Alexandra

Is Ballet an Art or a Sport? -- article

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This topic has been discussed here several times, and it's popular again because of the recent Under Armour ad. I have an article online in Dance/USA's From The Green Room:

http://www2.danceusa.org/ejournal/post.cfm?entry=what-s-the-score

I'm firmly on the "it's an art" side:

Artistry poses infinite questions. Sport is finite. It ends. It pits two teams, or several individuals, against each other to compete for one very decided, satisfying goal: who has the most points? Who was first to reach the finish line? These aren’t questions we ask about ballet.

What do you think?

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Certain dancers and ballet fans sometimes treat it more like a sport insofar as emphasizing (over emphasizing) the athletic components like number of fouettes, whether the fouettes were doubles or triples, numbers of spins, so on. I fall into the art camp - art in motion. At its best, ballet can be athletic and artistic simultaneously. The athletic is in service of the artisitic. As an example, when Angel Corella did Romeo and Juliet, his jumps and spins in the balcony scene were done with marvelous speed, height and technical accuracy. However, they were not merely athletic feats. He used them in service of creation of the character, as a way of expressing his joy, exuberance and love for Juliet. There are many artists who similarly use their prodigious athletic gifts in service of creation of character in full length ballets.

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Alexandra, thank you for the article. Not happy but not surprised at the 85% who think ballet is a sport.

I subscribe to Stravinsky's statement that ballet is the highest form of theatrical art, because its sole purpose

is to show beauty. (Anyone who has both listened to and watched The Sleeping Beauty knows that).

I think we (who love the art form) have a lot of work to do to get the message out.

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I'm firmly on the "it's an art" side

So am I, and I don't really understand why the misperception that it's a sport persists, unless most of the people perceiving it that way have never been to the ballet (and aren't pictures of Nutcracker or Sleeping Beauty the first things most of them think of?).A sport is by definition competitive - competition is its point. Some ballets have competitive moments, but few exist merely for the sake of competition.

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I don't think of all sports as competitive. Sports are physical athletic pursuits. They don't have to be competitive. If I go for a jog, I'm engaged in a sport, but it is not competitive. I think the athletic nature of ballet is why some people might regard it as a sport instead of an art.

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Alexandra, thank you for the article. Not happy but not surprised at the 85% who think ballet is a sport.

I subscribe to Stravinsky's statement that ballet is the highest form of theatrical art, because its sole purpose

is to show beauty. (Anyone who has both listened to and watched The Sleeping Beauty knows that).

I think we (who love the art form) have a lot of work to do to get the message out.

Greetings, Daniel, and thank you for reading the article! I'm sure it wasn't a scientific poll, but since we are in an age of Extreme Technique, I wasn't surprised that most who chose to answer the question were on the "sport" side. Please help get the word out! (I liked your Stravinsky quote, too.)

kfw, I remember in the very early days of Ballet Alert! that dance students would have this as a sig line: "I am an athlete and dance is my sport." (We would encourage them to find another :) ) I think we're in a sport age. I agree that sports are competitive; that's part of the definition of the word. Abatt, I think if a single person jogs, it's "physical activity."

There are ballet performances that feel like at least some of the dancers think they're in a competition.

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I don't doubt for a moment that stressing athleticism is meant to address the myth that ballet dancers are either effeminate gay men (or, occasionally, effeminate straight men, unless their love life is the stuff of straight male fantasy) or are delicate female creatures to be put on pedestals, worshiped, and moved around the stage by a man, and never, ever lesbians. Look at sports: it's not as if Rudy Galindo being out has inspired many male figure skaters to be out publicly or Greg Louganis' book and coming out has inspired many divers to come out, let alone many athletes who compete in professional team sports or tennis players and golfers who are after those big endorsement contracts.

Edward Villella's plaited muscles graced the cover of a national magazine to show that the former boxer was an athlete, but that wasn't even in classical ballet: it was in "Prodigal Son." Yet it countered the image, just as the Novice in "The Cage" and the women in "A Million Kisses to My Skin" belie the helpless female stereotype that causes many feminists to throw out the classical baby with the bathwater. The incentives are there to say, "We're athletic!" "We'll jump across the stage and wow you with our power!" "We're Americans and don't need all those crowns and all that hierarchy!"

But in between ballet dancer = sport there are two different things. The first is ballet dancers are as trained, strong, fierce, and fearless as any athletes out there, and that what they do could fell professional athletes in other sports. That is asking for respect for what it takes physically and mentally to make great physical feats look effortless. I suspect that many would do cartwheels at the 85% statistic.

The second is ballet competitions. There are several kinds of them, just like in opera. Some are scholarship competitions. Some are looking for potential rather than finished product. Some are looking for who is the best dancer, no matter how that is defined, on those competition days. (That doesn't mean that there isn't scouting among the judges or audience for their own companies in which they are looking for specific types of dancers [height, style, partnering skill] who may or may not be unfinished, but that's not always part of the formal competition.) It's easy to confuse competition with sport, since there are winners and losers -- no matter what the criteria, someone is holding the trophy/plaque/check at the end -- not just audience that's seen "Swan Lake," even if that competition were strictly interpretive and not overtly technical.

I think the steps between, which are distinct things, get conflated into the dance=sport argument, and it's unclear how those 85% are thinking of sport and dance.

Wonderful article, Alexandra!

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I don't think of all sports as competitive. Sports are physical athletic pursuits. They don't have to be competitive. If I go for a jog, I'm engaged in a sport, but it is not competitive. I think the athletic nature of ballet is why some people might regard it as a sport instead of an art.

Interesting.I don't consider jogging a sport. I think all sports, even auto racing, are athletic, but not all activities that require athleticism are sports. For what it's worth, Merriam-Webster calls a sport "a contest or game in which people do certain physical activities according to a specific set of rules and compete against each other." I'm sure you're right that some people equate athletic activity with sport whether competition is the point or not. But are there people who don't make that equation, yet consider ballet a sport because they have so little conception of what the art form is?

What a great discussion. Thanks, Alexandra.

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I think Under Armour has said they're running "ballet is a sport" ads to broaden their market. I'm sure it was innocent. It just fed into the wider question.

Helene, thank you for such an interesting post. I only mentioned ballet competitions in passing, because of space, but of course they're very influential, to both dancers and fans. If you're new to ballet, like a dancer, and learn that he/she is a Gold Medal winner!!!! of course you'll think ballet is a sport. Even the competitions, though, emphasize that ballet is an art. I remember about a decade ago, there was a very talented young man whom everyone expected to get a special higher-than-Gold medal whose variation did not go well at all. The judges had seen him do it time and time again, they knew what he could do -- and they decided to let him skate it again, which he did perfectly. The Varna people explained they'd done this because ballet is an art, and not a sport.

Ken, that's a good twist on the definition. For the article, I read several dictionary definitions and all incorporated the element of competition in their definition of sport. Your ask a good question and I'd say that if your first ballet is a star-studded "Don Q" or "Le Corsaire" (which used to make people cry, according to 19th century accounts) you'd think that ballet certainly has a sports -- even a competition -- element to it. I think one has to see a performance (one hopes more than one) where the dancers transcend this aspect and you're confronted with someothing that has nothing to do with the human body and wonder, What WAS that?

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I have always considered it an Art---but too many (on Ballet Alert, alas) view it as a sport, technique is all that seems to matter. Artistry is out the window if a fumbled turn or wobbly balance is seen. I consider myself to be fortunate to have seen many dance icons, none of them technical wizards (with the possible exception of Alonso in her prime) I have often wondered what today's ballet public

would think of two of my old favorites--Tatiana Riabouchinska and Hugh Laing with their high degree of artistry and low technical ability.---or Danilova and Markova--no technical wizards. Would their

artistry be overlooked? I tend to think so.

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Due to advances in orthopedic treatments, I think some of today's dancers are much more daring in pushing their technical abilities to the absolute limit, and may contribute to the feeling that ballet has become more like a sport. In the old days, once you blew out your knee or suffered some other signfiicant injury, your career as a dancer was over. Now many injuries can be repaired, and there is a daredevil competitive aspect to some dancers regarding spins, jumps, balances and so on. The audience has come to expect a high level of technical brilliance and daring.

Also, wasn't there a push to make ballroom dancing part of the Olympics? The relationship between dance and sports is not so far fetched.

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The relationship between dance competitions and sports is not so far fetched, although somewhat superficially, since almost all ballet competitions have age limits, and many are rewarding potential, not just rewarding specific performances, which is antithetical to sport, and which is why reputation-judging and political judging are so hotly debated in sports. It's why people hated the restrictions on which professional athletes could compete at the Olympics and were only interested in the "best of the best," not the best baseball players under 22 with less than x years of professional playing.

There's no equivalent of a World or National Championship or Olympics in most dance forms that are primarily performance arts. The very top ballroom dancers compete, and like in skating, their competitive resumes get them more prestigious partnerships, coaching jobs, and choreography gigs. Ballroom is heavily competition-based at all levels, hence the push to join the Olympics, which, so far, thankfully has been rejected. The closest things to a Pro-Am in ballet is the non-competing partner in ballet competitions.

Top ballet dancers and modern dancers do not compete, although there are a few competitions, like Varna, that attract a small number of future greats. Some ballet schools and teachers have reputations for training competition winners, but, it's rare for the students of company affiliated schools to compete, and some, like SAB, actively discourage their students from taking part. The vast majority of top companies in NA are hiring from their schools, not competitions, even if they offer scholarships to their schools to younger competitors.

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I prefer to see ballet - and contemporary dance, and all dance, really - as an art, and not a sport.

Doing something physically athletic, as has been so often and so eloquently emphasised, does not (to my mind) equal playing a sport.

I do not like competitions; unless they are "against one's self". But, that is just me. :)

-d-

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I fall into the art camp - art in motion.

Picking up on this concept, abatt, I like to say that ballet is sculpture in motion--which puts it squarely in the "art" category.

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Alexandra, thank you for the article. Not happy but not surprised at the 85% who think ballet is a sport.

I subscribe to Stravinsky's statement that ballet is the highest form of theatrical art, because its sole purpose

is to show beauty. (Anyone who has both listened to and watched The Sleeping Beauty knows that).

I think we (who love the art form) have a lot of work to do to get the message out.

I am with the 15% who think that ballet at its best is a "High Art."

Why oh why have 85% contributed through voting otherwise.

I am sorry if I offend, but such a vote result appears to reflect upon the value system of a good number of the contributors.

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I have a hard time looking at ballet as a sport, per se. However, we'r all aware of YAGP and other competitions, which almost make it looklike a sport.

But last night I saw a jazz movie, "Whiplash", which featured some competitions. But that didn't make the playing of jazz seem any more like a sport. You can make a competition out of anything. Spelling, dominoes, eating...it goes on and on.

That said, I thought I heard about a new ballet competition movie due out in '15. I need to look that up again, though.

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I'm surprised 85% think it's a sport. I agree it requires extreme athleticism, but to me it is definitely art. Despite the competition aspect, I find it closer in similarity to theatre or opera than to football.

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I think some of this is influenced by the competition ballroom community. I know that one of the standard titles for the field is "dancesport," and the continuing lobby to have it added to the Summer Olympics does nudge the field to the "sport" side of the spectrum.

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Just my 2 pence worth:

For the sake of the art i might be able to appreciate one's interest in this question. However, please remember that it's often best to start by asking: Who exactly participated in this poll? (Yes, this was ignored by the author, Alexandra Tomalonis). In other words, who goes to viewing anonymous and acerbic information from "Debate Rounds" and Comments -- to weigh in? Do you think the vote provides one with a "real" or "false" reflection of opinion? If you bet $20 would you say that the voters were "typical of the American populace as a whole", "potential ballet ticket buyers", etc? If the former, does it actually matter? An even more basic/common question is: How many people responded to the poll (eg 10)? I see 312 views, but is that the number of votes, and were they all by people from town x in state y? Otherwise one is left with a pretension of numerical fact posing as truth.

Sorry if this all sounds heavy handed but i'd rather protect and respect an art than erode it's potential by an uninformed comparison.

Kind regards.

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If you bet $20 would you say that the voters were "typical of the American populace as a whole", "potential ballet ticket buyers", etc? If the former, does it actually matter?

Yes.

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I don't know how many people go to see ballet performances in your country or mine for that matter, but I have no doubt that it is a pretty small proportion of the population.You can't go by ticket sales because so many of us go to multiple performances to see different casts.If you know very little about ballet but have been to one or two performances then the chances are that you will have been to see one or two of the late nineteenth century classics. Ballets that were created to display technique as well as artistry. It is very easy, if stylistic considerations are of no interest to either the dancers or their coaches, for these ballets to degenerate into mere displays of dance technique. I am thinking for example of a Swan Lake where the great Act 2 pas de deux is danced at a funereal pace, in order to show the ballerina's control,or a Sleeping Beauty where the ballerina appears to be going for a world record for the duration of her balances in the Rose Adagio.

If that is your experience of ballet either in the flesh or from DVD then you are going to see ballet as essentially a display of bodily control, and as such, not that different from gymnastics.A couple of years ago San Francisco Ballet came to London with a mixed bill that included two ballets for an all male cast, Mark Morris' Beaux and a piece by a young member of that company which was described as a homage to his Russian school. Beaux is a fascinating piece for an all male cast with not a jump in sight, the piece by the young dancer was a display piece with a limited vocabulary of jumps and turns. Beaux was greeted politely, with a degree of bewilderment, by the audience the "homage" piece with great enthusiasm.It seems to me that the audience were more in tune with the excitement generated by the "homage" than they were with the beauty of Beaux. That excitement, it seemed to me, was closer to the response to an outstanding sports event than to a work of art a" wow" response rather than "ah" that was so beautiful.

Danilova writing of the difference between ballet in Russia and the West said that ballet in Russia had once been concerned with storytelling and the creation of mood but had become a display of dancing. Perhaps the same thing has now happened in the West. There are dancers who say that you can never be too extreme when it comes to extensions and there are many who torture a score to give themselves time for extra turns and six o'clock extensions. If a choreographic text is altered by the addition of Mr X's or Miss Y's latest trick without any adverse comment then perhaps it should come as no surprise that ballet is described by many as a sport rather than an art form after all the addition of new tricks brings it closer and closer to ice skating which definitely is a sport.

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From my own somewhat limited experience observing ballet in the US (San Francisco, New York, etc) and on the internet/as televised from other cities, i agree with Ashton Fan et al. Regardless, let me say that it is more important to support questions which inform the future of the art. (Please note: i am not an academic with expertise in ballet, or a balletomane for that matter. Just a parent watching his 11yo dk begin to form her perspectives and {possibly} carve her career.) Anyway, is there a dance historian in the house? If so, might you please comment on our contrast between past and present: story telling, generation of mood through technique and artistry, (and I would add) strong artistic collaboration between composers, choreographers, dancers, set designers, costumer designers, etc (ie Ballet Russes) VERSUS apparent displays of individualistic dance techniques (ie extensions, balance, etc) which appear to operate within the spirit of competitiveness and thus as end unto itself? Does Chris Wheeldon's latest works appear to buck this trend? Is it enough? I really don't know. Regardless, I would love to read a well balanced and thoughtful review of that London audience which attended Morris' Beaux as i have seen the opposite: A standing ovation and curtain calls while dancers on stage shook their heads in disbelief: "Weird, they like it that much? Why?" Again i am not trained in this area but questions such as: "Please tell, do you go to the ballet often? Do you like sport? Did you like Beaux ... (likely silence) ... or was it all too "contemporary"?" Etc. Otherwise, i suspect, one is left with the nagging sense that the art is stuck and trying to get unstuck or has no appropriate questions for shaping the future.

Albeit from a different angle here's an interesting reflection which i put down to art vs pure technique as it relates to past vs present:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/29/arts/dance/bolshoi-ballet-turns-back-the-clock-in-its-new-york-season.html?ref=arts

"...each keeps extending a leg in the air and then clutching it, as if this meant something).”

i hope that helps.

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Alexandra, I have thought about this question for a long time and I feel that the simple answer is that it is both an Art and a Sport. The Random House College Dictionary defines Art as "the quality, production, expression, or realm of what is beautiful, or of more than ordinary significance." Based on that, in my mind Ballet is definitely an Art, particularly in terms of being beautiful. The definition for Sport is "an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature." I interpret the phrase "of a competitive nature" as meaning overt competition where there are formal winners and losers. Since the word "often" is used in the definition of sport and not the word "always" and since Ballet is "an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess," Ballet could also fit that definition, even if not overtly competitive.

This brings me to what I think of as "Athletic Arts." By "Athletic Arts" I mean performances of physical activity in which if there is competition the competitors do not have to be present at the same time and in which the scoring is complex or subjective or both. Some examples of what I mean by "Athletic Arts" are dance, gymnastics, synchronized swimming, acrobatics and figure skating although there are many others. I feel that trying to make Athletic Arts overtly competitive is harmful to its art.

Tom,

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Thank you for reviving this thread, Tom. Coming late to the party on this one, so I may repeat points made by others. Analogies between ballet and sports are natural to make. Both require intense and concentrated application from a young age with equally intense and specialized physical training (and all that such training implies, with issues involving weight, nutrition, injuries). Both athletes and dancers must cope with the loss of their powers at an age when many people are still getting started in their chosen professions, or the abrupt ending of careers by traumatic and irreparable injury.

Because of this, you’ll find some of the same arguments among sports fans that you do among ballet fans: Were the champions of X era as good as the champions of today, and vice versa? And as with dancers, the answer tends to be, Yes and No. (Peter Martins recently made such an anology with tennis players: If you put Bjorn Borg in his prime out on a court with Roger Federer, what would happen? Borg with his little wooden racquet would get clobbered. True – up to a point. If you put Borg out there with the advantages in scheduling, equipment, and training that today’s top players have, he would be exactly the type of opponent that gives Federer fits.)

Ballet also offers the kind of kinetic thrills that sport can offer, when we marvel at a dancer’s sheer physical prowess. Sports can also offer a kind of aesthetic pleasure when an athlete also has grace along with skill; Federer is often compared to ballet dancers. It’s around there that the analogies taper off, because ballet has the added dimension of creativity; it has possibilities that expand far beyond winners and losers, faster and slower. And because it is art, and high art, it’s more difficult and reaches fewer people in spite of the crowd-pleasing aspects it does possess.

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Ballet competitions are closer to track and field events – if they're at all a sport. They may intersect – or at least the ideas do – in the ballet Agon but really only there.

Sports don't have a narrative and are at best, in terms of art, improvisations. You wait for Steph Curry to do certain fascinating and witty tosses of the basketball, you wait for the ball to describe complex interweavings among players that only the Warriors can do, you listen to the long roll calls of statistics by the sports announcers (like the caller in Square Dance). Basketball can be occasionally "balletic" despite all its clumsy falls and odd gestures, but it's not ballet.

You could say that sports are messy free will and ballet is elegant predestination.

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