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Swans in Motion

Is ballet’s future as compelling as its past?

Apr 11, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 29 • By GEORGE B. STAUFFER
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Homans, distinguished scholar in residence at New York University and a former professional dancer, has written a deliciously detailed yet impassioned account. Once a member of the Chicago Lyric Opera and San Francisco Ballet, she has devoted her life to dancing, observing, and studying ballet in its many manifestations. To her, ballet is a discipline as complex as any language, with conjugations, declensions, and rules corresponding to the laws of physical nature. When all is properly synchronized—when body, mind, and soul are fully involved—ballet is an escape from the self; the dancers become part of a grand scheme. Homans describes this sensation rhapsodically: “Yet no matter the crowds and the choreography’s increasing demands and complexity,” she writes of the first lakeside scene in Swan Lake,

the dancers never break order or rank; nor do they lose their discipline and inner focus. Moreover, they never lose their spatial and physical—or musical—relationship to Odette, their queen. They are her likeness, and their movements and patterns mirror and reflect her own: as they shadow her, they become an outward manifestation of her inner life.

Ballet is also an aristocratic art, with a strict code of ethics. Homans describes with admiration her Russian instructors, who imparted not just steps and technical knowledge but an imperial way of life, one filled with discipline, elegance, and grace. It is in ballet, after all, that classes conclude with a révérence, a gesture of gratitude and respect to the teacher. Ballet dancers belong to a special world, she learned. As her instructor Alexandra Danilova expressed it, they are different from “the rest.” This stems, in large part, from the aristocratic roots of ballet, whose gestures and etiquette were codified in France by Louis XIII and Louis XIV. Louis XIV, in particular, used dance not just for divertissements—large, formal entertainments—but also to reinforce the strict levels of hierarchy within his court. Receptions, meetings, and gatherings were carefully staged and choreographed. Dance became an integral part of daily life, and knowing the proper steps and poses became a social necessity. By 1660 there were some 200 dancing schools in Paris. With an eye to internationalizing French culture, Louis asked his dance master Pierre Beauchamps to work out a notational system, published in 1700 by Raoul-Auger Feuillet. Some 300 dances were preserved in this fashion and promulgated throughout Europe. (Bach, in distant Leipzig, could study classical dance through Feuillet’s publication and local French dance masters.) The famous five positions were established, with First Position as the “home” stance and Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Positions serving to prepare the body to move.

From dance, one learned how to become a beautiful being. As the dance master in Molière’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (1670) puts it: “Man can do nothing at all without dancing. .  .  . All the misfortunes of mankind, all the disasters that fill history, all the bungling of politicians and the mistakes of great generals, all come through not learning to dance.” Leaders of the Roman Catholic church saw it differently, however: To them, dancing did nothing but “excite passions, making modesty lose its call amidst the noise of jumping and abandoning oneself to dissolution.” Threats of excommunication and denial of a Christian burial did not deter court dancing, however: The Royal Academy of Dance was founded in 1661 with Beauchamps in charge. It was the model for the distinguished ballet schools that later sprang up in St. Petersburg, Moscow, London, Copenhagen, and New York.

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