The Born-Again Balletomane's Blog

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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.  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 “ballerina,” and/or being called “ballerina” by others.

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 as a title, 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), 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.

 

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Susan Jaffe as Odile, 1999 February 22, 2017

Filed under: ballerina,Uncategorized — theworstat @ 7:22 am
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Never saw Susan Jaffe dance as a principal. Her tenure as an ABT prima ballerina came after I had stopped watching ballet, although she started in the ABT corps, and quickly made an impression on the dance world, during my last days as a balletomane in the 1980’s.

What follows probably isn’t the best video of her.  The music is frantic, the stage looks shrunken, and her shoes are annoyingly loud.  But I know a lot of people still treasure the memory of her dancing.  And so, enjoy:

Black Swan

 

Terrible photos January 15, 2017

Filed under: ballerina,ballet,Uncategorized — theworstat @ 1:20 am
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Haven’t felt very inspired lately, so sorry for the quiet.  I did, as I periodically do, go to the websites of some major companies just to see who has been promoted, etc.  On the Bolshoi’s website I found a whole bunch of photos of primas, apparently new, and apparently shot by the same photographer.  They all made the primas in question look like they were at least my age (I’m pretty damn old).  Not that that’s a bad thing, except that professional ballet, especially at the elite level, is a young woman’s game.  While I’m at it, I have to mention that most of the Bolshoi’s primas are pretty women, and these photos make them look drop-dead plain on top of well past retirement age.  Take a look:

Bolshoi Primas’ New Headshots

See if you can pick out which photos I’m talking about.  Just for a giggle.

 

Stepanova promoted…3 times September 16, 2016

As everyone probably already knows, Yulia Stepanova has not only been promoted to prima at the Bolshoi, but in that achievement sailed over 2 promotions (she’ll never be a First Soloist or a Leading Soloist).  She catapulted straight from Soloist (better known as Coryphee in many companies) to Principal.

I kind of suspected that she would be promoted at the start of this season, but I never expected anything like that.  Instead I expected her to spend a brief time at First Soloist before languishing at the Leading Soloist level for a few years, kind of like Smirnova did.

Someone mentioned on another site that Stepanova’s promotion(s) is/are unprecedented.  If anyone has gone up three levels to the very top in one year, it hasn’t happened recently.

Certainly she must be much more remarkable than just having expressive arms.  It’s definitely not her feet, which like Smirova’s are rather uninteresting, (which should prove to some people that feet are not everything as there are now at least two Bolshoi primas with retro-feet — feet that would have been great in earlier decades but not now, in the banana-foot age). It’s how you use your feet, not so much what they look like, after all.  However, so far I haven’t seen anything really special in her use of her feet, or anything else but her upper body and arms.

I would like to see a full-length video of her dancing Swan Lake, and another of her dancing a contemporary ballet.  Then I’ll have a better idea.

Anyway, the judgement has been made by the powers-that-be at the Bolshoi, and once again this leaves the Mariinsky with egg on its face.  It seems that company is fading further and further from the limelight and may disappear altogether once the current generation of stars retires.  Fortunately a few of them are fairly young, and that could add another decade or so during which the Mariinsky has a chance to turn itself around.

If it doesn’t, it will serve as a harsh reminder of how fragile ballet is.  One lost generation, and the entire art could be lost forever.  The Bolshoi now seems to have realized this.  The Mariinsky had better wake up.

 

 

On Pointe (Shoes) January 6, 2013

Filed under: ballerina,ballet — theworstat @ 2:18 am
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While writing a reply to a post earlier I started to think about all the misconceptions about pointe shoes that I’ve encountered over the years.  Since I can’t find all of these addressed anywhere else, I thought I’d attack some of them here.

First of all, pointe shoes do not make it “easy” to dance on pointe.  If pointe were so easy, we’d all be doing it.  The reality is that it’s tough, requiring strength born of careful training.  All the shoes do is make it harder to break a bone or strain any other support structure in the foot.  They also make it easier to balance by providing a level platform. Without pointe shoes, we would not have ballets where the dancers spend almost the entire performance on pointe.  It would be impossible.

But no…pointe shoes do not do the work for you.  Try on a pair of pointe shoes and try to haul yourself up on tiptoe, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.  It takes tremendous strength to get all the way over the box, even more-so to stay there, let alone hold a balance or even move.

Come to think of it…please DON’T try to haul yourself up on pointe.  The chance that your feet and ankles are naturally right for it — that is, they can bend correctly and are strong enough — is pretty slim.  And if your ankle wobbles, you’ll end up in the E.R. for sure.  Let’s just say that the chance of you getting hurt is pretty high.

Even with proper training, the shoes don’t make it impossible to do damage to oneself.  And the shoes themselves can do damage: calluses are normal, nails can be lost, blisters are almost impossible to avoid.  Bunions are harder to predict.  Certainly all dancers do not have bunions; I heard one doctor say that you have to be born with an abnormality that leads to bunions or else you won’t develop them.  However, Balanchine loved the “creative bunion” look and some dancers do have them.

No, the shoes are not made of metal.  There was briefly a pointe shoe that featured a metal platform and/or a metal shank (I think it was just the shank).  This was back in the 1930’s or so.  It didn’t last.  The only metal in the shoes now is in the nails in the sole.  (Sansha may or may not still make a pointe tap shoe; this would be the sole exception.)

No, the shoes are not made out of wood.  (EDIT: there are sometimes wood byproducts in the sole/shank.)  Long ago I heard some young know-it-all state this to his little girlfriend and nearly snorted my soda out of my nose.  Pure wood would be a disaster in pointe shoes.

By the way, they are not called “toe shoes.”

Most pointe shoe boxes are made of layers of fabric and paste.  Most of the soles are made of layered leather, fiberboard, or cardboard.  A few companies use plastics and polymers in the toe boxes and shanks.  There is one company that is famous for its elastomeric shoes; some ballerinas swear by these shoes.  Others say they look awful and refuse to wear them (they do look different; there seems to be slightly less definition of the shape of the dancer’s foot).  However, the shoes last longer — a huge plus, as conventional pointe shoes in professional settings are notorious for lasting only a matter of hours —  and there is some evidence that their wearers are less prone to injury.  Also, they are said to be quieter than most pointe shoes (generally speaking, pointe shoes are NOISY!).  All in all, elastomerics may be the way of the future, although right now it seems that one company has a lock on the process of creating them.

Yes, dancers do awful things to their pointe shoes.  The manufacturer of elastomeric shoes claims that this is not necessary with their shoes, but it is with all other brands.  Some of these techniques, such as applying shellac, are potentially harmful to the dancer.  But most of what dancers do to the shoes is necessary.  If the boxes are not crushed before wear, a bulbous appearance may result.  If the shanks are not bent or partially removed, the shoes will not conform to the dancer’s feet.  Some dancers darn the tips of their shoes for added traction and stability.  Many others trim away the fabric and burn the frayed ends of the satin with a cigarette lighter.  A lot of dancers use hammers to make the pointe shoes quieter and softer, although one wonders how effective this really is in terms of noise.

Manufacturers are starting to do some of the more common alterations for dancers, but I think dancers will always alter the shoes somewhat before they wear them.

No, I don’t know how ribbons were selected to hold the shoes on the dancers’ feet, but I suspect this happened before elastics were widely used and has continued simply because ribbon looks good and is flexible and strong.

Pointe shoes as they are today did not exist in the 1800’s, when pointe was born as a part of ballet technique.  Back then, pointe shoes were really nothing more than altered ballet slippers.  Pointe was incredibly difficult and most dancers did not attempt it — it was prima ballerina territory.  This began to change in the 1880’s – 1890’s, when primas started spending entire ballets on pointe and even corps dancers were expected to dance on pointe frequently.  But the biggest change in pointe shoes came slightly later, when Anna Pavlova bolstered her pointe slippers with strengthened shanks and broader platforms to support her weak (but lovely) feet.  She was at first blasted for “cheating,” but quickly, other dancers started “cheating” as well.

Current dancers wearing elastomeric shoes are also sometimes criticized for cheating.  Some schools will not allow students to wear the newfangled pointe shoes, insisting instead on the conventional kind.  I suspect this will not happen anymore as the new shoes become more commonplace.

Back when I was a student, we were told that men didn’t dance on pointe because their hips and feet are wrong for it.  That’s nonsense, of course.  Men do dance on pointe and they always have.  I think the reason it’s not often seen is that women in ballet are viewed as being more ethereal than men; this goes back to the Romantic age in ballet (mid-1800’s) and is a hangover that’s been hard to shake.  Nowadays ballerinas are no longer teeny tiny things; some of them are very tall; so to hang onto the “ethereal” part, some of them have become almost skeletal.  Time goes by; things change, but some things never seem to change.  The day of men dancing routinely on pointe is still well in the future.

I’m sure I’ve missed a few things, but this article answers most of the crazy things I’ve heard said about pointe shoes and pointe in general.  If you can think of anything else, please comment.

 

Ballerinas and Motherhood September 13, 2012

Filed under: ballerina,ballet — theworstat @ 5:22 pm
Tags: , ,

Sorry for the long break.  Those will happen on this blog.  I just go through long periods of time when other things get in the way.

Anyway, the other day I was cruising around the Internet and came across the information that two Maryinsky principals, Viktoria Tereshkina and Alina Somova, have canceled performances in L.A. because they are pregnant.  Congrats to both of them on their expected babies!

After I saw that, once again I remembered The Old Days.

There is a nearly-forgotten ballet movie that was quite popular in its day, “The Turning Point.”  I believe it was released in the 1970’s, but I’ll have to go look at Google.    One of the themes of this movie was ballerinas and motherhood.  There were two main protagonists in the film — one a famous ballerina who had given up her life to dance and was approaching the end of her career, and the other a former corps dancer who had given up her career for motherhood.   The story was that the two had started their dance careers together years before in New York, and met up again in Oklahoma (a supposed backwoods dancing desert), where the mom-former-dancer was living, many years later.  Both women rehashed their lives and regrets, etc., and of course the former dancer’s daughter  turned out to be a ballet star in the making.  At one point the youngster asked her mother if it was true that she’d have to give up her private life to become a great ballerina.

Those of us who follow dance know that while maternity was once a difficult issue for ballerinas, it never stopped them from having children.  Especially recently, it seems that many, if not most, ballerinas become mothers during their careers.  As in: it’s no big deal anymore.

Once upon a time,women were expected to give up everything in terms of career when they married.  I guess that’s where the old myth that ballerinas cannot have children came from.  Certainly it was never based on fact.  I remember reading something many years ago about pregnancy-related changes in a dancer’s body making it impossible for her to resume her career.  Take that ______ (insert major ballerina’s name on blank line).  At the time I didn’t dismiss it as being merely another myth about womanhood.  People really believed that stuff back in the day.  But since, having observed the effect of similar myths on women’s sports such as tennis, gymnastics (the only sport in which it holds a grain of truth), and figure skating, I see it for the nonsense it is and always was.

Yes, being a mom is a 48-hour-a-day job.  And ballet demands almost as much time.  I do know that one of the reasons for Darcey Bussell’s fairly early retirement was that she wished to spend more time with her daughters.  And I also wonder how other ballerinas manage to maintain a work/life balance, because it seems that in ballet, there is little of that.  Certainly there is none in motherhood.

But still, “The Turning Point”‘s entire plot revolved around an old myth.  One wonders how, as late as the 1970’s, that could be so.  I think a more interesting film might be the story of a ballerina who has 2 or 3 kids and is trying to continue her career with a major company at the same time she is trying to bring the kids up.  Anyone interested?

 

Trashing Ballet (West) July 7, 2012

Filed under: ballerina,ballet — theworstat @ 2:45 pm
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People who know me know that ballet is just one of my passions.  Another is storm chasing.  People who know me know that reality TV is one of my aversions.  And now, people who like ballet and storm chasing know why reality TV is one of my aversions.

For those reading in countries other than the U.S., here’s the deal: in recent years, the Discovery Channel ran a series called Storm Chasers, which was about the trials and tribulations of three teams of chasers in the U.S.  It started out okay, but gradually disintegrated into being about interpersonal squabbles, flashy storm-chasing gear, and finally someone’s girlfriend.  Actually they tried to put two pretty girls into the show; one lasted a few episodes and the other barely 5 minutes.  Actual storm-chasing women — and there are some — were not acknowledged.  I’m guessing this is because few of them are Hollywood-pretty enough.

Yes, they tried to sugar-coat it all as “science” and “saving lives,” but the trash kept rising to the surface.  Finally the show got canceled late last year.

But the damage was done.  Real-life chasers are now dealing with unprecedented “chaser convergence” at every storm; the roads are filled with naive newbies looking for fame and getting in the way instead.  And threats to the lives of chasers who were not on Storm Chasers have been a real and frightening addition to the hazards chasers already face on the road.  How did that happen?  Well, you see, the TV-drugged newbies are convinced that any chaser who was not featured on the show must be in the way of any chaser who was, and the death penalty seems like an apt punishment to some of these idiots.

And now there is a ballet reality show, Breaking Pointe.  Thankfully this cannot lead to a legion of fake dancers seeking fame and soap opera, but it doesn’t do ballet much good anyway.

What’s it about?  Allegedly it’s Ballet West, a Utah-based company that has been around for decades and has a strong reputation.  It is not one of the great companies of the world, but considering its size (the company is tiny; only about 35 dancers), and some of the teachers it manages to attract, it’s an excellent regional company — sort of a pint-sized version of the San Francisco Ballet.

But now CW TV is trashing it by concentrating not on the dancing, but on every bland soap-opera thread they can manage to inject.  The end result is that the show is more about boyfriends and girlfriends breaking up and then kissing and making up than with anything interesting, or anything that has the slightest thing to do with ballet.  Yes, professional problems are somewhat addressed, but not with any understanding of the subject.  They are all washed over with the same damp cloth.  It’s like, OOOOO, Suzie is upset with the conductor’s tempo!  And 3 seconds later: Okay, let’s move on to Mary Suzie (reader pointed out it’s the same girl) and Michael’s romance!  And that part drags on for 15 minutes or more before it (of course) ends with tears.

One gets the impression that the producers of this show neither know nor care much about ballet, which was precisely the same problem with Storm Chasers, where the producers would probably have looked for tornadoes in Antarctica** if no one had told them that tornadoes are far more likely in Oklahoma.  But then they got the idea that there is a strictly-defined “storm chasing season” which makes or breaks a storm chaser’s entire year….oh well.  Let’s just summarize by saying that the show was a stupid mess, as is Breaking Pointe.

If you want to see a good show about the lives of dancers, get hold of a copy of the documentary Ballerina and watch that.  It’s gritty, and it focuses on the dancing.  This is what I was expecting from Breaking Pointe, but did not get.

In short, don’t bother with Breaking Pointe.  Just keep your fingers crossed that it doesn’t ultimately destroy Ballet West.

** click on this link:  TORNADOES  for more information on how many tornadoes there are in Antarctica