April 29th, 2017

Ballet and technique: the unbearable lightness of style

If you’ve followed ballet as long as I have, you can’t help but notice vast changes in technique (I’ve written about some of them here and elsewhere). In general, the number and scope of physical feats has increased tremendously, perhaps exponentially. But there are tradeoffs, too.

I was going to write “there are tradeoffs in the non-physical part of ballet—the artistry.” But I wonder; is any part of ballet non-physical? Ballet is a strange amalgam, an art that is expressed almost totally in the physical/visual, because the instrument of art is the human body in motion. Singing and playing musical instruments are at least partly physical, but their main modality is sound. Painting and sculpture require physical control, and their main modality is visual as well, but a product is created that is separate from the artist and ultimately can stand on its own.

But as Yeats memorably wrote (in one of my favorite poems):

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

We can’t.

Which brings me to the subject of this post: changes in style in ballet over the years. In my lifetime, I’ve seen a few changes that I would characterize as good. For example, some of the truly schmaltzy over-the-top kitschy histrionics are gone. But one person’s schmaltz is another person’s souffle. And as a general rule, I think we’ve lost far more than we’ve gained in the sense of style, just in my lifetime.

Style—and artistry—have been sacrificed to technique, for the most part. I like to see physical feats, but if I want to see them for their own sake I’ll go to gymnastics. Ballet only becomes transcendent when style is wedded to technique, and although a certain level of technique must be present, it is meaningless without style.

So now, without too much further ado or comment, I’ll bring you some examples of a certain style that was found far more often in the past, that of ethereal lightness and quickness and joy. The clips I’ve cued up in this video are from the 60s, I believe (perhaps 1967?), and they’re not even of performances; they seem to be a sort of staged, in-costume rehearsal by some soloists with the Bolshoi:

Those two soloists were fairly typical of what I recall of the dancers of the time in their emphasis on the dance aspects of what they were doing. Interestingly enough, although ballet technique has become more advanced in the intervening years, one area in which it has declined is quickness. The tempi at which Russian dancers used to move could not be matched by most dancers today, and their speed was accomplished with an illusion of great lightness and ease.

The next clip illustrates those qualities, but unfortunately it cannot be embedded. I’m planning to analyze it in greater depth in another post, although the lack of embedding ability is unfortunate. The entire clip is part of “Walpurgis Nacht” from the opera “Faust,” and shows the revels of bacchantes and satyrs (probably recorded in the 1950s or perhaps the early 60s).

If you want to see it (and I hope you do), go here at YouTube and take a look at minutes 3:44 to 5:24, and then the pas de deux from 6:19 to the end. It is almost unbearably schmaltzy, old-fashioned, and easy to mock. But I think it’s also very wonderful, particularly the performance of the lead bacchante, the lady in red Raissa Struchkova, whose lightness and quickness cannot be rivaled by a single dancer today who comes to mind.

I think we’ve lost a great deal, although most people are unaware of what we’ve lost.

20 Responses to “Ballet and technique: the unbearable lightness of style”

  1. Elaine T Says:

    That looks like dance. Could you post contrast videos to point out what modern dance is missing, too? I don’t follow dance much, because I don’t like it anymore, so it’s difficult to winnow youtube. THanks

  2. Ralph Kinney Bennett Says:

    Neo, you have scored again. The superb dancers of the past combined their sheer dancing talent seamlessly with a sublime capacity for expression. Their careers were devoted to capturing the beauty intended by the work. They became a part of the ballet. Now, it seems there are many dancers devoted to being great dancers, with the works as mere vehicles for their show of technical (one might almost say athletic) prowess. It reminds me of those many (not all) piano and violin prodigies (many of them Chinese for some reason),who suddenly came upon the scene to render technically perfect feats of playing that somehow robbed the music of its soul.

  3. realHuxley Says:

    neo: I never got ballet. I’m physical enough I can appreciate the top dancers are world class athletes in their way. I’m sensitive enough to discern something is going on. Past that I’ve not done my homework.

    I do recall an observation from Fran Lebowitz, I think from the Scorcese documentary, that AIDS didn’t just wipe out most of a generation of American dancers, but AIDS wiped out a generation of dance’s audience. Thus when a performance was sub-par or brilliant there was no knowledgeable buzz around to act as feedback.

  4. Molly Brown Says:

    Love your ballet posts, Neo. I took a few years of ballet in childhood and wish I had stayed with it longer. It is wonderful training in mental focus and body mechanics that translates to any athletic activity.
    If only you were a figure skating fan. I would love to read your postings on my beloved sport (sorry, ballet). The costumes alone… You could combine your knowledge of dance with your love of fashion!
    Unfortunately, the same sort of changes have overtaken figure skating and have had much the same effect. The emphasis on artistry – and worse – expressing emotion/passion, is gone. In the case of figure skating, the changes are a direct result of a complete change in judging systems rather than an evolving athleticism. The recent world championships were heartbreaking and had me breaking out DVDs of programs from the early 00’s for solace. Current champion Evegenia Medvedeva will have to break a leg to lose next years Olympic gold medal, and while she is a beautiful girl and an extraordinarily talented jumper, there is no comparison between the quality of her ‘skating’ and someone trained under the old system. Unfortunately the structure of the new judging system rewards pointless arm waving over musical and choreographic expression, so there is no longer any incentive to develop these qualities. I don’t know how to embed, but for an example of this youtube Medvedeva’s short program from this year’s World Championships and then compare it to Michelle Kwan US Nationals 2001 short program (The Spiral!) and Sasha Cohen US Nationals 2000 short program. Bear in mind that Sasha is skating this program at just 15 years old (!), two years younger than Medvedeva – so immaturity is not the issue. Note the difference between the hold and extension on Michelle and Sasha’s jump landings and how Medvedeva immediately turns and begins pumping her leg to get going again. Even if Medvedeva had the strength to hold an exquisite landing position like Michelle or Sasha, she wouldn’t – the current judging system would penalize her for taking the time to do it.
    For the last of the great skates and the ultimate in artistry/passion/competitive fire, there is nothing like Michelle Kwan’s US Nationals 2004 ‘Tosca’ Long program. The greatest skate of her career – AND a Vera Wang dress – what’s not to love?

  5. neo-neocon Says:

    Molly Brown:

    I used to follow skating, starting quite a long long time ago. Kwan was very good, but I used to like Peggy Fleming (that dates me) and especially Katerina Witt. My favorite, though, was John Curry, who was very balletic. He reminded me of the ballet dancer Anthony Dowell.

    I stopped watching ice skating (except on very rare occasions) decades ago. I noted the change from art to how many triples and quadruples you could do. I was uninterested in that. I care not how many turns in a jump if the quality of the movement doesn’t appeal to me.

    By the way, I have indeed written on figure skating, here and here.

  6. AesopFan Says:

    realHuxley Says:
    April 29th, 2017 at 10:56 pm
    neo: I never got ballet. I’m physical enough I can appreciate the top dancers are world class athletes in their way. I’m sensitive enough to discern something is going on. Past that I’ve not done my homework.

    I do recall an observation from Fran Lebowitz, I think from the Scorcese documentary, that AIDS didn’t just wipe out most of a generation of American dancers, but AIDS wiped out a generation of dance’s audience. Thus when a performance was sub-par or brilliant there was no knowledgeable buzz around to act as feedback.
    * * *

    That’s a connection I have never seen made before, but it makes sense.

  7. AesopFan Says:

    “I think we’ve lost a great deal, although most people are unaware of what we’ve lost.”

    Here’s an article addressing the same observation about music:

    The concluding grafs:
    And most of us of Sir Mick Jagger’s age and younger don’t want to hear, either. To be sure, this or that gangsta rapper is a bit much, and Britney’s a sad old slapper, and Madonna’s a clapped-out provocateur, but what’s wrong with a bit of rock and roll? Nothing. Except that, when it’s ubiquitous, it’s stunting. Paul Simon and I once had a longish conversation about this and eventually he conceded that even the best rockers had nevertheless been unable to develop beyond a very basic harmonic language: There isn’t enough there to teach in a “music” course. But what else is left? The old middle-brow middle-class couples who subscribed to the symphony every season and dutifully sat there through Beethoven, Bartók, Brahms, and Bernstein are all but extinct, and pitied for their inability to cut loose and boogie in the same way we feel sorry for those trapped in a loveless marriage. What a difference it would make if grade-schoolers could know just enough of a smattering of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony to recognize the excellent joke “The Simpsons” makes of it. What an achievement it would be if every high-school could acquire a classical catalogue as rich as that used in Looney Tunes when Elmer Fudd goes hunting Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny. Carl Stalling, who scored those cartoons, often fell back on formula: If someone was in a cave, the orchestra would play “Fingal’s Cave.” But you can’t even do that any more, because no-one gets the joke.

    Shorn of the other seven-eighths of the iceberg, the present-tense culture is insufficient. At my local school in New Hampshire, the music teacher eschews the classics and teaches boomer rock, much to the bemusement of her young charges for whom forty-year-old pop songs are as remote as 400-year-old sonatas. Children are asked to pick a favorite Beatle. Why would a six-year-old have such a thing? The Fab Four split up thirty years before he was born. It’s like my old music teacher asking me to pick my favorite member of Paul Whiteman’s Yacht Club Boys.

    But she never did. And that’s the biggest difference between 2007 and 1987. What Allan Bloom observed in his students can now be found in the teachers.

  8. AesopFan Says:

    Just because you ought to know that the Left is always Double-faced.


    This echoes a story I read years ago in The Rolling Stone, when it actually did some legitimate journalism, about the way in which record companies and artists colluded shamefully to avoid giving royalties to the African singer who created the song “The Lion Sings Tonight” — anybody remember that one?

  9. Caedmon Says:

    So in the Universities it is claimed that feelings take precedence over free speech, while in the arts where feeling should take precedence over everything, feeling is being squeezed out. Sounds like we have a good premise for a dystopian novel here.

  10. Brad Currie Says:

    I have only been following dance for about ten years. Today’s dancers do seem different from the examples you posted. But in a conversation I had with Patricia Macbride, where at the time I was ignorant as to who she was, I admitted my ignorance of dance and asked her opinion of a piece that had just been performed at Chautuaqua. She lamented it wasn’t like the ballet of old but in some ways better. She said the key was to enjoy the show and not to get too concerned with technique. Basically she maintained that if a large percentage of the audience enjoyed it and the dancers enjoyed dancing it all was good.
    Then I googled her and got goosebumps watching youtubes of her.
    Great post.

  11. mezzrow Says:

    Neo, as a member of the pit I’ve heard a lot of ballet and seen very very little.

    “If you want to see the show, buy a ticket!” – The Conductor

    My question is whether you find that the very balletic motion you see in this time has become more and more “homogenized” (for lack of a better term) compared to the period of our youth and earlier. I find that symphonic recordings made fifty or sixty years ago have orchestras that are recognizable to me within about a minute – whether they are British, Russian, Italian, French, German, Viennese (NOT the same as German) – by the very timbre of the sound they make (especially the woodwinds and brasses), as well as the way they phrase and blend with one another. Today, everybody sounds like an American orchestra, whether they are in London, Paris, or Tokyo. Often this is because they are staffed with many American or American-trained players, especially in those brass and woodwind sections. It’s a global market, and our players compete very well in that market.

    Except for Vienna. They stick to the old ways.

    Globalization. In any case, your thoughts on this would be appreciated.

  12. mollyNH Says:

    Aesop fan, isn’t that that *The lion sleeps to night* a weem a wek, a weema, wek….
    Lighten up folks, all music has it’s beauty. 2 nights ago went to a free bee, Saturday Night Fever. Not my cup of tea but enjoyed it !!!! Especially the post show when we applauded them and in return they applauded us, & we all did a few moves where we stood. On the way out cast members lined the sides of the lobby with great grins. I came away thinking,
    “Heck , people love, love love to dance and perform” What a unique, wonderous, human trait was gifted to us by the Almighty”!

  13. Ben David Says:

    … oh but Youtube has clips of Plisetskaya doing this very role – the clips with which you introduced me to her.

    And Youtube also offers Plisetskaya’s version of the Laurentia passage.

    So there was lightness and verve without *so* much kitsch.

    (Also you picked a clip where the performers are hampered by a too-small touring stage)

    Here’s a performance that typifies the more modern style – a lanky hyperextended dancer who can’t seem to move her limbs as quickly (or compose them as gracefully) as the older, stockier dancers – note the slower tempo. She doesn’t even use her ability to hyperextend when it would be effective – those arched-back poses punctuating the reels/pirouettes don’t have the abandon and verve of the older dancers:


    Yes, something was lost.

  14. Lee Says:

    Gymnastics used to have an element of grace. Nadia Comenci ended that, and it’s just gotten less graceful ever since. No, Cathy Rigby couldn’t do what Simon Biles can, but she was far more graceful. Sigh. It’s sad to think it’s happening in ballet. At least one can argue that gymnastics is a sport, an athletic endeavor. Ditto skating — far less graceful than it once was.

    Different subject: Musical knowledge. Thirty or forty years ago there was an orange juice commercial that used “Morning” from Peer Gynt. I remember thinking that was pretty funny. Few people “got” it.

  15. Uffdaphil Says:


  16. Uffdaphil Says:

    Sorry. Meant to preview. Just seeing if I have finally shucked the Cornhead nom de plume. And seems I have.

  17. neo-neocon Says:

    Ben David:

    Struchkova and Plisetskaya were exact contemporaries, and I mean exact. Struchkova was about 6 weeks older than Plisetskaya. They both trained at the Bolshoi at the same time, and both had been trained by the same teacher, Elizaveta Gerdt.

    But of course they both had their own personal individual styles within the general style popular at the time. Struchkova was indeed more conventionally schmaltzy, as well as light and airy (in this role, anyway). Plisetskaya was more fiery, obviously athletic (higher jump), and sexy. But both had a very emotional style which some felt was kitschy and/or schmaltzy, and which is out of favor today.

    I adore them both, particularly in Walpurgis Nacht. I really can’t decide which version I prefer. Struchkova is so playful, light, and quick. Plisetskaya is more sensual and strong, but also playful. Both are head and shoulders above anyone today in the way they can dance a role like that.

  18. Jamie Says:

    The techniques of the past, lost or nearly so in the present… In opera, apparently it’s the bel canto technique of appoggio, which allowed (and still allows, for those who can master the technique) singers’ voices to float over the full orchestra to the back of the hall. “Placement” is apparently the opposite technique school, which lets young singers get to the high notes earlier so that they can start debuting at ridiculously young ages, but risks their ruining their instrument earlier as well.

    I only know a little bitty bit about this, but it’s my understanding that the bel canto singers and teachers of the past were very cagey about how they produced this amazing resonance, so modern singers and teachers have to try to work backwards from descriptions of performances (not only because recordings didn’t exist for the early masters, but also because even the best recording doesn’t accurately represent the sound of an opera in a hall – and ALSO because so much of singing takes place inside the body where you just can’t see what’s going on).

    BTW, neo, singing is 100% physical in production (not counting artistry, of course) – only the product is aural. Your voice as you hear it sounds very little like the voice others hear; a singer has to learn to produce a particular sound (actually a whole bunch of different types of particular sound) for the benefit of listeners, by manipulating parts of her body that in many cases cannot be called voluntary muscles for normal people.

    Stupid microphones on Broadway. Sure, sure, they allow a singer to express intimacy and quiet emotion “more accurately” because she can sing softly and still be heard… but they are an aid to bad singing more than anything else. And don’t even get me started on the stupid breathy voices, the stupid whistle-register tricks, the stupid glottal stops and “catches” of pop singers – I listen to pop music and have fun with it, but you will never get me to say that a pop singer is a GOOD singer if I only hear him or her singing the way they all do on their singles. Geoff Tate from Queensryche – now there was a guy who you could tell could really sing. (His mom was with the Bellevue Opera, I have read…)

    Gosh. I guess you touched a nerve!

  19. neo-neocon Says:


    I detest the mic sound that has taken over Broadway. Somewhere in my drafts there’s a post on the subject.

  20. Julie near Chicago Says:

    Mr. Steyn, via AesopFan above:

    “…[E]ven the best rockers ha[ve] nevertheless been unable to develop beyond a very basic harmonic language….”

    How very, very true. And the upshot is that people think that really good music can be written to formula. *Yawn* June, moon, croon, spoon, Oh please please please be over soon. ;>)


    Jamie: Every word of your comment on today’s singers, in particular singers of the Classical literature (and the “pop” singers too, of course), is absolutely correct. And I agree wholeheartedly about the ill-effects of the mike on vocal technique and the music that the listener actually hears.


    Neo, thanks very much for this posting. :>)

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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