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Going Right and Going LeftSymmetry and Asymmetry in Choreography


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#1 carbro

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Posted 12 July 2006 - 03:38 PM

In the thread "Technique" started by DefJef, issues of directions and symmetry in choreography arose as an outgrowth of dancers who favor one side over another. There are aspects of this that do not relate to technique but are clearly choreographic choices.

Teasing out which parts of certain posts were relevant to the original topic and which to this new one would have been a monumental task, so the original posts are intact in their original place. However, here are some of the comments that will get this discussion running:

Perhaps the fact that most people are born right handed means that they favor that side... . I would have thought that with years of training this preference would be "neutralized"... and dancers would be able to perform equally well in either direction of rotation.

This also raises in my mind another meta issue about choreography. Have any productions of any ballets been performed as the mirror image. Are stagings actually in fact "handed" favoring the dominant right handedness of most people?


Have any productions of any ballets been performed as the mirror image.

Great idea, DefJef!

I did see a performance once, two nights in a row. where the lead dancer did a huge show stopping jump in one direction and the next night did it equally well in the other direction. The rest of the ballet stayed the same both nights.


[Often, corps de ballets are divided into stage left and stage right halves, each mirroring the other.



Yes I understand some mirror symmetries within a ballet, but .. for whatever reason... ballets are not "bilaterally" symmetrical and for whatever reason one finds various "asymmetries".

For example I have noticed at the Met in both ABT and Opera when a boat is part of the libretto it always seems to travel in the same direction from stage right to stage left... if my memory serves me correctly... but my memory is not all that good.

These sorts of directional asymmetries may have no meaning or rationale... or they may be subconscious... who knows. I do know that in classical architecture bilateral symmetry seems to be a very important element.


As for asymmetry in ballet, I'm not sure it's possible to make an existing ballet perfectly symmetrical, and that formula could get boring to watch (and dance) if followed too slavishly. For example, if one immediately had to do every step to the other side, it would hamper the choreographer, and having two of every lead dancer would be a little strange as well. Symmetry in ballet is a beautiful thing, but I think we're fortunate choreographers aren't overly scrupulous about it. :yahoo:


Hans,
I am not advocating perfect bilateral symmetery. I am just wondering why the hand of a ballet is never reversed (I asume it never is).

And I am wondering is the entire dance uses symmetry? Why spin to the right and not the left for example when a ballerina comes whirling down the center of the stage? Is the direction often what suits the dancer or the dance?



#2 carbro

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Posted 12 July 2006 - 03:39 PM

. . . [W]hy not do, say, Agon entirely to the other side? I don't know, I'm sure it's possible.

When a dancer is doing a "trick" step, for example a lot of fouettés, s/he turns to his/her preferred side, and the ballet master or choreographer usually arranges things so that the pirouettes work to either side. When only two or three pirouettes are required, the dancer should turn to the side that suits the choreography, as such a small number of turns is the minimum a professional dancer is expected to be able to do in both directions. As carbro has mentioned, though, certain stars will sometimes change the choreography so that they only turn to their preferred side, occasionally to the detriment of the way the movement flows.


I wonder if a "mirror image" ballet would look the same, or startlingly wrong, like looking at your face in one of those true-reflecting mirrors (you think you look ugly because you are surprised into seeing the asymmetry of your face).

In my studies as a graphic designer, I've found that, for a Western audience that reads from left to right, movement that flows that way is perceived as "progress," while movement from right to left is interpreted as "resistance". So that even purely visual arts are not entirely crosscultural. Imagine the final tableau of the full Apollo, where he and the Muses ascend the staircase (left to right). If reversed, would it look more like a "return" than an "ascension"?


A few disjointed thoughts,

I've read books and articles that have said that corps dancers tend to be grouped into "rights" and "lefts" for ballet after ballet. It may have been in Toni Bentley's book Winter Season in that there was a statement that it's easier to learn a last-minute corps part to one's "natural" side.

In Merrill Ashley's memoir, she wrote about how Balanchine would choreograph or change to her stronger side most of the time. An example she gave in which he didn't was in Ballo Della Regina, in which he replaced pique turns, which didn't film well, for the Dance in America taping, to fouettes that were difficult for her, and then left them in the stage version.

Skaters in general spin and turn to one side only. It's a very big deal when a competitive skater does turns to both sides, and there's a special rule under the New Judging System for this, so that the double-sided spin is not counted as two individual spins. Ilia Klimkin is known for his camel spins to both sides. Jeff Buttle has done them, and I think Kwan had early in her career.

John Curry insisted that members of his skating companies be able to spin to both sides, although I don't think he required this of guest stars, like Dorothy Hamill.

It is a rare skater who spots jumps, because spotting slows down the rotation. Kevin van der Perren did spot, at least until last season. (I haven't seen any of his 2006 performances.) I'm guessing that the same thing is true of spins. It would be impossible to spot a layback spin.

Suzanne Farrell had a corner from which she made most of her Balanchine entrances. It would have looked odd if she had entered from the other side.

And perhaps this is why ships go left to right on stage???




In my studies as a graphic designer, I've found that, for a Western audience that reads from left to right, movement that flows that way is perceived as "progress," while movement from right to left is interpreted as "resistance".

Curiouser and curiouser. To convey a positive/progressive impression by moving to the right, the dancers must themselves move to their left, the direction of resistance. Similarly, a dancer turning to his or her left would actually give the audience the impression of someone moving in a rightward direction. :yahoo:

Hans is right, thinking about it may actually be more difficult than doing it.



#3 carbro

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Posted 12 July 2006 - 03:40 PM

Right. Although I just thought of ships that move from right to left in Sylvia and Corsaire. But they are going back to where they came from.



This business of left and right is getting a little Alice-in-Wonderlandy for me. That is: total confusion.


In my studies as a graphic designer, I've found that, for a Western audience that reads from left to right, movement that flows that way is perceived as "progress," while movement from right to left is interpreted as "resistance".

To convey a positive/progressive impression by moving to the right, the dancers must themselves move to their left, the direction of resistance. Similarly, a dancer turning to his or her left would actually give the audience the impression of someone moving in a rightward direction. :yahoo:

Similarly, when DefJef says, "I've noticed at the Met in both ABT and Opera when a boat is part of the libretto it always sems to travel in the same direction from stage right to stage left ..." I can only remember the gondolas in the Barcarole scene, Tales of Hoffman, but they tend to move stage left (i.e., to the left from the point of view of the performers). Similarly, just about every diagonal Triumphal March (Aida) I've seen has moved to stage left. (But audience right.)

Hans is correct in thinking about these things may actually be more difficult than doing them.

Well, I suppose my 2-D comparison is more relevant for static tableaux, stage pictures that are the concern of the choreographer rather than the dancer. (And indeed Ashton studied and replicated groupings from paintings in his works, such as the early Florentine Picture. Dancers found it awkward to perform but the audience liked it.)

This difficulty (creating in reverse) also has an analogy in the visual arts: when printed matter was drawn or composed as a mirror image so that it would end up right-reading. Newer technology has rendered this practice obsolete in commercial work.



#4 carbro

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Posted 12 July 2006 - 04:55 PM

Actually, many of Bournonville's variations tend to be composed of a short phrase done first to the right, then to the left, then to the right. Petipa's do not -- off the top of my head -- reverse direction.

I have a ballet-loving friend with a strong left-hand dominance. She once said that watching Eliot Feld's choreography was satisfying to her in a way others' was not, because being a lefty himself, his moves "felt right" to her. That was her take. We'll have to take her word that Feld is left-sided. I haven't noticed it, even when I've looked for it.

And the boats (and other vehicles) -- I think they travel in the direction dictated by the logic of other elements in the staging. For example, in Sleeping Beauty, there was the famous Panorama unscrolling in the background. If it went from the stage-left side to the stage-right side, it would make sense that the boat would travel in the direction that emphasized the progress (stage right to stage left). And the Prince and Lilac Fairy then enter from downstage right for the Awakening. it all goes together in a smoothly continuous sequence.

#5 bart

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Posted 13 July 2006 - 08:43 AM

I had forgotten Bournonville. This was very striking -- and a bit strange -- when I first saw it in Sylphide quite a while ago. I remember thinking that it was there more to show that the dancer could do it than for any dramatic or artistic purpose.

What WAS the rationale for this kind of repetition?

#6 Hans

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Posted 13 July 2006 - 10:05 AM

Maybe the rationale was symmetry! :)

#7 zerbinetta

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Posted 13 July 2006 - 12:33 PM

I was also going to mention the Sleeping Beauty boat which enters stage left, circumnavigates the stage (on a good night) & exits stage left. The Corsaire boat goes nowhere but down. The Manon boat is stationary.

In the Robert Wilson Lohengrin production at the Met, the Schwan boat enters from stage left. In the former Hoffmann production's Venetian act, the boat went from stage right & exited left. In the current production I can't remember a gondola at all, as it takes place indoors..The Otello boat appears stage L & exits same. The Dutchman boat first appears stage right & later stage left & goes down. Abduction: right to left; Clemenza: center & disappears center; Italiana: appears right, leaves center; Cosi: already there at curtain, leaves right.

So there wouldn't seem to be a hard & fast rule regarding boats/ships.

#8 Helene

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Posted 13 July 2006 - 12:41 PM

So there wouldn't seem to be a hard & fast rule regarding boats/ships.

Or swans. I'm fairly certain that the mechanical swans in the Seattle Opera production of Lohengrin entered stage left. (But I can't remember where they exited.)

#9 Hans

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Posted 13 July 2006 - 12:48 PM

I wonder how much of this is related to the fact that Westerners read from left to right--so that we would interpret movement from stage right to stage left as progress.

To pick up on Helene's mention of swans, in the Kirov's Swan Lake the mechanical swans swim from stage right to stage left.

#10 zerbinetta

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Posted 13 July 2006 - 01:14 PM

Hans: In the old ABT (Blair?) production, the mechanical swans swam from stage right to left. The swans themselves all enter same.

I saw that Seattle Lohengrin, helene, & also don't remember but I can ask the Elsa.

#11 Lynette H

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Posted 18 July 2006 - 04:58 AM

Hans: In the old ABT (Blair?) production, the mechanical swans swam from stage right to left. The swans themselves all enter same.

I saw that Seattle Lohengrin, helene, & also don't remember but I can ask the Elsa.


Not about boats, but on a related note , in pantomime as it exists in the UK, the convention is that good enters from stage right and the villain from stage left. This is supposed to go right back to mediaeval mystery plays and where the entrances to heaven and hell were conventionally positioned on the stage. I am trying to think whether Ashton's Cinderella (a work with some elements drawn from that tradition like the ugly sisters played by men) has the fairy godmother enter from the "correct" side but I can't quite call it up right now.

#12 carbro

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Posted 18 July 2006 - 07:37 AM

That's interesting, Lynette, because I've noticed that while Odette's choreography tends to favor a (stage) left-to-right direction, Odile's tends to favor the opposite. I had thought this was to contrast the two swans, but your reference to the medieval tradition sets a context around the pattern.

Similarly, Carabosse tends to enter from the right and Lilac from the left.

But Giselle's first entrances in both acts are from downstage-ish right. Hmm. :tiphat:


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