Understanding dance Friday Review

Ballet, the classic from the West

Artistes from Swan Lake, Belarus, perform a ballet during International Dance festival 'Lokrang 2016'. Photo: A. M. Faruqui

Artistes from Swan Lake, Belarus, perform a ballet during International Dance festival 'Lokrang 2016'. Photo: A. M. Faruqui   | Photo Credit: A_M_Faruqui;A_M_Faruqui -

The Ballet remains the most graceful and poignant dance form in the world.

Talent is in abundance in today’s dance cosmos; but knowledge of dance is but a cursory theory that is taught like academics in colleges and universities. Comparative study of classical dance as it exists in India vis-a-vis Western world is a blind spot with most up and coming, young dancers. This is vital in present day scenario where experimentation and globalisation have caught on with every art form.

Not many know anything about the Western classical Ballet which is imbibed at an early age and stage in life, like our dance forms, and dates back to few centuries unlike ours, is technical like Kathak but not as spiritually grounded as Indian classical dances. And like our dances, it passed through royal courts to professional theatres/stages.

The Ballet is stated to have originated in Italy, from where it probably moved to France, Russia and Britain creating a classical niche on par with the literature of the times. The term is an English variant of Italian ‘ballare’ which simply means ‘to dance’. Like every other classical dance form, the Ballet basically integrated poetry, dance and music into a coherent whole which conveyed a dramatic storyline. The predominance of French in the vocabulary of the Ballet speaks of its history and popularity in Europe. Barring stylistic variations of the region, the Ballet classical vocabulary is consistent across the globe.

A distinctive feature of ballet technique is the ‘turnout,’ an outward rotation of the legs emanating from the hip. There are five fundamental positions of the feet in ballet, all performed with turnout and named numerically. The jumps and leaps that occur while dancing are accompanied by a stunning balloon effect where the ballerina appears to be floating in the air for few seconds. A ballerina under training has to study the Ballet terminology with the right diction and meaning and the body kinetics associated with each term.

Flexibility is the keyword while the limbs and feet are strengthened along with the body core (centre portion of the abdomen) through practice to enrich staying power and balance of the artiste. Female dancers’ costume is pink in colour with tights and a leotard with pink or beige soft Ballet shoes while the male dancers are attired in black or dark tights and a figure hugging white shirt with a dance belt to provide support. The shoes are also black or white. At times, a unitard or one-piece dance dress which combines tights and leotard is worn to enhance artistic lines. The mention of Ballet evokes the symbol of the ‘pointe’ (standing on one’s toes) as its most attractive feature. But actually, there are more than one technique in the Ballet like ‘gravity beating leaps’ and ‘centrifugal spins’ but the pointe came to stay as the most pivotal one thanks to an Italian ballerina of the 19th century, Marie Taglioni who innovated this to enhance the artistry of her dance. With the pointe came the grace and lightness of stage presence, the floating motions which endowed the Ballet with rich texture. The pointe is an advanced technique that is learnt after perfecting the fundamentals. The Italian ballet is more grounded with a focus on fleeting, complex footwork as compared to its Russian variant.

The Ballet made an indelible presence in Russia where it came to stay and identified across the globe as classical Western dance. Late 19th century saw the Russian ballet dancer-turned-choreographer-teacher Agrippina Vaganova give it a distinguished theory that merited study through his classic magnum opus Basic Principles of Classical Ballet in 1934, a treatise on technique of Russian Ballet. High extensions and dynamic turns are specific features of a Russian Ballet. Vaganova redefined ‘pointe’ which had become integral to the Ballet by modifying it to a poetic metaphor; what was originally a technical virtuosity turned into a creative aesthetic expression aided by poetics and lyricism to accompanying music.

It went on with each innovative choreographer contributing his share of creativity to the Ballet which incorporated all the newness, growing stronger by the day, before taking roots in pure classicality. For instance, the early 20th century saw the emergence of Ballet Russes Company by Sergei Diaghilev in Paris, where a host of new creative turns, till then unknown to Ballet, sprang up. Talented dancer Vaslav Nijinsky was the ultimate vehicle of creative aesthetics for the Ballet Russes company. The ‘Rites of Spring’ which Nijinsky choreographed had its maiden launch in Paris in 1913 and was lauded by critics as a riot of colours and creative aesthetic expression. So too was Mikhail Fokine’s dance with its emphasis on lightness and airiness, labelled as a treasure trove of creative aesthetics.

Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ is considered to be one of the greatest classical Ballets of all times, by virtue of its romantic story performed with an aesthetic beauty that has mesmerised audiences for a close to 100 years! ‘The Swan Lake’ itself has undergone variations in technique with each new talent that added his/her own charm to the Ballet.

Whatever be the creative additions, the Ballet has not lost its classicism nor has it diluted the content or technique in trying to pander to common tastes of changing times. It caters to its niche audience as much then as now.

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Printable version | Apr 9, 2020 8:44:32 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/ballet-the-classic-from-the-west/article8389481.ece

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