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How To Study The Great Roles Of Ballet?


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#1 Volkmar

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Posted 12 March 2006 - 11:28 AM

When I watch the great ballets, e.g. Swan Lake, I am always wondering about the process of studying the great roles of the choreographers. My very simple question is: how does it work? When someone sings a role in an opera (e.g. Pamina in The Magic Flute by Mozart) there are score-books to work with. How is this in ballet? Are there written books in e.g. Laban-notation for Odettes? How does it work?
Thanks for your comments!

With a lot of greetings from Munich,
Volkmar

#2 sandik

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Posted 12 March 2006 - 01:22 PM

When I watch the great ballets, e.g. Swan Lake, I am always wondering about the process of studying the great roles of the choreographers. My very simple question is: how does it work? When someone sings a role in an opera (e.g. Pamina in The Magic Flute by Mozart) there are score-books to work with. How is this in ballet? Are there written books in e.g. Laban-notation for Odettes? How does it work?
Thanks for your comments!

With a lot of greetings from Munich,
Volkmar


Many of the standard roles have been notated, in Labanotation and in Benesh (not to mnetion some older systems as well!), but unfortunately, the percentage of dance enthusiasts who are able to read notation is considerably less than music fans who can read music notation.

Most people who want to reflect on these works have to rely on video, which can be very exciting when it comes to issues of interpretation, but not as helpful when you are trying to nail down the actual details of the choreography. The analogy that notation people often use comes from music -- the difference between learning a new piece by listening to someone else play it for you (over and over again), or being able to read it from the score.

It will be many years before dance catches up to music and theater in terms of literacy, for several reasons, and I would not want to lose the resources that we have in film/video/DVD. But as someone who teaches notation, I realize the drawbacks as well as the advantages of that media.

#3 Marga

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Posted 12 March 2006 - 01:22 PM

When a dancer learns a role, s/he has usually been working up to it for years in many ways. By the time a dancer has reached the advanced level of training in school, the class exercises (primarily centre work) include sequences which are combinations of movements that are sometimes parts of variations of well-known classical roles. After years of study, the flow of movement of these sequences becomes ingrained in the student dancer. There are also years of variations (and in some schools, pas de deux) classes where a young dancer learns many of the major classical roles.

When the student becomes a professional, there are years of observing principal dancers in the main roles and of absorbing the nuances they bring to their interpretations. When the dancer has progressed to soloist or principal status, they are learning roles that are already quite familiar to them. This is the time when a coach becomes indispensible. In America, the luxury of having a personal coach is not a given, as it is in many European countries. Sometimes the teaching of the role is entirely up to the artistic director and/or ballet mistress or balletmaster. In any case, the role is rehearsed person to person. Never have I heard of a classical ballet dancer learning a role from a book, Labanotation, or even entirely from video, although sometimes videos are referred to for specific choreography.

Passing ballet roles on to dancers is completely "hands-on". It is a privilege for every dancer to learn a role from a great ballerina or danseur who performed it often during their own dancing career. Intangible qualities such as interpretation or the impetus for a particular movement within one's body cannot be learned from a book or notation. It takes a living, breathing person who knows to impart such wisdom.

Edited by Marga, 12 March 2006 - 01:28 PM.


#4 carbro

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Posted 12 March 2006 - 03:36 PM

When a dancer learns a role, s/he has usually been working up to it for years in many ways. By the time a dancer has reached the advanced level of training in school, the class exercises (primarily centre work) include sequences which are combinations of movements that are sometimes parts of variations of well-known classical roles.

True, as far as the the enduring classics go, but dancers need to learn new -- or at least unfamiliar -- ballets all the time. And it is done one-on-one, from ballet master to dancer. Many ballet masters resist using video, because it's not always evident what is the choreography and what is the performer's idiosyncratic way of doing it. But for someone who has learned a role, perhaps videos can spark insights that change or enrich an interpretation.

#5 Marga

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Posted 12 March 2006 - 09:01 PM

True, as far as the the enduring classics go, but dancers need to learn new -- or at least unfamiliar -- ballets all the time.

I agree with you, carbro. I was going to address that aspect, but confined myself to the classics because that seemed to be the point of Volkmar's question:

When I watch the great ballets, e.g. Swan Lake...

Of course, most dancers will not learn all the classic roles while still studying. It depends on their status in class and the opportunities given them -- there are always the "chosen" students who are given more to do than their classmates.

Still, having learned scads of variations while in school (several of Kitri's, Giselle -- at least Act I, Giselle Act I Peasant, Myrtha, Odile, Odette, Medora, the Odalisques, Aurora, Princess Florina, Sugar Plum, Lise, Swanilda, Gamzatti, Nikiya, maybe Juliet, Diana, several from Paquita, Flower Festival, perhaps Flames of Paris, Spartacas, Cinderella, Raymonda, Esmeralda), and performed many roles in school productions, by the time the professional dancer reaches the ranks of soloist or principal, she can usually learn the choreography of any new ballet quite easily and quickly, her body being so well honed in the ballet movement vocabulary.

It's the interpretation of all roles where the ballet dancer reveals to us the ballerina living inside her. If a video can be of some help at this point, that's fine. But as you stated,

it is done one-on-one, from ballet master to dancer

That's where the artistry is added. It also helps to have a wonderful partner who can draw things out of the ballerina (and, the ballerina out of him) that neither knew they were capable of. That is the icing on the cake, wherein lies the magic.


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