bart

Epaulement: where's it gone? who still has it?

42 posts in this topic

Here's a statement about the relative disappearance of epaulement in ballet today. (It's from The Observer: Luke Jennings' review of the Royal Ballet's celebration performance for the Queen's 80th birthday.)

One of the most recognisable characteristics of Ashton's work is épaulement - the oppositional torsion of shoulder and waist and shoulder with which choreographers colour classical dance. An eloquent épaulement used to be the hallmark of the English style; these days, with the ever-increasing pressure on dancers to extend themselves technically - more turns, longer balances, higher legs - such refinements have become a rarity. A 24-year-old policeman's daughter from Buenos Aires, Nunez is the finest Ashton dancer of her generation, with an upper-body expressiveness that speaks, almost, of a vanished age.

Having just been saturated with the role of "oppositional torsion" in Renaissance sculpture, I'm thrilled to find that this is an aesthetic issue in ballet as well.

Is it true that epaulement is now undervalued or has disappeared from most classical ballet today? Do you agree with Jennings about Nunez? Are there other dancers today who are notable for their "upper-body expressiveness" in this classical manner?

---------------------------------------------------------------------------

P.S.: Here's the link to the entire review, from Mme. Hermine's Sunday selectionç

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/review/stor...1794575,00.html

Share this post


Link to post

Épaulement is valued by companies that employ dancers trained in the Russian style. There are some in the U.S., many in Europe. Some major companies seem to not want it. I think when carbro spoke of Guillaume Côté's dancing with ABT, and mentioned his "square-torsoed" style as being that of NBoC, that is what she meant.

I wouldn't say that épaulement

has disappeared from most classical ballet today.
It is still being strongly taught in many schools. When the student dancers become working dancers, they must adapt to the style that a ballet company's AD requires (perhaps sacrificing some artistic expression) or go looking for work where the style they were trained in is used.

Here is Ballet Alert's picture of Maria Bystrova at 15 which shows her lovely épaulement.

Maria Bystrova

Share this post


Link to post

Of the dancers I've seen on the West Coast, the two dancers with the most notable epaulement are PNB's Mara Vinson, whose arms are very English in style, and Giselle Doepker's (Ballet Arizona).

Cechetti training also emphasized epaulement and the upper body. I haven't seen them perform for a number of years, but when New York Theatre Ballet was called Balletfore, the company's dancers had very lovely epaulement.

Share this post


Link to post

And I'd completely agree regarding Nunez. She's one who can crank out the turns and do all the tricks but she has a lovely, easy, generous, flowing quality to her dancing, including epaulement....

Off the top of my head, Royal Ballet dancers I'd include as having the 'upper-body expressiveness' would be Nunez, Morera, Yoshida, and the young but effervescent Yuhui Choe.

Share this post


Link to post

The Kirov still has most of its épaulement intact, and I'd imagine the Royal Danish Ballet still has a good bit as well. To develop a truly beautiful upper body, one has to learn to coordinate the head, arms, and legs starting very early in the training so it becomes second nature. I don't approve of the practice of training first the legs, then the arms, as it gives a disjointed look to the movement.

Share this post


Link to post

I agree that this placement and movement of upper body is "beautiful." In fact, extraodinarily beautiful. However, standards of beauty change over time. I wonder when -- and under what influences -- this particular standard developed?

And, Hans, as someone who has experienced training from an early age, how did you learn to do this and to value it? Where you just placed in a certain way and told that it was correct? Or was there an attempt to explain WHY classical ballet values this positioning and movement so much?

Growing up, and forming most of my ballet "eye", with Balanchine, I don't recall people talking about epaulment very much. Dancers certainly had what I guess I would have called "carriage, " "elasticity," or even -- :blushing: -- "good posture". But this kind of epaulement, if it was there, passed me by. What WAS Balanchine's view (and standard) on the subject?

Share this post


Link to post

Alina Cojocaru IMO has beautiful epaulement. Her arms always serve as a musical instrument.

But about epaulement in general, I saw Sylvia at the ABT and then I saw the Sylvia telecast from the Royal Ballet, and I realized what was missing from the ABT production, which was the upper body coordination of both the corps and the principal dancers. At the ABT, the dancers kept their upper bodies as stiff as possible, perhaps to imitate the "stereotypical" British style and carriage. But the Royal Ballet corps understood the difference between the regal upper body and a stiff upper body.

Share this post


Link to post

I think ABT's Zhong-Jin Fang has beautiful epaulement, to the point where she stood out like sore thumb in Sylvia when ABT was at Orange County a couple of months ago.

I was very impressed with Misa Kuranaga when I saw her Lise in Boston Ballet's production of La Fille Mal Garde a few months back, and how she captured the English style so well. It was especially impressive in her solo in the Ellsler pas, where her epaulement and arms seemed to serve the same function as the reverberation of the hall during the silent pauses of the music: you could see and hear the music resonating in the silences through her arms and shoulders.

One reason I've heard that a lot of young students don't develop their upper body expressiveness is because it's considered almost an affectation that is added only after they join a company so that they fit in with that company's style. I really don't buy it. I think the real reason is that many students don't see enough productions so they don't see the expressive possibilities of their technique, and there seems to be an overemphasis on pure technique, especially for the lower body.

--Andre

Share this post


Link to post

In the insight events/masterclasses I've been to, the Royal Ballet dancers have all mentioned how Ashton wanted them to bend, and then bend more. The masterclass where Nunez was learning the Act III Pizicatto solo Monica Mason had her demonstrate the sisonne ferme section - 'upright as normal', and then 'as Ashton wanted it' - huge, bending difference!

And yes, regarding Cojocaru, and I think with her it's also a lot about port de bras - I was just thinking last week what a transformation has occured in her arms - their almost floaty now, but not in a hyperbolic way. They've always been gorgeous, but there's a slight difference - almost more natural, and to me it appears to create the impression of a huge transformation.

Share this post


Link to post

Bart, unfortunately, my early training was Balanchine, so I learned very little in the way of épaulement until I attended the Kirov Academy toward the end of my training. At that advanced stage, the teachers used a mix of techniques--sometimes we were just told what was correct, and sometimes they went into more detail.

Having taught ballet students of all ages, I think the teaching technique must depend on the students, and there is a variety of ways to get them to produce a particular position so that it still has life and doesn't look affected or "placed." Imagery helps, as does telling them where to look (which engages the eyes). Connecting the movements of the head with the arms is extremely important (and difficult to accomplish) and of course the line of the head and neck must flow into the back and shoulders. It's all very detailed, and various styles and methods have different rules for what the head and arms do according to what the legs are doing, not to mention when or how far to incline or turn the head, precisely where the eyes go, the angle and specific shape of the arms in various positions, &c. (I mention the arms because it's impossible to have épaulement without port de bras.)

I hardly know how to convey how rich and varied épaulement can be; it is quite different from the bland, simplistic "turn your head toward the leg that's in front." I fear much of the detail is ignored today, even by those who try to implement as much as they can.

Share this post


Link to post
To develop a truly beautiful upper body, one has to learn to coordinate the head, arms, and legs starting very early in the training so it becomes second nature.
I watched the first half of Children of Theatre Street for the first time today, and watching the class of 11-year-olds at the barre, it was already clear that the young girls had learned this from the beginning of their training.

Share this post


Link to post

I hope I didn't frighten people away from replying--as with everything in ballet, one needn't know every tiny rule about épaulement to have an opinion about how it looks and/or who does it well. I know what's correct from a teacher's point of view, but what does the audience think? :clapping:

Share this post


Link to post

Last summer I saw soloists from the Royal Danish Ballet at the Sadlers Wells in London. I enjoyed them very much but, on the whole, did not think they compared well with the groups I saw back in the eighties (though I always love Tina Hojlund). I had read strong praise for Thomas Lund, but was not as impressed with him as I expected to be until at a certain moment in mid air, during a leaps forward with the back leg in attitude he suddently tilted his head and upper body just the barest hint more than the other dancers and opened his arms before him just the barest hint more as well: suddenly the jump was beautiful and beautiful in a way that no-one else's was. I don't know if this is exactly what is meant by epaulement, but certainly that slight angling of the upper body over the working leg as he went through the air completely transformed the jump from a well executed stop into something free and expressive.

In the past I had read (usually in newspaper articles) that Bournonville does not emphasize epaulement the way the Russians do, but it does seem to call for "whole body" dancing...

Share this post


Link to post

Epaulment is a subject near and dear to my heart because its importance was emphasized to me in no uncertain terms from my very early training and onward through teenage years--- and that training was at the School of American Ballet, a school which is often derided for producing dancers too unfamiliar with classical style, port de bras, or clean technique. I won't get into refuting any of those arguments, but I will attest to how strongly we were urged and directed to use our heads, necks, and eyes to complete positions and lines. I will never forget how our teachers would walk around and adjust each student's head position individually so we could feel exactly how it should be, as opposed to simply being told to "turn your head this way", for example.

Now, when I teach, I find most students are completely unfamiliar with the concept of opposition in the torso and neck, as well as reluctant to focus their eyes anywhere to complete the line. I do agree that epaulment must be explained early, because once a student has gotten used to holding their neck so stiffly and in one block with their torso, it's really hard to break that movement pattern.

Share this post


Link to post

As a company cited above for its relative lack of epaulement, ABT's dictionary gives this definition:

Épaulement

[ay-pohl-MAHN]]

Shouldering. The placing of the shoulders. A term used to indicate a movement of the torso from the waist upward, bringing one shoulder forward and the other back with the head turned or inclined over the forward shoulder. The two fundamental positions of épaulement are croisé and effacé. When épaulement is used the position of the head depends upon the position of the shoulders and the shoulder position depends upon the position of the legs. Épaulement gives the finishing artistic touch to every movement and is a characteristic feature of the modern classical style compared to the old French style. which has little épaulement.

The tricky to find dictionary:

http://www.abt.org/education/dictionary/index.html

also supplies photos for both croise and efface.

Alxei Ratmansky, in discussing his new ballet for NYCB in Time Out ( http://www.timeout.com/newyork/Details.do?...oi_and_tell.xml ) also compared Russian and American dancers in this regard

How would you compare Bolshoi and NYCB dancers?

I'm not sure if this is right, but for Russians, the center of movement is more in the upper body; it's lower with the American dancers, so I'm working on relaxing the upper body and trying to get them to move in all directions with their shoulders, neck and head contracting and arching the back and giving much more freedom for the arms. When I choreograph with Russian dancers, I usually concentrate on the feet because I want them to turnout, to be more precise, to straighten every time they step.

Has anyone seen the new Russian Seasons that can comment on whether (s)he can see changes in the individual dancers?

Share this post


Link to post
I hope I didn't frighten people away from replying--as with everything in ballet, one needn't know every tiny rule about épaulement to have an opinion about how it looks and/or who does it well.

I really appreciate your insights, Hans, as well as those of others who have studied ballet seriously and even taught.

Although I understand the reasoning behind the split between BT and BT for Dancers, I often find myself wishing that those of you who truly understand the technique beneath and within the dancing would talk MORE about what it is that you see and experience during performance.

The concept of "opposition," as presented in drb's post, seems crucial. In Renaissance and Mannerist sculpture, the opposition (often referered to as "torsion") tends to between upper body and lower body -- a kind of twisting of the spine.

The influence of Hellenistic sculptures like The Dying Gaul and Laocoon on artists like Michelangelo and Caravaggio is unquestioned. Comparison of representations of the human figure with this tension and without it -- for instance, Michelangelo's Pieta versus Piero da Cortona's -- is striking. The artists who use this more elaborate version of epaulement produce figures that "live" in the way that other, more conventional artists, could not.

It may be an optical illusion, and I don't understand it, but the effect is definitely there. So why not in ballet as well?

Share this post


Link to post

I am one of those with no ballet training at all, but who thinks he can see epaulement. Working with the expression "oppositional torsion" used early in this thread I will risk being mathematical (sorry!).

Torsion is a very tricky word, as it has radically unrelated meanings in various fields. But I'll stick with math and physics, since dancing does take place in 3-D, dynamically so, since time/music is also involved. From the math field called differential geometry, which is the framework for the subject, torsion refers to a curve (movement pattern) that deviates from being confined within a plane; in other words, it twists through three dimensions. So it would "fill" all three dimensions. Dynamically, movement (velocity) involved in the process not only involves changing velocities (acceleration/deceleration) but even changes in the rate of these changes. For a real-world example of this latter, imagine you are driving and see a wall ahead: you try to cut your velocity (decelerate) but encounter the wall before you've completed that process. You would experience the effect of a change in the deceleration as a "jerk". I would suppose that this makes mastering epaulement difficult. For both beauty and comfort, the dancer would have to smooth-out (make harmonious) the changes in acceleration. I would guess that music(ality) would be crucial to this. As noted in an earlier post in this thread, ABT's Zhong-Jing Fang has this characteristic, which seems to show as a lingering or after-glow in her ports-de-bras. I would also guess that epaulement is among the strong points of Sara Mearns's appeal, when the conductor gives her sufficient time...

The oppositional part of the description I would guess refers to the asymmetry through the body's center between upper and lower body, determined by the contrasting (counterbalancing) relationship between feet and shoulder positioning. I would "feel" that the oppositional aspect of the torsion would be crucial to avoiding the jerkiness of the (mathematical) jerk referred to above.

Share this post


Link to post

In classical sculpture, this oppositional posture thing is called controposto, and I think many ballet choreographers were aware of it and used it.

Another way to think about this is that ballet is performed in spaces where the furthest seat still has to be able to grasp the shape of the choreography: you have to be able to project clearly to back of the hall. I think this was codified in one way by ballet: looking towards front leg, the spatial relationships between the various limbs, etc. are all designed to project line and shape to people far away.

And I think it doesn't take any special training or skill to appreciate good lines or epaulement or any of that stuff. In a way, many of these positions and choreography were done because they appealed to human psychology, and were effective in how they could communicate what the choreographer wanted to a large number of people, not just a select, trained few. For example, people will tend to look where you're looking, so in an arabesque, to extend the line of the pose, you wouldn't look down on the floor, you'd look up to where you want your line to be, among other things.

My (current) favorite school of thought for epaulement, heads, and arms is the Royal Ballet, and especially the Ashton rep. It's a luxurious, plush style that has a unique life that I don't see anywhere else: lines and shapes grow, and shift and change in shape.

--Andre

Share this post


Link to post

Well bart, I'm more of a BT4D poster, but I'll drop in here because you mentioned something I was thinking about... I think there are many others here more knowledgeable and articulate than I, so I hope this makes sense and feel free to correct!

Anyways......Oppositional torsion. I like that term!

I was thinking about the spiral in class tonight - just got home. This teacher is huge on how we 'make' movement and the processes involved, and today we were working on a certain arabesque a terre position - and the spirals that it creates through the vertical plane of the body to create the epaulement. Or the movement of the shoulders/upper bodies facilitates the entire process of the larger movement... I don't know if that makes sense at all?

I think epaulement is one of those things that is often not used in class enough, or if it is, it is often in cookie-cutter fashion - when the arm is here, the head here, the eyes here, this incline to the head, etc.... In reality, there are many more variations, and it is not about the position itself, but the *process* of making that position. One of the revelations I had with this teacher a few years back was that you don't have to 'present' front.

I remember being at an Insight Day at The Sadlers Wells last year, with the Forsythe Company. Forsythe (and the others who spoke on him) essentially said that epaulment was the center and the foundation of dance... I can't find my notes right now, and I'm also not someone who feels familiar enough with Forsythe and his approach to technique and dance to comment on how he uses epaulement in practise, but it might be interesting in light of the Kirov's current tour in the U.S.

Share this post


Link to post

Ami1436, it sounds like you have a wonderful teacher. My beginner's experience of barre work is that it is very much a matter of positioning the body forward, with emphasis on movement and placement of the limbs. Other than "keep your shoulders down," and some adjustments of the angle of my classmates' heads, I don't think the concept of epaulement has ever come up. Maybe they cover that in Intermediate. :blink:

I remember being at an Insight Day at The Sadlers Wells last year, with the Forsythe Company. Forsythe (and the others who spoke on him) essentially said that epaulment was the center and the foundation of dance.
This is fascinating. From my viewing of only 3 Forsythe works, I would not have thought that this was the case. Those of you who've seen the Kirov Forstythe program in London or in Washington: what do you think? Did the performances demonstrate the kind of concern for epaulement that Forsythe claims?

Share this post


Link to post
You would experience the effect of a change in the deceleration as a "jerk". I would suppose that this makes mastering epaulement difficult. For both beauty and comfort, the dancer would have to smooth-out (make harmonious) the changes in acceleration. I would guess that music(ality) would be crucial to this.

I think core strength is crucial for smoothing this out. Some young students I've seen look very rigid because they don't have the muscle strength to manipulate thier torso and some others sway and wobble like grasses in the wind because they don't have the muscle control.

Share this post


Link to post
Epaulment is a subject near and dear to my heart because its importance was emphasized to me in no uncertain terms from my very early training and onward through teenage years--- and that training was at the School of American Ballet,

I was surprised by your post because it has corrected a misconception I had of SAB training. My dd was taking classes with someone who had been trained at SAB and was told "Keep your head perfectly still and look only at the bun in front of you. This is how we were taught at SAB." Previously dd had been working with David Howard videos. That school worked hard to get her to keep her head forward during barre instead of moving it like on the videos. We switched to a Russian school so now epaulement is definately being taught and encouraged.

Share this post


Link to post

I am lucky enough to see the Royal Ballet often including quite recently open-to-the-public coaching sessions of some rather wonderful Ashton choreography and there is a very particular delight and satisfaction of seeing a dancer who 'has it' - dancing choreography which has it too, of course.

Being a musician I would liken it maybe to adding an additional melody line to produce two melodies playing together, counterpoint... and of course the great thing being that at any given moment you do not always get the harmony you might have predicted.

Maybe the analogy is too obscure... anyway it looks awfully difficult*..... sort of like ballet²

*hats off to those who make it look so easy :blink:

Share this post


Link to post

Several years ago I watched quite a lot of RAD classwork, and came away from it with the image of a nested Chinese ball, where a single piece of ivory is carved into a series of intricately pierced balls, each inside the next. The physical counterplay of epaulment is complex and subtle -- I've always thought it needed to be seen fairly close up to observe all the detail, though an ensemble working in unison can knock you out even from the nosebleed seats.

Pacific Northwest Ballet just finished a series of performances of Jewels, and I was very struck by the epaulment in Emeralds, especially in the Verdy role as her arms constantly cross the centerline of her body, which creates incredible torque. Louise Nadeau was very, very effective in that role here.

Share this post


Link to post
Being a musician I would liken it maybe to adding an additional melody line to produce two melodies playing together, counterpoint... and of course the great thing being that at any given moment you do not always get the harmony you might have predicted.

A great analogy! Thanks, GoCoyote.

Sandik's comment, in reference to Emeralds -- "the physical counterplay of epaulement is complex and subtle" -- seems completely justified by so many of the contributions to this thread. You all have changed the way I will look at ballet in the future.

Share this post


Link to post