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Ballet Talk for Dancers

What Makes The Difference

Guest Augustine86

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Guest Augustine86

For a long time now I've been asking myself what is it that makes certain ballerinas stand out from the technique. I mean, two soloists can dance the same choreography, but there is something that defines the common dancer from the future-legend primma ballerina. I can see it, but when I try to put it in words it eludes me.


What is it in a movement that every ballerina can do that stands out when someone truly gifted comes along? I hope this question is not to abstact or farfetched in here, but I've been wondering for a long time not just about the general air, but the physical movements themselves. Is it a particularly good way to arch the back at a certain point, the angle of the head with the neck, the certain grace of a hand gesture?


I would really like everyone's opinion on what trully makes an ordinary ballet movement stand out when somebody truly talented does it, such as many of you might have seen on an occassion. I'm referring both to the abstract aspect and the actual physical movement, technique and execution. What is it that makes it superb?


I'll be very thankful for all your imputs, and truly cannot wait to start an interesting discussion about this.

Edited by Augustine86
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Absolutely - a very interesting point, and one that has been puzzling me for ages. I think it is due to the ability to communicate emotion through movement. Somehow we are incredibly perceptive of even the smallest nuances of movement, so I dont think just describing it in terms of overall gross movements (angle of head, etc) will have enough sensitivity to understand what is going on.


In my classes I get the opportunity to see a lot of dancers, from the bad, the ordinary to the good, and this has often led me to wonder, what really distinguishes the good ones? We would say good coordination, good technique, etc. But what underlies that? I suggest that the ones who come over as good (as well as having good technique - i.e. they can carry out what they tell themselves to carry out) have a strong "sensory engram" (i.e. strong memories of sequences of kinaesthetic sensations) - so that they have a strong sense of the kinaesthetic feelings that they SHOULD be getting from their dance, and they can also link it (somehow, in ways I dont understand) with their emotions. The result is that when they dance, they trigger our own inbuilt sensory engrams and we experience the emotions that they are using to drive their own sensory engrams.


So I watch a bad dancer moving his or her arm. It moves late, and the fingers may have started moving back before other parts of the arm have completed their movement out. The instruction the brain is sending is just "move the arm" which is about all that happens. Not very good to watch. The better dancer moves all together with speed, attack and so on. I.e. its not just "moving the arm" but communicating force, direction and timing. The best ones convey emotion (somehow - but I guess that at very least they are feeling the emotion while they are moving the arm).


Learning to feel and communicate emotion is intrinsic to training in performance art (as in the words of a famous actor: "Its all about sincerity: once you can fake that, you've got it made!").


I guess that we are incredibly sensitive to reading other's body language in an emotional sense because it has evolved as a great survival tool. We learn this originally through making our own bodily movements (ie through developing our own sensory engrams) - I find for instance, the more ballet I learn, the more ballet done by others has an emotional effect on me. This has the implication that people who are more advanced in physical activities (sport etc) may be more advanced in reading body language (i.e are better in social situations with strangers etc).


So I havent got an explanation, but I think its in this direction. I've put put some ideas out in an incredibly condensed form (and probably without enough explanation to make them easily understandable), because I'd better get back to work, where I'm meant to be writing something which in comparison is incredibly boring.



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I call it the X Factor. That's the closest explanation I have - The X Factor just reaches out and grabs me....

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I call it the X factor too. There are many good dancers....but some just don't do it for me. Take that show "so you think you can dance." Remember that blond modern dancer who got to the very end (i think the final three). She was a great dancer and she was pretty....but she just never DID it for me. And I thought it was just me...but then one of the judges said the same thing. He said....whatever IT is, you just don't have IT. Even though she was obviously well trained and had very sharp technique. What the X factor is I really don't know. I guess it's just that some people move....and some people dance. Anyone can learn to be a good "mover." To be a good dancer that people want to pay to watch....well that takes a bit more.

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Being an analytical person by nature, long ago I started wondering why art is considered art. Think I was in high school as I recall. At the time I wasn’t thinking about dance, but rather about visual art. Specifically, why did people think so highly of so-called modern art? Many years later I heard a piece of music from an obscure (to me anyway) composer that I liked and wondered why I had never heard either the music or about the composer.


I know much has been written about what makes art art, but admit I haven’t read any of that literature.


I’ve come to the conclusion art is pretty much just a perception by some audience and has no absolute standards. I may be attracted to something that someone produces (be it dance, visual art, music, whatever) that my peers reject and hence winds up on the junk pile. I may see something that both my peers and I think is wonderful, yet when judged in 100 years appears ordinary.

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"If you can explain it, it is not art", as they say. This is not to say we cannot try, but I think that in the end the greatness of a great dancer is not something you can put down to words that describe movements, and that is maybe exactly what separates a technically good dancer from the great one. You can accurately describe technical quality; you can talk about art, but you cannot define or completely describe it.

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Guest Augustine86

So far all the points I have come across are so wonderfully explained (even if sometimes one feels that the wholemeaning hasn't come across so well) that I find myself agreeing with them, or at least seing all your points of view. It made me realize quite soon that my original question was so complicated that I could expect all kinds of answers, and so far I'm glad with what I've read, and I felt particularly inspired by the first answer by jimpickles, because after I read it I just nodded and went: "That's it!", but afterwards I saw that it went well beyond words, as you all said at one point or another.


I can't wait for all the new answers, so keep posting please and thank you a lot all of you who have already done it.

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Maybe its just the x-factor. Lets call it that. If we knew what made the x-factor, it would help us train it better.



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What if the x-factor was also something that was born in us? A special gift that enables those around us to see us as something more than a mover, but as a dancer? Maybe that is why even some professional dancers just don't quite move us or our emotions. Technically they are great, but without that x-factor they are just dancers that don't inspire the emotional bond that others have. Whatever "it" is, I am thankful that it exists.....it makes watching the dance so much more beautiful!!

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I don't think the x factor can be trained - it might be something that a person gains over a lifetime, with different exposures? But I think there's also something very visceral about it - and something that really just conveys a love of the dance within it. I've seen amazingly fabulous dancers technically - nothing wrong with them - clean line, strong - but they don't grab me. Those with the x factor do nothing and I still can't take my eyes off them. It's like they are fulfilling their destiny... and I obviously am rambling! Goodnight!

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It's like they are fulfilling their destiny...


Yeah - I like that way of putting it!


I think the X-factor is an ability to express the divine; to tap into the energy that underlies all of life; to be as one with nature. To reflect the truth and beauty of life... It's to dance from the heart and the soul; to dance not as an individual, or a member of the corps, but as a part of the greater dance that is life. To remind us all that we're part of something greater than ourselves; something amazing.


It certainly doesn't come from the mind, and that's why it's so rare in humans. It's plain to see in animals, and so it was in us, way back in the depths of time. I believe it's still there in every one of us, but for most the mind dominates our being so strongly that we're not even aware of its existence. But seeing it in someone else can - for a fleeting moment - betray that existence to us; remind us of where we came from, and who we really are...


Can it be trained? In a monastery - yes. Possibly in a dance studio, but not one like I've ever been in. It's not really a question of training it, though, or of gaining it. Rather, it's a stripping away of the intellectual barriers to what's already there, awakening a dormant part of the person. Over a lifetime with different exposures, it's certainly possible. For some it could be quicker, for others it may never happen - it depends on the strength of the barriers.


I could ramble on for ages on this subject - the paradox of the intellectual and spiritual sides of ballet fascinates me. Maybe I will later, but right now I have to get to work!

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While I think I understand what Mr Robin is trying to say, I am not personally very comfortable with the dichotomy of body/mind or spritiual/intellectual. I believe we are bodily beings and our minds are physical parts of our bodies (note this has nothing to do whether they were created or evolved or both or neither that way), and the most intellectual things can also be the most spiritual. Like the perfect execution of a movement can transform it from a technical excercise into art, the purity of clear mathematics or the beauty of our understanding of biology can reach through the intellectual into the spiritual.


I think I'd express the (probably) same thing a bit diferently: the artist does not so much surpass the mind in favour of the divine, but finds a balance of those two, finds a way to express the unity of the body and the mind through dance without letting rigid concepts and petty rationalizations to interfere. After all, dance is not raw, mindless movement, and it is something the mind creates from/with the body.


Rambling. Sorry.

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Difference between technique and art is like the difference between the short brush stroke technique used by impressionist painters, and an impressionist painting. Or the difference between voicebuilding technique and "Long Day's Journey into Night."


Art generally rises or falls based on how it connects to the audience/viewer, and what it says. First, of course, it must have SOMETHING to say. As long as it is successful in that venue, consumers of art will put up with significant technical problems. If it has nothing to say, then all the technique in the world will not save it. Technique is simply the MEANS used to express the art.


As for the dance performances --- some difference between dancing and just technique (in the same choreography) can include: how the characters interact with each other, what they are communicating with each other and the audience through body language. Is the choreography being done JUST as a sequence of steps, or is there an overall emotional/dramatic element being portrayed?


And ultimately... does the choreographer actually have something to say/communicate, or was this dance conceived simply as a way to fill 20 minutes on stage? Great dancers can do only so much to rescue bad choreography. Audience usually prefer to watch decent dancers doing great choreography to the stars doing a work that doesn't hang together --- great fouettee turns, even with "x-factor" dancers, will go only so far to rescue the evening. That is why Balanchine was so successful --- he took decent dancers and made something great through his coaching and choreography. Over time, those dancers became great, in deeply understanding ballet as an art, not just a technical discipline.

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Jaana - I'm not sure if I've misunderstood you, but I'm looking at modern humanity as a trichotomy of mind, body and soul, rather than a dichotomy of mind and body/soul. I believe that at our roots we were/are spiritual beings - the body, followed by the mind, were later products of evolution (or were created later, if you prefer). But I would wholeheartedly agree that great intellectuality can reach into the spiritual just as much as great physicality can!


The paradox I see in ballet, certainly from the viewpoint of the adult learner, is that it takes considerable mental ability to learn it, being the precisely-defined system that it is. In this respect it is an intellectual, aswell as a physical, activity. But to become true art I believe it must transcend the intellect and come straight from the soul, in which respect it is a spiritual/physical activity.


To explore this paradox, consider the process of learning ballet. First, we understand the movements we are trying to perform, but at this stage our bodies cannot perform them, and so ballet is purely intellectual. With time, though, the movements enter our muscle memory, and sooner-or-later become instinct. Ballet becomes mostly physical, then, with the intellectual element limited to the linking of the movement with its mental identity.


(Not sure if that last sentence makes sense, but basically someone says the word 'plie', or demonstrates a plie, or you just think 'plie', and your mind merely sends a trigger to the body, causing it to execute a plie with no further mental involvement.)


At this point, I would say that ballet has become a craft, but not necessarily an art. We have developed the effortlessness (and hopefully the strength, flexibility and stamina!) of the technically-good dancer, but not necessarily the grace of the true artist. And what determines that is, of course, the X-factor...


So to make an effort at defining the elusive quality, I would say that it's probably in the timing - the harmonious syncronisation of the movements of all the individual muscles that contribute to each larger movement. This timing comes from the very soul of the dancer - it's felt through a connection to the energy that flows through all of life. The harmony of the movement reflects the harmony of nature, and this is what touches us.


To become artists in ballet, then, I do believe that we must surpass the mind to the greatest extent possible. When dancing choreographed pieces there will of course be some intellectual effort needed to learn it, but with rehearsal I would expect the choreography to come as instinctively with the music as a basic step does with its name, and the performance itself to involve very little intellectual activity. Not being a great ballet artist, though, I couldn't say for sure!

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