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Kate Lennard

Balanchine Style Question

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Hello everyone

I was wondering if someone with a greater knowledge of Balanchine style and history than I, could possibly answer my question about a hallmark of Balanchine style.

I'm talking about the broken limpid wrist of the Balanchine ballerina in her port de bras. Choreographically, stylistcally, historically etc

Any information would be greatly appreciated.

Kate.

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They are trained to dance that way. I do not believe a Balanchine style teacher would use exactly your choice of words to descibe the line that way visually. :(

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I don't know much about the origins of his style, but i do know that he directed his technique (now more of a style) towards taller dancers. So many of the odd Balanchine ways of doing things were to assist taller dancers. For example, doing a pirouette from a lunge was said to be easier for taller dancers.

Also, i talked with one of my teachers once on how he came up with alot of his style, and he got much of his inspiration from the american jazz of that era. So thats why much of his choreography has a very jazz look to it if you look closely at it. Similar to the Luigi style of jazz that is still taught today ("classical" jazz as it is referred to now). For example, the extreme arabesque arms came from the classical jazz. If you've ever taken a luigi style jazz class, you'd be surprised of the similarities. We train in luigi, so i've become quite familiar with the influence it had on Balanchine.

As for the energetic hands, he may have just liked it better... and it could have evolved over time becoming more and more extreme.

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I notice that this port-te-bras is more common in his neoclassical leotard ballets, like Four Temperaments or Agon. I think it's to take his ballets away from the classical ballet port-te-bras, and make it more modern (a la Martha Graham).

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For example, doing a pirouette from a lunge was said to be easier for taller dancers.
I don't know about ease of execution, but aesthetically, it is much more pleasing. A lunge is an attractive position. Demi plie in fourth position is very ungainly.

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I don't know much about the origins of his style, but i do know that he directed his technique (now more of a style) towards taller dancers.

Balanchine's active period as a choreographer spand a 60 year period. His choreography was for dancers of all heights. Particularly in the first 40 years of his work most dancers were not particularly tall. They may have looked tall from the stage but they were not particularly tall. Long legged for the most part, but tall, not really, at least by comparison for the taller dancers of the 21st century.

The comparison to and influence of Luigi is indeed an interesting one. Luigi's teachers (according to Koegler) were Bolm, Nijinska, Canton, Loring and Panaieff. Luigi being younger than Balanchine by 21 years may have crossed paths with Balanchine at some point, however Balanchine was creating ballets in the US in 1933 when Luigi was still a youngster. The lunge as the preparation for pirouette is a direct decent from the preparation for pirouette in Petrograd schooling. Since Mr. Balanchine began his training in St. Petersburg, (pre-Vaganova), it is more likely that his usage of this preparation was influenced more by his training in Russia.

The subject of Balanchine and his style is still evolving. It is commonly believed that Balanchine studied the Vaganova program, which he did not. Vaganova entered Petrograd School, as a teacher, the year of his graduation. She did not become a director until 1934, when Balanchine was already working in the US. His style was definitely influenced by his Russian roots however what he learned in the US did influence his ballets.

Running a Search on Balanchine my bring up some interesting ideas that have previously been discussed at Ballet Talk. Also visit the sister website, Ballet Talk for Dancers for similar discussions regarding the technical aspects of the Balanchine style of training and performing.

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Kate, are you referring to flexed wrists used at specific times in choreography or to a general port de bras mannerism used throughout the style?

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Just wanting to echo Alexandra by thanking vrs *very much* for stating unequivocally that Balanchine did not train in the Vaganova era.

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I think that in this, as in nearly every other aestheic issue relating to Balanchine, there are many correct answers.

Through the years I've heard people with all kinds of responses to Balanchine's port de bras: "I don't like the broken wrist" to "He lets the dancers do what they please." At various talks, I've heard how in class he emphasized holding your had as if you were holding a small, fragile ball, or how in the waltz that the men would just hold the women by three fingers, very delicately. Dancers nearly always show a hand with a graceful curve, the index finger higher than the others, and the others arranged something like a fan, the thumb nearly touching the other fingers.

So I just flipped through a few of the 100th Anniversary books and some other books of photos, and you can see a wide range of port de bras: angular in the black & White leotard ballets, soft in the more romantic ballets.

Take a look, you'll see that most of the time the style of port de bras matches the style of the ballet.

VRS, I was fascinated to learn about Luigi's teachers. I watched a few of his classes back in the 70's when a close friend was studying with him -- wonderful and dynamic. I didn't have the vision to see the basis in ballet. Thanks

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Can I pipe up in a really small voice and admit that I don't really care for the broken wrist port-te-bras? I think it's appropriate in his more post-modern works like Agon and Four Temperaments, but when I saw a Jewels where everyone had the broken wrist port-te-bras, it just looked wrong. And if the measure of how much I like a look is "Would I be bothered if it wasn't there anymore," then my answer would be a firm no. If I never saw the broken wrist port-te-bras, I wouldn't be bothered at all. I'd enjoy the ballets just the same and wouldn't think anything was really missing or wrong.

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I wouldn't say that broken wrists are a stylistic hallmark of Balanchine - they're more "the dog that didn't bark". Balanchine spent hours working on the legs in class; tendus until the legs burned and very little (if any) time working on port de bras. He's on record liking the hands held with spread fingers (Peter Martins mentioned at a symposium that Balanchine thought that Volkova taught people to have - I may get this quote wrong - awful mitten hands) but for every thing you can read about him talking about tendus, plies and fifth position, there's next to nothing on the arms. He did like them placed to the side, rather than slightly forward, which makes the body more open, flat and erect (but can also tip it back). He's also on record as disliking English port-de bras (was it Margot Fonteyn he said had hands like spoons?)

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There were three videos (VHS) released on Balanchine technique, and one was "Balanchine Essays: Port De Bras & Epaulement." I've never seen the tape.

Is there anyone who has and can tell us if Suki Shorer discusses the hands and wrists in port de bras?

Sadly, it's not available on amazon.com, nor on the Barnes and Noble or NYCB sites, which are the three references given on The Balanchine Foundation site.

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In the most recent Schorer book on the teaching of the Balanchine style, a large part of the book is a discussion of the hands and port de bras, complete with frame by frame photographs depicting the "correct" way to show oneself as a well groomed Balanchine dancer.

The placement of the arm in 2nd position is actually from the Russian classical school (not the way the arm actually moves, just the placement). For the most part the finger grouping, level of arms and manner of moving is Russian character dance. Having heard many noted Russians as they viewed Balanchine for the first time exclaim, "...interesting, but the arms are character arms..." I began to try to see what they were saying. The closest comparison I am able to think of at this time is Scherazade. While the arm movements in Scherazade are lovely when performed slowly, think what a disaster a classical work might be if that was the only way to move the arms. Drama and schmulze over done becomes a displeasure when done repeatedly with the incorrect emotional balance, music and movement. The arms in Scherazade (when done correctly) are emotionally pleasing in part because of the music and the drama of the ballet. The arms in Scherazade are character arms and they work in that ballet, but they would not work in Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty or any of the ballets in the Romantic or Classical periods. Whether or not Balanchine arms work in various 20th century ballets is a discussion that will develop over time.

Just as we know in the 21st century that we have no clue as to how the classics really looked or were meant to look or if the 21st century teaching "improvements" would be improvements to the choreographers of the 19th century, the jury is out on the Balanchine legacy. It is still too soon to tell. With the marketing abilities of big business, for now it is difficult to step back and see inside the bowl.

An interesting discussion however! :)

FYI: Having been to various lectures on Balanchine and have seen various videos on the Balanchine teaching legacy, finding an actual methodology as I know in Vaganova schooling has not exactly jumped out at me. However the stories are lovely, the history becomes clearer the more the history is spoken or written and the aura begins to erode.

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Leigh's description is consistent with how I was taught at SAB--most of the teachers paid very little attention to the arms. However, for the girls it was a different story. While the legs were paramount, Schorer and Pilarre paid a good deal of attention to how the girls used their arms, and indeed if you go to SAB today and watch a girls' class, they all have almost exactly the same port de bras. Please keep in mind that this was about 16 years after Balanchine died, so I am not in a position to say whether that was what he wanted, just that it's what I learned. Cabriole may be able to tell us more if she sees this thread, as I believe she danced with NYCB while Balanchine was alive.

I also agree with vrs about the "character" arms. In character class at UBA when we would do a Spanish dance, imagine my surprise at seeing my former-Bolshoi teacher demonstrate "Balanchine hands and arms!" He even singled me out as doing it more easily than the rest of the class.

Of course, when it came to doing the elegant Vaganova port de bras, well, that was a different story--after I had been at SAB for a while, Sir Pyotr Pestov told me my hands looked like forks, so the whole silverware analogy is a double-edged sword. :)

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(was it Margot Fonteyn he said had hands like spoons?)

When I heard this story the word used was "spatulas"!

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I think you're right, Marga. Tallchief's feet were like spoons. Fonteyn's hands were like spatulas.

A veritable kitchen drawer full of utensils and body parts!

(was it Margot Fonteyn he said had hands like spoons?)

When I heard this story the word used was "spatulas"!

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I think you're right, Marga. Tallchief's feet were like spoons. Fonteyn's hands were like spatulas.

A veritable kitchen drawer full of utensils and body parts!

And then he moved to the refrigerator: Fonteyn's feet were "pats of butter." (Which I thought was overly snide -- sure she didn't have very ideally arched feet, but I wouldn't call them pats of butter either.)

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Actually, it was Ashton who said that about Fonteyn's feet. Also, to be fair, it was when she was still a very young dancer, and I think he was referring to how she used them, not their shape.

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The lunge as the preparation for pirouette is a direct decent from the preparation for pirouette in Petrograd schooling. Since Mr. Balanchine began his training in St. Petersburg, (pre-Vaganova), it is more likely that his usage of this preparation was influenced more by his training in Russia.

The subject of Balanchine and his style is still evolving. It is commonly believed that Balanchine studied the Vaganova program, which he did not. Vaganova entered Petrograd School, as a teacher, the year of his graduation. She did not become a director until 1934, when Balanchine was already working in the US. His style was definitely influenced by his Russian roots however what he learned in the US did influence his ballets.

I have never heard of Balanchine and Vaganova mentioned in one sentence this side of the pond.

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leonid I am not sure what you actually mean when you say..."this side of the pond" Are you living in the US or refering to a different region of the world?. Through my training as an American, with "Balanchine" teachers in the 1960s through the mid 1980s, I was educated to believe that Balanchine was trained in the Vaganova program. There are many Americans of my generation who believe that to be true. When I began studying Vaganova pedagogy in St. Petersburg, Russia one of my most influencial American teachers asked me why I was "interupting" my teaching career with the "adventure" since my roots were based in Vaganova. Having already studied the syllabus in the US, as a teacher, I responded politely knowing that my previous teacher and I were about to part in ideology of teaching. It was a big step in my life as a teacher.

Please do not misunderstand me, I recognize the vast differences between the two programs of study, however there is a similar root as there is in all ballet styles.

LATER...

leonid, I have discovered you are in the UK! Now I understand. :)

Edited by vrsfanatic

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I wish that I had the Suki Schorer book here, but I didn't bring it to college. She does, as someone else mentioned, have an extensive section on port de bras. Plus, the entire book puts the Balanchine "Technique" in context like nothing else I have read. Aspects of the style that I found ugly-- especially the broken wrists-- made much more sense to me after reading her book. She does a very good job of explaining the "whys" of the look. I remember something about a flowery look, that by allowing more bending in the wrists and elbows the arms look more feminine. Obviously, their purpose in a ballet like Agon is quite different.

Although, to be fair, I know just enough about Balanchine to realize that there is no definitive answer to questions like this. Balanchine was very specific about what he wanted-- sometimes revealing why, or at least giving a telling analogy-- but what he wanted changed over the course of his very long career. So the people that worked with him can say, "I know he wanted it like this-- he was very clear that it was to look exactly like xyz," whereas another dancer might be able to say he wanted the exact opposite, and with the same certainty.

Still, the main reason I posted was to recommend Schorer's book. Balanchine singled her out to teach his style, so even if some artificial codification is inevitable, at least we can be comfortable knowing that he designated the job to her.

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Still, the main reason I posted was to recommend Schorer's book. Balanchine singled her out to teach his style, so even if some artificial codification is inevitable, at least we can be comfortable knowing that he designated the job to her.
Thanks, whitelight.

Actually, Balanchine "singled out" quite a few of his dancers to teach his style, and not all of them are in agreement on a great many points. And, without detracting from anyone's stature or expertise, I think it's clear that some have grabbed a bit faster and tighter than others to the image of themselves as the True Repository of the Sacred Text.

I hope you'll take a moment and share a bit of your background, your tastes and how you found yourself here on our Welcome Page.

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Actually, Balanchine "singled out" quite a few of his dancers to teach his style, and not all of them are in agreement on a great many points. And, without detracting from anyone's stature or expertise, I think it's clear that some have grabbed a bit faster and tighter than others to the image of themselves as the True Repository of the Sacred Text.

:off topic:

Isn't that always the way, though?????????????

Richard

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And, without detracting from anyone's stature or expertise, I think it's clear that some have grabbed a bit faster and tighter than others to the image of themselves as the True Repository of the Sacred Text.

Yes that's why I liked Allegra Kent's book so much. While it was clear she had enormous affection and respect for Mr. B who remained loyal to Kent despite all her personal problems, her book is mercifully without "only I know what Mr. B really wanted" grandstanding. Because, as people have pointed out, what Mr. B "really wanted" changed over time and changed with each dancer.

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