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Hypermobility in Ballet


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#1 Hans

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Posted 13 July 2005 - 04:45 AM

An excerpt from my review of the Kirov's "Le Corsaire:"

I don't wish to cast a negative light on the performance or the individual dancers, so I may start another thread for an issue I've noticed regarding the types of bodies the Kirov has lately been promoting--the hypermobile type. Actually, it's not so much that the dancers are flexible as that they have been encouraged to develop their flexibility to the detriment of almost everything else. The wonderful light Kirov grand allegro is no longer there--the dancers are too busy trying to see which one of them can split their legs the most beyond 180 degrees to bother with actually jumping, and their excessive flexibility interferes seriously with petit allegro. The petit allegro in this performance wasn't bad, exactly, but it wasn't of the sharp, brilliant quality that I've come to expect from them.

There's nothing wrong with a dancer being naturally flexible (Asylmuratova clearly had the potential to become a pretzel); it's the development of such flexibility rather than strength that is a problem. When a dancer is naturally flexible, it is advisable to for them to work more on allegro than on contorting during adagio (for an unflexible dancer, the reverse is true, at least in the classroom). Such training will promote a balanced technique. Vaganova wrote that while adagio is important, the entire ballet class is but a preparation for allegro. Unfortunately, the Kirov seems to have changed its priorities.


I can go into an even more in-depth technical analysis if anyone would like particular examples, but this seems to be a good starting point. What have others noticed regarding this issue?

#2 kfw

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Posted 13 July 2005 - 09:03 AM

That's very interesting, Hans, and I'd love more analysis. I don't know much about the Kirov but I do know that they've been dancing Symphony in C and Rubies and other Balanchine works that, if I'm not mistaken, require rather more petit allegro than the Petipa they've historically been nourished on. So I'm puzzled as to why there would be a falling off in that area.

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 13 July 2005 - 09:54 AM

I've blamed the emphasis on flexibility as Sylvie Guillem syndrome -- when Guillem became THE star, companies started looking for girls who looked like her and were as flexible as she was, and so girls started to work on flexibility at the expense of everything else. (When Fonteyn was THE star, dancers tried to look/dance like her; in the Makarova era, the same. And it's been that way since Taglioni.)

So part of me isn't too worried -- yet -- because Guillem's career is winding down and there will be a new star coming up somewhere. And that star is always at least 180 degrees different from the last one.

But until then -- I agree with Hans. The Kirov this last time was hard to watch for me. I like seeing different bodies unified by style; I saw the same body over and over. And the women's dancing seemed weak, no matter how many turns they were doing. That beautiful underlying steely strength was gone. They didn't run. They pattered. In many (most?) dancers, too, the high extension distorts the line.

#4 bart

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Posted 13 July 2005 - 10:03 AM

There's nothing wrong with a dancer being naturally flexible (Asylmuratova clearly had the potential to become a pretzel); it's the development of such flexibility rather than strength that is a problem. When a dancer is naturally flexible, it is advisable to for them to work more on allegro than on contorting during adagio (for an unflexible dancer, the reverse is true, at least in the classroom). Such training will promote a balanced technique. Vaganova wrote that while adagio is important, the entire ballet class is but a preparation for allegro. Unfortunately, the Kirov seems to have changed its priorities.

Hans, though I don't have much in the way of the technical or physiological knowledge and I've seen the Kirov recently only in some videos, this seems like a very valid point in general.

I'm not really familiar with the term "hypermobility," which, when I first read it, I assumed meant "moving very fast." As I read further, I began to gather that the opposite seems to be the case: that it has to do with slow, elaborate stretching. Is this term a kind of synonym for "flexibility"? I'd love to hear you elaborate on the definition and give some examples.

P.S.: Alexandra, as someone older than the Guillem phenomenon, I might tend to credit (or blame) Philobolus. :innocent:

#5 Natalia

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Posted 13 July 2005 - 10:26 AM

The 'hypermobility' is there to serve repertoire, so let's examine this in terms of choices of repertoire.

The current management of the Kirov places great emphasis on what they consider 'cutting edge' choreography, the Neumeiers and the Forsythes. Believe it or not, they tout Forsythe and his successors as the post-Balanchine generation of choreographers, as if somehow they are paying great tribute to Petipa and Balanchine by presenting Neumeier/Forsythe! They mistakenly think that this will give them credence in the West. Little do they know that we in the West used to drool with 'friendly envy' whenever we saw their corps de ballet's classical bodies, beautiful curved legs, etc. , dancing the classics.

The sad fact is, not only do we in the west not care much for the 'Neumeier Look,' St. Petersburg's ballet audiences, in general, hate it too. So the goons in charge of the Kirov-Mariinsky are managing to alienate their core audiences both at home & abroad!

Let's see this in 'macro' terms. Fourteen years after the collapse of the USSR, Russians are still obsessed that they won't be perceived as "cool" enough or "with it" and almost bend over backwards to do the opposite of what they did during the Soviet Era. You see this in every walk of life...they realize that they were 'behind' for 75 years and are now trying to make up for lost time (their perception; I disagree & admire what Russians managed to achieved during 1917-1991 in science & arts, against all odds). Translated to ballet terms, Kirov-Mariinsky and Bolshoi managers are running around trying to acquire ballets from what they think are the most "with-it" choreographers. But it gets even more complex....

While one set of Kirov managers are trying to get "with it" & be cool, another set of folks at the Kirov are trying hard to retain the Soviet style...the Soviet versions of the classics. So...they train their young dancers to do the "cool" hyperextensions, to serve the "cool" choreography...and let them continue with their "cool" moves in the classics, not to confuse things.

So who are the losers in all of this? The lovers of the pre-Soviet Imperial style, that's who. Those of us who like a nice just-past-90-degree arabesque in their Auroras and Giselles. These moves will die once Zhanna Ayupova retires, which will probably be soon. [Even Assylmuratova & Makhalina were criticized for their hyper-extensions, in the late 80s. Let's not forget.]

To sum it up: The Soviet -Classical and the EuroTrash schools have their champions in top management of the Kirov-Mariinsky Theater right now. We old-fashioned 'dummies' who love the new-old 'Sleeping Beauty' and 'Bayadere' productions, and the proper (Cecchetti and French...a la Petipa's age) way of performing steps, can comfort ourselves with videotapes of Margot Fonteyn and Zhanna Ayupova.

NN

#6 bart

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Posted 13 July 2005 - 10:31 AM

From dirac's LINKS (today):
Robert Gottlieb reviews Kirov and American Ballet Theatre, in the New York Observer.

The above review bears on Hans's topic. Towards the end, Gottlieb makes the following comment about a ballerina who is NOT one of the favorites of the Ballet Talk followers of the Kirov. Not sure how this connects of hypermobility, but ...

QUOTE: "She could fouette; and she DID fouette. She also flings her legs up, out and around in paroxysms of hyperextension; her limbs don't seem organically connected to her body -- they fly off into their own universe. It was disturbing to watch, both in itself and as a symptom of what one fears may be a company direction."

#7 Hans

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Posted 13 July 2005 - 10:42 AM

Wow--three new posts all in the time it took me to write this one! I'm going to read through them and then edit as necessary.

I agree about the Guillem syndrome, Alexandra, but wasn't Balanchine promoting high extensions before she became famous? I remember a passage from "Choura," by Danilova in which she says something to the effect that her students at SAB are always stretching--"they tear their legs apart"--and that she would say, "How high can you do developpé? Higher than your head? Why don't you work on your two pirouettes which are not so hot instead?" I'm not sure when that book was written, though, so it might have been around the same time Guillem was becoming famous.

While I admire Sylvie Guillem in many ways, I'm not really a fan of hers. But somehow the high extensions look different on her. I don't know if it's the Paris Opera training, but it's as if extensions that high are entirely natural for her, and so she was able to work on other aspects of her technique while maintaining the high legs. Also, people tend to ignore the fact that Guillem also has that lovely Paris Opera port de bras, a voracious jump, &c. One thing I do notice about Paris Opera dancers (although this is only from video) is that while they do all seem to have those gumby-like bodies, they don't work exclusively on raising their legs.

And you're exactly right about the multiple pirouettes. If one has good balance and strong abdominal and back muscles, s/he can turn because the hip joints aren't really integral to the movement. Petit allegro does use the hips extensively, as dancers are taught to do beats "from the thighs" rather than merely beating the feet.

What appears to be happening at the Kirov (and by extension, probably at the Vaganova Academy) is that they choose dancers who are naturally very flexible. However, unlike at, say, Paris Opera, it looks as if the dancers are encouraged to stretch, developpé to the sky, &c. all the time rather than only working on it during adagio combinations.

I noticed this immediately when the corps women came out doing grands jetés in a circle during Act I. The Vaganova method teaches that in order to do a high jump, you first do a strong, quick grand battement with the front leg. This brings your hips and torso up into the air, and then the back leg comes up so that the action of the jump follows an arc in the air, as if the dancer were leaping over a hill. You probably will not see a split in the air.

With their super-flexible, weak hips, the dancers have the ability to throw the front leg up, but they don't raise the pelvis and torso into the air. Thus, the jump makes a straight line in the air, the front leg is often higher than 90º, and the back leg droops. The overall impression is one of heaviness and effort rather than lightness and ease.

In terms of petit allegro, this will probably sound weird, but the Balanchine style actually requires less precision than the type of petit allegro Vaganova-trained dancers are used to doing. It is not essential that the heels stay down during pliés--which makes it easier to "cheat" and do certain movements, such as consecutive pas jetés, faster--a perfectly turned-out fifth position with the feet "glued" together toe to heel is not important, and fifth is allowed to be over-crossed. (That over-crossed fifth has done some strange things to NYCB's technique too--beats so crossed you can't see them--but that's another thread. :innocent: )

Anyway, a beaten step such as entrechat-six, jeté battu, or brisé requires extremely strong, minute control of the adductors (inner thigh muscles that pull the legs together). When the adductors are stretched out as much as they are in the current Kirov bodies, the dancer gives up some of this control, giving beats a weak, unfocused look instead of a sparkling, "snappy" quality.

The degree of care taken when the feet are on the floor during petit allegro is generally what determines speed. Once in the air, a dancer has a limited amount of time in which to beat the legs, so the time taken to complete a step, say pas jeté battu, doesn't vary much from company to company regardless of style. What does alter the time taken to complete a combination is often how picky one is when it comes to doing an obsessively perfect fifth position on the ground. If you look at a Vaganova-trained dancer from the side, s/he will probably have a fully-rotated, "glued together" fifth position with the heels firmly on the floor every single time. Most other dancers sacrifice a little turnout (it still appears turned-out from the front; I wouldn't really consider this a technical flaw because the turnout muscles are still engaged) and Balanchine-style dancers tend to keep their heels a little off the floor--that is, the second the metatarsal areas of their feet touch the ground, they're already pushing off into the next jump.

So historically, Kirov dancers have tended to have slower petit allegro not because they can't beat, but because they are so concerned with with making every position on the ground perfect. (I don't think they should be criticized for that.) The beats themselves were brilliant, and it is that brilliance that is lacking in today's Kirov dancers.

#8 Alexandra

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Posted 13 July 2005 - 10:47 AM

Bart, Pilobolus certainly were gymnasts -- literally! -- but I don't think it had an influence on classical ballet training or what ballerinas wanted to look like.

Natalia, I think that the repertory does have something to do with it and I think your comment about the company (and other former Soviet companies) wanting to be cutting edge, or perceived as cutting edge is right on. (I'd add that their idea of cutting edge is often what was hot in the 1970s!) But neither Neumeier's nor Forsythe's dancers look like the current Kirov crop.

Re the comments by Robert Gottlieb, it was the "limbs don't seem organically connected to her body" that bothered me too. There's a floppiness about some of the women, as though they have no control over their limbs.

Hans, could you give some examples of what you meant?

#9 Hans

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Posted 13 July 2005 - 11:00 AM

Alexandra--we must have been posting at the same time. See my post just above yours for examples.

Bart, you're right--hypermobility is just a fancy term for flexibility. :D [Edit: The previous statement is not quite correct; see posts further down for detail.]

I also agree with Natalia and Alexandra; perhaps the difference between Neumeier and Forsythe's dancers and the Kirov is that the Vaganova Academy is free to select whatever bodies it likes and then mold them for 8-10 years into any shape it wants...and it appears to be selecting the most flexible dancers in all of Russia and then stretching them out for the entire course of their training.

The Gottlieb quote is right on. One of the hallmarks of Vaganova training is a sense of harmony of the body, and it is not in evidence anymore. (By the way, what a lovely photograph of Vishneva accompanies that article--nice to see a beautiful, sensible 90º arabesque! Contrast with this photo of Daria Pavlenko, who has twisted herself in a bizarre fashion in order to raise her leg.)

As for Asylmuratova and Makhalina, I can see why they would be criticized for their extensions--the legs certainly do go high. However, they are always in control of their limbs, and they don't distort the position of the torso in favor of height. They do seem to have that "harmony of the body" idea intact, IMO.

Natalia, I'm a little bit terrified at the thought of Zhanna Ayupova retiring! That will truly be the end of an era at the Kirov. I can only imagine what the next generation is going to look like--dancers who have grown up seeing people like Gumerova and Tereshkina dancing everything. :D At least Asylmuratova and Makhalina bothered to act--and the company still had people like Margarita Kulik and Elena Pankova to remind everyone that there's more to ballet than giving yourself a concussion with your instep.

Editing to add:

A comment carbro made about Vishneva's extensions in ABT's Giselle made me think of something even worse than the Kirov's "Corsaire"--these new, limber bodies contorting themselves in a Romantic ballet! :innocent: Maybe some of us should sneak into the Mariinsky's wardrobe department and sew the skirts together, Bournonville-like. :cool:

#10 Natalia

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Posted 13 July 2005 - 11:59 AM

None of us have yet mentioned Svetlana Zakharova (ex-Kirov; Bolshoi since late 2003)! Talk about a contorted Giselle or Aurora! Zakharova is the most 'naturally' gifted contortion artist since Guillem. At least SZ's legs and feet ARE truly lovely and seem controlled...even if we don't like to see her extensions in the classics.

I have the feeling that the Kirov was deeply disturbed by Zakharova's decision to move to Moscow. They're determined to find a Zakharova Clone, by hook or crook.

The sad thing: Foreigners who fill the expensive seats at the Mariinsky -- the businessmen & spouses who don't really know ballet but spend $100 per ticket to "do the Kirov" ...treating the Kirov's stalls as a sort of country-club for making business deals -- ooohed and ahhh'ed Zakharova, while more knowledgeable foreign balletomanes and regular Russian fans in cheaper seats winced. [Too, SZ was, during her time at the Kirov, the best user of the claque...so we always heard Yevgeny "King of the Claquers" loudly bravo-ing only for SZ. Yevgeny did not move to Moscow with SZ...he has new clients now, but not the younger ones, who can't afford his services. So Somova, in truth, does not receive loud 'bravi.' We can't blame the claque for her rise.]

#11 Hans

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Posted 13 July 2005 - 12:25 PM

I've never seen Zakharova dance, so I don't know what her technique is like, but I did see a photo of her in the Sleeping Beauty reconstruction during the Rose Adagio in which she was in arabesque penché, her hand on a corps member's shoulder, one finger under her chin, her working leg raised a little beyond 180º...and the back of her long 19C tutu resting on her head. :flowers:

#12 bart

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Posted 13 July 2005 - 12:37 PM

Lyndsey Winship previews the Kirov's William Forsythe program, for the Independent.

The thing is, you can't keep a determined ballet director down. When Vaziev was first appointed as the Mariinsky Theatre's ballet director in 1997, he was criticised for reconstructing outdated period- pieces; now, it's for breaking away from the company's roots. There may be some whom he'll never win over, but he is adamant in his convictions. For him, it wasn't just a case of introducing modern work for the sake of it; he saw Forsythe as "a necessity".

This, from LINKS today, is directly relevant to Natalia's post.

Alexandra, I modified that Philobolus post to add a :flowers:

#13 carbro

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Posted 13 July 2005 - 02:28 PM

I remember a passage from "Choura," by Danilova in which she says something to the effect that her students at SAB are always stretching--"they tear their legs apart"--and that she would say, "How high can you do developpé?  Higher than your head?  Why don't you work on your two pirouettes which are not so hot instead?"

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Because stretching feels so much better and requires less real effort? :wink: I've been in classes where the teacher has outright forbidden some young dancers from stretching, so weakened and hyperflexible were they already. Unfortunately, that taboo was observed for only 90 minutes at a time.

One of the striking things about the footage I've seen of Olga Spessivtzeva is her high extension, so let's blame her. :P Actually, by today's standards (but not by the standards of when the video was new -- maybe 20 years ago?) OS's extension is unremarkable.

I do find most super-high extensions on women ugly (and this would vary somewhat from one body to another, as Hans noted re Guillem) and some downright grotesque, but what about the men :flowers: ? Even though I have yet to see a photo of a man in 180-degree plus grand jete, the trend is not confined to female dancers. Am I the only one who finds that in addition to all the negative reactions we've posted here about women with wild legs, when we see it in a man it looks effeminate? Think of the great male dancers of recent generations: Martins, Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Bruhn, Dowell, Villella, etc. Among these, we never saw a second position much above 90 degrees. It communicated strength and stability, and it worked just fine, thank you, for me. Messrs. Ruzimatov, Malakhov et al., please take note. :beg:

Something to keep in mind, whether one is male or female: Just because you can doesn't mean you must.

#14 Alexandra

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Posted 13 July 2005 - 02:50 PM

A quick note on Balanchine and extensions -- my understanding is that he liked what a particular dancer had. If someone had a high extension -- Allegra Kent, Suzanne Farrell -- he used it. But he would also tell a dancer who was imitating Kent or Farrell, "That doesn't suit you." Unfortunately, I think students will imitate what they SEE rather than do what they're told, and they make the mistake of thinking that it was the high extension that mattered -- that Balanchine was creating on Kent or Farrell because of that extension. Which leads to the "If I have a high extension, I, too, will be a ballerina" conclusion. (Noverre writes about this problem -- the illogical logic, not the extensions.)

#15 Hans

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Posted 13 July 2005 - 03:33 PM

Carbro, check out this photo. :flowers:

I agree re: high extensions on men, but I think the idea that it looks better on some than others applies here as well--I know a dancer in the corps of ABT who naturally has high extensions, and they look fine on him.

I love the last line of your post BTW--that should be posted in every ballet studio across the world!

Alexandra, that's a good point re: Balanchine, and it is very true that students imitate what they see rather than what they're told.


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