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Ballet Talk for Dancers

The Early Ballet Dancers

L' Allegro

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I read accounts of virtuoso dancers from the 19th century. And I wonder: were they really that good? By today's standards? How wood they measure up to today's dancers? Like Marie Taglioni, Fanny Essler (spell?), and the famous dancers of those days. My first doubts appeared in regard to these dancers when I read in my ABT book that a male dancer of ABT said that when he first joined the company, no male dancer could lift his leg over 90 degrees. (I beleive this was in the '40s)




(I hope this is a legitimate question, and doesn't offend anyone)

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It is a very legitimate question, L'Allegro. The dancers in the 19th Century were wonderful for their time, but, technically I doubt they would come close even to the early to mid 20th Century dancers, much less those of today. Artistically, my guess is that they would measure up very well indeed, but the technique has definitely progressed, as it should. :shrug:

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The video Glory of the Bolshoi has a pas de deux from 1911-1913 - said to be one of the earllest examples of dance on film. The man is very heavy and ponderous in his movements, though quite delicate. The woman (in fact his wife) is pretty and delicate in her movements. But neither (and expecially the man) have anything like the attack and virtuosity that we expect nowadays, in even the smallest things. To move like that would be completely unacceptable nowadays. But clearly, since they were filmed, they were thought to be pretty good (the male was apparently the most famous male dancer of his day in Russia).


However, when was it that the Ballet Russes first came to England? Was it 1913? So things must have changed pretty quickly about that time.



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  • 1 month later...

I do not remember where I read this ( it could have been a teacher telling me, she danced at ABT back in the days) That it was normal to be able to do only double pirouettes. They said/ I read that if they danced in today's standards they will not be able to get into company.


I have also seen a video from a while ago, and those dancers look like what our 14 year olds look like.


I am sorry if this was rude or offending. I tried to say it the best I could without bringing out a negative tone.

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Just a thought...


For all that has been gained technically, what has been lost artistically?

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Do ya really want to open that can'o'worms??? :thumbsup::sweating:

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And can I add, as a bona fide theatre historian, that in comparing the quality of things past with things present, you need to be very careful about always assuming inevitable progress to reach the point at which you find yourself. I'd rather thionk about developing an historical imagination or empathy to understand the conditions of times past on their own terms.


For example, in ballet history, it was the early 19th century that pointe shoes were developed. If you read accounts of early pointe shoes, they sound very painful! in that they offered little support or protection for the instep and toes en pointe. Quite unlike the technology we have today.


So is that "better technique" then or now?


I'd argue that the comparison isn't really relevant - as historians, we might rather want to understand what was special and distinctive about past dancers, rather than ask whether their technique was "better" or "worse." That's a bit like trying to answer the question: "How long is a piece of string?"

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Without those early ballet dancers, ballet would not be where it is today. Hoorah for the early pioneers of dance and hoorah for today's dancers for taking this art to another dimension.

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"Can of worms" "better then than now" - I dont agree with the theme underlying Redbookish and Clara's posts. I think it is highly relevant to speculate whether an art form has progressed or regressed, how artistic expression has changed over time, how artistic sensibilities have changed over time - and, indeed, whether things - and also artists - are "better" or "worse". In ballet we know that there were some "bad" phases - when ballet was just used as a leg show and for procurement of mistresses in Paris in the 19th century for instance. We also discuss whether great artists in all areas were better than those who came before, what artistic breakthroughs they made, how they changed our sensibilites ever after.


We know that some artists are truly expressive, and some are just mechanical. We make this judgement when comparing current artists, so why not try to make the comparison over time?


"How long is a piece of string" is a very relevant question - especially if you want to tie something up. I'm not suggesting the answer is easy, but that doesn't mean we can't try.


It seems to me that underlying the thoughts of particularly Redbookish are two implications (1) that these questions are really about the innate abilities of the artists - were they innately better (i.e. apart from training, equipment, opportunity, etc). I think that this is very interesting to speculate on, though difficult because of all the factors mentioned. (2) However in some minds this extends to a MORAL question - were they more deserving as people? This is an irrelevant extension, though possibly implied, and this extension should be resisted.


A detailed comparison of how an art form has changed over time, how its practitioners addressed its issues, how WELL they addressed them, whether they were originals or followers, how people build on the past or do not build on it - there are highly important issues which in fact we speculate on all the time - every time we see a performance or are in practice in fact - and are essential if an art form is not to become dead.




(I was going to say this is putting a cat among the pigeons, but maybe its just putting a worm among the pigeons.)


PS: In some ways I might have overreacted - but e.g. in relation to "understand the conditions of times past on their own terms" - I think we should try to understand the past on our OWN terms, too.


PPS - I also think that there is a fundamental difference between a historian and a creative artist. Creative artists want to do the best they can NOW (though that often requires knowing a great deal about what happened in the past), whereas historians just want to understand the past (including understanding it on its own terms).

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The general technical standard is in many ways undoubtedly higher today, but Petipa-era dancers were pretty darn good! How many dancers do you know today who just sail through a Petipa pas de deux as if it's nothing? :lol:


Certain aspects of technique (turnout) have become more refined while others (épaulement) have deteriorated. Each generation focuses on something different. (And going back to the original question, isn't two pirouettes en pointe still the standard?)

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That's what I'm talking about :)

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  • 2 years later...

This happens in every discipline not just dance but music singing gymnastics , for instance for colatura sopranos to have high f now is the norm but in the 40's it was not necessary Caruso did not have high c still considered the greatest tenor though. As all the great singers then and today had a great legato line in their singing , however the vocal acrobatics are much more important and with the shift upwards in pitch too...!


Look at the early Russian gymnasts today and all their best moves now are standard!


We are always learning more and more about the science of a discipline:-)


A man climbs everest one day another day it has tourists !!:-)



A teacher always wants their students to be better students always want to be the best and so it is always improving (hopefully!) It is progression and natural :_) Dancers should want the next generation to be better it is what keeps a tradition alive challenge and newness:-) Although this should be artistic too !!!


Also this is worth noting i watched a master class (cant remember who gave it unfortunately it was when i was a teenager it was on TV) and the teacher had been a principle at the Royal Ballet she said that one thing that changed ballet a lot was the difference in the average female body since her time there and how the steps looked on an average( dancer) female body now. She said female dancers were now much taller and physically more muscular and leaner due not really just to dance but change in diet in society in general. In her day she felt female dancers were a good few inches shorter and student dancers not had much more elongated bone and developed more quickly physically (this she noticed especially with the girls).


I notice when i listen to opera singers from the past their voices would be (females i mean ) too small and dainty for an orchestra now. The breathing technique i was taught would have been interfered with by the corsets these female singers wore and it changed their singing it is only by the forties and fifties you begin to hear a sound that would be familiar. Also the idea of what a woman should sound like or look like has changed the daintiness of a woman in art has been replaced with something more modern. The affectations of sopranos years back would be odd now and the modern female voice would be strange back then.


When you look at the body of a female or male dancer way way back it might not look fit or athletic by todays standards and even a dancer like myself would look like a boney skinny thing to dancers back then. But actually my type of body is the norm now. But if you sent back dancers or singers from now perhaps they would not be considered superior as the style or techniques would not fit in with their idea of what good dance was. Their sensiblities might be different artistically.


You have to think of it this way it is the dancer not the dance in that good dancers are good dancers their main contribution is that they change things raise the bar or pull down old conceptions. You can train someone in any school if they are good they are good it is the teacher not the school the dancer not the style.


A singing teacher once told me as she was telling me i would be being trained in bel canto and modern technique for classical singing that basically although in the classical arts we go on about schools there are two schools of anything the GOOD school and the BAD school there are GOOD singers and BAD singers the rest is... :wub::shrug::huepfen: Same for dancers really! It can be a matter simply of taste of dancers then and now.


Good dancers are good because they are better than what is there in front of them or they change things they add they invent they can see a step being done more perfectly then how it is done in front of them they can be bolder artistically or there are more sensitive or emotional imaginative:-)!!


Perhaps somethings technique wise are better or worse but an artist is an artist does that make sense or am i just going off on one?????:-) :(


It is interesting it comes up a lot in other fields of classical arts too for some reasons like with classical singers or musicians:-)

I was so sick of hearing about singers or dancers from the past as a teen drove me mental!!

Blah blah blah lets do something different was my thing:-)

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Based on the early dance videos that I have been fortunate enough to watch, I would add that the current generation seems to be putting less emphasis on connecting steps and more emphasis on line. I see contre temps and glissade as carefully though out from early American ballet dancers, but almost ignored by some current dancers. The result is that a certain quality of movement is lost to our generation, and one ballet starts to look too similar to another.


I think that it is inevitable that each generation will put its own stamp on ballet. What is very important is that we find a way to preserve what we have discovered for future dancers. I do not think that we are more disciplined or better, but I do think that the things that we choose to emphasize now are more refined than they were before.

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A singing teacher once told me as she was telling me i would be being trained in bel canto and modern technique for classical singing that basically although in the classical arts we go on about schools there are two schools of anything the GOOD school and the BAD school there are GOOD singers and BAD singers the rest is... :D:wink::sweating: Same for dancers really! It can be a matter simply of taste of dancers then and now.


Well, in my opinion the "old" bel canto singers from the late 19th century/beginning 20th posessed an excellent vocal technique and in most cases were able to sing flawlessly up to old age- something that is rarely seen in today`s singers. In classical singing I think the way how a voice should sound like changed a lot- today even high coloratura sopranos try to artificially darken the sound of their voice to create a "richer" , more dramatic sound- which changes the place the voice is supposed to "sit" and makes voices less brillant and aging quicker.

I believe the traditional bel canto technique which used to create clear but utterly precise and silvery voices is more and more watered down in our days just for the sake of "more dramatic" voices.


Same for ballet- technique and health are often sacrificed for higher extensions, more spectacular turns and jumps and so on.

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Your right the early bel canto singers did:-)


However as regards them lasting longer in their career they sang often less frequently and over far smaller orchestras than today plus they were never usually required to sing more than a few roles whereas today singers have to be much more versatile with their voices and be very accomplished in many music styles.


I agree that a lot of young singers often try to change their voices really though it is more of a case of younger singers trying to make the voice larger to be able to enter the profession as it is difficult for smaller voices these days.


The darkening you refer to particularly in colaturas (I am colatura soprano this is something i can relate to a lot!!) is something different though. Most colaturas have naturally flexible voices but they are difficult to control and require more training usually than a lot of other voices when a young high soprano starts out it is very likely she will have not lower register or at the most a very very weak one. A good teacher tries to built a voice from the bottom up if you have no lower and middle register the top will crumble before you know it. This was something i had a problem with for a long time i had trouble below the stave and had to work very hard to build that part of my voice up. Sopranos often describe the feeling of a hole in that part of the voice. The solution is to work very hard with correct support of the diaphragm to open up the voice for a while it often results in a darkening of other parts of the voice especially if the lower register is overworked (they try to start singing like mezzos!!) and it results in an unnatural dark tone. It is really the result of incorrect training or a voice trying to sing roles it is not ready for or suited to. Which is really the pressure of the opera world than the fault of the singer.


Bel canto originally, if you listen to great singers like Rosa Ponselle was sung by quite large dark voices doing colatura but there was also more room for more delicate voices too but as a lot of companies push young singers into 'older roles' or unsuitable ones they may feel they must compensate.


I found that singers often are very trained as regards breathing and support but as regards resonance (vital for bel canto and that control needed) and the muscles and cavities and how you use them sometimes this is not worked as well as it might be with a teacher. Which is a pity because this would solve a lot of problems for young singers in projection of the voice over a orchestra and in coloring their singing for true dramatic artistry and not just masking it , with really cuts the amount of power and strength a voice can produce allowing them to soar over an orchestra anyway over an orchestra in the long term.


So yes you are right i think a lot is sacrificed to bad singing or pushing singers to be what they are not! Perhaps like dancers! Or perhaps they are in too much of a rush to produce the acrobatics first without realizing nothing can come without the basics and that usually you will produce your best preformances after patience and without forcing it. Also i think companies should allow for more individualism , I LOVE BIG EXTENSIONS , i love doing them , i love watching them:-) BUT I DONT WANT TO SEE EVERYONE DOING THEM ALL THE TIME!!! I want to see individuals not copycats! I want colour in a dance, it is not impressive if you really are that desperate to impress. I think perhaps a lot of dancers forget that it is not just about physical prowess there can be a little of that but it would be better if there were a reason on stage for the big extension something it was there to do or express. And i think sometimes dancers have to little respect for the basics and the more subtle steps.


Perhaps us dancers just want to show off too much LOL:-)!!

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