This thought-provoking volume is an edited collection of papers and presentations from the conference Ballet, Why and How? Illuminating the role of ballet in the vocational education and the professional life of today’s dancer, held in Holland in 2012. In her introduction Gaby Allard of the editorial board movingly describes her own experience as a dancer transitioning from ballet to contemporary dance, her realisation of being “locked in” to her balletic bodily practice, and her search for new knowledge and approaches. The conference addressed the need she perceives for the on-going work of research and innovation in “best practice” that is integral to dance culture to be shared in dialogue, here specifically considering “the position and value of classical technique for the dancer today” (Allard in Brown & Vos edit. 2014, p.20).  A wide range of speakers with differing perspectives including historians, pedagogues, psychologists, practitioners and dance scientists contributed, to build a revealing picture of the current state of the art.

The format of the book sits between academic and coffee table; the written text framed at either end by collections of Brecht Bovijn’s “Ballerina Project”, black and white photographs of dancers in street wear and point shoes posing moodily and improbably in urban settings.  I found the layout of the text unhelpful, with photographs and even endnotes separated from the papers they illustrated or referred to, grouped in clusters, their locations signalled by cryptic numbers in the margins, entailing much flipping back and forth in reading.  Papers which vary from scholarly argumentation and historic account to personal reflection and informal interview are grouped under seven headings, which may have indicated their original ordering in the conference; however re-organisation in fewer sections might have brought greater coherence, especially given the brevity of some of the pieces, and encouraged dialogue and comparison between some unexpectedly related views.

That said, there is much of interest, some of it contentious.  In the opening section The Past, Social and Historical, Robin Lakes’ vivid depiction of European dancing masters from 1400 to the mid 18th century, clearly throws down a gauntlet for today’s teachers to examine their pedagogy for traces of the dominating, militaristic and judgemental teaching styles of the past.  By contrast that which follows, Elizabeth McPherson’s historic account of vocational dance training at New York City’s High School of Performing Arts from 1948, provides a model of inspiring practice which has had profound influence; not least through the introduction of training in both ballet and modern dance simultaneously to create versatile performers.  The school despite challenges of space and resources was able to attract major artists onto its teaching faculty, lured by the prospect of working with talented students receiving a broad artistic education.  Towards the end of the book contributions by Wil Boom (“Winning Boys for Dance”) and Amy Raymond (“Connecting to Creativity”) in the section entitled Best Practice suggest a continuance of idealistic emancipatory teaching endeavour.

But under the heading Psychological, Philosophical today’s ballet training comes under direct attack.  Anna Aalten maintains that her article of 2000 “Is Classical Ballet Technique Sacrosanct?” still poses a valid question in 2012.  Her paper challenges the conception of ballet technique as neutral, proposing instead that it engenders a specific aesthetic, or to use Susan Leigh Foster’s concept “body-of-ideas”, that may not be appropriate to today’s dancers (Foster in Desmond edit. 1997).  Aalten also challenges the perception of ballet’s adequacy as an all round training system; insufficiently aerobic, causing injury through fatigue and over training and excessive repetition. But how universal is the aesthetic she describes, or is it particular to a defined place, period or style? She states “Nothing in ballet is natural” (Aalten in Brown & Vos edit. 2014, p49); a view contradicted by the immensely experienced and wise teacher Larry Rhodes, whose brief checklist of beliefs and principles in “A Point of View” should be listed for contemplation on every ballet teacher’s wall. Arguably there is more potential versatility in balletic material to be mined in preparing dancers for the wider palette of movement skills now needed. Toby Bennett’s evocative description of Cecchetti’s teaching, with its fascinating insights into the methodical structure and focus of the Maestro’s classes and exquisite dancing material, provides an instructive example of ballet classes essentially informed by their relationship to the professional performing practice of their time.

Other contributions bring psychological perspectives to supporting teaching and learning.  Sanna Nordin-Bates looks at the negative influence of a prevailing discourse of “ballet as an extreme” (ibid. p53) in wider culture and especially the media, purveying hyped up notions of it as athletic, perfectionist and authoritarian.  Such concerns at extreme ballet and the cult of virtuosity are echoed elsewhere in the book, both by the elder Larry Rhodes and young Mirjam Sögner, and in Leda Meredith’s meditation on ballet’s culture of “One must suffer for one’s art”.  Meredith suggests a simple change in wording; that instead the dancer’s maxim should be “One must work hard for one’s art” (ibid.p 157).

To combat the influence of current perceptions Nordin-Bates proposes that teachers might use Self-Determination Theory as a means to support the motivation of dancers and increase their sense of personal competence and autonomy.  This might well help through an improved teacher student relationship, but does not perhaps address the central problem of changing aesthetics and distorted perceptions of ballet.  Rachel Tova Winer draws an analogy between dance teaching and nursing, seeing the dance teacher as an “Artist-Caregiver”, and suggesting that learning from well established nursing research might help to alleviate the phenomenon of teacher burnout.  Emphasizing the role of the teacher as caregiver evokes for me a corresponding image of the student as child or patient rather than as emerging artist entering the community of practice, which I am not sure is helpful.  Thom Hecht also aims to encourage a concept of care in teaching; he highlights “extreme” levels of stress in the learning of ballet and reiterates the abusive effects of traditional authoritarian teaching styles; although his apparent association of such militaristic methods with a master apprentice model is questionable.  He argues for the facilitation of emotional knowledge through a system he has developed called Emotionally Intelligent Ballet Training ©.

Similarly systematic, Matt Wyon brings a perspective informed by sports science to a proposal for a new training methodology. He provides a useful comparison of paradigms, between sport’s focus on the development of narrow and specific attributes for occasional peak performance, and dance’s focus on much wider skill development for continual repeated performance; and makes a case for varying the intensity of dance training, to include recognition of rest as a fundamental element.  It might be possible to implement his highly planned and tapered strategy within a vocational training establishment, but such a prescriptive approach to class design would be inappropriate and unenforceable in more mixed professional working contexts. Perhaps more important to develop autonomy in dancers to find their own individual use of classes and rehearsals and take ownership of their dancing as artists, asking of ballet “why” not merely “how”.  This seems to be the direction indicated by Sögner, Niklas Fransson and Eva Karczag, contemplating the relevance of ballet training for contemporary dancers and the value of somatic approaches in developing awareness, curiosity and imagination.

Professor of Theatre Studies and dance dramaturg Maaike Bleeker probes to the heart of the matter in her substantial central paper, using Susan Leigh Foster’s influential writing “Dancing Bodies” and her notion of the modern dancer as “hired body” (Foster in Desmond edit. 1997) as a starting point for constructing an instrumental argument for ballet training.  Foster considers the implications of the loss of deep commitment in training to a particular aesthetic and technical understanding in favour of a versatile but arguably more superficial technical veneer in response to today’s eclectic styles, repertoire and project working.  How does this affect the dancer’s sense of self; and what is the value of ballet as a training method for dancers who will not go on to perform it as a style?  Instead of seeing ballet’s standardised patterns as norms to which dancers must conform, Bleeker suggests that ballet technique might be understood as:

“a logic of thinking through movement that structures ballet as a movement practice and that is incorporated through practice, without this necessarily meaning that this logic is imposed on bodies or that bodies necessarily have to be standardised and measured against aesthetic ideals that often have more to do with the tradition of ballet as performance practice than with ballet technique.” (Bleeker in Brown & Vos edit. 2014, p73)

Bleeker sees similarity between ballet’s logic and mathematics as ways of teaching students how to think; and she traces this idea through historical and philosophical connections, ending with an examination of interdisciplinary artist Nicole Beutler’s 2008 performance work in response to Fokine’s iconic ballet Les Sylphides.  Bleeker poses the need for a critical separation between ballet as technique and ballet as performance practice; in another powerful analogy she compares this to the distancing of self and expression occurring through the invention of writing.  Much to consider here for practitioners of this remaining oral culture; is it possible to teach ballet’s technique divorced from its stylistic variations?  Bleeker argues that because of its abstraction ballet training “is not about movement as the expression of self” (ibid. p72); yet it could be argued that it is precisely that abstraction which allows the revelation of self through dancing.

Like a cubist painting, Ballet, Why and How? provides a fractured multifaceted picture of the current state of this Western dance tradition, not always clearly comprehensible and sometimes frustrating and confusing, but at its best giving glimpses of ballet’s depths and complexities, and posing serious questions as to its future direction.  An essential addition to the ballet bookshelf, something to dip into in starting a much-needed process of reflection and discussion about ballet as a way of dancing.  I note with sadness that an elephant in the room that is barely mentioned is the role and significance of ballet’s relationship with music; not even in Karen Wood’s discussion of research on how spectators respond to dance with kinaesthetic empathy in “The Sensory Nature of Ballet”.  It is left to avant-garde performance artist Charlotta Öfverholm interviewed by Derrick Brown to express a heartfelt connection: “But for me ballet was the music.  It made me cry and I was always very touched.” (ibid. p134).  Despite serious charges laid against it, in her personal development of understanding through daily routine, for Charlotta, as for many, ballet remains the “movement ritual of choice”.

Susie Crow

3rd April 2015

References:

Aalten, Anna 2000 “Is Classical Ballet technique Sacrosanct?’ in Carnet, international theatertijdschrift Theater Instituut Nederland and the Vlams Theater Instituut No. 1, pp3-11

Foster, Susan Leigh 1997 ‘Dancing Bodies’ in Desmond, Jane C, edit. Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance Durham and London, Duke University Press

Brown, Derrick and Vos, Minke edit. 2014  Ballet, Why and How? On the role of classical ballet in dance education  Arnhem, ArtEZ Press

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