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Noble? Classique? Which roles are which?


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#1 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 14 March 2001 - 12:27 PM

We've done this before, but since we're discussing the traditional ballet classifications again, I figured this discussion wouldn't hurt because some of the classifications run against the conventional wisdom.

Certain misconceptions: First off, classifications are not a measure of a dancer's ability or talent, but of their potential use. A danseur noble is not a better dancer than a semicaractere classique, but he is taller, and has more gravitas and weight. In the same way, lobster isn't better than steak, but you don't thinking of grilling it on a barbecue as its first use. And of course, there is no rule which has not been broken at some point.

The hero or prince is not necessarily a danseur noble. Often he is a classique.

I've learned all this from Alexandra, so I'm going to defer now and hope she'll come on and classify a few roles so we can get a sense of the division.

Albrecht
James
Desire (Sleeping Beauty)
Solor
The Bluebird
The Golden Idol
Alain (the comic role in Fille Mal Gardee)

Giselle
The Sylph
Aurora
The Lilac Fairy
Nikiya
Gamzatti

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#2 Alexandra

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Posted 14 March 2001 - 12:55 PM

I will, I will, but not until tomororw afternoon :) I want to dig out the Joan Lawson book, and the original listing in Noverre's Lettres, and can't do that yet.

The short version, so that the rest of this post will make sense, is that in the 18th century, dancers were strictly trained and cast by category, in the way opera singers are sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, baritones, tenors, etc. These categories were: danseur noble et serieuse (the tragic genre, very elegant, adagio dancers. This was considered then the most difficult genre, because they moved to the slowest rhythms and therefore were totally exposed and had to be stylistically perfect -- and that audience knew and wanted stylistic perfection; they were dancers themselves. (Nobles were very rare; men were around six feet tall, which made them tower over the rest of the company. The body had to be classically proportioend -- in the sense of Greek statuary -- with the waist bisecting the body.)

The next was the demicaractere dancer, who played the pastoral or comic roles -- shepherds, peasants -- and was given the quick measures -- the courantes as opposed to the pavandes. They had what we would consider today the virtuosic steps; line was not an issue. (The men in this genre were around 5'6, 5'7, and elegant. The legs were longer than the torso.)

The third was the grotesque genre -- short, stocky, well under 5'6 usually, with the torso longer than the legs (I've read in some studies, but not others). There must have been taller dancers, too, who specialized in dramatic roles, as you'll see when I get to the examples.

In the early 19th century there was a new genre created, a merging of the noble (who was seriously out of fashion in Paris at that time) with the demicaractere dancer. He suited the new repertory. Albert and Paul (and Bournonville) were the examples of this genre. They were called semicaractere classique, and combined dancing with acting. (In the 18th century ballets there was your dancing, and there was your mime. It was believed that it was not possible to combine dancing with the depiction of human emotion while following strict classical tenets.)

Since this time, different choreographers, companies and countries have added, or subtracted, from this formula, but it still holds, especially in the 19th century ballets.

More formal notes on this later.

[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited March 14, 2001).]

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 14 March 2001 - 01:22 PM

I've moved this from the post above because it's so long. This is in answer to a question someone posed -- I think liebs -- the other day about whether a danseur noble is born or made. Partly it's physique and temperament, yes -- the noble genre was the tragic genre; demicaractere was for comedy -- but I can think of several examples where dancers "changed" genre.

One I read in Ivor Guest's "Ballet of the Enlightenment." Gaetan Vestris, whom we now think of as THE danseur noble, began life as a grotesque dancer -- strong, dramatic dancers used to play the bad guys in 18th century mythological ballets. He came to Paris just when Duport was about to retire, and he was tall, with a strong technique, so they hired him as a noble. (This explains why Duport fans didn't approve of Vestris and thought him coarse.)

A bit closer to our day, in the Royal Danish Ballet in the 1950s, the demicaractere dancer was king. The First Solodancer (there have been only two in the company's history) was Borge Ralov, and his great roles were Harlequin, Petrushka, Gennaro (in Napoli) and Albrecht. He could do comic or tragic, but he was not a good James and taken off the role after a few tries. At this time, there was Frank Schaufuss, six foot three and, in any other company, he would have been the Prince. He did do the very few noble roles in the repertory at that time (Siegfried in the one-act Swan Lake) but otherwise was seen as a "contemporary" dancer, or a character dancer.

Photos of Erik Bruhn at that time, whom nearly everyone in America would consider a danseur noble) are in demicaractere roles, and he didn't really become a danseur noble until he began to work with Volkova and studied in America. He was too light -- a quick, light turner. He needed weight, and that, he learned. By physique, he was a classique (as was Nureyev) but both became the standard for danseur noble of their generation.

Kronstam, a few years younger than Bruhn, was six foot one, but trained as a demicaractere dancer. Dancers who knew him said they were always surprised at how quickly he could move for so big a man. So he retained that speed, but, as with Bruhn, Volkova gave him weight. She did this through emphasizing the plie, the one thing that was lacking in Bourononville training as it was interpreted in the 1940s and '50s. So even a born danseur noble needs to have the proper training.

I've only seen him on tape, but Jose Martinez of the Paris Opera Ballet strikes me as a born noble who's dancing like a classique. In Raymonda, he has the walk, the presence, and the partnering, but not quite the weight; in other roles, he's very light and quick.

And finally, one of the biggest lessons I learned from watching Kronstam coach was how a demicaractere dancer (Lloyd Riggins, say) can be made into a classique dancer. "You just have to calm them down and stretch them out," Kronstam said. "I used to do little hop-skadoodle steps all the time and he made me stop it," as Riggins put it. Demicaractere dancers, whether by nature or training, seem to have a great deal of difficulty standing still and are not natural walkers (hence the hop-skadoddling. He felt he needed to be doing something). A demicaractere dancer usually doesn't have (or need) line; a classique or noble does, hence the "stretching them out." Also, in Prince roles, you need weight, in the sense of pressing into the floor, not escaping from it. The Bluebird walks on demi-pointe, the Prince "feels the floor." Every time I see ABT do "Theme and Variations" now, I wish someone were in the wings yelling "feel the floor! Feel the floor! Put your heels down. Stop walking around on your toes!!!!"

#4 CygneDanois

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Posted 14 March 2001 - 10:18 PM

Alexandra wrote:

Every time I see ABT do "Theme and Variations" now, I wish someone were in the wings yelling "feel the floor! Feel the floor! Put your heels down. Stop walking around on your toes!!!!"

I hope NYCB heard that as well Posted Image.

I await your classifications--I want to find out what type of dancer I am Posted Image(though I have a feeling that from the descriptions above, it's semicaractere classique).

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[This message has been edited by CygneDanois (edited March 15, 2001).]

#5 Estelle

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Posted 15 March 2001 - 06:15 AM

Originally posted by alexandra:
I've only seen him on tape, but Jose Martinez of the Paris Opera Ballet strikes me as a born noble who's dancing like a classique.  In Raymonda, he has the walk, the presence, and the partnering, but not quite the weight; in other roles, he's very light and quick.


It's really interesting to read that. Do you think that with some coaching he could acquire that "weight"? (Unfortunately, it seems that people as gifted to coach dancers as Volkova or Kronstam are not exactly common...) Martinez is very tall (he's one of the only POB dancers tall enough to partner his girlfriend Agnes Letestu), but I think that his "physical" weight must be quite low, because he's very slim.

By the way, though he dances mostly "prince" roles, he can be very good in more demicaractere roles, sometimes showing more warmth and humor in such roles...

As CygneDanois, I'm looking forward to the rest of your classification.

#6 Alexandra

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Posted 15 March 2001 - 11:19 AM

Estelle, I don't have the technical background to answer, but from observation, Kronstam (from photos) was very, very thin. The plies gave him strength, and bulk, in the thighs. I don't know how much it's sheer physical weight and how much a sense of weight, that pushing down into the floor. (He was often cast in demicaractere roles too. I found one British review that said, "Now Kronstam seems to be turning into a demicaractere dancer," which I took to mean he danced that particular role in an appropriately demicaractere manner -- deft and light. There's definitely crossover; that's part of range.)

#7 mbjerk

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Posted 15 March 2001 - 11:43 AM

Alexandra you are correct. "Weight" comes from how one chooses to use a plie and control the tempo of one's movement. Walking with a soft foot on the floor in a measured tempo gives elegance and weight to a male dancer. Same in ballon for jumping. Danes are wonderful at this.

Even how one looks around the stage can add weight to a dancer. All of these can be coached, but as with life a natural feeling goes a longer way.

#8 leibling

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Posted 15 March 2001 - 12:29 PM

And for women ? What are the acknowledged characteristics of a "classical" ballerina versus a "romantic" ballerina ? What is a "soubrette", exactly ? What type of dancer is best in Giselle, and who is more suited to Sleeping Beauty ? How would you classify ( if it is possible) Gelsey Kirkland, Natalia Makarova, Suzanne Farrell or Margot Fonteyn ? I am curious to know if my definitions are the same as anyone elses.

#9 Alexandra

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Posted 15 March 2001 - 01:27 PM

Originally posted by mbjerk:

Even how one looks around the stage can add weight to a dancer.  All of these can be coached, but as with life a natural feeling goes a longer way.



I was going to make a similar post! When you come down to it, "typecasting" (like, IMO, notation) is the substitute for good coaching and direction. A good coach/director can choose a dancer who may not be quite right for a part, and make him acceptable in it, AND can see beyond type/employ, this "prince" has a daft sense of humor that would make him interesting in a part the paint-by-numbers people would never think to put him in, OR this slight young boy so good in comic parts also has an internal depth that can be developed into a great Albrecht.

liebling, where women's employ is concerned, I am out of my league. I'm still decoding men (fewer roles, stronger types, easier to do). I think there are so many sub-types where women are concerned that I haven't begun to do that. We never call a female dancer a "danseuse noble." We call her "classical" (or "ballerina," which is about rank not employ; there are demicaractere ballerinas). Fonteyn was "classical" -- for women, it does have to do with the sense of symmetry and line, and proportions. She was "classically proportioned." The arabesque was within a square or a circle, not a rectangle or an oval, if that makes sense.

Makarova was a classique (semicaractere classical); longer legs and, again, not the same sense of weight -- not in the sense of being chubby (although she was as a young dancer) but gravamen. Farrell is generally called "neoclassical," a type that descends from Lopokhov's choreography for the Lilac Fairy (a real danseuse noble role, mimed, in heeled shoes) but changed to a dancing one.

Kirkland remade herself so many times I don't know what she was. Balanchine seemed to see her as an allegro dancer, but a classical one. When she went to ABT she seemed to try to make herself into Makarova.

There are also "lyric" and "romantic" which I think are descriptions of character and personality more than "employ."

A soubrette is an allegro dancer, small, light, quick and with wit and allure. The word is often taken in England and America, anyway, to mean "small and cute," but I don't think that's right. A soubrette has to be able to carry off a sophisticated evening gown Posted Image

There are so many ballerinas I don't know what to do with -- Danilova and Verdy, both very "classical" but both more Swanilda than Aurora (and more Myrtha than Giselle).

For people who are interested in this, one way to start trying to decode it is to compare several dancers' repertory -- it works more for older dancers, because 30 years ago you danced your repertory, rather than everything in sight. And only count those roles that they really danced, not the two shots at Odette done in the provinces one snowy winter.

There's a repertory line that I call "the black line" (totally unofficial term) for: Myrtha, Raymonda, Odile. Some Swanhilda's are great Kitris, others (Ann Jenner, I think Kirkland) would go from Swanhilda to Aurora.

Estelle mentioned on another thread that "Jewels" might be an example of a ballet with strict employ (sorry, that's a paraphrase) and I definitely agree. I used to try to figure out a dancer by imagining which role in Jewels she'd do. "Sleeping Beauty" is the other. I think that's Super Employ -- each of those fairies is different. The first one was tall and blond and icy-classical, the second is more "lyrical," the third "classical," the fourth lyrical, but slightly darker, the fifth a soubrette, and the sixth. . .stronger? the "dark line?"

Dancers know this stuff, of course, at least older ones Posted Image, but I've found they usually don't know the names (they don't need to know. They just know who fits where.)

#10 Alexandra

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Posted 15 March 2001 - 01:50 PM

This is the textbook version of the types. I hadn't read it in several years, and I have to say I don't agree with Lawson completely now Posted Image But here's what she wrote:

From Joan Lawson's "A Ballet-Maker's Handbook." Lawson is a British historian who did some groundbreaking work in catetgorizing English folk dances, but is very respected as a historian generally. This is as text that could be intended for young choreographers, or also for A Levels history Posted Image

She mentions John Weaver, who "designated dancers as the Serious, the Grotesque, and, most importantly, the Scenical, 'who practise Stage dancing' which was 'to Explain things conceived in the Mind by the Gestures and Motions of the Body and plainly and intelligently representing Actions, Motions and Passions so that the Spectator might perfectly undersand the Performer by these his Motions, although he say no Word." [Weaver was a dancemaster working in 18th century London who created ballets d'action -- dramatic ballets -- as opposed to the popular divertissements.

Jean-Georges Noverre, also mid-late 18th century wrote down what was undoubtedly the conventional wisdom on the types of dancers then current in Paris in a series of "Letters" on the Dance. Lawson says he "described the seven movements which give steps their varying qualities, namely: to bend, stretch, rise, jump, glide, dart and turn. He also described the four types of professional dancer whom he used in his ballets. Noverre distinguished his dancers by their particular physiques and personalities. [AT note: My two copies of Noverre's Letters describe only three types, as do most of the texts with which I am familiar. I don't know where Lawson gets the fourth type -- the "danseurs classiques"]

This is Lawson (with gratuitous comments from me where I think they're necessary Posted Image )

Danscurs nobles and ballerinas [danseuses nobles!!!!]
These dancers were placed in the first of Noverre's categories. Their dancing was highly dignified and best suited to aristocratic roles or, as he was to say later ( 1810), 'those of noble birth, the only appropriate heroes and heroines for ballets staged at the Paris Opera'. They had to be well-proportioned, elegant and behave as rulers of a kingdom and thus able to command the attention of all. The tempi of their dances were usually slow and grandiloquent, the gestures generous yet precise and performed with conviction. The heroes and heroines of Petipa's ballets are an example of this category. ["well-proportioned" meant that the proportions were symmetrical, as in Hellenic statuary: the waist bisected the body. I would disagree with her about Petipa. I think the heroes in Swan Lake, Raymonda and Sleeping Beauty are DNs, but not the heroines.]
Danscurs and danscuses classiques [also called semicaractere classique]
Noverre's second category comprised those dancers whom he expected to be technical perfectionists. They were often shorter and plumper than those of the first category, excelling in pirouettes, elevation and batteiie, because of their natural gift of ballon. They had livelier personalities and danced roles such as Diana, goddess of the hunt, or Mercury, messenger of the gods. Their dances were usually fast and had to display their exciting footwork, e.g. Petipa's Bluebird. [I disagree here, too. I don't believe the "shorter and plumper" part. These dancers were quite elegant. Today, Manuel Legris, Peter Boal, would be in this category. And the line about "technical perfectionists" could lead one to think that the danseurs nobles were not. This is not true (from many other sources). The DNs were adagio dancers and needed exacting control to sustain line. The classiques have line, but don't stand still often enough to show it.] Among roles, Romeo and Albrecht (in France and Denmark] would be a classique role. [I think Albrecht morphed into a danseur noble role in Russia; weight again.]


Demi-caractere dancers [also danseurs comiques]
Although Noverre did not specifically name them he described these dancers' particular characteristics as having similar physiques and technical expertise as the danseurs classiques but they were not always so well-proportioned and usually possessed a natural sense of comedy. They were in demand to play fantastic or comic roles such as satyrs or jesters and were used to relieve the solemnity of late eighteenth- md ninteenth-century ballets, e.g. the many jesters found in Petipa and Soviet ballets ind Puck in Ashton's TheD ream. True demi-caractere dancers with a sense of comedy are still rare but they are to be found. They are often most valuable members of a company because of their ability to sink their own personalities in order to play a range of entirely unusual characters such as the comic Alain in La Fille Mal Gardee.
Character dancers [also danseurs grotesque]
Noverre called his fourth group character dancers, that is those whose physique and movements were not necessarily of the finest but whose abilities when playing some comic or dramatic role such as a Cyclops or Fury were most valuable. Such talent is still most valuable to choreographers wishing to bring reality to the stage by Contrasting youth and age, naivety and experience, the peasant and the aristocrat. Such actor-dancers play an important, sometimes vital, part whenever convincing iiime and characterisation are predominant features in a production.

Examples are Father Thomas in Ashton's La Fille Mal Gardee and Bottom in The Dream. In addition, there are dancers whose forte is to demonstrate the different national styles when Scottish, Polish, Hungarian and national dances are included.


--------------------------------------

The biggest confusion seems to come from the way "classique" is often used interchangeably with "danseur noble" AND also with "demicaractere." I've known dancers to consider Bluebird "demi" and I've known some to consider it "classical" -- they'd both cast the same dancer in it.

#11 Alexandra

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Posted 15 March 2001 - 03:54 PM

Here's Noverre (Letter IX). Yes, 1760 was a very long time ago, and the costumes and music have changed, but the general principles are still valid.

------------------

The serious and noble style itself bears the imnpression of tragedy; the semi-serious, generally known as demi-caractere, bears the impression of high comedy; whereas the grotesque dance borrows its features from low and broad comedy.

The genius of the three dancers who take up these particular styles should be as different as their heights, their features, and their type of mind. The first should be tall, the second gallant, and the last comic.

The first will draw his themes from history and mythology, the second from pastorals, and the third from boorish and rustic sources. And if there exist any man who cannot give a character fo his face, he should leave the stage forever! [This was written at a time when the dancers had to wear masks, which Noverre railed against, but the theory was that "in order to abolish masks every dancer should have a face suitable for the stage" and this, apparently, was not the case.]

It is no less important that these three kinds of dancers should have wit, taste and imagination like the three great painters in their different styles [Vanloo, noble; Boucher, demi-caractere; Teniers, comic.]

A dancer in the serious style undoubtedly requires a noble and elegant stature. Those who devote themselves to this style have the most difficulties to surmount and the most obstacles to overcome in order to attain perfection.

A dancer in the demi-caractere and voluptuous style undoubtedly requires to be of a medium height which can partake of all the beauties of elegant stature. Of what importance is height, if an agreeable proportion reign over all parts of the body and accord it that grace and artless expression to be seen in the countryside?

A dancer in the comic style needs fewer physical perfections; the shorter he be, the more will his body afford grace and attractive charm to his expression. As their heights differ, so must their faces. A noble air, fine features, a proud bearing, a majestic look--that is the mask of the dancer in the serious style. Less fine features, an agreeable and attractive bearing, a face suitable for the expression of tenderness and voluptuousnes--that is the physiognomy required by the dancer in the demicaractere and pastoral style. Pleasant features, alive with good humour and high spirits, are the only ones suitable for dancers in the comic style. They should reflect simplicity and natural good humour.

------------------------

Note that there is no "fourth genre." However, Bournonville, writing his own Letters exactly a century later, has this to say:

The vigorous, light, noble or comic danseurs hadd their own phrases of music, and the gracious, lively or piquant danseuses were placed according to their height and to the characteristics of their steps.

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#12 BalletNut

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Posted 16 March 2001 - 04:31 PM

I know this is a little off topic, but I always thought that Tudor's Gala Performance looked more like a parody of female employ [sp?] than of national dance styles.


[This message has been edited by BalletNut (edited March 16, 2001).]

#13 Yvonne

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Posted 16 March 2001 - 06:15 PM

So where does Baryshnikov fit into all this?

#14 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 16 March 2001 - 07:43 PM

In terms of height and body type, demi-caractere.

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#15 leibling

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Posted 16 March 2001 - 08:22 PM

This is really fascinating.


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