Friday, 14 June 2013

Ballet Evolved: Pas de Deux

Insight evening - Ballet Evolved: Pas de Deux, Royal Ballet, Clore Studio @ ROH - reviewed on 11th June

Louis XIV in Le Ballet de le Nuit,
choreographed in 1653
Former company ballet mistress Ursula Hageli guided an enthusiastic audience through the history of ballet pas de deux alongside Royal Ballet dancers Yuhui Choe, Emma Maguire, Valentino Zucchetti and Benjamin Ella.
Ballet as we know it started with the Minuet in the court of King Louis XIV (pictured). The dance was very simple with just one (minuet) step that was repeated in differing directions and patterns. At court balls, the King would first perform the dance, followed by other nobility in descending order of importance from princes and princesses to courtiers. As women wore pannier skirts (pictured), their legs could not be seen, so it was the men who took centre stage in these dances.
Later in the 18th and 19th Century, as dancing increased in complexity, skirts became shorter and dancers replaced heeled shoes with ballet slippers. In the 1800s, renowned ballerina Marie Taglioni (pictured below) was the first dancer to go on pointe, and this made females the centre of attention in performance. The male role became to hold the ballerina and enhance the ethereal quality effect that was produced as she balanced on the tips of her toes.

Maguire and Zucchetti demonstrated an early version of the Giselle peasant pas de deux, where the ballerina went on pointe only momentarily, as her shoes were still fairly soft and unsupportive. Her partner would help to hold her up and also lift her into the air to increase her sense of lightness.
Ballet historian Giannandrea Poesio highlighted the contrasting opinions to pas de deux at the time. One critic wrote in 1771 that "there is nothing more tedious than having to watch a couple dancing onstage". In 1801, another writer questioned the appropriateness of female dancers being lifted: "Is there no end to debauchery? Ballet is not a circus!"
Marie Taglioni in Zephire et Flore, 1831
In 1845, one person stated of the ballet duet that "some call it pas de deux, but in fact the 'pas' is only for one person. The man is the third leg of the ballerina". Whereas in the same year, a pas de deux enthusiast wrote: "Let the woman soar in the man's arms and theatre magic is back."
Moving onto the Petipa era in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the ballerina became a much more virtuoso performer, able to execute tricks such as fouettés with her hardened pointe shoes. Dancers, both male and female, became focused on demonstrating the biggest leaps and balances regardless of music. (In fact, musicians and conductors would simply have to pause while they waited for dancers to hit positions.) But choreographer Michel Fokine was not impressed. He told Anna Pavlova: "This circus-like technique is not artistic", to which she replied "but the audience like it!"
Poesio highlighted the origins of the grand pas de deux, which was created during the period. An extravagant duet seen in ballets such as Don Quixote and Swan Lake, it has a very precise format, commencing with entrée and adage, followed by solos and then an allegro coda. Some people enjoyed these as they offered yet more chance for dancers to show off their skills, but others didn't like the way in which the ballet story was temporarily halted to display bravura technique.

In any case, during the 1900s, pas de deux developed dramatically, with increasingly daring and exciting lifts and jumps, as demonstrated in Frederick Ashton's 1977 Voices of Spring (pictured).

Hageli then described the importance of well-matched partners in successful pas de deux. The dancers need to have the right proportions to work well together as well as hearing the music in the same way and having a shared sense of balance.

Alexander Campbell and Yuhui Choe in Voices of Spring
Photo: Bill Cooper, courtesy of ROH
Anthony Dowell had an incredibly successful partnership with Antoinette Sibley, but did he ever have trouble with other pas de deux partners? "Only once in a rehearsal, and I'm not saying any more! But it is refreshing to dance with other people and not always the same partner. Then when I came back to Antoinette it was like coming home."

Dowell then passed on some of his knowledge to Choe and Ella as he coached them in the Act III grand pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty. The duet looks simple when performed effectively, but seeing the young and relatively inexperienced Ella in rehearsal showed just how difficult the choreography is to master.

Dowell was particularly insistent that Ella should stand on two flat feet for stability rather than in the more modern 'male pose' position with one foot pointed. He reassured Ella that he didn't need to look good during the pas de deux as "the audience is all looking at the ballerina anyway!"

Perhaps the 1845 writer was correct when he suggested that the male was little more than a "third leg" for the female dancer. But whoever takes the spotlight, this evening was a fascinating insight into the evolution of classical duets and how the pas de deux, that is such as powerful feature in contemporary ballets, came into being.


  1. This is fascinating. I'd like to read more. Could you provide a citation for this 1845 speaker who commented on the pas de deux partner as a "third leg"?

  2. Hi Allison, apologies for the delay - if I had a citation, I would provide it but either there was none given at the event or it was said too quickly for me to write down!