Special Section: The ABCs Of Ballet
An arabesque is one of classical ballet’s signature, and most beautiful, poses: One leg is extended behind the body and one arm (or both) reach forward. Dancers work hard to position their limbs, torso and head for a striking shape that enhances their body or conveys emotion. A dancer in character can change an arabesque from exuberant to somber with just the tilt of the head or the height of a leg. Here, Dance Theater of Harlem’s Alison Stroming shows the arms and legs in First Arabesque.
It’s just a wooden or metal railing, but what happens at the barre is everything. Ballet classes typically begin with 45 minutes of barre exercises that start simple, then increase in difficulty, size and speed. The rest of class takes place in the center of the room, allowing dancers to link steps into combinations or choreography that might later be performed. Barre exercises are much more than a warm-up: It’s where technique begins. What’s practiced sloppily at the barre won’t magically improve on the floor. Here, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Nicholas Rose and Alison stand by the barre prepared for class.
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In a developpé, the leg slow unfolds, like the opening of a flower. As the name suggests, the movement develops, with the dancer’s working leg traveling up against the supporting leg, then extending away from the body. It takes a depth of control, especially from the core muscles, to do it smoothly.
Taken from the French word for “shoulder,” épaulement describes the placement of the head and torso. While dancers use épaulement to give their movement and poses artistic flair, the positions are specific, each with their own terms and rules.
These highly difficult turns are the ultimate crowd pleasers. Fouetté turns take their name from the whipping movement of the working leg, which then propels the rotation of the body. These turns, requiring extreme coordination from the dancer, are used often in classical narrative ballets, such as “Swan Lake,” when the ballerina’s character needs to cast a spell. Turning 32 times has become something of an arbitrary standard, but watching a dancer do just a few fouetté turns can be mesmerizing.
Choreographer George Balanchine (1904-1983) developed a “neoclassical” approach to ballet and profoundly updated the art form. Instead of the plots, princes and castles in classical ballet, Balanchine emphasized dancers and music.
Born and trained in Russia, Balanchine traveled to Europe in 1924 and America in 1933. Along the way, he took ballet in new directions — faster footwork, elongated lines, heightened musicality, fewer fairy tales. In the mid 1930s, he co-founded New York City Ballet and its affiliated School of American Ballet, where generations have trained in his style.
Dancers still pass on his style by teaching his ballets or starting their own schools and companies. The dancers in this feature are a part of that legacy: Dance Theatre of Harlem, the first African-American classical ballet company, was founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, a City Ballet star who Balanchine cast in many lead roles.
Ballet originated in France, and so its terminology is in French. “En haut,” or “up,” indicates that the arms are held up above the body. The use and placement of the arms in general is referred to as “port de bras,” or “passage of the arms.” A dancer with especially attractive port de bras is able to present the upper body with grace and simplicity.
Ballet is full of illusions, contrasts and juxtapositions. Point shoes make dancers’ feet look long and beautiful, but here, Alison reveals what’s going on inside: athletic tape, thin cushions and seriously cramped conditions.
Taken from the French word “to throw,” a jeté is a jump that can be kept low to the ground, as shown here, but can be much larger. One foot is “thrown” away from the body, then brought back in. Jetés can be linked with other steps into a dazzling footwork sequence. Here, Nicholas presents two slow jetés, followed by three quick ones.
Dancers need a lot of gear to make the magic happen. In this photo, Alison shared with us the contents of the bag she brings to rehearsals and performances, filled with shoes, tights, multiple leotards, bobby pins and lots of sewing string for fixing costumes or shoes.
Body shape may be determined from birth, but dancers use the principles of ballet to create “line.” It can be seen in fully extended poses, as Alison demonstrates. It can also be seen in a low lunge, from the tips of the fingers to the shoulder, from the lower back to the ankle as Nicholas illustrates. Dancers work diligently on these details, while teachers and choreographers keep sharp eyes on what they want to see. Line can convey emotion, as in the dramatic ballet “Giselle.” (More on that coming up!)
Men play a crucial role in creating the beautiful illusions of classical ballet. In fairy tales full of romance and chivalry (as well as betrayal and forgiveness), the danseur noble creates a believable relationship. In partnering, male strength enables women to strike breathtaking poses that gravity would otherwise prohibit, as shown here.
Of all the full-length classical ballets, “The Nutcracker” may be the most performed: Ballet companies across America perform it annually at Christmastime, introducing new generations to ballet every year.
Adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” the ballet has well-known, colorful music by Tchaikovsky. Choreographers run wild with imagination for new productions that take off from the basics of an idyllic family Christmas, a battle of toy soldiers versus mice and a magical land of dancing candy.
The dual role of Odette and Odile in the classical ballet “Swan Lake” is a serious test of a ballerina. Odette is a woman trapped under an evil spell as the White Swan; The spell that can only be broken by true love. Odette’s alter-ego, Odile, is the sinister Black Swan who seduces and tricks the prince who had pledged his love to Odette. The two characters demand sharply different emotion, style and skills from one dancer, though at special events the roles may be played by different dancers.
A plié sounds simple: It is essentially a deep knee bend in series of different foot positions. In this image, Alison demonstrates a grand plié in second position. Almost always the first exercise in class, a plié stretches all the muscles of the legs, but it is much more than a technical exercise. Buoyant muscles help dancers link footwork into a smooth flow.
“Don Quixote” is a time for men to deliver some razzle dazzle, which Nicholas demonstrates at the end of this video. Set in Spain, the classical ballet is loosely based on Miguel de Cervantes’ novel, but no one goes for the story. The fun is in the Spanish flair of the romantic couple and the panache of the bull fighter. Male dancers often learn flashy parts of “Don Q” for auditions, competitions and gala events.
A relevé is one of ballet’s basics. It is a simple rise from flat feet to either demi-pointe or en pointe, as Alison demonstrates here in fifth position. A relevé can be done in any of the five basic positions in which the dancer lifts the heels and balances.
Stretching is a crucial part of life for dancers, allowing them to increase their range of motion and prevent injury. Dancers stretch to keep themselves warmed up for performance, to get ready for class or to recover at end of a long day.
Turnout is is the outward rotation of the legs and feet that gives ballet its signature look.
It is one of the foundational principals of ballet, and it allows dancers to move in every direction. The five basic positions of the feet, shown here, all require turnout, but the rotation starts from hips.
Ballet is a universal language. Ballet steps, and their French names, are fundamentally the same around the world, though there are differences in schools of thought and in company styles. Part of the joy of watching ballet closely lies noticing the stylistic differences between, say, a pirouette by a dancer at Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet as opposed to France’s Paris Opera Ballet. It’s why fans go out of their way to see touring companies. On this slide is a map with just a few of the many companies around the world.
Ballet harnesses the power of physics to deliver some spectacular results. Here, Nicholas builds up velocity to execute a series of turns and jumps in a circle.
Ballet even has zombies! The Wilis are spirits in Act Two of “Giselle,” one of the world’s great story ballets. As in “Swan Lake,” the lead ballerina in “Giselle” portrays two different personalities. In Act One, Giselle is a cheerful peasant girl, smitten with a local boy who wants to marry her. Turns out, he’s a prince, engaged to another royal. Giselle discovers the truth, goes mad and dies. In Act Two, she’s joined the Wilis, the spirits of jilted girls. They rise at night to dance men to their death. They’re out for Giselle’s prince, but she saves his life. Above, Alison appears in a classic pose from “Giselle” Act Two, embodying a somber, forgiving shadow of a once-happy girl.
Ballet dancers fly through space with a precise attention to time. They hit their marks, like the yellow X on the studio floor here, as determined by choreographers, but dancers can add personality by making choices about phrasing, or emphasis. Here, Alison and Nicholas demonstrate the same steps (a basic combination that students practice regularly) with the subtle differences that make the movement their own.
Ballet raises a lot of questions. Why is it so hard? Why are tickets so expensive? Why is it so French, yet so Russian? All that can all be answered in history, but there is an even bigger question facing ballet today: Why does this art form need to continue?
Here’s our take: Ballet represents the pinnacle of how human beings can use the body to express emotion and music. Ballet strives to express the inexpressible. It combines grace and power, artistry and athleticism — not to mention expressiveness and silence from its practitioners. It’s an artistic mystery and yet in it, we can discover something about ourselves.
It’s true that ballet characters are not often as immediately relatable as theater characters may be. But swan-girls and magic nutcrackers spark our imaginations, while the dancers themselves test limits of what the body can do. Ballet is evolving, and as it does, dancers are preserving a world-historical tradition.
Dancers need to catch some zzzs! Life in a professional ballet company is extremely taxing: Daily class can start around 10 A.M., followed by rehearsals and then a performance at night. On tour, it all happen regardless of jet lag, lost luggage or less than perfect conditions. And when the day is done, it’s time for a good sleep.