plie on pointe, and phrased in such a way that there was an emphasis on that. This, to me, is more a emphatic and punctuated approach to the same choreography. We can't know for sure anymore what was originally intended, so both approaches are equally valid- just different.


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