Since coming back to ballet I’ve been noticing something that is not at all remarkable to today’s ballet fans, but jumps out at me, an old-timer.
Once upon a time there was a ballerina named Nadezdha Pavlova. She was in my age group, born in the mid-to-late 1950’s. In her day, the early 1970’s to the early 1980’s, she was considered an incredible whiz-kid. See this video (yes, the audio is way out of whack): Pavlova.
In a world of waist-high extensions, “the sweet, unconcerned way with which she does the undo-able” (indirect quote from ballet critic Arlene Croce), was startling. Nadya, as she was called, was the first hyperextended ballerina that I can recall.
What this did for her career is questionable. The first 5 to 10 years were unquestionably great, especially if you add on her last few years in the ballet academy. This was the Perm State Choreographic Institute; it appears with the same notorious teacher as the current Kirov/Maryinsky rising star and former anorexia case Oxana Skorik. Pavlova apparently caused quite a stir there and also in her first few years with the Bolshoi. Then she faded and finally disappeared. Many budding balletomanes of today have never heard of her, (referring instead to Sylvie Guillem as the first of the hyperextended ballerinas), or dismiss her as a shooting star — which in truth, she was.
It is somewhat challenging to find her in a simple Google search, but if you try hard enough you’ll find that she is currently a professor at an academy of fine arts in Moscow, and that her ballet career ended relatively quickly either as the result of the strain of a bad marriage or because of disagreements with the management of the Bolshoi, the company with which she danced. As with all things Russian, it’s hard to get at the truth.
But anyway, there’s the business of her extensions. As I said, they were startling at the time. Nowadays they are commonplace, but the complaint about them remains the same: they are unclassical, and once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
My take on it is that hyperextension is not classical, nor is it “Romantic,” and it really can make an old-fashioned classical ballet such as Swan Lake or an equally old-fashioned Romantic warhorse like Giselle look odd to an experienced eye. Might hyperextention become more acceptable in these realms in time? My guess is that because it is already tolerated, eventually this will go the same way as the dilemma in English over “it’s” (means “it is;” it’s NOT a possessive), and “its” (which is the possessive form): the incorrect form will become so commonplace that it will win the battle. The world will go on, unconcerned.
My other thought about hyperextension is that, used too often, it gets old. One begins to wonder if one is watching a ballet or a contortionist fest. This may be okay in more modern choreography, but somehow, in the old standards, it becomes annoying quickly.
There’s also the question, “where do we go from here?” If 100 ballerinas are kicking their ears with their legs, will ballerina #101 have to kick the opposite side of her head? And what does that really add to the art? I daresay nothing.
Watching videos of Nadya, one sees that she quickly learned to control her extension. More recent ballerinas haven’t seemed to bother with that, which tells me that the old waist-high standard may be quickly becoming a thing of the past.
I don’t know whether to cluck my tongue in disapproval or just go with the flow. I’ll have to think about it. But to younger ballet fans I have this to say: go to YouTube and look up videos of past ballerinas, before the 1980’s. Once your eye adjusts, you may find yourself truly appreciating what you see — the art, not the hyperextension.