Believing in Classical Ballet

Posted by on 03.09.2012

When one thinks of classical ballet, the works that may come to mind include Swan Lake (1877), Giselle (1841), Sleeping Beauty (1890), and The Nutcracker (1892).  It is amazing to think that ballets created centuries ago, are still being performed around the world with the same music, story, and intention.  There is no denying that these works are treasures left behind for us to enjoy, but with very distinct characters to portray and a specific time period to embrace, it the responsibility of the modern day dancers to make these classics believable to the audience.  As one of my faithful readers has asked me, “Does the nowadays dancer believe in Giselle?”

There is a stark contrast between these classics and more recent works.  As would be expected over two centuries, our art form has drastically evolved.  The use of extensive sets and costumes are no longer relied upon to tell a story, as often straight forward stories are no longer depicted in neoclassical and modern ballets.  Pantomime, or the use of gestures to describe a story, is no longer utilized by modern choreographers, being replaced by the use of dancers portraying emotions with their movements.   In recent decades, music plays a much more central role in choreographers’ development of movement.

Classics created in the mid to late 1800s, bring us to conclude that ballet had a very literal feel at that time.  Elaborate story lines would be conveyed during breaks in dancing with intense drama and very little balletic movement.  These acting scenes make up a large fraction of these full-length ballets and can often break the momentum.  Because the story is told in such an apparent way, often the dancing doesn’t seem to have the same raw significance as modern works.

The nowadays dancer’s reaction to a ballet such as Giselle varies based on the individual’s background.  Some dancers live and die by the classics because that is what they grew up with and what they cherish the most.  Others were exposed to the potential that lies in newer works and learned to love the newer elements of ballet.  That being said, everyone respects the classics; they play a huge part in the development of the art form and forged the way for artists in the field.  These ballets popularized the art form that we love and depend on.

If you happen to be a dancer who doesn’t necessarily believe in these classical ballets, you must find a way to believe.  You must be able to hold these ballets in high regard because that is your job as a professional.  Through reading and discussing with other dancers, we learn more about these works and how to relate to them.  One of my friends discovered a book, Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle, which she found to be helpful in learning about how ballets were developed in the mid-1800s.  Through word of mouth, interest in the book spread, and soon numerous people were buried in their own copies.

Through the wonders of technology, the nowadays dancers have a great resource at their finger tips, YouTube, where thousands of wonderful ballet clips reside, waiting to be discovered.  By simply searching and looking through videos of other companies and famous dancers, there is a lot we can learn.  Dancers absorb a lot from other dancers, which makes exposing ourselves to these sorts of clips an absolute necessity.

So does every nowadays dancer believe in Giselle?  If you can’t tell as an audience member, then we are doing our jobs.  We believe in the art form and learning as much about it as we can.


Click here to purchase Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle by Marian Smith.


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