Ballet has been accused of being stagnant. When I first heard this, I found it curious but said nothing. How could something be stagnant when every class I took was different? Every teacher I took from offered something different? Looking at the "traditional" steps of ballet, it seemed clear to me that this has been an art form that mingled with many cultures and absorbed from every culture it touched. The front attitude appears to be Spanish in descent. The petite battement has most likely come from the Scotch or Irish. The Pas de Basque, literally means "Step of the Basque" people. It has not stopped changing for now it spins and whirls with the intake of modern, jazz and afrikan. When the space ships arrive we will add the Petite Green Martian step to ballet. This type of change is natural and healthy. But there are other ways that ballet has changed that concerns me. We are losing our roots. Without roots how does the great Spruce Tree stand tall? It doesn't. It plummets to the ground to decay.

The face of ballet has changed.
Smaller stages and smaller studios mean smaller jumps, fewer side to side combos and more en diagonale. Smaller stages mean less room for dancers posing along the side lines and less room for stage sets. Increased costs mean smaller company corps. Costumes and scenery also down sized. (Balanchine is suppose to be responsible for replacing the tutu with a leotard and skirt because the tutu hid the line and form of the dance. I can't help but wonder if his need for clean lines came after he saw the costume bill.

Ballet has always been resistive to change thus the changes used to float across it's surface while its core remained the same. We must evolve in many ways for we cannot afford to do what we have done.  It is but a natural step in ballet evolution that it will flow into the new culture of the internet and in the traditions of ballet, this new step will be resisted. The tension created between absorbing and resisting change may produce a dynamic new form.

We must evolve or become extinct. Can we keep our roots while we evolve? If we can, how?

The Ballet of Changeless Change

Ballet: Saute My Blogs

Why Remember Our

Forever Changing Roots?

Roots anchor the great tree, keeping it upright during stormy times. I have a great deal of respect for the ancient traditions of our trade. I often experiment only to find the old way was better. For example, I start beginner plie from 1st position. 1st is easier to find and align than 2nd. Yet the old tradition was to start in 2nd. Thinking of plie as the beginning of muscle warming, it makes sense to start in 2nd for the angle of knee bending is at most 90 degrees. The angle of 1st is closer to 180 degrees. The amount of "pull up" power needed for a grand plie in 1st is double that of 2nd. Thus analysis of movement reveals the old masters knew what they were doing.
There is a difference between respect for tradition and clinging to the past. Saddle maker was a glorious and profitable profession when Ceccehetti was performing on stages. The phone book is now filled with auto repair listings rather than saddle making for obvious reasons. To respect tradition is to preserve the ancient secrets of making a good saddle. To cling to tradition is to try to place a saddle on a car, or attach a wagon to a RV's bumper.  As ballet evolves, we must remember, and maintain our roots, but not cling to them.

Should We Cling to or Respect Tradition?

Steps, Music, Stage, Scenery,
Costumes, Performance, Audience,
Dancers, Studio, Teachers, Students,
Parents, Advertising,Costs, have changed.  Changes in each may not be a bad thing.  Review them all.  Then ask yourself:

Is ballet really ballet anymore?

So What Has Changed?

STEPS

There used to be a Perch step and an Ankle Turn. The Perch "like a little bird perching on a branch" is a Pique. I don't know what happened to the Ankle Turn. Some might say it is a Pique turn, but from the 1933 description below, I must ask is it really?

MUSIC

The difference cannot be described in words. While there still is 4/4 and 2/4, there used to be ¾ and 6/8 and on rare occasion 9/8. But the difference is beyond the count. I have resurrected some old ballet class LP's. Those played on Grande Pianos seem to rumble for my ears are no longer able to appreciate their depths. Beyond that, the music has heart that makes my spirit soar. Most class music produced today just makes me want to play.

STAGE

I grew up to the thrill of opening curtain. There is something mystical about the experience. Everyone backstage quiet, set, ready. The music starts as the curtains split and open. A flow of energy flows from the audience onto the stage and it's SHOW TIME! Now days, even many professional stages have gone black box style. No curtain. The show just starts when somebody signals it's time to start. I had an active performing group for years and was never able to get them on a stage with curtain that opens and closes.

I was very excited about the stage for Neptune's Ballet Classics 2011, no curtain, oddly shaped, but enough room to actually dance a little bit, AND stage lights! After carefully selecting my costume materials to take advantage of the stage lights, I found out that most of the lights had no color gels. The most memorable performance of my life was on a good stage, with just a follow spot. For the last decade, my inquiries about follow spots, has had the same answer, "Yes, we have one somewhere, I think it might be broken."

The stage once a vast expanse of space, where a dancer could fly, has dwindled to something that threatens to be dangerously small should everyone on stage inhale at the same time. Oh yes, yes, big stages still exist, at a price too high for the average studio. The smaller stages have reshaped choreography and the face of ballet. Good bye giant leaps, side to side, front to back. Hello tiny quick steps on the diagonal. Good bye fancy scenery and lots of performers on stage at once.

SCENERY

COSTUMES

PERFORMANCE

AUDIENCE

DANCERS

STUDIO

TEACHERS

STUDENTS

PARENTS

ADVERTISING

COSTS

The Scenery:
A big change. From sets created by Picasso to a black wall. I have rebelled. I use pvc pipe and draped fabric. I'm experimenting with a projector throwing actual pictures and color screens to bathe the back of the stage. I like it but Picasso it aint.
The signature of ballet is the tutu. I fear many ballet students have gone through their entire careers without owning a real tutu. At a price of $350 - $2,000+ who is to wonder why? . (The three layer on stretch fabric is a play dress not a tutu.) Stay at home moms used to sew tutus for dance studio recitals. Some got really good. But few moms stay at home these days. Fewer own a sewing machine. Even when there is a sewing mom, it is hard to find good stiff net. The tutu has changed shape since its conception.

The short tutu has grown shorter, flatter, dropped from waist to hip, but at its roots its still a tutu. The new let's throw a skirt over a leotard and call it a costume has its advocates (including me.) Nothing flies like a silk circle skirt. The lines of the dancer and the dancer are delightful. But to be a ballet dancer and never have a tutu?
In the old days, it was rare to see a member of the corps with a leg higher than the others. The audience was aghast if an arm was pitched at a slightly different angle from the rest. Now the audience does not seem to notice such irregularities nor do the dancers.

In the past there were recitals and ballets.  Ballets - a group of dances that together tell a story -seem to be getting replaced by excerpts from. Swan Lake is a good example. The full length version is 2 hours. That's a lot of ballet to pull together and leaves very little time to present anything else. Why not just present excerpts from Act II? 1) Act II is a communication taken out of context - the story does not get told. 2) How can a ballet student be a ballet student without ever seeing all 4 acts of Swan Lake?

Tournaments have become popular. Why put on a show? Why not just go to a convention, dance, and bring home a trophy? Is that what ballet is all about? Competition and winning a prize?

Also changed. In the old days, it was a two way energy exchange - stage to audience and audience to stage. For the last couple decades, entertainment has become a one way street. The audience watches a movie or TV, knowing that nothing they do will alter the performance. The audience attends the live show in the same passive observer mode. Now the audience has left their bodies behind - slumped over a computer or cell phone, while their spirits fly to all corners of the world. They seem to know how to interact with a device better than with the people in the same room. Internet and cell phones are amazing and exciting. Yet, imagining flight is not the same as being air born.
I saw a web page that speculated that earlier dancers did not get over their pointes as well as today's dancers. I don't think that conclusion can be drawn. The old cameras required dancers to hold a position for a very long time. It is possible that the arch began to give out by the time the photographer snapped. The poses were selected because they could be held long enough for the photographer to do his work. We may never know for sure.  Some ballerinas of today have what used to be considered and over-developed arch - something to be avoided.

I do believe that in the past the dancers were sturdy. Now (thanks to Balanchine Style) they are race horses - fast, long and lean. In the past speed was not as important as being able to jump into the air and not come down. I wish someone would objectively compare the "sturdy" dancer of past to the "race horse" dancer of today in terms of career length, injury, general overall health resulting from the 2 styles. I like watching them both, but what am I watching? Bliss? Torture?
Originally the studio was in a central location. Moms could shop while daughters danced. The upper floor of old buildings, often lodge halls were used. Stores and offices wanted the ground floor. Rent on upper floors was affordable. The old studios were huge. Cross floor exercises were side to side. One could fly for 32 counts before reaching the far side. The ceilings were high. Going up felt like freedom. The wood floors supported by old seasoned timbers made landing feel like coming down on a trampoline (well not really that much give, but I used to get a kick out of watching the floor during a group small jumbo combo - you could actually see the floor depress and spring back.)

As people moved into suburbia, it became time consuming to commute to central locations. Working moms have little time for such commutes. Stores moved from downtown areas to shopping centers closer to where people lived. The studios that stayed centrally located lost school aged students and studios that moved to the suburbs gained students. But the suburbs often lacked large spaces with old seasoned floors. Now days the studio is often located in a shopping center and students dance on concrete. Rental cost per square foot has played its part too. Smaller spaces can be rented for higher cost per square foot. The big old spaces were either sub-divided into smaller spaces or torn down. Good bye wonderful floors. New wood dances about as well as concrete. Flooring covers have been invented that can turn concrete into a danceable floor but none turn as well or jump as well as the good old stuff. The change in studio size and floor has resulted in ballet classes moving on the diagonal rather than side to side. The quicker style of movement prevents really big jumps or multiple revolutions in a turn so who's gonna miss the old floor? And then there is the ceiling. Lower ceilings save heat money, but the feeling of freedom in a jump is hard to attain when wondering if your head will bang the ceiling.
Does anyone use a cane to tap the beat and whack a foot that's out of place anymore? Christina Hintz visited Italy and told me she saw Cecchetti's cane in a museum. She said the end of it beaten to a pulp (though those were not her exact words.)

The desired beat for the music was often sung without words - perhaps a tradition that came from people working together who spoke different languages. It was great. There was no "5, 6, 7, 8" There was feeling, emphasis, energy conveyed in the "Dee-uPPAH-Dah-Dum" that was quite different from the "DEE-Uppah-Dah-DUM!" In this was combinations were communicated from fire to a gentle breeze. Now, in lieu of a cane there is only the beat "5, 6, 7, 8,”
What a change! Is that a surprise in light of everything I have written to this point?

Age range, once a manageable 6 19 yrs old clientele, with common interest (to perform) has expanded. When I began at age 5, my mother turned Portland Oregon upside down. No one would take me except Florence Pickett who tossed me into a class of teenagers where I might sink or swim. Now some teachers wil except age 2 students without blinking an eye. Beginning ballet as an adult was unheard of, students and teachers both wondered why an adult would want to start when a performance career was over by age 25.

The biggest change - student brains. At first the great dancers were international - a common language was rare. They learned by watching. The industrial age had not fully taken hold. Most people learned their job skills through being apprentices - learning by watching and doing. By the 1950's the conveyor belt had taken over. The fastest way to train a new employee was through reading and writing. By the year 2000, public education budget crunches began to slash the arts from curriculums. All we needed was "the 3 R's." While dance was rarely part of public school curriculums, art, music, and drama classes, assisted the dancer's ability to be artistic movement. Dance classes became verbal and students asked for books to help them understand what to do. The brain had evolved from learning to learn through observation and right hemisphere functions, to learning through the intellect (left hemisphere functions.)

Now is the age of the picture taking internet accessing phone that is always on and handy. Who needs to remember or really see what is there? A quick click on the phone will substitute for both.

A  conversation with Nancy Beth Falloon, underscored my thoughts. Nancy recalled a performance where she was required to hold a gaze toward the audience in a 4,000 seat theatre."That was really something," she said, and I could feel her mind reliving the moment as she said it. Recently Nancy interacted with a young person who was snapping a profuse number of pictures with a cell phone. Nancy asked, “What will you do with the pictures you are taking?†The young person replied that she might look at them later. Nancy then said to me, that there are times when you can’t take a picture - you have to look, hold it in your mind. I can’t help but wonder what Nancy would be like today, if her brain was unable to access scenes such as a 4,000 audience - if all she had was stored in a computer, but who knows in what file.

Boredom, a most painful state of being, a severe punishment in prisons, need no longer be experienced. Wait in line? No problem, occupy the mind with something in the phone. Read a how to manual? Forget that, it's easier to watch it on YouTube, This brain evolution has not progressed far enough to clearly define its impact on the dance class. It is changing how students learn, remember, observe. Will it also change tolerance for participating in boring repetition? Will the motivation become to imagine dancing rather than actually putting for the effort to do it? After all, it is more fun to Photoshop my face onto Fonteyn's body than to exercise my body until it looks like Fonteyn’s.
A big change.  Moms have gone to work.  That leaves little time to make costumes or learn what ballet is all about.  This makes it difficult for all.  Not spending time at the studio means mom doesn't see good technique, so she doesn't know if her child's dancing is good or bad; she can't compare the technical skills of 2 teachers.  Without a grasp on ballet, all parents see is a costume.  Teachers have been left scrambling.  Parents used to be the costume department and do a lot to assist in producing recitals.  Now, the few parents who are able to spend time at the studio have all too much to do.
Roaring 20s  Dance Magazines contain articles about the health benefits of dancing such as "Dancing Cured My Injured Spine." Was that truth or hype? When an insurance company claims they have a gecko as an employee, who questions it? As for me, I have back pain when I am not dancing. It goes away when I dance regularly and that's the truth.

Now the media blares of research. The research indicates that exercise is good for you in many ways. The public hears that exercise is good for you and runs off to a gym to imbibe in "Circuit Training," never realizing that ballet is a form of circuit training that has been time tested. The public would rather believe that the amazing body of a ballet dancer is the result of genetics or starvation than to consider the possibility that ballet creates healthy good looking bodies. The public seems to be aware that dancers sustain injuries and everyone seems to know that pointe shoes are "torture chambers." No one seems to blink an eye if improper technique in a gym causes an injury or poorly fit running shoes causes blisters on a marathon runner. No one seems to notice that many of the world class dancers lived to be over 80. Well ballet has depended on attraction rather than promotion. But how will we attract people into ballet, if they never see ballet?
Many of the changes noted above, have been the result of one thing - money. The cost of creating Picasso scenery, storing it, transporting it, setting it up and tearing it down has become unwieldy. The cost of operating a huge stage with a curtain that opens and closes, or renting such a stage, has become unreasonable. The cost of costuming 30 dancers in professional tutus, storing and transporting and maintaining the tutus has become staggering. The cost of renting a large space for studio demands that a teacher have a rich spouse or public support.

Costs comparisons are difficult due to inflation. What is clear is that in the early 1900's a ballet company could afford to tour the world, packing with it elaborate sets, costumes, and a large number of dancers. (There may have been lean times when not everyone got paid, but they could do it.) Now such an undertaking is rare due to the costs involved. In the mid to late 1900's local dance teachers could afford huge Studios. Today these are rare due to the cost and availability.

Has the Soul of Ballet Changed?

A Century ago, ballet became the universal language sharing distant cultures, celebrating the magnificence of humanity. Long before the opening curtain, The Russian born dancer stood at the barre next to the English and Italian born. They became a team that performed upon a Brazilian stage before a Portuguese speaking audience. When the curtain opened, a story unfolded that was understood in every nation. But the message was more than the story. The message lived in the souls of the dancers. Their energy reached the hearts of the viewers. Their bodies, reaching beyond all limits, said, "You are more than you think you are."  I was about to arrange a funeral for ballet's soul, but then, Serge Pulnin came along.

Taking Advantage of New Technology

Every facet of human existence is being re-written by computers, internet and most of all, smart phones. Today we are all saddle makers wondering why the car owners don't stop at our door. Ballet has faced many changes. The time has come to respect but not cling to our traditions.  Serge Pulnin videos have demonstrated the power of mixing traditional ballet with modern technology.

In the studio new technology can be distracting.  It is a tradition to have no clock in a studio,. for the class is a timeless treasure. However the changes I am thinking of are larger than posting a no cell phone sign at the studio door. 

The new mobile device rage has the potential to help or hurt the dance class. It is altering the student's motives and activities. It is changing how brains process new information, To respect and preserve our traditions but not cling to the past, we must answer some questions such as:

How can the new technology be used to improve the dance?

What methods will improve the students' ability to learn through observation and to remember?
("saute" means to toss into air")
“Careful study and practice are needed in learning Pirouette Tours, which are done sometimes in straight lines across the stage and sometimes in circles around the stage.
“To begin- stand in 5th position with R ft. in front & the arms down in 1st position.

“Now turn the head and look directly to R, raise R arm to R and step to R on R point.  L arm is raised up and slightly back toward L. Count 1 (See Fig. 1.)

“Draw the body full up on to R point & at the same time quickly but smoothly bring L hand around toward R until the finger tips touch and raise L ft. up behind R leg, L heel touching just below the calf of R leg and make one complete turn. Count 2 (See Fig. 2.)
“As the body now faces front, drop quickly down on to L ft., making a slight plie with L knee, and at the same time bring R ft. swiftly up across front of L ankle; that is to say in a position sur le cou de pied.  At the same time the head finishes looking directly over R shoulder. Count 3 (See Fig. 3.)

“From this position, to continue, make the step again on R ft., raising L ft. up behind, turn one pirouette and again drop on L ft., sur le cou de pied, the head again looking directly over R shoulder.”
___Ernest Belcher,
American Dancer, June 1933
(Today the nearest thing to the above is the Pique Turn, usually done with L toe at R knee, (or slightly behind knee) and usually omits sur le cou de pied.  Fingertips never touch.  Arm never goes “slightly back.”)
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