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How important is cultural education in ballet training?

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In the Spring 2008, Dance Now, former Bolshoi principal dancer Mikhail Lavrosvsky, comments about changes in the larger cultural education of Russian ballet students and young dancers, as compared with the generation in which he grew up.

Discussing a visit to Paris as a final-year student at the Bolshoi school, he writes:

... {W]e were sent to Paris ... For me it was paradise -- to live the history of what we'd studied in school -- Maupassant, Dumas, Balzac, and Henri de Navarre. I was overcome with the culture I found there. Sadly it seems different for many of the young dancers today. The desire to learn and read stopped at the beginning of Yeltsin's presidency. Before then, artists -- not just in the ballet world but in circus, dramatic theatres too -- know all about literature, philosophy, music -- as long as it showed social realism," he laughed. "And that was the country's claim to fame. It was, in a way, a peak of culture, and while there were an Iron Curtain in those early days, it did encourage delving into culture. Today, on the whole, young people don't have the time to read and ponder -- it's an electroncic fast world we live in."

I suppose there's a tendency for older people to think: "Things were better (more serious, more hard-working, more cultured, or whatever) in my day. Harumph. Harumph" I'm frequently guilty of this myself. On the other hand, does he have a point?

Two sets questions occured to me, and I'd love help in thinking them out:

(1) How important is immersion in a larger cultural framework of understanding and knowledge when it comes to training ballet dancers? Is it really necessary? Did knowing the work of Maupassant, Dumas and Balzac really make much difference?

(2) Is it true that the current generation of students and young dancers are deficient in these areas? Are they really more ignorant or uncaring than previous generations? And -- if so -- how (if at all) is this deficiency exhibited in their dancing?

:dunno: ahead of time for your assistance.

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This is a hard one Bart, I guess that is why there are few replies. I think what is probably very obvious that young dancers need all the cultural input they can acquire in order to enrich their own everyday lives and also especially to place thenselves in the vast web ( in the old metaphorical sense) of life and learning that is their history. They can get by without it, but oh dear, how thin classical ballets would be without an understanding of the 19th century - just the gender stuff round the wilis for example.

As far as their putative lack of understanding goes. I'm a bit conflicted on this. They need to understand more in their everyday lives than I ever did, and in fact do know a great deal about the modern world. Yet when I was teaching it was hard to get them to be able to analyse an advertisement because they didnt have background knowlege.

For example an ad for perfume with a woman holding an apple and posing like a tree, could lose them because they didnt have any real understanding of bible stories or the whole historical load re vanity that women carry. I guess we have to say that all cultural knowlege is of value and must enrich a dancer's take on their roles.

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Thanks for your reply, whetherwax. I guess it is a difficult issue to get a hold on. I appreciate your thoughtful comments.

Your example of the "woman holding an apple" raises issues of cultural references and allusions. The world is full of bafflement if you do not know how to decipher such things. I think of Edward Villella's discription of his efforts to understand the role of the Prodigal Son. Balanchine volunteered a single word, "Icons," leaving Villella to explore this on his own. Villella knew that this DID mean something to Balanchine and that there was something valuable to be learned from deciphering Balanchine's clue.

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(1) How important is immersion in a larger cultural framework of understanding and knowledge when it comes to training ballet dancers?

Cultural framework, understanding and knowledge sound to me like attractive atributes to possess...even for a dancer...

(2) Is it true that the current generation of students and young dancers are deficient in these areas? Are they really more ignorant or uncaring than previous generations? And -- if so -- how (if at all) is this deficiency exhibited in their dancing?

Worst than that...very often this deficiency-(even plain ignorance)-is in full public view, via verbal display..sad,sad.

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When I began dancing, my role model was a dancer, far ahead of her 15 years, who took it as her moral responsibility to learn as much as she could about everything--especially in the arts--even while taking her grueling agenda of ballet classes. This being the seventies, "learning" included sex and drugs as well, and very little sleep. She was kind of an Auntie Mame, Isadora Duncan, and Gelsey Kirkland (in terms of her ballet work ethic) all rolled into one. I wanted to emulate this woman so much, and indeed ended up dancing in several of the same ballet companies she had been in. She ended up having a wonderful career and is now a very successful teacher who heads a well-regarded dance school (I'll leave her anonymous). Since we began our training in Minneapolis, we were in a small pond, and I foolishly thought all dancers in New York would be like her and her circle. I guess I had a fantasy that some Diaghilev would lead me around New York. SAB proved to be a rude shock in this regard: in the early eighties, at least, they cared little about any aspect of a dancer's training aside from taking class. Even going to performances was frowned upon; if you had that kind of time you should have been either in class or in bed--asleep--resting for the next day's classes. I had gone into the field wanting to be an artist, but found that I needed to be a jock! Part of my eagerness to retire at 32 was to gain the education I had missed, while I was still (fairly) young.

I have to say that, again w/o naming names, I find the cultural sphere of some young ballet choreographers in general very small, especially compared to their cohorts in modern dance, music, art, and theater.

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The thing one would want from wider culturation is stimulation of the imagination. But you can lead a horse to water....

I'm struck by how imaginatively Carlos Acosta writes about his impoverished childhood in Cuba; when he says of his father, "On moonless nights his black skin was camouflaged by hte darkness, and to find him, you had to follow his cigarette smoke as it floated in the air."

That's the most poetic sentence I've encountered all year.

No wonder he's a star -- with an imagination like that, all he needs is a medium to work in.

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I think all artists -- painters, poets, dancers, singers, actors -- need as much education as possible in the arts so that they have a frame of reference for their own art, and what they are doing. I have read so many interviews with dancers who obviously have no idea of the music, or the story, or the context for a ballet they are dancing -- and it shows. They don't need to become scholars, but they need to conjure up a sound when you say the word Mozart before attempting "Divertimento No. 15," and an idea of "Victorian social mores" before they dance "The Dream." Reading literature is good, too. :lol:

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SAB proved to be a rude shock in this regard: in the early eighties, at least, they cared little about any aspect of a dancer's training aside from taking class. Even going to performances was frowned upon; if you had that kind of time you should have been either in class or in bed--asleep--resting for the next day's classes. I had gone into the field wanting to be an artist, but found that I needed to be a jock! Part of my eagerness to retire at 32 was to gain the education I had missed, while I was still (fairly) young.

I have to say that, again w/o naming names, I find the cultural sphere of some young ballet choreographers in general very small, especially compared to their cohorts in modern dance, music, art, and theater.

I think the narrow focus of dancer training is exactly why we have such a dearth of good, young choreographers. Thanks for the post, Ray!

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"Exploring Ballet with Suzanne Farrell" includes trips with her to cultural insitutions in Washington. :lol:

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"Exploring Ballet with Suzanne Farrell" includes trips with her to cultural insitutions in Washington. :D
Farrell Fan, you made me think of the following from Farrell's memoirs, referring to her first visit to Paris with the company:
George made a special point of showing me two of the city's most treasured art works, both of which enchantged me. First he took me to the Musee de Cluny ... to see The Lady and Unicorn tapestries ... The other thing we wanted to show me was the Botticelli exhibition visiting the Lourvre, and as wel stood before The Birth of Venus George told me with great seriousness that I looked like her.
:lol:
The thing one would want from wider culturation is stimulation of the imagination.
That's a wonderful point. It's almost impossible to imagine what it would be like to be very imaginative without having a cultural frame of reference in which to understand and express it. Even as I read Acosta's words, my mind went automatically to images from 1940s films: the dark tropical night, the match flaring in the darkness, the white smoke rising and capturing light in the air that you didn't even know was there.
I have to say that, again w/o naming names, I find the cultural sphere of some young ballet choreographers in general very small, especially compared to their cohorts in modern dance, music, art, and theater.
I think the narrow focus of dancer training is exactly why we have such a dearth of good, young choreographers.

Ray and carbro, you raise a really important matter: the relationship between choreographers (usually dancers themselves, or former dancers) and their dancers. Maybe the very repetitiousness and lack of resonance of so many contemporary ballet pieces is a reflection of a shallow cultural frame of reference. Most people in the U.S. at least would probably get the point of the woman with the apple, which whetherwax refers to. We do know our basic Bible stories. But how many would get the point, for instance, of a man with a golden apple and his interactions with three beautiful women?

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Dancers need to sleep, dancers need to be in class... but they also need art unless a life in the corps is all of anyone's ambition for them... and there isn't much room in the budget for dancers that have no future beyond the corps, is there, really? Isn't the corps full of dancers the artistic director hopes will one day evolve into principals? They won't all live up to that hope, of course, but if they never had the potential would they have even been hired for the corps? I'm not sure if dancers should be watching peer's dance performances so much as they need to know their art from the inside rather than the outside... but a dancer without exposure to other forms of art would be a souless automaton, don't you think? Even if "other forms art" if only hip hop, & movies.. etc. I think I've seen enough "clueless" dancers blindly doing the steps to not think exposure to art should be optional. "Don't think, just do" doesn't mean "don't perceive" "don't sense"... one doesn't have to be intellectually rigorous and verbal to absorb the influence of art and have it inform one's own expression. Dancers need art just like the rest of us do.

Hrrmmph.

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I overstated what I meant. Of course, it's good for yuong dancers to see read a lot, and experience other art forms. THe imagination needs nourishing -- though it can be gotten from Nature as well as art. Trisha Brown spent a LOT of her time roaming the woods in the year or so in high school when she was recovering from a disastrous illness, and a lot of her inspiration still comes from there, they say.

But she already had the temperament and imagination to absorb that. Some people would have seen that and not felt much -- and some people who're exposed to a great dal of fine art don't have a real appetite for it and are -- well, sometimes it SEEMS as if -- they're actually diminished by it.

Many artists find they have to limit the amount of other artists' work that they see -- John Lennon said he didn't listen to other musicians' work except t o see what use he could make of it. And of course there was the New York painter who bought a fellow-artist's drawing and erased it. "The anxiety of influence" is what this is called. Thomas Mann wote a splendid piece of experimental fiction, "The Blood of the Volsungs," about spoiled rich kids who were fed so much art they became incorrigible elitists.

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It seems to me that creativity is about a circle, or more hopefully, an upward spiral. Art (culture) is created and exist to inspire. Artist, such as dancers, in order to go beyond the mere technical and actually become creative, require inspiration. Therefore, since cultural artifacts (masterpiece art, literature, music, etc.) purpose is the inspiration they provide, it might be natural for those for whom inspiration is so vitally important to look to those cultural artifacts as a source of inspiration. And for some, they certainly do. Looking at a masterpiece of art, reading a great book, hearing a beautiful piece of music can provide the inspiration that they can then translate into something special in dance. However, the important point that others here are making, is that culture is not the only source of inspiration and for some, may in fact provide little. The true sources of inspiration for anyone may be very personal and is often a very deep process. Inspiration may be found in the beauty of nature, in the humanity of family and friends, in the mystery of the spiritual, or in a thousand other of those personal and individual ways.

So is a cultural education necessary? Perhaps not essential, but it still seems that to be exposed to as many possible sources of inspiration would certainly be highly desirable, particularly sources that have existed and survived based on their inspirational qualities. Perhaps the technical analogy of this wide exposure is the choreographer who learns a wide variety of styles and steps, providing the background that will allow them to choose and develop those which will become them, those that they will use to create the inspiration the rest of us look to ballet and dance for.

I’m not familiar enough with the education of the younger generation of dancers to judge whether they are deficient in cultural background. The more important question to me is: Are they finding their own sources of inspiration? In my opinion, it appears many of them are. Creativity, while it may be argued that it is not on a level as at other times, is still certainly present. Waves of overall creativity in society seem to ebb and flow, influenced by many factors beyond just the artists themselves. Whether the artists and dancers of today are finding their inspiration in Maupassant, Dumas and Balzac is not near so important, as long as they are able to find it. And perhaps the true source even lies within their selves.

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I’m not familiar enough with the education of the younger generation of dancers to judge whether they are deficient in cultural background. The more important question to me is: Are they finding their own sources of inspiration? In my opinion, it appears many of them are. Creativity, while it may be argued that it is not on a level as at other times, is still certainly present. Waves of overall creativity in society seem to ebb and flow, influenced by many factors beyond just the artists themselves. Whether the artists and dancers of today are finding their inspiration in Maupassant, Dumas and Balzac is not near so important, as long as they are able to find it. And perhaps the true source even lies within their selves.

I don't think creativity is the goal exactly. Dancers in particular, because they interpret work they didn't create, benefit from understanding that work as best they can, and that means understanding where it came from. Alexandra said this much better than I. Another way of saying it is that an educated response to music and choreography and scenario (all of which have historical context) is ultimately more interesting than an uneducated one.

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Geez, I'm not a dancer nor an ex one but I do think that as far as being an artist or performance artist one needs to have as broad and as deep an understanding of culture and history as possible. This knowledge informs you in your work. Ballet, especially which is a classical form of art is steep in history, both in the "stories" that make up many ballets and the history associated with the movements themselves.

It seems inconceivable to me that a great artists could lack a deep understanding of culture aside from their creating something "great" by accident. Even the most modernist art cannot escape the cultural context of what came before.

Performance artists, dancers, actors and musicians acheive their expression as an artist in interpretation of the piece, role etc. To acheive this they need to understand the context, the history and so forth. Absent that they are being robotic. And as wonderful as robots may be, I don't expect them to be artists. hahahaha

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The OP quoted a Bolshoi dancer who lived "behind the Iron Curtain;" for those who were geographically confined, art was a means of escape. Theater, museums, dance all provided a means of expression for those who were politically oppressed.

In a market driven economy, entertainment wins out over personal expression. Consumers seek external engagement, rather than being forced to engage inwardly. Cultural education becomes less important and loses out.

As a parent, I believe ballet has enabled my daughter to be more engaged with listening to music, both classical and world, than otherwise. We have also taken her to the theater and ballet. She has never had much use for museums.

Artists need to be engaged culturally, and so will seek out cultural stimulation. But, as with most disciplines, not all who are exposed to culture will take to it, especially in a society that does not value it.

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It seems inconceivable to me that a great artists could lack a deep understanding of culture aside from their creating something "great" by accident. Even the most modernist art cannot escape the cultural context of what came before.

Well, it's true, sadly.

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There's so much interesting stuff here. I wish we could get together for a weekend seminar and bat things back and forth.

A few points that made me pause and think, among many:

1) Paul's point that Nature -- as well as culture -- can be rich sources of inspiration and creativity. Dancesmith (see below) makes a similar point.

2)

I think I've seen enough "clueless" dancers blindly doing the steps to not think exposure to art should be optional. "Don't think, just do" doesn't mean "don't perceive" "don't sense"... one doesn't have to be intellectually rigorous and verbal to absorb the influence of art and have it inform one's own expression.
I agree 100%, Amy. Balanchine's various statements to the effect "don't think" have been seriously misinterpreted and taken too literally by some.

3)

The true sources of inspiration for anyone may be very personal and is often a very deep process. Inspiration may be found in the beauty of nature, in the humanity of family and friends, in the mystery of the spiritual, or in a thousand other of those personal and individual ways.

So is a cultural education necessary? Perhaps not essential, but it still seems that to be exposed to as many possible sources of inspiration would certainly be highly desirable, particularly sources that have existed and survived based on their inspirational qualities.

As an older white male, I am too prone to think -- with Lavrosky -- of the need to know the canonical works of Western Civ before one can be considered "cultured." Thanks, dancesmith, for reminding us that this is just a part of the story.

4)

It seems inconceivable to me that a great artists could lack a deep understanding of culture aside from their creating something "great" by accident. Even the most modernist art cannot escape the cultural context of what came before.
SanderO, you put into succinct words something that was sloshing around in my own thoughts. Accidents do happen, I suppose -- rather llike dropping rubber into a pot of sulpher. And there are, I suppose, some real cases of idiot savant and noble savage. But we all rely on cultural context. The more superficial and limited the culture, the more superficial and limited the art it produces. the same probably holds true for rigid traditional cultures -- or very heterogenous, flexible cultures that are accepting and possibly overaccepting of many trends -- or, as fendrock says below, highly commercialized cultures in which knowledge, imagery, and "meaning" are treated by many as commodities to be bought and sold.

5)

The OP quoted a Bolshoi dancer who lived "behind the Iron Curtain;" for those who were geographically confined, art was a means of escape. Theater, museums, dance all provided a means of expression for those who were politically oppressed.

In a market driven economy, entertainment wins out over personal expression. Consumers seek external engagement, rather than being forced to engage inwardly. Cultural education becomes less important and loses out.

Fendrock, thanks for putting this into a political/sociological context as well.

6) And Ray:

I guess I had the fantasy that some Diaghilev would lead me around New York.
You too? :(:dry:

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I think I've seen enough "clueless" dancers blindly doing the steps to not think exposure to art should be optional. "Don't think, just do" doesn't mean "don't perceive" "don't sense"... one doesn't have to be intellectually rigorous and verbal to absorb the influence of art and have it inform one's own expression.
I agree 100%, Amy. Balanchine's various statements to the effect "don't think" have been seriously misinterpreted and taken too literally by some.

Yeah, unfortunately some who are closest to the Balanchine legacy!

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Do painters learn to waltz? Do photographers learn to sing opera? Maybe.

Dancers learn dance, and perhaps some music.

I would recommend training dancers in a wide variety of dance, ballet modern jazz ballroom ethnic aboriginal "Country and Western".

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Do painters learn to waltz? Do photographers learn to sing opera? Maybe.

I think the life experiences of visual artists are, on the whole, far more varied that that of dancers/choreographers. As we've discussed, there are some practical, time-based reasons for this. But conventions of the profession also limit what a dancer- or choreographer-in-training are encouraged to seek out.

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