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Measuring Sticks

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#1 Alexandra


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Posted 14 November 1998 - 10:59 PM

The raison d'etre for this thread can be found in a reply I made a few minutes ago to the "Great male dancer question." I'd be very interested to know what are people's measuring sticks for what/who is a great dancer. How many points, if you want to be that specific, do you give for technique? For style? For range? For stage presence? What is most important to you? Do you sit there, stunned and moved to tears by a performance, only to hear the person next to you sniff and say, "Hmmph. Kirkland always did a triple in that menage." Or, conversely, do you seethe as the rest of the audience screams and sighs because the evening's ballerina has pulled out all the stops and given the world's greatest death scene -- even though her pirouettes list limply to the left and her fouettes carried her into the wings -- and back again?

I'm not going to go first this time.

#2 Steve Keeley

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Posted 15 November 1998 - 03:27 AM

How do *I* decide who's great and who is merely competent? For me, it's an ineffable combination of all their qualities. I don't judge them like ice skaters, 5.2 for technique and 6.0 for presentation. I judge them on how, and if, they combine technique, personality, phrasing, expressiveness, projection and everything else. A technically flawed performance can be redeemed by an ability to project feeling. OTOH, a stunning technician like Sylvie Guillem can not only leave me cold, but actually turn me off.

What it comes down to is whether or not the dancer communicated with me; did I just sit there and watch her move, or I did I feel something? The great ones are the ones who reach across the footlights and right into my heart.

I've noticed when writing about performances that I can more easily write about those I didn't like. I can go on at length about all the things that were wrong with it. But the more I liked a performance the harder it is to explain why. When I'm enjoying it, I don't pay attention to the details; I just let myself get carried along.

#3 Jane Simpson

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Posted 15 November 1998 - 07:48 AM

For me, it's musicality and character - taking an adequate level of technique as read. I've just written something about this in the 'Great Ballerinas' thread, not having seen this at the time...The ultimate turn off for me is technique alone, except in the very pieces where that's all that matters. And intelligence, or at least the impression of intelligence, is important as well.

#4 Giannina


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Posted 15 November 1998 - 11:43 AM

I've already admitted I'm a technique-person, and I have to add I'm also a foot-person. I've also admitted somewhere (where? here? aab?) that technique alone does not necessarily a ballerina make. Having said all that, to me techique is most important. Having studied ballet in my youth at San Francisco Ballet (I was lousy) from the likes of Lew Christensen (!) I learned what it takes to dance ballet, and to me you follow the rules or it's not good ballet. I can tell from Odette's technique in her entrance and first bow in "Swan Lake" whether or not I'm going to like her. You'd think that that would make Guillem and Herrera my candidates for greatest ballerinas but they aren't (even tho I'd walk over broken glass to see Guillem). I'm not sure I can define the other quality. It could be acting ability, which is imperataive in the story ballets, but then what about the plot-less ballets? I think I'd call it "soul". The ballerina has to let the me know she cares about what she's dancing. If she tells me "I love this choreography" or "I am Giselle", if she tells me that now that she's started this ballet she's consumed and can't stop (I'm getting chills just writing this) then she's got me.

There's always the exception. For me it's Kirov's Olga Chenchikova, who has retired. She came to Los Angeles at the same time Asylmuratova came. Fans and critics were raving about Asylmuratova and I was going bananas over Chenchikova. She is a large woman (which turned those up-side-down lifts in "Swan Lake's" 2nd act to mere shoulder lifts) and she can't act. Her technique is something else again: rock solid. Even though I knew her performance lacked "soul" I was stunned by her technique and loved her. (The guy sitting next to me called her technique "levers and pullies"; he was right!)

Giannina Mooney

#5 Alexandra


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Posted 15 November 1998 - 12:29 PM

I can happily say I agree with everybody. One of the things that fascinates me about questions like this is that you can get a dozen people in a room and we'll all agree on the outlines, and then someone says, "Exactly! For example," and names his or her absolute favorite dancer, and out come the knives. (And I'm very glad I've seen no knives yet in Ballet Talk and pray that it continues.)

My synthesis of all the qualities of a ballerina (or ballerino) is that there has to be enough technical ability so that the choreography can be seen clearly and the ballet is not damaged, but a star can often compensate with a damaged or waning technique through craft -- not only acting (where that is appropriate) but musicality (we can all have a good time defining that one some day!) and style, or polish, or whatever word one uses to connote attention to the details that are often referred to as "beyond technique," yet seldom defined.

I agree with Steve that it's harder to express why you really like a dancer than what's wrong with a performance. Curious, isn't it? Yes, one does get caught up in the performance -- and here, I realize that critics are different from normal people. If you go to the ballet for pleasure, you probably don't want to analyze everything you're seeing. Who asks, after every bite of an ice cream cone, "Is this vanilla as rich as the one I had last Sunday and what is that strange undertaste that I cannot quite identify?"

And, Giannina, I remember Chenchikova. (I think she's on the video of Swan Lake at Wolf Trap, but I haven't checked. I know she did their second night.) I thought the exact same thing. A size 12 Makarova (svelte, but big-boned and tall) and I have never seen anything turn like that and probably never will again.

#6 Giannina


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Posted 15 November 1998 - 05:17 PM

Alexandra...Chenchikova is on a Wolf Trap performance that was shown on TV. Good in that; better in person.


[This message has been edited by Giannina Mooney (edited 11-15-98).]

#7 Dale


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Posted 17 November 1998 - 05:44 AM

I look for a combination of technique, musicality, "soul", stage presence, and love of performing. If a dancer is short in one department, they can make it up in another. But I don't like when a dancer distorts the choreography to cover up a deficiency. Just don't perform the role or part.

But I also judge dancers by the type of ballet and rep I enjoy. For example, I grew up on and love the Balanchine style as shown at the New York City Ballet. For that reason, I've always prefered a Tallchief or Farrell to dramatic dancers that many love.

#8 Jenny Delaney

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Posted 17 November 1998 - 11:05 AM

I agree with Jane Simpson - mostly for me though, it's an indefinable emotional connection.

I also get REALLY sniffy if people shove unwarranted virtuoso technique into a classic and ruin the language of it all for me. But then, I am a pedant . . .

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