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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Ballet Styles

Ballet spans over centuries and continents. It has years of experimentation and artistic inspiration to establish its unique methods, techniques and styles. Ballet started with court ballet before evolving into opera-ballet and the comédie-ballet, and later the classical ballet which is widely spread today.

In this article, we will discuss the different styles created, mainly the 4 important ones: Classical Ballet, Romantic Ballet, Neoclassical Ballet and Contemporary/Modern Ballet.

 

Classical Ballet

2019 Elevate_IBGPS_2Classical ballet is the foundation from which nearly all dance genres have developed. It requires strong technique, athleticism and grace. It is the oldest and structured according to the framework established in the 19th century based on both traditional vocabulary and technique. Its main characteristics are the orchestrated music, story-driven, balance and symmetry, etherealness, elaborated costumes and sets narrated in formal mime gestures. Pointe work, poise, formation in dancers, long lines, turnout and graceful expressions are emphasised.

One of the most well-known classical ballet production is Swan Lake, but it was actually a bit too avant-garde for the audiences back when it premiered in 1877. Swan Lake’s dancers, orchestra and decor were not well received. Audiences disliked Tchaikovsky’s now-classic score citing it too complex. Critics and audiences warmed up to the ballet after the 1895 revival of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov‘s Swan Lake at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Audiences were particularly charmed by Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani (1868 – 1930), who played Odette between 1894 – 1895. She turned 32 fouettés in the final scene of the ballet, emphasising strength and technique. She first performed the 32 fouettés en tournant in the coda of the Grand Pas d’action of the ballet Cinderella, and was famous as the first ballerina to execute that.

 

Romantic Ballet

2019 Elevate_HKCCDC_12Romantic ballet was an artistic movement of classical ballet and extremely important because it was the first time female dancers went on pointe. Prior to the romantic period, it was uncommon to have a female heroine. The romantic era was marked by the emergence of pointe work, female dancers’ predominance and longer soft tutus that attempt to exemplify softness and delicate aura. It emphasised intense drama and emotion as a source of aesthetic story-telling. The plots of many romantic ballets revolved around sylphs or mythological creature or spirit and ghosts who enslaved the hearts and senses of mortal men. This style was based on the conflicts between both good and evil, beauty and ugliness, fantasy and spirit.

Three notable romantic ballet are La Sylphide 1832, Giselle 1841 and Coppélia 1870.

Marie Taglioni (1804 – 1884), who first danced in La Sylphide and her choreographer and teacher father, Filippo Taglioni (1777 – 1871) were considered the pioneer in romantic ballet. Her sylph ethereal qualities, grace, and dramatic capabilities made her the famous ballerina of the era. For the first time, supernatural storyline performed on stage. The concept was about an unfortunate hero, forever chasing a supernatural force and ultimately face a tragic destiny.

Nine years later Giselle, a romantic-ballet-pantomime was staged. Carlotta Grisi (1819 – 1899) was known for her ability to perform as both the sensual and spiritual dancer when she debuted as Giselle. A dual role of the sensual and playful peasant girl in the first act and the ghostly spiritual in the second act.

Arthur Saint-Léon’s (1821 – 1870) Coppélia premiered in May 1870. It was considered to be the last work of the romantic ballet. It is a comic romantic ballet featuring a young protagonist, dancing dolls, and magic, but had a dark history with the ballet’s original run interrupted by the Franco-Prussian war and a terrible siege in Paris. The ballet was only performed 12 times before the theatre was shut down and later used as a storage facility during the siege.

 

Neoclassical Ballet

Elevate_neoclassicalNeoclassical ballet emerged in the 1920s and evolved throughout the 20th century. Artists of many disciplines began to rebel and distance themselves against the overly dramatised style of the romantic ballet. As a result, dance returned to a more simplistic style like the original classical ballet except bolder, stronger, more athletic and free of distractions. Neoclassical ballets uses traditional classical ballet vocabulary but far less rigid and are sophisticated, sleek, modern, and clean because of the focus on dance itself as opposed to the marriage of sets, costumes, makeup and dance. It is usually abstract with non-narrative and no clear plot, using simple costumes or sets. The work are usually increased in speed, energy and attack, asymmetry with an off-balance feel. Dancers’ movement are the main artistic medium which is the hallmark of neoclassical ballet; meaning the revival or adaptation of the classical style. It is aimed for the purity of expression and sophisticated movement by eliminating distracting theatrical elements.

George Balanchine (1904 – 1983), a graduate of the Imperial Ballet School in Russia, was considered to represent the neoclassical style and is well-known for his modern-yet-classical clean aesthetic.  Balanchine used flexed hands and turned-in legs, off-centered positions and non-classical costumes such as leotards and tunics instead of tutus, to distance himself from the classical and romantic ballet traditions. He built upon the traditional classical ballet vocabulary by extending lines and positions, playing with speed and tempo, freedom of movement and new positions outside of the ballet vocabulary. The staging is more modern and complex.

Balanchine found a home for his neoclassical style in the United States, when Lincoln Kirstein (1907 – 1996) brought him to New York in 1933 to start a ballet company. He started a school, where he trained dancers in his technique and the School of American Ballet was founded in 1934. He invented the Balanchine technique, which is now widely used in the United States. A topic we will discuss in another article. Many of his most famous neoclassical ballets were choreographed in both his school and his own company the New York City Ballet, which was founded in 1948 and still exists today. Balanchine’s first foray into the neoclassical style was Apollon Musegete, choreographed in 1928 for the Ballets Russes. Unlike many of his later works, this ballet tells a story which indicates that Balanchine had not yet completely broken free from the romantic tradition. This ballet first premiered with large sets, costumes and props. Balanchine continually revised it as his style evolved and renamed the ballet simply Apollo. He produced more plotless, musically driven ballets such as The Prodigal Son 1929, Serenade (1934), Concerto Barocco (1941), Symphony in C (1947), Agon (1957) and Jewels (1967).

 

Contemporary/Modern Ballet

Elevate_modernballetContemporary ballet is influenced by classical ballet, modern and sometimes jazz. It takes inspiration from classical technique, use of pointe work and expanded with a greater range of movement that are not found in the strict discipline of old school teachings. Many of its concepts come from ideas and innovations of modern, including floor work, turned-in legs and greater range of movement and body line.

There is no set rules for contemporary ballet. It can be performed on pointe, barefoot or soft shoes. Contemporary ballets, unlike neoclassical ballet, may include mime and acting, and the same versatile approach goes for the music, setting, and costumes. It does not require certain standards to be met or conform to any limits. Classical ballet requires classical music, tutus, pointe shoes and scenery but contemporary ballet uses different types of costumes, ranging from traditional to more modern tunic type versions and music can range from traditional to new popular music.

Experimentation and creativity are the two main points, driving the audience to think upon the aesthetic lines the body conveys and the power of movement. According to Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, classical ballet was very much directed toward the audience. Neoclassical started to change shapes but was still toward the audience. With contemporary ballet, the audience is asked to look at what is happening between the dancers. Another notable choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon said the style also means any ballet choreography that is made today.

Today someone training as a dancer will be expected to perform the formal classical work, lyrical and free neoclassical work, technical modern and the undefined contemporary work. There are many contemporary ballet companies and choreographers all over the world. Notable companies include Nederlands Dans Theater, Rambert Dance Company, Hubbard Street Dance ChicagoComplexions Contemporary Ballet and Dutch National Ballet. Likewise, many traditionally classical companies now regularly perform contemporary works. It is very common for ballet companies to have an official choreographer in residence to create new contemporary work.

 

References & Further Readings

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoclassical_ballet https://balletaz.org/neoclassical-ballet/ https://www.blackpoolgrand.co.uk/different-types-ballet/ http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/c/classic-ballet/ https://diabloballet.org/2013/10/16/all-ballet-is-not-the-same/ https://www.vox.com/2018/7/13/17556030/sytycd-dance-styles-guide https://www.balletmet.org/contemporary-vs-classical-ballet/ https://www.dancemagazine.com/what_exactly_is_contemporary_ballet-2306944842.html https://sites.google.com/site/ugadancehistory/make-donations https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/gradschool_disstheses/6012/ https://www.liveabout.com/la-sylphide-ballet-review-1007229 http://www.theballetbag.com/2010/02/10/la-sylphide/ https://www.balletmet.org/blog-5-things-might-not-know-giselle/