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Ballet Talk for Dancers

The Early Ballet Dancers

L' Allegro

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There has been, in my opinion, a very big shift in ballet lately--the emphasis is now less on movement and more on positions. I think this ties in with the emphasis on a very high extension to the exclusion of other qualities, such as precision and grace. Many dancers today are very overstretched, with the result that while they may look all right (if acrobatic) in adagio, they are often very awkward and gangly when required to move faster.


It seem to me that a lot has been lost artistically and very--if anything--little gained technically since the 1960's or so.

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  • 2 years later...

This is a difficult question, but I think another thing to consider is that the aesthetics of 19th century ballet also confirmed to certain hangups people had at the time relating to the revealing the body. For example, while high extensions are considered beautiful and desirable in today's ballet world, 'early' dancers would have seen such a thing as horribly vulgar — to be fair, it can often be something of a 'crotch shot' when seen from the audience.

Additionally, the costumes worn by dancers in the early days of ballet didn't really demand such precise technique as, say, a Balanchine ballet in which one is wearing a white leotard in tights. Maybe some of the "olden-day" emphasis on such lyricism in one's port de bras and general carriage can be at least partially explained by the fact that their legs were often shrouded in fluffy chiffon? Just a guess.

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I'm not sure I understand your statements about costumes dictating technique--would you mind clarifying a bit? I think I would be hard-pressed to find a dancer who dances with less precise technique in La Sylphide than in Symphonic Variations, although the style is certainly different.

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Maybe precise was the wrong word to use. And yes, today, professional dancers are held to a very high technical standard regardless of the ballet they are performing. What I meant was that because the "early" ballet dancers were often put in stage with costumes that were not necessarily as exposing as the leotards-and-tights uniform preferred by contemporary choreographers, it is logical (in my opinion) that the emphasis would be placed more on artistry and less on extreme technique and physicality. Does that make sense, or no?

Of course, I could be totally wrong - just hypothesizing here!

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I think you should do a quick google search via their "images" option, and find pictures of Elssler, Taglioni, and so on, to see what they actually wore. It's pretty much what dancers in the 2nd act of Giselle wear today.


Here's Marie Taglioni, for example: 2401704_orig.jpg?214


As a general principle when thinking about historical change, it's dangerous to assume that technology leads change. Generally, there is a social desire for a particular change and technology follows. This was the case with the development of the pointe shoe, when Romantic ballet dancers, choreographers, and impresarios were looking for a way of increasing the sense of the dancer (female) skimming the ground in the choreography. And thus, the stiffened point of the shoe was developed. The impetus came from the aesthetic impulse, not the other way round.

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Yes, I've seen those pictures many times. The point I am trying to make is that those costumes are less revealing than, for example, something that Wheeldon might use:




Whether the gradual uncovering of the human form was the result of general "desire" for a freer visual representation of movement, or not, the only thing I am trying to say is that I think a dancer's body (and hence, their technique), is maybe shown off a little more than it was in the days of Taglioni.

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I think we can all agree that dancers today typically wear less than they would have in the 1830s. :) Interestingly, by the standards of the day and by comparison to what had come before, Romantic-era dancers were able to move with remarkable freedom--light tulle skirts instead of hoops and damask, simple flowers in the hair instead of wigs, flexible slippers instead of heeled shoes--and it shows in the more naturalistic poses and emphasis on agility and speed.


I forget who it was (Bournonville?) who said that "feminine draperies hide a great many imperfections"!


Still, I think we ought to be careful not to confuse showing the body with better technique. Any time we start focusing more on making pretty (or extreme) pictures (clothed or not) rather than movement, we stop dancing and start merely posing.

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Gingerly, I think you're trying to compare -- and make a value judgement about expertise of technique -- in an ahistorical manner. I don't really think you can compare the choreography of the 1830s with the choreography of the 1990s. Speaking as an historian, it's a invalid comparison. There are too many variables, and really, what's the point? The style, choreography and techniques of 250 years ago were different. I'm not sure you can say much more than that.


And if you want to look at the ways the body was shown off in the 19th century, have a look at the widespread and popular novelty of "poses plastiques" in theatres in London in the first half of the nineteenth century. Actors/dancers posed in imitation of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, clothed in "fleshings" -- flesh coloured knitted tights -- which were then painted to resemble marble, and draped as historically required. Actual flesh was not exposed, but the illusion of marble "nudity" was clearly displayed.

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  • 5 months later...

There is an interesting quote related to this topic in a 2001 interview of Altynai Asylmuratova, the artistic director of the Vagonova Ballet Academy. (http://www.for-balle...ylmuratova.html)


“When you watch a video tape of dancers of the old generations, for instance Galina Ulanova, Marina Semyonova, or a bit later Natalia Dudinskaya, you can see a certain coordination of body and arms, a musicality- you might call it ‘singing with the body’- and above all an emotional depth to the dancing which no longer seem to exist today. The technique was present alright, but it was never there just for the sake of technique. The accent was first and foremost on emotion. However, now it’s all about high legs. I consider that a serious problem. All we seem to think about today is how high the legs can go, but there is hardly any concern anymore about form, plastique, harmony, and about what’s coming from the inside, about soul. That’s something we lost.” –Altynai Asylmuratova

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I'm very wary of accepting such blanket statements. I'm not sure they have 'provability.'

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"I'm very wary of accepting such blanket statements. I'm not sure they have 'provability.' "


That is fair, measuring "artistry" is subjective. The first few times I watched videos of the older generation of Russian dancers like Ulanova and Plisetskaya, I did feel like there was something in their performances and the whole feel of their dancing that was different and special although I probably could not define exactly what it is, but, again, it is a subjective thing.

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All we seem to think about today is how high the legs can go, but there is hardly any concern anymore about form, plastique, harmony, and about what’s coming from the inside, about soul. That’s something we lost.” –Altynai Asylmuratova


Most of us can name dozens of brilliant artists today that disprove this; but I have seen this mentality with ballet students at all levels - "my arabesque is higher than yours", "see how high can my leg can go in grand battement", "look I am a contortionist". I think the wow factor and competition exist unchecked (in the hallways and bedrooms and in facebook photos - not necessarily in class) at that level. As with most things of value, artistry is learned, developed and refined with more life experiences.

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