The Born-Again Balletomane's Blog

Just another site about the love of ballet

Ballet Words and Semantics June 23, 2017

This post is inspired by a comment from TheBrain1234.  Some of this will be serious, most of it will not.  Please, no one take offense; none is intended.

First, let’s get this out of the way: PRINCIPAL DANCER — one may be a principal for one production or for years; however, this title is generally only given to/used by those who have reached the top rung of the company they are dancing with (guest ballerinas and danseurs included).  It only technically includes character dancers (unless, like in the Maryinsky, principal character dancers are specifically named) and soloists/coryphees/corps members who are dancing the lead on one specific evening and will be back in the back row of the corps or wherever the next evening.  The New York City Ballet was the first major company to stretch this to the limit, I believe, as in some Balanchine ballets everyone becomes a star for a few seconds.  But most (not all) companies — even the NYCB — still have rigid pecking orders, and “principal dancer” is a title that belongs only to those at the very top.

There are also flat-structured companies like the present-day Joffrey that have no principal dancers at all (even though there are always a few dancers who seem to keep getting the lead roles).  Someone coming into the Joffrey and crowing about being a principal would definitely be in for grief, because no one would know what the hell they were talking about.

LAUREATE — One who has been honored (with a medal, usually) at a competition for their achievements in that competition.  Generally the awards are gold medal, silver medal, bronze medal.  At some ballet competitions there is a grand prize, above gold, that is almost never awarded; in fact, at a lot of competitions, sometimes the medals aren’t even awarded.  The word “laureate” comes from the ancient Greeks who honored triumphant athletes by placing laurels around their heads.  You didn’t get to wear that crown unless you won, which is to say

NOT EVERYONE WHO PARTICIPATES IN A COMPETITION IS A LAUREATE.  Ballet is not an elementary-school sport where everyone gets a participation prize at the end.

DIPLOMA HOLDER — I had honestly never heard this term before I watched (and read about) the Moscow Ballet Competition; however, I’m guessing it’s an also-ran, non-medal prize, as if to say “you did better than most but not as well as some, so here’s a sheet of paper recognizing you.”  The only thing I’m clear on is that a diploma holder is not a laureate.

BALLERINA — Honest, every female ballet dancer is not a ballerina.  The word is used so freely nowadays that I often feel the need to put “prima” before “ballerina” to indicate that a dancer is a principal.  It should not be that way.  Only principals are ballerinas, period.  Soloists claim the title — in fact, they do this so often these days that the word “prima” has become necessary when it shouldn’t be, and so we end up technically calling dancers “first first dancers” instead of what they are, which is simply principals and ballerinas. There are, of course, “first soloists” and even “leading soloists” in some of the major companies; these women arguably can be called first dancers (but probably not principals or ballerinas in the strict sense).  Strip that confusion away and you have the following:

SOLOIST — This is a dancer who has achieved a high level of technical proficiency and/or has something else special and worthy of attention and development.  In the larger companies there are all kinds of soloists, from kids who step out of the corps to do demi-solos (coryphees), to dancers who perform nothing but major roles (leading soloists).  One thing should be clear, however: the titles of “principal” and “ballerina” are promotions and should not apply to soloists (unless, as stated above, they are leading/first soloists — even then I never heard any save one call herself a principal).

PRIMA BALLERINA — Literally the first first dancer, the leading principal in a company above all other ballerinas and dancers.  At least, that was the old terminology.  Nowadays the term prima ballerina seems to apply to all female principal dancers, because so many below the rank of principal are calling themselves “ballerinas.”

DANSEUR or PREMIER DANSEUR — These poor men…back in the day (in some companies) “danseur” was an earned title equivalent to “ballerina,” used only by male principals.  The premier danseur was the male equivalent of the prima ballerina.  The term “danseur” may still be used, but I haven’t seen it in long time, nor heard it applied to anyone since Anthony Dowell (who was often called a “premier danseur noble” for his aristocratic bearing, as Evgenia Obraztsova might in a previous era been called a soubrette).  Nowadays male principals are all heaped into a big lump and called principal dancers.  It’s awkward, but they no longer have a clear title.

But at least  no one is misusing the word “danseur.”

MODERN DANCE/CHOREOGRAPHY — Another term for “crap.”  Well, at least 90% of it is (occasionally one runs across a gem that will be passed down through the ages).

Ballet dancers often whine, “I’ve gone through my whole career and no one has created a ballet for me!”  Well, get over it — if they had, you’d probably have spent “your” ballet in an ugly costume, rolling around on the floor (see below).  A dancer is like a musician in an orchestra; very few dancers ever get their own choreography (much less create it), much as very few musicians ever write symphonies.  But I digress…

Back to the point, “modern dance” started to infect classical ballet way back in the early part of the 20th century.  Somehow its inclusion with ballet was viewed as progress.  Instead it has led to a lot of tangled masses of bodies that untangle and then tangle up again, a huge reliance on props, music that is excruciating and/or has nothing to do with the narrative, no clear narrative — as in a ballet about love can look exactly like one about a gang war, really ugly costumes (of course, the New York City Ballet has been guilty of that for decades and they are not really a well-known modern dance company even if they are a famous modern ballet company), lots of rolling on the floor and people throwing themselves around by their stomachs, oodles of marching, and various other crap.

MUSEUM (as in “ballet will die if it becomes a …) — There is this myth that radical change is necessary for growth…and that growth itself is necessary.  Think about that for a while.  I’d write about it, but then this post would be as long as War and Peace.  Suffice it to say that individual artists — ballerinas and danseurs — are capable of renewing ballet by making it their own.  Absent artists like this, no art form is going to prosper no matter how much “new” or “modern” anyone throws at it.  That is true of painting, that is true of music, that is true of literature, that is true of dance.

What I’d add to that, however, is that ballet must adapt to its times.  This does not mean sending everyone writhing on the floor or crawling all over each other.  Maintain the technique, but allow new voices and viewpoints.  That is progress.

And for chrissake let’s agree on usages so when someone starts stretching the truth and by effect diminishing the achievements of those around her/him, we’ll know it immediately.  I don’t see any problem with the old ballet-company structure; it makes things very, very clear.  Like the five positions of the feet and arms, it’s just something you have to adapt to.  Art comes from rules (or personal reactions/adaptations of rules), not the other way around.

P.S. The views expressed in this article are not as rigid as they seem.



Apologies to Japan June 21, 2017

I’m afraid I went so ballerina-centric that I did not mention the excellent job done in the Moscow competition by dancers from Japan:

The Mainichi

The Japan Times

Japanese dancers, after all, have a major presence in ballet companies worldwide.  My problem is that I don’t generally look at a ballet dancer as Asian, Caucasian, Black or whatever.  (And I don’t pay a great deal of attention to the men, I admit that.)

Also congrats to China and Argentina.  My bad for not mentioning this earlier.  I’ll be back when I stop kicking myself around the block.


Some thoughts on the Moscow Competition June 20, 2017

Let’s get this out of the way: Joy Womack came in 4th or 5th in the Senior division; she’s now something called a “diploma holder.”  I thought her pas de deux from Don Q. was just fine; I was not surprised that her partner (Mikhail Martynyk) got a special award even though he was not competing.  It looked like he was cutting up just before they went on stage, and he was a total delight.

Joy is technically very, very competent, very light, fleet-footed, and sure.  Other dancers sit on their pointes; she gives a reason for being up there: she doesn’t defy gravity, she just doesn’t need it.  Her sharp features were a perfect complement for the role of Kitri (I believe the way she looks at present, Giselle or some other “soft” role might be a real challenge to accept; it would take real artistry for her to work past that).  It was her characterization that seemed to be her downfall; she needs to take it beyond fan-fluttering.  She also needs to remember that Kitri is in love with Basilo and would not be searching for a camera to smile at.  Other than that, Joy’s a big-league first soloist-level performer, no doubt.  She’s almost there.

In contrast (see below for explanation), Evelina Godunova, the Senior soloist gold medalist, was born that way: she’s very alive on stage, very different; huge personality, which jumped out at the viewer after sitting through so many painfully correct academic performances.  She is a born prima ballerina who expands the vocabulary of the art just by dancing; everything becomes hers.  I hope she won’t spend the rest of her career in South Korea.  Nothing against South Korea, of course, but she needs to be on a big, grand old ballet stage somewhere, one that gets regularly broadcast across the world.

Fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Beyer won the Junior division.  She’s one of what seems to be an upcoming generation of Americans that is stocked so full of potential superstars that it’s going to be very, very hard for any young dancer who was not simply born that way to get anywhere.  We may be in for an age where girls who may have become prima ballerinas in other eras — the ones like Womack who have most of the goods but need to be polished and polished and then polished again before they can be true primas– end up spending their careers in the corps or as soloists.  This is truly amazing to me, someone who studied ballet in a day when it seemed genuinely gifted, “born that way” prima-material dancers were so extremely rare as to seem almost nonexistent.

Elizabeth is charming and bubbly onstage, not unlike Giselle Berthea, and has a killer technique.  No she’s not perfect yet (either she was badly off the music in her Esmeralda variation during the gala, or there was a difference between what she was hearing onstage and what the audience was hearing, or maybe there was a lag in the broadcast feed).  But she’s fifteen.

And as for the choreographers….well, some of them won awards.  I don’t know why.  There seems to be a great big thing with dressing dancers in ugly workout clothes (or else cocktail dresses with black anklets), and sending them on stage to be tangled up with each other for an excruciating number of minutes.  The music is often just there for noise and not at all appropriate for the action on stage, and the action on stage doesn’t use the stage.  It’s just an exploration of how many times and ways a body can be lifted in the least amount of time possible.  They could accomplish it in a small closet, except for the connecting steps which seem to consist of rolling on the floor.

Did I mention that I detest 95% of all modern choreography?

Some nice offstage surprises included the elegant Evgenia Obraztsova doing commentary and interviews.  She and her co-host swung wildly between English and Russian and it was hard to understand their conversation; eventually a translator was at their side.  I’m grateful for that.

P.S. Womack did it again…she just showed up on my Twitter feed claiming to be a “laureate” of the Moscow competition (update on 6/22: she’s apparently deleted the tweet; at least I cannot find it anymore).  This fits in with her well-established habit of stretching the truth (remember when she was calling herself a principal dancer when she was still a soloist?), because strictly speaking, she’s not a laureate of the Moscow competition.  She’s a diploma holder.  See this link.




Moscow Ballet Competition June 15, 2017

Filed under: ballerina,ballet,Russian ballet — theworstat @ 4:24 pm
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Here’s an article on the opening of the Moscow Ballet Competition; I’ll try to follow up on this in the coming days:

Moscow Competition