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  • Writer's pictureLinnea Swarting

Ballet 101: Knowledge for Professional and Aspiring Dancers

Last week, I asked what I should write about on this blog, and while suggestions were varied, the most common one I got was “ballet history/ ballet education.” Something that I am really passionate about is education of dancers- not just in technique but in all aspects relevant to the art form. This can include dance history, different dance cultures, nutrition, anatomy, cross- training practices, mental health and sports psychology, and so much more. While training, I always heard about the importance of being a smart dancer, not only in kinesthetic awareness but also smart in navigating the industry and being able to apply knowledge of dance history and life experience to create an accurate character on stage. I know way too many dancers who enter a ballet company and have never seen a full-length ballet, which is partly due to inaccessibility in many parts of the country, but with the internet and other available resources, dancers today should be the most educated generation to grace the stage. It is upon dancers to supplement their education in dance schools and take it upon themselves to learn about the many aspects of ballet.

As a dancer, it is part of my job to do my own research. In addition to whatever dance history classes I have had to take at summer intensives, there is much more out there to be learned. Every single ballet performed in a season presents the opportunity to read specifically about that production, story, music, costumes, and other specific research that could be important to dancing in it. However, I believe that all dancers should have a fundamental understanding of dance history, informed opinions about social issues that the dance community is facing today (present- day context), examples of real world experience in the dance industry, and a comprehension of the expansion of dance technique that includes neo-classical and contemporary vocabulary before entering a ballet company. These categories all come together to form what ballet companies in America are presenting. If you understand all of this, your performances will be less flat, and you will be more interesting to engage with beyond your social media posts.

With all of that being said, here is a list of materials I think should make up the BASELINE of knowledge for professional dancers. There are so many resources out there- especially right now with companies and streaming services putting out recordings of full performances- that it would be impossible to create a whole catalogue of what is “essential learning.” Still, I attempted to make a really basic list that dancers can probably get through during the rest of this quarantine period, hoping that on the other side of this, we will have a newfound appreciation and respect for this artform.

Dance History:

1. “Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet” by Jennifer Homans. This book is non- negotiable on this list. It is the starting point of learning about ballet. Homans essentially created a ballet history textbook, and while it is long, upon completion you

will understand dance from its origins in the Renaissance to present day (published in 2012, so present meaning fairly recent history). If you only read engage with one resource on this list- this is it.

2. “Dance in America: A Reader’s Anthology” edited by Mindy Aloff. An eye-opening collection of dance writings and criticism across various fields in the United States. This anthology gives greater understanding of dance as a part of American culture, which I think is best seen in the way it has been written about. This also shows more than just the ballet landscape, although as American dance now has been created from a melting pot of classical ballet, contemporary dance, modern dance, jazz, folk, and street dance, dancers preparing to enter the professional realm should have an introduction to knowledge of all of this. Also, reading dance writing from industry pioneers, insiders, and just observers of dance provides a wholistic view of how dance is seen in society.

Current Cultural Context:

*This category continues to grow and evolve as it’s dealing with issues in real time. I also recommend that dancers read the annual Dance Data Project reports (www.dancedataproject.com) that show the gender dynamics in dance leadership. Both of these suggestions below relate to racial equity efforts in dance, but there are ongoing discussions about gender equity, eliminating “fraternity culture” in male- dominated workplaces, addressing body image/ mental health issues that lead to exclusion of different body types, and greater inclusion of other genders in the ballet world, I just haven’t come across many books or movies that address those specific issues.

1. “Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing Between Intention and Impact” by Phil Chan with Michele Chase. Recently released in March 2020 by Chan and finalbowforyellowface.org, this book could not be more relevant. One of the challenges dance organizations (especially ballet companies) in America are facing is how to update classical works to reflect our current audience. What dancers and directors have grown up seeing are classical works that can often include harmful caricatures that are culturally offensive- Final Bow For Yellowface came into existence after many companies were getting called on to change choreography for “The Nutcracker” in the “Chinese Tea” dance. Chan does a fantastic job of not only explaining the current cultural climate around these conversations, but also using his personal experience as a Chinese- American dancer to illustrate how offensive portrayals can sour a production and ultimately cause minorities to feel othered. Ballet is striving to be more inclusive, and dancers have to actively take an interest in understanding cultural dynamics, so if something feels wrong they can speak up for change. Don’t fall into the trap of “it’s 2020, we’re past racism.” I have personally seen dancers defend racist makeup in “The Nutcracker,” young dancers who should know better, so I can promise you this conversation is far from done. Live art will always be evolving and editing to be reflective of the times. (www.yellowface.org)

2. MoBBallet.org- Although they don’t have a book (yet!), Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet has great resources on their website. First, their Timeline of Black Ballet History is a must read. Some of these events are covered in the ballet history books listed above, but this is a clear, concise collection of black history highlights in ballet that we should all just know. Second, the “Roll Call” of black ballet dancers in America and around the world just goes to support the MoBBallet call- “We are not unicorns.” A great resource for representation of black dancers in ballet, this part of their website is updated frequently, and dancers can submit themselves to keep everything current. (www.mobballet.org)

Real- World Experience:

1. “Dancing on My Grave” by Gelsey Kirkland. I LOVE ballet biographies, and still the

best one I’ve read is Ms. Kirkland’s, and not because of her status as a legendary ballerina. Her memoir is stunningly and shockingly real. Kirkland reveals the immense pressures she felt during her career, her journey through anorexia and drug addiction, and the achievements that she is known for. The highs and the lows of her experience are the most accurate portrayal of what becoming a professional dancer is like. Not saying that everyone has an eating disorder or that everyone struggles with addiction or that everyone has her same experience, and while a lot of her reality is shocking to read about, it is one of the most authentic looks inside a successful dancer’s career. (Photo by Max Waldman- Kirkland and Ivan Nagy in Romeo and Juliet, 1976)


2. “A Body of Work” by David Hallberg. Similar to Ms. Kirkland, Hallberg gives us a glimpse of the hard work and struggle that he encountered as a dancer, while also being slightly more relevant to modern day as it was published in 2017. One could argue that he was lucky to be born with natural physique, but we see that natural talent only takes you so far, and demons still chase those pursuing perfection at a high level. Moving on from the low points of his life, Mr. Hallberg returned to the stage and is now about to assume directorship of The Australian Ballet in January 2021, so we can see that his reconstruction of his mental health as well as his physical health has led him to great success.

3. MOVIE: “Children of Theater Street.” Not a book, but this documentary directed by Robert Dornhelm and Earle Mack (and narrated by Grace Kelly!) explores life at the Vaganova Academy. While this isn’t related to the “American dance experience,” it does show how this traditional method of training, and how ballet becomes a lifestyle. Whether you agree with the school’s methods or not, students from the Vaganova have gone on to be incredibly successful dancers and artists, and the school’s influence on ballet cannot be ignored.

Technique and Understanding Style:

*There are several syllabi and ballet techniques that are worth reading or reading about, this list is short in relation to what is out there. These are the things I have read about technique and style that I have found helpful or fundamental to understanding certain methods.

1. “Fundamentals of the Classical Dance” by Agrippina Vaganova. I personally think that dancers should understand or at least be exposed to as many different training techniques and syllabi as possible. This is essentially Vaganova’s syllabus and gives a comprehensive view into the technique as it was written by the creator.

2. “Bournonville and Ballet Technique” by Erik Bruhn and Lillian Moore. While this doesn’t cover everything in ballet training, it does highlight key training elements of the Bournonville style, without which it would be very challenging to dance Bournonville ballets.

3. VIDEO: “The Balanchine Essays.” A ten- part series hosted by Suki Schorer and Merrill Ashley, with students from the School of American Ballet, these videos were put together by the Balanchine Trust to create a “visual dictionary” of the Balanchine style and technique. Leading Balanchine experts cite this as a reliable source of learning “what Mr. B would have wanted.” Balanchine is still seen as the creator of “American ballet,” meaning his works will continue to be relevant and in the repertoire of many American ballet companies, so understanding how to dance his work is very important

4. VIDEO: “Forsythe Improvisation Technologies: A Tool for the Analytical Eye.”

William Forsythe is another American dance pioneer, taking what neoclassical ballet started and expanding it to create a defining genre of contemporary ballet. His “Improvisation Technologies” were released in 1994 as a “digital dance school” (he was ahead of his time- pre- coronavirus digital learning). These tools- the above video demonstrates one example called "avoidance"- were what he and his dancers at Frankfurt Ballet used to create new works, and as a dancer, having language and a “technique” for improvisation and creation is extremely helpful. I can say that in my time as a dancer, these improvisation technologies are my foundation when a choreographer or director asks me to create movement. This is another one of my top resources for ballet dancers- I cannot emphasize how important it is to be able to work creatively in a company environment today.

That’s all I have for now! Again, this is just the beginning of ballet education. Also, this is assuming that dancers have watched every classical ballet and contemporary masterworks, most of which you can find on YouTube, or a streaming service like Marquee TV (www.marquee.tv) . It might sound excessive, but the reality is that to be a smart dancer, you have to watch and read as much as you can. As someone in dance who watches a lot of dance, you can see the dancers with layers of knowledge and expression and the ones without. This is one thing within this career that you can control- your own approach to learning and working.

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