Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Ballet Schools and Circus Skills

Boston Ballet's Lia Cirio and Sabi Varga in Polyphonia
Photo: Gene Schiavone
I wrote my MA dissertation on artistry in ballet and whether and how it can be taught to vocational students. I found that most ballet teachers focus on technique rather than choreographic style or expressiveness, no doubt due to (or possibly caused by) the fact that today's dancers require undoubtedly greater strength and athleticism than those of the past. (See the incredibly acrobatic choreography of Christopher Wheeldon's 2001 ballet, Polyphonia, pictured above.)
But in professional companies, dancers are artists and not just technicians and I have heard numerous complaints from coaches and critics that dancers are performing too many 'circus tricks' at the expense of the artistry of ballet. Of course, virtuosity is appropriate in some cases, such as the bravura pas de deux of Don Quixote or any of Wayne McGregor's athletic works, but multiple pirouettes and high leg extensions don't have a place in the likes of Giselle or Coppélia.
Are ballet schools to blame? Do they need to make their training programmes more artistic? Yes, they do. In my dissertation, I suggested they include as much professional repertoire as possible, as well as choreographic style classes where they exist, such as in the case of Balanchine. But there is also a balance to be struck. Realistically, young dancers will not be given jobs if they lack the impressive technique of their peers. So technical training has to be balanced with the need to produce creative, adaptable artists.
Interestingly, I discovered at the Humorologie festival in Belgium that key figures in the world of circus have similar fears about the training of circus artists. As festival director, Koen Allary, lamented: "Circus schools are very focused on skills, skills, skills and not how to develop students as artists.”
An audience member at one of the festival shows also described circus to me as “the art of body expression”. Perhaps instead of considering circus to be ballet's inferior cousin, both disciplines need to work out a way in which to balance the training of impressive tricks with developing students' artistry and expressiveness. Maybe then we will end up with a generation of performers who have the ability to wow with virtuosity but also touch the soul with their art, and who will, most importantly, know when each is required.

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