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Perfect classical lineWhat, and who?


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#31 4mrdncr

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Posted 15 August 2007 - 10:24 AM

It's a real stretch to say that a great dancer is great in any role. Interesting, yes. Great, no. A service to the ballet, only maybe. You may want to see dancers you like in every role. I sure do. But at some point casting should be decided by neither line nor partnership (that's how we've gotten the Mutt and Jeff Mozartiana when the role was made on two men of equal build - yet another case where type matters) but by the ballet. What does the ballet require?


What does the ballet require? Someone who can execute the steps correctly; if it's a story-ballet, who can act; who understands line, musical phrasing, and continuity of movement. Beyond that, I do not care if they are tall, blonde, and blue-eyed, or shorter, dark, and brown-eyed. If they are physically in proportion, no matter the height, and not glaringly, obviously, different in proportion with a partner or cast, then I do not see why anyone cannot do a part. I will admit in some ballets, it MAY be more aesthetically pleasing to have longer limbs with greater extensions, but I don't feel it is absolutely necessary.

#32 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 15 August 2007 - 10:57 AM

I'm not talking about aesthetics nor about the ability of dancers to do the steps in a role.

The ballet's meaning is independent of the dancer. Some of that has to do with the shape of the choreography. The shape is more than the steps - I'll use the example of Mozartiana, where the meaning has been distorted by tall-short casting (that was probably originally done to give Gen Horiuchi a role that did not require partnering) instead of the casting of two similar men. Watch the tape of it done by Andersen and Castelli with Farrell and you will see a ballet that makes more sense than the ballet as done today.

Another example is in Balanchine's Midsummer Night's Dream, where even though Melissa Hayden originally danced the part because of injury to Diana Adams, the point of the casting is the shape produced by height differences - a tall Titania and short Oberon - and conversely a short woman and tall man in the second act divertissement.

#33 Alexandra

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Posted 15 August 2007 - 11:04 AM

Thanks to scherzo for a very good question. There have been several very good answers here. I second what Leigh and Hans have written about line (and the quote from Ballet 101, of course) -- it's more than having a pleasing body. It's how the body is used. (I once was given a very interesting example of how line -- the harmonious arrangement of limbs, the way the upper body of a dancer in arabesque was tilted a bit forward, the harmony of his extended leg with the opposite arm -- was also a demonstration of that dancer's musicality.)

I think the "any dancer can dance any role and it's just a matter of opinion" is one of the biggest problems in ballet today, and it's happened because there isn't a real leader, either choreographer, dancer or company, in classical ballet. We've gone through times like this in the past, and it always gets sorted out when a leader emerges, yells at the children, and everyone gets back in line (that's the other kind of line, the line you make at a grocery store). At a certain level -- Baryshnikov, Makarova -- any dancer should be able to dance anything they want; they've earned the right. And they'll know in their heart of hearts whether they're suited to the role or not. But generally, the major classical Schools know exactly what their school demands in line, placement, turnout, how high the leg should be extended and how the little finger should be crooked, or not. What to many viewers might seem a tiny detail is cosmic to a dancer -- or should be. Many dancers don't understand line, I've found, especially if someone has told them have don't get to dance X or Y role because they "don't have the line for it" :)

Line is a part of employ -- the 17th century idea that there are three (or four, depending on the country and decade) general types of dancers: tall and elegant, dancing slow and stately measures; slightly smaller and quicker, though still elegant; shorter and comic; forceful and rather coarse. These categories were never iron clad and have slipped around over the years. In recent years, for example, the "ideal" Odette has changed a great deal. I remember when Lesley Collier danced the role in New York for the first time in the mid-1970s, the NY Times wrote, "We will probably never see anyone with her line in this role again." She was rather short-limbed, and the role was becoming (and now has definitely become) a role for long-legged ballerinas.

As several people have mentioned, we've had several discussions on this forum in the past about employ, and why it matters that a dancer fits the role. Dancers usually recognize this -- we've had comments here, and I've had them, and read them, in interviews, of a dancer saying how roles by one choreographer or made on one dancer or type of dancer suited them perfectly, while others weren't quite a fit. If you ever see a ballet cast as the choreographer intended it, you might see a difference in the way the ballet looks: the geometry of the work is clear, especially in a ballet -- like Balanchine's "Midsumner" of "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" -- where height is a subtext.

As for scherzo's original question, I don't know Ms. Cuthbertson's dancing well enough to comment on the comment. Some critics don't know what they're talking about, but some actually do :helpsmilie: They can't write a detailed explanation of what line is because of space -- we've had that comment made here time after time, and it's true -- and also because a review isn't a lesson in ballet appreciation. I learned much of what I know about dancing from reading reviews and trying to figure out what in the *** the person meant -- take Croce's comment that the ballerina role in "Theme and Variations" was an adagio role made for an allegro dancer (Alicia Alonso). That's about line and employ, and it took me a couple of seasons to decode. Another help to me was Nancy Reynolds' "Repertory in Review." While reading through it, I noticed that, for example, Bart Cook was being cast in all of Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux's roles, and I didn't see that they were alike physically. I figured Balanchine probably knew what he was doing, though, and realized it was the key to something I was trying to understand. So I started to look for other similar pairings, and traced roles back to their origins, through several generations of casts. I was also reading at the time about "the McBride line and the Farrell line" -- another kind of "line," the line that connects dancers within a similar repertory. All of these things were very helpful in figuring out what both kinds of "line" mean. In today's anything goes world, there are very few models. We don't have the chance to look at perfectly cast ballets very often, and so it's harder to get one's bearings, I think.

None of this is to say that there's anything wrong about liking a dancer who "shouldn't" be dancing a role -- that's personal taste. But there *is* something to why ballet masters cast certain dancers in

#34 Alexandra

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Posted 15 August 2007 - 11:13 AM

Leigh and I were posting at the same time, and I'd like to second something he wrote in the post above mine:

"The ballet's meaning is independent of the dancer. Some of that has to do with the shape of the choreography."

I agree with that -- some would not, believing that it's all about the performance, and that the ballets should serve the dancers and not the other way around. That, as much as personal taste in leg length and hair color, may well be why there are disagreements about this and other aesthetic issues.

#35 4mrdncr

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Posted 16 August 2007 - 01:44 PM

Hope this isn't all OT...
Ok, maybe I'm obtuse. I understand the point about the "shape" of choreography, if not always "meaning", which to me is a SUBJECTIVE decision akin to a zillion viewers having a zillion ideas about the "meaning" of an abstract painting. (I have a funny cartoon at home showing a professor/lecturer going on and on about the "deepest emotional horror/angst etc. etc". in an abstract painting, only to discover afterwards that it's title was "Pink Snow Bunny".) Of course there are many opportunities to express emotions or situations through choreography and its musical accompaniment, but does each step have a "backstory"? Or a POV? What is the "meaning" of a dance?

Of course much of what I say above, is contradicted by my posts last year about seeing dancers' technique and personalities inherent in steps created originally on them, and later danced by others. But all of it emanates from my wish not to typecast dancers based on body types, if their technical/artistic abilities are already at a top professional standard.

Returning to original topic of "line"
Line to me has always been a technical knowledge expressed artistically. That is, a true artist knows how to use an inherent technical knowledge of line continuously to express and enhance the presentation/performance/viewer's understanding.

Muddled musings as usual.

#36 Hans

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Posted 17 August 2007 - 03:32 PM

As far as each step having a backstory and/or point of view, I would say it depends. :) Some choreographers intend this, others do not, and others have their own meaning but intend for the audience members to figure it out for themselves, and if they see a different meaning, that is fine. There are probably many gradations of all that, too. Some stagers and dancers make up their own backstories, usually to explain a step or gesture they don't understand, and sometimes it works (although I think it usually doesn't). The trouble with ballet is that it isn't like a book, painting, or even a symphony because its "text" (the steps) changes every time it is re-staged, and perhaps even with each performance, so people come away seeing very different things and there isn't always a way to reconcile that to a set-in-stone original and analyze who gathered what meaning from which movements.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that you're right, "meaning" in dance very often is subjective, whatever the choreographer intends, and unlike other more static art forms, there isn't always a way to find out what s/he intends the dance to mean, if anything, and if the dancer or stager comes up with his/her own "meaning" for the dance, the choreographer's intentions are distorted and the audience has to draw its own conclusions anyway.

EDIT: Upon re-reading this, I feel I made it sound as if some choreographers purposely create totally pointless dances, which is not what I meant. The difference between playing around with movement and creating a cohesive work of art is, IMO, usually pretty obvious at first glance, and even if the choreographer is not conscious of a specific meaning, even one s/he keeps totally to him/herself, there is nevertheless still something there driving the dance to its inevitable conclusion.

#37 Alexandra

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Posted 17 August 2007 - 04:12 PM

Yes, sometimes the steps do have a specific meaning, or suggest a specific meaning, and sometimes they're like snowflakes. Each one is different and beautiful, and they don't mean anything in the sense that they're sending us a message in a snowflake verdict of morse code.

Re 4mrdncr's question: "Returning to original topic of "line". Line to me has always been a technical knowledge expressed artistically. That is, a true artist knows how to use an inherent technical knowledge of line continuously to express and enhance the presentation/performance/viewer's understanding," I think line is geometry. Someone without classical line -- Nijinsky, say -- could be a consummate artist and expressed the choreographer's intentions beautifully (we can see that in the photos). People who have line have it. It's the way their body makes shapes. It's possible that someone with beautiful lines could be totally uninteresting as an artist -- unless all you're into is geometry. (And there are empty vessels that I've enjoyed watching, simply because they make such beautiful shapes!) They're two different things.

#38 bart

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Posted 20 August 2007 - 09:01 AM

People who have line have it. It's the way their body makes shapes.

If we're talking about the ideal type of "perfect" line, wouldn't costuming also play a role? For instance, is it possible to have classical line in boots? Or high-heeled shoes? Greskovic refers to this briefly when discussing the street dancing by the harlots in MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. Or, on the other hand, is "perfect line" something you only see in "perfectly classical" choreography?

#39 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 20 August 2007 - 09:18 AM

By and large.

Line is a function of adagio. Allegro was even used to conceal lack of line (see Vestris). You're not going to see classical use of line in character dancing; they're generally spirited allegro dances about movement rather than shape.

#40 leonid17

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Posted 25 August 2007 - 08:46 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:

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?


What an interesting and serious discussion that goes to the heart of modern performance of academic classical ballet.

I don't know if anyone has already said "line is everything" in classical ballet they should have because that is exactly what 'classical' implies.

“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:”

Leonardos 15th century translation of the architect Vitruviuss (died circa AD20) idealized balance of the human figure, whilst conjuring up an aesthetic for academic classical ballet is for me superceded in balletic imagery by the Flemish mannerist sculptor Giambolognas (1529-1608) “The Flying Mercury” created in 1564 as it beautifies the harmonic line in a pose of the god who flies through the air. This statues beautiful movement is echoed in his “Angel” of and his near balletic “Rape of Proserpina” and the “Fountain of Neptune”.

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

Each art form has created its accepted standard from which sub-art forms have appeared and in doing so do are related but quite visibly different. I absolutely do not agree that concepts of beauty evolve. What was beautiful to Greek or Roman eyes more than two thousand years ago remains I would suggest beautiful to most modern eyes. Whereas those that see certain modern works as beautiful remain in a minority which makes the idea that our “concept of beauty has evolved” a wildly extravagant claim. We cannot extrapolate the views of a media publicised minority to create a universally accepted measure a “concept of beauty”.

“I bristle when critics use terms like "perfect" and "pure" or "purity," especially in an excluding way, as the above example seems to.” .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?”

Simply because we are discussing an art form called academic classical ballet and not neo-classical or modern classical ballet or dance and when a form becomes diluted in its aesthetics it becomes a bastardized event of an art and not an art in itself.

I do not agree that the appreciation of line is "subjective" I would say it is a shared aesthetic of knowledge. Classical ballet is a 'performance art dependant upon individuals, a very few of which, will possess extraordinary qualities that enable them to overcome perceived their limitations of line in performance.

“I'd add another: how and when did this idealized concept of "perfect line" develop in the history of ballet? “ From the moment ballet was created. It took its aesthetics from what was considered harmonious in the other arts and developed folk and court dances from various ethnic backgrounds into a sophisticated form that remained in alignment to sculpture and the rhythmic flow of music. This became a codified form that had various flowerings and developments of which the academic classical ballet is one.

“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?

In academic classical ballet, to define appropriate line to this art form, I believe you have to begin with the way the dancers body relates to the elegant harmony of shape and expressive movement in relation to music and drama that adheres to tenets of the academic school. This should remain the same for every moment of all the Petipa ballets except where expression is required to go outside the canon.

Carbro deliciously explains hyperextension and the hyper-extended and with his, “Just because you can, doesn't mean you must.” is music to my ears. To which I would add and definitely not in Petipa ballets.

When I first started going to the ballet it was the general view that ballet dancers were still divided by emploi within the repertoire. When particular types were rare, e.g. strictly academic classical ballerinas, dancers from the other divisions were allowed to dance
ballerina roles. Those days seem to have of course gone, but one always has the chance to first observe and then avoid.

A particular favourite dancer of mine Svetlana Beriosova considered tall for her time and had 'sway back' legs not fitting the ideal physique of some observers. Madame Beriosova being an artist (and having the advantage of distinguished teachers and choreographers) used this perceived deformity to great advantage in all the great ballerina roles and was much admired.

I can think of a number of excellent Russian and dancers in the UK who were not considered for leading roles in academic classical ballets up until the 1970's and 1980's because they were not considered to be aesthetically correct for particular roles. Regrettably such considerations no longer exist which diminishes the status of what once called a ballerina or a danseur noble an essential and central denomination to the art. This I believe has led to a dilution of the aesthetics in classical ballet as companies pursue goals of being equated with a Broadway or West End entertainment rather than an art. If this sounds pompous on my part, I am not ashamed.

On reading through this discussion for the first time to day, I saw Vestris mentioned but did not see the name of an extremely wise writer on the subject Carlo Blasis.
Instead of reaching for my copy of his, "The Code of Terpsichore" I googled and found this site, hdl.loc.gov/loc.music/musdi.251 where everyone can read his views on dancer types and his opinion of requirements in stature and performance. I quickly scanned the chapters on Theatrical Dancing and on each page found substantiated examples of what is required in poses and the performance of steps meet the academic aesthetic.

Alexandra has said, “I think the "any dancer can dance any role and it's just a matter of opinion" is one of the biggest problems in ballet today, and it's happened because there isn't a real leader, choreographer, dancer or company, in classical ballet.”

However unexpectedly, the recent Bolshoi visit to London showed an aesthetic in its performance of classical ballet that to me was only blemished by Svetlana Zakharova. Other Bolshoi dancers who could over-extend their line, did not and I hope this is the result both of Ratmansky's ethos and a new aesthetic in the coaching of roles. Of course the identity of the Bolshoi remains, but to my eyes, it has been tempered with some good taste in the execution of its classical ballet repertoire.

When Alexandra states, “Yes, sometimes the steps do have a specific meaning, or suggest a specific meaning, and sometimes they're like snowflakes. Each one is different and beautiful, and they don't mean anything in the sense that they're sending us a message in a snowflake verdict of morse code.” She is beginning to illumine for others the semiotic code of academic classical ballet which she like others are able to read that leads to understanding classical ballet in a way that not everyone else does.

The language of classical ballet is not arcane and reveals itself immediately to some but only slowly to others. It comes from study when study is not the aim. If this sounds like esotericism it is no mores so than the acquiring a relationship to something in such depth that understanding takes place at a level different to casual encounter. I would say this is what defines the difference to an artistic experience rather than an entertainment experience and what makes every connoisseur a connoisseur of whatever they appreciate and why line mean more to some people than others.

ED: Spelling

#41 Alexandra

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Posted 25 August 2007 - 08:53 AM

Thank you for this, Leonid -- and Amen! :) I especially loved this line in your post: "I do not agree that the appreciation of line is "subjective" I would say it is a shared aesthetic of knowledge." I think that is very true. Unfortunately, there is little or no dance education in schools, even at university, and so we're not given, as we are in art or music, this shared aesthetic of knowledge. We have to find it on our own.

#42 SanderO

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Posted 25 August 2007 - 09:19 AM

Leonid,

Thank you to that interesting link at the Library of Congress. It provides some informative reading with videos as well.

I think Plato would understand the concept "perfect classical line" and this is obviously something that only some can attain who begin with the "right stuff".

#43 bart

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Posted 25 August 2007 - 10:46 AM

Thank you, leonid, for helping us to focus this disussion.

I agree with you that we get off-track if we wander off into the contentious area of such questions as "What is beauty?" "What makes something beautiful?" "Is there an ideal, universal idea of the beautiful, or are such judgments socially conditioned or subjective?"

Let's start with the parameters of the original topic (that is, what we are and what we are not, really talking about). It would indeed simplify matters if we could agree to stick to the following, to borrow your words:

[ ... ] we are discussing an art form called academic classical ballet and not neo-classical or modern classical ballet or dance [ ... ]


Now, once we agree to concentrate on "academic classical ballet," your next proposition follows quite naturally:

I do not agree that the appreciation of line is "subjective" I would say it is a shared aesthetic of knowledge.

In other words, if I follow you correctly: within the art form of academic classical ballet, there exists a single, shared, idealized vision of the beautiful. This has been codified into a preferred set of movements and positions that constitute ideal "line." This in turn has become the set of standards which allows us to compare and evaluate individual dancers when they are performing classical works. Such standards will not necessarily apply equally to neo-classical or contemporary work.

Is that a fair summary? Is it something we can all agree on, whatever our larger ideas about the nature of beauty, or of any aesthetic abstraction, may be?

Edited to add:

Code of Terpsichore is indeed a fascinating work. Right click the title and then click "open" to get to the web address.

Blasis recommends that dancers study certain classical and Renaissance works of art for images of the line they should achieve. But he goes further.

Take especial care to acquire perpendicularity and exact equlibrium. A good dancer ought always to serve for a model to the sculptor and painter. This is perhaps the acme of perfection and the goal that all should endavor to reach. p. 52

His general advice to dancers on how to hold and move their bodies is found HERE
Right click and then click "open."

#44 Alexandra

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Posted 25 August 2007 - 12:10 PM

Bart wrote:

In other words, if I follow you correctly: within the art form of academic classical ballet, there exists a single, shared, idealized vision of the beautiful. This has been codified into a preferred set of movements and positions that constitute ideal "line." This in turn has become the set of standards which allows us to compare and evaluate individual dancers when they are performing classical works. Such standards will not necessarily apply equally to neo-classical or contemporary work.

Is that a fair summary? Is it something we can all agree on, whatever our larger ideas about the nature of beauty, or of any aesthetic abstraction, may be?


I think this could be a good overarching rule (and very well-phrased!) BUT it changes depending on place and time. So it's totally the same and totally different :) Which is why we have such interesting discussions! (I would say that neoclassical ballet also has a sense of balletic line, and that the definition of neoclassical has changed from century to century too. Yet we all have at least a vague idea of what it means!)

#45 SanderO

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Posted 25 August 2007 - 12:13 PM

This all sounds like it reduces to some very quantifiable metrics. A dancer of a specific defined height and proportion who can get their body to move in a prescribed "classical" manner would be exhibiting perfect classical line. Is this defined somewhere?


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