The Creative Process

The Story of How Ballet Legs Got Higher, and Higher, and Higher

Forsythe's in the middle, somewhat elevated uses the battement like an attack. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet

Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,

"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."

Guillem responded,

"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "

They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly
extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.


ballet legs

Sylvie Guillem changed the expectations of ballet dancers' extensions. Photo by Nina Alovert, courtesy DM Archives.

"There's always a sense that the virtuoso is bleeding over into a realm of inappropriateness," says Ariel Osterweis, a dance and performance studies scholar at the California Institute of the Arts. "Classical forms change due to virtuosos. Because they're not wholly rejecting a certain style or form, they're just pushing the boundaries."

The leg extension to the front, side and back is one of ballet's most recognizable, debated and gawked-at stances. The beauty and magic is in the unwavering, impassive squareness of the dancers' hips. Almost anyone can "get a leg up" through some contortion of the pelvis and physical strain. But a ballet dancer's leg extends as though entirely independent, their torso floating above it all.

Battement développé "is an example of the body truly blossoming," wrote Russian critic Akim Volynsky. For the body to blossom this way, dancers need good turnout, flexibility and strength that work in a highly coordinated way.

ballet legs

To this day, extension is seen differently on male and female dancers. Yet the standards among men are rising. Here, Edward Watson in Wayne McGregor's Carbon Life. Photo by Bill Cooper, Courtesy Royal Opera House.

This was not an issue for dancers during the first couple hundred years of ballet's history. Decorum demanded that the leg extend no higher than the hip. Lifting it further revealed too much leg, and displaying the area "down there"—the crotch—was taboo for women. For men, the issue was the suggested effeminacy (and hence homosexuality) of stretch over strength—an early-19th-century notion with residues to this day.

Dancers have often had to push the limits of social propriety to further movement expression. With her skirts lifted to calf height, Marie-Anne de Cupis de Camargo could perfect the entrechat quatre in the 18th century. Marie Taglioni lifted hers some more in the mid-19th century and bourréed across the stage on pointe. By the end of the 19th century, female ballet dancers were performing in shorter tutus and dancing a variety of virtuosic steps. Yet, the legs were still generally lifted only to hip height.

"In my experience, the highest leg height notated in Stepanov is 90 degrees," says Doug Fullington, the education programs manager and assistant to the artistic director at Pacific Northwest Ballet, who has reconstructed work of Marius Petipa from Stepanov Notation. "This doesn't mean the leg never went higher in practice. However, body mechanics change as the leg goes above waist height; one gains the ability to do certain things but loses the ability to do others."

He points out that the 19th-century ballet dancers were more compact, less flexible and less turned out than those we see today. Ballet was about nimble footwork and showing elegant angles of the body and torso, better achieved with the legs below 90 degrees.

High legs were for the circus or the nightclub where brazen cancan performers kicked to their noses and flashed their undergarments—pantalettes—with or without a crotch. These high kicks might suggest that you were loose, but equally that you were independent and powerful and not to be messed with—a sort of proto-punk attitude that made its way into ballet 100 years later.

Gradually during the first half of the 20th century, seeing women's legs, albeit trousered, became socially acceptable thanks to the "all-inclusive" labor requirements of political revolutions and world war. Women were included in the gymnastics events at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, showing off the strength and agility of female legs. Fashion reformers responded to a growing emphasis on athleticism throughout the culture with accommodating and practical styles for women, such as shorter tennis skirts and all-in-one, tight-fitting bathing suits.

A new realm of physical and expressive potential was on offer to the revolutionary choreographers of the period just as audiences grew hungry for the new and exotic (and erotic) from companies like Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Dancers' flexibility could be developed and exploited with fewer social restrictions.

ballet legs

Lauren Lovette and Herman Cornejo in Balanchine's "Rubies." Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy Vail Dance Festival

A major change came from George Balanchine. "His modernist focus on form and the body (as opposed to narrative) created a shift in the way ballet-trained bodies conveyed meaning onstage," says Osterweis. His fast, fragmented movement generated an exaggerated focus on specific body parts, such as legs—their lines, height and speed.

Ever since, high leg extensions have abounded in contemporary ballet choreography. Everyone from Maurice Béjart and Roland Petit to William Forsythe, Wayne McGregor and Dwight Rhoden has pushed, contorted and extended dancers' legs for different effects and to mixed reviews. "I don't apologize for using the body in extreme ways," says Rhoden, "because I think that the work I like to do reflects the world around us, and we are in an extreme time."

With ballet companies' mixed classical and contemporary repertoires, and increasing audience expectations, it was almost unavoidable for leg heights in classical ballets not to follow the upward trend. Sure enough, a 2009 study showed that there was a steady increase in leg elevation angles of codified ballet postures between 1946 and 2004. The researchers also found that a group of ballet-naïve volunteers preferred the more vertical shapes to the earlier forms.

Today, hyperextended extensions are an expected part of most classical dancers' vocabulary. "Dancers stand at the barre their whole lives to improve their extension, to clarify their line, to amplify their form," says Rhoden. "We train our bodies to do many different types of movement; high extensions are just one way to show a heightened emotion or change in energy."

And it feels good. "From the dancer's perspective, when you can control where your working leg goes, and how you want to use it, there is that feeling like sexual power, but there's also a pure athletic and kinesthetic joy," says Osterweis. "What's interesting about the high leg as used by William Forsythe and Sylvie Guillem is that it's more of an attack and exclamation than a coy invitation." As such, it is hearkening back to those rebellious and independent cancan dancers of yore.

ballet legs

Diane Vishneva shows off lower legs in Alexei Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy ABT.

However, some critics and audiences admit to feeling a bit weary of hyperflexibility on the ballet stage. One high-profile respite has been Alexei Ratmansky's reconstructions of Petipa's ballets. The lines are returned to soft, rounded shapes, knees are bent, retirés low. There's lots of épaulement, demi-pointe and fast footwork. The dances acquire more texture and the musicality Petipa originally intended.

Judith Mackrell, writing about Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty in The Guardian, described how the leggy Bolshoi ballerina Svetlana Zakharova was transformed in this "new/old world" choreography: "Her body seemed to become physically rounder and…the more she restricted the height of her leg extensions, the more energy and lushness began to flow through her back and arms."

Mastering the 19th-century style—and its hip-height legs—still holds value. The more dancers absorb each phase of ballet's history, the richer the ballet-scape will be.

The Conversation
Dancer Voices
Paloma Garcia-Lee has appeared on Broadway and in TV's "Fosse/Verdon" and will be in the new West Side Story film. Photo by Susan Stripling, Courtesy Garcia-Lee

I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.

Keep reading... Show less
Hive by Boston Conservatory student Alyssa Markowitz. Photo by Jim Coleman

The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon. Photo by Eric Liebowitz/FX Networks

You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.

"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
Courtesy CalArts

Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by McCallum Theatre
Last year's winner: Manuel Vignoulle's EARTH. Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy McCallum Theatre

It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.

Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
LA Dance Project. Photo by Jonathan Potter, courtesy LADP

We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.

But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.

There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Carlos Acosta in a still from Yuli. Photo by Denise Guerra, Courtesy Janet Stapleton

Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Ramasar and Catazaro, photos via Instagram

One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.

The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in Fancy Free. Photo via pbt.org

A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.

This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."

Keep reading... Show less
What Dancers Eat
Courtesy Bloc Talent Agency

When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Hamrick rehearsing Port Rouge in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy Hamrick

Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.

So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Photo by freestocks.org/Unsplash

What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?

—Anonymous

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Stephen Mills' Grimm Tales, which premiered last month, is the first ballet funded by the Butler New Choreography Endowment. Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood, Courtesy Ballet Austin

As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.

So where can companies find the money?

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Social media validates extremes over clean, solid technique. Photo by David Hofmann/Unsplash

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?

Keep reading... Show less
Just for Fun
Royal Winnipeg Ballet revived Lila York's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale earlier this month. Photo by David Cooper, Courtesy RWB

When American Ballet Theatre announced yesterday that it would be adding Jane Eyre to its stable of narrative full-lengths, the English nerds in the DM offices (read: most of us) got pretty excited. Cathy Marston's adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's classic novel was created for England's Northern Ballet in 2016, and, based on the clips that have made their way online, it seems like a perfect fit for ABT's Met Opera season.

It also got us thinking about what other classic novels we'd love to see adapted into ballets—but then we realized just how many there already are. From Russian epics to beloved children's books, here are 10 of our favorites that have already made the leap from page to stage. (Special shoutout to Northern Ballet, the undisputed MVP of turning literature into live performance.)

Keep reading... Show less
Cover Story
Courtesy Khoreva

The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?

Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance History
Merce Cunningham in his Changeling (1957). Photo courtesy DM Archives

Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.

Courtesy DM Archives

Dance in Pop Culture
Courtesy MPRM Communications

A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.

But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."

Keep reading... Show less
News
A 1952 photograph of Merce Cunningham in Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three. Photo by Gerda Peterich, Courtesy Blake Zidell & Associates

One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.

This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.

The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.

Keep reading... Show less
The Creative Process
George Balanchine's Don Quixote. Photo by Martha Swope ©The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.

Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.

"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."

Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?

Keep reading... Show less
News
Sarah Lane will perform in one of the "You Are Us" benefit concerts. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy ABT

After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Malpaso Dance Company in Cunningham's Fielding Sixes. Photo by Nir Ariel, Courtesy Richard Kornberg & Associates

Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox