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Virtuosity and grace


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 06 July 2000 - 10:28 AM

I did an interview with a dancer this weekend that raised several questions related to several of our discussions here recently. She's a former dancer, actually, Royal Danish Ballet, now about 60 and teaching.

She was discussing one of the star dancers there during the 1960s who had a reputation as a virtuoso. She said, "But he wasn't at all a clean dancer. He made everything look so hard, so people thought he was very good. He made terrible faces -- he had picked this up in London -- and whenever he did something difficult, he'd grunt and make faces and the audience would applaud because they thought it looked hard. But [another dancer] would always have the most pleasant look on his face no matter how hard the steps, and make everything look easy."

This recalled seeing SAB try to do "Konservatoriet". They weren't trying to trick the audience into thinking they were doing something hard, they WERE doing something hard. Danes say "Konservatoriet" is the hardest of all the Bournonville ballets, though it is based on an 1830s-something Parisian ballet class. But it's extremely rigorous and classical and, thus, it exposes every weakness a dancer has, especially weaknesses of strength. Yet, I've seen Danish teenagers (and a video of Paris Opera teenagers) do the same ballet and make it look so easy that it would be easy to dismiss as "old-fashioned" and not virtuosic.

So my question is, in this day of --especially with young male dancers -- doing as many turns as you can and to hell with the music (it was once considered extremely bad taste to continue turning after the music had stopped, as the point of dancing was to express the music), of jumping as high as you can and damn the landing, etc. etc., what is the sense of this board on the question of virtuosity versus grace? (Grace is not yet dead. We've discussed this before, when I've brought up my Bournonvillean "all effort must be concealed under cover of harmonious calm." You need this kind of grace to dance Ashton, I think, but it's not limited to Britons and Danes. Peter Boal at NYCB is this kind of dancer. Yet no one would call him a virtuoso.)

#2 cargill

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Posted 06 July 2000 - 11:16 AM

To my mind a recent example of the difference between virtuosity and grace was comparing Wendy Whelan and Lopatkina in the 2nd movement in Symphony in C. To me Whelan makes to deep arabesque penchee look hard, she seems determined to force her head down no matter what, and it always gets a round of applause. When I saw Lopatkina do it last year in New York with the Kirov, she just flowed through the steps, shading them, but not overemphasizing anything, and the audience just sat there, seemingly holding its breath until the end. To me that is the real art, to conceal the effort and communicate the spirit.

#3 Basilio17

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Posted 06 July 2000 - 11:21 AM

Wow! I totally agree with you Alexandra.It seems these days that people think quantity is better than quality and that isn't the truth. I had a teacher who told me that quality is better than quantity.It took me awhile to understand that, but now I do.If you see a dancer who has clean technique and just presents everything so nicely, you are truly blown away. When you see someone who just muttles through little things, but always hits the big things, you definitely are left with the impression that they are a good dancer but seeing that guy who was so clean and made everything look so effortless you think they are an amazing dancer. There definitely is a difference between a good dancer and an amazing dancer.An amazing dancer will always be the cleanest and will always seem refreshed.He won't seem worn out and hard.

Imaginig SAB students trying to do Konservotoriet, is really hard because number one they are trained Balanchine style and number two alot of them don't understand any other kind of style. They are so stuck in the Balanchine ways, that they don't give any other style a chance.They wack their legs and they do there SAB fingers and port de bras sometimes where it isn't needed. But anyway, I am glad that you brought this up because I see so many people who over due it and and lose quality while dancing things that are meant to be a breeze.I guess learning quality comes with time.

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 06 July 2000 - 01:32 PM

Basilio, I think you've made a very important point: learning quality comes with time. I didn't mean to bash the SAB students either. Any good school will produce students attuned to its company's own style (although I think "Konservatoriet" showed that these kids needed some remedial strength training that had nothing to do with style Posted Image ) Just to make the point that often what seems, to a lay audience especially, very easy is often very hard.

I saw this several times in Denmark watching rehearsals of Bournonville ballets. Heidi Ryom, who had just done a very nice Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, was rehearsing the Sylph and after her first solo -- which doesn't look 1/10 as difficult as, say, anything in "Swan Lake" -- she was gasping (never on stage, of course, just in the rehearsal). (Controlling the gasping and facial grimaces must take a lot of practice aside from technique.) I also remember reading a story from the 1960s about people who saw Nureyev in class and were surprised that he never did more than two pirouettes and was obviously concentrating on doing them cleanly, when others in the class were doing as many pirouettes as they could (and sometimes more). I don't mean to hold Nureyev up as a consistent model of quality over quantity Posted Image but I think he understood the concept.

As a young dancer, I think it must be very difficult to listen to the teacher saying "aim for quality" if the boy in the class who goes for quantity gets all the applause and attention and is hailed in the press as the Next Great Whosit? How do you combat that? Or live with that? (This is not just to Basilio of course, but to anyone.)

#5 mbjerk

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Posted 06 July 2000 - 04:27 PM

I remember seeing Erik Bruhn in class doing a single attitude turn - perfection. The final go round he did six. Quality and quantity.

This is a fad thing that goes in cycles and varies with traditions. I was always taught that a piroutte differed from a spin and it did not matter how high you jumped if you could not land. I was also taught that partnering was more important than solos, but that may be a new thread.

I fear that with so much competition - sports TV, ice skating TV, movies, etc. that audiences like to "participate" in the event by feeling every move. I was taught to strive always to let audiences enjoy the event by never showing stress or strain.

The point is whether today's audience wants to know how hard it is. I do not, I want to see how well executed it is. Quality to me means that technique is used as words to convey a language - ballet. Do we enjoy watching someone struggle with the articulation and projection of Shakespeare?

#6 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 06 July 2000 - 05:32 PM

I see this quantity thing, especially with male dancers, being highly promoted for those entering competitions. I think that the feeling is that they will not be competitive if they cannot do many pirouettes every time, regardless of the music, and huge jumps every time, regardless of the landings or the music. I see the male dancer work on his variations and it's all about the steps only. I don't see any attention to the music, the style, the articulation of the legs and feet, or really anything to do with what I think ballet is about. Watching this is about watching tricks. Period. Very sad.

[This message has been edited by Victoria Leigh (edited July 06, 2000).]

#7 dirac

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Posted 06 July 2000 - 05:53 PM

I saw a film about Torvill & Dean some time ago that chronicled their comeback to competition after a long absence. Christopher Dean remarked that at first they were getting consistently low technical marks on what was a very difficult routine. Eventually they figured out what was wrong. It wasn't enough to do hard things; they had to telegraph that they were doing them to the judges. "Hey!Look at this huge preparation! Big jump coming right up!Wow! We did it! Wasn't that great!" He seemed rather depressed that this method worked.

#8 NextStage

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Posted 06 July 2000 - 06:09 PM

Okay, I'll chime in by saying I'm definitely one who prefers to see ease and grace over virtuosity (not that the two can't coexist; I think the energy and excitement of virtuosic moves can still exist with clean, well-executed technique). It's those qualities, done with quality, that take my breath away...

I mentioned that I felt "relaxed" while watching Nina Ananiashvili dance on the Bolshoi's recent tour (I think this is what mbjerk was referring to when he mentioned "letting the audience enjoy... by never showing stress or strain"). Even though Don Q. has its lion's share of virtuosic pas, I liked the fact that Ananiashvili danced with a sense of "quiet strength" instead of bombastic virtuosity. On the same note, it was the graceful, floating quality of Maria Alexandrova's leaps which set them apart from so many others, and captivated me. Another memorable moment in my balletgoing was the first time I saw Jose Manuel Carreño do his famous slow, "floaty" pirouettes -- they were supremely graceful and elegant ­ he ended up in a perfectly placed retiré, which was held for a split second before his foot was placed back down. Sigh. IMO, such beauty is priceless.

#9 Basilio17

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Posted 06 July 2000 - 06:25 PM

If it seemed like I was bashing SAB I wasn't. How could I bash, I have trained there. Posted ImageI was trying to imply what you said Alexandra, but I think you said it a whole lot better. It's very hard sometimes because the boy in my class who does all the pirouettes does always get the approval from fellow students. But when it comes down to it, he is boring to watch and has no presence. In the long run, I feel that I have come out on top because when it's all over, all the praise from teachers comes to me.I feel with quality you must have some quantity, but never let quantity overpower you. I agree that Jose is a perfect example of quality and quantity.

#10 Estelle

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Posted 10 July 2000 - 11:16 AM

Alexandra, this is a bit off-topic (and I know you're very busy), but do you remember the name of the POB students in "Konservatoriet", or the moment when it was filmed (1980 or 1988)? When I visited the current exhibition at the Paris Opera (which deals with the POB school),
there was a lovely photograph from "Konservatoriet", in which I recognized Jean-Guillaume Bart (he was 16 then, and now is a principal) and Ghislaine Fallou (about 15 then, now premiere danseuse, but suffering from various problems). I really regret that the POB hasn't danced any Bournonville in years.

I'm quite an ignoramus about technique, and don't like dancers that make the audience feel almost stressed for them because they insist too much on technical difficulties.
One of my favorite dancers is Manuel Legris: he probably will never have crowds of screaming fans, but everything he does is perfectly clean and polished, with grace, style and elegance (and also he's an excellent partner), and it's
a great pleasure to watch. I really prefer that to dancers who behave as if they were in a sports competition.

#11 Alexandra

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Posted 10 July 2000 - 12:34 PM

Estelle, I don't know the names of the students (and I have to say the ballet master, a grown up, was not good). This was a televised gala program from the 1970s, I think. There was a (very sloppy) Etudes with Pontois, Patrice Bart and Cyril Atanassoff, Konservatoriet, the defile (which gave me chills; I'd never seen it. An army of dancers! But the men shouldn't come first Posted Image ) I think also there was a Paquita with Elisabeth Platel as a teenager in the first solo, if that would help date it. So twenty years ago, before the revival and refreshing of the company's technique. (Now this may have been an off-night, but even as an off-night, the company did not look in good shape.)

I would second your comments on Legris, and I hope, Basilio, that you have a chance to see him and other (current) POB men. For me, they are elegance, virtuosity and purity without any "cheapness" or, as Estelle said, confusing dancing with a sports competition.

#12 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 10 July 2000 - 03:10 PM

On the subject of virtuosity and grace, I watched the tail end of Peter Boal's advanced men's class at SAB today.

I can't think of anything that bodes better for the next generation than it looks like his very ethos towards dance rubs off even slightly on all of them.

Parenthetically, we started rehearsals today. It's like being handed the keys to a Rolls Royce and told, "Take a spin."

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#13 Giannina

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Posted 10 July 2000 - 03:57 PM

Leigh....any chance of another diary? Please?

Giannina

#14 Estelle

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Posted 11 July 2000 - 07:09 AM

Leigh, I agree with Victoria about the diary.

Alexandra, thanks for the information. I think it was the program "Hommage au Ballet de l'Opera" which was danced in october, november and december 1980 (it's listed in the POB school souvenir book). I didn't know that it had been filmed (it's not easy at all to see videos of old POB performances, though some of them
were shown on TV back then, at much earlier hours than one could hope to see now). What did you think of Pontois and Atanassoff? My parents liked them very much when they saw them in Paris, but it was almost ten years earlier (and my parents were unexperienced viewers). Both still are teaching at the Paris Opera, and seem to have a very good reputation among the dancers.
I hope that someday you can manage to see the Defile at the Opera Garnier for real, with the mirrors, the Foyer de la Danse in the background, the shining lights... That would really give you chills! :-) (Jeannie, have you ever seen it? I'm sure you'd love it, that's very "tutu and tiara" indeed.) Did the men really came first? When I saw it, the women always came first, one of the most moving moments is the very beginning, when a tiny little girl from the school begins the defile, alone on stage. It ends with the oldest male principal (more precisely, the one who became a principal the most early- when I saw it, it was Charles Jude, it's strange to realize that it's Hilaire now.)
Platel was 20 or 21 then, and a sujet or premiere danseuse (she had a very fast career, compared to other POB principals).

One thing that makes me feel a bit worried about the future of the POB is that the present direction seems to focus on short, virtuoso male dancers now, for example the one that has been "pushed" the most is Jeremie Belingard, he's a bright dancer, but surely not a dancer for prince roles, and sometimes likely to do a bit "too much".
Also I wonder if the growing number of Forsythe works in the repertory of the POB (and of many other companies) has something to do with that taste for virtuosity, most of them seem to require a lot of speed, energy, even aggressiveness, but not much grace or expressiveness. By the way, it always make me grin when some critics who despise Petipa as "circus" are in awe at the technical tricks of Forsythe's "In the Middle"...

#15 Alexandra

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Posted 11 July 2000 - 10:00 AM

Estelle, I made a typo -- more like a "braino" No, the women did come first, just as you described. Before Lifar, I'm told, the men came first (and that was what I meant, that that's the way it should be, as the man always takes the first curtain call, leaving "pride of place" to the ballerina.) A friend told me that Lifar changed it so that he could appear last in the defile, which certainly sounds credible.

I liked Pontois, but she was past her prime and it was a performance more of guts than beauty. She was apparently a very pure technician, not at all flashy. But all three of them were sloppy. I saw Atanasoff only in a mime role, in Petit's "Les Rendezvous" where he played Death and he was wonderful.

Your description of the up-and-comers is disturbing, but it's the trend everywhere now. It's odd, though, since Bessy is still at the school, because the person who chooses them for the school is really the one who determines body type for these companies.


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