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Classicism - definitions and uses

Leigh Witchel

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I thought this would be an amusing topic, although I think I'm asking for a mini-lecture rather than a discussion. Our fair moderator proved to be very informative when this topic came up on alt.arts.ballet about a year ago.

How about some definitions here? I find I often use the word "classical" to describe "something with qualities that I happen to find attractive". This is not going to work as a useful definition I bet.

What is classicism or classical? What makes ballet "classical?" What is the intersection with other forms of "classical" dance? And with other forms of "classical" art (such as architecture, painting, sculpture)

Who is a classicist, and why?

I'd love to be able to use the word correctly for a change!

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I don't think "Classical" ballet aligns well with any other form of classicism in the arts. Certainly not with music; classical ballet tends to be associated with romantic, rather than classical, music. (This, of course, ignores the fact that Baroque, Classical, and Romantic forms of music are usually lumped together as "classical.")

If I weren't so lazy, I could probably make up a list of elements that would be required for a ballet to be "classical" as I think of it. Instead, I'll just give the short form: to me, "classical" ballet is anything in the style of Petipa.

Petipa used the vocabulary of ballet as it had developed through the romantic era, but spiced it up with the technical virtuosity of the Italians. I think the pas de deux, with its supported adagio, solos, and coda, is one of the main elements of classical ballet. Added to that is a vocabulary of steps and a style of performing them that makes a ballet classical in style.

One can stray from Petipa quite a bit and still remain classical; but there comes a point where you cross the line.

I may not be able to define classical ballet, but I know it when I see it.


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Thanks Leigh, this is a question I have been struggling with ever since I found this board. The term "classical" is attached to a lot of the discussion, in different ways.

It's my impression that "classical ballet" has something to do with Petipa and that era of ballet. But is that "something" associated with the individual positions the dancer takes and how well the dancer moves from the five basic "classical dance" positions (following a set of strict rules?), or is it the overall presentation of the ballet itself? I sense its both; still hard to know what someone else really means regarding this term; eg, when Alexandra and others lament the current lack of good classical ballet productions these days, do you mean the dancers don't know the steps and the movements well enough, or that the ballet itself is produced differently (inferior) from when Petipa presented it? It would be easy if there were a list of elements which must be in classical ballet. Maybe a list should be developed (?). I don't positively know classical ballet when I see it (I think I know it, but....). Its not necessary to know absolutely for my enjoyment of it, but it is necessary to understand the point of a lot of ballet talk.

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I agree with what Leigh said, that "classicism" is often defined as "something with qualities that I happen to find attractive." I've given the popular definition as "the kind of ballet I like" or "24 women in white tutus standing in a straight line." It's sometimes assumed to mean "good".

I also think Steve gave a very clear and complete definition of the way the term is generally understood, at least in America. (I'll bet the Russians and perhaps the French would have a different perspective). I think Steve's "I know it when I see it" is what works for most people.

One historical note related to what Steve wrote. I was taught in my first dance history class that "dance history is backwards from the other arts in that classicism followed romanticism." That made no sense to me then -- based on nothing -- and makes less sense to me now, based on a little reading about the 18th century. If you read about what Noverre was doing, it's classical in the same way painting and music are considered classical - classical by form and classical by conviction. You can't have romanticism without classicism. Problem is, we don't have anything left of Noverre -- directly. I think what we see of Petipa that we call classical is what he developed from Noverre. (The Danes 1990 production of Bournonville's Lay of Thrym, a wretched botch of a revival which began my delving into deepest darkest Denmark, was the bones of a grand, late work which bore remarkable resemblances to some Petipa ballets that we knew -- processions, variations, long passages of mime. The only logical deduction, it seemed to me, was that they came from the same source (Noverre, or the ballet of that time). The white passages of "Giselle" we now know are late Petipa interpolations; we don't know what it looked like, but it was probably a lot rounder and softer. I saw another clue to the past on video, from a televised performance of Paris Opera's recent revival of Leo Staats' "Soir de Fete." The structure is very very similar to Ashton's Les Patineurs -- it's not as linear, it has a logic of its own, but it's not the logic we're used to and so it takes a few viewings to get (I'm presuming Ashton saw the Staats). This is offered only to say that there are even different formal, or structural, approaches to classical ballets.

A final (for now) comment, is that "classical ballet" until recently encompassed classical, demicaractere, character and pantomime passages, each with its own rules. In the post-Balanchine, "pure dance" world, all we have is the classical. (Balanchine used all the elements. Not in every work, but he used them.)

And if that's more than anyone wanted to know, sorry.


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Wonderful question Leigh! Thanks. Just some loose thoughts.

"Classical ballet" is a very uncomfortable and vague expression because the term "classical" covers so many meanings. When it's used most people will more or less know what's meant -- more or less.

Sometimes, very simplified, it's used as a synonym for ballet or dance with pointe shoes (usually distinct from "contemporary dance"). That's definitely not enough.

I guess most people use "classical" (when referring to dance) in the sense of traditional and academic (following the rules), as opposite to modern or experimental (consciously trying to break the rules). Academic dance and well thought-out patterns and structures (the lines of Wilis, Swans and Bayadères; the way the ballet is structured, entrée, adage, variation 1, etc).

That's possibly too limited as well. "Classical" can mean to have respect for the tradition and be formalistic, yet some will argue that it's in no way linked to style or period, because "classical" and "classicism" is an attitude, a way of perceiving art. In that sense "classical" is not limited to Petipa and followers, but can also comprise a dance piece that was created yesterday. Moreover, as such "classical" is not "dead" or "museum" art, as it is sometimes considered by its opponents.

When is a ballet truly "classical art"? I always felt inclined to answer "When it's based on certain well-defined rules and thus respects tradition (academic dance) even by enriching its vocabulary, and when it has a permanent value for people, a sort of universal meaning." All that Petipa created was "classical" in the way that he used a choreographic vocabulary which is based on classical elements (academic dance, itself based on order, clear structures, harmony etc), yet not all he did gained the status of a "classic."

Hopes this makes sense...

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I'd like to second everything that Marc wrote. On top of everything else, I think that classicism is an attitude. I'd add it includes a preference for beauty, order, symmetry -- often by implication; "Monotones" is two trios, but there's still symmetry, even though it's not foursquare 18th century symmetry; "Serenade," with its 17 girls scattered "like orange trees in California," is symmetrical, but...etc.

Paul, all your questions are excellent. It's an overused word. If the Eskimos have 57 words for "snow," why can't we develop at least twelve different words for describing aspects of an art form that's been around, in some way or another, for 400 years?

I think it is used to describe both the dancer and the dance. Ballet dancers are classical dancers. Ballet has a specific vocabulary (the steps) and a specific grammar (the way the steps are put together, which -- "classically" -- do move through the five postions of the feet, although I have to say I have never watched a ballet to make sure that's always done, and I'm sure much "neoclassical" or contemporary work skirts around that. (I would say that a classical choreographer knows the rules, even though he doesn't follow them, in the same way a good writer breaks the rules of grammar for effect, or whatever.)

As for the lamentations over good productions -- take it you're referring to productions of existing works, like "Swan Lake," etc.? I'd say they're not well-staged, they're often not well-danced (even though the dancers' technique is fine) because the style is sloppy, or, in some cases, nonexistent (style: accent, polish, the way the head is held, the postion of the hands, arms, fingers. This should be integral to technique, but, in a foot-conscious era, the upper body is left to tend to itself and is often found wanting.) I could not name a contemporary production of either "Swan Lake" or "Sleeping Beauty" that I would willingly sit through. Some have been "enhanced" by finding wondrous psychological secrets of the major characters, others are just plain sloppy. We can't say it's inferior to how Petipa produced it, because we don't know what Petipa's production looked like, and we probably couldn't reproduce it if we tried. Think of trying to reproduce, exactly, "Hamlet," down to the blocking, body movements, exact accent and intonation of the original actors. Not possible, even if we had the video.

Yes, a list would be helpful, but all our lists would be different. I once tried to count how many ways "classical" was used, and I think I came up with twelve.

I also agree with Paul that it isn't something one has to worry about when one is watching ballet. It's just important if one thinks about it, or tries to talk about it. I became interested in classical productions because I saw the Royal's version first (with Nureyev, but, alas, Monica Mason, not Fonteyn) which I loved -- and later discovered was at least as much Ashton as Petipa; so much for authenticity. Then I saw ABT's, which looked like a simplified version of the Royal's at that time (mid-'70s); then Erik Bruhn's for the National Ballet of Canada which was, I thought, totally whacko. (Von Rothbart was the Black Queen; Bruhn had a thing about bad mothers, apparently.) Which made me ask, what the hell is "Swan Lake"? A question I still cannot answer.

Hope some of that is clear.


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Oh boy - the taxonomy of this one seems to be pure hell.

I appreciate the definitions received here, but feel that we've all had to formulate them as we go. Via email, Alexandra and I were trying to discern a difference between formalism, structualism and classicism. I know I've used the terms interchangeably, having called Cunningham a classicist where Alexandra would call him a formalist.

Alas, I have to admit, I think I'm even less comfortable with the term than before!

Let me repose a question. Is there a concrete definition for "classical" or classicism in another art form, ie architecture? Is some of that applicable to ballet?

[This message has been edited by Leigh Witchel (edited 03-21-99).]

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