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"Prototypical" American Dancer


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#1 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 27 March 2001 - 10:12 AM

This comes from a post on another thread which seems to associate American dancer and "...regular prototypical Balanchine American dancer...". I have read this thought all too often, and I think it is particularly predominant in Europe, where everyone seems to think that all American dancers are Balanchine dancers. Since this is very far from true, I just can't ignore it any longer and must take issue with this way of thinking.

While NYCB is certainly a Major American company, with many wonderful dancers, there are just as many, or more, wonderful American dancers who are not Balanchine dancers! Although NYCB, MCB, PNB, and SFB are mostly Balanchine dancers, ABT, Houston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, Boston Ballet, and many other companies are filled with American trained dancers who are not Balanchine dancers! And even those companies above who are Balanchine oriented have many fine dancers trained in schools which do not teach Balanchine style.

Is there even such a thing as a "prototypical American dancer"? I don't think so, but I would love it if they were thought of as just wonderful American dancers, and not limited to one particular style of training.

[This message has been edited by Victoria Leigh (edited March 27, 2001).]

#2 Michael

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Posted 27 March 2001 - 10:38 AM

To second your point, Victoria, I do not think that even NYCB has today, among its dancers, a uniform company style, call it Balanchine or anything else.

Nor does SAB (Balanchine's school) teach a single style. (Every teacher at SAB does something different and there are a lot of dancers who have been trained elsewhere and who only pass six to eighteen months there before dancing professionally).

Both are diverse groups stylistically in their training. The "prototypical Balanchine dancer" is an abstraction. Maybe no one conforms to it.

A question -- Do you think that there is an American style generally, that such a style is discernible, as opposed to a Russian, or British, or French style of training? Or is that also (are those) just empty generalities? Or maybe I'm wrong about all of this.

#3 samba38

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Posted 27 March 2001 - 10:51 AM

I like this question of whether there is an American style... some unifying characteristic of the American dancer, whether from New York, Houston, Boston, Miami, or Chicago. I'm hampered in this speculation because I've only seen the scantest handful of international companies, only Russian ones at that, no European. Big holes in my education! But, that said, I've never let ignorance stop me from having an opinion... So I'd venture that overall its speed. My sense is that an American dancer is less static. While not all go at the burn-the-barn-speed of some Balanchine, there is far less of the pose/prepare/step/pose/prepare/jump stuff that makes me schizo with awe and impatience simultaneosly when I watch Russian companies.
Some US companies are more elegant, some more bold, but in general they do seem to wind their watches to a faster time.

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 27 March 2001 - 01:39 PM

I would add another side to samba's observations (with which I agree) about American speed versus European care. I've grown up hearing that Americans are Better because we're faster, as though speed is a good unto itself. A cousin of this is how much "better" American students are because they can handle anything that's thrown at them, while European-trained youngsters (those trained in the great academies, anyway) have this terrible tendency to insist on doing the step correctly.

Another cousin of this is the assumption by many Americans that there's something wrong with taking a preparation, as though it's like riding a bike with training wheels. When Baryshnikov first came here, that was a constant comment made. When danced correctly, preparations are very much a part of a step, part of the classical ballet aethestic. Skipping, junking or slurping preparations for speed should not, in my opinion, automatically get the dancer extra points.

There was an interesting discussion in the Teachers thread awhile back about the whole speed/heels down/Balanchine style question, and several people pointed out that this is one more thing that seems to have been set in stone after Balanchine's death. Speed, yes, in some ballets, and Balanchine did love a speedy leg and seems to have preferred allegro to adagio (not that he didn't write some beautiful adagios). Heels down, in some ballets, was not appropriate. But not in all of them.

All that said, I'd agree that the image of the American dancer is speed. Like "exceptionally thin," I wish there were more to it than that. I'd also note that, just as "American" dancer ranges from SFB to Joffrey to ABT to Miami to NYCB, the "Russian" cabinet has many drawers in it, as well. Which is the true Russian dancer? The Bolshoi Spartacus or the Kirov Aurora?

[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited March 27, 2001).]

#5 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 27 March 2001 - 01:57 PM

I'd say that the quintessesntial American dancer tends to have a matter-of-fact quality to their dancing that you saw in someone as literal as Merrill Ashley or as allusive as Suzanne Farrell. A mystique may surround them, but it's not in them. It reflects the national character. We are not a people of mystery.

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#6 samba38

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Posted 27 March 2001 - 02:53 PM

Hmmm, I hope that I didn't imply, by the emphasis on American speed, that American dancers can't/don't also show care. Often we tend to argue by extremes on such issues: slurping steps for the sake of speed (I love that slurping image, Alexandra) vs excruciatingly slow correctness. Neither does justice to American dancers or any other nationality. Many teachers say they prefer to school a kiddo in exquisite accuracy -- then rev them up to Balanchine speed if needed or wanted. The arguement being that it is easier to change one's speed than to improve the quality of movement. That brings us to the old dogs/new tricks question...

#7 mbjerk

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Posted 27 March 2001 - 05:25 PM

Following on to Leigh:

I think of American dancers as "just there". We love to dance and do not necessarily concern ourselves with minute details. Yet we do absorb differing styles readily and as we grow as artists we are infinitely curious about such details.

Energy is a key element of American dancers, more so than speed in my opinion. And the influences of movies (Cagney, O'Connor, Astaire, Kelly, Charisse, Rogers, Bacall, Kaye, Ustinov, .....) brings a more "entertain" - informal perspective than that of a "royal" training with its roots in court etiquette and formality.

Great topic - I know in my time Americans were sought after in Europe because we learned fast, took chances and were willing to try anything once. The flip side was a reputation that Americans were unschooled, played to audiences and all about legs.....

#8 Natalia

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Posted 27 March 2001 - 05:34 PM

To me, the prototypical American dancer is not so much the stereotypical 'Balanchine Thin' creature as s/he is a technical whiz from the waist-down and acceptable from the waist up. On the negative side, I've noticed that most professional American dancers are somewhat lacking in dramatic conviction. Interestingly, most modern Russian dancers also lack this ability for drama -- they tend towards the MELOdrama, which is a different thing.

The major Western European academies (those affiliated with POB, RB, RDB, etc.) tend to produce the more balanced dancers -- fine technique, speedy feet AND natural dramatic abilities. Alas, only POB seems to maintain the integrity of its style by employing mostly (only?) its own school's graduates.

Back to the Americans (including Latin Americans!). They are among the very best in the world, technically, but are somewhat lacking in dramatic abilities. The sports-craze in America trickles down to wondefully athletic dancers. Energetic. Dynamic. Often charismatic. Alas, rarely bringing me into their dramatic orbit, during dramatic ballets.

[This message has been edited by Jeannie (edited March 27, 2001).]

#9 Natalia

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Posted 27 March 2001 - 06:15 PM

small postscript on Leigh & mbjerk's comments about Americans' 'matter-of-fact' and 'just-there' quality:

I could never-ever imagine an American (or even a Western European) ballet dancer choreographing bows 'in character' as do the Russians, Cubans, or other "Soviet Influenced" dancers! It simply wouldn't look right. When Susan Jaffe or Amanda McKerrow take their bows after SWAN LAKE they are Susan & Amanda, not Odette. The Makhalinas and Alonsos continue the suffering arm waves...the ballet isn't over yet and we, the audience, can't *quite* crack their facades. That is a very un-American/un-Western concept. I'm not advocating either style as right or wrong. Just pointing out uniquenesses.

[This message has been edited by Jeannie (edited March 27, 2001).]

#10 Terry

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Posted 27 March 2001 - 07:03 PM

My impression of "American dancers" have always come from the NYCB, where I've gotten the impression that these dancers have big (arch) feet and strong legs with great muscle tones. To me, the typical "American" dancer seems to put great emphasis on their lower body and their movements are dynamic and strong. I would say that the most "un-American" (this doesn't mean that I don't like the NYCB dancers) dancer was Gelsey Kirkland -- she was so delicate and so light and expressive with her upper body and arms. This is a great question, but I'm slightly generalizing here... Posted Image

#11 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 27 March 2001 - 08:48 PM

Ah, but Terry, that was exactly my point! You are associating "American" and NYCB as one and the same thing, which negates the vast number of American dancers, LIKE Gelsey Kirland, who are not "waist down" oriented!

I must say, about that, that although Gelsey was SAB trained, she was really not an NYCB dancer. I have seen a video of her in Concerto Barocco, with NYCB, and she is so very different in the upper body that she really stands out not only for her unique abilities and special quality, but for the fact that her arms and whole upper body DANCE differently than the rest of the company. (And, IMO, much better because of that. She looks to me like an American dancer, while the others are strictly Balanchine dancers.) Posted Image

[This message has been edited by Victoria Leigh (edited March 27, 2001).]

#12 CygneDanois

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Posted 27 March 2001 - 10:28 PM

I find this discussion fascinating Posted Image. I have often heard people say that there is no national character in ballet because people everywhere are so different (this fits in with employ, too, I think). However, I do think that there is such a thing as "national temperament," although there are always certain to be exceptions. On the other hand, though, Americans are so mixed ethnically that I'm not sure it makes sense to try to come up with a definition of "American" dancing. In fact, isn't that the whole point of the US--that it's a blend of many different people and cultures?

I'm not sure that the US will ever accept the Balanchine style as the "American" way of dancing, not only because of some of its questionable aspects and possible distortions, but also because of the proliferation of ballet schools here that are not Balanchine-style. They are producing dancers who may very well want to dance some Balanchine ballets, but who do not want to be limited to them and the "Balanchinized" versions of the classics so often seen here. And no one I know wants to be stereotyped as an "American Quantity, Not Quality" dancer. (Well...no one I know anymore....)

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#13 Alexandra

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Posted 27 March 2001 - 10:54 PM

It is a fascinating discussion. I'd agree with Jeannie that many American dancers today aren't known for their dramatic abilities, but in the early days of ABT they were very fine actors. Anna Kisselgoff pointed out about 15 years ago that if you give dancers only "abstract" ballets to dance, you're not going to develo great actors.

I think mbjerk's assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of American dancers today was right on -- allowing for the fact, of course, that there are exceptions to everything.

#14 Amy Reusch

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Posted 29 March 2001 - 01:27 AM

I don't' know, Victoria, in many ways American Ballet Theater has seemed to me like a European company even in its best American dancers... it seems to me to follow the European traditions so strongly... NYCB seemed to be breaking out into new aesthetic ground more often, even while ABT presented ballets with American scenarios. Who is more American, Agnes de Mille or Robbins?

To help me see your view of the American dancer, I'm afraid I need to you to do a compare/contrast list against what makes other nationality dancers have their own national style.

I see the difference between "American" and "European" dancers as... well... Americans would move "bigger" with a certain wildness. Bolshoi dancers were certainly known for moving "big" but I don't know about the wildness (some would call it sloppiness, but I see it as a different movement dynamic). The business about speed seems to me not a matter of moving continually faster but having enough speed to put more of a dynamic accent... think of Balanchine frappes... it wasn't just the speed at which the foot struck out but how daringly long it was held still out there before whipping to the next direction. I agree about speed not being the end all, particularly not at the sacrifice of adagio technique, but it still should be there as a tool when needed. Once you're used to seeing it, those who don't have it seem to be... well... constipated... or if you prefer, muscle-bound... or perhaps just a little dazed.

Maybe American dancers are more distinguished by the "boiling pot" of their technical training rather than being the product of a "school" like Vaganova or Cecchetti... but I suspect this is true in all countries now.

Maybe we should differentiate between what made for an "American" dancer in the 60s-80s and "American" dancers of the 90-00s (the current generation?)


[This message has been edited by Amy Reusch (edited March 29, 2001).]

#15 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 29 March 2001 - 09:58 AM

Hi Amy, nice to "see" you again! Posted Image

My pointe was really only that I don't consider the typical Balanchine dancer, i.e., dancers trained only in that style, to be representative of the American dancer. They are most certainly one "breed", so to speak, but they are not THE American dancer.

I can't begin to define what that is, however, or even if there is such a thing, but, IMO, the American dancer is more often a "mixed breed" in terms of training, although generally more classically schooled and less stylistically limited. ABT is perhaps more European in appearance, but they have, and have always had, many wonderful American dancers along with dancers from Russia, Cuba, Spain, etc.

I admit to prejudice, as I always have, when it comes to ABT Posted Image But, I also prefer dancers who can dance Giselle along with Balanchine, Tudor, Ashton, MacMillan, DeMille, Robbins, Tharp, Taylor, etc.


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