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Where do the aesthetics lie?


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#1 Treefrog

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Posted 03 March 2006 - 07:29 AM

In Links there was a link to an article to a small company, Bodiography, that emphasizes technique over body type.

From the group's website:

Bodiography holds a standard for educational excellence to provide a performance outlet for college educated professional dancers of various athletic body types with an emphasis on the aesthetic of the technique, rather than the aesthetic of the body.


And from the Baltimore Sun's article:

At 5-foot-5 and 125 pounds, Caruso says she's pleased she's been able to create a company "that celebrates the beauty of the athletic, healthy body. We don't worry about weight, we worry about our strength and our technique, our artistry and our quality of our work.

"Ballet dancers shouldn't have to give up their art because they can't fit into that classical mold," she says. "They shouldn't have to transition into modern dance if ballet is their passion."


What do you think? Is it possible to separate the aesthetic of the technique from the aesthetic of the body in ballet?

#2 kfw

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Posted 03 March 2006 - 09:26 AM

"Ballet dancers shouldn't have to give up their art because they can't fit into that classical mold," she says. "They shouldn't have to transition into modern dance if ballet is their passion."


I agree. But artistic directors shouldn't have to hire them either.

#3 Treefrog

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Posted 03 March 2006 - 10:45 AM

I think that's the point of my question. Most ADs do hire by body type/aesthetic. This company is trying to do something different. Their claim is that the aesthetics rest in the movement and the expression and the interpretation, and not in the particular type of body.

I guess the root of my question is: why do we put so much emphasis on the body rather than the technique?

Edited by Treefrog, 03 March 2006 - 10:47 AM.


#4 Hans

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Posted 03 March 2006 - 11:54 AM

Well, there are certain physical attributes that a ballet dancer must have; for example an amount of flexibility in the feet that permits the women to dance en pointe, one must have fairly good turnout and be able to raise the leg to at least 90º. Also, there are certain proportions that the traditional ballet costume flatters more. If the legs are shorter than the torso, a tutu will look rather awful. Within those basic requirements, a range of abilities are proportions is acceptable, but I think we spend too much time idealizing today. To an extent, ballet is all about idealization, but IMO that is where the quality of movement comes in. There's a large range of bodies that are desirable and acceptable, and I actually think it's easier to see ballet's transformative power when a rather average-looking person walks onstage and then proceeds to glide through the air like a sylph. Not that I find beautiful bodies undesirable, but there is room for both types in the field; directors are just too busy trying to get companies filled with one body type, and if you're going to choose just one type, why not choose the most ideal? It makes more sense for companies to have a mix of bodies and abilities--such dances as the big swans and little swans are even choreographed into the classics; variety is what helps those four-hour ballets stay interesting, and seeing different types of dancers perform shorter works is interesting as well.

#5 dirac

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Posted 03 March 2006 - 02:28 PM

Thank you for starting an interesting topic, Treefrog, and thank you, Hans, for your thoughtful response. The issue is not simple because ideals of beauty and proportion change over time – especially, but not exclusively, where women’s bodies are concerned. What qualities are part of a fundamental ballet aesthetic and which ones may be products of time and place?

#6 canbelto

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Posted 03 March 2006 - 02:58 PM

I'd say if ever there was a wholesale change in ballet ideal body types, it took place around the MT in the 1900s. The dominant ballerinas of the 1890s, Mathilde Kschessinka and Pierina Legnani were both extremely compact dancers. Legnani's compact shape allowed her to dance those famous fouttes. But around the early 1900s, a different breed of ballerina became "in." They were thinner, leggier, with more arched feet:

Tamara Karsavina

Karsavina again

Karsavina -- look how long her legs look in this picture

Anna Pavlova

Pavlova again

Olga Spessivtseva

This new aesthetic I think became permanent. I don't think a dancer like Legnani, no matter how talented she was, would get into a ballet company today.

#7 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 03 March 2006 - 03:46 PM

I think it's great that Caruso is providing an outlet for dancers to perform. At the same time, I'm not hearing people moaning about the lack of people under 6'3" on professional basketball teams. Ya gotta have a gimmick, and it sounds like inclusiveness is hers. Here's to her making a difference, and making good ballet as well.

#8 kfw

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Posted 03 March 2006 - 04:54 PM

What qualities are part of a fundamental ballet aesthetic and which ones may be products of time and place?

I think the old generalization that ballet is airborne and that modern dance -- which developed to some extent in response to ballet -- is earthbound, is pertinent here. I guess I disagree with Hans. Even if a dancer with a relatively short and stocky body has the technique to match a taller and slimmer dancer, for me the movement will tend to look better on the taller and slimmer body. Of course personality is the wild card factor but, to me, taller reads as lighter and slimmer reads as fleeter. As Balanchine said, with taller bodies, we see more. The movement is easier to read.

We're told that Balanchine set the standard onstage and off for thinner bodies, and that's no doubt true, but my guess is that the ballet ideal is not an historical accident. In other words, I don't think his taste in dancers would have been so influential if it didn't have some objective correlation. Likewise, I doubt it's an historical accident that modern dancers on average are shorter and stockier.

Anyhow, Treefrog, let me add my thanks. Great topic!

#9 YouOverThere

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Posted 03 March 2006 - 04:56 PM

I think that's the point of my question. Most ADs do hire by body type/aesthetic. This company is trying to do something different. Their claim is that the aesthetics rest in the movement and the expression and the interpretation, and not in the particular type of body.

I guess the root of my question is: why do we put so much emphasis on the body rather than the technique?


My 2 cents is that it is because ballets are (usually) fantasies with a hero and heroine. Because of the social conditioning of the audiences, the hero and heroine have to be attractive. The current criteria for attractiveness in women includes being very thin (and it's my perception that this opinion is especially strong among women). Most of the audience is there just for the entertainment, not because they want to study the technical details of dance.

I would also guess that because women have to be liftable, there is a practical limit on how much they can weigh.

#10 bart

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Posted 03 March 2006 - 05:40 PM

This experiment is interesting (and, it seems to me, praiseworthy) on several levels. Including this one:
---------------------
QUOTE:
"Then there's also the matter of her dancers' background: All six of the full-time performers in her young company are college graduates."

"I hire dancers that have a four-year degree, because I want highly educated dance professionals," Caruso says. "Most dancers come straight to the stage from high school. I wanted my dancers to be aware of dance and its vocabulary, to be technically proficient and to know about the body and how it functions. I also want them to function as faculty members at our dance center."
----------------------
It's a wonderful opportunity for these dancers, who might not have a chance to perform their art elsewhere. With the right rep, and assuming the quality is high, why not?

#11 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 03 March 2006 - 05:58 PM

Adding to my rather flip comment above, I think repertory and proportions are as important as height or body type. Roberta Marquez at the Royal Ballet is quite small, but with long legs in proportion to her torso. She doesn't read short on stage. Tina Højlund, at the Royal Danish Ballet, doesn't have a neo-classical body; she's softly rounded. She looks gorgeous in Bournonville. Judith Fugate had relatively short arms; that made her one of the most elegant of NYCB's dancers because she could control her port de bras more easily.

There are some body flaws for ballet that are nearly insurmountable, no matter what the aesthetic. Feet that don't point, lack of turnout (but tell that to Patricia McBride) and lack of extension can prevent a career. All have a basis in technique. The more sensitive is the one mentioned in the article; having big breasts because it has nothing to do with how one dances. Anyone I've known who's had a shot at a career but had above average breasts (I'm talking D cup, rather than just not flat) has had them reduced.

#12 bart

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Posted 03 March 2006 - 06:53 PM

I haven't watched figure skating systematically for a long while. Can anyone tell me how these body issues of height, weight, proportion, etc., apply there? And is there any kind of aesthetic consensus of the sort that seems to exist more or less in ballet?

#13 carbro

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Posted 03 March 2006 - 08:13 PM

Figure skating is different largely because, with rare exceptions, there is no "corps de skate". There is less immediate need for conformity of conformation. While there is a much wider range of body types, it's been a while, off the top of my head, since I've seen anyone as stocky (and ultimately elegant, paradoxically enough) as Dorothy Hamill. Yuka Sato is the closest I can think of, among top names of recent years.

I'm sure Helene will be able to name some I'm overlooking, though.

#14 Paul Parish

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Posted 03 March 2006 - 08:48 PM

Well, the issue that's not getting mentioned is , how much is ballet a spectacle, and how much is it a matter of kinesthetic fascination?

If it's a spectacle, the look of the dancer is paramount, even if they can barely dance. The more it's a kinetic affair, the more the dancer's ability to make interesting reconfigurations of the body, gracefully, comes absorbs the interest. Sometimes the dance is about punching it out; sometimes it's about cursive mocvement, like handwriting -- but the more the emphasis is on the kinetic factors, the more interesting a person who moves well will become, and that can over-ride questions of runway-model proportions, the way the body looks at rest.

Look at a dancer like desmond Richardson -- at rest, he's a chunky, hunky guy -- but let him do a tendu orgrand battement and all these amazing lines appear -- he's SO flexible, his feet point so beautifully, he's suddenly transfigured into something godly.

Maybe this is less so, for most people, with chunky women -- but I myself think Lauren Grant is one of the most beautiful classical dancers around, even though she's a short, very muscular dancer in Mark Morris's "modern dance" company. She has in fact got fabulous turnout, and that makes short limbs look long -- especially in flight. I'm certain I'd have swooned over Legnani -- still shots don't do her justice, but descriptions of her incredible aplomb, the quietness of her balances, and her wonderful finesse in the most difficult maneuvers -- no less an authority than Petipa himself said so -- make me think I'd have preferred her to a gloriously proportioned but weak ballerina like (you supply your own favorite name here).

#15 bart

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Posted 04 March 2006 - 06:24 AM

This is an interesting topic! I'm persuaded by Paul's points. I've only seen Desmond Richardson in the video of SF Ballet's Othello (Lubavitch), but I certainly see what you mean, Paul.

I also appreciate carbro's suggestion about the distractions and even oddities of too much body-type variation in classiscal corps. This was a big distraction in the earlier days of NYCB (pre Lincoln Center) as well as with Ballet Theater around that time, as I remember.

Nowadays, it seems that the further you get away from NYC, Paris and St. Petersburg, the greater variation in body type you see. I can't get out of my mind the statement by one of the women in the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet that she did not have the body type to be hired by a classical company -- and she was stunningly beautiful, the kind of dancer your eye was naturally drawn to, and (to my uneducated eye) quite well proportioned.

And -- what about men, in both corps and solo positions. Why is variety of body type so much more acceptible (unnoticeable?) in them?


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