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Classicism #2 - definitions and uses


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This is in response to Leigh's questions about definitions of classicism. I'll also attempt a "list" for Paul, using "classical" in as many different senses of the term as I can. This means that this thread will be monstrously long. Responses, additions, corrections, and other suggestions perhaps should go on a new Classicism #3?

The "classical" definition of "classicism" refers to the aesthetic principles in Aristotle's "Poetics." For theater, this included: the "classical unities" (unity of time, space, and action); the importance of plot, (i.e., that a man's character was defined by his actions); a hierarchy of appropriate characters for a drama (gods on top, slaves at the bottom); proper subject matter (myths, actions of the gods or heroes for tragedy, not to aggrandize the rich, but because the actions of a Prince in choosing a bride had consequences for the whole kingdom while the love life of a baker was mere sentimental twaddle of interest only to him); categories of plays (tragedies were in three parts; a fourth play, the satyr play, was a very ribald take on the myths and followed a tragedy). Etc. Other characteristics included an emphasis on the general rather than the particular, or individual; an artificiality as opposed to an attempt at being realistic; and objectivity (classical drama is not confessional; there must be a distance). Art has rules which must be followed; it is not simply freeform personal expression. Harmony (think Greek columns), symmetry, building for the long term, all are emphasized. Art is for the good of all. Art must uplift, must depict life as it can be, not as it is. Evil must be punished, etc. etc. There is definitely a moral component to classical classcism. Alastair Macauley once wrote about the necessity for "seemliness."

In Western art, there have been two great post-Hellenic (Greek) periods that have been labelled "classical;" both have received that label because they've attempted to recreate Hellenic art, or at least looked to the Hellenic period for inspiration in trying to make new art. The first was the Renaissance, when ballet was born, at first indistinguishable from opera, in an attempt to revive/remake the Greek theater as a union of music, dancing, and poetry. The second was the neoclassical period of the 18th century (called "neoclassical" because it was a rather slavish attempt to recreate high Hellenic art). The French take on neoclassicism is the one most relevant to ballet, because the Paris Opera was THE great company during this period, thus enormously influential. Think the heroic paintings of David, the strictly regulated couplets of Racine's dramas. The proper subject matter of art (including ballet) was Greek myths. This is what Noverre tried to do. (In music history, this time period roughly corresponds to that of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, hence the term "classical" for their particular brand of "classical music.")

So, in the real world (outside of ballet) that's what classical means. Obviously, this is the classics comics version.

Within ballet, "classical ballet" either refers to the whole art form, i.e., that kind of dancing which is based on the vocabularly of the danse d'ecole which has evolved over the past 200 years, dances which move through the five postions of the feet (and with the appropriate positions of the arms!). It really doesn't have to be on pointe. There are Petipa variations that were off-pointe; much of Bournonville is off-pointe. Used in this way, "classical ballet" refers to a method of training and using that training. (Think of it as a type of dancing, as oil painting is a type of painting). Thus, "classical ballet" can also be romantic or modernist, as music can be romantic or modernist. "Giselle" is a Romantic ballet, but it is also a classical ballet. "Agon" is a modernist ballet, but also a classical ballet.

To further confuse things, in dance, "neoclassical" is generally applied to 20th century choreographers, especially Balanchine, Ashton and Nijinska. This means that these choreographers looked to Petipa as a root artist, in the same way the 18th century artists looked to the Greek poets and playwrights as models. (Problem with this is, where do you put people like Fokine and Tudor, or Cranko and MacMillan? I would argue that the language of all four is basically classical, although Tudor and MacMillan are quite expressionistic in some works.)


"My daughter Susie studies classical ballet." Susie is taking ballet lessons, as opposed to tap lessons.

"Sleeping Beauty" is a classical ballet." "Sleeping Beauty" uses the language of ballet (and language doesn't just mean steps, but the dance analogs of grammar, intonation, phrasing, etc.).

"Susie is a classical dancer." If it's the same Susie and she's still 12, this still means she's studying ballet and not tap.

"Margot Fonteyn was a classical ballerina." Margot didn't do tap either, but this also could refer to her employ, her genre of dancing. (She's "classical" as opposed to demicaractere.) Or it could be descriptive, to denote that she was a classical rather than a romantic ballerina. The classical ballerina's arabesque implies a circle; the romantic ballerina's an oval. This has to do with body proportions, and also with the fact that classical shoulders are squared, romantic shoulders droop.

Of course, demicaractere dancers are also classical dancers (they went to the same school) but they dance (or should, in a perfect world) demicaractere variations.

Genre and employ is a whole new can of worms.

Do contemporary choreographers who make classical ballets call it that? I've read both Christopher Wheeldon and Michael Corder say their work is "classical ballet." In my interview with Ib Andersen (which is on the main site), he talks about what ballet means to him, and says, "I'd just call it 'ballet.' 'Classical ballet' makes it sound like 'Swan Lake'."

And now you know why David Gordon, who is not a classical choreographer in any senses of the term, said, "I call my work 'my work.'"

Hope this helps smile.gif


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Alexandra - Thank you for the wonderful essay on the meanings of "classicism" & "neo-classicism" in history & in the arts. This is very difficult to do, in 1,000 words or less!

I only have a couple of interesting notes to add, related to my knowledge of architectural history (thanks to being married to an architect with whom I've traveled quite a bit). In the context of general arts & architecture, the neo-classical period of the late 1700s was inspired, in great part, by the discovery of the ruins of Pompeii. This was the catalyst for the Grand Tours by English & American gentlemen to Italy, Greece & other "classical" locales. Among the celebrated travelers was young Thomas Jefferson, who was inspired by the ancient temple at Nimes to design buildings in the classical style, resulting in a transference of that style to the New World. Thanks to TJ and his contemporaries, the look of every American bank building, for many years, was that of a Greek or Roman temple. Our money was "safe" in such stable & "intelligent"-looking buildings!

Unlike ballet, architecture experienced a THIRD period of "classical renaissance" in the 1980s, with "post-modernism." A hallmark of this style is the use of a known classical motif--such as a column or a pediment--in an exaggerated manner. A well-known example of this is Phillip Johnson's AT&T Building in midtown Manhattan--a skyscraper topped by a huge broken pediment.

It's interesting that the term "post modernism," in dance, does not harken to the features that we associate with "classicism" in dance--the formal, aristocratic structures of Petipa, which became "neo-classical" with Balanchine et. al.

Unlike architecture, "post-modernism" in dance is not a reflection of the classical style. For example, Peter Martins' recent ballets echoing the Balanchine style are still termed "neo-classical," rather than "post modern." In the world of dance, "post-modern" is something altogether different (as far as I have read & seen in performance...please correct me if I am wrong). In the world of architecture, "post-modern" continues the link with "classicism." Just goes to show you how the terminology has evolved differently, in different arts.

- Jeannie smile.gif

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I know very little about architecture. I definitely agree with what you wrote about 18th century neoclassicism being inspired by the discovery of the ruins.

I took a course in classicism/romantcism in grad school, and one of the other students did her paper on postmodernism in architecture and classified it as romanticism. (Modernism, I learned, is now seen by many -- most? -- scholars as another strain of romanticism, romanticism reinvented, if you will, rather than a separate and distinct classification.)

Anyway, I remember her presentation well, although I can't remember any of the names -- this is two generations after Philip Johnson, though -- and the hallmark was "whimsy" which seems very unclassical to me. Classical columns stuck on the front of a California ranch house, with a Victorian cupola (in hot pink) round the back. That kind of thing.

We actually discussed dance compared to this, because postmodernism in dance usually refers to the stuff that's not ballet that happened after they realized they couldn't, by any stretch of the imagination, relate it to what Martha and Doris were doing. How's that for a definition? The Judson Church movement, the Yvonne Rainer No Manifesto movement. I guess "whimsy" would be one word for it.

I do not think we're in a neoclassical movement in dance, especially in ballet -- there's no sense of revival. We're in a post- period, where you hang on by your fingernails and redo what's been done for the past 30 years.

In ballet, for the last two centuries the revival has started in about xx04, 05, 06 -- I honestly think that there are signs of one in pop culture. All these TV shows about Merlin and Joan of Arc, please. They're reaching for new heroes and going back in history to find them.


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