The Arts, the Senses, and the Imagination
by Robert Millar on January 9th, 2014

… or the tutus, or the leaps, or the costumes, or the sets, or the pointe shoes, or the special effects. Well yes, I have to admit that it is about those things, at least partially. But mainly, classical ballet comes down to just two principal elements --- music and movement. A composer writes music and then a choreographer uses it as inspiration for dance moves that illustrate the music’s expressive content. Occasionally the choreography is generated first and the music is composed later to reflect the suggestions of the movement, and once in a great while a ballet is invented and performed without any music whatsoever, but this is rare. By and large, most classically-oriented ballet begins with the music, transforming its expressive values into choreography. And expression is the key word here --- expression of moods, emotions, and ideas. Sometimes music and dance are woven into the form of a narrative work as is the case with ballets like Nutcracker or Swan Lake, and sometimes there is no actual story present --- just pure, revelatory movement.

All balletic expression takes the form of refined movement, just as in poetry expression takes the form of more elevated speech. In both, the ordinary has been distilled and stylized in a way that goes beyond ordinary conventions. In classical ballet, the rather inelegant movements and body postures we see around us in daily life have been transformed into motion that is usually characterized by
  • Gracefulness
  • Dignity and poise
  • Fluidity
  • Symmetry
  • Defiance of the Law of Gravity

… all in an effort to communicate aspects of human feeling and experience, most often with the additional objective of producing great beauty.

For instance, the nineteenth-century romantic ballet Giselle deals with a young peasant girl who dies of a broken heart after she discovers that her true love, the nobleman Duke Albrecht, is formally betrothed to another in an arranged marriage. One day as the young duke goes to Giselle’s grave to mourn and express his undying love for her, he is surrounded by a group of female spirits, called Willis (willeez). This group lives in the spirit world to torment men, eventually killing them by dancing them to death. In the following scene from Act II they have summoned Giselle’s spirit from the grave to assist them in their task of doing away with Albrecht, but instead Giselle intercedes on his behalf. The scene, here danced by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Alessandra Ferri, takes place just as the Willis have captured Albrecht, and their queen is about to condemn him to death. As you watch, here are some points to look for:

Remember that spirits are insubstantial creatures, floating about in the air like wisps of fog or mist, rarely settling to earth. Watch how Giselle’s dancing has been designed to suggest and enhance this buoyant, supernatural impression through

  • Moving across the stage using tiny steps en pointe to suggest floating above the ground (video counter: 1:20)
  • Executing movements on one leg while suspending the rest of her body high over her standing leg (1:35)
  • Partner-assisted positions and lifts that allow her to move about even more freely above the ground – to “fly” (2:44)
  • Graceful arm and hand movements that are both smooth and flexible, like strands of gossamer ebbing and flowing on currents of air (4:10)
  • A skirt that reaches almost to the ground, covering much of the hidden “magic” being created by extremely difficult legwork.
All of the dancing we’ve just seen has grown out of an effort to communicate the narrative and emotional implications of the story and of the music, from Giselle’s ghostly presence, to the grueling demands placed upon Albrecht as he is forced to dance more and more strenuously by the queen of the Willis, to the mutual tenderness revealed by the two lovers. Included in this act is some of the most demanding dancing in all of ballet, both for the male dancer and the ballerina, and I hardly need say that Ferri and Baryshnikov are more than equal to both the emotional and physical challenges of the parts they play. They dance with electrifying precision, form, and expression both in the quieter moments and during those in which great athletic feats are required.

But it is sometimes good to remind ourselves that ballet was never intended to be simply a string of arduous physical tours de force --- good to remember that as exciting as special effects, decorative costumes, and splendid sets can be, neither are they the most important components of ballet. Sometimes when I attend the ballet I get the feeling that, judging from the audience response, there may be many who are basically biding their time between the most obviously spectacular aspects of a production without attending fully to the more subtle ones. And even when we are concentrating primarily on the most important ballet elements, the music and the dancing, while it is undeniably thrilling to watch the moments in which soaring lifts, breathtaking leaps, gravity-defying balances, and dizzying flurries of pirouettes are gripping our attention, it is also true that ballet is not only about them. There is usually a lot of fine expressive dancing taking place between those moments, during the quieter, less vigorous points in a production (as in parts of the example we just watched), and it would be a shame for any of us to miss them.

To stay alert to the content of those more subtle moments, there are three primary places we can keep our attention focused.
  1. The dramatic unfolding of the story (if there is one)
  2. The expression contained in the music
  3. The combination of both of the above as they are expressed in the ballet movement
The next time you watch a ballet, try listening carefully to the music* throughout the production, opening yourself fully to the changing moods and emotions contained in it. As you follow the music, divide your attention just enough to also scrutinize the actions of the dancers. See if you can detect the continuously evolving expressive relationship between the music and the movement, no matter how subtle. Make an effort to stay concentrated on this relationship as you proceed through the work. Try it now by watching the Giselle excerpt above again. If you succeed, you are likely to harvest more sustained rewards from a ballet production in its entirety rather than from just a few particularly dazzling highlights.

*Keep in mind that the ballet experience is enormously enhanced by the presence of live music rather than a recording, and that live ballet has infinitely more immediacy than ballet on film.

Posted in BALLET    Tagged with ballet, music, dance


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