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Leigh Witchel

What's a "technician"?

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It seems timely to discuss this. What do you mean when you call someone a "technician"? While it seems we all mean relatively the same thing when we say this, I bet we'd find subtle differences in what we're referring to. When I was training, when we'd talk among ourselves as students, we distinguished between "facility" (What nature gave you, and that included a natural ability to jump or turn) and "technique" (What you did with that)

In discussions or in writing, I have found myself describing different sorts of technique; a “pure” technique in someone who has very clean placement and an almost academic perfection to their dancing. Given recent discussions, Abi Stafford would be the example I’d offer of a “pure” technique.

Another distinction would be a “worked” technique. This is someone who took deficits in facility (problems with turnout, feet or extension for instance) and overcame them. It’s also someone who took natural facility and refused to rest on it, like someone with very arched feet who was very careful with articulation as well.

We often hear of “bravura” technique; to me, that’s jumps, turns or balances. And interestingly, I look at a good part of that as “facility”.

I think two of the most shadowy aspects of technique are reliability and placement, but they can profoundly influence a dancer’s future. We often wonder why certain dancers don’t get promoted. I’m not equating technique with artistry, but in top companies there’s a level of technique and reliability that’s a bar and the dancer needs to clear it to advance, especially with the trend to less and less rehearsal and coaching. In one case mentioned before here, I think it’s because the dancer doesn’t have the technique to clear the bar. Every time I’ve watched this person, there’s always some small bobble or another on something as basic as a step to arabesque. In a company like NYCB or ABT, you can’t be fidgeting on piques and make soloist. That’s one aspect of reliable technique. The other is the ability to give a solid performance on a bad night. To use a dancer I’ve worked with as an example, Charles Askegard can turn on a good day or bad one. He can turn when fresh or exhausted.

Whether an insistence on technique is a good thing or not will make for an interesting discussion, but before we embark on the technique/artistry issue:

What do you think of when you say, “S/he’s a technician?” Who are technicians to you?

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Another good question, Leigh smile.gif I think often when we say "(s)he's a technician" many people mean "only a technician" or "primarily a technician," as though something is missing. If one is happy about the technique, then "he has a strong/solid/fine technique." (This is the way I use the words, but it's also the way I read the words.)

"Only a technician" is someone who does the steps cleanly, as though they might in class. It often means they can jump higher or turn more than others, although not necessarily. (Sorry, I can only give Danish examples. There are one or two in any generation -- Arne Bech from the 1960s and 1970s and Christina Nielsen from the 1980s and 1990s are two of them -- who are not bravura technicians -- there's no flash, they're solid and modulated. Bech always danced the "odd man out" (the man without a solo) in the pas de six. He was a textbook, but not a very interesting one.)

I agree with you about the technical bar. There are a lot of reasons dancers don't get promoted to principal, but I think in most of the major companies there is a level of technique that a company would want to say, "If you're a principal at NYCB, or the Kirov, you have to do x, y and z." Although other companies don't have the exam that the Paris Opera Ballet has, and that we've been reading about lately, perhaps they go through the same process.

I also think of dancers like Cynthia Gregory, Merrill Ashley and Peter Martins as technicians -- not bravura technicians; that's Baryshnikov or Peter Schaufuss, for me -- but I don't mean that in a negative way, but a descriptive one. It means that I came away from their performances with a mental image of a pure technique. If I went to a Martins performance, I expected perfection (and almost always got it). If I went to a Nureyev performance, I never expected perfection, though I sometimes got something much more.

Of the current generation of dancers, I see a lot of tricksters. I haven't seen the current crop of City Ballet people enough to comment.

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This may just be personal, but I almost never mean someone can jump or turn when I'm referring to their technique - probably because I consider a portion of that "facility". Damian Woetzel definitely worked to improve on his natural turning abilities, but at the same time, he was turning multiples at age 11. Some of it is what nature gives to you.

I give an awful lot of points for "worked" technique: How someone rolls down off pointe, how they articulate their feet, how placed they are in their hips. It doesn't make someone an aritst, but having been a student myself, I still have respect for the Good Student. Again, Stafford is for me an example. As a friend said to me after a performance, "look at her feet in an entrechat-six!". That does not a performance make, but from someone who struggled to point his feet in an entrechat-six (or even at all), I'm impressed. It isn't just facility, it's work. Someone with perhaps the most "worked" technique I had ever seen? Julie Miles of the Washington Ballet.

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Again, to me, a techinician is the dancer that I don't get nervous for. There have a been a few times when I actually know the choreography and the "hard part" that's coming up (If s/he can just get through the turns they'll be fine) and I get nervous for the dancer. Then there are others who just breeze through it and make you wonder if you should be nervous for the others.

Hopefully that made sense.

I used to think that dancers could not be both a technician and musical, but there have been a few.

When Jennie Somogyi first started, IMO she was only a technician, she's started to win me over on the musicality now.

Again, this is just my opinion, but at least at NYCB it seems sometimes it's split in two, the musical dancers (who do Robbins and the more "character" roles in Balanchine) and the technicians (Martins and leads in Balanchine pieces).

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Calliope, your post made perfect sense. I know exactly what you mean by a dancer in whom the viewer has total confidence (a rare creature indeed). To me, though, he or she is a dancer beyond technique rather than a technician. Those dancers, rather than making you look at them and noting how perfect the technique is, make you forget technique. So for me, a technician is one whose dancing calls attention to the technique -- not in a sense of "Look ma, I can turn" -- but that one is conscious of the technique.

Of course, it's more than jumps and turns; the linking steps, positions, placement, etc. are as important, if not more so. One mustn't stumble over the feet, or smudge the steps, in between the jetes or the entrechats.

I think the difference between "facility" and "technique" is apt -- it's one I've often heard. Facility is what you're born with, technique is, not just what you do with the gifts, but HOW you do it. To use a musical analogy (as probably nearly everyone on this board has taken piano at some time in their childhood ?), it's being able to play all the scales cleanly, master those "Etudes" books, be able to play arpeggios and trills. (While facility would be having a hand with a 12-key spread, or a very strong and loose fourth finger.) If that's all you can do, you won't win the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, which often does not give a gold medal just to make the point that clinically clean playing isn't enough.

I'm editing to add that my first paragraph was not intended to dispute or argue with Calliope's definition. If anything it was to point out how we often use a word very differently -- which I think was one of Leigh's initial ideas for the thread.

[ January 25, 2002: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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The Greek word techne meant, I believe, "a means", an instrument through which one does something.

First, as we all - unfortunately - have come up against, there is absolutely nothing one can do about certain types of physical shortcoming. One's Achilles tendon is not going to lengthen for example, one fine spring morning.

Second, there IS a great deal one can do about other types of physical shortcoming. Refusal to do anything about them, is either lack of artistic ambition, indifference to beauty, or laziness. In every art form, the hard core is technique technique technique PLUS the elusive.

In some cases, however, it may be that one has OTHER artistic priorities.

For example, a girl may have but a feeble turn, for various causes, including poor eyesight (yes !). She can either devote 90% of her mental and physical energy to struggling with multiple turns, or she can throw in the towel there, at least for the time being, and concentrate on developing to a remarkable degree, the technical strengths that are more accessible.

Third, I do think one would have to come to some sort of agreement on the contents of the notion "technique". Is having a marvellous legato technique ? I think it is. Many would disagree.

To me - again, many would disagree - Lis Jeppesen of the RDB, was a stupendous technician. One never noticed what step she was doing, there was épaulement in every step, her enchaînements were a single long poem without a hitch or break, her arabesque was not painstakingly raised and placed, it floated imperceptibly up, and then, like a cloud, down... Her eyes, her face...never a sign of tension or strain. I could go on for lines and lines, but you are spared ! I won't !

Others more sharp-eyed, could not fail to see that her turnout was not pristine, her beats were accordingly not always fully crossed, her turns somewhat perfunctory, though fluent, and frankly, I don't think she ever produced a single academically pure figure as Vaganova describes them in her famous book.

I also believe that technique is a process: one is working on it throughout one's career on stage, and thereafter one carries on perfecting it, with the students. It's the people who give up on their technique at some point, who are not technical. No-one is a master of every facet of the art. No one single person's body can master every difficulty. But struggling with technique is a major part of the struggle to express ideas through the dance, and therefore, one cannot allow oneself to be complacent about it.

Also, I think it's in the nature of things, that if one is not attempting to advance, one slips backward.

What is marvellous about having a first-class technique, is that you can let yourself go and have fun with the dancing.

There is a young lady here at the POB, Mlle. Laetitia Pujol, a real hard worker, who is already making a quite a reputation for herself as a technician - fouettes followed by triples, that sort of thing, anything really hard - fork it over, and she'll have a go at it ! Many do not like the girl. Although one might agree that she has not yet developed into a consummate artist, she is one of the few who seems to be having one whale of a time on stage. Big smile on her face : "Rarin' to jump that big hurdle comin' up now" sort of thing. And whooshes over it. If people like that get top-flight coaching in the OTHER aspects, well I say, more power to them.

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Katharine's reference to Vaganova reminded me of a comment a dancer friend of mine made about a young dancer at a competition a few years back (she didn't win a gold, perhaps only a bronze, and lost out to someone whom he felt did not have a solid technique, but could do thousands of multiple pirouettes, like Will Kemp's marathon hop around Northern Europe in Shakespeare's day. He described the "perfect technique" of the loser as being perfectly aligned, all "ten storeys" as described in Vaganova. I was unfamiliar with this, that Vaganova had broken the body down into ten segments (storeys, like the storeys of a building) and that perfect alignment (which I'm sure is very rare) was necessary for perfection. Some of our Vaganova technique people can do much better than this, I'm sure smile.gif

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I think Calliope's definition is very useful. Like her, there are ballets where I know the dancer is going to have trouble in certain places Theme is a burmese tiget pit of a ballet that swallows ballerinas and danseurs whole. I could recite a litany of dancers who have crashed and burned in it. . .other ballets I can think of with very exposing technical moments are Allegro Brillante and Ballet Imperial. In both, Balanchine sets a bald challenge for the ballerina - he clears the stage in the first and freezes the action in the second, the orchestra drops out to solo piano, and the ballerina turns without a partner - the sort of turns where everyone knows if she's blown them.

Illustrative of the need for both artistry and technique, in the turns in Allegro, I don't understand casting anyone in the ballet who can't do those turns cleanly without worry no matter how great their artistry. It's as unfair as casting someone who can't balance in the Rose Adagio; it's exposing them. At the same time, I recall remarking about one dancer with regret that she had hammered any meaning out of that moment. It was supposed to be a yawning precipice the ballerina nimbly handles, not a drive on a flat road.

What then becomes interesting as a choreographer or balletmaster is the process that gets started with the question "I've got this dancer, and s/he's a real technician. What now?" (Actually, in my opinion, the question of "What do I do with him or her?" should be asked about every dancer in the company. That's what makes a good director, but to continue. . .)

I don't envy the balletmaster his or her job, because a choreographer can create repertory for that dancer. That's how we got something like Ballo della Regina for Ashley. It's also probably why he made Ballade, where one ballet was meant to summarize her gifts and the next was meant to stretch them.

There's an entire repertory for the technician in Balanchine (I use it as an example again because I know it best) - the lead in Divertimento No. 15, Theme, Ballet Imperial, Allegro, Ballo. . .Ashley was the one in it when I first watched but looking at the casting of premieres it looks like before her it was people like Patricia Wilde and Marie-Jeanne. I think the trick for the choreographer/balletmaster/director is, as with any other dancer, discovering and highlighting the personality of the technician and casting or fashioning repertory around that.

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I am sorry to say, I do not know anything of the "12 storeys of Vaganova". I will check with my Russian colleagues, but I am afraid that is not something that was included in the program for the one foreign teacher, me! I would love to read of this, so if anyone can say where to find this information I would love to read this theory. I am fascinated.

As for what is a technician...I know what is meant by the question, but maybe if we, as teachers could try to "brainwash" our children that technique cannot exist without musicality, we may be able to begin a new outlook on how to accomplish clarity of movement, free expressivity, with musicality. Personally, I try to use the word mechanics to describe the cleanliness of the actions. I know it is all semantics, but for me this idea made a big difference in my approach to movement. The jury is still out on the effects it will have on my students.

Andrei or anyone else, if you know what is meant by the "storeys", please respond! Thank you!

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I've thought about this thread for awhile before deciding to plunge right in. None of the posts I've read really hit the nail on the head for me in describing what I think of as a "technician," and it took me awhile to figure out just what I really do mean. I probably don't have it figured out yet, but here goes, anyway:

One of the things I love about ballet IS its technique: the beautiful and obscure French names for everything; the strange yet brilliantly logical way all the big and little steps fit together; its beautiful formalism, archaic yet so modern. Well, I could go on and on but I doubt there's a reader of this board who doesn't know exactly what I'm talking about.

I think in every company, to one degree or another, there are dancers (and choreographers and directors, for that matter), for whom technique is merely a means to an end, and those for whom it IS an end. That doesn't necessarily mean it's the only end, or should be, but I remember the discussions here awhile ago about Vladimir Malakhov, where many viewers mentioned that he tended to fudge the little connecting steps in favor of the big effect. I find this a perfect example of the approach of a non-technician. I also have to add that I've never seen Malakhov fudge anything, and he's alway been, for me, an exemplar of beautiful technique.

To me, a technician doesn't fudge things. A technician shows you all the small steps that add up to a big step. A technician doesn't make a big leap without first carefully preparing for it. A technician starts and finished turns in proper positions (or at least tries!). A technician respects the craft enough to give value to the tiny things, as well as the big things. Just as there are choreographers who seem only interested in ballet technique to the extent that it allows dancers to scratch behind their ears with their legs, or spin like dervishes, so too are there dancers who seem only interested in the flashy moments, and not how one arrives at them.

Of course, a good technician has to be really, really good at this. I wouldn't get too thrilled about a dancer who could only do two pirouettes, regardless of how perfect.

I would also submit that the dancers of whom we do say, "She's just a technician," aren't, perhaps, really as good at technique as we might think. If a dancer takes this beautiful thing called ballet and makes it as exciting as watching paint dry, what has that to do with technique, really?

Regarding the aforementioned dancer whose technique might or might not be good enough to merit promotion to soloist, all I can say is if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck. And the same goes for soloists. A soloist is someone who dances soloist roles. Clearly, NYCB has a lot of soloist roles that don't demand technical perfection, or the dancer in question wouldn't be given so darn many of them to dance, season after season. And if someone is cast as a soloist, she should be a soloist. It's that simple. I find it very cynical and a little cruel that the dancer in question, who has built up quite a personal repertory of soloist and even principle roles, should have to dance "second-swan-from-the-right" as well as all her larger roles, as if City Ballet were not only too cheap to pay her as her casting deserves, but also wants to wring as much dancing as possible out of her for their bucks.

[ January 28, 2002: Message edited by: Manhattnik ]

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A technician, thinking of this in terms of a dancer who is a technician as opposed to a great artist, is one who can do it all and do it well. They have all the steps, the incredible jumps, the amazing turns, the connecting steps, everything works perfectly. But something is missing. It could be the musicality, or it could be just that indefinable thing that makes someone a star, or a ballerina or premiere danseur. It could even get this person to a top position in a company, but still they might not be THE ONE that everyone wants to see in certain roles, perhaps especially in full length ballets. This dancer might even be a competition winner in bravura pas de deux, but yet when seen in the full length ballet, it's not there, even though all the technique is there.

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To me a technician is very simply someone for whom technique is an end in itself, instead of a means to end.

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I first heard "technician" used to describe musicians -- say a promising teen-ager who had not yet developed "temperament," or by fans of, say, Henryk Szering who were putting down Heifetz as a mere technician, lacking in soul.

Looking backward, now that the dancing is better than the choreography, it's hard to remember that Margot Fonteyn did not turn well, that Pavlova could not do 32 fouettes (nor Danilova, if I remember right -- in fact, I THINK I remember her writing something almost scathing about Legnani turning like a fire-truck)....

Or just think back a few years, to Stephanie Saland, a ballerina who couldn't always get the beat to happen in a cabriole -- (see Bournonville Divertissement), but who had such an IMAGINATION, such a feel for dancing...

With a creature like Saland Balanchine could still do some wonderful things..... Fonteyn had very fine placement, and such a temperament....

Denby noticed of American dancers back in 1948 already that Balanchine had the gift for understanding the unconscious effect the people he worked with created, and was happy to go with it, and that as the ballets Russes dancers aged their style lost contact with the European manners that had fed it, while with the young American girls who were learning to dance, the more you just let them dance, with a limpid flow of movement, the more comfortable and therefore the more presentable they are -- Ashley's god-like perfection in Ballo della Regina is the apotheosis of this phenomenon, a shy girl who's liberated by having such challenges to conquer hte result is incandescent excellence.

But he also made roles that went with the way the particular dancer's body tended to go ("Which way are you falling, dear?")...... roles that now are filled by new dancers, who have to be ABLE to make their bodies fall that way to achieve the natural phrasing the original dancer gave it...

A couple of years ago when ABT was here, it was upsettin to see a gala-shaped program with lots of bravura pas de deux on it -- COrsaire and Don Q and Tchai pas -- in which only Amanda McKerrow looked happy technically. And in both Don Q and Corsaire, the ballerinas HAD to do 32 fouettes and couldn't get through them. I'm not keen on display evenings anyway, I find them exhausting, I have to PULL for everybody... won't name anybody, but it was not a good night....

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