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Ballet Postures have become more exaggerated over time..From a science blog post I found interesting


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#1 robynn

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Posted 31 March 2009 - 06:48 PM

Here's a science blog article that a friend of mine pointed out to me that I found really interesting - how certain ballet steps have become more exaggerated over time, and why. Some of the included graphs that show the gradual increase of extension of arabesques and develope ala seconde are surprising.

edited to fix linking typo - thanks!

#2 Ray

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Posted 01 April 2009 - 05:34 AM

Here's a science blog article that a friend of mine pointed out to me that I found really interesting - how certain ballet steps have become more exaggerated over time, and why. Some of the included graphs that show the gradual increase of extension of arabesques and develope ala seconde are surprising.


Looks interesting, but your link didn't work, I think because the "http" got repeated; here's what worked for me:

http://scienceblogs....e_over_time.php

It's a neat little article, although it posits a rather simplistic relationship b/t spectators and performers--asserting that "these postures [positions and extensions] have responded to subtle pressures from the 20th century's ballet-going audiences." The story doesn't take into account the influence of tastes and standards w/in ballet communities themselves that tend, I would assert (anecdotally, of course), towards exacerbating these changes. And of course it doesn't consider differences in national schools, or the post-Soviet influx of Russian bodies and training into the international pool. Studies for others to carry out--perhaps some of our BTers?

#3 dirac

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Posted 01 April 2009 - 09:25 AM

Thank you for posting this article, robynn (and thanks to Ray for the second link). Such changes are an ongoing topic of discussion here on Ballet Talk.

Of course, we have no way of knowing if audiences from the 1940s felt the same. But even without that knowledge, it's clear enough that the postures modern dancers have gradually shifted towards are those that modern people find most appealing. To Daprati, this suggests that the changes have been affected by aesthetics as much as by the physical prowess of the dancers.


That certainly sounds fair enough. As in athletics, you can see general trends over time in the past century: progress in medicine and health, training, nutrition, etc. leading to athletes and dancers becoming perceptibly taller, stronger, and faster overall. (I should note this is not the same as saying “Pavlova wasn’t so great; any corps dancer could outpoint her today,” etc.) Legs have been going higher in dancers of both sexes and it seems to me that was to some extent inevitable, although current taste certainly plays a role.

(There’s a passage in Maria Tallchief’s bio, I recall from memory, where she is teaching class at NYCB with the young Suzanne Farrell, and she suggests that Farrell raise her leg a bit. “You mean like this?” asks Farrell, and the leg extends to the heavens. Tallchief then says very graciously that she realized then why Balanchine was so focused by the capabilities of his new young dancers.)

More thoughts, perhaps on different schools and training as well?

#4 bart

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Posted 01 April 2009 - 09:55 AM

Thanks very much, robynn, for that fascinating Link, which offers us insights and methodology not often found in ballet criticism.

I quite enjoy the idea of scientific method being applied to artistic performance -- even if some of the explanations for the changes may be in the nature of guesswork. (Woops! Sorry! I meant to say "Hypothesis".)

The attempt to correct for sampling bias is admirable. Compare this, for instance, to those of us non-scientists who routinely make large generalizations based on very selective and anecdotal evidence.

The "Comments" are interesting too. For example:

Call it the Tiger Woods syndrome. There seems little doubt that dancers have become better conditioned over time, and that they train more intensively for longer hours. As someone is able to do something just a bit better than others (lift the trailing leg a bit higher or hit the ball just a bit harder), that becomes a competitive advantage which others will chase.

Getting and keeping a position in a professional company is a very competitive activity, and anything that gives you even the slightest advantage is worthwhile.

The most interesting result to me is that the arabesque sur la pointe now seems to be following the same trend, after a long period when 90 degrees was apparently the 'correct' angle.

I suggest that this may be the result of novelty seeking behavior of the audience mind and the desire to maintain a strong positive reinforcement for the dancer, the favorable response from the rapidly jaded audience, as a ballet move becomes commonplace.


What makes the daprati, et al study so interesting to me is that it's not the intrinsic game (ballet) "improvements" that are driving performance so much as the extrinsic audience expectations... but there must be a finite "ceiling" on performance based on the physical constraints of bone, muscle, and gravity... i wonder if the burnout rate or body failure of ballet dancers has had a compensatory march to earlier retirement ages?

Something that needs to be injected into the discussion is the advancement of Sports Medicine - the increased knowledge of training techniques, injury rehabilitation, biomechanics etc. Better rehab of inevitable injuries allows dancers to prolong careers and make performances more extreme. A better understanding of training techniques reduces injury and allows the body to approach biomechanical extremes. This improved knowledge base has certainly been a major factor in changing performances.

AND -- FROM THE BALLET LOVER'S PERSPECTIVE -- HERE'S SOMETHING THAT SOUNDS REMARKABLY LIKE A POST ON BALLET TALK.

The issue is one of the lack of classical education.....I'm all for extension however there is something called LINE as in an arabesque which is a soft curve.....Gelsey Kirkland would be a prime example of a dancer who had miraculous ability but somehow kept her line pure and restrained.

When I worked with Margeret Craske in the early 80's [not fun at all] her concern was that ballet was no longer classical....it was like burlesque. While Ms Craske took her views to extremes, no stretching nothing higher than 90 she did have a point on the vulgarization of line. There is a difference between art; high/ low and sport and there should be an awareness of style and technique which dictates the hight of the leg....not all arabesques [used to mean hope] are equal.

Posted by: louis navarrete | April 1, 2009 10:02 AM



#5 leonid17

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Posted 02 April 2009 - 11:51 AM

[quote name='robynn' post='245106' date='Mar 31 2009, 09:48 PM']Here's a science blog article that a friend of mine pointed out to me that I found really interesting - how certain ballet steps have become more exaggerated over time, and why. Some of the included graphs that show the gradual increase of extension of arabesques and develope ala seconde are surprising.

edited to fix linking typo - thanks![/quote]

Ed Yong starts his blog by saying, “Classical ballet is one of the more conservative of art forms.” without reference to the type of classical ballet he is referring to.
He then goes on to say, “Classical ballet is one of the more conservative of art forms. Dancers express emotion and character through the same vocabulary of postures that was originally set in 1760, and often with entire choreographies that have been handed down for centuries.” If he is talking about the basic “five positions” in ballet, they are credited to Pierre Beauchamps, who died in1705.
There are a number of ways to approaching the aesthetics of academic classical ballet tradition and among them is the reasoning that a harmonic relationship of the body shape and movement should always be present and is fixed by academic standards.
Changes both in training and performing have taken place within curricula and demands outside and secondary to the academic school rules have taken place. C choreographers and Director of the 20th and 21st centuries have made performance demands of dancers which go beyond the aesthetic execution of the academic classical ballet vocabulary.

The academic classical ballet of the Imperial Ballet of St.Petersburg is where the tradition made its last major changes to establish a worldwide method and practice is for all intents and purposes the
new fount of all training and balletic tradition inherited from earlier forms. Academic classical ballet clearly has a set of aesthetic standards which should always be maintained in the Imperial Russian repertoire of the late 19th century and for some works of the 20th century. The angle height of an extended leg in any direction or in arabesque should never go beyond either ten to or ten past six o’clock for the simple reason the leg line breaks the accepted academic and harmonic relationship of the body that is aesthetically pleasing and historically accurate. ]Dancers in the past could achieve high extensions, but they were never to be encouraged upon the stage for aesthetic reasons and propriety.

For me not all dancers can achieve a harmonious shape in a high extended pose even if they can achieve it physically and in this case the company director should step in and say not on my watch.

Ed Yong states, “Almost more importantly, they show that the usually unquantifiable world of artistic expression can be studied with a scientific lens. In this case, the formal nature of classical ballet gave Daprati a rare opportunity to do so. Body postures could be objectively analysed, movements are standardised enough to allow for easy comparisons, and most of all, performances have been carefully archived for decades. That provided Daprati's group with more than enough raw material for studying the evolution of ballet postures over time.”

You cannot examine single aspects of a “posture” outside the contextual choreographic phrases or the total characterisation in a ballet. It simply has no value in terms of an aesthetic balletic
experience which comes through the whole of the phrasing of a variation or a pas de deux and more importantly the characterization of the role.
To support her audience assumptions, Daprati’s sample she uses, negates her study when we find that, “For both types of images, she found that 12 recruits with hardly any experience of ballet were more likely to prefer those taken from more recent years, than those hailing from the post-war period. “ This is an atypical sample of people who go to ballet. I find Daprati’s methodology and analysis indicates to me both a naivete and a simplistic view of what 20th century audiences wanted as you cannot talk about a London ballet audiences as being a single group when it is made up of some six or more disparate groups including a fairly large conservative group who attend 20 to 100 times more often than other members of Royal Opera House audiences.
If there is a correlation between extremes in ballet and social pressures I think she has failed. The most regular of the ballet audiences remain I believe above the appeal of the cheap and the vulgar in academic classical ballet yet will accept the extremes of such execution in modern works.

Ray is quite right to state, “The story doesn't take into account the influence of tastes and standards w/in ballet communities themselves that tend, I would assert (anecdotally, of course), towards exacerbating these changes. And of course it doesn't consider differences in national schools, or the post-Soviet influx of Russian bodies and training into the international pool.”[quote/]

It is not social pressures that have sought the extremes it is the product of the psychological typology of certain company directors and in some cases I would suggest their level of prurience and in others that they pay no concern to the wear and tear upon their bodies as long a a momentary effect is achieved for an unknowledgable audience.

The emergence in recent years of female dancers who have had experience of the sport of gymnastics has become wider and young dancers have been noticed and such sportive types have been readily exploited by choreographers and the dancers themselves have denied the established aesthetic of classical academic ballet. It was reported in the USA in 1998, nearly 25,500 children and adolescents ages five to 14 were treated in hospital emergency rooms for gymnastics-related injuries. Among girls' sports, gymnastics has one of the highest injury rates, increasing with the level of competition. Darcy Bussel a champion of high extensions wrote this in 2007. http://www.dailymail...-crumbling.html

“Of course, we have no way of knowing if audiences from the 1940s felt the same. But even without that knowledge, it's clear enough that the postures modern dancers have gradually shifted towards are those that modern people find most appealing. To Daprati, this suggests that the changes have been affected by aesthetics as much as by the physical prowess of the dancers.”
I have been in the fortunate position not only to have(and had) many good friends who started their ballet-going in the forties and before that and I have had extensive contact with dancers (many of whom became teachers) whose professional careers began with Anna Pavlova and the Diaghilev Ballet Russe almost 100 years ago. I still visit a ballet historian friend aged 96 year who started ballet going when she was 12 years of age alongside her studying the art.
In the illustrations shown we see Aurora’s variation from the birthday scene of, “The Sleeping Beauty”. Here is a very good example where the penchee arabesque can in joy and exhiliration rise to a height where I would not like to see it in other parts of the ballet. It is the judicious use of high extensions that count and not the socking it to you on every possible occasion where the extreme becomes too extreme. In the ala seconde illustration I see nothing lyrical, attractive or beautiful in the far right illustrations.
One reply to the blog I found interesting, “…what makes the daprati, et al study so interesting to me is that it's not the intrinsic game (ballet) "improvements" that are driving performance so much as the extrinsic audience expectations... but there must be a finite "ceiling" on performance based on the physical constraints of bone, muscle, and gravity... i wonder if the burnout rate or body failure of ballet dancers has had a compensatory march to earlier retirement ages?
Posted by: Rick MacPherson | March 31, 2009 2:27 PM “
I still do not believe that ,”the extrinsic audience expectations…” towards higher extensions are a reality.

I am glad that Bart quoted louis navarrete response to Ed Yong which was telling.

#6 bart

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Posted 02 April 2009 - 12:28 PM

You cannot examine single aspects of a “posture” outside the contextual choreographic phrases or the total characterisation in a ballet. It simply has no value in terms of an aesthetic balletic
experience which comes through the whole of the phrasing of a variation or a pas de deux and more importantly the characterization of the role.

This is a wonderful point, leonid. It would be interesting to see the author's response to it.

I suspect that she would agree, though she would benefit from exposure to the concept of "line" -- and the proportional relationships it involves -- which you mention.

Nevertheless, there is value, I think, in sort-of-scientific exercises like this. At least this study takes aesthetics seriously, even if it does not allow for aesthetic ideals. If nothing else it sparks interesting discussion. :P

It would be wonderful to hear more thoughts about this topic.

#7 GoCoyote!

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Posted 04 April 2009 - 05:38 PM

I agree with leonid, there is a distinction (albeit often a blurry one) between heightening the effect, making the same gesture simply bigger and actually changing a posture or step. Or to put it another way:

Sometimes more feels like more....... but sometimes more looks more like different.........and sometimes that different just looks plain wrong!

I find it strange how some professional dancers can actually get away with cranking up certain steps - there's one beautiful moment in the balcony PDD of Macillan's R+ J (the moment when he first seriously takes hold of her by the waist) which is often ruined by a Juliet taking her leg way up and in front of her face instead of leaving it at around hip level. That is in my book an example of changing the choreography, and worse into something totally innappropriate, and making no sense. It's no different to changing an arm from second to fifth just because you are flexible enough to do so, or singing an octave higher than on the score.

We may have a better understanding of the human body than, say, 50 years ago, in terms of understanding fitness, health, conditioning, injury diagnosis/ repair/ prevention, diet, safety etc as well as more advanced technology/ medicines and equipment and so on.... but these could all just as easily result in simply fitter, healthier, less injury prone dancers. I don't see why they should necessarily translate to changes on stage, even if they do result in more flexible dancers. There has to be something else driving it.

I've been reading up a bit recently about other past civilizations - what drove them and how they functioned, that sort of thing - (I'm thinking of setting up my own new civilization - anyone want in? :) ) Anyway one idea which really struck me was the idea that we are currently living in a world which values 'progress' above all other values. Moreover, we have all accepted that 'progress' has always (and will always) be the driving force / goal of civilisation and that we have in fact 'progressed' steadily and linearly from living in caves to right up to this very moment - this moment being naturally the peak of all civilizations so far achieved! LOL :P

But looking at other much earlier civlizations - as far back as we can look -it becomes so clear that their value systems were quite different to ours - they must have been - for example they might have rated 'purpose' higher than 'progress'. It's a fascinating area to explore - especially in these current times we live in! Anyway the point being 'progress' when you actually examine it turns out to be pretty reckless, uncontrolable and unforgiving value on which to base a civilization. 'Progress' demands a constant and, well I guess you'd have to say, progressive change even beyond the point when change is still needed or even desirable. It is by adhering so strictly and rigidly to the goal of 'progress' that we have arrived at our current model of civilization where science and technology totally dominates art and culture at least a million to one in terms of funding and human activity - which indicates how much the arts are really valued in this model of civilization. (this isn't a political point by the way, it's much more abstract than that).

So the idea is we are compelled (conditioned) to either accept as normal or to demand as necessary 'progress' in all things even if those things (and ourselves) suffer as a result. If something is wrong in the world it is because we 'obviously' haven't progressed far enough in the direction we are going and if we could just progress a little bit more we will eventually find the solution... rather like standing in the shower and turning the dial towards 'hot' and as it passes pleasant and starts to get uncomfortably hot, then scalding we keep turning the dial further and further looking to solve this problem without even thinking to try turning it back the other way.

This attitude of automatic, unquestioning acceptance of the need for 'progress' is so ingrained we don't seem to be able to even see it, or see it for what it really is - let alone imagine an alternative. The reasoning goes that all must modernize, change, accelerate, exaggerate just to stay relevant, to keep up with the, er, ever changing (ie 'progressing') times. All must be meddled with or else it will become obsolete. By not allowing things to ever remain 'static' we automatically disregard perfection whenever we do happen to reach it.... we keep going! ....... for the sake of progress.....

And most crucially of all this attitude has lead to a gradual shift in consciousness so that time itself is no longer experienced (felt) as the moment to moment bestowal of glorious, ecstatic 'newness' to all things by itself............ but instead it is regarded (thought of) as a sort of never ending vacuum opening up in front of us demanding to be filled moment to moment with some evidence of more 'progress' .... almost as if we need to make offerings of 'change' to it just to keep the clocks ticking.

I believe it is this increasing shift in consciousness (which has accelerated alongside technology, both driving/feeding off each other) which is being reflected in all the arts and in all aspects of our civilization. My shower analogy applies just as well to consumerism or the current economic crisis and proposed 'solutions' or ridiculously unecessary extensions in ballet ... "keep turning that dial!". Everything is louder, faster, more in your face and so on ..... 'Progress' over 'purpose' everywhere you look.

Coming back to focus on ballet. :wink: and I see this whole shift in consciousness expressed not just with this apparent 'need' for unnecessary extreme extensions all the time but also with the whole lack of musicality thing. (I see it all as the same thing). Musicality and that onstage presence which is so hard to define are in my opinion fundamentally about the dancer's relationship with time.... with the moment - it's about whether they are able to let the moment fill them or whether they feel they have to fill the moment. And this ties in perfectly with the way our fixation on 'progress' has altered our relationship with time, as mentioned earlier. Dancers (and everyone else) now think more in terms of their relationship with space, expressed in time, and not in terms of their relationship with time, expressed in space. The former tends to express discomfort and dissatisfaction, the latter harmony and elegance.

Interestingly I think classical ballet, classical music and any art form still with a well maintained 'heritage' actually suffers less because these traditions act as an breaking force to these urges for such unecessary 'progress'. And yet they are also where the effects are most noticeable (due to being able to reference the same works expressed by different generations over long periods of time) just as seen in the study being discussed on this thread.

In dance styles where traditions do not apply there is no such breaking force to slow down 'progress' and so we now will often see limbs not just extended to the extreme, but pulled aggressively almost as if the desire is for the dancers to 'progress' beyond the human form. The ultimate progressive modern ballet would probably be a dancer just walking on to centre stage and then just exploding into the wings to the soundtrack of white noise and heavy industry. :blink:

Anyway with that image I will finish! These are my thoughts, I don't know if I explained them very well.

Something tells me that even if we act linearly nature will always stay circular ..... maybe as art is a reflection of our civilization those legs were just telling us we'd reached some kind of zenith! (Let's hope so!) And I've seen plenty of more than 180 degree penchés which suggest it we are already coming full circle. :wink:

#8 dirac

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Posted 08 April 2009 - 03:32 PM

We may have a better understanding of the human body than, say, 50 years ago, in terms of understanding fitness, health, conditioning, injury diagnosis/ repair/ prevention, diet, safety etc as well as more advanced technology/ medicines and equipment and so on.... but these could all just as easily result in simply fitter, healthier, less injury prone dancers. I don't see why they should necessarily translate to changes on stage, even if they do result in more flexible dancers. There has to be something else driving it.


Good points, GoCoyote, but I would say that such improvements have brought about changes onstage because dancers with different bodies from dancers of the past are inevitably going to move in different ways (and look different, even if they are doing the same steps). There are indeed other factors at work, however.

#9 bart

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Posted 08 April 2009 - 04:12 PM

I agree with leonid, there is a distinction (albeit often a blurry one) between heightening the effect, making the same gesture simply bigger and actually changing a posture or step. Or to put it another way:

Sometimes more feels like more....... but sometimes more looks more like different.........and sometimes that different just looks plain wrong!


You put it wonderfully, GoCoyote. I also appreciate your example:

I find it strange how some professional dancers can actually get away with cranking up certain steps - there's one beautiful moment in the balcony PDD of Macillan's R+ J (the moment when he first seriously takes hold of her by the waist) which is often ruined by a Juliet taking her leg way up and in front of her face instead of leaving it at around hip level. That is in my book an example of changing the choreography, and worse into something totally innappropriate, and making no sense. It's no different to changing an arm from second to fifth just because you are flexible enough to do so, or singing an octave higher than on the score.


For me, the key is keeping the movement appropriate to the choreography, the music, the period, and the feeling of the piece. The fact that dancers can do more should be an encouragement to NEW choreographers to create NEW works.


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