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What makes a ballerina/o great?


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#1 artist

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Posted 04 April 2007 - 11:45 AM

A slightly philosophical set of questions: is a ballerina great because she touches greatness once, or does she have to do it many times? If many times, then how many and how consistently? And does greatness have to be perceived by many audience members, or only by one? If many, how many?

--Andre

I thought these were good questions that needed some good answers and opinions.

To add: Does superior technicality add to one's 'greatness'? Especially in these times, technical advancement has become of importance, pretty much mandatory, no?

Perhaps one's 'greatness' has to do with how they connect with the audience, i.e emotional artistry and how they convey the character being performed. But then everyone feels differently about their warmth/coldness.

Maybe it's the connection that results from partnering; maybe one dancer brings out the best of another in PDD.

Looking back on historical examples of the 'great' ballet dancers, what do you think made them great?
For example, Ulanova, Vasiliev, Maximova, Pavlova, Nureyev, Baryshnikov....the list goes on and on. I think that it was a mix of both technicality and emotional genius. But, of course, for me it is mostly the artistic quality that prevails.

What are your thoughts, if this has not been mentioned before?

#2 canbelto

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Posted 05 April 2007 - 10:40 AM

I think the foremost quality a great ballerina/dansuer needs to have is a reason to watch them. My dad calls it "star quality" but I kind of agree it's indefinable. I use as an example Suzanne Farrell receiving an honorary diploma from Harvard. It happened to be the same year my sister was graduating. It was June in Boston, but somehow 50 degrees and pouring rain. If you've ever been to Harvard yard, you'll know how cramped it is, and sure enough we were stuck with garbage bags over our heads and we could barely see anyone except on the big screens. My mom didn't know anything about ballet, and the introductions to all the people receving honorary degrees were predictably boring. They all had the black flat hats and baggy black gowns. But during the ceremony my mom poked at me and said, "Who is that woman sitting in the middle? She looks very special." I explained to her that she was a famous ballerina, and my mom said afterwards, "I was staring at her the whole time. She just looked like a star."

To me, a great ballerina or danseur is someone who can elicit that kind of reaction from not just one person (like my mom) but entire audiences.

#3 Farrell Fan

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Posted 05 April 2007 - 11:07 AM

Thanks for sharing this wonderful story, canbelto.

#4 Buddy

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Posted 05 April 2007 - 03:17 PM

To maybe complicate this discussion more than clarify it I think about Daria Pavlenko. Here is a performer who I have seen perform with 'greatness' and who I have seen perform with simple human warmth and vulnerabililty. I have seen her latch on to that 'step beyond' to become a 'superhuman' and 'great' performer. I have also seen her trip on the stage and I have seen her try so hard to succeed that my heart reaches out to her all the more.

So what is 'greatness' without human 'soul'. Daria Pavlenko for one seems to moves back and forth between simple humanity and heights of 'great' acheivement. When these two elements come into balance then maybe we are seeing 'real greatness'.

[typo correction made]

#5 carbro

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Posted 05 April 2007 - 03:58 PM

The human element is imperative. If there's no vulnerability, why should we care?

#6 Buddy

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Posted 05 April 2007 - 04:35 PM

Thanks everyone for your thoughts and comments. carbro, I would certainly agree with you. To try and be a bit more exact on my part, my thinking when I used the word "vulnerability" was about an 'openess' to what will happen. This I would see as a quality in a person.

[spelling corrections made]

#7 artist

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Posted 05 April 2007 - 04:53 PM

I think the foremost quality a great ballerina/dansuer needs to have is a reason to watch them. My dad calls it "star quality" but I kind of agree it's indefinable.

Like an 'it factor'? It's either you have it or you don't. You can't really change it. The 'it factor' would most likely be something a wide range a viewers would have to entail for it to be the reason.

#8 drb

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Posted 05 April 2007 - 05:25 PM

It was a Friday night in June, the year 1998, and I'd taken my then little dancing niece to The Met to see the local premiere of a full-length ballet made for the great Nina Ananiashvili. It was a pretty show, but sans choroegraphic craft. We both knew it was a flop, but at least she'd seen her favorite "little Angel" partnering Ananiashvili, and Nina believed in it and gave it her considerable all.

As we were standing up to face the crushing egress from the hall, she turned to me and said "wasn't it wonderful having (she named the great ballerina) sitting in the row behind us?" I turned, but the woman had left her seat. I looked toward the crowded aisle. Merging into the crowd, there was the back of a head, the hair still long, the movement undeniable. It was Suzanne, Farrelling up the aisle. Something in the way she moves... We were both transfixed as we followed behind. It was dancing of that higher order: in itself well worth the price of our tickets. It is (not was) the only dancing I remember from that night. Without steps, nor music, it had the power of Proust's madeleine.

A decade later, "little dancer" is now a dancer, and the world of ballet has even more comets blazing on its stages, stars we call them, and rightly so. But this is a Star.

#9 Farrell Fan

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Posted 05 April 2007 - 05:43 PM

As someone who has lost sight of Suzanne more than once on the way to one egress or another, I found this anecdote especially poignant. Thanks to you too, drb.

#10 Amy Reusch

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Posted 05 April 2007 - 07:15 PM

Timing.

#11 scherzo

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Posted 06 April 2007 - 04:34 AM

Their intelligence, which is a distinction between 'amazing' dancers and 'great' dancers.

#12 nysusan

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Posted 07 April 2007 - 07:35 AM

On an old thread, one of our very brilliant posters said something like:

A ballerina must have the ability to create a universe of her own design, of which she is the center and must have the ability to bring the audience into it with her

I think the poster was referring to Suzanne Farrell (Farrell fan, was it you? or was it Carbro?) Anyway, I think itís a perfect description of the quality that distinguishes a great dancer from a very good one. For me the ability to make one suspend disbelief and the ability to communicate directly to the audience are both key requirements. Canbeltoís description of a dancer whose star quality is immediately apparent to an entire audience is also very apt.

But I think technique is also part of the equation. IMO even though you will rarely notice technique in a great performance it has to be there. It doesnít necessarily have to be ďthe bestĒ, but no matter how great an artist is they have to be able to do the steps otherwise they are just good actors.

With regard to Andreís philosophical question about whether a ballerina is great if she touches greatness once - I would say no, but usually if a ballerina is great in a particular role she will give many great performances of it. And I think there's a difference between a dancer who is great in a certain role and one who is a great dancer. I think to be great a dancer has to be great in many roles. Some dancers can make you believe in their Giselle but not their Aurora or their Odette. Or Odette but not Odile. The truly great dancers find the key to many, if not all the classic roles. For me, those ballerinas have been Fonteyn, Makarova, and Farrell (within her chosen repertory).

Buddy, I agree with you that Pavlenko has a unique ability to touch an audience, but I donít differentiate between her moments of greatness and her moments of simple humanity. I think her ability to communicate humanity, to touch the audience directly is a big part of her greatness. She is the only ballerina of the current generation that I would consider putting in the same category with the greats of the past. My hesitation with Pavlenko is only because I havenít been able to see much of her. Iíve only seen her perform a handfull of times in a limited rep, but what Iíve seen of her has been amazing. Even though Iíve seen her stumble I donít perceive that as a lack of technique. Anyone can stumble, or dance carefully at a given performance for any number of reasons - a slick floor, an illness or injury, a lack of confidence in her partner - and Iíve seen everyone mess up at one point or another - even great technicians like Lopatkina, Vishneva, Murphy, Bouder etc.

#13 Farrell Fan

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Posted 07 April 2007 - 08:57 AM

On an old thread, one of our very brilliant posters said something like:

A ballerina must have the ability to create a universe of her own design, of which she is the center and must have the ability to bring the audience into it with her

I think the poster was referring to Suzanne Farrell (Farrell fan, was it you? or was it Carbro?) Anyway, I think itís a perfect description of the quality that distinguishes a great dancer from a very good one.



I wasn't the one who said it, but I'll probably say it in the future.

#14 canbelto

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Posted 07 April 2007 - 09:25 AM

Another definition of greatness I'd say is the ability to make an audience forget about mistakes/weaknesses. I use as an example Alicia Alonso's Giselle. By the time she filmed it she was almost completely blind, and the weaknesses show. The shakiness of her developpes, her unimpressive (from a technical standpoint) Spessivtseva solo, and the nagging feeling that we are only seeing a ghost of her former Giselle (reputed to be among the best in the world). Yet it remains one of my very favorite videos, simply because despite all the weaknesses there's so many moments of breathtaking beauty.

#15 Buddy

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Posted 07 April 2007 - 11:04 AM

nysusan, many points very well made. Thank you.

canbelto, a very sensitive and heartwarming description. Thanks for sharing it.


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