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Style versus technique

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The question of the difference between "style" and "technique" comes up from time to time, and is relevant to a discussion topic Leigh has put up in Aesthetic Issues, so I thought I'd address it here.

Youl'll usually read about Martha Graham technique, Cunningham technique, Limon, Horton technique -- all modern dancers.

Yet you'll read Ashton style, Bournonville style, Paris Opera style, etc.

What's the difference? Why the difference?

When I became interested in ballet in the 1970s "style" was usually applied to ballet and "technique" to modern dance to describe what was unique to each system or method or school (not in the sense of a building, but in the sense of the training and artistic sensibility related to a particular company). It was explained to me that ballet had one central codified language -- a series of steps, a vocabulary -- yet there were differences, often too small to be seen by the average fan yet monumental enough to teachers and balletmasters to be worthy of duels. One school wants the fingers of the hands to be free -- there should be space between the fingers, the fingers should dance. Another school wants the thumb and index finger to describe a circle and the remaining fingers to be pressed together. That's one of hundreds of examples. Each school's variation on the central, common language was a style -- like an accent in spoken language. In contrast, there was no central vocabulary for modern dance. Each of the major modern dancers invented a theory of expressive language specific to his or her way of moving, indeed, the very reason for and purpose of moving -- fall and recovery for Doris Humphrey, contraction and release for Graham -- and so it was called "technique." I'm sure others can come up with other reasons for the distinction, but that's the one I've read and was taught.

Today, you'll also read Balanchine Technique, Bournonville Technique, Vaganova Technique -- and this refers to a system of teaching (in the case of the two Bs, not a system used by them but one put together by their pupils to preserve their, well, style).

To keep this post from being too long, I'm about to put up a second one that deals with the question, "is there really such a thing as style in ballet?"

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Style in ballet.

There's one school of thought that says there is no such thing as style in ballet; it's all technique. By this, people mean that what one might call a stylistic difference -- the hands described in the post above, say -- is a part of the technique, and taught as part of the technique. It's not a choice to the student; it's how they have to hold their hands. If you're taking a Balanchine class, no one comes in and says, "All right, today we're going to do Balanchine style." You dance as the company wants you to dance.

I can see that point, but I don't think that makes the word "style" useless, and it's a word that dancers and teachers use constantly -- my view on words and distinctions is that if people have to find a new word to express something, there's something new and different to express. :) While if you're taking that class what you're doing is a matter of technique, if you're a visitor who's only been taught Cecchetti, say, you're going to notice a lot of differences, and you call those differences "matters of style."

I think the easiest analogue to use is language/accents. People born in Sydney, London, Glasgow, Chicago, Atlanta and Boston all speak English, but they sure sound different when they speak it!

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Oh, my, and I had hoped to avoid this discussion until after the New Year!;)

I'm probably going to have a good deal to say on this topic, but let me start with just a single facet of the calculus before us. The various schools of ballet have their own lexicons. That is to say, that names for various things are different from those in other schools, and perhaps an identifying mark of only one. For example, a position with the working leg drawn up at the side with the toe touching just underneath the knee can be retiré, raccourçi, or passé position. In one school, it's pirouette position, in another, en tire-bouchon. And in another, that last is reserved to the working foot being raised even higher, to a point with only the tips of the toes in contact the very side of the knee. These are techniques.

Styles are eclectic. They don't speak their own language, but borrow from all over. For a different take on the same style, see NYCB perform "Donizetti Variations" and then watch them do "Bournonville Divertissements". The dancers are almost dancing in a monotone (OK, if it's Tuesday this must be neo-classical), now, as far as the dancing style is concerned, but the choreographic and technical vocabulary (technique) for the two is vastly different.

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"Styles are eclectic. They borrow from all over." I don't understand what you mean, Mel. To me, a company's style, or technique, may have a bit of this and a bit of that -- the Royal Ballet's, to take an example, whichi took what DeValois considered the best of several schools -- but when that's coalesced, it's a style. (I agree with what you said about technique and the differences among schools. I'm not sure I'd agree that giving the exact same step a different name has as much to do with technique as with nomenclature, though, unless the "same step" is performed in a different way.)

I'd say "Donizetti" is "Donizetti," a Balanchine ballet. "Bournonville Divertissements" was NYCB dancing a 20th century staging of a Bouronville ballet, which it certainly did in its own style, despite some coaching in Bournonville technique :)

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Right on all counts, charges, and specifications, Alexandra. This topic has more edges and faces than a new brilliant-cut diamond, which is why I chose the term "calculus" (stone) as a metaphor.

Companies and their schools can and do have their own techniques and styles. It's just that some have a style and no relatively independent technique, and some have technique, but not any identifiable style. Most have both. However, technique and style are related but different things. I wanted to touch on just one aspect of this vast topic with perhaps a half-vast observation, and proceed to the knottier issues, so that I can start cool and rational, then work myself into a frothing and incoherent rage!;)

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Before you get into a froth, Mel, I hope we eventually get to some of the lost distinctions before globalization destroys ballet's rainforest completely. How many identifiable styles are there? (No need to answer this today :) but it's something we could work on; it might be useful or of interest to people.

I agree that style and technique are different things, but as has come up when we talk about how a company dances a "foreign work" we know well (BADLY!) compared to how we dance a foreign work (the way it should be danced), I think that style is often a matter of "I have no accent and you talk funny." At the 1979 Bournonville Festival, I'm told, Flemming Ryberg, who knows the Bournonville style as well as anyone alive, said, "Before you started asking us questions, we didn't know we had a style." It was just the way they danced. But people apparently would come up and say, why do you keep the back leg slightly bent in arabesque? (and probably adding, "don't you know you should straighten it? :) ) and they were bemused by this.

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I'm still confused.:) I know we've spoken about this subject before and I really do want to get it this time!

Alexandra, in reading your first post I thought I understood that since ballet had a codified language with different schools and/or companies having different "accents" or "styles"... but then in reading your second post I seem to have gotten lost. Were you saying that what used to be called "style" as in Balanchine's style is now "technique"? Or if you are a NYCB dancer or SAB student (or PNB, SFB, Miami City) that you are dancing in Balanchine techniqe but if you're visiting or auditioning that you are merely dancing with Balanchine's style?

And Mel, not to get the froth going too early in the evening... but are you suggesting that because the codified language of ballet has different nomenclature for the same steps or the same name for somewhat different steps?

:eek: I need more! :)

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BW, I'd call Balanchine a style and not a technique; its lexicon is the same, with rare exceptions, as the rest of the Russo/Franco/Italian patois "spoken" by many other schools and companies. Having a distinct "language" is a simple way to begin a discussion of technique/method and/or versus style. It will be familiar to anyone alone in Paris or Montreal, in which latter place I was once stranded, and tried to find assistance, and when I insisted, "Mais je suis Americain, je ne parle pas Français", I was answered, "Cochon! Tu es Anglais! Allez, allez!":mad:

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Originally posted by BW

Alexandra, in reading your first post I thought I understood that since ballet had a codified language with different schools and/or companies having different "accents" or "styles"... but then in reading your second post I seem to have gotten lost. Were you saying that what used to be called "style" as in Balanchine's style is now "technique"? Or if you are a NYCB dancer or SAB student (or PNB, SFB, Miami City) that you are dancing in Balanchine techniqe but if you're visiting or auditioning that you are merely dancing with Balanchine's style?  

Good questions :)

People are beginning to talk about Balanchine "technique" and there is controversy over this, some people saying that Balanchine didn't have a codified technique. I'd still call it Balanchine style.

The second part of your question, no, that's not what I meant exactly, although it's close. If you're a member of the Royal or Houston or Pago Pago Ballet and you have your own style, and you have to dance a Balanchine work, then you have to learn Balanchine style, in the sense that if you're an actress from Boston and you have to do "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," you'll have to learn a Southern accent, but you won't have to learn English. Does that make sense?

To confuse things further, there are some things that are both technique AND style, or at least arguably both technique and style :) I think that might be something Mel will go into later.

If you're visiting a company, you'd take class in your own style. If you were interested, or found the style different and it intrigued you, you might make some changes -- I saw this quite a bit in Copenhagen. Visiting dancers would come in to take a Bournonville class, and if the teacher sensed an interest, s/he'd give corrections and the dancer would ask questions and attempt to do the step in a way that was foreign to him.

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OK, I understand the accent/style example. All ballet companies speak the same language but there are different dialects and accents... Meanwhile, I will await more explanations, and the ensuing discussions, to understand the meaning of the word "technique" as used in the ballet sense. :)

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GROAN = response to alexandra's topic question.

i have deliberately NOT read any of the above posts, because i want to give a focused response to her question (as i read it) before i get sidetracked by all the other intelligent input, which has already taken place.

problem #1: these days 'technique' is often an interchangeable word with 'syllabus' or 'method'. let's avoid that trap.

my opinion: 'technique' - i'm not going to look up the dictionary but... i favour an interpretation as close as possible to a dictionary one, i.e.

the mechanics that makes the stuff (the dancing) happen.

style: my personal opinion, without reading what others have said, would be that style is a 'flavour' which emerges or is applied (in individuals or companies or maybe countries) ON TOP OF technique.

now, i will venture back to the begining of the thread,... read on, and find out some of the nuances of the question that i have completely overlooked!

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BW -

technique is loaded word in dance discussions, because its meaning often depends on the context (as by this point, you're probably painfully aware!)

For what it's worth, here's how I few of the words - these aren't dictionary definitions, but it might give you a sense of context.

When I talk about another dancer's "technique" as in "X has good technique" I'm talking about whatever a dancer has acquired since they began training. What s/he walked in the door with (flexibility, proportions, natural coordination, jumping or turning ability) I refer to as "facility". In this usage, "technique" is what you make of your "facility". Someone could be a natural turner, but worked on form and consistency to make them even better. That's technique on top of facility.

Alexandra is using the word technique in this discussion in a broader sense, not as it applies to single dancer, but to a school or company of dancers. Technique in this case is both the method and the approach to the mechanics of dancing. Style is the approach to the aesthetics of it. Certain things can be both.

What are examples of "technique" versus "style"? How a dancer raises their leg in extension or how they stand holding an extension or arabesque would be an example of a school's "technique". Whether dancers in a school or company are requested to bring their legs to that extension on the upbeat or the downbeat musically, or whether they get there slowly and evenly or quickly and then hold it is an example of "style". And the placement of their hips (square or released) is an example of an issue that is both stylistic and technical. It's both the mechanics and the look.

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Thanks Leigh, I needed that. :) The first part of your explanation has me nodding my head...but then when you write:

How a dancer raises their leg in extension or how they stand holding an extension or arabesque would be an example of a school's "technique". Whether dancers in a school or company are requested to bring their legs to that extension on the upbeat or the downbeat musically, or whether they get there slowly and evenly or quickly and then hold it is an example of "style". And the placement of their hips (square or released) is an example of an issue that is both stylistic and technical. It's both the mechanics and the look.
the differences between "technique" and "style" become intermingled again, for me.

Wouldn't the rate at which a dancer raises their leg, as well as upon which beat, be considered part of the technique belonging to their particular school's "technique"? Or do schools not have "technique", but "style"?

I think I shall have to reread these posts again! :eek:

Don't give up...I'm sure I'm not the only one reading this thread!

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Again we return to the issues of school technique vs. individual technique. The school technique is what's taught. Individual technique is what's learned. A choreographic style is a curlicue that's put on top of a school technique, as I feel Balanchine is, on top of the basic Russo/Franco/Italian patois that most of the world dances. An individual style is unique to one dancer: The way they use technique AND style from the choreographer, plus resources arguably their own.

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BW - here's why in my book it's style: How musically you extend the leg is not as much the mechanics of the step (that's technique) as a choice to produce an effect or a look (that's style).

Clear as mud? It's probably never clear cut and someone else could have different usages, but if it's more about the nuts and bolts of the step, for me it's "technique". If it's more about the aesthetic effect of the step, I would define it as "style".

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I like Leigh's definition. :) And I also think it's important to point out that there's personal style as well as company/school style.

Here's another one that's a mixture. I first noticed this in POB dancers -- when they turn their arms are rounded and form a circle. Aesthetically it fits with their very clean style -- no wild arms there. But technically (thank you, Victoria :( ) having the rounded arms helps them turn. If the arms are extended, or straightened, it can throw a turn off. So this is nice, neat way of holding the arms has a lot to do with technique, but the look of it has become part of the style.

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So if you'll permit me to deviate a bit from the thread itself for a question ... one of the debates my daughter and I have had is whether a student whose ballet school is committed to a given technique (e.g., Vaganova) should focus her summer intensive programs only on those that teach the same technique, or whether a summer intensive is the time to explore alternate techniques and styles and broaden the student's dancing experience and ability ...

Does a student risk "getting confused" and deteriorating their personal dance technique by immersing themselves in a new technique, or is this how a true professional dancer improves their technique repertoire?



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IMO, when a dancer gets to an intermediate level on a scale of all dancers, then s/he is less likely to become confused about differences in nomenclature and technical execution. In fact, it may be a good idea for them to see if the grass really is greener, or browner, depending on their already pre-conceived notions, on the other side of the fence.

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As I understand it, technique is the means, the instrument, on which the rest (style, interpretation etc.) rests.

It is the mechanics of motion, the underlying principle of motion.

Seen from that standpoint, Balanchine - if we are to go by people like Miss Schorer - IS a technique. And Bournonville is, or was, a technique.

Why ?

Well, if we are to take Suki Schorer at her word, and if that really is what is being taught at the SAB, we have people without any épaulement (waving one's arms about is not épaulement, not in my book anyway). People picking up the heel. People picking up the leg and pressing it against the ear. People releasing the hip to do that. People in a strait-jacket-like fifth position. Girls who do not have the feet to dance in soft shoes. And people, as Victoria Leigh has written, "standing on a third leg".

Releasing the hip, and picking up the leg, alters every muscle chain in the entire body. It alters the full edifice, nerve-endings, spinal column, balance (the hip-joint is the heaviest in the body) etc. And it stretches out ligaments to where they do not want to go.

Pick up the leg, and you eliminate épaulement. You have thus changed the principle of motion.

That is, as a I see it, a TECHNICAL question.

When one sees SAB-trained people attempting to dance something else - with a few notable exceptions of course - they are QUITE recognisable. Because they have acquired a TECHNIQUE that cannot be glossed or covered over by acquiring some stylistic features.

Bournonville is also a technique, or it used to be. He has épaulement - not just an arm-wave - in every step. That changes all the orientations, the oppositions, the feeling in the body of what is effacé and croisé, one's sense of balance, distribution of weight in poses and on landing from jumps, curvature in the spine... And, of course, if one REALLY does the épaulement, one cannot, physically cannot, pick up the leg.

Now, the girls in Denmark do not really do the épaulement any more, because it would prevent them from picking up that goddam leg. They just pretend. That is also why the men dance much better (and why the men here in Paris dance better too, incidentally). So the girls are not masters of the Bournonville technique. They play-act. That is why it looks sentimental, soft and mushy.

Technique is the principle of motion that is ground into your body from early youth. Therefore, Vaganova School is also a technique.

Look at Alina Cojocaru. As an interpreter, as a musician, out of this world ! But her technique is 1000% Vaganova as it is now taught at Kiev (probably our Agrippina would have cunniptions if she saw what is now called Vaganova School), and that cannot be disguised, no matter which choreography she is dancing, as it has become part and parcel of the body.

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So, as a non-dancer but enthusastic attendee of ballet, let me see if I can summarize: techniques are formalized descriptions of the precise positioning of body parts (arms, legs) and of weight distribution (posture, stance, joint). Historically, there are national traditions (English, French, Russian) which define major techniques.

Within the historical techniques, individual choreographers and schools have further defined techniques, either utilizing a lack of description or an ambiguity of decription in the historical techniques. These (Balanchine, Vaganova) still are techniques, because they represent a fixed method of instruction and development, independent of a particular piece of music or choreography; they are general rules.

Finally, there is the individual variation that an artist brings to his/her dancing or that a choreographer of artist brings to a particular piece of music. This is a deviation from the technique that that artist or choreographer has as his/her national or educational tradition, but it represents an artistic or emotional response to a particular piece ... this is what you would call "style"?

Am I off-base?


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Well, you're certainly not off-base in your summary of Katharine's post. I would point out that there are things in the post that would be debated (is it Balanchine "technique" or "style"?) by others.

Also, Vaganova's methodology is codified (there's a book in print in English - I think put out by Dover - that's a reprint of her exercises.)

I also might not define the individual approach of an artist as a "deviation from technique". There's interpretive leeway that's expected when a dancer reaches the stage in every technique. It may not be a deviation, it might be an emphasis on certain areas. It might have nothing to do with technique at all.

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Bilbo, there are things here that we're attempting to define for people closely associated with the ballet business. Sure, there are plenty of dictionary definitions, but when it comes to ballet, there are shades and subtleties of meaning that have not yet been nailed down by anyone. We're trying to do that here, and a reread of the entire thread might be necessary for you to see the process we're going through. We might not even succeed, who knows? But at least we've given the definitions a little ventilation!:)

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