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Leigh Witchel

Balanchine And Emploi Again

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In attempting to find a name, I was reading a section of the article I wrote on Agon in '97 and came across a Edward Villella quoting Balanchine. He was about to teach Villella Todd Bolender's part (the first pas de trois) in Agon:

You shouldn't try to do it like Todd. You should dance your way because you are en l'air dancer.

I'm extrapolating wildly, but there may be some clues here about how Balanchine saw dancers.

When I was puzzling how to create a pas de deux on a dancer a few years ago, my rehearsal assistant said "She's an Earth dancer." I haven't checked the exact source for her idea, but my guess is the NYC teacher David Howard. She characterized dancers according to the medieval elements - Air, Fire, Earth, Water. Earth dancers were stable, didn't like to jump and did not like to be partnered.

A lot of hypothetical connections here and I know that "en l'air" isn't the same thing as "Air" - but I wonder if there's a link, at least that Balanchine divided dancers into those that were grounded and those that weren't. I wonder what he considered the opposite of an "en l'air" dancer. "Terre à terre"?

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This is a fascinating issue. I -- like most people who watch but also think about ballet -- tend to feel that I understand the Air and Earth imagery fairly well. Fire and Water perhaps less so. Are we getting into Four Temperaments territory here?

When it comes to applying these terms to individual dancers -- or roles -- disaagreements creep in. Especially since the best dancers can participate in all kinds of dance, often extremely well, that may not be natural to them.

I have some questions of my own:

What are the characteristic movements associated with each of the 4 elemental types: air, earth, water, fire?

Which roles in Balanchine -- or elsewhere? -- seem to require the most distilled and intense or each type.

Which Balanchine dancers --or others? -- express each of these qualities most intensely?

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This makes me think of Diana Adams. I've read her comments on how she viewed herself as a dancer and how Balanchine saw and cast her and they are wildly different. She thought of herself as a lyrical dreamy type of dancer (Air?). but she says whenever she danced those roles Balanchine thought she was "boring". So how did he see her? Earth or Fire?

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Taglioni was "en l'air". We think of this as being light, but from contemporary accounts -- she was a jumper. Elssler was neither light (in the sense of being evanescent) nor a jumper, and was terre a terre. Bournonville has four "civilian" types of emploi, too. I'd have to look them up, but one is light and one is strong.

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Have you SEEN the way Bolender danced Agon? he was like spaghetti -- like Phlegmatic. Like olive Oyl. Lots of fun to watch, but he was NOT ANYTHING like Villella, who was the strongest man of his weight class in the boxing ranks in the Merchant Marine (or something like that). Villella was a ragazzo, a rascal by type... which is why it would have been so much more fun to be a kid in HIS department in Midsummer Night's Dream, jumping all the time.

This is all off the top of my head, haven't had time to look up any of this, and so memory is having to limp around and serve more than perhaps memory is really capable of -- but I THINK I've got this right.

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Oh definitely, Paul.

Barbara Walczak on Bolender: "Todd couldn't hit a note if you begged him."

His performance is recorded - weirdly enough, I couldn't find a recorded source for Villella. Bolender dances the first pas de trois on the 1960 CBC kinescope (L'Heure du Concert). Nobody looks like him in the part anymore - almost squishy.

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The roles Balanchine made for Villella were emphatically not ethereal in mood, so I assume the comment describes him as a jumper. No, the Villella persona is one I'd describe as fiery.

In terms of the elements themselves, I've never really grasped the essence of Water. Can anyone help me here?

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Flowing? Sinuous? Llike a pavane, crossing the floor slowly and smoothly? Or the princesses in Firebird? Or is that terre a terre.

I've never seen the Ravel Pavane solo. Would that fill the bill?

And how about swan arms? Ondine?

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Suzanne Farrell. The mere mention of "water" brings her to mind. And to consider the four elements, she certainly wasn't fire, air, or even earth, at least not to me.

Farrell danced as if in a bubble, onstage with others but really by herself, buffered in a way from all else that was happening around her. I saw her relate to her partners, but still felt she was mainly relating to herself (if that makes any sense).

Even her movements, ever so musical, seemed to have a built-in resistance to them, as if moving through water.

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Now that I've posited this theory, I guess I have to flesh it out - I think Robbins liked "water" dancers - like Bart said, sinuous and I'd add stretchy.

Diana White, Maria Calegari, Maria Kowroski, Helene Alexopoulos . . .

The way I'd see it -

Nikiya is a water part.

Odette is an air part

Odile is a fire part

Aurora isn't an earth part, but the Rose Adagio is!

This isn't perfect, obviously, and I wouldn't try and cram all parts and roles into four categories. It did help me to figure out what to do with a dancer when I couldn't get a handle on her, though.

Next we can assign them all seasons. Color me ballet-iful.

"I'm sorry, you can't dance Aurora. You're a Fall."

:off topic:

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The roles Balanchine made for Villella were emphatically not ethereal in mood, so I assume the comment describes him as a jumper. No, the Villella persona is one I'd describe as fiery.
While Rubies is a fiery role -- I would cast him as Loge in the ballet version of Ring of the Nibelungen -- and the Symphony in Three Movements role is earthy, Balanchine choreographed the two most Bournonville-like pieces/roles for him: the Scherzo in Midsummer Night's Dream and the lead in Donizetti Variations. I think these are mixtures of earth and fire, with a little air whipped in.

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I'm dim about this, but aren't there supposed to be affinities between air and fire, and one hand, and earth and water? And aren't these two sets somehow in contrast with each other. Or am I confusing things?

I see Helene's point about Villella's two Balanchine roles. But if Villella was earth and fire, might these qualities not -- in the alchemical world -- cancel each other out? Very confusing.

And then there's always rock, scissors, paper.

Note to myself: metaphors are metaphors; reality is ... something else.

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If Villella was earth and fire, might these not -- in the alchemical world -- cancel each other out? Very confusing.
In Feng Shui, Fire burns Wood to create Earth. So at least in one system, they are compatible.

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Suzanne Farrell. The mere mention of "water" brings her to mind. And to consider the four elements, she certainly wasn't fire, air, or even earth, at least not to me.

Farrell danced as if in a bubble, onstage with others but really by herself, buffered in a way from all else that was happening around her. I saw her relate to her partners, but still felt she was mainly relating to herself (if that makes any sense).

Even her movements, ever so musical, seemed to have a built-in resistance to them, as if moving through water.

Balanchine is quoted as saying, "She's like a whale in her own ocean."

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Oh my goodness! Thank you for posting that quote, dirac -- it's validation from The Man himself!. :off topic:

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Just for the record, here's how the four temperaments, or humors, stack up against Empedocles' four basic elements:

Too much Earth: Melancholic

Too much Air: Sanguinic

Too much Fire: Choleric

Too much Water: Phlegmatic

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Balanchine is quoted as saying, "She's like a whale in her own ocean."

That explains a lot. Thank you. I'm visualizing right now the video of Tzigane.

I wonder whether other great artists -- the kind that command your eyes to go to them; the kind that never quite fit (maybe "merge" is the better word) into ensemble -- have this same quality And I wonder where it comes from. :)

And thanks, Mel, for that check list. I never thought of these categories in terms of "too much."

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Balanchine was commenting on the pure humors themselves; to the ancient physician, the state of perfect health was a balance of all four humors, which also had implications with hot and cold, dry and moist. The alchemical circles which are drawn show which materials "rule" which temperament, what zodiac sign applies to it, and so on.

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As far as earth and water being together... has anyone encountered the type of dancer who is extremely supple with good balance for posing but who doesn't seem to have enough tension to be able to jump?

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As far as earth and water being together... has anyone encountered the type of dancer who is extremely supple with good balance for posing but who doesn't seem to have enough tension to be able to jump?

From what I've seen, Sylvie Guillem. Despite her famous sky-high extensions, there's something very earthbound about her. I can't really explain it except that when I watch her dance (and I have some videos plus I've seen her live) I feel somehow that she's glued to the stage. I've seen her jump, but nevertheless, the jumps don't seem to take off the way the best jumpers can just literally seem to propel themselves into the air and fly. With her ultra-lean body, sometimes I feel like I'm watching a broom dance. A very beautiful, glamorous broom that can twist itself into all sorts of positions, but strangely earthbound nevertheless.

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