Thursday, 8 August 2013

Ballet Steps: Arabesque

Boston Ballet's Lia Cirio in The Second Detail
Photo: Gene Schiavone
For part two of my series on ballet steps, I consider the arabesque. This is an alignment of the leg so that it goes directly behind the body with an extended knee. All of the body's weight is on the other (supporting) leg. The arabesque features in virtually every ballet and is frequently held on pointe by female dancers in pas de deux where the male dancer can support them. Arabesques are also often used to demonstrate balance or as a jump preparation and/or landing.

The height of the back leg can be variable, from an arabesque à terre, where the foot touches the floor, to the most common height, where the leg is parallel to the floor, right the way up to an arabesque penchée, in which the legs may reach a 180+ degree angle. The average height of the leg has increased substantially over time as ballet technique has progressed and dancers become more athletic.

Arabesque arm lines are highly variable. 1st arabesque is most common and is usually taught first. It features the same arm as supporting leg held straight forward, with the other arm straight out to the side and slightly back. In 2nd arabesque, the arms are the same, but the front arm becomes the arm opposing the supporting leg. Other common arabesque positions include 5th (arms in an oval shape above the heads), an open V, and 3rd arabesque, where both arms are straight forward, with one slightly higher than the other.

The Royal Ballet's Nehemiah Kish and Marianela Nunez 
in Manon (arabesque penchée)
Photo: Johan Persson, courtesy of ROH
Technique for the arabesque depends on the particular training school. In English ballet, the hips are kept as square as possible to the front while the leg is lifted. This means that the lifted foot ends up behind the hip, rather than behind the centre line of the body. In Balanchine-style training, the lifted leg is instead kept as close to the centre line as possible, with the resultant effect of a lifted working hip.

I first teach children to perform an arabesque with their hands, shoulders and hips all facing and square to the barre. I then ask them to imagine that their hip bones are like headlights and that they need to keep their car (hips) going straight forward as they place one leg into a tendu à terre behind. I will often ask children to work in pairs to check each other and see if their cars are going to crash or not! Once children are able to master the leg pointed to the back with square hips, I allow a lifted arabesque. Again, this is taught at the barre to check hip alignment, before moving into the centre.

Arabesque height and alignment is so important in ballet technique that many ballet schools request photos of auditionees in the position. For the Royal Ballet School, first arabesque is required; for Central School of Ballet, dancers must pose in arabesque on demi-pointe for long enough for a photo to be taken. I have many horrible memories of trying to hold an arabesque without wobbling, while my dance teacher attempted to find the right button and focus the camera etc! But here is a pic of me (after just two years of ballet lessons, when I was 17, taken for a friend's A-level photo project), which shows I didn't do too badly...

Here is also a video of Royal Ballet dancer Romany Pajdak demonstrating the various forms of arabesque:

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