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New levels of fitness


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#1 Ed Waffle

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Posted 16 March 2002 - 11:28 AM

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.

#2 Mel Johnson

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Posted 13 March 2002 - 10:11 PM

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.

#3 Mel Johnson

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Posted 17 March 2002 - 07:25 AM

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!"

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 13 March 2002 - 11:02 AM

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 ]

#5 Alexandra

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Posted 16 March 2002 - 12:42 PM

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.

#6 Alexandra

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Posted 16 March 2002 - 08:15 PM

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.

#7 Alexandra

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Posted 16 March 2002 - 10:18 PM

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

#8 Alexandra

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Posted 18 March 2002 - 10:06 AM

quote:


Originally posted by Leigh Witchel:
I'm just curious about when this great "fitness crisis" in dancers emerged?

Exactly. And what Paul wrote about Danilova rings true, too. I've done at least 200 interviews with dancers over the past 20 years and the subject of "fitness" in the sense that it's being used here has never come up.

I couldn't find the interview where Stretton was quoted, but my memory of it is that the context was that one of the reasons he was bringing in the contemporary ballets was to raise the fitness level of the dancers. (I can imagine Danilova's response to THAT.) If someone remembers differently, or has the interview, please correct me.

I also think BW's point, that we're talking about two kinds of fitness here -- physical and intellectual/artistic -- is a good one. It isn't that dancers should be scholars, IMO -- in fact, pouring over literary criticism before dancing Juliet, say, would probably do no good at all and may very well do harm. It's that if dancers are culturally aware -- go to museums, concerts, plays, etc. -- it enriches their world view, which enriches their performance.

I also remembered some stories I'd heard from and about dancers' childhoods. Even in thegoodolddays many dancers came from homes that were now oriented to the arts. They had a dance mentor -- teacher, coach, older dancer -- who urged them to read, go to museums, etc. They began to be interested in music from the roles they danced. The first time they danced a Stravinsky ballet, for example, they'd be intrigued by the music and buy several recordings of other works. And so I do think that if the atmosphere in the company was less on how much can you benchpress and more on "did you see the new exhibit at MOMA?"

Farrell takes her summer workshop students to museums and concerts -- as Balanchine took her. It's another thing an artistic director can do.

#9 dirac

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Posted 13 March 2002 - 08:17 PM

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.

#10 dirac

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Posted 05 April 2002 - 01:56 PM

Sounds okay to me.

#11 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 13 March 2002 - 06:28 PM

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.

#12 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 16 March 2002 - 09:05 PM

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?

#13 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 17 March 2002 - 11:54 AM

In reply to Paul's post about the aerobic qualities of certain dances:

An important distinction between Rite, Les Noces and Upper Room is the era in which they were made. Like he said, Tharp's work is from the period of "wouldn't you rather write a book than read one?" (The proper answer to that is, "but who would read all these books that everyone is writing and what have I done to assure what I have to say is actually worth reading?")

Nijinska's work especially is from an industrial age and the dawn of mass production. Nijinska's work has one foot in primitivism and the other in Futurism. The dancers are not individuals. They are a society; even the bride and groom are barely differentiated from the corps, and one senses only for the duration of the ballet. When they reemerge from the door of the marital chamber, they go back to the fields with everyone else.

There's a difference between the faceless anonymity of an agricultural or worker society and that of an aerobics class. The latter is competitive, narcissistic and temporary.

The dance that has best recalled that Flashdance era to me is actually one by Paul Taylor, Szyzygy (and for the dark side of it, Last Look) Probably, if we want to continue on this one, we should break it off to a new thread.

[ March 17, 2002, 11:58 AM: Message edited by: Leigh Witchel ]

#14 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 17 March 2002 - 02:53 PM

I'm just curious about when this great "fitness crisis" in dancers emerged? If the bar has been raised for aerobic fitness of dancers, yes, choreographers are raising it, but so are the dancers, and trust me, dancers are among the most self-policing professionals on earth.

I'll never worry about a dancer being fit for a role I select him or her for. If, for example, a role had tours in it and I chose a dancer whose tours were inconsistent, you can be sure it was deliberate. And you can also be sure that any dancer I chose would probably be practicing tours until he was blue in the face before I ever even suggested he practice them.

My ballets tend also to be aerobically demanding. The way the dancers condition themselves for them is to run the ballet twice (back to back) daily for two weeks before performance. Repertory itself can provide conditioning, and it has for years. I assume that's how any ballerina acquired the stamina to get through Aurora before cross-training came into vogue.

Physical condition of dancers is awfully high and it has been for at least two decades. It isn't as if these thoroughbreds can't become artists (case in point, Alexandra Ansanelli seems to be doing it right before our eyes in New York). But I can tell you as a choreographer the broader the dancer's view of the world, the more interesting they are. Maybe that's why one of my favorite dancers is in her mid-thirties.

#15 Colleen

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Posted 16 March 2002 - 10:05 PM

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


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