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Another observation / question from a naive (and new) lover of ballet....

When I look at some ballet, I am struck by the exuberance, the appearance of freedom and sonething that looks like an almost unconstrained joy. Those leaps and turns and so on a thrilling to watch and almost breath taking to observe.

Yet I know that this is all very well rehearsed and practised and controlled. What might look like something flowing in the wind is a very studied and controlled movement or series of movements.

Does a dancer feel "trapped" inside the moves, the steps and so on/ How do they break out and express "emotion" when "forced" to perform the precision which is required? Does this make any sense? Can someone articulate how one can be so controlled in their movement and convey so much "freedom (for lack nof a better word)?

Tomorrow night is Giselle and I am going to look very closely and see if I can find some better words...

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One of the most repeated stories about NYCB is how dancers saw working with Balanchine and Robbins: Balanchine would give them leeway, including making adjustments to help the dancers, and audiences would interpret his ballets as being formalistic and rigid. Robbins droves his dancers hard and would insist on exactness down to the last fingernail, and audiences would exclaim about how spontaneous his ballets looked.

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As a dancer, I'd say it depends on the ballet and the role, but for the most part, I think we mostly feel what you're seeing. Dancers train so long and so carefully that by the time they are professionals, most of the technique is second nature, and they don't have to think about it at all. Lots of rehearsal time also helps. If you've rehearsed the steps so much that you could do them backward in your sleep, it leaves you free to focus on the more expressive, artistic side.

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I understand intellectually your words, but I am not sure how you break out of the "steps" and become more "expressive"... could you give some examples? Is it things like facial gestures or making the steps completely blend into a continuum or what?

I know when I see a perfomance which is especially "emotive" I sense it but I can't figure out why it is... how was this achieved? What exactly did THAT dancer do that this other dancer didn't??? I am not a dancer obviously... so this is very new to me.

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I love your enthusiasm!!

A question for you- do you have to 'think' about walking? Do you decide which foot you're going to lead off with, or whether you're going to take a step with your heel or your toes?

Probably not, because walking has become what we call 'muscle-memory'...it just happens.

When a dancer practices the choreography enough, it becomes muscle-memory to the dancer, who is then free to feel the movements, and allow their feelings to be expressed.

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I also think some "expression" depends upon the audience member--consider how some people find a dancer wonderfully emotive while others find him/her cold.

What Hans says makes a lot of sense. "Expression" doesn't exist in a vacuum; it's a form of communication.

So the dancer has to "connect" with his/her audience. Only then does the expression take place.

And still there can be audience members that are watching but not "getting" what the dancer puts out.

Needless to say this same type of exchange exists in other performing arts.

Also it can work a little differently when not live; I know I am much more likely to make an emotional/expressional connection at a live performance than one on the TV.


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Clara 76,

I was away so forgive the delay in replying. I don't have to think about walking and so I have muscle memory for walking under most circimstances.

Dance, however, I would argue IS more complex than walking and perhaps one can after much rehearsal acheive the identical muscle memory to my walking.

The only analogy I can relate to is sailing and "moving about" on my boat which after years I don't have to think about it and can move effortlessly even in the dark!

But of course the thing I was trying to grasp is: What are the non techinical things dancers to communicate.. to add that certain "je ne sais quoi" which speaks to us... some us and not all of us. Could it be as subtle as facial expression?

Obviously dancers have some way of communicating which is not "scripted" in any way... I feel it at times, but I can't tell what it is! HELP!!!

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DefJef I would suggest you to read Leonid s posts in the dancers lacking technique thread. The answer to your question which I think you also asked in that thread is what Leonid has been trying so hard to answer and explain for the past few weeks in that topic.

My own answer to you is Duende if I use the word Andalucians in Spain use. I think it has something to do with soul and life , It is the difference between a dancer who looks like a robot or a doll and a dancer who looks alive ,human and with soul.

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Dance, however, I would argue IS more complex than walking and perhaps one can after much rehearsal acheive the identical muscle memory to my walking.

Considering that dancers are trained for at least eight years before even becoming apprentices, I would say they have quite enough rehearsal to achieve muscle memory that, while not quite identical to walking, gets pretty close in a lot of ways. :huh:

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This is way off topic, but we are also looking for different ways to explain the way that dancers achieve their effects. So here goes:

My own answer to you is Duende if I use the word Andalucians in Spain use. I think it has something to do with soul and life

Yes, but also darkness, depth, a kind of demonic quality, and a deep involvement with death. The poet Federico Garcia Lorca felt that this quality was at the center of the spirit of the people and the arts of Andalucia, as you say, but was possible anywhere where people were open and spontaneous.

Duende is not imposed on the artist from the outside, like the influence of the muses. It comes from within.

It invades the heart, not the mind. It's more accessible to the uneducated than to the highly trained.

Lorca recounts: "[T]he old gypsy dancer La Malena exclaimed one day, while hearing Brailowsky play a fragment of Bach: "Ole" That has duende!". She had been bored by Gluck and Brahms and Darius Milhaud ...." He refers also to Goethe, who said of the experience of listening to Paganini, "Mysterious power that everyone feels and that no philosophy explains."

According to Lorca, "All the arts have the capacity for duende, but where you find it most ... is in music, DANCE, and spoken poetry, all of which require a living body to interpret them, because their forms are born and die continually and exist only in the immediate present."

And: "The duende works on the body of the dancer like a breeze upon the sand. Its magical powers can transform a young girl into a paralytic in the moonlight, or bring adolescent blush to the cheeks of an old derelict who begs for alms outside the wine shops ..."

I think of this often when I'm especially moved by something at a live, never-to-be-repeated performance at the ballet.

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Dance, however, I would argue IS more complex than walking and perhaps one can after much rehearsal acheive the identical muscle memory to my walking.

Considering that dancers are trained for at least eight years before even becoming apprentices, I would say they have quite enough rehearsal to achieve muscle memory that, while not quite identical to walking, gets pretty close in a lot of ways. :huh:

I think this is a trap most dancers fall in and one of the reasons the level of ballet is falling now. Baryshnikov says in his movie Dancers that he can dance even in his sleep. I think it is ok for Baryshnikov to say that because he received his training in the Kirov in that era when their training was amazing , but for most dancers now when most ballet schools are not good enough to really ingrain ballet movements in to the dancers body, that will not work. It is not about the amount of the years or experience , but it is about the awareness that a dancer must have all the time, every moment untill he/she retires (without taking it easy and relying or giving the responsibility to the mustle memory) that really matters and dancers should not forget.

P.S Thank you very much bart for your explanation of duende and searching for it . To clarify what I wrote (I seem to be always clarifying recently) when I wrote life and soul I was not only meaning life and soul in the small sanse of those words but in the bigger sense which includes death depth darkness and many other things. After all I am an Afghan, death and darkness have been a very big part of life to me ( I knew duende would attract you and that you would be the first person to write something about it) :)

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DefJef, going back to muscle memory and performance, I think we can compare dancers to musicians. A professional dancer does not have to think about a particular step in the way that a professional pianist does not have to think about finding an F-sharp. The hand knows where it is, how to us it in any number of chords, how to draw emotional value out of it in the context of its phrase. That's pretty much how a dancer's body works (correct me if I'm wrong, anyone).

To use the "walking" analogy, though, you don't think about taking your next step until you encounter an obstacle. Then, your steps are no longer automatic. You may skip over something, change the length or timing of your gait, or suddenly change direction. A dancer may do glissade -- a simple gliding step -- a thousand times, dozens of different ways, but the basic, academic glissade is pretty close to automatic in his body.

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The old-fashioned phrase for having memorized something was to "have it by heart"-- and though it is paradoxical, the effort that goes into memorizing something is a measure of how much you love it, and once you HAVE memorized it, you can let the emotoin it generates "overtake you' without losing your place or forgetting what comes next.

If you'd like to have this experience, defjef, you could memorize a poem, something you'd LIKE to have by heart; then you will have a kind of ownership of it. In my case, I grew up in a backward part of hte United States, where normal schoolwork included memory work, and recited a poem by heart every Friday (some Shakespeare sonnets, "The Tyger," "The SOlitary Reaper," "Daffodills," "Kublai Khan" -- wonderful stuff, which now that I know it I sometimes find myself playing through in my mind with new awe -- The Tyger is SO much more moving htan I used to think it was. I've kept up the practice.

It's the same witht hte piano -- you can play with SO much more feeling something you've memorized than something you're sight-reading, as in ballet class, you can dance a combination with so much more subtlety the second time through.

Danilova used to tell her students to practice and practice and practice a dance, to develop stamina as well as master the transitions, the breathing, the pacing, but when it came time for performance, to "throw away the technique" and just dance it -- by then you will be ready.

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DefJef, going back to muscle memory and performance, I think we can compare dancers to musicians. A professional dancer does not have to think about a particular step in the way that a professional pianist does not have to think about finding an F-sharp. The hand knows where it is, how to us it in any number of chords, how to draw emotional value out of it in the context of its phrase. That's pretty much how a dancer's body works (correct me if I'm wrong, anyone).

That's definitely true of musicians, and if there's real conscious awareness of the process of gaining technique, there can even be long periods of being out of shape and then getting back into shape, even though this can take weeks or months to fully regain. However, it would not be possible to regain it at all after a long period of inactivity or after a certain age were not the muscle memory already well-registered. This is not advisable, as it is better to stay in practice, but I have had periods in which I simply had to do other things, and was even surprised when it begins to come back. I don't know if this would be the case if one had learned to play an instrument but with technical instruction that was somewhat vague and often depended almost exclusively on a natural physical gift (but it usually would, I think). In any case, it's even more muscles in dance, but they're muscles so I suppose it has to work along the same lines. There are special virtuoso things that require some constant attention to, as with distant leaps where there is an element of chance involved, but after technique is developed, you get a feel even for means to get to that point at which you can put a lot of it on 'automatic,' and you need to, or you can't be involved in the music and be expressive. That would have to be true of the dancer, I'd think, because you couldn't keep thinking of 'how I must do this pirouette' while doing them as a role without it just looking academic. Any physical performer has to (mostly) forget about the technique in an actual performance and become what the work's artistic demands dictate. I warm up with some of the easier Bach 'Preludes and Fugues' instead of scales and arpeggios, etc., or mechanical exercises, and this can work very well for practising alone. I think that part would be different, though, because dance class is a definite ritual in itself, and the various participants can't just go off on their own when there are so many others working there and a teacher directing them.

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Omshanti, I think we agree. One must of course be mentally "present" and aware of every moment when dancing, but it is not possible to think about every tiny thing each muscle is doing. One must have the ability to do ballet steps without thinking about it, but one must be conscious of what one is doing nonetheless. Ballet dancers are trained to do this from the very beginning when they learn how to stand. If one is doing a series of complicated pirouettes or petit allegro, it is not possible to be minutely aware of every aspect of one's posture--the posture just has to happen because the dancer's focus is elsewhere, such as on projecting an emotion.

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Thank you Hans for understanding what I was trying to say, but in my opinion a (well) trained human body and mind is very much capable of being aware of and concentrating on every part of the body technically as well as focusing on other things such as projecting an emotion. Being aware or concentrating are different from being preoccupied. In my opinion the aim of years of traininng in ballet is to attain that high level of awareness , rather than to be able to forget every thing and rely on mustle memory in the end. A good dancer is a dancer who is able to be aware of every thing technically without showing it , not a dancer who can forget everything. It is such a dancer whose body will remain young longer and whose career will last longer. When some teachers say forget the technique it is a metaphor , they are not meaning it literally.

I do not think it is possible to compare dancing(especially ballet)

1. to being a musician because for a musician it is the quality of the sound that he/she creates which matters not the quality of the body movement while playing the instrument, for example it is the sound of the F-sharp that matters for a pianist not how he reaches for it

2. to remembering a poem because muscle memory in ballet is trickier than brain memory, for example body muscles will go back to the natural usage of that person easily and also the gravity will take hold easily.

They might be easy ways to explain to a beginner but it is better for the beginner (even if it is harder) to know the truth or the higher level of ballet from the beginning because otherwise he/she might never be able to get out of that mind set to grasp the truth. If we use the walking analogy we have to use walking in perfect posture rather than just walking. A person has to intend and be aware to walk in good posture and even if he/she has been walking for years with that intention and awareness once he/she stops doing that and starts to rely on muscle memory the posture will worsen because the muscles will take the easy ways and gravity will take hold and it will start to look different to a trained eye. It is the same for a glissade. A glissade might be glissade whether done aware or unaware but without the right body usage which requires awareness and intention it will look completely different to a trained eye.

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In coaching dancers, students and professionals, one often discusses at this moment try to remember to do this or that, or making analogies to various emotions when training the feeling of a particular movement, port de bras and lift of the back. These things are repeated endlessly in rehearsal so that it is performed that way on stage. Each dancer is different in what they think about while they are performing. Some think technique more often than others and others do not think about it at all. At some point however I am sure it does pop into all dancer's minds..."eek, remember heel forward here, knee out (side) there, get on your freaking leg...go, go, go!" The actual mechanics and thought process of how to execute a step is definitely not part of the performance process. There is no time! That has all been repeatedly gone through in the classroom and rehearsal. The dancer who needs to think before doing is the dancer who is off the music! The dancer who entertains the audience is the one who is thinking more often than not..."wow, this is great fun!" :)

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vrsfanatic raises an interesting issue which I am not even sure I want to know the answer to.. and I am sure there are many many answers... ie no correct one.

But here goes. When a principal dancer is doing a role such as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet... she clearly has to perform the dance with technical perfection.. at least that is one objective of course. But she is also an actor and conveying the moods and mental states etc of the character. How much of her focus and thought is really "in charaster"? You can, of course, read this in facial expressions perhaps more easily than in how the body "is" moving at a particular moment. But one can read much in movement and position.. but perhaps not all.

In reflecting back on seeing Paloma Herrra perform Romeo and Juliet last week, I was struck by how "convincing" her portrayal of a child like Juliet was in the beginning and this "acting" seems to reside in more than simply dancing the part technically. Since I am not a dancer I haven't a clue about these things and so some teachers might want to help me out in understanding about the intersection of acting etc. in ballet and what is involved mentally in the dancer's mind when they are on stage.

Does this make any sense?

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Your questions make a lot of sense and of course there is no one true answer. In story ballets, the craft of choreography should enhance the acting of the performer. If the choreography is not well crafted, the performers may look over done while acting. Also, some performers are good actors while others just simply, are not. There are many reasons to cast a dancer in a role. One being to hopefully develop the dancer. All dancers have to begin somewhere. Generally speaking the more seasoned a dancer, the acting abilities are stronger, but this is not always the case. :)

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I know when I see a perfomance which is especially "emotive" I sense it but I can't figure out why it is... how was this achieved? What exactly did THAT dancer do that this other dancer didn't??? I am not a dancer obviously... so this is very new to me.

The technical, bare-bones-mechanics, part of dancing is (usually) very well rehearsed. The artist's style, how each dancer interprets the music, cannot so fully be programed in advance, but it too is (usually) well rehearsed. Much of what makes each dancer so different in their artistic style/emotive choices is very much due to their own natural personality. Each dancer's personal ways of relating to, hearing the music, will be different from another dancer's way. Emotive styling can be improved upon with lots of coaching, but the core self, the natural personality self, has a life of its own.

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To elaborate on my ignorance...

What are some specific "things" dancers do which personalize a role? They cannot change the choreography... yes or no?

Artisitry is not, in my understanding, simply acheiving perfect technique.

I suppose in music, for example, a pianist doing a concerto can "play" with tempo and even intensity of the notes as an example how they can perform technically well, but add their own flair... artistry if you like... interpretation.

I do understand that dancers also interpret their roles.. but I don't know of any of the mechanisms available. Please excuse my ignorance and help me out a bit here.

How do dancers do this?

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It is interesting to me to see how the musicality, the technique, and this contradiction threads are all converging and trying to look at how the magic/illusion aspect of ballet is taught and executed. We are using analogies and every other technique at our disposal to explain a transformation that is probably somewhat beyond the ability of words to convey. Ballet demands so much of its pactitioners. I often comment to my dancing children, you must act without words, and sing without voices. Because their bodies (entire bodies) are their instrument, they have to train and condition like athletes. Unlike athletes they are also required to make it look effortless and easy, but not so matter of fact it becomes pedestrian. Does this happen in the head or in the heart or in the limbs?

Currently my main interest in ballet is in the care and feeding of its practitioners. I was somewhat shocked to realize (actually during a performance one summer several years ago), that I was no longer raising children who danced, but rather dancers who were still children. Since my personal epiphany, I have taken this responsibility very seriously.

From this perspective it seems to me an extraordinary number of things need to come together quite precisely to achieve even the most fleeting moments of success in ballet. Prominent among these things are persistence, faith, and passion cultivated in an atmosphere of hope and with a healthy dose of good luck and good fortune. The support and curiosity of balletomanes like defjef and others on this board reassures me that the community working so hard to produce dancers and dances can look forward to appreciative fans for sometime to come.

Both my children have devoted a lot of sweat and tears to dance (primarily but not exclusively ballet) and hope for careers though they know the odds against them. Ballet even takes over their dreams. I remember how touched I was when I first heard about the dream pirouettes where the dreamer asceded and spun flawlessly for countless revolutions. Both my children have dancing dreams pretty regularly (although some are pretty ordinary and every once in awhile there are real nightmares!) It seems you must train, train, train, and strive in all ways: physical, mental, and spiritual to have a hope of doing what Defjef is trying to understand. The culture of excellence and dedication begun in the studio and perpetuated all the way to the stage are a totality that combine to generate what we are all so proud of. An elusive constellation of magic, and sweat; inspiration and perspiration, that on a good day lift us all up so high it is its own reward.

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One thing which I want to comment on here is that the intelligence, wisdom, the command of language and complex ideas are so beautifully conveyed by people who are involved in a art which uses no words, only movement. Damn you people are amazingly articulate!

The more I look at ballet from the other side of the proscenium.. and read the comments of those on BT... the more I realize how little I understand. As I age I realize I know more and more about less and less or something like that.

What is happening to me is that I am increasingly being drawn into to ballet, the beauty, the mystery, the amazing perfection of the human body and movement. I can't tell you BT people how important this forum is to me.

I do consider dancers to be living breathing works of art.. when they perform... like Bernini's come to life... unfrozen perfect sculpture free to move in what to me is rather super human ways. Too bad Bernini, Da Vinci, or Michelangelo could not see ballet! Aren't we lucky!


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DefJef, just consider how much more you already know than the average person! :)

Principal dancers and some soloists are sometimes allowed to work with the ballet master/mistress to alter choreography in very small ways to suit their abilities and personalities to create the most effective performance, so that is one part of the equation.

As far as exactly what dancers do in order to interpret a role...well, they think about it quite a bit, and the ballet master/mistress usually assists them in finding the logic behind everything they do in the ballet and how it all flows together, similar to an actor "finding motivation." They also analyze their movements very carefully, and they may rehearse a seemingly simple gesture over and over to do it with the appropriate energy, facial expression, eye focus, and so on. Eye contact between dancers is important, and so is the way they touch each other--how a ballerina takes her partner's hand, how a cavalier offers his hand, and what the dancers do with this physical connection.

In fact, it is perhaps most difficult to perform alone because the dancer doesn't have a crowd of people onstage, or even a partner, to relate to. In that case, the dancer uses his/her own energy to uniquely shade each movement, and s/he uses his/her eyes and face as well as body to appear (for example) withdrawn and remote or warm and approachable. To relate directly to the audience, the dancer might often look out into the auditorium, attempting to gaze through the very back wall of the theater. To create the impression that the audience is looking through a one-way mirror at the stage, the dancer could look only at his/her partner or even envision an opaque wall at the front of the stage so that his/her gaze stops at the proscenium as if the audience is not there.

It's pretty difficult to explain, and I think parts of it are impossible to explain, but if you ever have the opportunity to watch a rehearsal, that might help you to see exactly how dancers prepare for their roles and create particular artistic effects onstage.

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