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European dancers Vs American Dancers

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This is just a query I had from reading a post on the Pointe Forum from Lolly, about a pointe shoe tailored for the 'European dancer'. it got me thinking what exactly is a European dancer? and can you tell if you were watching a ballet, who had American training and who had European training just by the way they dance?

My teacher tells me I have a European style, but I never thought much about it until now.


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I'm sorry for a short, EXTREMELY reductive answer because I'm late and running out the door. It's a very long, subtle topic.

I think it depends on where your teacher is from as to what s/he means by that remark. I think in America, we view ourselves as ballet dancers as being very "leggy" rather than concentrated on the upper body, and given to real attack and speed in movement. We think of Europeans as having more concentration on upper body work, more training in acting as well as dance and being more reserved in attack.

Needless to say, this is one massive generalization based on a broad trend, not individual dancers. And "European" and "American" lumps together an awful lot of different schools of training. It would be interesting to hear what European dancers thought the differences were.

Yoohoo. . .Olivier?

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That's a good question -- I'm curious myself about the shoes and hope one of our teachers can respond.

But there is a difference in styles among schools and companies (even though, like the Amazon rain forest, that diversity is being hacked at as we speak :)) And teachers and choreographers can tell after watching a dancer for just a few minutes what their "native language" is.

One of my favorite ballet stories is that of Ruthanna Boris, choreographer of "Cakewalk," who said that when she auditioned for Balanchine he said, "Ah, little Italian girl" because of the way she performed a pirouette -- and in fact, she had studied at the Metropolitan Opera's ballet school, which was Italian at the beginning of the 20th century.

Some stylistic differences are whether arms en couronne are placed squarely above the head (the arms directly parallel to the ears) or placed a bit in front. Is the arm extended, stretched as far as it can go, looking as though a machine is pulling on the fingers? Or is it extended almost as far as it can go, a bit more rounded and leaving room in the imagination for more movement? Does one hop up on pointe, or roll through the foot? Dozens of things like that, all of which once meant a great deal to teachers and dancers and they fought hard to maintain a company's style and individuality.

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But I'll bet you the "reserved" doesn't mean shy -- it's a quality rooted in the technique, and has a lot to do with whether that arm is s-t-r-e-t-c-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-e-d or has a slightly rounded elbow. Were you trained to look straight at the audience, no matter what (not necessarily seeing them, just looking at them) or to change your focus, look at your partner, look at your foot a moment before it moves? All of those things -- physical things -- change the way you look on stage. Often "style" is discussed as though it's cosmetic matters, or emotional ones (like "reserved" or "flashy") -- but the words, I think, refer to what the body is doing.

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Oh yes, that is true. I was taught to always look to the audience or at my partner. But one of my teachers here in the US is so very much into looking at the hand, the foot etc. I do like the feelof it as well. But I still primarily adopt the look out at the audience technique. Is that a European thing then? I would never have thought about that.


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I don't think it comes so much from nationality as from repertory -- although, of course, if a choreographer creates for London dancers, or New York dancers, then a bit of Londoness, or NewYorkness will characterize his works. The English tradition (Ballets Russes, DeValois, Helpmann as well as Ashton and Tudor and later MacMillan) has been very dramatic -- narrative ballets, or ballets of atmosphere; even something as abstract as "Symphonic Variations" can be seen as Good (quietly) triumphing over Evil and rejoicing in its triumph. And for that, you need to help the audience see what you want it to see, and the way you direct the audience's view is that the dancers have to show you were to look (along with blocking and timing).

I think of style as accent. I know I have an American accent, but I"m not really aware of it until I hear someone with a British accent, or a French accent. And if I never heard anyone speak except my own family, I'd never know there was such a thing as accent. So often, in ballet, one finds out about "style" when one takes a class in a foreign studio, or sees a company one isn't used to performing a ballet one has seen a lot. THEN you really notice those bent/stretched elbows or wandering/fixed stares :)

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Very interesting, I don't think as a European dancer or a American dancer so much, but of course the influence of Balanchine in the american ballet scene is obvious, and that, would be what I would categorize as an american dancer, I can tell right away if you come from SAB or if you teacher teach you the Balanchine style, but I know a lot of American dancers that have been taught the classical way and you wouldn't be able to tell that they are American or European. The only difference is that in Europe nobody teach the Balanchine style and that in America it is a style that is becoming the American school.

There is of course certain small differences between the Europeans and the Americans in the classcal training but they are very small.

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Aubri, my first thought was to agree with you, reluctantly, that the Balanchine school is thought of as the American School. And I imagine it is in a lot of places. But this is really not only not true, but too bad, because it limits the thinking of what American dancers are like. While there are certainly a lot of very fine Balanchine trained dancers, I still think that there are more working dancers in the country, in ABT, Joffrey, Houston, and lots of other companies, who are trained in a more European classical tradition. Most of the recognized "stars" of these companies are not Balanchine trained, like Kent, Corella, Acosta, Carreno, Murphy, Wiles, Jaffe, Dvorovenko, etc., etc. Of course they are not all trained in America, either. But I think that the majority of the corps dancers and soloists as well as a lot of the principals in these companies are trained in traditional American schools, as opposed to SAB or very Balanchine oriented schools. There are really such a variety of dancers in this country trained in a variety of schools that I feel they should not be lumped into one category of dancer. But, I also understand your point and where that idea could take hold in other countries, especially if they have seen primarily NYCB, PNB, and SF Ballet.

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I think the differences among companies and styles, even now, is quite obvious. Paris Opera is not Vaganova, and the Kirov is different from the Bolshoi. Hard to say what the Royal Ballet style is at the moment, or that of the Royal Danes, as both have become, deliberately, so "international" but when those companies had a specific style, it, too, were easily identifiable. I don't see as deeply as a teacher would see, but I can see a good bit of it, and when a guest artist, or new corps person comes in, they stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.

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About the shoes- on the Bloch website, it mentions Europeans prefer a more tapered box to a square one to create the image of a longer line of the foot while Americans prefer a more square platform in helping with balance.

Ms. Leigh is absolutely right about the majority of the country studying in a European or Russian tradition. It must be due to the fact that those styles have been around a lot longer than Balanchine and is still seen as the more classical ballet techniques.

I do not share her view, however, that it is unfortunate outsiders see that we have a certain look. I would love for more Americans and others to recognize Balanchine as our native ballet language (people in my parts hardly acknowledge the fact that there are different techniques, less know what Balanchine is); it gives us an identity like the UK has with the RAD and Russians with the Vaganova. It's amazing how diverse we are, that's what America should be about, but I also wish Mr. B and Lincoln Kirstein's dream of creating an entirely American idea of ballet instead of having to borrow from others would become fully realized. I always cringe when I hear or read someone using the title City Ballet for their company because it doesn't personify what it's all about. New York City is acceptable since it represents the rest of the country.

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First I will answer to Leigh:

When I first came to America I joined the Joffrey Ballet and I didn't need to change my training because the classes were taught by Scott Barnard and were strict and classical.

When I joined New York City Ballet I stepped into the twilight zone because I heard and saw things that my teacher told me not to do for years, so yes there I had to change my training drastically.

To answer Victoria, you named wondeful dancers that evidently to me doesn't represent the "American dancers" since that half of them are not American trained. Remember my post, I wrote that there is a lot of American dancers that are classicaly trained and that they would blend with European dancers with no problem.

However I speak from a European point of view, and we see the American dancer as trained in the Balanchine style. I could name dozen of them, but the balnchine style is predominant in America.

PS: Thank god there is other schools that teach the old technique, otherwise who would feed SAB and the ranks of NYCB:)

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Xena your question has certainly brought out some opinions, hasn't it? ;) The more I read, the more I see that there are so many opinions! Some people seem diametrically opposed to each other, some share in their views..or agree in theory but may disagree on subtle points... Ballet is an art, after all.:)

Just today I came across a book by Gretchen Ward Warren's, The Art of Teaching Ballet: Ten Twentieth Century Masters, which looks as though it might be very helpful. Just click on the Amazon link, above and type in her name.

Here is a quote from the editorial review of the book, posted on their site:

"From Library Journal

Warren (dance, Univ. of South Florida) is an arts commentator, a former soloist with the Pennsylvania Ballet, and author of the comprehensive Classical Ballet Technique (LJ 1/90). She notes that many books have been written about famous choreographers and dancers but that little has been written about outstanding teachers. Yet the lifeblood of ballet is pedagogy, and the performances in which audiences delight are a result of the dancers' instruction. To better understand the magical transfer of information and artistry, Warren interviewed ten exceptional teachers. They represent different artistic lineages, employ distinctive classroom techniques, and structure a range of varying exercises. Each profile is stimulating, combining philosophical discussion and anecdotal history with sample representative classroom exercises. Ballet teachers will value this addition to the dance literature, and the larger audience of balletomanes will also find it engrossing.-Joan Stahl, National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.

Copyright 1996 Cahners Business Information, Inc."

The ten teachers that Ms. Warren has chosen to highlight in this book are:

Marika Besobrasova - Monte Carlo

William Christensen - Salt Lake City

Janina Cunovas - Victoria, Australia

Gabriela Taub-Darvash - NYC

David Howard - NYC

Larry Long - Chicago

Larisa Sklyanskaya - San Francisco

Alexander Ursuliak - Stuttgart

Christiane Vaussard - Paris

Anne Wooliams - Canterbury, England

However, should you think that the book is limited to these 10 in it's scope, you might want to check out some of the index pages you can see when you "look inside" the book on Amazon's site - it's quite inclusive, to my mind anyway!

See if you think this looks helpful - or interesting.

I wonder if anyone on Ballet Talk has read it?

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I've read it and I think it's a fascinating book. Warren is very good at describing class in general terms, and, I think, gets at what makes each of these teachers worth knowing about.

One thing I remember reading over and over from all of them -- regardless of country -- is some variant of, "Today's dancers are just about technique, but I try to teach them that it's more than that." One hears that often, and it seems that teachers aren't very successful about doing that!

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I'm not sure I understand what you mean, BW. You wonder if the teachers are protesting too much that today's dancers are all about technique? I think they've nailed it. :) These are teachers who have to fight, every day, to get students to focus not on how many turns they can do, but on the 99999 other things they have to learn to be a ballet dancer.

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I've read it too and, like Alexandra, found it fascinating. With each teacher you're saying, "Ooooh, that's the right way!", and then you go to the next one and say, "No, that's even better!". Of course all of them are "the right way" and there's so much food for thought.


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Giannina, I loved your "this is the right way" -- no, this is... idea. I think that's very apt -- and with great teachers, I think that's the way it should be. To me, the ideal for ballet is to have dozens of "This is the right way!" teachers/balletmasters/choreographers -- and they are the right way, and they're all different.

(Xena, I can't resist mentioning that the Kronstam biography deals with his career as a dancer, of course, but also a lot with teaching, coaching and staging of ballets :) )

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Alexandra, what I meant by that comment was only my somewhat lame attempt at a bit of humor - which apparently fell flat on its face! ;) However, I do think Giannina really hit on it, in her post. I just couldn't help myself from considering that -sometimes - certain, particular, teachers may disparage other teachers' training methods and complain that everyone else's students may have technique (if they're even that generous) and that many times one person's view of, say, musicality, is different from another's...

I didn't mean it specifically in regard to these teachers - although I did meet Madame Darvash and she certainly had her strong opinions! :) I do realize that the general feelings today are that there is a terrible dearth of the 99,999 other things a ballet dancer needs to learn, besides "the correct" technique, and I look forward to reading the book in order to learn how these particular 10 have dealt with this.

I also think that it will be quite interesting to take a look back in about 15 years and see what people are saying about today's ballet dancers then - will they be held up as icons, or will we have a resurgence in great training form the earliest days of a young dancer? All of which, puts me in mind of another thread in which the training of young dancers at CPYB is being discussed. Many extol the virtues of both the quantity and the quality of the training available at CPYB and yet, I have also read that some consider their dancer's to be "all about technique". I guess this just brings us back full circle to Giannina's observations! :)

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I think that going along with a teacher thinking that his/her method is the ONLY way that they'll think everyone else is doing it wrong :) But some of the teachers Warren mentioned -- Larry Long, for one -- taught a mixture of things, got a bit from here, and a bit from there.

Fifteen years ago, 25 years ago, there was a complaint about the young stars of the day being all technique and no nuance, too, and I think those judgments have held up pretty well. They either still stand -- a Fernando Bujones, say; exemplary technique, but that's it -- or the dancer is seldom mentioned. Danilo Radojevic comes to mind :)

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