scherzo

Perfect classical line

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In a Dancing Times review of the Royal Ballet's Swan Lake Jonathan Gray wrote of Lauren Cuthbertson (in an otherwise positive review, btw) that her hands and feet are 'proportionately too small to be seriously considered for a perfect classical line'.

So, what is perfect classical line (proportions, carriage, geometry etc) and who has it?

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In a Dancing Times review of the Royal Ballet's Swan Lake Jonathan Gray wrote of Lauren Cuthbertson (in an otherwise positive review, btw) that her hands and feet are 'proportionately too small to be seriously considered for a perfect classical line'.

So, what is perfect classical line (proportions, carriage, geometry etc) and who has it?

I bristle when critics use terms like "perfect" and "pure" or "purity," especially in an excluding way, as the above example seems to. How small is too small? What's the correct proportion, exactly, of one body part to another? Sometimes it's such a vague "I-know-it-when-I-see-it" definition--which is strange for something that seems to have such a precise geometrical basis!--other times these descriptions are so arbitrarily exact it sounds no more enlightened than dog breeders talking about the "proper" height of the haunches. Clearly, as seen by the thread on changes to technique over the years, these ideals, supposedly etched in stone, change with the times. A different question: why are notions of "classical perfection" important to us as viewers?

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This reminds me of judging a dog show where some standard is defined as "perfect". ICK for humans and it is weird enough for animals. Wasn't this called eugenics?

I am not terribly experienced in these things, but I have seen many dancers which look balanced, proportioned and in control of their bodies. I suppose they have gotten onto a stage because they have all the right stuff and the differences are often pretty subtle... but they do exist. But that makes it interesting doesn't it?

I would think that unless these so called "standards" are defined it is largely a matter of taste and may change over time and will vary from individual to individual observer.

Look at classical sculpture to see who our concept of beauty has evolved.

I find most dancers exquisite and that is fine with me.

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This reminds me of judging a dog show where some standard is defined as "perfect". ICK for humans and it is weird enough for animals. Wasn't this called eugenics?

I am not terribly experienced in these things, but I have seen many dancers which look balanced, proportioned and in control of their bodies. I suppose they have gotten onto a stage because they have all the right stuff and the differences are often pretty subtle... but they do exist. But that makes it interesting doesn't it?

I would think that unless these so called "standards" are defined it is largely a matter of taste and may change over time and will vary from individual to individual observer.

Look at classical sculpture to see who our concept of beauty has evolved.

I find most dancers exquisite and that is fine with me.

Yes, I think you're catching my sense of unease with such terms. Yet my unease is within, too, because while I value diversity among dancers I also derive pleasure from seeing the uniformity of "exquisite" bodies at a performance of, say, the Kirov's Swan Lake or Bayadere (a topic I'm sure we've covered in other posts).

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I agree that these labels can be used arbitrarily and unfairly. Almost as much as "musicality."

However, humans going back to the classical Greeks have held up one sort of body type -- and movement -- as an ideal. This varied has over time, of course. Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man is a famous example:

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Le...truvian_Man.JPG

The questions scherzo raises is really interesting. We certainly see the concept of "line" being used frequently in ballet criticism -- on Ballet Talk, too. Those who talk about "good" or "bad" line are presupposing an ideal type -- a "look" -- against which the individual dancer is being compared. Now that I think of it, the term is rarely defined by those who use it, which may indeed give the impression of arbitrariness.

It's a big topic, but worth pursuing. We have so many knowledgeable people here on Ballet Talk who I know can provide some answers.

To repeat scherzo's original questions:

So, what is perfect classical line (proportions, carriage, geometry etc) and who has it?
I'd add another: how and when did this idealized concept of "perfect line" develop in the history of ballet?

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I bristle when critics use terms like "perfect" and "pure" or "purity," especially in an excluding way, as the above example seems to. How small is too small? What's the correct proportion, exactly, of one body part to another? Sometimes it's such a vague "I-know-it-when-I-see-it" definition--which is strange for something that seems to have such a precise geometrical basis!--other times these descriptions are so arbitrarily exact it sounds no more enlightened than dog breeders talking about the "proper" height of the haunches.

Interesting thoughts, thanks. What you call excluding, I call setting standards, i.e. recognizing ideals, which as Bart points out, has long been done. In this case, if I read scherzo correctly, while noting that Cuthbertson lacked the physical proportions necessary for perfection, the critic otherwise praised her performance, not excluding, but ranking.

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However, humans going back to the classical Greeks have held up one sort of body type -- and movement -- as an ideal. This varied has over time, of course. Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man is a famous example:

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Le...truvian_Man.JPG

Even with the caveat someone posted below, this is not factually accurate.

The Greek canonical body type shifted over time, with some putting it as height equalling 7 heads, others 8 heads (stacked vertically).

Vitruvian man was a Roman Architect's puzzle which people set themselves to solving again during the Renaissance (both Leonardo in Italy and Durer in Germany among others) but ultimately the renaissance period was one in which a canon was being sought, but no one really established one definitive one.

Even looking at Durer's figures and those of the Italian Ren--both based in theory on Vitruvius--there are clear differences in body type, if not in height/length of limbs etc.

Furthermore the Mannerist period was characterized by a very different sort of body type, with elongated limbs and hands and a very small oval head.

Then there was Rubens.

I'm not sure what you meant by "this varied has over time"--maybe what you meant is that every period seems to hold up an ideal of beauty, though these ideals are very different for different periods. But that isn't how it came across.

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Even the notion of proportion of the human form is rather vague. We tend to find long legs and shorter torsos more attractive than the reverse. Why this is so is hard to rationalize, yet our eyes get trained, most probably by the media and the images we are bombarded with.

The average male finds larger breasts as more attractive in a female along with a curvy silhouette a la Pam Andersen. I would think most ballet dancers and balletomanes find that form disproportionate and less appealing aesthetically and would find a lithe dancer's body to be more the ideal.

The term "line" is also unclear in my mind as I am not sure it it refers to a static image... as in a single frame captured form a movement.. or is in fact the entire movement. I would think it is the latter and this is where line might intersect with musicality, ie where the dancers movements are so perfectly in tune/timing and coordinated with the rhythm and tempo of the music... that it seems to flow right through their body in perfect synchronicity. So it's not JUST seeing the movement, but hearing music AND seeing the movement.

You could be deaf and love ballet, because of the visual aspect alone. But with the music it takes on a whole other dimension. So is the term "line" used absent music... and even absent movement, or does it include movement and music?

Help!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Personally, I find Gray's comments to be petty, picayune, and above all, untrue.

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I understand this gets into the area of prejudice and exclusion, but at the same time, form, line and shape in choreography are meaning. Dancers who cannot sustain a line because of their proportions don't have the same impact in adagio - dancers who can't move quickly because of extended limbs have a similar problem in allegro. Another example from choreography - Aria I in Stravinsky Violin Concerto doesn't look the same on a dancer with "proper" classical proportions - it was built on Karin von Aroldingen, who had a very long back and Balanchine used it in a series of backbends.

Yes, it's wrong to be closed minded and exclusionary but there is also a difference between how Herman Cornejo and Marcelo Gomes look in a role. They don't look the same. It doesn't mean the same thing when they dance. They aren't appropriate for the same parts.

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Ideals of beauty do shift to some degree over time and according to place, but every culture and sub-culture has ideals, so I don't fault the critic for referencing a current one. To my mind, that's his job: ballet is in large part about achieving ideal beauty. And speaking of a particular ideal, I'm excited about Christopher Wheeldon's new company, but I don't like the ideal image offered on his website. Maybe it should be, Morphoses: The Shape-Shifting Company. :mad:

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Just remember, opinions are a lot like noses. Everybody has at least one, and almost all of them smell. Except that some smell better than others.

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I understand this gets into the area of prejudice and exclusion, but at the same time, form, line and shape in choreography are meaning. Dancers who cannot sustain a line because of their proportions don't have the same impact in adagio - dancers who can't move quickly because of extended limbs have a similar problem in allegro. Another example from choreography - Aria I in Stravinsky Violin Concerto doesn't look the same on a dancer with "proper" classical proportions - it was built on Karin von Aroldingen, who had a very long back and Balanchine used it in a series of backbends.

Yes, it's wrong to be closed minded and exclusionary but there is also a difference between how Herman Cornejo and Marcelo Gomes look in a role. They don't look the same. It doesn't mean the same thing when they dance. They aren't appropriate for the same parts.

Leigh, I do agree with a lot of what you said, but I think one of the things that is interesting (and often beautiful) in dance is different dancers each bring something of themselves to the role. Of course the 2 dancers you mentioned above don't look the same in a role, or dance it the same, but neither do Gomes and Hallberg (whose lines are beautiful in my opinion--his feet almost make me cry).

Most roles, no, I can't see both Gomes and Cornejo doing--but romeo? I would have loved it if Cornejo had been given the opportunity to dance that in NYC.

I would have also liked to see him take on the prince in SB--yes he's more of a bluebird, but it would have at the least been interesting, at best, very good indeed (nb--no commentary on how nothing could make ABT's SB very good is necessary, I mean more hypothetically!)

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I'm not sure what you meant by "this varied has over time"--maybe what you meant is that every period seems to hold up an ideal of beauty, though these ideals are very different for different periods. But that isn't how it came across.
I regret not having spelled this out in greater detail. Thank you for your very informed discussion of just the kind of variations I might have mentioned.

We seem to have two dicussions going in parallel but not very connected lines. The issue of body types and inclusion/ exclusion is not, I think, what scherzo proposed at the start of this thread. Few of us will disagree that there are many perfectly wonderful body types and that none should be excluded from respect and attention. I cannot imagine any disagreement over the statement that the "ideal" of physical beauty has varied tremendously over time and by culture (even sub-culture). As Ray says, we've discussed these issues extensively in other threads and other forums.

However, the question scherzo raised focuses more narrowly on classical ballet and the standards of beauty that have tended to be applied in classical ballet. The focus was on that hard-to-pin-down element called "line." I don't recall this precise topic on Ballet Talk ... and I hope it won't get lost in the fascination we all have over the larger related issues.

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I understand this gets into the area of prejudice and exclusion, but at the same time, form, line and shape in choreography are meaning. Dancers who cannot sustain a line because of their proportions don't have the same impact in adagio - dancers who can't move quickly because of extended limbs have a similar problem in allegro. Another example from choreography - Aria I in Stravinsky Violin Concerto doesn't look the same on a dancer with "proper" classical proportions - it was built on Karin von Aroldingen, who had a very long back and Balanchine used it in a series of backbends.

Yes, it's wrong to be closed minded and exclusionary but there is also a difference between how Herman Cornejo and Marcelo Gomes look in a role. They don't look the same. It doesn't mean the same thing when they dance. They aren't appropriate for the same parts.

I don't disagree. What I object to is critics taking refuge in "standards" that they don't do enough work to articulate or contextualize. Your brief comment above, Leigh, said reams more than most critics do, including Gray: you gave reasons why a certain dancer's proportions matter without recoursing to uncritical, "timeless" notions of "purity" or "perfection."

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Can some provide a good definition of "line".... please. I can't find it... but I have seen the word used here and have gathered the meaning from context. This is clearly a word with a very specific meaning in ballet. no?

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but at the same time, form, line and shape in choreography are meaning.

Thanks for stating so succinctly something I'm sure we all agree on. Meaning and "the perfect line" change over time in an organic process, I suppose. Balanchine absorbing America meant something else in Agon than he had in Symphonie Concertante. A young person new to ballet at the Vail Festival would find a somewhat dissimilar meaning in Wheeldon's Polyphonia (itself influenced by "Agon," of course) than an experienced viewer, and if Wheeldon succeeds in his vision, he may change the ideal of perfect line as he pours his own experience into it.

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SanderO, I identify with your confusion. This made me turn to Robert Greskovic's Ballet 101 (pp. 151-52), where I found a wonderful discussion of the topic.

Here are a few of the highlights (I'm skipping around just a bit, in the interests of answering a few questions, and with apologies to Mr. Greskovic.)

What it's not:

Many observers, professional journalists among them, erroneously or glibly think dancers with long, lean, willowy limbs produce "long line." They don't, automatically. Such physical details simply mean that such a dancer's body can more readily or easily display longer lines of limb in space. But incidental lines are not the same thing as ballet's esssential line."

So what IS essential line?

At heart, line is central to all front-rank ballet dancing. It's an internal dimension, a sublime inner connection of all the physical aspects that make up the dancer's physique. Line emanates from an artful alignment of parts and expresses itself as something far greater than a mathematical whole ... If dancers were sculpture, line would be the defining armature around which the clay of their forms gets centered and directed.

[ ... ] Line is able to ground external surfaces with an inner understanding. Great dancers with impeccable line behave as if they're able to see themselves from our vantage point, all the while showing themselves to us in a supremely internalized, unending harmony.

How to look for it:

[ ... ]Probably the best place to discern and admire line, or lack thereeof, is to watch a dancer perform from some distance .... If he has impeccable line, you'll see it; no position he takes will fail to emanate from a strong center, where it will endlessly open out and reach well beyond itself. If his line is imperfect, you'll see that, too. It will look snagged or smudged or stunted. It will stop, or at least disturb , your eye. It will draw your viewing pleasure up short."

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Bart,

Thanks, but I must say that that is really a whole lot of words that do not provide a definition. I don't know who that author is but I think he might find a better editor.

Sorry, now in one paragraph, Line is:

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Here are a few concrete elements to line most balletomanes look for.

Turnout

Feet -

Feet point, toes are agile and nimble.

Ankles work as well as toes.

Straight knees. Speaking of trends in line, hyperextension goes into and out of fashion.

Arms and hands - what people look for has a lot to do with their training. As a stereotype, Balanchine involves a hand with the fingers spread and is "wristy." The fingerss at the RB are held more closely together, the wrists are much softer producing a full soft curve to the arm rather than a break at the wrist.

Extension.

Proportion. The stereotype - longer limbs, shorter torso, small head.

-----

One hopes a discussion of line doesn't happen in a vacuum. Certainly just because two dancers are different in type it does not follow that they have no overlapping roles. Part of the job of the artistic director is to advocate for a ballet - this starts by understanding it. To understand "Agon" or "Giselle" as a director is to know what it means and how it needs to look to project its meaning. Casting should flow from that. The ballet ought to come first.

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Ah what a wonderful description by Mr. Greskovic. Here is a similar explanation by the NYTimes' Gia Kourlas...(maybe paraphrasing Greskovic?) I once sent it in appreciation to a dancer who has exquisite line and uses that internal & external ability both in solo and in partnering to beautiful effect.

"Classical dancers are commonly judged on their execution of steps, but what matters most is the whole package, specifically the hard-won combination of musicality and line, a slippery concept that connects a dancer's movement to his or her core. It means that every muscle and bone--from the toe to the fingertips--is working in exquisite harmony.

Proportion, highly arched feet, and long, straight legs figure into the equation, but the dancer with the extra-special something is able to radiate that internal power without thinking about how to do it. Dancing is not a mindless activity, but it is about watching the body, not the mind, solve problems under extreme circumstances."

SO TRUE.

Forgot to add:

RE: Cornejo and Gomes, I disagree with Mr. Witchel. Both Cornejo and Gomes are proportioned well enough, and talented enough to project beautiful line, and so, are BOTH able to perform ALL roles. I don't think "line" is the deciding aesthetic in casting choices, but rather height differentials in partnering. I saw Herman Cornejo do Prince Desire in Costa Mesa, and given an excellent partner in proportion with him (which he had in Sarah Lane) there were no problems that I saw in his technical, dramatic, or aesthetic abilities to project line.

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Just simply defining "line" is quite difficult. Putting it in the simplest of terms from a technical standpoint, in my opinion, "line" is a specific position a dancer makes that is found aesthetically pleasing to the eye, no matter what length of legs you have, how beautiful your feet are, or what kind of choreography you are dancing.

Than again, that is the simplest of terms in my opinion.

Going back to the original question you asked about classical lines.

Obviously, we all know that certain famous dancers are well known for their beautiful bodies (Sylvie Guillem, Svetlana Zahkarova, Polina, etc.). These are very classical dancers in my opinion (which is not to say they can or cannot dance neo-classically or contemporary, etc.)... and I'm sure if you were to search for pictures of them on the web, you would (in my opinion) see what a classical line is. They have "ideal" bodies for ballet.

There are also neoclassical lines, which are very different from classical lines, and are also hard to achieve as most of them are off-balance.

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I'd argue that both Guillem and Zakharova have neo-classical rather than classical lines. A dancer using a classical line wouldn't push her extension as far as either did.

A classical line emphasizes harmony and proportion, a neoclassical line length and sweep.

Classical lines - Fonteyn, Platel

Neoclassical - Farrell, Guillem

I'm hoping Alexandra will jump in here and correct me if she has a better definition (I'm not the one who studied it)

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Hyper extension is not classical because?

Is this the result of extreme athleticism?

What's the deal with hyper extensions? Is it virtuosity.

If line involves musicality, then one cannot see it in a still photo... no? What would be the word to describe such a perfect "pose/position" revealed in a photo?

Sorry for all the dumb questions... but this is my learning lab and you geniuses are the best teachers.

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