The Born-Again Balletomane's Blog

Just another site about the love of ballet

The State of Things: Ballet Training in the U.S. September 14, 2011

First off, I’m no authority.  But I have been witness to the outright discrimination U.S.-trained dancers have endured in major companies in the U.S. (most notably ABT, which was well-known for such things back when I was paying keen attention — in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, although things apparently have changed a a bit since).

The same old charges stand: U.S.-bred dancers are fat, lazy, and can’t hold a turnout.

I’ve already said my piece about the “fat” charge: I’d rather see a modestly fleshed-out human being than a dancing skeleton.  Of course, pervasive chubbiness and/or outright obesity are quite another matter, and I’ll discuss that in this article.

As for “lazy,” well, the field is so competitive that I honestly can’t see any kid who refuses to work her ass off getting hired by a major company, or lasting very long if she does get hired.  I did fairly recently see an observation in a newspaper that a foreign-trained corps dancer kept working and working  while compatriots around her rested (was the hint that this rendered her superior?).  All I can say is that she reportedly did the same thing before  she went abroad for advanced training.  Further, one must rest, especially in dance where one is on one’s feet all day and often well into the night.  After all, wearing-out problems occur even in the young.

I’d also like to point out that the schools that are heralded as being the greatest in the world are all state-run.  The U.S. has no state-run ballet schools.  This sort of leads into the “can’t hold a turnout” thing.

Just recently, within the past decade, did we start hearing of very determined and talented U.S. dancers heading for Russia for training.  A few have made it into the exclusive Russians-only incubators where potential prima ballerinas are nurtured.  The one who is probably the youngest of the few I’ve heard about must be currently in her last year of training at the Bolshoi’s school.  She’s been injured a bit, but video clips of her show her to be promising.  I’ve heard that she was selected to dance the lead in a major school performance (her partner in this performance was also American), which perhaps indicates that there’s more to her than I have seen in video clips — if this was not, in fact, a segregated “foreign students” production.  This girl is intending to stay in Russia, or at least she was.  We’ll see.

Back in the U.S., with its patchwork of ballet schools, all we have to judge from currently is a hodgepodge of YouTube videos from adoring mommies and self-adoring teenagers.  In looking at those videos, you’ll see that some of the youngsters seem promising but many do not.  A few are downright chubby, even to my eyes, and many more just don’t have much turnout or other signs of proper training.

A Russian-trained American choreographer, Eric Conrad, seems to feel that our very system of training (or lack thereof) is based on fundamental misunderstandings of the way ballet actually works.  He feels that ballet education in this country needs to be corrected and codified if our dancers are ever to reach the heights of the major Russian dancers.  Of course this is a tough sell in an age where some American primas and premiers find themselves in demand by European and even Russian companies.  But as for the training question in general, he may be right.  However, I fear it will never work here.

We do, of course, have excellent schools.  The School of American Ballet is always at the top of the list; ABT’s fairly new Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School…well, the jury is still out, but I am glad they now have an actual school.  There are contenders such as the Kirov Academy, Boston Ballet School and the Joffrey Academy (and the older Joffrey Ballet School, no longer affiliated with the Joffrey Ballet), as well as several smaller academies across the nation.  But without state support, I guess, there is only so much these schools can do.  Certainly there is no set system that they all share, and this problem eventually shows up on stages across the country.

In the U.S., at least in my day, turnout was viewed as being difficult, unnatural, and optional.  In Britain, Russia and France, it is everything.  If you do not have turnout, you are not a ballet dancer.  Period.  I daresay that turnout is the result not only of training but of very determined selection and nurturing of the kind that can only happen in a state-run school where money isn’t a primary concern.  As a result of this kind of training, the Russians (and the French) have a distinctive “look” about them.  So do the British.

I’m wandering here, but overall, I do believe that the answer is state-run schools with codified curricula.  There’s also the necessary cruelty of exclusion that we are lacking at all but the highest levels (at which time it’s usually too late to correct any other deficiencies); as an example, with the Marines, if you don’t have the physical goods, you don’t get to be a Marine.  It’s necessarily the same with ballet.  The problem is that we don’t support ballet.  We don’t value it.

In Russia and France, kids get booted out of ballet school for the most minor of shortcomings (the French encourage their ballet students to pursue higher education in addition to ballet, in recognition of the fact that most students never make it into a company; the Russians do not make allowances for this).  Many U.S. students would be considered hopelessly obese to Russian or French eyes and probably would never make it through the starting gate at any of their schools.

Here, however, if you so much as hint that a child is chubby, her parents fly into a rage.  Conrad seems to feel that correct training could eliminate some of the bulges, but again, there is no one idea of correct training here, and of course we have a lot of kids who are just plain fat, and even proper training would only result in toned fat.  Sometimes you just have a kid who is too fat, or at least too big-boned, to enter ballet school.  But there is no one here who will say “no.”  They can’t, because they need money to keep their schools open.

Back in my figure skating days, there was one mother with a horrifyingly obese little girl (who nonetheless could do figure skating moves well enough to pass tests and enter competitions).  The mom fed this kid McDonalds as a reward for practice even as she whined about organizations such as the USFSA “discriminating” against her daughter because she was fat.  That’s the sort of thing we have to contend with here, and we have no politically correct way of handling it.  Kids are flawless and their fat is sacred.

Whatever.  It’s all probably not even worth mentioning in a country that is arguing whether or not to allow everyone equal access to such basics as housing and healthcare.   But I wish Conrad all the luck in the world nonetheless. Ballet in the U.S. could use his ideas, even if implementing them properly isn’t feasible.


One Response to “The State of Things: Ballet Training in the U.S.”

  1. attdance Says:

    Excellent post! Extremely “un politically correct” but the truth – which, in my opinion, is MUCH more important! Thanks – 5 years after the fact. 🙂

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