Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0
Ed Waffle

New levels of fitness

35 posts in this topic

According to John Percival in yesterday's Independent, Ross Stretton expects dancers at the Royal to attain "new levels of fitness".

One assumes he can only be talking about notably unfit people like Johann Kobborg, or Tamara Rojo.

I read those Words of Wisdom, just after leafing through an old interview with the pianist Claudio Arrau. He was talking about his crony Beethoven, and said something like: "it's an exchange of worlds. There is the world of Beethoven, and the world of the interpreter, and there is an exchange between the two worlds, where the interpreter gives his blood to a work which would otherwise not live without him."

Arrau said that his professor, R. Krause, who died in 1918, had told him to study disciplines outwith the field of music, to develop the most vigorous mental life.

If anyone wants to know why ballet has been such a bone-crushing BORE for the last couple of decades, look no further than comparing the Arrau interview, to the "new levels of fitness" Sretton would like us to achieve. Ballet dancers today do not have a "world" to exchange with the composers and choreographers they dance to. Their minds are, in the main, empty, and THROUGH NO FAULT OF THEIR OWN.

Dancers today have to be so goddam "fit" (does anyone ever worry about their INTELLECTUAL un-fitness ???), that they have no time whatsoever to read, study, visit a museum or concert, or even think about anything save the latest insane diet fad, and cranking That Leg up a little higher.

What could Ross Stretton possibly mean by "new levels" of fitness ? The only way I can see today's vastly over-trained dancers becoming any "fitter" - and thus still less fit to be artists - is by the use of muscle-building substances hitherto known only to the world of competitive sport.

Grotesque.

[ March 13, 2002, 06:34 AM: Message edited by: katharine kanter ]

Share this post


Link to post

I too read those words of Ross Stretton with a sinking heart. Of course dancers have to be fit - that goes without saying - but I have a horrible feeling, possibly though not probably quite unfounded, that he thinks that fitness, gymnastics, virtuosity, are the point of ballet. He is far from alone in this, alas. The fact that I have seen the question, (on this board, I think) "Is ballet a sport or an art?" shows that attitudes are veering towards the idea of ballet as gymnastics in some quarters.

I would be curious to know whether people think this is the case more in some countries than others, or whether the idea started in one country. Is it an idea that was there in the past and is enjoying a resurgence? If you think, for instance, of Legnani's fouettes, it seems possible that it is.

Share this post


Link to post

Interview in today's Le Figaro with Arkadii Volodos, a Russian pianist aged about 30, whom I've never heard. His sense of personal authority and identity shew how far apart the world of ballet, and the world of classical music, have drifted over the last few decades, as ballet has turned to acrobacy, and dancers have become increasingly mindless.

Question: you refuse to discuss your incredible virtuosity -

"That's all purely mechanical work, and has nothing whatsoever to do with art....the people I studied with at Saint Petersburg, along with Jacques Rouvier at Paris, and Bashkirev at Madrid, taught me, not gymnastics, but music. And a piece of good luck that was !...

"I refuse to go beyond sixty concerts a year, and reserve three months, just to take a breather. I'm lucky enough to be able to stop playing altogether for several weeks, and come back to the piano without difficulty. As for the instrument, I've just bought myself a small upright, ideal for practising inside one's rooms, where, frankly, a concert Steinway's of no use. Let us keep our feet firmly on the ground, music itself suffices to lift us up off this earth !"

Share this post


Link to post

I deleted a post on this thread and notified the poster of the deletion and the reason for it.

[ March 13, 2002, 11:17 AM: Message edited by: alexandra ]

Share this post


Link to post

I'm not sure exactly what Stretton said, but, I wouldn't say ballet dancers minds are "empty" nor their intellectual stimulation lacking either. Many dancers in NY are pursuing higher education and several at NYCB do internships during their layoffs. (Tom Gold is now participating in their fashion/costumer program)

But I do believe the ante's been raised on physical appearance. Even the NYCB Workout is taught at gyms across the country and a best seller on book/video lists. Which adds the fuel to the fire that ballet is mainstreaming itself. There seemed a time when ballet needed to defend its physical prowess and compare itself to athletes in order to compete for ticket buyers.

None of it excuses it, but I often wonder why dancers feel the need to sign up for a gym membership as well as the classes, rehearsals and performances they attend.

I think it's just the era we live in as society, not just ballet, but everyone seems to want a healthy lifestyle and to have a certain "look" albeit not always a healthy one.

Share this post


Link to post

Part of the reason they sign up for gym memberships is that many ballet companies facilities no longer included weightlifting equipment for insurance reasons. Though it can be controversial, weight-lifting and strength training in general are essential parts of dance training and needed to stay healthy, but are often not offered sufficiently by companies (or schools) due to budgetary and space constraints. A strong dancer is a healthy dancer.

Share this post


Link to post

I always thought weight training was discouraged because it changes the shape/line of the muscles?

Share this post


Link to post

I ,too, would be interested to know what Mr Stretton means by "new levels of fitness".

It seems that there are more dancers injured in the company just now than ever before and dancers are talking about the heavy workload that they have and how tired they all are.

Not an ideal situation to improve fitnes levels in my opinion!

Share this post


Link to post

Calliope, with all due respect to the current dancers at NYCB (I'm glad for the Fordham program) I'd have to say you only need to read interviews with dancers like Tallchief or LeClercq to see the difference in the "intellectual cross-training" of dancers. Tallchief trained seriously as a pianist in tandem with her dance training. When talking about La Valse, LeClercq said, "Balanchine said to think of German-style contractions in it -- a feeling for plastique." I think the ability to give a correction like that and have a dancer know about the wider sphere of arts and knowledge around ballet becomes less and less. I can think of at least one dancer I've wished I had the power and authority to go up to and go "You are a lovely dancer. You will be a lovely dancer next year. Go to Europe. Visit museums. Fall in love, if you wish. Then come back and I will have held your place." We've got amazing thoroughbreds out there. But there's a price.

Share this post


Link to post

But weren't those dancers then also touring far more frequently, with shorter seasons than they have now?

Not to diminish the intellect at all, but while time would allow people to go to Europe and visit museums, and have a life, it depends on who you're suurounded by and who's teaching you and what they're exposures are.

Also how you grew up contributes greatly, which I believe LeClercq had a great deal of travel in her youth.

Dancers now have such a make or break by the time they're 17 that the developmental years are spent in classes as opposed to outside. At best a minimal high school education is achieved.

Share this post


Link to post

Calliope, I wonder if Leigh was regretting that dancers today don't have the extra time that the circumstances you describe would allow them to acquire more knowledge. He wasn't implying that dancers today are more ignorant by intention or capacity, I don't think. Dancers today are much more advanced technically as a group then they were in Le Clercq's day -- she said as much to Barbara Newman herself -- but there's a cost, as Leigh says.

Of course, this isn't limited to the dance world only -- it's happened in sports, too, with the increase in competition,improvements in training, and ever-rising technical demands. There's a scene in The Legend of Bagger Vance where the golf champion Bobby Jones is being introduced, and the speaker lists an impressive array of Jones' academic and athletic accomplishments, and none of them are made up. Couldn't happen today.

Share this post


Link to post

I think that "New...fitness" is just a sound-bite provided for journalistic consumption that sounds good, but means essentially nothing. What, after all, could one learn from the titles, "New Deal, Square Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier," and so on? Auditors will simply take it and apply their favorite dancer bugaboos as to what's meant.

Share this post


Link to post

Ross Stretton may be trying to address fitness for a few reasons. If one takes his statement at face value (and assumes the Independent reported it correctly) he is saying that dancers at the Royal are not fit—do not have a high enough level of aerobic capacity, strength, suppleness and anything else that might define fitness.

Another way to look at it, though, is that the level of fitness in the company is something he can affect quickly. It is also something which is measurable—oxygen uptake, amount of distance one can run or walk in certain time, how much weight one can lift and how many times she can lift it. It is a much easier task to take on than, for example, saying he wants a new level of artistry in the company. Fitness is a neutral concept—if you are not fit, here is a program to follow that will help. If you are not a musical dancer, whatever that may be, it would be a much more difficult issue to address.

This is one of the many ways in which ballet departs from sports, even though both are involve the body and physicality. Fitness and technique are the basis for success in most sports—artistry is not. Boxers, the athletes I am most familiar with, are generally very fit and work constantly on refining their technique. The fitness exception is among some heavyweights and those men in lighter weight classes who have to crash diet to make weight for a fight.

But fitness and technique will only take a boxer so far—and in a career that involves being hit in the face, “so far” is not enough. Greater hand speed, hand-eye coordination, the ability to be hit and not knocked out—all are things which can’t be coached into a nervous system that lack them. A trainer can insist that a fighter be more fit and that he work on technique to compensate for his shortcomings—that he make the best of the talent for the sport that he has.

Perhaps Stretton is simply beginning with something he knows he can be successful with, even though it may not be the most important challenge facing him and the Royal.

Share this post


Link to post

I think that regular well-taught ballet classes give a dancer all the "fitness" he or she needs. Aerobic conditionining is for runners and basketball players smile.gif And dancers who lift weights can end up with very strange-looking (for ballet) muscles.

I'm with Mel. This was a sound bite -- and, I think, an attempt to justify unpopular repertory choices by using what may sound like a professional reason.

I also agree with Katharine and Leigh about the intellectual (or, at least, artistic) cross-training of dancers -- that that is one thing lacking in today's dancers. It's not their fault; they don't receive the education. I don't think what's lacking is college degrees, especially if the degrees are in business and nutrition (which may be excellent for career planning, but that's a different subject). It's thinking of oneself as an artist, going to museums, listening to music. Very few children grow up in that environment and very few schools provide artistic education. And it shows on stage.

Share this post


Link to post

And for the most part, we are talking about high school aged dancers. A dancer from NYCB told me that when she entered the company, shortly after Balanchine's death, the average age of the dancers was 27. Now the average age, she said, is 21. Whether in ballet or the rest of the world there is a big difference between being 21 and 27. I don't think most ballet companies are equipped to make up for the education their dancers didn't get from school ro family.

Share this post


Link to post

Alexandra, I'm going to disagree with you.

Ballet classes are essentially anaerobic. There is a lot of starting and stopping. The heartbeat rises high and often, but not for extended periods of time. Endurance is never fully developed. The dancer tires easily. Conversely, doing a full-length ballet (like Sleeping Beauty) is a trial in endurance. Where is a dancer going to develop the endurance needed for a role like that, when they are not getting it in class and only get the run the ballet full through once or twice if they are lucky. They will have to find it outside the classroom.

While weight-lifting used to be discouraged. It is now encouraged, especially for men. In order to protect their backs and shoulders and knees (and all the other things a male dancer strains when he lifts another dancer) they need to strengthen them beyond the ability to lift a 110 lb. ballerina. I will agree that weight lifting for females is not as encouraged, but there could be fewer injuries if the girls were stronger too.

With a properly designed program of weight-lifting, a dancer can easily gain strength without "bulking up" or loosing flexibility. I was involved in a reserach study in college that proved exactly this.

Share this post


Link to post

Liebs, I think your point about age is a very good one. The average age is so low, too, because dancers retire earlier. When I first started watching ballet there was grumbling that dancers were being forced to retire at 40 and companies were losing "personality." Balanchine was criticized for his "heartless" way of getting rid of ballerinas when they hit 35. Now, 30 year olds are "senior dancers." It certainly matters with, as Leigh mentioned, more sophisticated ballets, although it's just fine for the aerobics numbers. smile.gif

As for stamina, dancers build the stamina to perform from performing, from regular dancing. They managed to do this for decades without the need for an aerobics class.

Share this post


Link to post

The conundrum of this at NYCB is though I think Martins is hiring younger, I think he's been fair about his treatment of older dancers. The corps is much younger, but I don't get the feeling that the older corps members are being pushed out or fired. For whatever reason, I think most of them are leaving of their own volition. Has the ballet career gotten even shorter?

Share this post


Link to post

THis is a hot topic... hot ilike a hot potato...

Stretton's comment comes with no context, so it's easy to imagine what he MIGHT mean, or what kind of (perhaps crass, or vulgar, or provincial-"colonial") mind-set it "reveals" in him).

I haven't seen the Royal Ballet in SO long, I can't comment on what they need -- I saw them a lot in a great period, Sibley-Dowell-Mason-Nureyev, late 60's, when the corps had excellent pointes and there was still enough contact with Ashton that they had epaulement and complex torso work, and the great dancers were musicians on a par with the great singing actresses of the opera.

The fitness question really does cut in both ways, or maybe 4 or 5 ways.... the pianist Claudio Arrau was quoted early on in the thread and another thing he's told interviewers is that he has the tradition from Beethoven (his teachers reach directly back) that the object is to keep your body completely relaxed so that no tension in your body blocks the flow of the music, which should move like electricity -- the technique requires only the muscle-response of he moment, so it's more a matter of nervous energy than muscle....

The great dancers who come to mind who danced like that are Farrell and Sibley and Kent -- Farrell had almost no muscle tone at all, her body was like custard; contrast that with the tone of Wendy Whelan, who's a fantastic dancer but MUCH more muscular....

ABout education, look how we live now... It's a crass age.... latch-key children have no monitoring of the sort that Kent had from her mother (she's said that to become a ballerina, somebody ELSE in the family has to be just as devoted to it as the would-be ballerina is; to wit the mothers of Fonteyn, Farrell, Kent... here in SanFrancisco, the mothers of Cisneros, Loscavio, Berman)

I have a great weakness for Kent, flat-out adore her -- it's partly because she was the sort of person who loved ballet but also sat in a corner reading Dostoyevsky -- this aspect of her shines through in "the Unanswered Question."

It's hard to find someone with the combination of gifts and appetites to be both athletic and sensitive -- that's always been rare.... But just as rare, nowadays, is the long childhood that allows a dancer to have such an education as Tallchief, Leclerq, Kent had -- they were all American princesses -- Kent's family wasn't poor, though they were nearly always broke. even more important is to have the gifts of imagination these dancers had/have.

Share this post


Link to post

I agree that the stamina to perform is gained by performing, but it's not entirely the same as having an overall high level of endurance/fitness. In high school I was still on the track and volleyball teams while preparing for my Elementary RAD exam and my endurance/fitness was a lot better than that of the other girls who only danced. I agree with LMCtech that the short periods of high intensity work just can't provide the same level aerobic activity as say 20min on the treadmill. I think if dancer's included that type of cardiovacular activity (or a step class or something similar) their fitness would improve and level of injury decrease.

And it's such a shame that dancer's aren't cultivated in the same way as the were in the past. Playing an instrument, having knowledge of painting or sculpture, maybe a passing knowledge of another language (or two wink.gif ) can only enrich the mind and give them a wider sea of experience to draw upon in their work. Leigh, maybe you should start fundraising and send your dancers to Europe for a year as a prerequisite for entering the company smile.gif

Share this post


Link to post

Another point on stamina, re the Royal Ballet, several people I know, or have read, have commented that when Symphonic Variations was revived last season, the dancers had trouble getting through it -- they were visibly tired at the end. I remember reading a comment from Michael Somes who said that they couldn't have danced Symphonic in 1936 because "Fred hadn't taught us how yet," or something of that nature. Part of good balletmastering is preparing dancers for the repertory, again, through the classes, and by dancing difficult works often enough to be used to them. This is another aspect of the only getting to do a part one or two times a season. When they first danced "Symphonic," they danced it a lot. No step classes or volleyball needed smile.gif Dancing "the classics to keep the dancers in shape" was something one used to hear/read frequently.

I think Leigh's points about Martins are good ones. I know Martins' directorship is not admired by everyone, but when I look at what's happening to other companies, I think he often doesn't get the credit for what he did do right. He doesn't throw dancers away. He hasn't completely overturned the repertory. He hasn't encouraged them to pump up the virtuosity in Balanchine. No fouettes in Concerto Barocco just because they can smile.gif

I was very interested in Paul's observations, especially the comments about tension and relaxation -- that's another thing that's changed in ballet. Until fairly recently, the goal of a classical dancer was to make the difficult look easy, not to come out flexing their muscles and making it quite clear that everything they were about to do was very, very difficult. Perhaps that's another consequence of reaching out to new audiences. If you're new to ballet and see a performance that is, as Bournonville (and Stanley Williams) would have it "all difficulty is concealed under cover of harmonious calm" you may want your money back. WE all need to read/listen/think more too, perhaps.

Colleen, I think your send the dancers to Europe scholarship fund is a great idea. The Grand Tour reinvented smile.gif

Share this post


Link to post

re aerobics, whether or not this applies to Sretton's plans (is the Royal Ballet in for a massive dose of Stanton Welch?), during the "dance boom" in America, a great part of the interest that caused the audience to swell was that hte American public AS A WHOLE had become fitness conscious, and classes of people who had never participated in sports, or had stopped, began jogging and bicycling and taking vitamins, old ladies showed up on sidewalks in pastel velour sweatsuits with no embarrassment to it -- and all these people started buying tickets to see Twyla Tharp-style modern dance as a spectator sport. (I once sat next to a woman who told me with no shame that she wished she was getting that workout the dancers were getting on stage. (THey weren't interested in "high" art -- it was the same period when people were saying "wouldn't you rather write a book than read one?")

It was a weird time -- but ballets like THarp's "In the Upper Room" WERE aerobic workouts, and there are plenty of ballets entering the repertory that recycle that aesthetic. (ABT just showed one bare-chested one here last September, frenzied thing; Diablo Ballet recently danced something by the director of DC's National Ballet that had hte dancers flailing nonstop for 20 minutes. And to tell hte truth, Nijinska's great ballet Les Noces, and her brother's doubtless great Rite of Spring are dance-till-you-drop "rituals" that get their power from dramatizing the act of exhausting the dancers......

I should confess that I take step-aerobics myelf and love it and think it has improved my overall dancing -- but that's partly because I dance the class, decorate the t-step with pirouettes and beat my jumping jacks... it's helped me find the groove and abbreviate preparations from my dancing in ballet class, so I just listen to the music and GO.

Maybe this post belongs on a dancer site rather than an aesthetic question thread.

Share this post


Link to post

Just on the end of classes/rehearsals and endurance. I think if a dancer does a rehearsal full out, without just marking, it's a workout, but the stop and go rythmn isn't a real cardio workout. But neither are certain yogas and pilates which most of the women seem to favor outside of the classroom.

Share this post


Link to post

I've told this story a couple of times on Special Groups about the aerobicism of ballet, but I can tell it here, too, for those of you who don't read those forums.

When I was on active duty in the Regular Air Force, my Physical Conditioning exams, which came every six months, were fairly rigid, and required a mile-and-a-half run, which I cordially hated. I kept coming up well in the PC results, and the flight surgeons and PC instructors asked what kept me in such good aerobic condition. I told them that I took ballet classes, and they didn't seem to want to hear that! wink.gif One of the PC instructors, though, was intrigued, and ended up coming to classes to observe what was done at a professional or pre-professional track. His eyes were opened! He concluded that at levels above Intermediate on a pre-professional course were definitely aerobic, and that the previous ideas that ballet was not aerobic must have been based on faulty data. "They never stop," said he, "even on the sides and in the back waiting to go on for their groups' turn. This isn't kiddy ballet!"

Share this post


Link to post

Glad I finally got around to reading this topic all the way through. Seems to me, that there are two kinds of "fitness" being described in this thread: the physical and the intellectual.

I am the mother of a young ballet dancer. As luck would have it she likes to read...but with the level of school work - much of it a bunch of time wasting busy work - and the number of ballet classes(and the time it takes to commute to and from them!) there is not enough time left over to do much extra! It's more than annoying - it's maddening.

As a parent, one wants to offer their children as much of the world as one can...and I don't mean material things like cell phones, etc. We are fortunate to live right outside NYC, so we can try to take advantage of all that it offers...but it is hard to fit it in.

My daughter is young...and I can only imagine how much more difficult it will become as she gets older UNLESS there is a better way of combining education and her desire for following the path towards a professional ballet career is found or beaten out through the "woods"! smile.gif

I applaud the colleges and universities that have developed programs which allow professional ballet dancers, and others like them, the opportunity to continue their studies. But we need more!! As far as I know in NYC, the only one left is at Fordham - all hale the wisdom of the Jesuits wink.gif

In many ways it's our educational system that needs a total overhaul - and not just for dancers! The dearth of real teaching and learning is vast. I think the lack of "fitness" in the intellectual realm is epidemic - and not just in ballet dancers! By the way, I'd like to say that I, too, often find myself at a loss in certain areas such as Quantum Mechanics! smile.gif

Share this post


Link to post
Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0