The Balanchinization of Ballet

This debate has been going on since Balanchine's NYCB ascended to become one of America's foremost ballet companies.  Balanchine was a product of the Russian Imperial system and was present at the end of the Petipa years  He was rebellious in nature and it seems the rest of his career was set upon loosening the hold of Russian Imperial style on ballet.

And he succeeded to a large degree that we have this continual discussion, is the paradigm of the Balanchine female body good for ballet?  Is it what Balanchine really intended or were his preferences exaggerated to an unrecognizable degree?  I would say it was a bit both.

I think the main misconception was that Balanchine only wanted tall dancers and his company was therefore a den of Amazons.  But as I look at old photos and film footage during the 60's and 70's, I see that this was not the case.  There are dancers of all different sizes in NYCB during Balanchine's heydey.  Many of his favorites were tall (Farrell, Aroldingen, Ashley), but he also was just as likely to favor petite ballerinas as well (Kirkland, Kent, McBride).  Yet, all of them were almost indistinguishable from each other at times despite height differences.  This was a result of Balanchine being aware very early in his career that his choreography, his preferences for certain steps changed the musculature of his dancers.  Which was why he was adamant about establishing his own school so that he could control the development and growth of dancers, female dancers especially.  The training he preferred was geared toward lengthening the leg muscles as much as it was physically possible.

You can see snippets of the training in this video of Ashley Hod (now an NYCB Corps dancer):

The class exercises in this video concentrate on strengthening then stretching the legs.  The proof of result is in Hod and her fellow classmates.  All of them, of different sizes and body types, have the same long legged look.  The look that Balanchine preferred and thought was distinctly American looking.  He also thought American dancers were strong and he enjoyed the muscular definition in his dancers.  Kirkland stated in her first auto-biography that he encouraged starvation diets to achieve his preferred look.  Yet on his blog, John Clifford, stated that Kirkland misunderstood Balanchine.  This could be the case, since Kirkland was very rebellious at the time and Balanchine seemed an unwilling father figure.  At the time, the muscular look was very new, very different.  Until Balanchine, dancers were on the small side, heavier and ethereal looking.

You can see it in Margot Fonteyn's form

and Natalia Bessmertnova

More evidence of the former style in a 67 film of the Bolshoi

Contrast with an early 70's film of NYCB.  Look at all those athletic looking women!

In present day it is hard to gauge just how revolutionary Balanchine's dancers looked because now ALL dancers look like NYCB dancers.  Which I think is problematic.  Balanchine's ballets are not geared toward showcasing strength and stamina as an accomplishment to cause audience wonderment.  He was all about presenting pretty legs and emphasizing speed (all the better to watch those long limbs whipping around).  While looking strong is one thing, actually performing feats of strength is quite another.  When you are tall or designed to look it, your balancing center is quite high.  Skittering along in a beautiful Balanchine ballet is quite different from hunkering down into a Petipa classic.  In classics, being small is a boon.  Your center of gravity is low hence all the balances and pirouettes are almost easy.  But now we see loads of dancers with a Balanchine look fluttering around these classical ballets performing steps that are hit or miss for them.

I don't think dancers, who are trained for years, should be missing steps as much as they do in the present time.  And I think this is a direct influence of the Balanchine look exaggerated to an unwieldy degree.  You can even see it in the Russian ballet companies now, they have paired the tall Balanchine look with the old ethereal look to create starveling little wraiths.

Perhaps now that it is affecting the way dancers move, the way they breath, the look will now begin to fade.  I don't think that Balanchine thought his preferences would invade the rest of ballet nor change the look of the classics.  He had tunnel vision in that he wanted what he wanted for his ballets and paid little attention to the rest of the ballet world.  I'm sure he didn't wake up in the mornings thinking that his ballerinas would look better and dance better as Sleeping Beauty's Aurora. Although I've read that he stated his dancers could do anything including the classics.  But we are talking about dancers during Balanchine's era not the dancers who have the "Balanchine Look".  It was said that he was proud of Kirkland's classical career and perhaps thought she proved him right.

However Kirkland was a ballet genius and she undertook a self directed journey into classical ballet in order to bring herself to that level of dancing.  She changed her look.  She changed her center of gravity and this can be seen in photos.

Dewdrop in NYCB

Giselle with ABT

The NYCB photo shows that her center of gravity is higher as Kirkland pulls up in order to be ready for the next lightening strike step.  The Giselle photo shows a more relaxed dancer using the center where it is naturally, the lower abdomen.  The lower center allows for more balancing control and refined movement.

Perhaps the next change in ballet will be directed by Kirkland.  Her small company is gaining a lot of kudos.  And the video examples show young dancers with wonderful amounts of control over their bodies and artistry.  None of them look too tall or extremely thin.  They don't need exaggerated bodies when their dancing is as lovely as in these records of Kirkland's SB staging for her company.

Kirkland has also expressed interest in staging a Balanchine ballet and I hope it happens.  It would be quite something...pure Balanchine technique married to pure Classicism in a way that only Kirkland could accomplish.

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