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What, if anything, is Western about classical ballet?


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 22 December 2001 - 07:17 PM

I'm going to give this another try, although it obviously isn't holiday fare. What does ballet say about Western civilization? What, if anything, distinguishes it from dance forms of other cultures? (Realizing that there probably aren't very many people here who are experts in the dance of other cultures.)

I posted the same question on another thread, but we never got past the article in which the question was raised, so I'm trying to put the question here as an issue separate from that article issue -- please. Sorry. I'm sure it was my fault that the issue got confused.

Cliff did respond to the Western civ aspect, and I'll post his answer:

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

CLIFF POSTED THIS:

I think that what ballet implies about Western civilization is the same as what baseball and other professional sports imply: The West invented a usable steam engine.

Almost two centuries ago the industrial revolution started in Europe. This produced a large number of people with leisure time and money to spend. Professional entertainment - ballet, baseball, et al. - flourished.

On the subject of how the West came to its place in the world, a fascinating book is _Guns, Germs, and Steel_ (subtitled "The Fates of Human Societies") by Jared Diamond. It covers the geographic reasons as to why different cultures developed differently.


[end of Cliff's post]

[ December 22, 2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]



#2 Alexandra

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Posted 22 December 2001 - 07:30 PM

Cliff, I have to say I was a bit taken aback by your answer at first, but the more I thought about it, I think you're right. I'd add that I don't think it's the most admirable thing about ballet, but there's definitely a link between the rise of the middle class, leisure time, and ballet (and baseball). And the dominance of the steam engine and rail travel coincided with the Romantic ballet movement, certainly.

There's certainly the aspect of entertainment and competition (as with sports), and the idea of selling theater -- as distinct from dance as a form of worship -- is, I believe, Western.

If you go back two centuries to ballet's beginnings, though, it came out of the same forces that gave birth to the Renaissance and had the same concerns. Western -- ingenuity or hubris? worship of the individual or denial of divine law? humanism and development of individual style or capitalism, greed, discovery and conquest -- all of these things are double-edged swords. The patterns we see now are the great-great-grandchildren of the Renaissance court's attempts to organize the universe. They describe astronomy as a dance. The aspect of turnout, too, at least in the sense of the impetus of movement being out of the body, away from the body. and not inwards is Western rather than Eastern. (I believe classical Indonesian dance, at least, also uses extreme turnout, but in the performances I've seen it's static and the focus of the eyes and psyche seems inward.)

Agnes DeMille, in her not-error-free history of the ballet claims turnout as the Triumph of Western Man and links it to the development of armor, which allowed men to walk upright with the chest exposed, not huddled over. (But there are Eastern cultures who developed armor too, and probably earlier than the West did.) But there is an outward impetus in Western dance. There's a link to chess that I've never quite nailed down. The moves of a knight are really fourth position, for example.

What are the origins of the notion of the arched foot as beautiful? The long, curved arms held low were part of the "ordinary" stance of 17th and 18th century aristocrats.

Even what would today be considered a negative quality and for centuries was ballet's glory -- the erect carriage of the body (today: inflexible, static) is deeply rooted in Western culture. There's a video called "Dance and Human History" by someone whose name I long ago forgot frown.gif that divides the world into three bands of one-dimensional, two-dimensional and three-dimensional movement, linked to ancient work patterns (ice fishing and spear throwing, wheat thrashing and rice harvesting, respectively).

Other notions, connections, thoughts?

[ December 22, 2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]



#3 katharine kanter

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Posted 08 January 2002 - 08:34 AM

Western classical dance is not, strictly speaking, Western at all, and neither are the languages we speak in Western Europe, or in America, for that matter. The Indo-European group is a ramification of Sanskrit, although most of the tongues we speak today are so over-simplified (few tenses left, no subjunctive mood, no optative, no putative, indeed, no moods at all, save for bad moods) that one would hardly recognise that fact.

Western classical dance, to the best of my knowledge, descends quite directly from technical and artistic experiments carried out on the Indian sub-continent something like three thousand years ago. (It is notable, that, if we are to go by the contemporaneous Greek and Turkic statuary and vases, the turn-out was NOT yet used in the Hellenic World by the time of Aeschylos).

All, absolutely all, Indian art-works I have seen from ancient times, use the turn-out. And not only do they use the turn out: they use épaulement, and even academic figures like the attitude, in ways virtually identical to Western classical dance.

The turn-out is an enormous technical breakthrough. Whoever thought that one up, was a true genius ! It enables "contrapposto", or épaulement, since the torso can turn in one direction, and the feet and legs, in quite another. And with the turnout, the body will nonetheless be perfectly stable. Moreover, the turnout lends the legs a range of motion almost as vast as that of the shoulder joint. Hence, more steps are possible, and thus more expressivity.

And without turnout, there is no such thing as line. No satisfying geometrical shapes can be created without turnout, because to produce complex geometrical forms of beauty, there has to be a coherence between the torso, and the lower limbs. This is possible only with turnout. Turnout lifts the clog-and-stodge-barrier between the naturally turned-out shoulder joint, and the naturally turned-in hip, knee and foot.

The mime gestures that we use in Western ballet are today over-stylised (except in Bournonville) and somewhat grotesque.

But the technique behind the mime, that enables one to project myriad thoughts and emotions by the use of the eye muscles, the face muscles, and "closed" (dark, sad, evil) or "open" (light, happy, good) positions, comes from ancient India. The Indians, however, have retained more skilful use of the face and neck musculature even today. We could learn a great deal from them to improve our own mime technique.

It is important to see the various schools of classical Indian dance to understand this, and to reflect on how this might be connected to metric in poetry, rhetoric, versification, since the Indian dancers, in some schools, alternate dances of incredible virtuosity, with recitations in several classical languages. And the DANCERS do the reciting and singing !

The erudition of Indian dancers is simply staggering. A few years ago, I interviewed two young Indian university students. One was studying philosophy, the other engineering (!). They were giving recitals in Germany, and were highly proficient in one of the Southern Indian classical dance forms. They sang, beautifully, and recited ancient epic poetry, in Sanskrit, in Tamoul, and in two other languages. Their knowledge of Indian history and mythology was encyclopaedic.

Might I add that their performances were not boring...

Which I suppose brings us back to the subject of how genius is created....

They told me that they began to learn the turnout on the first day of their dancing class, at around age seven. They stand in the first position, but not so turned out as ours, do demi-plié, shallowly, and count to two hundred. Then the plié over time is allowed to go deeper, and second, third etc. position is introduced.

(Allow me to say here, that our own turnout is, at the present time, too exaggerated, and there is far too much use of the Fifth position. Bournonville seems hardly to have used the fifth, save for entrechats, because the third is so much more fluent and graceful for really dancing).

I do not really understand how the turn-out is related to temperament in music, and more especially, to well-tempered musical systems. Some form of well-temperament existed in China about 1500 BC; such bells were shewn at Paris only last year. But I believe there is a relationship.

Perhaps some skilled musician could help us here by giving some thought to the question.

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 08 January 2002 - 10:04 AM

[quote]Originally posted by katharine kanter:

Western classical dance, to the best of my knowledge, descends quite directly from technical and artistic experiments carried out on the Indian sub-continent something like three thousand years ago. (It is notable, that, if we are to go by the contemporaneous Greek and Turkic statuary and vases, the turn-out was NOT yet used in the Hellenic World by the time of Aeschylos).


Interesting. I've never read any references to this in books I've read about the origins of Western ballet at the French courts, nor did I think that much was known about Indian art in the 15th and 16th centuries. Every reference I've seen has been to Greek and/or Roman models. The Renaissance was a conscious effort to recreate Greek and Roman theater. (Lincoln Kirstein, Marian Hannah Winter, Walter Sorrell being my chief sources.) Or did you mean that the Greeks were directly influenced by Indian civilization?

[ January 08, 2002: Message edited by: alexandra ]



#5 katharine kanter

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Posted 08 January 2002 - 12:36 PM

There was a thought-provoking exhibition touring Europe last year, called The Bronze Age. It presented the results, in terms of artefacts, from new research and archeology digs relating to the pre-Homeric and Homeric periods, in Europe and Asia Minor. Many many new things have happened in scientific research over the last twenty or so years, notably with respect to Troy, and further proof recently emerged, that Homer had got it all scientifically right.

I was flabbergasted by the exhibition. One of the mind-boggling windows, was the contents of an Italian or Greek ship's hold that had foundered somewhere in the Aegean, around 1700 BC. There were bits and bobbles from virtually every area of the planet, including Denmark (that place again !), China and even the Indonesian archipelago if my memory serves me right. Among those bits and bobbles, were industrially-produced (underline industrial) bronze "calf-skins" as they were called (you'd throw them into the foundry, as is), all to exact specifications. Then there was a cache they'd found, with 1200 identical, industrially-produced, mechanical pieces for some machine.

Chariot wheels, produced to virtually IDENTICAL specifications, all across the continent, in what are now Romania, Denmark (that place again...), and Asia Minor....

Which shews to go ya, a/ that had we continued along that industrial track, rather involving ourselves in the Roman Empire and feudalism, we would definitely have Men on the Moon or Mars, or wherever, by now, and b/ that reams more was known about every nook and cranny of the world, than we would now imagine. Four thousand years ago.

So I would guess that the Indians of the Homeric time, knew a lot more essential things about Greece (and vice-versa), than we do today about either of those countries. Or China...

Unfortunately, I am not a specialist in any of these areas, and I know little about the historical background to the Silk Road from China through Asia, Asia Minor and on to tired old Europe, as a vehicle for science and technology, of which I would humbly suggest, classical ballet is a small but honourable part.

I think we need some help here.

But certainly, by the time of Alexander the Great's Conquests, Indian knowledge must have begun to come into the West.

#6 Alexandra

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Posted 08 January 2002 - 01:17 PM

That makes sense to me -- I'm sure there was a lot of cross-fertilization that is now mostly lost to history and it's very interesting. But I don't think the French and Italians of the Renaissance courts were using Indian models.

I've never read where turnout comes from in the West and I'd love to know. As I wrote in my first post, there are marked similarities between chess moves and fencing -- I don't know the history of fencing. This may have evolved naturally -- if you lunge, I think you would naturally turn the leg out to get better balance and be more squarely planted (fourth position). But I have no idea whether there is a historical connection.

#7 Manhattnik

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Posted 08 January 2002 - 03:14 PM

I recall seeing a documentary by an anthropologist (one of the Lomaxes?) about dance, which made the fascinating point that dancing on releve, either half or full toe, was a natural outgrowth of the use of the foot in a stirrup. I personally found this a little far-fetched, but interesting, nontheless.

#8 Alexandra

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Posted 08 January 2002 - 03:17 PM

That is interesting -- I always thought they were so short they needed to stand on half-toe to see over the row in front of them smile.gif (Only kidding!)

#9 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 08 January 2002 - 06:17 PM

Maybe a little off topic, but in case any of you in the NY City area are interested in seeing Indian dance live, you can do so courtesy of The World Music Institute on Sat April 20 8pm / Sun April 21 7pm at Symphony Space (B'way & 95th St). Details are available at the WMI website (www.heartheworld.org) Here's the blurb from their performance calendar:

"Odissi Dance of India
Nrityagram Ensemble $30, $25

One of India’s most treasured dance troupes, Nrityagram has enchanted audiences and critics with its performances of the sensuous and lyrical Odissi classical dance of northeast India. Its New York debut was hailed in The New York Times as "one of the most luminous dance events of the year" and its celebrated soloist Surupa Sen was described as "truly a star in the making." Live musical accompaniment."

I've attended a couple of South Asian dance performances sponsored by WMI and I can attest that they were indeed thoroughly enchanting! It's very interesting to note the similarities and differences between the various South Asian dance styles and ballet. I was told that the port de bras charactersitic of ballet got to France via the earlier forms Spanish flamenco dancing, which, through its gypsy heritage, has South Asia roots. I don't know if this is true or not, but it's certainly delightful to imagine that it might be so!

[ January 08, 2002: Message edited by: Kathleen O'Connell ]

[ January 08, 2002: Message edited by: Kathleen O'Connell ]



#10 Cliff

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Posted 09 January 2002 - 10:01 AM

A few scattered comments.

It is more accurate to say that Sanskrit is a member of the Indo-European family of languages. About 6000 years ago there existed a language known as primitive Indo-European that subsequently splintered and developed into a large group of languages spoken in Europe, Iran, and India. Similar to how Latin splintered into Italian, Spanish, French, etc.

The earliest version of the game of chess originated in Persia around the 6th - 7th century. Some of the rules were different (the bishop and queen had limited movement) although the knight had the same distinctive move. Islam arrived and spread chess throughout it's world. By the middle ages the game had arrived into Europe. In 1470, modern chess was formed in Italy. The next 5 centuries saw a huge explosion of practice and development of theory. There are literally thousands of chess books- for international chess. But considerably less for Persian chess or any of a dozen variants.

Going back to the main topic: What is Western about classical ballet? Ballet struggles for support is such relatively well-off places as Cleveland and Ireland. Until recently, non-western societies have generally been poor. And so development of their own dance traditions were impaired.

If individual genius is the result of talent plus opportunity, then perhaps there is an analog to society genius? The Renaissance supplied the roots of ballet and the increased freedom and wealth of the West provided the nourishment.

Cliff

#11 Alexandra

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Posted 09 January 2002 - 11:41 AM

Thanks very much for that, Cliff. I thought that there was a reason for calling it "Indo-European" but had not facts to back up that instinct smile.gif And thank you for the information on chess. It's interesting that 1470 was roughly the same time that the Italians were the great dancing masters at the Renaissance courts. (And they weren't just any old Italians, but, for the most part, Jewish Italians. I don't know if there's any signficance to that, if they were recent arrivals from the Middle East, or had been in Italy for generations, but being a court dancing master was one of the main "out of the ghetto" escape routes for Jews.)

On your theory of genius societies, I think there's something to that. Genius, luck, and accident. I took a course in grad school on the English Renaissance and read a very interesting rticle (whose author I do not remember) who credited the Renaissance in literature to the King James Bible (which was written by a committee!) It made the society literate, and it gave that society an ear for poetry. It created a rich indigenous language.

#12 psavola

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Posted 15 January 2002 - 05:58 PM

This may or may not be helpful, but I thought to shed some light on Italian renaissance dancing masters and dance technique regarding turnout.

Some known dancing masters were indeed jewish, but many of the better known ones were not. Most have not had their pasts closely examined - often because of the difficulty of tracking down detailed information about a person of from whom we often know only a name. The two related jewish dancing masters I personally know more of were at least third-generation Italians.
I, personally, find it unlikely a recent arrival from Middle East would get work as a dancing mater of any prestige since dancing masters of the time were often also expected to be knowledgeable in and able to teach subjects such as etiquette, swordplay, and (dressage) horsemanship.

The Italian renaissance court dancing technique in the 15th and 16th centuries (as can be discerned from the surviving dance manuals) did not include turnout as an integral part of the technique. Most manuals do not discuss the matter at all being more interested in the timing, style, length and especially vertical shape of different steps. The preferred position of feet is specified in only three dance treatises, Il Ballarino, Nobilta di Dame and Le Gratie d'Amore; the first and second (by the same author) advocate strictly parallel feet, while the third recommends parallel or very slightly opened position. Neither of the authors is a jew.
(Of course, the treatises can be considered more a documentary of the ideals of dance than the actual dancing practices themselves, but without video they are the best we can do.)

The first mention of preferred turnout occurs to my knowledge in 1630s in French treatises. I have not had the opportunity to see reprints of these treatises so I unfortunately cannot say how much, and how emphatically, turnout was recommended. As a comparison, the Italian manuals of 1610s and their reprints up to 1630s still advised roughly parallel feet.

Päivi

[ January 15, 2002: Message edited by: Paivi Savola ]




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