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What does a dancer need to become a prima ballerina?


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#1 Terry

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Posted 05 February 2001 - 11:11 PM

Hello all! I was just reading some of the comments written about Rebecca Wright (in the dancer's column) and someone noted that "she was never a prima ballerina, but a pure pleasure to watch"....(correct me if I quoted this wrong...!) I was wondering, what does a dancer need to become a prima ballerina, then? Besides all the luck and the timing that plays a part in a dancer's promotion/success, I wonder what qualities are trulyx10 essential in order to become a principal...does the body (physique) play a more important part than one's technique? For example, what did Rebecca Wright need in order to have become a prima? Or what do some of the soloists, for eg, like Yan Chen (ABT) lack that doesn't allow her to become prima? I don't mean to refer to any particular soloists, but I just thought a few examples might be useful...I'm very curious about this topic, so if anyone has any opinions, please respond. Thanks very much in advance! Posted Image

#2 Alexandra

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Posted 05 February 2001 - 11:50 PM

This is a very interesting question; I'll let others begin the responses. BUT I did want to scoot in and beg everyone to be very careful when discussing dancers' bodies. We can get carried away sometimes; remember that dancers read this board. It's one thing to say "Dancer X didn't have an elegant line or a strong stage presence," but "Dancer Z's bulky leg muscles, pug nose, pronounced overbite and scrawny shoulders kept her in the corps for life," for example, is perhaps not the kindest way to describe someone who is, in addition to being a dancer, also a human being. (I'm sure the first example would not please Dancer X, but I could defend it to Dancer X, her mother, and her personal assistant/hit man.)

Thank you! Please discuss! And Terry, check the Archives as well as earlier threads on this and the Dancers -- and probably News, Views and Issues -- Forums for similar topics in the past, as well.

[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited February 06, 2001).]

#3 Drew

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Posted 06 February 2001 - 12:22 AM

Terry -- one question about your question. I usually distinguish between "principal" dancer and "prima ballerina." Arguably, a first rate soloist -- say, a dancer like Rebecca Wright -- might have made a fine principal and the contingencies of the profession may have been what kept her from dancing more principal roles. "Ballerina" or, especially, "Prima ballerina" is something else altogether, at least for me. A prima ballerina is someone who (having gotten through the merely professional battles of company politics, good fortune etc.) really makes an individual mark on important repertory, someone whose dancing is authoritative or sets a standard, who influences other dancers and, if she's lucky, choreographers, and someone audiences feel they must watch at every second (even standing still), someone they remember. . .Informally, I think "prima" ballerina, in particular, is reserved for the ballerina who is considered the "top" ballerina of a company -- perhaps the one who most seems to embody its style or, to be pragmatic and prevent fights breaking out among fans, the top one or two. (That does mean sometimes that someone will say of a dancer that "she's the prima ballerina of xyz" when xyz is perhaps a small local company -- and in that context she may be the "prima" but not really in a larger historical context.) There is a still more "honorific" term, "Prima Ballerina Assoluta" that I hardly hear at all nowadays and that seems to mean something like mythic status has been attained -- a Fonteyn or an Ulanova. Some of the ballet history types on the board know more about the precise official meanings of these terms. Anyway, my simpler point was that the what makes a "prima ballerina" questions seems to me a different one from the question what makes someone a principal rather than a soloist...Certainly I expect a principal dancer to be able to carry a ballet, to take responsibility for making it "work" -- a soloist, after all, is often only responsible for a variation or a minor dramatic character, important but not central. "Ballerina" and "prima ballerina" are titles for which I still have a somewhat more mystical reverence.



[This message has been edited by Drew (edited February 06, 2001).]

#4 Terry

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Posted 06 February 2001 - 01:00 AM

Drew -- Thanks so much for your input. I should have made my point clearer, that is, I meant not a "prima ballerina" (like Fonteyn, Makarova, Maximova, etc) but generally, a principal dancer. I was interested in the differences in the qualities, technique, personalities, (whatever the elements are) that distinguishes a principal dancer from a soloist or a first soloist. For example, I think Karin Averty really deserved to be principal dancer (but besides all the problems with her & POB administration) she was never promoted. But whatever the reasons are, perhaps there really was something lacking in her dance movements/style (I really don't know how to describe this ...), because I think truly exceptional people do get promoted. Anyhow, I hope this is making the question clearer...!

#5 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 06 February 2001 - 01:28 AM

Terry -

If we're talking just about the difference between soloist and principal, sometimes it's just the preference of the director. X might interest him or her more than Y on stage. Or A might be easier to work with in the studio than B.

For me the difference between a principal and a soloist is stage presence. Most dancers who are professionals, especially at least at soloist rank nowadays are awfully fine technicians, most have excellent facility. I think someone remains a soloist rather than moving to principal if they are too much of a specialty act (ie, they can only do soubrette roles, or what have you) Or if they sparkle in small parts but fade in larger or more demanding ones. We can argue about individual reactions to principals, but a principal dancer has to be interesting to a good chunk of the audience in a good chunk of the repertory.

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#6 CygneDanois

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Posted 06 February 2001 - 12:16 PM

"Prima Ballerina" used to be something akin to "Principal Dancer" (or maybe a little bit above that) in the days of the Imperial Ballet. Only two (one?) dancer(s) have ever achieved the rank of "Prima Ballerina Assoluta": Pierina Legnani and Mathilde Kschessinskaya (although I'm not sure about Kschessinskaya--she might just have been the first Russian dancer to complete 32 fouettes).

I've heard it said that you can always tell a ballerina by her port de bras.

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#7 Natalia

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Posted 06 February 2001 - 01:52 PM

Good question!

In addition to the obvious technical prowess, artistic sensibility and physical beauty....

To me, a 'prima ballerina' possesses a special 'regal' air & quality. The 'prima ballerina' commands the stage as if she owns it..and whoever gets in the way, beware! The regal air. Examples:

* Cynthia Gregory
* Margot Fonteyn
* Elizabeth Platel
* Irina Kolpakova
* Uliana Lopatkina
* Maya Plisetskaya
* Sylvie Guillem
* Suzanne Farrell
* Nina Ananiashvili

#8 Yvonne

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Posted 06 February 2001 - 02:43 PM

In "Dancing for Mr. B", Maria Tallchief talks about the pressure of being the "Ballerina" in a performance, and that no matter how great the corps and everyone else was that night, if she wasn't good then the performance wasn't good - and what a responsibility that was to her.

Alexandra Danilova also comes to mind....

#9 Alexandra

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Posted 06 February 2001 - 03:52 PM

Back to the question of principal versus soloist, I've found in watching companies that often a promising -- or perhaps aggressively promising -- corps dancer is promoted and then stops developing. Whether this is that the promotion came too early, or the company loses interest, or the director doesn't develop the dancer -- often dancers are supposed to grow up all on their own these days -- I can't say. Sometimes, too, a dancer is absolutely wonderful in their first two or three solo roles. We all get excited -- she'd be perfect in this role, or that one. And then she gets them, and, well, she's not.

I agree with Leigh that sometimes it's circumstantial. I saw this happen in Denmark over the last five years, with several dancers who I (and previous administrations, let's say) thought extremely talented -- real ballerinas, principals -- who were benched by a new director in favor of people who were, IMO, far less talented, and less idiosyncratic. To my eye, they were technically adequate and artistically mediocre in every role; you could plop them down anywhere and the show would go on. While the ones who were absolutely transcendent in several roles, but not suited to others, were simply benched. One director liked classical dancers with long lines, the next liked short, thick-thighed jumpers. So they get all the roles, the Long Lines waste away. Then another director comes in who likes Long Lines, and so it goes.

I agree with those who said that authority, and the ability to carry a performance -- the ballerina should come out on that stage and the audience should know that they are In The Presence. No guessing, is it the girl in blue or the one in pink -- whoops, I guess it's the one with the crown.

CygneDanois, "prima ballerina" and "primo ballerino" (and "premiere danseuse" and "premier danseur") did mean, literally, first female dancer, or first male dancer. In the 18th century, and through at least the first part of the 19th, in Paris you had a number. You were either the premier danseur noble, or second danseur noble, or premier danseur de demicaractere, etc. It wasin your contract. Today, prima ballerina can mean the 16-year-old who just won a Miss Congeniality award and will dance the leasding Candy Cane in a small company's Nutcracker. But I do think, among fans, "prima ballerina" still has the connotation of general.

#10 atm711

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Posted 06 February 2001 - 06:57 PM

What makes a Prima Ballerina (or Premier Danseur)?--for me, it's always been that elusive quality called Artistry.

#11 CygneDanois

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Posted 06 February 2001 - 09:28 PM

Thank you, Alexandra. I thought, though, that in Russia in the 19th century, prima ballerina was a rank to be attained, though I may have just been misreading.

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#12 Alexandra

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Posted 06 February 2001 - 10:28 PM

CD, "prima ballerina" and "prima ballerina assoluta" are two different things Posted Image

#13 CygneDanois

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Posted 07 February 2001 - 10:14 AM

I do know that Posted Image. In 19th-century Russia, they would have been two different ranks to be achieved, right? (Although for 99% of the dancers, Prima/o Ballerina/o was as high as they could go.)

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Posted 07 February 2001 - 11:10 PM

I will ask this from a rather uninformed angle and I hope this doesn't come across as cynical.
Though I will admit it must take great talent and ability to become a great ballerina, how much of what makes a great ballerina (nowdays) is politics? (I don't mean Washington politics either-what I mean is which ballerina is married or involved with what director?).Does it play a factor?

To what degree do you think it plays? Its everywhere you may go and in every field of work. I have always wondered if it has ever been involved in dance also.

#15 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 07 February 2001 - 11:50 PM

It's not at all cynical. Politics definitely plays a part, and it has since Camargo and Salle. The degree depends on the individual situation.

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