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How to "type" a dancer?


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#1 SanderO

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Posted 15 December 2006 - 03:07 PM

I notice some posters have seen Ms Bussell or even other dancers perform in one or two ballets / roles and have them pegged as a certain type of dancer or skill whatever. How does one make an evaluation upon seeing one or two performances? Are these reviewers able to see little and conclude much or are they projecting? Can we assume that they have already some "standard" of that performance/role in their mind fixed as the basis for comparison? Does one need more formal training in dance to be able to critique so sharply and or a long history of seeing lots of ballet performances. I do notice some former dancers who post reviews here see things that the uneducated viewer (me) does not (yet). So.. how much does one need to see to form an opinion about a dancer's skill / technique etc.? And wouldn't a dancer perform the same role differently with different companies?

#2 beck_hen

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Posted 16 December 2006 - 09:00 AM

SanderO, you should search the board for the posts/threads discussing "emploi"—they are very interesting explorations of this subject!

I find the typing done by reviewers or posters to be valid rather than spurious a majority of the time. While dance training and viewing history are invaluable, the desire to know more, and reading the board intensively, should allow you to do it yourself pretty soon.

I've found it helpful to look at videos of dancers from the past to establish the standard for comparison you mention. You may then reject or embrace certain conventional wisdom. For example, I've decided recently that the idea that dancers today display unprecedented virtuosity and athleticism is wrong. Maximova and Vasiliev's Don Quixote pas de deux is unsurpassed, in my view. And for the past 60 years other Bolshoi dancers have performed athletic lifts, throws and contortions, in choreography by Vainonen, Messerer or Grigorovich, that I now see in works by Elo, Martins or Forsythe. So yes, there is a trend toward athleticism in ballet now, but that doesn't mean no one could have performed the same feats earlier.

#3 SanderO

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Posted 16 December 2006 - 09:46 AM

Is it assumed that "typing" or style is the domain of principal dancers and soloists only? Is this something that corps members are encouraged not to strive for?

What would be the main styles of dance and I am not referring to choreography in this question? Have some styles fallen out of fashion? Are there equivalent male and female versions of all styles? How would these styles... yet to be identified "formally" differ for different types of ballet or choreography or even from ballet to ballet? Do dancers adapt their style to the ballet or the choreography or is it something they express in all their roles?

Finally, is the most perfect style of dance virtually invisible, or is this something which individuates one dancer from the next and something "cultivated" as part of artistic expression?

Forgive all the questions... it's all part of my attempt at seeing more in ballet than "meets the eye".

#4 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 16 December 2006 - 10:08 AM

Here's a thread on emploi from the early days. http://ballettalk.in...?showtopic=2919 - it's a very difficult subject to pin down!

#5 Alexandra

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Posted 16 December 2006 - 11:17 AM

Is it assumed that "typing" or style is the domain of principal dancers and soloists only? Is this something that corps members are encouraged not to strive for?

What would be the main styles of dance and I am not referring to choreography in this question? Have some styles fallen out of fashion? Are there equivalent male and female versions of all styles? How would these styles... yet to be identified "formally" differ for different types of ballet or choreography or even from ballet to ballet? Do dancers adapt their style to the ballet or the choreography or is it something they express in all their roles?

Finally, is the most perfect style of dance virtually invisible, or is this something which individuates one dancer from the next and something "cultivated" as part of artistic expression?

Forgive all the questions... it's all part of my attempt at seeing more in ballet than "meets the eye".


These are all excellent questions. The basic genres of dancing date back to the late 17th century and were then as strict as tenor/baritone/bass in singing (danseur noble et serieux, danseur demi-caractere and danseur grotesque). The terms are still used -- danseur noble (tall, good lines, slow movements; The Prince in Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, etc., and for women, Lilac Fairy and Gamzatti) and danseur demicaractere (medium height, quicker movements,, and "half-character," meaning a variation isn't pure dance, but has a hint of character in it, Mercutio in Lavovsky's "Romeo annd Juliet" woould be a good 20th century example; and "grotesque" is now usually "comique" and sometimes "bravura" -- the Jester in a Russian 20th century "Swan Lake".

BUT these started to become more flexible during the Romantic era, and often a dancer does, and can, adapt to the roles. So there are roles that require a specific type, too. There's a demi-caractere approach to dancing, line can be emphasized or not, if it's not an important part of a variation. Some choreographers -- in the West, Ashton and Balanchine, as well as Petit, Cranko and MacMillan -- used these concepts quite consciously, especially in neoclassical ballets. The Blue Skater in "Les Patineurs," Puck in "The Dream" are two examples of demi-caractere roles. If they put in someone who moves slow and is six feet tall, people will scream. Likewise, a tiny scamperer cast as Siegfried will set at least some people screaming. Loudly.

("type" is actually something diffferent, and nearly gone in ballet, although you still have The Ingenue, The Juvenile Lead," etc. in acting. It was a very specific slotting of people in roles to which they were physically and temperamentally suited to help in storytelling, so that the audience would instantly recognize The Tall Dark Handsome Stranger, the French Chambermaid, the Sailor, the Woman with the Apron, and the Woman in the Ball Gown. (Fine actors can cross those lines, too.)

The genres are generally the same for males and females, except I think there are dozens of sub-genres in demicaractere for women. I don't know the names. I think they're lost now. I've talked to dancers and coaches asbout this, and they can group roles together, but can't name what links them. There are cheerful, innocent demicaractere roles -- Ashton's tarantella in "Swan Lake," or the Blue Boy, or Lise and Colas; and some that are very sophisticated (I think some 19th century demi roles were the sexy ones, in that time -- anything with a Spanish flavor, anything in which the dancer is allowed to flirt with the audience. Balanchine's Rubies (the McBride role) would be another.

And then there are the national differences :) Giselle and Albrecht are demicaractere in France (and, until recently, in Copenhagen) but noble (sometimes now called "classical" to confuse us; technically all these are classical) in Russia. Songbirds fairy at the Kirov is quite elegated and sophisticated; in England and America it's often "cute."

As for individuality -- ah. To me, that's the glory of classical balllet, that you can find 12 dancers who all have the same body type, give them the same variation, and you'll have 12 different dances. And yes, that's artistry, and nobody knows where it comes from, but it's fun to try to figure it out.

#6 bart

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Posted 16 December 2006 - 12:07 PM

Thanks for posting that link, Leigh. It's a remarkable give-and-take involving ballet history, aesthetics and personal taste.

Would it be possible to give it its own Heading -- "Emploi" -- on our Archives Menu?

I hope that we'll hear more about this topic here on the thread started by SandorO -- both from those who posted almost 7 years ago, and who may wish to revisit some of the issues or details -- and from those who are newer to Ballet Talk but probably have a great deal to add. :)

#7 SanderO

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Posted 16 December 2006 - 01:13 PM

Wow... I made my way through the Y2K thread and there is a lot there to digest. Too bad the definitions came quite far down thread because it was a discussion about "things" which may be understood by those who participated but was only revealed to me by reading through the lot. And I am still trying to crystallize the concepts. very informed discussion here. I am feeling more and more I need to read and do some sort of formal study of ballet else I am missing the larger very important historical context. Ballet cannot truly be appreciated by the uneducated eye.

One thing which interested me in reading about emploi was: where did those who created these notions extract this from? Why is tall and thin considered noble, for example. I beleive Alexandra pointed to the Romans as the origin of these iconic notions. Could it have been the Greeks? And even back then when there was no ballet how and why were these iconic beliefs developed? Isn't this an odd sort of stereotyping, though admittedly a handy shorthand?

These types of "classical" constraints may, in fact, allow classicism to survive... like the orders of columns in architecture... they become the anchors of style (along with other "elements of style").

But I ask you geniuses to step back for a moment... can't we mix it up a bit and continue to have the ballet make sense? From reading the posts, it seems that some people found some dancers so miscast in a role that the ballet was a failure. I, of course, understand that some body types and sizes partner up better than others, or are better suited to allegro or adagio parts for exmaple... but surely there is lots of gray area... no?

Do we want perfect stereotype casting? Is that the only acceptable approach in ballet? Is it even possible? Is this about platonic ideals?

#8 aurora

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Posted 16 December 2006 - 02:20 PM

But I ask you geniuses to step back for a moment... can't we mix it up a bit and continue to have the ballet make sense? From reading the posts, it seems that some people found some dancers so miscast in a role that the ballet was a failure. I, of course, understand that some body types and sizes partner up better than others, or are better suited to allegro or adagio parts for exmaple... but surely there is lots of gray area... no?

Do we want perfect stereotype casting? Is that the only acceptable approach in ballet? Is it even possible? Is this about platonic ideals?


Like SanderO I just read the old thread...

What struck me is how unneccesarily limiting these ideas seem to me, and how vague. There were people who diverged greatly on what made a successful Odette/Odile for example, and for many roles there was disagreement, or just uncertainty as to how they should be classified.

Also as the discussion of Apollo illustrated, it seems that some roles have changed over time, and that multiple types could be seen as successful Apollos.

I agree there are dancers who are not suited to certain parts, whether tempermentally or physically (the allegro/adagio brought up by I believe Leigh(?) seems a much more sensible division, although again there are of course dancers who blur the lines), but I hate to see it so based on questions of height.

Provided they have a partner of suitable height, I see no reason why a male virtuoso dancer of lesser stature cannot be a prince, as long as their technique is good and they inhabit the role emotionally.

One last thing, regarding Odette/Odile--the two parts seem to me to ask for very different things from the dancer, that being the case, why can't various types be given the role? Some dancers excel in one part, others in the other. For me Ananiashvilli is the epitome of grace in both, but she's a rare bird (horrible pun intended). Perhaps a lack of security in Veronika Part's Odile ruined her Odette/Odile for some, but I thought her sufficient in that role, and her Odette was one I will never forget, it was one of the most moving things I've ever seen. (not to bring this to a discussion of these particular dancers, I just wanted to be a little less generalizing)

PS--did anyone ever resolve the question of whether Van Hamel did continue to do Myrtha after her single Giselle? I believe she did as I'm sure I saw her in this role, and I was not an active ABT viewer until somewhere around 1980 (and I was quite young then so my memories of those early years are still hazy).

#9 Alexandra

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Posted 16 December 2006 - 02:26 PM

There are several reasons why these ideas can seem so limiting to people. One is that we're not taught them in school. We're taught how to appreciate music and poetry and art, but not dance, and so we all grow up with our own ideas and can be confused, if not aghast, when they don't match up with others. Also, right now, classical ballet is in free fall -- there isn't a dominant company, nor aesthetic, nor choreographer, nor dancer. So it comes back to personal taste. If My Favorite Dancer happens to be 5'2, then of course he can do Siegfried, and who can say no? :) And then, of course, you'd put the tall girl with absolutely no wit, charm or sense of humor -- but great legs and fast pirouettes -- in the McBride role in "Rubies," and it would look just fine, especially if you never saw McBride.

The question of changing roles is a fascinating one. At some point, ballets lose their connection wiith the creator, or particular dancers, and become opportunities for perfoormance art rather than ballets, I think. Many times new dancers change roles/ballets for the better, and sometimes, I think, we only think they do -- and then someone comes along with a body with the same proportions as the role's originator, and it's like watching something that's become warped snap back into place.

The next time there is a great period in ballet, all of these rules will have shifted around again; they always do, but, but, but, but, but. If you think of ballets as having architecture and geometry, then changing the bodies changes the ballet. Sometimes this matters more than others. (In an abstract ballet more than a narrative one, perhaps.

There's a very interesting -- though very specialized -- book about 18th century dance and the genres, from the grotesque dancers' point of view, that provides an interesting perspective. I can't find my copy, but it's something close to "The Role of the Groteschi on the 18th Century Stage" (the authors are editors). The historian Joan Lawson has addressed emploi in several works, but otherwise, it's hard to find -- a reference here, another one there. There's a lot in Russian; one reads references to this book or that one, but I don't read Russian :) Andre Levinson has written about it, but he writes in French. Noverre's "Letters" -- a very old view, but one that is still referenced -- is available in English.

[edited to add a paragraph and correct a few typos]

#10 bart

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Posted 16 December 2006 - 02:31 PM

Some of those left-over questions regading Myrthe and van Hamel are addressed by Alexandra here, in another thread (from 2001):

I didn't see Gregory's Myrtha and always wanted to, because she could be so icy and imperious. ABT, and many other companies, downgraded the role of Myrtha to soloist in the late 1970s. They don't cast it as a ballerina role (originally it was the "classical" ballerina contrasted with the "romantic" ballerina).

I was lucky enough to see Van Hamel many times and I loved her Myrtha (still do) but when I saw Mette-Ida Kirk in Copenhagen, it changed my idea about the role. Kirk was small and fragile and a demon. An absolute demon. (Myrtha has become a "tall girl" role, probably because the part needs authority, but it wasn't originally.)



#11 aurora

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Posted 16 December 2006 - 02:44 PM

If My Favorite Dancer happens to be 5'2, then of course he can do Siegfried, and who can say no? :) And then, of course, you'd put the tall girl with absolutely no wit, charm or sense of humor -- but great legs! -- in the McBride role in "Rubies," and it would look just fine. Myrtha has now become a Tall Girl role, but it wasn't always so. There have been great Myrthas who have been small; it's a question of authority rather than height. (I loved Van Hamel's Myrtha and also her Sylph, because she caught the softness of the role as well as the character.)


Heh, well I hope you didn't think I was saying those things! If a role requires wit and charm, a dancer should have those things to do the role properly...that goes to what I was trying to say about having the proper emotional temperment for a role, as *well* as the proper physical attributes, and in my view that and how a specific dancer moves has a lot more to do with their "appropriateness" for a role, than a simple height equation.

As for favorite dancer being 5'2" and doing siegfried--well for one it would be hard to find a proper partner, and again, it depends on emotional appropriateness as well as having the capacity to do that style of movement well. So maybe yes, maybe no (I do realize you were being flip with that one!)

Your point about Myrtha is exactly what I was trying to get at..people of widely divergent body types being effective at the same role. And yes, I'm going to bring up Veronika Part again...
Veronika Part is a tall girl, and I think a very effective Myrtha. The part was also given to Michele Wiles last season, who is also tall, and is the "stronger" dancer. But with her sunny personality and charm, it was NOT a happy casting. Sure, she can do the movements, and has the long lines etc, but she does not have the menacing presence that a Myrtha needs. No criticism of her is meant by this, it just didn't suit her personality.

#12 Alexandra

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Posted 16 December 2006 - 03:06 PM

No no! The "you" was the good old generic "one". (My rule is that Siegfried must be taller than the swans, and you have to be ablle to see Albrecht over the Wilis :) ) And I didn't intend to be snitty to someone who WOULD want to see Favorite Dancer in a Totally Unsuitable Role -- to many people this whole line of conversation is daffy becasue it's so intangible, and, as I said above, we don't learn about it in school and have to learn it -- and unlearn it -- piecemal as we watch.

I would agree with you on Part and Wiles as Myrtha; I'm sure there'd be some disagreement, but I take your point. I will say that I remember thinking about the difference between the Romantic Van Hamel in "Swan Lake" and the classical Gregory. I preferred Van Hamel, but I can remember a couple of Gregory's performances that were so pure and perfect that she made a case for it. I was just rereading Gennady Smakov's "The Great Russian Dancers" (another book that talks about employ) and he says that was Kschessinskaya's approach, and included some very interesting views by contemporary critics on her performances. (An aside, know.)

I'm off to a ballet school recital at a school which takes employ very seriously, even for the 11 year olds :)


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