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A Glance At The Ballet's Technique

( Originally Published 1924 )



The name of Camargo, which arose in the first half of the eighteenth century, may be taken as the milestone that marks the progress of dancing into its modern development. Predecessors had brought to it pleasing execution and a good spirit; Camargo appears to have surpassed them in both qualities, and, in addition, to have added immensely to the art's scope both of expression and of technique. Her relation to the dancing of her time has been profoundly studied by Mme. Genee, whose fascinating programme of re-creations is the result. After the work attributed to Salle and Prevost, that of the re-created Camargo shows a very striking emancipation from former limitations. Salle and Prevost, charmingly graceful, consummately skilful, performed their Dresden-china steps evenly, coolly, in full conformity to the fastidious etiquette of the aristocracy of their day. Camargo, without bruising a petal of the hot-house flower that was. her artistic inheritance, first freed it from a fungus of affectation that others had mistaken for the bloom of daintiness. Then she arranged it to show the play of light and shade, to make it surprising—in short, to make it a vehicle of interpretation.

The material at her disposal, as noted before, was limited. To her advantage in "elevation," she replaced high-heeled shoes with ballet slippers; she was the first, since antiquity, to dance on the toes. Nevertheless her changes of level were not exciting; of big leaps she had none: The day of vivid pirouettes was yet to dawn. Her most extended step was a little ballone. Her entrece was almost the only step that raised both her feet distinctly off the floor; it, with petits battements, gave brilliancy but nothing of grandeur. Hers was a dance of simple and little steps. But they were composed, those steps,, with appreciation of the value of contrast. By contrast, movement was made long or short in effect. Movements soft and crisp were juxtaposed. We may believe that Camargo's knowledge of composition compensated for the meagre step-vocabulary of her day; that she commanded cumulative interest, surprise, and climax.. In short, that she produced an expression; limited to the lyrical, but none the less real.

That there may be no risk of misunderstanding the present use, of the word "expression," let it be agreed that the word here has the same application that it has in relation to instrumental music; also let it be agreed emphatically that it has nothing to do with the imitation of nature. Wagner makes a composition of tones portray the attributes of heroes and gods. Grieg's gnomes are of the same tissue: suggested attributes as distinguished from specified facts of the concrete. Broadly, such' suggestion is called music:. For present clearness let it be known as music of the ear. Because, the very same mental sensations produced by rhythm and sound variously juxtaposed and combined, acting through the medium of, hearing, are susceptible of stimulation by means of rhythm and line, in suitable juxtapositions and combinations, acting through the medium of vision. It follows that dancing, in effect, is music of the eye. The familiar musical resources serve both choreographer and composer impartially. As will be understood be-fore the reading of this chapter is completed, the equivalent of long and short notes is found in steps of varying length; musical phrases are, to the mind, the same as step-combinations, or enchainenaents; argument toward expression of motive is as possible to the silent music as to music of the ear. Indeed the values of the several orchestral instruments have their parallels in steps; the light staccato of the clarinet is no more playful than are certain delicate steps executed stir les pointes, nor is the blare of brass more stirring than the noble renverse. The scope of expression, in short, that is attainable by the orchestra is identical with that within range of pure dancing—dancing without pantomime. Add panto-mime, and in effect you add to your music the explanatory accompaniment of words. Broadly, music is sentiment, while the words of a song are supplementary description. In the ballet, the dance, as such, is the sentiment (or its representation), the pantomime the accompanying description.

Added expression in this musical sense was among Camargo's contribution to the art, definitely restoring to it a quality it had held in a grasp at best precarious since the passing of the glory of Athens. Belief in panto-mime rises and recedes from one decade to another. But purely orchestral or aesthetic expression continues at all times (with, interruptions) as the fundamental intent of the classic French and Italian ballets. To demand that the figures in a composition conceived in this idea should act and look like the people of every-day life, owing to the mere coincidence of their being human beings, would be like asking the composer of Pagliacci to rewrite his score to include the sound of squeaking wheels, because of the latter's pertinence to the wagon of the strolling players represented in the opera. The function of the composer of the opera is to suggest by such tonal symbols as have been found effective, the various emotions undergone by his characters. Identically, the function of the ballet-master is to suggest by the count-less combinations of line—majestic and playful, severe and gracious —and by the infinite variety of movements and postures, the emotions he would arouse in the spectators of his' work. At his disposal he has a number of plastic, sentient and sympathetic figures, trained to movements of grace. They are the instruments of his orchestra, the paint on his palette. That they also are human beings is absolutely a coincidence and beside the point.

Pantomime, to be sure, is carried to a high development in both French and Italian academies; they present mimo-dramas calling for practically unlimited scope of expression. Pantomime they added to the dance with-out departure from the ballet's basic intent. Both schools well 'know that the introduction of one pose or gesture imitating an act of human life, automatically throws the work into another category; that which was purely interpretative mural decoration verges toward the story-telling picture.

The argument is put rather insistently because of the periodical complaint that the ballet "looks artificial." "In real life," people say, "you never see hands held as they are held in the ballet." Mother of all the muses, why should they be? In real life hands are doctoring fountain pens, hewing wood and drawing water, reaching out for things; in real life hands are concerned with their practical occupation, and quite disregardful of their grace or expression while so engaged. Whereas the ballet uses hands as the vehicle for lines of grace, exaltation, vivacity, or whatever emotion you will, expressed in terms of the abstract. It is the same in regard to work on the toe: in real life people have no occasion to walk on the tip ends of their feet, because as a means of locomotion it is inconvenient. The ballet's use of it is not based on a belief in the minds of ballet-masters that it is a fashion either in polite society or among nymphs of the primeval forest. The position "on the point" makes possible an agreeable change in elevation, and can instantaneously eliminate the appearance of avoirdupois. The ballet art is a convention, strictly; the figures in it are changing units of a moving design, and not people. A ballerina does not ask, "How do I look in this pose?" She asks, "What kind of a line does this pose make?"

Of late years the classic ballet has suffered from public indifference. Doubtless this has been due in part to an insufficiency of competent performers; a great work requires great execution, and the difficulties created by the ballet's ideals are tremendous. But failure on the part of the public to consider the ballet's intent has certainly contributed to an unsatisfactory state of its affairs.

A general acquaintance with the individual steps adds in various ways to the spectator's enjoyment. Relieved of effort to decipher a dancer's means and methods, he who understands the mechanics of the steps can surrender himself to a luxuriance in their grace of execution, and be the more susceptible to the hypnotic charm of the rhythmic movement playing upon his eye. To him who has taken the trouble to learn some of the elemental theories, that which was once a bewildering maze of movement, which he mentally scram-bled to follow, becomes an ordered and deliberate sequence, whose argument he follows with ease; instead of a kaleidoscope, he sees phrasing, repetition, and progress of interest, theme, enrichment and climax. With bits of special virtuosity he is instantly gratified; shortcomings he instantly detects. To communicate his observations he has a vocabulary of specific expression; and there is satisfaction in that, for a ballet performance is just as fruitful a subject of controversy among its connoisseurs as a new novel among its readers. Further-more, the need of a general power of expression as an essential to the betterment of American choreographic conditions is self-evident.

While the ensuing analysis of ballet steps is far from complete from the point of view of the academy, it should give the reader a comprehension of the steps that make an impression on the layman's eye. The material that follows is selected with that end in view. Some description of simple fundamentals, though not in themselves "showy," is included in order to facilitate analysis of the great steps and turns. Moreover, since character dancing includes nothing of technical note that is not also used in the ballet, it is confidently hoped that the sub-joined analysis will serve as a useful lens through which to look at dancing of all kinds.

Those whose interest in the subject leads them to seek a more complete knowledge are referred to Zorn, Gram-mar of the Art of Dancing; by means of his choreographic stenography he goes into sub-variations of ballet steps with the utmost exactness. Naturally a course of instruction under a good ballet teacher is best of all; theory is best understood by its application. And execution, it should go without saying, is acquired only by long practice under expert and watchful eyes.

Before considering actual movements, it must be borne in mind that separately they are incomplete. Like tones that unite to form chords of music, each in itself may seem lacking in richness. Interdependence of successive parts is more marked in the classic ballet than in any other great school of choreography. The dance of the Moor is a series of statues, each self-sufficient. Of the ballet movements, almost the reverse is true. Their magic comes of the flow of one unit into another.

As France is the mother and nurse of the ballet, it follows that French is its language. Few of the terms translate successfully. To rename the movements would be superfluous—and in practical use, worse; for a big corps de ballet is often a gathering from many nations. Being explicit and sufficient, the French terms are the accepted designation of the steps in all lands where the ballet is danced.



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