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Casting (and typecasting)

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Good Lord, Leigh. Where in the world would there be a ballet master so dense as to think that James should be the one with the best beats? smile.gif

ATM, I think you've touched on a very important point. Employ matters to people who think classical line is an integral part of ballet, and "to hell with employ" is more suited to people who care about other things.

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I may be in the minority (to put it mildly!) but I would have been just as happy if Makarova hadn't made such a speciality of Swan Lake; I thought she was just too woozy, and besides she didn't do the mime, which for me anyway is the most important part.

One of the problems in emploi jumping may simply be the lack of roles. I remember reading an interview with Carol Vaness, who said even though she had the voice to do Butterfly, she was not going to do it because it just didn't suit her personality. But there are dozens of other wonderful roles she can do; if a dancer honestly decides she isn't suited to Odette, then she has cut herself off from about a quarter of the classical repertory.

We have been talking about people doing things they really shouldn't--how about the losses of roles people didn't do--can you imagine Van Hamel as Lilac?

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Aha! Van Hamel *did* do Lilac, and was wonderful -- whether a Russian balletmaster would consider that her correct employ, I don't know, but I liked it. (I will readily confess my sense of employ for women is not nearly as keen as that for men.)

I'll join Mary in a minority of two. I had the misfortune to be a Fonteyn and Nureyev person who came to ballet in the age of Makarova and Baryshnikov. They were not interchangeable dancers, IMO, but that's how they were used. By that time, in the Ballet Boom, Age of Stars, the "star roles" and star career path was quite firmly established.

Aside from Makarova's lack of miming (a product of her era and training, I think, rather than one of employ), I never thought she came close to Fonteyn -- and this is comparing dozens of live Makarova performances to two not-top-of-the-line Fonteyn videos. Makarova definitely owned the role for most Americans of that time, and you could see the effect this popularity had on the bodies of the dancers around her. There were quite a few ABT dancers (Harvey, McKerrow, to name two of the most prominent) who actually changed their bodies from Fonteyn-like to Makarova-like. There were others -- my favorite being Kristine Elliott -- who were considered "old-fashioned" (i.e., Fonteyn) and passed over for Makarovites.

I also think that Mary's mention of the lack of roles is a HUGE factor. If Baryshnikov had had a wide repertory of challenging, suitable roles, we would all have been the richer.

To throw another set of factors into this debate, for those who accept my notion that Sleeping Beauty is a statement of Petipa's employ, I think "Jewels" does the same for Balanchine.

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The Royal Ballet dancer who really suffers from lack of suitable roles is Darcey Bussell, who gets put into all sorts of things - Les Rendezvous, Les Biches - which are way out of what you might think to be her emploi. Though the RB isn't very hot on this anyway - see, for instance, the continual casting of Jonathan Cope as a 'lover'.

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Alexandra...please tell me what it was about not-top-of-the-line Fonteyn that you prefer over Makarova. Cargill found Makarova's Swan Lake "woozy"; the word is probably self-explanation but I'm not positive what it means. (I saw Fonteyn in her prime but I don't remember it; plus I really wanted to see Shearer and was miffed that I didn't!)


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I know you didn't ask me, but I will add my 2 cents anyway! Fonteyn was so beautifully controlled, and has such a pure line, nothing was overstretched. She was so definitely a woman, with no extra flutterings, but she was also so swan-like. I don't know if I have written about it here, but there was one magical moment when she folded her arms, and I really did see wings. She also had such a sence of tragedy and nobility. Markarova seemed to be so wan and mannered, fluttering and batting her eyes, and so self-indulgently slow with the music. Though that is not emploi, that is Russian!

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Giannina, I think it's the subtlety. She manages to be regal and humble at the same time. I don't see her as a literal swan (which she's not supposed to be, during the white act; just at the end). The dancing is so clean and so simple and so pure -- "classical," by my definitions. I never saw her do it in performance. The two Swan Lakes I have of Fonteyn are from the "An Evening with the Royal Ballet" film from the 50s and the Nureyev version with the Vienna Ballet. I will also say that I watched these videos dozens of times before I "got" it. I always had the sense that, beautiful as Makarova was, Odette/Odile wasn't natural to her. It was as if she was dancing in falsetto.

I'd like to thank everyone for their patience and forbearance for this thread. I have a horrible feeling we're insulting everyone. I can imagine our dancer readers seething. Dancers (anybody) hate to be put in boxes. If you asked Kevin McKenzie or Anthony Dowell at one of those "chatting with the director" nights (or almost any other artistic director today): What do you consider the place of employ in today's ballet scene? He/she would either gasp or gag or laugh. They may not have heard the term either (I first learned it reading Gennady Smakov's biography of Baryshnikov. Like much of the good stuff in ballet, it's a secret kept by the great academies). They certainly don't practice it. They would probably say it's out of fashion, irrelevant to today's repertory, etc. But one can also make the argument that ballet is an art of rules. Modern dance is not; that is one of its glories. But ballet is about rules, and not only do dancers look best when placed in the right "box," but so do the ballets. A "Swan Lake" where the Siegfried is shorter and bouncier than the four little swans is missing something.

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Re emploi, I want to make an observation about the terms being used here and how 20th century ballet develoments appear to have affected them.

Originally, it appears to me from reading what has been written above that emploi was used to refer to casting a very limited variety of classical types -- i.e., the prince, the lover, the fool, etc. -- as well as a limited number of well known roles, such as the Lilac Fairy, the Bluebird, Odette/Odile. (The original group of roles appears to me to be derived from early 19th century German romanticism - Goethe, Schiller, E.T.A. Hoffman, but that is another thread).

However, 20th century developments in ballet then inevitably confuse this.

First, there is the profusion of ballets and roles. With character roles such Apollo, the Prodigal Son, or the Firebird introduced into the mix, there many more characters. Instead of just a few solid types, there are numberless roles and of course more disagreement as to just what the proper type of dancer is for many of them.

Then consider what happens when abstraction enters the picture. For once ballets tend towards the abstract, there cease to be identifiable characters as such, and of course it becomes still more difficult to speak of "emploi" in the original sense. To speak about the same idea (proper casting for each role) you will then inevitably have to talk either about casting in terms of very specific roles (thus, the two leading women in Concerto Barocco - Diana Adams or Tannquil LeClerq - will look and dance like this or that) or you will have to attempt a new verbal synthesis by dividing abstract classical roles into types of dancers generally and trying to reconstruct a theory of emploi around these aesthetic ideas.

But given these difficulties, it is not surprising if artistic directors today have abandoned the use of this concept for a more flexible role-specific verbal analysis.

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The genres are much older than German romanticism, Michael. They go back to European mythology. The three body types are described as clearly in a Norse myth (they're called Jarl, Carl and Thral) as they would be later by Beauchamps and Noverre. The genres work in 20th century ballet, too. If you're interested, the best contemporary writer I've found on them is Joan Lawson. She has a fairly recent book called something like (sorry) "How to Make a Ballet" and actually sets out the "rules" for demicaractere ballets (the kind popular in the 30s and 40s) as if she wanted to have it written down somewhere, in case anyone ever wanted to revive them.

The genres are not really limited to just a few roles and ballets. They pervade the ballets, and the ballets of Ashton and Balanchine as well as Bournonville and Petipa. They've gotten corrupted in this century, but they're still there.

There's a big debate, for example, over Apollo, which is usually described as a demicaractere role (not character) I think. But then there's Peter Martins -- the role changed. But Balanchine made that change, and made an exception for a specific dancer. I think the Adams/LeClerq pairing is very much the same noble/classique contrast that Petipa used in classical pas de trois (Swan Lake pas de trois, for instance) or the two soloists in Jardin Animee. It's to provide contrast and texture, like a duet between a lyric soprano and a mezzo-soprano.


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I have been reading this thread with a lot of interest. The operatic term that is closest of “emploi” may be “fach”. Possibly like the ballet term “emploi", “fach” has been imported into a set of universal terms used in any language in which opera fans converse, and therefore has been stripped of many of the nuances in its original language, in this case German.

Very broadly, fach is the range of roles to that a singer might be expected to perform based on, among other things, the color, agility, power, range and timbre of his or her voice. There are a dizzying variety of soprano voice categories, for example, and singers with long and successful careers may slowly move from one to the other.

Where it differs significantly from emploi, at least as I understand it from this thread, is that it is as least as much a self-definition as one imposed on a singer. She (and her close advisors) will know best where the voice lies and what roles are most appropriate. Very few singers are successful in combining fachs. Those who attempt a lot of roles that are too heavy, too high, or that require darkening and lightening the voice quickly generally have short (although sometimes spectacular) careers.

It is this real threat of permanently damaging one’s voice where the crux of the difference lies—it becomes as much a personal decision regarding a career as it does an artistic one.

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Ed, I think you're exactly right. I also think that the body types -- height, frame, musculature -- are as restrictive as voice, but dancers go out and strain their bodies every night. Many older dancers (dancers who grew up when employ was more strictly adhered to) think that this is the leading cause of injuries. If you are aware of employ, you'll find it popping up (often unnamed) in dancer interviews. How they felt totally comfortable in McBride roles, for example, but could not do Farrell ones. Well, duh, as the kids would say. It also applies to acting. Whether it's temperament or facial musculature, I don't know, but I've seen dancers with wonderfully mobile faces in comedy look ridiculous in tragedy -- it's not just that they "can't act." It's that the face literally cannot assume tragic poses.

Dancers can legitimately move around in fach/employ, as you say. Often a light dancer becomes heavier with age, for example.

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One more thing about Makarova in Swan Lake.

The trouble with these defecting Soviet dancers like Nureyev and Makarova was that they were soon considered as true representatives, as models of the whole Soviet school, which they were not. And it’s even still working now: Mary considers Makarova’s selfish interpretation of Swan Lake as typically Russian. One can surely argue about her qualities as Odette/Odile and for some she looks mannered and over-stretched because she was technically too weak for it. In any case, and whatever her artistic merits, Makarova was not a typically Soviet swan. Those were still dancing on the banks of the Neva or in the shade of the Kremlin

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Interesting remarks, Marc. (I don't think I'm ready to think that Nureyev was not representative of the Russian school, though.) I'm curious. Do you consider Ulanova a typical Soviet swan, or a great Soviet swan? Again, only comparing to video, but Makarova's phrasing in the White Swan is almost a copy.

I was also interested in your saying that Makarova was too technically weak to do the role, as she was considered the epitome of technique (not only Russian), the ideal classical ballerina, by many here.

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I can chime in on the overstretched part. It means the body looks as though it's been stretched on a rack, every limb is extended as far as it is humanly possibly to extend it. Volkova (pupil of Vaganova and coach of Fonteyn in the classical roles) taught that the body must never be overstretched, that the dancer must always leave room, as it were, for more movement. The movement must never be finished, there must be the possibility that there's somewhere else for the dancer to go.

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Cargill - When did Martine Van Hamel ever dance the title role in GISELLE? Do you really believe that she rarely danced Myrtha? You may be interested to learn that Martine Van Hamel is considered to be one of the greatest Myrthas of all time, having performed the role many times with ABT. I believe that it is Van Hamel who is featured as Myrtha in the video that stars Makarova as Giselle. Perhaps you were thinking of someone else & typed "Van Hamel" by mistake? (smile)

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Alexandra, I was aware that Natalia Makarova made a lot of impact here in the West, but I didn’t know that they even went as far as to consider her ”the epitome of technique” and “the ideal classical ballerina.” I always thought she was essentially a romantic ballerina, but there we go.

(That’s also why some of us have mixed feelings about her “Swan Lake” I suppose.)

Part of the problem here in the West is, that for many years we have been treated too much to a one-sided diet of Soviet ballet. The few dancers we knew here, easily became the standard – up to a point that’s understandable. But what I fail to see is why Makarova’s reading of “Swan Lake” has gained such a status and became the typically Soviet interpretation of that ballet. That sounds a bit too limited and over-generalized.

“Swan Lake” has never been Makarova’s best role and her Black Swan was always a weak moment (Gennady Smakov, who really cannot be suspected of any feelings of antipathy toward Makarova, devotes a few paragraphs to this particular problem of hers.)

Back in Russia there were many other ballerinas (Plisetskaya, Bessmertnova, Osipenko, Evteeva to name but a few) who made the role their own or who gave different readings and provided other insights, that were at least as, if not more fascinating than hers, and surely more complete by technical finish (quite a few of them can be seen on film). By comparison Makarova's Swan can be criticized for lacking grandeur and the proper physicality for the role, while too much dancing is undoubtedly obscured by tics and mannerisms (which I don’t think has ever been a characteristic of Vaganova schooling, emphasizing on the contrary clarity and purity of line.)

That this particular reading of “Swan Lake” gained such a reputation in the West is indeed more than just a little puzzling.

Re Ulanova, difficult question Alexandra – I’ve never seen a complete “Swan Lake”. But without wanting to cut on her (although her reputation is undoubtedly inflated by myth-making), I always considered Ulanova artistically too much of an outsider to be labelled typical.

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Marc, some day, try to get ahold of Croce's collections of essays. They're full of descriptions of Makarova's and Baryshnikov's technical supremacy. (I quote Croce often here; I admire her, and she's very very quotable. But on these two dancers, I never agreed with her, for what that's worth.) Croce certainly wasn't the only one, but she's very influential, as I'm sure you know.

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In Russia we have 2 different schools with different styles - Moscow and St.Petersburg. They were different 200 years ago and thanks God they are still different. Ulanova is product of St.Petersburg school but she danced most part of her life in Moscow by Stalin's order. Because of this and because of her talent she stay aside from typical Soviet balerina. But model for Russian Swans was not even she, but Marina Semenova, another Vaganova's pupil who danced in Moscow also. I didn't see her dance, only her walk downstairs in Swan's costume and it was unbelievable gorgeous.

Makarova and Nureev after moving to West had changed dramatically. They gained freedom, not political, but movement's freedom and freedom of expression but they lost very important thing the same time - the taste. I'm not saying they became worst, no, they developed themselves in beautiful dancers but they weren't Russian dancers anymore.

Emploi is bringing the right relation between characters inside of one ballet. Alexandra is absolutely right - even the form of nose is very important. I'm not closing the door for any experiments in casting, but if you changed one person, you have to change all others as well, to find a right proportion in differences between them. It's really difficult if you have performances in the row with formed cast year by year.


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Marc, I thought that many people from the "old school" danced everything: Sergeyev danced not only Princes, but also Slave in "Le Corsaire", Basilio, Bluebird, Ali-Batyr; Sizova was both Giselle and Myrtha; Dudinskaya danced both Kitri and Odette, Giselle and Raymonda, Aurora and Laurencia; Semenova was Queen of Dryads (sp.?), Street Dancer, and Kitri in "Don Quixote", Odette and Odillia in "Swan Lake", Giselle, etc. Most of this was happening under the watchful eye of Vaganova. And, in my opinion, this is good: the public was treated to a variety of roles danced by these wonderful artists. The spectators had a choice: if you do not like Dudinskaya in "Giselle", don't go.

Neither did this seem to lead to any injuries (as was implied in this thread): all these people had very long, illustrious careers. I think ascribing Soloviev's suicide to typecasting problems would be trivializing the matter.

I am also very much confused by the terminology. It would be very helpful if the professional posters could clarify the meaning of "danseur noble", "demi-caractere", etc. Is "danseur noble" equivalent to "a Prince who does not do any virtuoso dancing", like P. Gerdt in "Sleeping Beauty" and "Swan Lake"? (But then why did he also dance Abderakhman?) In previous threads, I've seen Ruzimatov, Bruhn, Soloviev all described as "demi-charactere". Some posters, however, said that Soloviev was a "danseur noble". I've also seen "Apollo" described as a demi-charactere role, but when Ruzimatov was scheduled to perform it last summer, there were many sarcastic remarks. On the other hand, there was a general approval when Zelensky (who is probably considered "danseur noble"--?) performed it. In short, I'm completely, totally confused--which probably means that so are many other readers of this board.

What would be nice are clear definitions, like: danseur noble is someone whose muscle structure, facial features, and proportions are such-and-such (we already know about the nose smile.gif), height is around X feet Y inches, etc.; Odette is a ballerina who is ...; she is inappropriate for Kitri because ..., etc. A specific example or two would also be very helpful.

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Ilya, I agree that it's very confusing. The clearest definitions I've seen are in Noverre's Letters -- yes, very old, but that's the basis of it, one of the first times it was written down. There were genre crossings from the beginning. I learned for the first time a few years ago that Gaetan Vestris (the original Dieu de la Danse) was originally a grotesque dancer in his native Italy. But he was tall, good-looking and a good actor, and when Duport was about to retire and they needed a danseur noble in Paris.... (And people complained about it, too, but Vestris's PR machine won that battle.)

Stars do dance roles "out of type." But again, it is very misleading to just check a list of roles and think one understands what really happened. As was pointed out here, Martine Van Hamel danced Giselle -- once. And Myrtha many more times. So to say that she danced both roles is not really true. Danilova (another Myrtha) also danced Giselle a few times, and her fans were undoubtedly delighted. But she was still a Myrtha (and a very great ballerina -- at least by American standards smile.gif ) There is also a very big difference between having danced the role, as in, "Whew. Now I can put this one on my role list" and being great in the role. There are dozens of dancers who danced roles for which they were unsuited, especially away from their home companies, but were taken out of the roles after a few performances simply because it was clear that they were unsuited.

As for physical requirements, I can only list this for men. Danseur nobles are 5'10 and above. Duport was 6'1, G. Vestris 5'11. A very rare genre. But also, more importantly, they are elegant and "classically proportioned," which means the waist bisects the body. The semicharacter classical (Prince rather than King) is 5'7 to 5'9. Also slender and elegant, although not necessarily quite so elegant, and the legs are long; the body is not classically proportioned. Demicaractere is 5'4 to 5'6. Their build is more stocky (but not inelegant) Grotesques were extremes: either very very short or very very tall. We're also talking about the natural body, not a stocky or naturally fleshy body starved to look more elegant. There are also steps associated more with one genre than the other, again descending from the original steps/dances assigned to each genre. BTW, I loved what Andre wrote above about the need for all the genres to make a truly great ballet. I certainly agree with that.

A general note: I would imagine it would be almost impossible to really understand this from reading a few posts here. Anyone who is genuinely interested might want to read old dancing master's manuals, or any of Ivor Guests books about the Paris Opera (which institution classified dancers formally by category until well into the 19th century at least), as well as dancers memoires, reviews, etc. (Checking and cross-checking a dancer's complaints about how he was typecast against his or her colleague's comments often sheds useful light on this question, for instance.) But until one has the historical background to really discuss this, I don't think the "so what?" attitude is very helpful.

I'd be very interested in reading how Andrei, as our only Russian-trained dancer poster, I think, would divide the genres physically.


[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited February 23, 2000).]

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Well, for whatever it's worth--I did see Fonteyn's Odette/Odile when she was in her prime (40's and 50's) and I could never warm up to it. Her movements never seemed to flow off into infinity---when she struck an arabesque, for instance, the movement seemed to stop at her fingertips--for me, there was never enough poetry in her performances and Makarova is overflowing with it!

But for all you Fonteyn admirers I will admit that her Aurora was the best...To this day whenever I see Sleeping Beauty Fonteyn's performance is always there in shadow.

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Alexandra, thanks a lot! Now, could you classify some famous male roles according to danseur noble, demi-charactere, character? I'm mostly interested in Desire, Bluebird, Sigfried, Albrecht, Nutcracker, James, Franz, Basilio, Ali, Conrad, Solor, Spartacus (Grigorovich), de Brienne, as well as male parts in "Le Spectre de la rose", "Grand pas classique", "Flower Festival", and peasant pdd from "Giselle". (The only ones I'm pretty sure about are Desire, Sigfried, and de Brienne.)

It would also be great if I could get some specific examples of miscasting, carefully explained: for instance, taking an example from an earlier thread (with which I don't necessarily agree), casting Ruzimatov (who is demi-charactere) as Desire (a danseur noble role) was bad, because ... Or, perhaps, despite the miscasting, he turned out to be equal to the challenge by doing ...

The example discussed above of Makarova in Swan Lake is not really what I'm looking for, because the argument there was the lack of technical suitability, as well as some peculiarities of her interpretation. What I'd like to know is who is suited (or considered to be suited) for different roles physically.

(Marc mentioned that Makarova wan't suited to that role physically, either. Perhaps he could expand on that?)

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This may be going off the subject a little, but I think it's definately related. Just as dancer's become associated with a particular role, such as Martine van Hamel's Myrta, they become associated with partners that can result in a form of selective casting also. Ferri and Bocca at ABT are one example.

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Whew. Your list: "Desire, Bluebird, Sigfried, Albrecht, Nutcracker, James, Franz, Basilio, Ali, Conrad, Solor, Spartacus (Grigorovich), de Brienne, as well as male parts in "Le Spectre de la rose", "Grand pas classique", "Flower Festival", and peasant pdd from "Giselle". (The only ones I'm pretty sure about are Desire, Sigfried, and de Brienne.)"

Desire - danseur noble

Bluebird - semicharacter classical (henceforth called "classique")

Some differences: I watched some coaching sessions in Denmark a few years ago. A very young dancer was learning Desire's third act solo. Just the solo, mind you. But the coach stopped him when he was walking and said, 'No, you're walking on your toes, like the Blue Bird. You're a Prince. Get your heels down. Feel the floor." Desire needs line and weight, and how to hold the stage just by walking and standing. The acting is in his very being, and through mime. The Bluebird is a dance-acted role, the character is in the dancing. He also needs line, but it's a fleet line, not a still line. NOTE: I think one of the big confusions is this middle genre, the "classique." Some classique roles, like Albrecht, are thought to be danseur noble roles (because "danseur noble" is sometimes thought to be French for "hot star dancer," but this is a bad translation smile.gif Some classique roles are thought to be demicaractere roles. I've heard Bluebird considered demicaractere. I've noticed that Kirov and Kirov-derived productions have a much more elegant, "classical" way of dancing the BlueBird pas de deux.

Now back to your list. Short answers:

Sigfried - danseur noble

Albrecht - classique (I've been told that in Paris, this was considered a demicaractere role. Also, in Denmark, this was one of Borge Ralov's great roles, and his other two were Petrouchka and Harlequin (!) He bombed as James.)

Nutcracker - danseur noble

James - classique

Franz - demicaractere

Basilio - demicaractere

Ali - I think we're too far from the original to tell. Now, it's almost a grotesque (exotic) role. I've noticed demicaractere dancers calling themselves "virtuoso" dancers. I'll bow to Andrei on this one (and of course, any additions or corrections you'd like to add...),

Conrad - danseur noble

Solor - danseur noble

Spartacus (Grigorovich) - 20th century employ. Hmm. Created for a great demi (Vasiliev) but I think would be considered, in Soviet terms, a heroic as opposed to a lyric role

de Brienne - danseur noble

"Le Spectre de la rose" - classique (Of course, I don't know what it looked like when Nijinsky did it. He was a demicaractere dancer, who also did Albrecht and Siegfried (but only in Paris)

"Grand pas classique" - don't know. Haven't seen it since I became employ-eyed

"Flower Festival" - demicaractere

peasant pdd from "Giselle". demicaractere

On Ruzimatov as Desire. I would argue that he is not a danseur noble primarily because he doesn't have the weight and he doesn't have the line. (Not to mention the height or the proper proportions.) Any interesting dancer can be interesting in any role. Horrid example. I met someone who had only seen "Rubies" in Copenhagen, and who didn't like the NYCB version. Why? "When you've seen a tall man dance that role, it just doesn't make sense with a short man." In Copenhagen, their "short man" had been injured and the second cast man was well over 6 feet tall, but very light -- light in spirit as well in dancing -- and he could be witty, so they put him in. The role was made for Edward Villella.

ATM, re Fonteyn and Makarova, I thought Fonteyn was too calm at first. I later realized that she was supposed to be calm ("supposed to be" by the rules of her style). This isn't to argue; tastes are different and many people adored Makarova and found Fonteyn dull. I found, when I started really looking at the "dullness" that it was quite interesting.

Bridget, yes, partners can definitely define a role for a generation.

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