Is It Time to Completely Rethink Ballet Class?
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
Since ballet began more than 400 years ago, there has always been the question of how to train dancers for the job's unique mix of physical, theatrical and musical skills. Each generation has learned from the one before it, adding bits here and cutting bits there.
Tulsa Ballet company members practice morning pliés. Photo by Francisco Estevez, courtesy Tulsa Ballet
Eventually, around the beginning of the 19th century, ballet class took the form and structure of what professional ballet dancers now do every day, beginning at the barre with pliés and ending in the center with allégro. Like today, the steps they practiced were ballet steps; they trained as a large ensemble divvied up into lines and groups according to the exercise; they faced a mirror and followed the teacher's instructions.
Yet today's ballet dancers need to be much more versatile. Almost all midsize to large ballet companies now boast a repertoire that includes works by choreographers like William Forsythe and Ohad Naharin alongside neoclassicists like Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine.
To address those demands, BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang, for one, says he encourages his ballet masters to give class combinations that tie in with the choreography. For example, if they are performing Giselle they might do longer adagios for stamina and hold arabesque pliés while the men are given more petit allégro. For a contemporary ballet program they incorporate more transitional material into the combinations, which mirrors the complicated transitions in the choreography.
But, Liang admits, with a work like Naharin's Minus 16, there is no natural tie-in. (Instead, his dancers took Gaga three times a week after morning ballet class before their Minus 16 run.)
BalletMet's Edwaard Liang teaching company class. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.
Vaganova faced a similar situation in the years following the Russian Revolution. Soviet choreographers searching for a new dance style to match the new social order threw some very unclassical acrobatic moves at the dancers—steps like splits and high leg extensions which until that point were considered inappropriate. Vaganova adjusted her class to prepare students for these "new steps." In her view, these movements would be meaningless if they were not properly trained. "We will achieve nothing new by bringing them to the stage without the corresponding treatment," she wrote (as translated by Catherine Pawlick in Vaganova Today: The Preservation of Pedagogical Tradition). Where choreography goes, preparation for it ought to follow, or, at the very least, adapt.
Today's dancers are not only asked to perform a greater variety of technique, but often at a higher intensity, which presents its own challenges. Emma Redding, head of dance science at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, points out in Dancers: Fit Bodies? that ballet classes focus on skill acquisition rather than general physiological development, such as strength and stamina. That means that most dancers need to supplement their daily class with all manner of cross-training—Pilates, yoga, Gyrotonic, spinning, swimming—to gain the aerobic fitness and power they need for performance, and to avoid injury.
Joffrey Ballet dancer Derrick Agnoletti, for example, does CrossFit three mornings a week and swimming and boot camp on the other two. "Class doesn't train us for stamina, but a lot of our work is stamina-based," he says. At 35, Agnoletti may be one of the oldest dancers in the company, but his cross-training regimen has made him one of the fittest. "When most of the dancers are out of breath I feel fine," he says.
Most dancers feel pressure to perform significant amounts of cross-training to build the strength ballet class doesn't. Photo by Quinn Wharton.
Could class be redesigned to improve fitness? Yes, say Brazilian researchers Josianne Rodrigues-Krause, Mauricio Krause and Álvaro Reischak-Oliveira. In Cardiorespiratory Considerations in Dance: From Classes to Performances, they propose introducing "ballet sets" after the center phase of technique class, such as five-minute routines of three sets of 20-second high-intensity exercise (allégro) interspersed with two minutes of active recovery (such as adagio). This interval training would challenge dancers' aerobic fitness while using the specific muscles and coordination required in ballet. They suggest teachers get the support of fitness specialists to integrate physical training principles into class to better meet the requirements of today's choreography.
Their proposals call into question the overall efficiency of the ballet class, and whether dancers' time and energy can be better managed. For example, is the barre section too long and unnecessarily repetitive?
A number of studies show that barre is not as effective in training dancers' balance as is commonly assumed. Curious about the transfer of training from barre to center, Virginia Wilmerding, a research professor at University of New Mexico, carried out an electromyographical comparison of a développé devant at barre and at center and discovered—drum roll—that the standing leg works 50 to 60 percent less while using the barre.
The standing leg isn't fully activated at barre. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
"You may be training a myriad of other things, but you are not training your standing leg," she says. "So then you go into the center and look at all the tendus you have to do because you wasted 45 minutes at barre not training the supporting foot." However, she recognizes that barre is more than this. "I feel weird saying barre doesn't do this or that because when I was dancing, I loved barre! It gets you into a kind of mindfulness."
Vaganova died in 1951 before dance science became a serious subject of research. But she already had a scientist's approach—she believed that ballet could be taught in an analytical way to achieve consistent results. She was not impressed by coincidental success achieved unsystematically. Vaganova would likely be delighted with all the new means of analyzing movement, like videography and motion-capture technology—more tools in the pedagogue's kit—and update her approach accordingly.
The classical ballet class has served the art form tremendously well for a couple hundred years. "Considering how old the traditions are, it is extraordinary what they got right," says Wilmerding. "The fact that you start slowly and move more quickly as time passes. The fact that you start with a wide base of support and slowly move to a narrow base of support."
Most dance professionals still believe firmly in the traditional ballet class as daily practice. "It is beautifully codified and sets one up for doing almost anything," says Jodie Gates, who heads the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at the University of Southern California, "but I think we can approach it with contemporary thinking." Rather than challenging the structure of class, her program challenges its culture, taking ballet off its elitist pedestal by giving it equal weight as other techniques.
Ballet class at USC. Photo by Carolyn DiLoreto
Liang, on the other hand, is not sure we have ever thought outside the box enough. "We are steeped in tradition," he says, "and the scariest word to all of us is 'change.' " Many ballet dancers have an almost superstitious need to practice the same steps in the same order every day.
Yet in her lifetime, Vaganova's own approach changed. "Pupils who have not seen me for a long time find an improvement and progress in my teaching," she wrote in one of her last articles. "What is the cause of this? Diligent attention to new types of productions. Look at life all around; everything is growing, everything is moving forward. Therefore, I recommend… Keeping in touch with life and with art."
This story has been updated to credit quotes from Agrippina Vaganova to Catherine Pawlick's Vaganova Today: The Preservation of Pedagogical Tradition and Agrippina Vaganova's Basic Principals of Classical Ballet. We regret the ommission.
As a very shy little girl, my happy place was my room, where I would wear improvised costumes and giggle with happiness while dancing for an imaginary audience. I was raised in a family where dancing was "normal." My mom and sisters graduated from the national ballet academy in Poland, and I, of course, wanted to follow their steps. But I was never forced to. I am proud to say I discovered the magic of ballet all by myself.
Photo by Costin Radu, courtesy of Petra Conti
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The midterm elections are less than three weeks away on November 6. If you're registered to vote, hooray!
But you can't fully celebrate before you've completed your mission. Showing up at the polls is what matters most—especially since voter turnout for midterms doesn't have a fabulous track record. According to statistics from FairVote, about 40 percent of the population that is eligible to vote actually casts a ballot during midterm elections.
Many members of the dance community are making it clear that they want that percentage go up, and they're using social media to take a stand. Here's how they're getting involved:
Dancers will do just about anything to increase their odds of staying injury-free. And there are plenty of products out there claiming that they can help you do just that. But which actually work?
We asked for recommendations from four experts: Martt Lawrence, who teaches Pilates to dancers in San Francisco; Lisa-Marie Lewis, who teaches yoga at The Ailey Extension in New York City; physical therapist Alexis Sams, who treats dancers at her clinic in Phoenix; and stretch training coach Vicente Hernandez, who teaches at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet.
With a contemporary air that exalts—rather than obscures—flamenco tradition, and a technique and stamina that boggle the mind, Eduardo Guerrero's professional trajectory has done nothing but skyrocket since being named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" earlier this year. His 2017 solo Guerrero has toured widely, and he has created premieres for the Jerez Festival (Faro) and the 2018 Seville Flamenco Biennial (Sombra Efímera). In the midst of his seemingly unstoppable ascension, he's created Gaditanía, his first work utilizing a corps de ballet. Guerrero is currently touring the U.S. with this homage to Cadiz, the city of his birth.
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At our cover shoot for the November issue, Bobbi Jene Smith curated one of the best lineups of YouTube music videos that I've heard in a long time. From Bob Dylan to Tom Waits, they felt like such perfect choices for her earthy, visceral movement and soulful approach to dance.
Dance technology has come a long way from ballet variations painstakingly learned by watching fuzzy VHS tapes. Over the last few years, a dizzying number of online training programs have cropped up, offering the chance to take class in contemporary, jazz, ballet, tap, hip hop and even ballroom from the comfort of your own living room or studio.
Usually, it takes new recruits a few seasons to make their mark at the Paul Taylor Dance Company. But Taylor wasted no time in honing in on the talents of Alex Clayton. Only a few months after Clayton joined in June 2017, Taylor created an exciting solo for him in his new Concertiana, filled with explosive leaps and quick footwork. Clayton was also featured in new works by Doug Varone and Bryan Arias. At 5' 6" he may be compact, but onstage he fills the space with a thrilling sense of attack.
Scottish Ballet is turning 50 next year, but they'll be the one giving out the gifts.
In 2019, the company will make five wishes from fans come true, as a way of thanking them for their loyalty and support over the years. "It can be anything from the dancers performing at a birthday party or on the banks of Loch Ness, or even the chance to get on stage and be part of a Scottish Ballet show," according to the company.
Recently, English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams announced that she will no longer be wearing pink tights. With the support of her artistic director Tamara Rojo, she will instead wear chocolate brown tights (and shoes) that match her flesh tone.
It may seem like a simple change, but this could be a watershed moment—one where the aesthetics of ballet begin to expand to include the presence of people of color.
Flamenco dancer and choreographer Rocío Molina created her first full-length production, Entre paredes ("Between Walls"), at the age of 22. At 26, the prodigy received Spain's National Dance Prize, the most coveted dance award in Spain. Now 34, her rupture with tradition makes her no stranger to controversy. But it, and her fiercely personal and contemporary style, means that each new project is a fascinating voyage.
Molina is the subject of French filmmaker Emilio Belmonte's first feature length documentary, IMPULSO. The film, which makes its U.S. theatrical premiere at New York City's Film Forum on October 17, follows Molina for two years as she tours Europe presenting a series of improvised works. These improvisations ultimately inspired the creation of one of Molina's masterworks, Caída de Cielo ("Fallen from Heaven"), which premiered in 2016.
In a move that was both surprising and seemingly inevitable, New York City Ballet closed its fall season by promoting seven dancers. Joseph Gordon, who was promoted to soloist in February 2017, is now a principal dancer. Daniel Applebaum, Harrison Coll, Claire Kretzschmar, Aaron Sanz, Sebastian Villarini-Velez and Peter Walker have been promoted to soloist.
Newly promoted soloist Peter Walker has been showing his abilities as a leading man in ballets like Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB
The announcement was made on Saturday by Jonathan Stafford, the head of NYCB's interim leadership team. These seven promotions mark the first since longtime ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired in the midst of harassment allegations at the beginning of this year. While Stafford and fellow interim leaders Rebecca Krohn, Craig Hall and Justin Peck have made some bold choices in terms of programming—such as commissioning Kyle Abraham and Emma Portner to create new works for the 2018–19 season—their primary focus has appeared to be keeping the company running on an even keel while the search for a new artistic leader is ongoing. Some of us theorized that we would not be seeing any promotions until a new artistic director was in place.
Ryan Steele has a simple rule for demanding days on Broadway: "I listen to my body," he says. "I have whatever I'm craving: If I need more protein, I go straight for that. If I'm tired, I know I need carbs."
This wasn't always Steele's approach. Growing up, shuttling between the studio and school meant relying on McDonald's and Burger King.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)
The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:
"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."
Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.
Earlier this week, a friend of a friend reached out to me seeking recommendations for a dancer/choreographer to hire. She wanted someone who could perform a solo and talk about their process for an arts-appreciation club. After a few emails back and forth, as I was trying to find out exactly what kind of choreographer she was looking for, it eventually emerged that she was not looking to pay this person.
"We are hoping to find someone who would be willing to participate in exchange for the exposure," she wrote.
Why do people think this is an okay thing to ask for?
For over a decade, husband-and-wife team Pascal Rioult and Joyce Herring, artistic and associate artistic directors of RIOULT Dance NY, dreamed of building a space for their company and fellow artists in the community, and a school for future dancers. This month, their 11,000-square-foot dream opens its doors in the Kaufman Arts District in Astoria, Queens, a New York City neighborhood across the East River from Manhattan.
In the final years of her decade-long career with the Lewitzky Dance Company, University of Arizona Associate Professor Amy Ernst began to develop an interest in dance injury prevention. She remembers feeling an urge to widen her understanding of dance and the body. Soon after retirement from the Company, she was hired by the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Inglewood, California as a physical therapy assistant, where she worked for the next three and a half years. This work eventually led her to pursue an M.F.A. in dance at the University of Washington-Seattle. She remembers growing into the role of a professor during her time pursuing her degree. That incubation phase was critical. Ernst joined the faculty at the University of Arizona in 1995, and now as director of the M.F.A. program, mentors the new generation of dance faculty, company directors and innovators.
With cooler weather finally here, it's time to talk warm-ups. And while your dancewear drawer is probably overflowing with oversized sweaters, leggings and enough leg warmers to outfit the whole class, warm-up boots are often forgotten. To keep your feet and ankles cozy in between rehearsals, we rounded up dance warm-up boots that suit every style.
Bloch Inc. Printed Warm-up Bootie
via Bloch Inc.
Created by Irina Dvorovenko and Max Beloserkovsky, this collection comes in a variety of tie dye, floral and even butterfly prints.
Some of my favorite experiences as both an audience member and a dancer have involved audience participation. Artists who cleverly use participatory moments can make bold statements about the boundaries between performer and spectator, onstage and off. And the challenge to be more than a passive viewer can redefine an audience's relationship to what they're watching. But all the experiences I've loved have had something in common: They've given audiences a choice.
A few weeks back, I had a starkly different experience—one that has caused me to think deeply about how consent should play into audience-performer relationships.
What happens when you mix two really good things together? Sometimes, it can be magical. It's practically guaranteed when one of those elements is the wizarding world of Harry Potter, and the other is—wait for it—dance-team–style hip hop.
When the Bible spoke of the "ingathering of the exiles," it didn't have dance in mind. Yet, this month, more than 100 dancers, choreographers and scholars from around the world will gather at Arizona State University to celebrate the impact of Jews and the Jewish experience on dance. From hora to hip hop, social justice to somatics, ballet to Gaga, the three-day event (Oct. 13–15) is "deliberately inclusive," says conference organizer and ASU professor Naomi Jackson.