The Dancers’ Artistry: How We Are Evolving

Posted by on 05.11.2014

I recently came across a very thought provoking article in Dance Magazine about the delicate balance between artistry and emphasizing the execution of  ballet steps with technical proficiency.  This is a big topic of conversation these days as reality television brings dance into our homes more than ever before.  On shows like “So You Think You Can Dance,” we see remarkable tricks: daunting jumps, lifts, turns, etc.  It always amazes me what the audience chooses to react to on these shows: they clap and scream for a simple press lift, while seemingly missing the talent and artistry behind the fast footwork that follows.  In an effort to please an audience, dance searches to receive these accolades.  But are they forsaking the art behind the movement?

I find this an interesting question because I believe the evolution of dance to be different than some.  When I see a full length classical ballet, I certainly appreciate it’s historical importance and remember watching these ballets in awe as a child.  But as my career grows in length, I see these ballets in a different way.  I actually view them as filled with tricks and pomp and circumstance.  Despite having a storyline, there isn’t nearly as much substance as ballets from the 20th century and today.

George Balanchine partnering Suzanne Farrell in rehearsal of Moziartiana, created for the 1981 New York City Ballet Tchaikovsky Festival.

George Balanchine partnering Suzanne Farrell in rehearsal of Moziartiana, created for the 1981 New York City Ballet Tchaikovsky Festival.

This is of course attributed to the evolution of the ballet technique.  One of the big reasons why many of George Balanchine’s ballets were not immediately met with enthusiasm was because his choreography was to be appreciated in a completely different way than in the past.  In a Balanchine ballet you won’t find big tricks stitched together with unimportant steps: every step mattered to Balanchine.  His style highlighted the importance of the so-called “transition step” or “in-between steps.”  This is not the long balance that a ballerina will do, but the two beautifully articulated steps she takes before presenting her foot to go “en pointe.”  Suddenly, the emphasis was placed on something completely different and his dancers adapted.  Now it didn’t matter how long a dancer would balance, but the way she got to that balance.  In my humble opinion, that is where the artistry lies.

These “in-between steps” continue to be emphasized by dancers with Balanchine training or dancers who dance his ballets.  In classical ballet choreography, there aren’t as many opportunities to articulate in this manner.  Therefore, I often miss the artistry that I am looking for when I see the full length classics.  To me this is due to the choreography.

So seemingly during Balanchine’s era, ballet moved in a direction of increased artistry. And in an era of “So You Think You Can Dance,” we have digressed to pomp and circumstance.

But Dance Magazine poses an almost more important question: “Is there confusion among dancers themselves as to what artistry is?”  As ballet technique continues to evolve and dancers are pushing the envelope, is there too much emphasis placed on technique in today’s world of ballet?

A dancer’s artistic development depends so much upon the atmosphere that nourishes them.  Having good  role models to look up to and wise advisors to lead, is essential to  dancers’ artistic development.  Let’s step back again to the George Balanchine era where glorified ballerinas grew and flourished under his tutelage.  His muses became idols and examples for the other dancers in the company.  They sat in the wings to watch and learn.  They aspired to emulate their artistry and quality of movement, not necessarily their technique.  As this generation watches from the wings are they emulating something different?

Dancers, as intellectual beings, choose what they want to emphasize in their dancing.  Some dancers are proficient in technique, others find that their technique is not as advanced as it could be and choose to emphasize another one of their talents.  In the end, we don’t all have everything, so we have to learn to work with what we have to become the best dancers that we can be.

Technique without artistry leaves an audience wanting more.  Technique with artistry is transcendent.

7 Comments

  1. Sunday I saw Agon by SFBallet. A few years ago I watched a clip of TV’s “So you think you can dance.” Like comparing a total eclipse of the sun with a partial – yes, no comparison. Or actually a good one: The difference being the former is a glimpse of the unseen; the latter the pedestrian.

    • Thanks for your comment Bill. That is a great way to put it!

  2. Really good insight to a great question. We see this same effect in tap dance where people scream for tricks and clap loudly for simple time steps; steps they either recognize or attempted, or by which they are astonished. The real heart of tap, the duende, is the rhythms and how the steps play with the rhythms.

    As a favorite music teacher was fond of saying, “without rests music is just sound.” Paraphrased: Without artistry dance is just tumbling.

    • Mike-

      I love that: “without rests music is just sound.” That is the same for ballet. Without phrasing and holds, dancing is just blurred movement. There is no clarity.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Nice points. I agree that artistry can all too often be lost. I think one reason audiences respond to tricks is that it’s easier for us to understand their difficulty. As someone who has never done any kind of formal dancing, I often wish DVDs of ballets had commentary tracks explaining the steps, or that there were a YouTube channel with clips from ballets that discussed and critiqued technique.

    • Ruby-

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that often, because ballet is supposed to look easy, it can be hard to determine the level of difficulty of certain steps. I think this is one of the great things about platforms such as YouTube, dance blogs, dance videos, etc: They offer the ability for us (as dancers) to share the inner workings of the ballet world with our audiences. In this way we generate more enthusiasm and love for the art form while sustaining our audience base. I think that is much more important than showing off tricks that are easily digested by all audiences.

      • I absolutely agree! YouTube videos in particular have been really helpful for me in gaining more appreciation of the difficulty and artistry involved in ballet, especially the Royal Ballet’s rehearsal footage.

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