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The state of character dancing (and training) today


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#1 bart

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Posted 24 November 2009 - 10:44 AM

rg started a most interesting thread on the early 20th century Russian character dancer -- and filmaker -- Alexander Sheraev. I was interested to learn that Vaganova asked Sheraev to systematize the character dance movements for her syllabus at the Kirov school. (Thank you, chiapuris, for that information.) I assume that most companies have some sort of character dance training today, however minimal.

This got me thinking about the many pleasant but bland and generally unconvincing Russian, Spanish, Gypsy, Neapolitan etc. etc. dances I've seen over the years. The impression of simplistic, un-nuanced caricature seems to be increasing in recent years.

What is the state of character dancing in ballet today? And of character dance training? Which companies do it best? Which need a little help? Specific examples, including ballets on video and links to YouTube, would be GREAT ... and very helpful.

In case you missed it, the original thread on Sheraev is here:
http://ballettalk.in...p...c=30679&hl=

#2 Hans

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Posted 24 November 2009 - 12:44 PM

My experience has been that the state of character dancing today is very bad. Not many schools offer character dance classes, and those that do generally do not require it for very many years, and even then the classes are held about once a week, so although it is fun to do, it's difficult for students to take it seriously. Part of the problem, I think, is that relatively few ballets really require character dance. The most widely performed are Swan Lake and The Nutcracker (but Nutcracker's character dances are frequently balleticised). Otherwise, there is Coppélia, particularly Act I, and how many companies perform a full-length Don Quixote, Le Corsaire, or La Bayadère?

The worst character dancing I've seen lately was in ABT's Swan Lake. Bland and boring. I understand the dancers are performing for nobility in a ballroom, but the dancing still must have weight and power. It was much too light and delicate.

I believe the Bolshoi's character dancers are usually quite excellent, with a stirring dramatic fire and expressive upper bodies.

It's a bit difficult to find videos, but I'll search some more.

#3 Mel Johnson

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Posted 24 November 2009 - 02:36 PM

I have to concur with Hans. The last great character teacher in NYC was Yurek Lazowsky at the old Ballet Russe school. Ballet dancers doing character today are far too airborne. They have the pull-up all right, but they miss the idea that there has to be a push DOWN into the floor in order to achieve that.

#4 mmded

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Posted 24 November 2009 - 03:43 PM

Character dancing has always been a part of my daughter's training, in her home studio in RAD syllabus, residential training in Canada and continued at John Cranko Academy in Germany. Character dance was one of the exams required to complete in order to graduate from Cranko.

#5 Nanarina

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Posted 24 November 2009 - 04:08 PM

:dunno: This subject has been a major complaint of mine for many years, and I have raised the question before on Ballet Talk. It seems to me that the standard of character dance in the west just does not compare to the Russian companies. It is not really surprising when you consider that both the Bolshoi and Kirov and no doubt other Soviet dancers were specially trained, and in the case of the women, they never dance on pointe, specializing for their whole training on Character dance, and being considered equal in rank to Ballet stars. It is true that very little training is given to dancers in the West, so how can we expect them to create the wonderful movement and style we see from Russia.

The style of character dcance is v ery different to ballet, and represents national or regional characteristics. Some going back for generations, and is still even danced today by villagers and groups based on regional themes. Within classicl ballet's some of these dances should be generally much more grounded, with the steps danced into the floor, using a "plie" or the bending of the supporting leg the movement continues up through the body, the carriage of the upper body could be considered to look regal, and most movements are finished with an emphasis or flourish. That is more stylish than ballet in it's own special way. There is a definate change in the speed of the steps, from slow and controlled to fast and exciting.


But what has happened to the Folk and National dances of the UK for instance. Appart from a few scattered groups who try to protect and keep them alive, it has almost died out. Scotland has preserved it's Highland dancing, sword dncing bagpipes, kilts. As well as Reels and other community dances.

In Ireland , true Irish dancing has enjoyed a revival with the promotion of Michael Flatley and Colin Firth with their Riverdance productions. and the Irish Dance Championships. There seems to be a wider interest in people taking up the interest.


But in England itself, despite the efforts of The Folk Dance and Song Society, the National Dances play a minor part in the world of Dance. There are a few groups of dedicated people trying to hold onto the traditions, but young people are not following in their footsteps, so the heritage of our rural dances are in a perilous state. There are a number of quite well known dances, struggling to survive.
Listed in no particular order, there are The Morris Ring,(Which is quite buoyant) Molly Dancers, Lancashire Clogg Dancers, (Fille mal Gardee) Sword Dancers (part of Morris) Maypole Dances, Country Dancing,

However , these dances are not in fact strictly Character dances as in the world of ballet, but are rare in featuring in professional works, one can mention La Fille mal Gardee, in which Sir Fred Ashton used , Morris, Maypole and Clog dancing, and which was very entertaining. He also use choreography to reprersent Gypsy dance in Le deux Pigeons, and a theme of Russian in A Month in the country.


At the Royal Ballet School National and Folk dance featured in the curriculum. So he was able to achieve the desired results. The E.F.D.& S.S., does hold cllasses and meetings at their head quarters and provides literature for interested parties.

However, the true teaching within ballet of Character dance to the students is only as good as the teacher. And I agree with what has been already stated.

When you consider the difference of artistic performance in say the countries of eastern europe, from Hungary through to Greece, places such as Rumania, Bulgaria the Caucauses, even as far as the Ukraine, the presentation and spirit that is evoked, even by amatuers is quite remarkable. It seems to be inborn. If you look back in the other direction to Spain, Portugal. then Latin America, they all have their regional dances, some of which have influenced other forms of dance, such as the Samba, Tango and Pasadoble to name a few.

So when you contemplate all these facts it is no wonder that the quality of dance in these regions excells over the west.

Folk and National dance should be "free" expression, it is not performed, or choreographed only say in the case of exhibition groups who attend festivals to perform.


The steps and movements are handed down from generation to generation, with the music being played on tradional instruments and costumes representing the region or area in which the dance originated.


Character dance is very special to me, and I hate it when modern choreographers change the interpretation and make it too balletic or airborn.
Some of Nureyev's attemps in his Swan Lake (POB) are abosutely attrocious, with the Czardaz and Marzurka just ballet steps and leaping around.

Sadly there is very little on YouTube to give us examples to compare, the only way you can do this is by watching DVD's or Video's if you still use them.

#6 stinger784

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Posted 24 November 2009 - 06:19 PM

Being a character teacher at a Russian based ballet school in the valley of Phoenix, we are promoting character classes from I believe the 3 or 4th year in our 9 level school. Whether the children realize the importance of it is a very different discussion. Many students have yet to realize that character dance shows up in many classical story book ballets that are still performed today. No matter how many times we show our students videos of the ballets and the ballets they actually perform they still just want to do pirouettes and brush off the character dances. This has been quite the learning experience for me and has taught me how to make character dancing interesting.

After studying with a classic Georgian, Vladimir Djouloukhadze, at the Kirov Academy, I have been able to make the class more fun that just learning to stomp your feet. I think a lot of it has to do with who is teaching the class. Far too often there are not any qualified teachers teaching character class. Far too often there are teachers teaching character class that don't even know the names of the steps or what country they originate from, etc. So this brings me to this conclusion, better qualified teachers and starting at younger ages will make the character dances in the ballet companies better. I can not stand it when schools just hire a warm body to get up and teach the class. (Can you sense my frustration?!?!?!)

Hans, I will disagree with your comment about character dances not being performed as much today, by the way you left out Sleeping Beauty. All the ballets you have named are in every major repertoire of every company in the United States today. So to say character dancing is waning is just not true. It's those story book ballets with the character dances that keep the companies in business.

As for Nutcracker, how many Russian dances are truly Russian? It's sad to say that just because it is an Eastern European step makes it Russian. :dunno:

I feel priveliged to work with a director at the school where I teach that has been trained specifically in character dancing in Russia. She has given me a great deal of knowledge, books and video of character lessons that not many people are privy too.

In conclusion I will just say this after my long rant...

Just because you learned character dance does not mean you can teach it. And just because you can dance character dance does not mean you can teach it. Watching, learning and listening over and over again I think can save the character dance world before character dance just becomes a parody of itself.

Thank you.

#7 Hans

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Posted 24 November 2009 - 08:42 PM

All right, as far as character dance goes, Sleeping Beauty has a mazurka danced by the French-style court at the very end of the ballet. But are you serious that Bayadère, Corsaire, Don Q, and Coppélia are in the repertoire of every major ballet company in the US? ABT does all of them, SFB has a Don Q, NYCB does Coppélia occasionally (and PNB will start this summer). Doubtless there are a few more (and of course everyone does Swan Lake and Nutcracker) but as far as those ballets being in the regular repertoire of every major ballet company in the country...I'm afraid that just isn't true.

By saying that, I do not mean that character dance is irrelevant. Quite the contrary: it is essential for any ballet dancer's education, if only because they are going to have to do it at some point, and it really can't be faked. Ballet companies should probably hold character classes, at least when they are performing a ballet that requires it, and frankly I think ballet schools should replace jazz with character.

#8 stinger784

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Posted 24 November 2009 - 10:08 PM

I disagree with you saying that they should replace jazz with character. I think they need to add it to the curriculum. With all the neo-choreographers out there, if you can't move don't be a dancer. All the truly classical companies are gone. Dancers today need jazz. I am not talking the jazz where dancers are wearing hardly anything on stage, but jazz is just as essential as character is to a ballet dancer.

And Hans, if you even look at the mid-sized companies, my former director's Corsaire has been gaining some steam and the Forban in there is quite the character dance. Here in Ballet Arizona, at least 2 productions a year require character. Character is alive and well in companies of every size. Don't forget that there are more character dances than the ones that require character shoes. Back to Eldar Aliev, my former director, his 1001 Nights is extremely character oriented and has been reproduced across the US. La Fille Mal Gardee is yet another one.

Many of Balanchine's dances require character dance as well. His Stravinsky Violin Concerto is strictly Georgian character dancing. His Tzigane. His Tarantella.

Have we forgotten Bournonville's Napoli and almost everything else Bournonville has done? Character is alive and well in companies of every size.

Hans I think you might be putting yourself in a box. Look more at rep pieces rather than just the big story ballets.

#9 Nanarina

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Posted 25 November 2009 - 05:37 AM

All right, as far as character dance goes, Sleeping Beauty has a mazurka danced by the French-style court at the very end of the ballet. But are you serious that Bayadère, Corsaire, Don Q, and Coppélia are in the repertoire of every major ballet company in the US? ABT does all of them, SFB has a Don Q, NYCB does Coppélia occasionally (and PNB will start this summer). Doubtless there are a few more (and of course everyone does Swan Lake and Nutcracker) but as far as those ballets being in the regular repertoire of every major ballet company in the country...I'm afraid that just isn't true.

By saying that, I do not mean that character dance is irrelevant. Quite the contrary: it is essential for any ballet dancer's education, if only because they are going to have to do it at some point, and it really can't be faked. Ballet companies should probably hold character classes, at least when they are performing a ballet that requires it, and frankly I think ballet schools should replace jazz with character.




Definatly...Yes, Yes, and the sooner the better. Jazz should come under the umbrella of a "Stage School".

#10 Nanarina

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Posted 25 November 2009 - 06:52 AM

:dunno: Is there confusion between the terms Character Dance, A Character Ballet and the portrayal of a Character??


Character Dance Marzurka, Czardaz, Jota

Character Ballet Napoli, L'Arlesienne, Le Tricorne

Character Dr Coppelias, Red Riding Hood, The Miller

#11 stinger784

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Posted 25 November 2009 - 07:08 AM

Nope. No confusion at all.

#12 bart

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Posted 25 November 2009 - 07:55 AM

Thanks, all, for your thoughts. This is fascinating.

I wonder how fixed these styles are or should be. Hans' point makes a good point:

... {A]s far as character dance goes, Sleeping Beauty has a mazurka danced by the French-style court ...

This raises questions about authenticity, doesn't it? As with the transition from the original Nutcracker Trepak/folk dance to Balanchine's Candy Cane. They both have hoops. But how much else do they have in common?

I've been thinking about Mel's point: that character dancing today can be "much too airborne." I assume that audiences today both expect and demand that look.

In contrast, my most vivid memories of the Gypsy dances in Don Quijote are from Victor Ullate's company in Madrid a decade ago. (They performed the same work in New York City later that year.) I can still see the gypsies seeping in with knees bent and torsos close to the ground. Even when jumping, they never lost contact with the earth. They made a scene that is often tedious (for me) exciting and dangerous. Nothing in the Kirov video (Terekhova, Ruzimatov) or the Perm video (Ananiashvili, Fadeyetchev) comes close.

A difficulty in teaching authentic character dancing must be that young dancers DO see these works on video -- and versions of nationality dancing in other more popular dance forms. Possibly they feel it is sufficient to replicate the movements they see everyone else performing. Don Quixote? Taco commercial? Disney stage show? You mean it ISN"T all the same thing?"

#13 dirac

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Posted 25 November 2009 - 10:16 AM

And Hans, if you even look at the mid-sized companies, my former director's Corsaire has been gaining some steam and the Forban in there is quite the character dance. Here in Ballet Arizona, at least 2 productions a year require character. Character is alive and well in companies of every size. Don't forget that there are more character dances than the ones that require character shoes. Back to Eldar Aliev, my former director, his 1001 Nights is extremely character oriented and has been reproduced across the US. La Fille Mal Gardee is yet another one.

Many of Balanchine's dances require character dance as well. His Stravinsky Violin Concerto is strictly Georgian character dancing. His Tzigane. His Tarantella.

Have we forgotten Bournonville's Napoli and almost everything else Bournonville has done? Character is alive and well in companies of every size.

Hans I think you might be putting yourself in a box. Look more at rep pieces rather than just the big story ballets.


Thanks, stinger784. Interesting points.

#14 Nanarina

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Posted 25 November 2009 - 10:33 AM

:dunno: A French style Marzurka? Not a true Marzurka, a Choreographers take on the subject. If it was authebntic it would be danced by say Hungarian visiting guests at the wedding, wearing national costume.
then it could be considered authentic. The first Marzurka's came from Poland, and that is the ethnic connection.

Czardas the national dance of Hungary, originated from Gypsy music and dances, it also formed the basis for the Magyar Kor a ballroom dance favoured in Eastern Europe. It is performed as a dance for courting couples; and features alterations in tempo from slow to fast.



I do not agree that authentic dances should be altered to suit the audiences. Resulting in the original interpretation is gradually lost. What is more I do not think a western audience really knows what a true character dance is, they are mainly used to a Choreographers idea or whim. In saying that I do not hold any grudge, if it is because they have not had the opportunity to experience character dance in a true form. Neither can we really blame a choreographer or reperter if they are not conversant with it either. It comes down basically to a lack of experience and knowledge. Or they are just not interested in preserving the older traditional values.


I would very much like to suggest some Ballets for the members to be able to see what I am referring to, but this may take a little time for me to go through my large collection of DVD's as well as getting some new ones, to be able to complete this project. Then I will post my findings later for you all to compare and comment if you so desire. Hopefully you will probably have a collection of DVD's and video's you can use. It will be a good excuse to spend some more time than usual watching them.


Enjoy your interest in Dance Nanarina.

#15 Hans

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Posted 25 November 2009 - 10:37 AM

Ian, there appears to have been a misunderstanding. My list of ballets was not intended to be exhaustive; I was merely naming some of the most well-known ones that require large amounts of un-balleticised character dancing. Obviously there are many more examples even beyond those you have listed, but there is no need to point out every single ballet that requires a few character steps or we would be picking at each other for years. My point is, and has been from the beginning, that although character dance is a necessary skill for ballet dancers to have, many of them do not have the training needed to do it well.


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