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What makes a ballerina/o great?

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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?

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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.

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Thanks for sharing this wonderful story, canbelto.

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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]

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

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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]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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 it’s 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. Canbelto’s 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 doesn’t necessarily have to be “the best”, 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 Andre’s 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 don’t 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 haven’t been able to see much of her. I’ve only seen her perform a handfull of times in a limited rep, but what I’ve seen of her has been amazing. Even though I’ve seen her stumble I don’t 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 I’ve seen everyone mess up at one point or another - even great technicians like Lopatkina, Vishneva, Murphy, Bouder etc.

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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 it’s 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.

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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.

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nysusan, many points very well made. Thank you.

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

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In his book "Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition," Wendell Berry quotes Ezra Pound saying something about literature that surely holds for art in general and for great dances and great dancers: “A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions . . . It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.” Berry quotes further: “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.” Berry then writes that “the business of literature . . . is to renew not only itself but also our sense of the perennial newness of the world and of our experience; it is to renew our sense of the newness of what is eternally new.”

Although Berry is talking about literature -- about the art form itself -- being renewed, I would think this must apply to great performers approaching familiar material as well: that it’s because the work is perennially new to them that they can make it new and “alive” to us. They're able to penetrate deeper to the heart of the material (and in that limited sense to reality) than other performers, and than the rest of us -- to see and understand more than the rest of us -- and that’s an essential part of what they give to us.

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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]

Buddy, you didn't complicate the issue. By simply mentioning Daria Pavlenko's name, you've

clarified the issue perfectly, and elevated the discussion.:). :wink:.

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Completeness: for a or o, a great partnership.

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FURTHER EDITED TO ADD: (April 8) We got this all cleared up, so there is no problem any more, but I think I will just put a little additional material up here instead of re-writing the whole thing. I put the part about the importance of FIRE in a dancer to me in italics since I'm going to leave the rest for now. The post had had to be deleted because the policy is not to link to other discussion boards and glitches occurred, including that nothing but the link material was visible in my original post and also that the moderator had pm'ed me, but I never received the explanation. So I was just guessing. But since the link had been to some really good remarks by our own Alexandra, I wanted to mention them briefly but without linking to them. Some people on a ballet board had been asking about the use of 'ballerino' and artist here had written 'ballerina/o', but I think I was the first to pick up on the 'o'. Googling I found the text in which Alexandra explains that 'ballerino' is indeed correct, and is technically and balletically more so than 'premier danseur'. This interested me a great deal, because I never hear the term and haven't read it here, but had always somehow thought that was the correct term anyway. Therefore, I thought maybe a number of people here had encountered this as well and wondered about it. So, we may now say 'ballerino' when we feel it is right to do so! which may or may not be always, I am not the one to know for sure about that.

[The following is all earlier, before we'd gotten the problems fixed. I've had to leave it for now, but the above has explained that well.]

My post on FIRE was deleted, without any message of explanation sent so I will repost part of it until the deleter wants to tell me why, because it was inoffensive unless my link commending a member's clarification of 'ballerino' as opposed to the 'premier danseur' was interdit.

Edited to add (April 7 or April 8 a.m.): 'Posts from other discussion boards and Everyman blogs are not official sources.'

Okay, I guess that was the rule I broke. Sorry, I hadn't known that would matter, but I think maybe I was supposed to be notified. Maybe that's not the rule I broke though, because it could be that any discussion board, whether or not in the realm of the 'official' or not, is defendu. So please explain.

In any case, I had said that, since the 'o' was included in the title of the original post, that that meant 'ballerino', therefore, as well as 'ballerina', and nobody had mentioned any men--and I said that Nureyev when young had a lot of fire, especially in things like 'Le Corsaire' where he was as if possessed of its pagan essence, and that Nijinsky surely would have had it too. I'll add that Alla Sizova among ballerinas seemed to have a lot of it when young, as one sees in that old film from the Kirov when she does some superhuman sorts of jumps that are like some especially strong and graceful animal (I forget the choreographer's name of the piece, I think this was on 'Glory of the Kirov'. )

FIRE is to me the one of the most important things in a great dancer as well as a singer or pianist, etc., sometimes the most important, but not always.

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I'll add that Alla Sizova among ballerinas seemed to have a lot of it when young, as one sees in that old film from the Kirov when she does some superhuman sorts of jumps that are like some especially strong and graceful animal (I forget the choreographer's name of the piece, I think this was on 'Glory of the Kirov'. )

Are you perhaps thinking of her and Nureyev's graduation performance--the pas de deux from Le Corsaire?

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Are you perhaps thinking of her and Nureyev's graduation performance--the pas de deux from Le Corsaire?

Yes, that's it. And I remember it from when Paul first talked about this video about a year ago, and then I looked it up and watched it. I had forgotten that Nureyev was even in it, although I wrote about it also right after I saw it. I never saw him do it in person, but other films of his 'Corsaire' were a lot more exciting and fierce than that one. But Sizova was just a natural wonder in that one.

Thanks for adding this, because I was too lazy to go searching last night, and can't believe the one image I have after a year is only of Sizova's animal vitality--I was actually confusing the piece in memory with the Jakobsen Waltz on there, not because it was similar as dance, but just that I remembered something about the whole video. The Nureyev 'Corsaire' I love the most is with Fonteyn, and I think Fonteyn is so wonderfully slightly naughty in it, to that rather campy music.

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