Reflection on two ballet workshops

I have just taught two workshops for the Monday contemporary class series exploring ballet principles.  Previous ballet classes aimed at contemporary dancers have not always had much uptake, so I was pleasantly surprised when interest was expressed in including some ballet sessions in the programme.  Recent experience of ballet teaching and study has reinforced the conviction expressed by Roger Tully that it is not enough now to teach the steps, we need to articulate the underlying principles, all too often taken for granted, unexpressed and therefore in danger of being misunderstood by students attending to ballet’s surface of illusion.  So the idea arose to offer a workshop rather than a conventional class to highlight through practice some of ballet’s fundamental concepts; such as verticality, spiral and opposition, en dehors and en dedans.

It felt important to start by eliciting some immediate responses to the genre of ballet and discovering the previous ballet experiences and perceptions of the small group assembled.  While largely positive and respectful, some more ambiguous and difficult associations emerged: “held”, “artificial” “privileged” “restrictions”, “rigidity”, “not my world”… It was interesting to remark how dancers had moved in and out of the discipline over time, finding it uncongenial at certain times in their lives but constructive and enjoyable in other circumstances.

We began to move with a continuous sequence of simple standing exercises I use for my adult beginners’ class, which aims to provide a gentle body warm-up while beginning to introduce some sense of balletic movement and line, as well as sensitising the feet.  Ballet aspires to be air borne and defy gravity through vertical oppositional energy downwards into the floor and upwards from the body.  For these classes I drew on some fundamental exercises learned from Patrick Wood to find the body’s aplomb, to demonstrate in the simplest way rotation round this vertical axis, the natural opposition of rotations in the body which becomes balletic épaulement, and the difference between movements inwards and outwards, towards and away from the body’s centre, informing everything we do in the danse d’école.  We noted the difference between slightly forward posture when the dancer is in parallel, and the upright vertical necessitated by ballet’s use of outward rotation, “turn-out”, to facilitate and project a wider, more visible range of movement in the space.

The function of the barre is thus revealed not as a quaint and outmoded training tool, but as an aid to maintaining this new and unfamiliar posture, allowing the development of appropriate muscular strength; also as an orientation for the increasingly complex geometry of arcs, lines and spirals constructed by the dancing body.  In teaching I am constantly struck afresh by the internal logic by which these exercises focusing on different technical skills can build from slow to fast, from small to large, from simple to complex; an educational scaffolding which the dancer is gradually able to abandon, moving independently into space having found (or at least come closer to) the still centre from which their dance can be released.  But I am also aware of the daunting amount of movement information contained in the barre work, and wonder again if this can alienate many learners.  Very easy to fall prey to that perfectionism endemic among ballet dancers, to spend too much time navel gazing, obsessing over technical minutiae, and to forget the ultimate aim of dancing.  The dancers work with care and concentration, and I am aware of skills of analytical intelligence developed in more experimental dance disciplines being fruitfully employed in tackling traditional vocabulary.  Discussions around each exercise include touching on how the music can aid our understanding and on the value of paring down the intention of the danced phrase to the simplest instruction or concept.

All too little time to begin to assemble and use our knowledge in short studies in the centre, tiny dances, a port de bras and a waltz phrase covering space, changing directions and spiralling upwards in a final turn with a feeling of suspension, and of course paying homage to that other balletic ideal of classical symmetry by repeating each sequence on the other side.

During our final discussion after the first workshop tears welled up for one person.  As a teacher I am unnerved by ballet’s capacity in practice to reach into people and stir strong emotions or bare painful memories; although as a practitioner this should hardly surprise me.  Something about grappling with such an absolute form can make us emotionally vulnerable even when the class environment strives to be encouraging and non judgemental.  Time will tell whether these sessions may help to renew positive interest in what the form may have to offer the contemporary dancer; but already one dancer’s fascinating idea for creative incorporation of balletic content into an expressive project seems to be blossoming…

Susie

13th November 2012

3 comments
  1. Maggie said:

    I wish I had been able to join you. I remember how intersting it was to attend the early sessions that you taught for Freefall in Oxford, when I saw contemporary-trained dancers, perhaps with relatively little experience of ballet, working in a ballet class and realised that there was a lot that I could learn from them. It was particularly interesting to me because I had attended very good contemporary classes in the past (admittedly about 20 years before), but had not had the opportunity, or perhaps the intelligence, to see how understanding the differences between ballet and contemporary dance could enhance the performance of either.

  2. Diarmaid O'Meara said:

    Just getting around to reading this now Susie. So beautifully articulated. Having just spent two day doing ballet creative with students in Laban, I am very sympathetic to how connecting with the principles can be staggering. It’s a pity so much teaching overlooks these foundations in favour of something with which it has only tenuous links.

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