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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