Style Matters
January 1, 2012

Margaret Tracey works on the fundamentals with Boston Ballet School student Daniel Goldsmith.

Should your students know their ABCs (Agrippina Vaganova, Bournonville and Cecchetti, that is), or focus on only one ballet technique?


Until about 30 years ago, there were firm do-not-cross lines drawn between the various ballet techniques. Russian dancers, trained in Vaganova technique, didn’t touch Balanchine’s American style; Danish dancers, trained in Bournonville technique, stayed away from Vaganova. It used to be that members of The Royal Swedish Ballet could plausibly claim they “should not be dancing George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, since ‘we don’t really dance like that,’ i.e., speedily, with accentuated footwork,” as Helena Wulff recounts in Ballet across Borders: Career and Culture in the World of Dancers.

Nowadays, no dancer would dream of saying such a thing, since companies typically perform a potpourri of works by different choreographers, from different eras, drawing on many different techniques. As ballet companies move toward a more universal style, the best way to prepare your students for the diverse challenges they’ll face is with high-quality training—no matter the style (or styles). But will grounding your students in a specific ballet technique give them an edge? What are the benefits of training that exposes students to a wider range of styles, versus training based in a single technique?

Today’s ballet companies perform a huge range of styles. A single program on Boston Ballet’s 2012 lineup includes Florence Clerc’s staging of Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides (above), based in Russian technique; George Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements (center), which uses Mr. B’s distinctive style; and Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia (bottom), a contemporary ballet that incorporates aspects of several techniques.

Although each ballet technique corresponds to a nationality, there is a danger in simplifying them. For the book What Is Dance? Readings in Theory and Criticism by Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen (1983), critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote a piece entitled “There Is Nothing ‘National’ About Ballet Styles”—a sophisticated overview of the various ballet techniques—and argued: “Rather than fall back on dubious national stereotypes to explain why one ballet company accents its works differently from another, why not admit that each style derived from the individuals who have shaped that company?” Kisselgoff has a valid point—and one that still applies to today’s ballet world, in which a Dane (Peter Martins) runs New York City Ballet, home of the Balanchine style, and a Balanchine disciple (Nikolaj Hübbe) runs the Royal Danish Ballet. Training your students in the Bournonville style in the hopes that it will help them find jobs in Denmark, or the Vaganova method to give them a leg up in Russia, is usually unproductive.

What about contemporary choreographers, whose works make up a good deal of the modern ballet troupe’s repertoire? Do they prefer dancers fluent in many ballet styles? Choreographer Roger C. Jeffrey recently created a work entitled a soliloquy among many on Philadelphia’s BalletX. Jeffrey, a modern dancer, was confident that BalletX’s dancers could master his choreography—even though they came from different backgrounds. “I worked with one dancer who was a Balanchine boy,” he says. “He had a very fluid torso—a lot of freedom in his hands and voluptuous movement—that was wonderful to work with. Of course, for some of the more modern movements, he had to watch me, just like playing Simon Says. But dancers are flexible now.”

Even if they’ve received their training at the Kirov Academy, or School of American Ballet, or a school with Royal Academy of Dance examinations? “In my experience, those teachers are the keepers of the flame,” Jeffrey says. “The Balanchine people, the Vaganova people —they’re hardcore. But dancers now are also taking yoga, acrobatics, karate, even break-dancing,” which help them develop a more sophisticated sense of body awareness. “So at the end of the day, a Balanchine dancer can relate to, say, Mark Morris choreography. It’s a different way of moving, but there’s the same sensitivity to music.”

The Kirov Academy’s Nikolai Kabaniaev, one of those keepers of the flame, believes that focusing on a single classical technique—in his case, the Vaganova technique—will teach students the discipline and attention to detail they need to conquer many styles. “If you train a student in a single system that is thorough and detailed, you get a dancer who can do almost anything,” he says. “The well-trained classical dancer is both the most versatile and the most desirable to ballet companies.” He also emphasizes that none of the techniques exist in a vacuum. “These are methods evolving with time and every new generation,” he says. “Today’s Vaganova technique is infused with new teaching ideas from all over the ballet world.” And, he adds, the techniques are inherently connected: Agrippina Vaganova worked with Enrico Cecchetti, and George Balanchine, like Vaganova, trained at the Imperial Ballet School of Russia.

Margaret Tracey, a former New York City Ballet principal trained in the Balanchine style, is now the director of the multidisciplinary Boston Ballet School. When asked about technique, she replies, “It’s a big question. Parents want to know, ‘What technique are you going to teach my child?’ Like the Suzuki method of violin instruction.” But rather than focusing on a specific technique, Tracey, like Jeffrey, emphasizes the importance of ballet training that includes nonballet classes. “A dancer trained at the Boston Ballet School can move with speed and musicality,” she says. “They have ballet class, yes, but also modern, character dance, Pilates. What we teach is the technical foundation for a dancer in the 21st century.”

Ultimately, the style question might be more theoretical than practical: The majority of today’s artistic directors are simply looking for strong dancers. In fact, a company of dancers with different backgrounds—some trained in one style, some in many—is often better off for it. The members of Corella Ballet Castilla y León, founded in 2008 by Madrid-born ABT premier danseur Angel Corella, are drawn from various schools and companies around the globe. But the result isn’t a messy melting pot of a company; it’s a wonderfully eclectic group with its own distinctive flavor. “I’ve been lucky to dance with the Kirov, La Scala, New York City Ballet and others, and I can see that each has something wonderful to offer,” Corella said to The New York Times, “so I don’t want to have a particular type of dancer. It’s the diversity of bodies and minds that makes us so special.” DT

Susan Elia MacNeal is a writer and editor. Her debut novel is due to be published in April 2012.

Photos from top: by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy of Boston Ballet and American Ballet Theatre; by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of Boston Ballet

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