Ballet Techniques and Methods

Ballet has embraced many cultures and traditions, and evolved. Across the globe, many companies, vocational schools, techniques and methods have been established with differences in characteristics and style.

In this article, we will discuss some of the techniques widely used in the world.

French Technique

Rudolf Nureyev (1973)

The French technique is the basis of all ballet training. When Louis XIV created the Académie Royale de Danse in 1661, he helped create the codified technique and vocabulary still used today.

French technique was particularly revitalised under Rudolf Nureyev (1938 – 1993) in the 1980s when he worked as the director of the Paris Opera Ballet School and has drastically shaped ballet as a whole. He incorporated his own styles along with his Russian training into the French classical teaching.

Dancers are trained to attain a traditional and classical ethereal look, while executing steps that are both impressive and virtuously quick.

It is often characterised by technical precision, fluidity, gracefulness, elegance, clean lines, musicality and fast tempo. Fast footwork and quantity of steps is often utilised in order to give the impression that the performers are drifting lightly across the stage. Hence the music was often played slower. Port de bras and épaulement are more rounded than the Russian technique, but not as rounded as the Danish.

The French technique is one of the most fluid method but due to its informal creation and lack of literature, it is not practiced outside of the Paris Opera Ballet School.

Bournonville Technique (Danish)

August Bournonville (1828 painting)

Bournonville emphasis that dance should not be an expression of joy and romantic only but also touches the heart with natural grace, precision, dramatic impact and harmony between body and music. Dancers exudes fluidity, delicate detail, seamlessness, musicality and displays movements effortlessly though they are technically challenging. He never composed a variation in which dancers merely run or walk from one corner to another. The dancer dances the entire time even with his or her back to the audience. He created his ballets with himself in mind, establishing the importance of male character which was slowly neglected during his time. The movements feature virtuosic male solos filled with strength and ballon.

Bournonville technique is marked by lightness and fast footwork against an at-ease upper body where the eyes is lowered and upper body follows the working leg, to exude kindness instead of proud. A key component of this technique is the distinctive lifted torso framework; the use of diagonal and graceful épaulements in which the upper body turns towards the working foot. It incorporates the basic use of shaped and soft arms which are usually held in preparatory position for every beginning and end of movements. Pirouettes begins from a low position, often starts with a low developpe into seconde for outside turns and with a low developpe into 4th for inside turns. Jumps are ballon with the illusion of imponderable lightness. This technique focuses specifically on the romantic tone and tells a vivid love story. The legs define rhythm while the arms define melody. The main principle is to execute with natural grace and with harmony between body and music.

Cecchetti Technique (Italian)

Elevate DA Appreciation Series - Ballet Technique - Sleeping Beauty Enrico Cecchetti &_Varvara Nikitina Bluebird1890
Enrico Cecchetti and Varvara Nikitina (1890)

The Cecchetti technique developed by Enrico Cecchetti (1850 – 1928), an Italian ballet dancer, is a strict training regimen with an emphasis on understanding of anatomy and science.

The goal of this technique is to instil important characteristics for the performance of ballet into students so that they do not rely on imitations of teachers. It enforces planned exercise routines for each day of the week and ensures that each part of the body is worked evenly by combining different types of steps into planned routines. For example, a specific barre for each day of the week and each side of the body is worked altering from week to week.

This technique teaches quality over quantity; it was better to execute the movement right once, rather than doing it sloppily several times.

This technique adopt the importance of recognising that all parts of the body move together to create beautiful, graceful lines; against thinking of ballet in terms of the arms, legs, neck and torso as separate parts. Dancers arms and legs are all one working entity. The energy is focused through the feet and up through the head so the line goes on infinitely. It develops a dancer’s balance, ballon, poise, elevation, poise, suppleness and strength. It is famous for its 40 adagios composed by Cecchetti and the popularly known 8 port de bras.

The training system traditionally has 7 grades with examinations up to diploma level. The progression helps to ensure that movements are taught based on a planned sequence. Hence new movements are only introduced once previous movements are mastered.

Vaganova Technique (Russian)

Elevate DA Appreciation Series - Ballet Technique - Agrippina Vaganova Esmeralda 1910
Agrippina Vaganova in Paquita (1910)

The technique is created by ex-dancer of the Marinsky Ballet, Agrippina Vaganova (1879–1951) while teaching at the Leningrad Choreographic School by the Soviet government in the early 1920s. Her book “Basic Principles of Russian Classical Dance” 1948, outlined her ideas on ballet technique and pedagogy which includes outlining precise teacher’s instruction on when to teach, what technical components to teach, for how long to focus on it, and what amount of focus at each stage of the student’s career. This technique is marked by the fusion of the classical French style, elements from the Romantic era, athleticism of the Italian method and the dramatic soulfulness of Russian ballet.

Vaganova technique focuses on the equal importance of expressiveness of port de bras using all parts of the arm, development of the lower back mobility and robust legs with extreme flexibility, strength and endurance. It is very neat with precise movements that expresses clean lines yet softness underneath. Vaganova emphasised dancing with the entire body by promoting harmonious movement among arms, legs and torso. She believed that the torso was the foundation of all movements, so the dancer’s torso had to be strengthened. One exercise she prescribed for this area was that of doing plies with the feet in first position. Many movements required the dancer to remain in the air for as long as possible to offer an illusion of floating. Arms should not simply decorate a movement, but should assist the dancer in high jumps and turns. All training can be encompassed and displayed in the course of one grand pas de deux, hence how the graduation exams are done.

In 1957, the school was renamed the Vaganova Ballet Academy and continues to be the associate school of the former Imperial Russian Ballet, now the Mariinsky Ballet. In total, the syllabus traditionally consists of 8 levels up to diploma. Early training focuses on two aspects: epaulement and the development of total stability and strength in the back. Some famous dancers are Anna Pavlova, Natalia Makarova, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and George Balanchine.

Side note: In Russia, there’s another technique called the Legat method named by Nikolai Legat.

Balanchine Technique (American)

Elevate DA Appreciation Series - Ballet Technique - George Balanchine (1965)
George Balanchine (1965)

Developed by George Balanchine (1904 – 1983) at the New York City Ballet. His method draws heavily on his own training in the Imperial Ballet School Russia.

Balanchine had a special liking for jazz and modern movement, as well as being a huge fan of Fred Astaire. He enjoyed watching dancers break laws of motion and would not allow an orchestra to slow down for his dancers, clearly stating his liking of speed. His dancers developed speed of motion and utilise more space in less time that they would fit a lot of movement into a small block of music.

Today, the Balanchine technique is taught at the School of American Ballet, the official school of New York City Ballet, as well as at the schools of Miami City Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet and Ballet Chicago Studio Company.

Many of Balanchine’s ballets reflect a contemporary or neoclassical style, a reaction to the Romantic anti-classicism. The technique focuses on the dance itself and not on a story plot. Balanchine technique dancers must be extremely fit and flexible. It is known for its extreme speed, athleticism, emphasis on long limbs, very deep pliés, off-balance positions, flexed hands and feet. The longer arabesque line could be achieved by opening the hip to or away from the audience while the sidearm is pressed back. This type of placement goes against general ballet form. Another key difference is en dehors pirouettes taken from a lunge in fourth position with a straight back leg.

Royal Academy of Dance, RAD Technique (English)

Elevate DA Appreciation Series - Ballet Technique - RAD Operatic Elementary Syllabus
RAD Operatic Elementary Syllabus (1920)

Founded in London in 1920, the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) or known as as the Association of Teachers of Operatic Dancing previously, was established by a group of dance professional.

Considered as one of the youngest ballet technique, also referred to as the English technique, it infused the best elements of the Cecchetti, French, Bournonville and Vaganova technique to create a new syllabus that produces a more rounded dancer who has a solid technique yet gentle and express emotions through their dancing.

It is an international dance examination board where there are specific grade and vocational levels which a student move through in order to complete the training. It is a ballet-focused path designed for older children and young adults who wished to pursue a career in professional dance.

The key principle behind this technique is the attention to detail and that basic ballet technique must be taught at a slow pace, with difficulty progression often much slower than other techniques. As a result, the primary importance is placed on executing steps with improved technique rather than increasing the level of difficulty. Through this, students are expected to execute harder techniques easily. This technique is characterised by the incorporation of classical ballet technique, free movement and character dance.

Today, this technique is widely spread worldwide, in Northern America and parts of Asia.

Chinese Technique

A scene from the Red Detachment of Women (1972)

Chinese ballet is a new form of technique mostly derived, evolved and still developing from the long standing tradition and structured Chinese dance in China. It has a unique mixture of traditional Chinese folk stories, a touch of ideology and a dash of western ballet techniques and styles with adaptation to well-known classical productions.

There is the exquisite and distinctive approach in teaching of the technique where students focus on precise positions and placement, extreme strength and flexibility especially on their backs and hips, and performances are filled with highly intense emotion. Students backs are unusually supple and legs extensions are high without any apparent forcing. Companies and schools adapting this technique follow a strict training schedule, developing students with great dignity, poise, composure and concentration.

Companies adapting this technique are National Ballet of China, Shanghai Ballet, the Classical Ballet of Guangzhou, and the China Liaoning Ballet.

References & Further Readings

https://diabloballet.org/2013/10/16/all-ballet-is-not-the-same/ https://www.blackpoolgrand.co.uk/different-types-ballet/ https://www.danzaballet.com/agrippina-vaganova-the-vaganova-method/?print=print https://pascb.com/vaganova-ballet-teaching-method/ http://ibtacademy.org/content/Vaganova-at-IBT http://www.balletposition.com/blog/the-danish-way-of-dancing-it-all-started-with-bournonville https://www.dance-teacher.com/august-bournonville-2392536574.html https://bachtrack.com/article-histoire-ballet-opera-paris-ballet-focus-juillet-2017 http://www.dancefacts.net/dance-types/types-of-ballet/ https://www.pointemagazine.com/ballet-chicago-studio-company-2587643192.html https://www.danceinforma.com/2013/01/07/ballet-method-to-method/ https://expressionplatform.com/types-ballet-methods-styles-across-dance-history/ https://www.royalacademyofdance.org/media/2019/02/20144428/The-first-75-years-of-the-Academy-1.pdf https://www.royalacademyofdance.org/media/2019/02/08101835/ElementarySyllabus-1.pdf https://www.nycballet.com/Explore/Our-History/George-Balanchine.aspx https://www.theworldofchinese.com/2013/10/is-chinese-ballet-now-the-worlds-best/ https://www.shine.cn/news/metro/2006029379/ https://www.google.com.sg/amp/s/www.theepochtimes.com/true-to-form-western-ballet-vs-classical-chinese-dance_2199358.html/amp http://factsanddetails.com/china/cat7/sub41/item247.html https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Ballet_of_China http://en.ballet.org.cn/itroduction/FrontColumns_navigation01-1326349816395FirstColumnId=88&FrontColumns_navigation01-1326349816395SecondColumnId=36.html

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