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Perfect classical lineWhat, and who?


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#1 scherzo

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Posted 14 August 2007 - 02:13 AM

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?

#2 Ray

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Posted 14 August 2007 - 03:55 AM

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?

#3 SanderO

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Posted 14 August 2007 - 04:12 AM

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.

#4 Ray

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Posted 14 August 2007 - 04:59 AM

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).

#5 bart

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Posted 14 August 2007 - 05:40 AM

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.wikim...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?

#6 Ray

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Posted 14 August 2007 - 05:51 AM

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.wikim...truvian_Man.JPG


Well, some humans in the West, at least.

#7 kfw

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Posted 14 August 2007 - 05:54 AM

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.

#8 aurora

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Posted 14 August 2007 - 07:40 AM

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.wikim...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.

#9 SanderO

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Posted 14 August 2007 - 08:11 AM

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!!!!!!!!!!!!

#10 Mel Johnson

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Posted 14 August 2007 - 08:17 AM

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

#11 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 14 August 2007 - 08:57 AM

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.

#12 kfw

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Posted 14 August 2007 - 09:12 AM

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:

#13 Mel Johnson

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Posted 14 August 2007 - 09:16 AM

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.

#14 aurora

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Posted 14 August 2007 - 09:34 AM

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!)

#15 bart

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Posted 14 August 2007 - 09:49 AM

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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