Hans

Men's Port de Bras

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DefJef wrote a comment in my blog (scroll to the bottom of the entry to read it and my response) that brought up the issue of men's port de bras in ballet. To paraphrase, he wrote that to him men's port de bras is less "visible" than women's. I agree with this; men's arms are definitely not emphasized as much as women's. So, a few questions for our members:

Why do you think this is?

What male ballet dancers have you noticed who have exemplary port de bras and why?

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well, I'd say that most of nijinsky['s roles are exceptions to this on hte whole accurate rule... There's a portrait of him on exhibit right now i nSF at the Asian Art Museum in "Le Dieu Bleu" with VERY significant Thai arm positions...

And Spectre as very elaborate fancifully twining arms, which if you check out hte fabulous performance by hte the Paris Opera ballet, where the man -- oh WHO is it? not Laurent Hilaire, not Mich...absolutely flawless performance, completely changed my idea of how crazy it was reasonable to be about htis ballet...

And in Les Sylphides, Nijinsky was famously touching himself all the time...

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I think it depends on what you notice. Certainly men's port de bras are appear more straightforward and not as elaborate in baroque detail as women's, perhaps to make them look stronger and more masculine, which may make them more invisible, but I think they're still very consciously made and placed in order to complement the lines that men and their partners make.

Roberto Bolle has really wonderful lines and his port de bras enhances this. I think the shepherd's solo in Ashton's Daphnis and Chloe where he's dancing with a staff really shows the lines men make in a very elemental and pure way by stripping away everything but the basic shape. At the same time he shows how even if the arms are forced straight to the sides (the shepherd carries the staff on his shoulders with his arms wrapped around it pointing to the sides --- think cruciform) can be very expressive, like in the step whose name I don't know that looks like a temps de fleche to the back. The oppositional shapes that he makes with his upper body and arms in relation to which leg is in attitude back is really expressive.

On the other hand, the boys in the corps of Ashton's Fille as well as the flute boy have very elaborate, exaggerated epaulement, both enhanced by their hats, that show how fancier upper body movement can work for men, too.

--Andre

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Paul,

You're probably thinking of Manuel Legris's Spectre: really spectre(sic)cular port de bras, but perhaps a bit effeminate and role-specific.

--Andre

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I'll place the blame on two factors and a related sub-factor:

1. Costumes. Women are usually bare-armed, while men's arms, especially in classical works, are almost always covered, and in heavy fabric, at that.

2. Placement in relation to each other. In pas de deux, the woman usually stands in front, making her arms more visible.

2a. Presentation. Since a big part of the man's job is presenting the ballerina, his arms are sometimes a frame for her, so we tend to notice them less as a part of him. It's a big contribution to the total effect, but when done best, perhaps it's noticed least.

Editing to add:

Studies have been done comparing body language differences between men and women, and it's been documented that women used hand gestures much more freely than men. This has also been noted by actors who take on roles of the opposite sex, as Hoffman in Tootsie. Since ballet glorifies traditional sex role stereotypes, as Andre touched on, it makes sense that the women would , on the whole, be assigned the more interesting arm movements.

Edited by carbro

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But sometimes the man's arm movements are more interesting than the woman's. For instance, in Apollo, changes in port de bras during the course of tha ballet actually mirror the character development of the young god, who also happens to hve the main role.

Apollo's use of arms is what I remember most from this ballet. There are those full, energetic rotations of the extended right (?) arm as Apollo experiments with his lute in the early part of the ballet. Later, the more graceful lyre-like shapes he makes with both arms. And then there's the beautiful ring his arms make near the end, to allow the muses to link their arms in his.

As to comparing male and female port de bras, one of the best ways to see this, I think, is to look at sections of choreography in which the man and woman are dancing the same steps at the same time.

In the Bolshoi's Pharaohs's Daughter DVD, for example, there's quite a lot of this mirror image dancing. It helps that both dancers' arms are bare for much of the ballet. Zakharova has very long, very thin arms. This calls attention to a sharpness in the angles of elbow and wrists in a way that Sergei Filin's larger, fuller, and more muscled arms do not. lDifferences in size and shape of shoulders also have an effect. This may increase "visibility" of the female dancer, in most situations.

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I really agree with Paul Parish about Nijinsky. In his pictures as the Spectre de la rose, the softness of his arms , wrists and hands are extraordinary.

Another dancer that comes to my mind is Sergei Vuharev of Kirov. He is the dancer who dances the peasant pas de deux in the Mezentseva Giselle DVD. I think his port de bras is quite exemplary and very beautiful. It is a very good example and a model of the Kirov style.

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And Spectre as very elaborate fancifully twining arms, which if you check out the fabulous performance by the the Paris Opera ballet, where the man -- oh WHO is it? not Laurent Hilaire, not Mich...absolutely flawless performance, completely changed my idea of how crazy it was reasobale to be about this ballet...

As Andre Yew, I guess you mean Manuel Legris in the "Paris Dances Diaghilev" video ?

(By the way, I wonder who was that "Mich..." whose name you didn't finish typing... Michael Denard ?)

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And in Les Sylphides, Nijinsky was famously touching himself all the time...

Paul, can you clarify a bit on this?

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Yes, Estelle, it was Michel Denard....

I don't know why I have such difficulty remembering Legris's name, he is one of the finest dancers I've ever seen -- he has everything technically, and on top of that the intelligence and imagination to understand that the technique is only a pre-requisite. He is such a poet.

Hans, I wish I could recall what I've read more accurately (wish I'd been there MYSELF but alas....); it's been a while since I read much about that era. But I DO recall the effect of the accounts (Peter Lieven? one of the French poets? can't remember) that commented on Nijinsky's non-standard port de bras, that his arms were poetically free and floating, often caressing his own face and body -- nothing obscene, but moon-child-y, sensuous, as if half-conscious or lost in some musing.... His sister said that in partnering her he'd throw her up but "you have to come down by yourself" so that she'd use her strength to alight and he could sustain the mood and wouldn't have to look oafish and squat to soften her landing....

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Paul, that's a small detail, but his first name is "Michael" with an "a", not "Michel" (perhaps because his mother was German-born ?)

I fully agree about Legris (and am so sorry that I haven't seen him onstage for a while, and he's going to retire quite soon unfortunately...) He's certainly a dancer I'd mention for his port de bras, and also some other POB dancers like Laurent Hilaire, Charles Jude, Jean-Guillaume Bart...

A dancer whose port de bras totally mesmerized me the only time I saw him was Jean-Claude Ciaparra, a former POB premier danseur who was very involved in the contemporary group GRCOP and left the company quite young probably in the late 1980s or early 1990s: I saw him in a Robbins trio (I don't remember its title, it was for two males and one female with grey unitards) in a charity gala (against AIDS) with Jean Guizerix and Wilfride Piollet around 1995 and he had such a marvellous port de bras that it was my main memory of that evening...

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Thanks, Estelle -- one wants to get those details right.

How fortunate you are to have deep knowledge of the POB -- the men are among the wonders of the world, they have wonderful qualities, including generous attention to the arms.

Anthony Dowell gave wonderful attention to his arms -- truly elegant, wonderful finish to his line, and his lines were so true.....

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Something that occurred to me reading this thread is the obvious... men and women ARE very different... this is true in our roles in society, our dress, how we communicate non verbally and so forth. Ballet would obviously contain this difference. Yet we do see some "mirror" and "mimic" behavior where the male and females dance the same steps and the same time. Even this reveals how very different males and females are.

Perhaps this difference is reflected in all aspects of male and female dancing... and port de bras is simply something that the females carry over from femaleness off the stage... more emotive and expressive with their bodies. For some reason, aside from physical strength the female seems to have it "all over the male" in terms of non verbal communication "tools".

In a sense the male roles in ballet and dance seem to be providing males with some of the female tools... and although male dancers do not look feminine, they use female "vocabulary". Does this make sense?

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SanderO,

I don't agree that expression by ballet port de bras is inherently feminine or masculine, but perhaps that's not what you meant. I think guys can be just as uniquely expressive as women, and the tools given to them are neutral.

One of my favorite mime passages is in the Royal Ballet's video of the Nutcracker with Alina Cojocaru and Ivan Putrov, where the Nutcracker is describing the rat battle to the Sugar Plum Fairy. I think this sequence shows a very male perspective on the expressiveness of port de bras.

--Andre

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Andrew,

I think that females, in general use body language and things like clothes and make up and all sorts of things not normally used by males for non verbal communication.

This doesn't mean that these non verbal modes of communication are feminine or female. But we are more accustomed to reading the expanded vocabulary of non verbal language from women.

So to bring this back to port de bras, perhaps in ballet choreography since it IS so non verbal, we see port de bras with respect to males differently and maybe even used less or differently by choreographers and dancers. I am too inexperienced to know, but clearly males and females are usually very different roles and we expect them to be different. In fact, to my eyes, when the dance the same steps in synchronicity there is still quite a difference. Do you see it?

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SanderO,

I don't agree that expression by ballet port de bras is inherently feminine or masculine, but perhaps that's not what you meant. I think guys can be just as uniquely expressive as women, and the tools given to them are neutral.

One of my favorite mime passages is in the Royal Ballet's video of the Nutcracker with Alina Cojocaru and Ivan Putrov, where the Nutcracker is describing the rat battle to the Sugar Plum Fairy. I think this sequence shows a very male perspective on the expressiveness of port de bras.

--Andre

Forgive me Andre Yew, but gesture, which is a part of mime, is not the same as port de bras in my understanding of the term as used in academic classical ballet.

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In fact, to my eyes, when the dance the same steps in synchronicity there is still quite a difference. Do you see it?

Yes, there is quite a difference, but I also don't think there is a wider range of non-verbal communication for women than men as there are many things men use that women generally don't.

Leonid, you are right. I should have said something less specific than "port de bras" in that sentence. I was thinking more about physical expression than just port de bras.

--Andre

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Andrew,

I think that females, in general use body language and things like clothes and make up and all sorts of things not normally used by males for non verbal communication.

This doesn't mean that these non verbal modes of communication are feminine or female. But we are more accustomed to reading the expanded vocabulary of non verbal language from women.

So to bring this back to port de bras, perhaps in ballet choreography since it IS so non verbal, we see port de bras with respect to males differently and maybe even used less or differently by choreographers and dancers. I am too inexperienced to know, but clearly males and females are usually very different roles and we expect them to be different. In fact, to my eyes, when the dance the same steps in synchronicity there is still quite a difference. Do you see it?

Port de bras(or more correctly gesture)is extremely verbal as it support the steps in a variation. Which can confirm romantic afilliation, sorrow, humour or anger. Choose your example your self. Non-verbal communication is the essence of 19th century ballet and in the best exponents it moves you as much as a personal physical/verbal experience. Siegfried communicates clearly as does Albrecht. Jean de Brienne, Basil etci. If not, how would we know what is going on in their relationship?

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DefJef wrote a comment in my blog (scroll to the bottom of the entry to read it and my response) that brought up the issue of men's port de bras in ballet. To paraphrase, he wrote that to him men's port de bras is less "visible" than women's. I agree with this; men's arms are definitely not emphasized as much as women's. So, a few questions for our members:

Why do you think this is?

What male ballet dancers have you noticed who have exemplary port de bras and why?

I've always thought that male dancers have a softer, gentler look to their arms and the way they carry them. Although it is very held and strong, they still show no strain. And the fingers, still very relaxed, unlike how women tend to 'perk' them up.

After all, they do have to support the woman, but if they had the same energy coming out of their arms to their fingertips as women do, they'd prob. knock the woman off pointe in pirouettes. So then it must be imperative to be gentle, thus, excelling in Spectre b/c of the arm quality.

Maybe their arms are naturally made for caressing [their partner] and have to have a softness to them. Their arms are also structurely bigger.

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And in Les Sylphides, Nijinsky was famously touching himself all the time...

Paul, can you clarify a bit on this?

The only "famous" part I can think of was of Nijinsky touching himself as the Poet comes in the diagonal backwards after the pirouette in arabesque. It's two mazurka steps traveling backward, an assemblé, entrechat six and a pas de basque glissé. On the last movement in the pas de basque, Nijinsky was supposed to have drawn the tops of the right hand fingers down his extended left leg. I learned this part (without the caress) from Vitale Fokine, and asked if I could try it. He said, "Yeah, sure, maybe it'll work for you." After a few rehearsals, I asked if I could drop that bit. I felt like I was making a very unRomantic pretzel. He said, "OK with me, I guess that was just something Nijinsky did that was his alone, but I never say no if somebody asks; maybe they can rediscover it!"

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I would say that mens port de bras is just as important as womens (except for swan lake maybe) but male dancers has to be much more straightforward in how they use their arms. You don't notice male dancers port de bras as much as females, but if a male dancers has a weak port de bras it looks really silly.

Perhaps you don't notice mens port de bras as much because male dancers should really avoid to break the line of the arms and the wrist, because it will look mannered and not strong.

I think for example Paris Opera Ballets Manuel Legris has very nice port de bras!! (He has gorgeous technique as well)!!! :shake:

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Two examples of 'mirroring' port de bras/arms by (IMHO) one of the best (sorry haven't seen much POB or other companies greats lately)...

SWAN LAKE: (ABT Corella/Murphy dvd)

No, not Murphy...Watch Corella in the White Swan pdd:

1) That romantic circling frame as he lifts her arms at the start

2) then, when she passes and looks (to her) right, so does he

3) When she developes in prep for the pirouette and looks left, so does he

4) During the fouette arabesques fondus, notice the pdb/cambre (?) back and turn to face her

5) And especially shortly after, notice his beautiful bend,arch of head/neck, & full extension when he catches her as she falls (penches/cambres?) backwards.

6) Ditto Black Swan every time she does those croise penche arabesques, he turns his head to mirror her line (or is it just to see placement better?)

DON Q pdd: (ABT Corella/Herrera - ABT/PBS 1998 dvd)

In all the chaine turn sequences that end with a hand flourish, and of course the en dehors attitude turns--it was like watching two pairs skaters at the Olympics they were so in sync. At one point you can actually see him look, and pause to time the turns to match her. I've seen him keep an eye on his ballerina many times in other works in order to "mirror" her moves.

And I'm sorry, but I don't think anyone can complain about his epaulement. Many, many times I've seen him extend the line and enhance the presentation of the ballerina by a superb use of arms/shoulders/head in a port de bras. Don't know if this is quite what all of you mean, just two things I noticed.

I agree about Dowell (whom I did see live several times). Other ABT male dancers have superb line too, but don't use it the same--usually much more pulled up (and separate)--which is probably more traditional.

Just a thought.

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Wow! Thanks, 4mrdncr. I'm off to the dvd player. :)

A second tought. It's observations like this that confirm my belief that the best ballet performances contain so much to look at, ponder, and relish. I appreciate all the help in doing this that I can get.

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