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The Ballerina - Artist?


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#1 SanderO

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Posted 04 September 2009 - 03:54 AM

I just returned from a screening of "The Ballerina" which is a documentary film focusing on 5 dancers at the Kirov. The film also shows how these dancers start at Vaganova at age 9 and study for 9 years and face an audition/test which will determine if they have a career in ballet. It is a fascinating look into the world of Russian ballet, where the ballerina has become the muse Russian culture. You get to see the teachers, instructors, the directors and one male dancer from Paris Opera ballet who offers some commentary of the Russian ballerina.

I enjoyed the presentation, especially for the look behind the curtain to see a bit of how this all happens. One cannot but have a better understanding of how hard these dancers work, how obsessed they are with perfection and come away with even more appreciation of what it is that they do.

What struck me as I was reflecting about "the Ballerina" was the notion I live with is that ballerinas are "artists", performance artists, whose language is movement but whose message is more than aesthetics - it involves human emotions, the human condition etc. The repertoire is very limited, the choreography is more or less set, the boundaries of the possible are somewhat well defined. The process of ballet, that is producing the dancer begins with children who perhaps have a child's view of what ballet is; what else could they have?. These children are shaped with 9 years of training their bodies. When selected at age 9 it is even hard to know exactly what they will look like at 19 when their training is over. And most, at best, have a shot at the "entry" level of a company - the corps.

Yet somehow a few "artists" emerge. The trained ballet dancer seems to have reached the epitome of control of their body. They've nailed how ballet is meant to look. And then they face the task when they are advanced through coryphee to soloist to principal where they become the leads and portray the characters. The characters who act, who exhibit emotion, who pull at our heart strings. They inhabit their roles like brilliant actors do in theater.

In my mind I have conflated the notion of a great artists with a deep understanding of the human condition, of someone who has perhaps suffered, and struggled not so much with technique, but of "issues" that humans face about the world we inhabit. While a child experiences emotions, I think they often don't have the maturity or the greater context of the "human condition" to process this into an artistic "output" of some sort. We see very few, for example, visual artists, scultors, painters who are very young. We do see prodigies in music. I've listened to some very young performers who seem to play their instruments with remarkable maturity and sophistication, depth in a way that goes beyond pure technical skill. This amazes and confounds my own sensibility. I hear it, I am moved, yet I cannot make sense of it. How can a child, so young have the depth, understanding and so forth which I associate with the production of art?

When I see some ballet I see more than difficult perfectly executed "synchronized" dancing as one might see with say "cheer leaders". There's a message in the ballet that the "librettist" and choreographer are offering to us. Their instruments are the dancers, customers, set designers, ADs and so forth.

I'm struck with how these messages of emotion and "content" are distilled into the most subtle manner how a dancer will move. Frankly I am completely mystified at how this happens. I can understand that ballet is a series of specific well defined movements strung together in flow, if you will. I still am perplexed at how these masters of movement find their message and inject it into their movement. Can this be taught? Do these schools even try? If so how is this learned or taught? Isn't it more than superb technique that makes a great dancer? And how do they find this "more", learn this "more" at such a young age when it appears that all their training is focused on technique and fitting precisely into a preconceived expectation?

There is something magical going on which I don't understand but what is the brilliance of ballet and why we can return again and again to see the same limited repertoire. Whatever that magic is, that is how it "gets into" ballet is not revealed in "the Ballerina".

I was struck by one scene in the movie when Evgenia Obratsova who was the youngest to perform Romeo and Juliet and had devoted fans (who closely followed her career) and who she met after a performance. She looked like a little girl, a child, sweet, fragile, delicate, innocent, yet these sophisticated fans saw her as an artist who with great skill had "interpreted" the role of Juliet. In performance she was a mature artist, off stage she was (appeared to me) as a more like a child. Perhaps I am projecting and not seeing what is there?

Also the comments of maestro Gergiev refers to some of these your girls almost like clay with a special ability to be molded by Vaganova into artists - great artists. The teachers somehow see this and somehow will bring the artist out in some of these dancers. It's more than physical beauty.

The film was very provocative and has my mind spinning around trying to understand these mysteries that becoming a great ballet dancer is.

#2 Alexandra

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Posted 04 September 2009 - 06:40 AM

Thank you for that post, Sandor O. I don't think it's possible to really truly understand it -- it's been one of my main interests for the 30 years I've been a critic. I have a few insights (many of them learned qiute lately from working at a ballet school) but there's no answer, any more than there's a factual answer to why Beethoven was Beethoven.

I think some things can be learned -- a dancer can be polished, can imitate a gesture to look sad, or loving, or whatever emotion is appropriate; can count so that s/he seems musical, etc. But I think much of it is instinct -- and how anything as unnatural as classical ballet can be instinctual is one of the great mysteries of life.

A story. We had a boy from Korea at KAB who did an Albrecht, at 15, that is better than most Albrechts I've seen danced by 25 or 35 year olds on stage. It's my understanding that there is no tradition of Romanticism in Korean culture. I doubt he knew the story before his teacher taught him the pas de deux (they just danced the pas de deux) but he felt that music, and you could see, on a bare stage, a forest and a moon. I asked him how he did it, and he said, "Not artistry. Technique." Yeah, right. He could also tell, by instnct (because what can you have seen at 15?) which dancer should dance which role. ("He not right for that. He not Albrecht. He Basil.")

I've seen students study videos and choose which one suited them (with guidance from their teachers, who might throw out everything they've learned) and work and work on a role and give excellent performances -- perhaps limited by a less than excellent technique, but you can't fault the feelings. Some of them do not have perfect turnout or beautifully shaped feet. Some of them are 4.4 pounds overweight -- things that would keep them out of major companies, so you'll never see them. And then there are the technical whizzes who seem to not have a brain in their heads -- but I have them in academic classes, and they are intelligent, and can think, and analyze literature and understand Romanticism, say. It doesn't show in their performances -- thinking too hard? Or is it that they're given such difficult material that, at 15 or 16, they are struggling to master every step and they don't have time to phrase it?

I liked the Ballerina movie a lot -- and so did my students (I showed it to them in summer school this year). A lot of them asked very similiar questions to what you raised.

#3 SanderO

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Posted 04 September 2009 - 12:02 PM

I find art in any mode human's greatest gift to ourselves. All the rigor, technique and principals of aesthetics that each culture adapts to the service of the arts all brilliant.

Ballet as art is such a complex and subtle art. Perhaps we see the choreographer as the "prime" artist in the ballet. They leave us the work and the performance artists inhabit the piece yet struggle to find unique interpretations within such a narrow range of possibility. They can't improvise too much or the work is not recognizable. There is more than perfection of movement and technique. That "more" is where the artist works/emerges in ballet.

Geniuses they are. I wonder if they can even articulate what they are doing? Or who they do it?

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 04 September 2009 - 01:04 PM

Well, one of the chief pleasures of classical ballet is that, if you see 20 ballerinas (real ballerinas, not just dancers :) ) dance Aurora, or Giselle, or Odette/Odile, you will see 20 totally different interpretations -- different physicality, phrasing, dynamics, liunes, everything. Not because they're trying to be different, but because they're being themselves.

#5 LiLing

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Posted 04 September 2009 - 09:16 PM

In my mind I have conflated the notion of a great artists with a deep understanding of the human condition, of someone who has perhaps suffered, and struggled not so much with technique, but of "issues" that humans face about the world we inhabit. While a child experiences emotions, I think they often don't have the maturity or the greater context of the "human condition" to process this into an artistic "output" of some sort. We see very few, for example, visual artists, scultors, painters who are very young. We do see prodigies in music. I've listened to some very young performers who seem to play their instruments with remarkable maturity and sophistication, depth in a way that goes beyond pure technical skill. This amazes and confounds my own sensibility. I hear it, I am moved, yet I cannot make sense of it. How can a child, so young have the depth, understanding and so forth which I associate with the production of art?



I think we have to distinguish between creative and interpretive artists.
Many children and teenagers have vivid imaginations, and an intense emotional life. Those are two of the components that mark a talented performer, so it doesn't surprise me when a young dancer shows a high level of artistry. What I do wonder at is how they hold on to that through the years of technical training. Years that can sometimes be stressful, competitive, and for some, soul crushing. Miraculously, some do, and if they also have the passion for hard work, musicality, and a suitable physic, we have a ballerina. They will mature and their work will deepen with more life experience, but the great ones seem to show their special qualities very early on.

#6 Hans

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Posted 04 September 2009 - 09:52 PM

What I do wonder at is how they hold on to that through the years of technical training.


Good training is not merely technical.

#7 dirac

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Posted 09 October 2009 - 06:24 PM

True, Hans, but it is remarkable, all the same. These kids have to absorb so much!


We had a boy from Korea at KAB who did an Albrecht, at 15, that is better than most Albrechts I've seen danced by 25 or 35 year olds on stage. It's my understanding that there is no tradition of Romanticism in Korean culture. I doubt he knew the story before his teacher taught him the pas de deux (they just danced the pas de deux) but he felt that music, and you could see, on a bare stage, a forest and a moon. I asked him how he did it, and he said, "Not artistry. Technique." Yeah, right. He could also tell, by instinct (because what can you have seen at 15?) which dancer should dance which role. ("He not right for that. He not Albrecht. He Basil.")


That's a great story.


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