Ballet: A Brief Reflection

In the past few days, I have found myself watching documentaries on famous dancers: Twyla Tharp, Rudolph Nuriyev, George Balanchine, and reading about them as well. In these documentaries, other great dancers have been featured, such as the stunning Suzanne Farrell and the fantastically athletic trailblazer Misty Copeland. What is it that makes ballet have such appeal, centuries later after its roots in Italy, then France and Russia?

With ballet, we have beautiful lines in two ways. We have those classical lines with the body, and then the lines in which dancers are stood and arranged. Everything is elongated: fingertips are extended, the wrist line is never broken, and for those dancers talented enough to go on pointe, their legs are lengthened in a beautiful but very painful and unnatural way. Compared to modern dance, there is always a fluidity of movement in the limbs, as though one is moving through water, supported by some unknown force.

And then there is the legwork. The best dancers jump and seem to be floating through air, even extending their jumps with an extra beat that seems unhumanly possible. The power that it takes to launch a movement and the set up are quite amazing: watch how Nuriyev pauses for a moment before launching into a cycle of pirouettes. The legs can move the dancer slowly, or quickly, or alternate several times in the air depending on the demands of the choreography. All of this is based on years, decades, of devoted practice with pliés, ronds de jambes, and turnouts (I remember as a child watching an interview with Gelsey Kirkland and how she was able to turn her feet out at a more than 90° angle!)

Great choreography unites movement and music, and Balanchine was a master of this. For those of us who are very auditory and kinesthetic, there is something deeply fulfilling when we are spectators of ballet, for it feels like a very natural reflex to move in a certain way with a certain sound. The floating, sensual music by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and other classical composers is often what we expect, but even ballets set to modern music, such as by John Adams or Copeland–or even rock–are no less enjoyable.

The arrangement of dancers on a stage also creates very moving effects for the viewers. Whether it’s a solo, a pas de deux, or the whole corps de ballet, it is sheer fun to watch many people move in a particular way with repeated motions and shapes. This cascade of dancers and how they use their space is a delight that requires many resources, not the least of which is a sizable stage and sets that create an atmosphere in which these ballerinas dance.

And of course, one cannot neglect mentioning the costumes. The fabric is for movement–something that is unique to dance clothing. It is not enough for a costume to look nice when the individual is still; it has to create a certain effect when one dances and is in motion, when one leaps, turns, jumps, etc. (I admire fashion designers who create clothes that do this even for non-dancers, when one can put on a skirt or dress and see how the fabric is not still but takes on a life of its own.) Naturally, dance clothing has more stage appeal than ordinary wear, with glitter, satin, sparkles, and anything that catches the viewer’s eye from hundreds of feet away. The torso is usually slim-fitted, the arms bare or covered snugly, with the lower half of the body draped or fitted with a skirt that gives an illusion of floating or the tutu that is puffed out. With men, the costumes are usually completely fitted, even when there are pants.

Notice the different adjectives I have used throughout this post: beautiful, classical, elongated, sensual, etc. This is the illusion of ballet, which in reality is a very physically torturous, unnatural artform that makes many demands on the dancers’ bodies and psyches. There is often a very heavy price to pay. Misty Copeland has raised huge questions about race in the ballet world, and other non-white dancers have led the debate about what “flesh tone” means in terms of leotards and shoes. One cannot neglect these issues. However, there is something still so magnificently appealing about this ages-old art form which continues to captivate us. And if you’ve never been to the ballet, start with some videos of the legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov or (when things are safer with the pandemic) a trip to your local ballet company to watch the annual Nutcracker production. The combination of Tchaikovsky and the parade of dances by different characters cannot fail to entertain you!

Mini-post: The Brilliance of Balanchine

Last weekend I was privileged to see a trilogy of three ballets by the Russian-Georgian genius George Balanchine beautifully performed by the City Ballet of San Diego. Having been a fan of the New York City ballet when I lived there, a ballet he cofounded, I was eager to see his works once again after many years. The pieces performed were “Concerto Baroco,” “Jewels,” and “Square Dance.”

What struck me the most was the way in which Balanchine understood the music. “Concerto Baroco” was performed to the “Bach Double” (a piece with which all Suzuki violin students are familiar). While in most ballets the music serves to underscore or highlight the movements of the dancers, movements that are determined by the choreographer, here, the dancers were the music. That is, the choreography was music-driven, rather than dancer-driven.

Choosing the music for choreography is more than putting a soundtrack to movement; it requires understanding how the dancers will serve the music and vice versa. It requires a deep sense of rhythm, melody, phrasing, and music. It also requires a deep understanding of the body and its abilities, its angles and lines (a very key concept to classical ballet), and also spatial thinking, as dancers do not stand still but move across a stage. Anyone who is a musician can only benefit from training in dance, because dancers are musicians who make music with their bodies. Flamenco and tap dance are great examples of dancers who have to create their own music and rhythm, for the sound of their feet accompanies them.

Choreographers who do not understand music well will only produce a palatable or unpleasant result. Non-experts or non-connoisseurs of dance may not be able to pinpoint what they didn’t like when viewing a ballet dance performance, but they might sense that something was “off.”

Choreography is indeed an underrated and underappreciated art. Let’s continue to look for and support the Balanchines–male and female–of tomorrow.