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Terry

What does a dancer need to become a prima ballerina?

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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! smile.gif

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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).]

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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).]

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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...!

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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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Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

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"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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CygneDanois

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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

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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....

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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.

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

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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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CygneDanois

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CD, "prima ballerina" and "prima ballerina assoluta" are two different things smile.gif

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I do know that smile.gif. 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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CygneDanois

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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.

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By the time I was through writing this, Leigh Witchel's post came up which I just read -- I agree w. what he wrote but at the risk of seeming cynical I actually will let what I originally wrote stand...

This is a fan's impressions; professional dancers on this board could doubtless say much more, and perhaps correct me, but perhaps they might feel constrained by...um..er...political reasons. Also, I'd like to avoid turning this into gossip, so I'm sticking to abstractions for the most part...but I can't quite ignore the issue, because deep down I'm persuaded that there are dancers out there who should have had careers that they never quite had...whatever the complex of reasons: personal problems, luck, or, indeed, politics.

Certainly with the big, international companies there is a minimal standard that the principal dancers must and usually do maintain. But there is surely some "politics," though much of it is a "taste" politics of the kind Leigh Witchel has already discussed: One director likes a certain look in his company's repertory and a gifted dancer with a different look may not be "pushed" or developed as her/his talent otherwise merits... (Hey, the Royal initially took a pass on DARCEY BUSSELL!!!! not for any sleazy reason, but because they thought she was more modern than classical -- sort of like Portland passing on Michael Jordan, only the Royal got to correct ITS mistake, whereas Portland paid with a lost championship.)Leigh also mentioned personality issues which are, after all, not always the same as artistic ones...but do involve issues of professionalism as well as "politics" or game playing...I've seen dancers underused at ABT (years ago) and heard about "personality conflicts" [RUMORS only] which could, after all, mean anything!

Occasionally when a soloist or principal seems to be being pushed "beyond" her abilities I have also heard rumors, including rumors about rich families donating huge sums of money that helped to keep the company afloat. I have heard this about dancers at ABT and the Kirov -- in both cases, my personal, NONprofessional opinion was that the dancer in question was respectable enough to pass muster but, in one case, perhaps not to the extent of her favor with management; but I had and have NO way of knowing if the rumors were justified.

I am, however, one of those fans who increasingly came to suspect that Baryshnikov was somehow undermining the opportunities of top notch male stars at ABT during his directorial tenure. (In each case, there was some reason why the contract "had" to be terminated; but the overall effect was a depletion of male principles that increasingly seemed less "necessary" than was claimed. When Andris Liepa was brought in as a guest star, he complained to someone whom I know, at how little he was being cast. My own feeling was that he was too little cast! However it's a little hard to judge to what extent this could be called "politics" ...

Occasionally a truly terrific ballerina or male dancer will ALSO at least be rumored to be the director's lover etc. ... and as at all work places, the personal interactions often DERIVE from the professional ones, not the other way around: why wouldn't a choreographer/director fall for his "muse"?

However, ballet is SO demanding from so many points of view -- even a less than gifted dancer in a tiny, local company has sacrificed tears and blood beyond what one can ever fully appreciate -- that I find it hard to believe that politics alone can sustain someone's career...it may take someone farther than they should have gone for a bit, or hold someone back (possibly a greater risk?)...but I don't think it can be a long term foundation for how companies are run.

I apologize if this has gotten too gossipy; I'll let it stand now but edit if the moderators feel I should...

[This message has been edited by Drew (edited February 08, 2001).]

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Drew, I think you toed the line perfectly. There are political aspects -- Peter, probably no more and no less at a ballet company that in any other organization -- and it is very difficult to discuss them without getting into specifics, which means gossip. So Drew's post is a model smile.gif

I think it's impossible to come up with a definitive answer to the question, though, because there may well be great artists who, for political reasons, didn't rise to the top -- but, as they didn't rise to the top, we don't know about them. There are the stories of children being rejected by a school -- Pavlova springs to mind -- who go on to do great things, and I think Leigh is dead on when he says that one dancer might not be a good fit with one company, but may have interesting careers with another.

There are stories of dancers being set adrift when a new director comes in, supposedly because they were too loyal to the former director -- that's politics, but it's also good management. It's impossible to govern if you have little puddles of sedition here and there.

To mod-squad's direct question, the age old casting couch question, there have been examples of this, but some directors have good taste and choose only the finest for their dalliances, and in the cases where they don't, I don't think the "ballerina" has lasted long. It's like the scene in "Citizen Kane." Everybody could tell the girl couldn't sing. It's hard to keep something like that a secret.

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Thanks so much, everyone, for all your input! As Alexandra said, there really isn't any "definitive" answer to this, but I guess that dancers do get promoted if they truly are very "GOOD." (although this is again a rather subjective idea...) Little factors do play into a promotion, but at the end, it really comes down to the dancer's talent...I think...well, in most cases. smile.gif

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There really were only two dancers ever officially created prima ballerina assoluta, Pierina Legnani and Mathilde Kshessinskaya. A movement also to name Olga Preobrajenska to the title was made in about 1912, but nothing officially came of it. Today, the assoluta title is more a journalistic property, bestowed, especially by Dance Magazine, in a way that makes you wonder if it doesn't mean "good ole gal who should have hung up the red shoes a long time ago". Not a very good thing to happen to a title.

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I just saw a special on Margot Fonteyn. I never saw her dance, but to me she seemed to be a prima ballerina for what she did off the stage as well. She was very complimentary of other dancers and seemed to be a good "spokeswoman" for the company.

At NYC Ballet, I think right now, Darci Kistler and Kyra Nichols are the two primas. It helps that one is married to the Director, but they are commonly the two dancers the younger ones refer to as a role model.

I think it's the grace they display on stage as well as off stage that stands the prima's out.

And just to continue the question a bit, does one become a prima after you've been a principal over time? Do they have to wait towards the end of their careers.

Say someone like the newly promoted Jennie Somogyi, is she a prima or is she too young?

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I think that someone who is the "prima" of a company is more than their best dancer, she encapsulates and defines the company style, as Margot Fonteyn did for the Royal. That is something that happens over time.

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

Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

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being a "prima" doesnt always necessarily mean the anorexic look, the perfectly shaped body. true, most of these things will help a dancer go to the top (having the perfect ballerina look). most dancers, no matter how hard they try, will never become a fonteyn or gelsey kirland, but you cant forget...the most important quality of dance is the fun and self-satisfaction you get. ballet is usually all about the professional level, but if you never get there, you can always be satisfied that you spent your time wisely by being involed with ballet.

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Just a couple of things;

"However, ballet is SO demanding. . . even a less than gifted dancer in a tiny, local company has sacrificed tears and blood beyond what one can ever fully appreciate"

Sometimes even more. . .

About politics;

I do not know that anyone has made it very much higher than they should have because of politics, if they can't do what they are being askedm it is impossible to hide it. However, many dancers are held back because of all kinds of politics, whether they are married to the wrong person, said the wrong thing to the wrong person, are just to loyal to the last director.

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The March DM says that the Royal Ballet bestowed the title of Prima Ballerina Assoluta on Fonteyn. Can anyone verify this?

[edited]

Diana L, I wish the SAB students would look upon Kyra Nichols as a role model.

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CygneDanois

[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited February 09, 2001).]

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Yes Morgot Fonteyn did become a prima ballerina absoluta, i think it mentions this on the royal ballets hompage which is www.royaloperahouse.org

Sorry if the webpage is incorrect.

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