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Victoria Leigh

"Prototypical" American Dancer

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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).]

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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.

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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.

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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).]

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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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Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

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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...

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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.....

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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).]

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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).]

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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... smile.gif

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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.) smile.gif

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

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I find this discussion fascinating smile.gif. 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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CygneDanois

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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.

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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).]

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Hi Amy, nice to "see" you again! smile.gif

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 smile.gif But, I also prefer dancers who can dance Giselle along with Balanchine, Tudor, Ashton, MacMillan, DeMille, Robbins, Tharp, Taylor, etc.

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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.

Sorry, but isn't that rather offensive to anyone who does not dance the Balanchine style?

When I started watching the Kirov, it was heavenly--they were all so calm, beautiful, and restrained. No twitching, every movement perfectly controlled. And I never minded seeing a preparation, because the preparations in themselves were beautiful, and by watching them, I was able to anticipate the perfect pirouette or gravity-defying jump to follow, and really see it, instead of some random flashy thing that dazzled for a moment, but never really left an impression. I can say with certainty that I would always rather see one slow, perfectly clear battement tendu than twelve or sixteen blurs (however long the pointed foot is held out there) done in the same amount of time. And by the way, the Kirov can move pretty fast when it wants to. Not to mention Paris Opéra, Royal Danish, Royal Ballet, all of whom are well-known for having quick, immaculate footwork.

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CygneDanois

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

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Thanks for making that point, CygneDanois. It's hard to strike the balance between thinking the "home team" is the best in the world and denigrating other styles when doing so. I once went to a performance of the Kirov (on their first trip to the States in forever) dancing La Bayadere, Kingdom of the Shades with a French friend who revered Paris Opera above all other styles. I asked him what he thought of Shades (which I loved) and he sniffed and said, "Peasants taught to dance." Unfortunately, we were sitting in front of teachers and older dancers of the Kirov who all understood English beautifully. (I hadn't noticed them before I asked.) He had meant, I learned in further conversations in a safe house, that he felt what many people think of as a beautiful, flexible back is an addition from folk dance that the aristocratic French would never consider doing. And, in fact, when POB brought its Bayadere a few seasons later, many complained that they were stiff -- much of this is what your eye gets used to.

Back to the prototypical American dancer, though, if you were on the board of some imaginary organization that gave Dancer of the Year awards, not necessarily for great achievement, but for who, that year, was the Poster Girl or Boy for American dance, who would you pick? (Pick a year, any year, and the matching dancer. Be generous. Pick three, four, five or more years, or simplify it and choose a decade.)

There would be many modern dancers, of course, who could be Poster Children too, but in the Ballet division, I think Cynthia Gregory (ABT), Lisa Bradley (Joffrey), Suzanne Farrell (NYCB), Maria Tallchief (NYCB), Edward Villella and Jacques D'Amboise (NYCB) would all have been recognizable enough as the embodiment of American ballet to qualify. Others?

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I think people are always going to fight over style and pedagogy! I think POB is wonderful, but I happen not to prefer their style in Balanchine to NYCB's, even though it's more immaculate. It doesn't feel right to me, and I don't think it serves the choreography in works like Concerto Barocco. Someone else will.

I also think that there is Balanchine style and there is Balanchine style, and then there's Balanchine style. . .Who's the Balanchine dancer, Suzanne Farrell or Melissa Hayden or Patty MacBride or Heather Watts or Allegra Kent or Darci Kistler or Wendy Whelan or Margaret Tracey or. . .Even if we're talking about a Balanchine style rather than an American one, we have to paint with a very broad brush. One of the things Balanchine wanted from dancers was that they look most like themselves. I think we'll find an American style lies in approach and viewpoint, rather than pedagogy.

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Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

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Well, I'll have to eat my hat. At last night's Washington Ballet performance of Tudor's PILLAR OF FIRE, Amanda McKerrow totally blew my "Americans Aren't Dramatic" theory out of the water. She was FANTASTIC! More later...last night's program was 'only' a preview so I don't wan't to spoil things for tonight's official 'premiere' of the WB's spring season at the Kennedy Center. But, in general terms, I'm doing my "Happy Dance" for Washington Ballet right now!!!! smile.gifsmile.gifsmile.gif

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Originally posted by CygneDanois:

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.
Sorry, but isn't that rather offensive to anyone who does not dance the Balanchine style?

My apologies... perhaps any way of presenting a non-balanchine style in a negative light would be offensive... what I would like to have done would be to persuade those schooled in the classical style (I don't agree with Balanchine that NYCB was the home of "classical" ballet), who have difficulty seeing the result of their technique as anything but the epitomy of grace, realize that others can see it differently.

I used to feel the rather same way perhaps as you do, about the Balanchine style... insect-like, sloppy... neurotic tension... I also had a hard time seeing beauty and grace in many of the modern dance techniques...but after learning more about the technique I've come to see it differently.

I do think, though, that different techniques are better for different styles of choreography. I have no desire to see a Balanchine style dancer perform 19th century classics... but I also think classically trained dancers often don't look good doing Balanchine... interestingly enough, the men seem to fare better than the women... Nor do I think most ballet dancers dance modern dance properly...

Alas, I've only seen the Kirov live once, in the 1980s in NYC on their first return to that city in decades... It was almost impossible to get tickets until they opened.. and then seats in the sold-out houses became easy to get... I was terribly disappointed... I'd never seen dancers look so bored on stage in my life, when they performed Chopiniana... they only came to life doing "modern" choreography... (the choreography, I forget what & who by, but remember that I thought it was pretty poor)

Oh... and I'd agree with you about the tendu, but not about frappes... My point was about dynamics... the execution of the tendue should always be subject to the dynamics of the music not independent of it subject only to a model of training.

[This message has been edited by Amy Reusch (edited March 30, 2001).]

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Originally posted by alexandra:

It's hard to strike the balance between thinking the "home team" is the best in the world and denigrating other styles when doing so.

Well, actually, I've never thought of NYCB as my hometown company. I think perhaps the old Joffrey was my favorite. And my current favorite dancer is not a NYCB dancer, but Julie Kent, of ABT... and I suppose Baryshnikov is still my favorite male dancer... but I try to understand things from various perspectives... I think you're always richer "getting" what there is to get from art even if that means for that instant you have to throw out your old lens and look at it from a different perspective than is familiar.

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Funny, I thought the Balanchine style was the best in the world until I learned more about it. But it's okay to see things differently smile.gif. At any rate,

I don't agree with Balanchine that NYCB was the home of "classical" ballet
I agree with you there...
I do think, though, that different techniques are better for different styles of choreography.
...and there...
Nor do I think most ballet dancers dance modern dance properly
...and there.
I try to understand things from various perspectives... I think you're always richer "getting" what there is to get from art even if that means for that instant you have to throw out your old lens and look at it from a different perspective than is familiar.
And I'll agree with you there, too smile.gif.

About frappé, we'd probably better continue that one somewhere else.

I guess that Kirov experience would tend to make one rather prejudiced against it. I understand.

And yes, I do think that describing the dancers of an entire style of ballet as "constipated" or "dazed" would be offensive under any circumstances.

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CygneDanois

[This message has been edited by CygneDanois (edited March 30, 2001).]

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One more thing I wanted to add... To judge a technique's weaknesses, I don't think one should look at principal or international star level dancers but rather at the average dancer turned out by that school. (Although, if you want a good example of it's strengths, perhaps the reverse is true).

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Sorry, Amy, I'm not with you on the last one. It's not technique for the star and technique for corps de ballet people. It's one technique for everybody and all movements have to be executed properly. The classical ballet has the same arms and legs positions for NYCB, Mariinsky or Grand Opera dancers. If they fell form pointe, late with timing, can't finish pirrouette in the clear visual position they have a week techique, doesn't matter were they are dancing.

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Originally posted by Andrei:

Sorry, Amy, I'm not with you on the last one. It's not technique for the star and technique for corps de ballet people. It's one technique for everybody and all movements have to be executed properly. The classical ballet has the same arms and legs positions for NYCB, Mariinsky or Grand Opera dancers. If they fell form pointe, late with timing, can't finish pirrouette in the clear visual position they have a week techique, doesn't matter were they are dancing.

I seem to have been a bit vague... What I meant was that many principals/international stars come endowed with physical gifts that may compensate for weaknesses in the technique, and it may be easier to see such flaws in the average dancer.

Of course, no one should fall from pointe, although different schools have different ideas, it seams on how to get up on pointe... some schools seem less interested in rolling through the feet and want harder pointe shoes, others prefer very soft shoes (think of the differences between the French school and the Italian/Russian school in the late 19th century)...

Actually, I don't think arm positions are universal through out all the schools... some schools have very different ideas about how far forward the arms should be in fifth, where they should be in arabesque, how rounded the shoulders and arms should or should not be in second, and even how high the should be... and there are different names for arabesques, as well as first and third position.

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