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What does a dancer need to become a prima ballerina?

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#16 Drew


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Posted 08 February 2001 - 12:24 AM

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).]

#17 Alexandra


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Posted 08 February 2001 - 12:35 AM

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 Posted Image

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.

#18 Terry


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Posted 08 February 2001 - 04:13 AM

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. Posted Image

#19 Mel Johnson

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Posted 08 February 2001 - 06:27 AM

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.

#20 Diana L

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Posted 08 February 2001 - 09:10 AM

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?

#21 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 08 February 2001 - 11:00 AM

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
[url="http://"http://members.aol.com/lwitchel"]Personal Page and Dance Writing[/url]
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#22 Guest_elite_alice67_*

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Posted 08 February 2001 - 04:53 PM

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.

#23 dancersteven



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Posted 08 February 2001 - 05:13 PM

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.

#24 CygneDanois



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Posted 09 February 2001 - 12:05 AM

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


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


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

#25 Guest_Sly_Blonde_*

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Posted 09 February 2001 - 12:52 AM

Yes Morgot Fonteyn did become a prima ballerina absoluta, i think it mentions this on the royal ballets hompage which is [url="http://"http://www.royaloperahouse.org"]www.royaloperahouse.org[/url]

Sorry if the webpage is incorrect.

#26 Diana L

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Posted 09 February 2001 - 08:35 AM

After checking out the book sale, I think a prima is someone who gets her biography published!

#27 leibling


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Posted 09 February 2001 - 11:08 AM

I've been wondering about this lately, actually. There are stories that tell you that Fonteyn was so obviously a ballerina from the very beginning- that to jjust look at her you wanted to cry because of her natural gifts. I guess she just had a very natural vulnerability, radiance or other such quality to her personality. You begin to wonder if you can spot a "ballerina" from the start. Having just seen ABT, I can say that there are a lot of good dancers there, but only a couple of them struck me as ballerina types- and those were not necessarily the ones dancing the larger roles. It is very subjective, though- except in the cases of an honor being bestowed (Fonteyn). One person's ideal ballerina may appear as a dancer with two left feet to someone else.

#28 Guest_BalletAddict03_*

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Posted 09 February 2001 - 06:14 PM

Just something Clive Barnes said about the politics of ballet. He said something along the lines of "There are two types of politics: politics and ballet politics. Politics are bad, and ballet politics are worse."

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