Book

Proud to say that it has, finally, been published, the following are excerpts from the first chapter.


why change tradition ?


The mysterious paths of the dancer’s bodylandscape have undergone countless changes since ballet first came to being. In eternal evolution, the tradition of ballet goes as far back as, one might say, 1661 when Louis XIV founded the Académie Royale de Dance in Paris (eight years before the Académie Royale de Musique!) and constitutes the basic technique for most theatrical dance forms. Developed from a natural way of dancing to pushing the body’s movement potential to the extreme, its evolution has been breathtaking. Warner Music Group published a DVD (digital video disc) some years ago with excerpts from Bolshoi dating as far back as 1913. Watching the one from 1913 makes me wonder what Swan Lake (1895), Giselle (1841) and La Sylphide (1832) looked like when they were first produced. Choreographed more than a hundred years ago and still challenging, to the ballerina in particular, I must ask, has the breathtaking evolution only been aesthetic?

On the above-mentioned DVD, you can also scrutinize the wonderful Maya Pliseskaya, dancing Swan Lake’s third act Pas de Deux in 1947. The arabesque had reached unthought-of heights compared to the picture of Tamara Karsavina from 1919 as we witness her jumping and spinning and walking on her heels, and that without a worry in the world for turnout! Yet another thirty years and Sylvie Guillem with her athletic physique revolutionized ballet aesthetics with her legs high up around the ears. She proved to be the model rather than an exception.

anecdote:

I recently watched a video of Kirov’s production of Swan Lake in 1968. Surprised by their strong and easy technique, even the swan queen turned and jumped like her charming prince. Their bodies looked surprisingly like “you and me.”


evolution
:

We cannot stop evolution. We have to progress with it. The question is how? Analyzing ballet technique and trying to understand why dancers so often get injured, why certain performers dance so seemingly effortless while others are downright painful to watch, I have asked myself the following questions:

1) Does dancing, specifically the ballet technique, have to be harmful?
2) Are today’s teaching methods causing harm (i.e., tendonitis and injuries) to the dancing body?
3) Do demands on extreme flexibility necessitate a deeper analysis of ballet technique?
4) Do demands on technicality necessitate more profound insights into the dancing body?
5) Do ballet dancers’ particular aesthetics necessitate specific training methods?
6) Does the versatility ballet dancers are asked to perform necessitate additional training forms, or can it all be integrated into one class?
7) Do we need to create a training method based on traditional ballet technique, more suitable for contemporary, jazz, amateur dancers, etc.?
8) Have the demands on technical mastery lead us away from the art?

Having answered NO to the first one and YES to all others, I started exploring the mysterious paths of our bodylandscape. I have reached the conclusion that—even if it might seem inappropriate to demand the reassessment of the traditional ways of teaching ballet so admired all over the world—the answers to the questions above show the need to renew several concepts of ballet training.

My lifelong passion for the art form and experience in teaching Terpsichore’s children have convinced me that, trained according to the body’s own logic, bodylogic, three years is sufficient to build, tune, and learn to play our instrument. The multitude of different dance styles, aesthetics, and artistic expressions are that of a lifetime.

First year: BUILDING our instrument. Assessing basic movement patterns.
Second year: TUNING our instrument. Technique, steps, and coordination.
Third year: PLAYING our instrument. Learning variations, pointework, pas de deux, styles, forms, different techniques.

anecdote:

Marie-Agnes Gillot entered the corps de ballet of the Paris Opera at the age of fourteen and a half with an exclusive work permission. She had a flawless technique and everything it took to be a future star at the age of fourteen. But, too young to be considered, she had to linger a couple of years before she was allowed to enter the sacred temple of the stage. She became a Danseuse Etoile at the age of twenty-eight. (The Paris Opera Ballet School forms dancers in six years, from the age of ten to sixteen.) 

red muscle fibers, key to effortless technique and mastery of our art form

Building and tuning the dancer’s instrument in two years might seem a surprising, even a shocking
statement to those who have accepted as true that it takes an endless time of sweat and tears to become a ballet dancer. However, if we accept the facts that dance techniques depend on basic, automatic movement patterns, that basic movement patterns depend on muscular strength, and that muscular strength can be trained in three months, then there really is no reason to spend years and years sweating over technique. To achieve the easy, effortless technique, which is the underlying force to the mastery of our art, to “make your body sing,” as Makarova put it, we have to consciously train the deeper-lying muscles. Build the dancer’s instrument from the inside toward the outside, from small to big. The deeper-lying muscles are known as red muscle fibers in medical terms (also called core muscles). To avoid any misinterpretation with the muscles in the thoracic area, core strength which has become so popular to train today, I prefer to call them inside muscles, the way I always have. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Skeleton, la Specola, Florence


Take a look at this picture. Give and take a few, these are the muscles you need to master dance techniques.

The focus of this book is to create a sound technique and a healthy instrument for dancers. By studying the basic principles of verticality and alignment, by understanding the mechanical functioning of the articulations (I prefer to call the joints articulations, as they articulate), by being aware of how the muscular chains and the connective tissue link everything in the body together, by recognizing the role pushing-off gravity plays in dance, by visualizing joints and certain muscles, by strengthening and stretching the red muscle fibers, by learning to perceive, feel what goes on under our skin, as Mabel E. Todd so wisely put it, I propose a unique method of building the dancing instrument. Only when the basic movement patterns, with due respect to individual alignment, have become automatic, should technique training begin. Tuning our instrument then becomes a question of only learning steps. Dancing without worrying about technique is my goal. And, miracles of miracles, the body’s few basic movement patterns can illustrate the multitude of life’s facets and artistic expressions.

erroneous myths

Before we attempt a deeper analysis of ballet technique, we have to accept that certain harmful teaching devices have seeped into ballet training in a mysterious way. The first erroneous myth we will examine is, to become a ballet dancer, one must start training at the age of five or six.

erroneous myth number 1: training must start at the age of 5 or 6

Knowing that the right period for adapting motor skills (technique training) is between ten and fifteen should make it clear that dance technique is too sophisticated for a six-year-old mind. The large amount of information we often ask children to comprehend, moving legs, arms, and head simultaneously is a waste of time and energy. Forcing knowledge into a body that the mind is incapable of understanding, and wisdom the nervous system is not ready to grasp often only fosters bad habits. Before the age of ten, even eleven, dancing should revolve around the joy of movement. Let children to do what they do best. To improvise and use their abundant supply of energy and fantasy, let them discover space, music, rhythm, touch, coordination, and contact with their entourage as well as their toes and fingers, knees and elbows, and how they move. To take an example, I am fascinated by how much time six-year-old children can spend making the thumb touch the index finger, then the middle finger, and so on. So taken by this little exercise, they get cross-eyed when asked to do both hands at the same time. They probably are discovering that they have five fingers. According to Walt Disney, Mickey Mouse only has four fingers because children up to the age of six draw their hand with four fingers!

anecdote:

I will never forget Niklas Ek, born in 1943, dancing with Sylvie Guillem in Mats Ek’s Smoke in 1995 (I leave it up to you to make out his age). One of the most amazing dancers I know of, he started dancing when he was twenty.

erroneous myth number 2: turn-out is unnatural

The turnout in particular is often criticized for being unnatural and harmful to the body. My question is, would Mother Nature have blessed us with the six deep rotators of the hip joint if using them was harmful? We do, in fact, have six pairs of turnout muscles! At the heart of alignment and ballet technique, they are among my favorite inside muscles. Look at babies and how they behave in the cradle.

All we need to master turnout is to build the muscular strength of the position our babies so naturally sleep in. More about all this in due time, but I have to mention another fascinating inside muscle while I am at it: the psoas major. What allows the little baby girl in the picture to almost have a taste of her toes is, of course, her flexibility, but also the psoas major lifting the leg.
Not knowing, nor consciously training, the psoas muscle group is no erroneous myth; it is a forgotten solution, though the only one able to lift your legs optimally turned out to the front and à la seconde.

erroneous myth number 3: pulling-up

Lengthen your spine by pulling up! Pushing-off gravity is the key to our upright position. Yes, I ask you to acknowledge Father Gravity and show him that you can stand on your own feet by pushing-off. To activate your center, you have to push away from gravity. Otherwise, it does not work. We
cannot be like Baron von Munchhausen and lift ourselves by our ponytail. We can only lengthen our spine and jump sky-high by pushing the floor away.

erroneous myths number 3,4,5,6…

I started writing this book out of sheer frustration of seeing so many dancers and most of my students trained according to the following erroneous myths. Since then, my methods have evolved, and I have more to say than I thought when I first started this enterprise. However, since I still see these myths that the bodymind would find unacceptable, if right from the beginning of training we learned to respect and feel the body. Here we go. Do you recognize yourself? 
tighten your buttocks

- push your heels forward        

- hold up your arch      

- hold your tummy in    

- hold your chest up     

- ribs in, pull up, chin up

- arms straight out to the side
           
- leg straight out to the side


anecdote:

Since I gave the green light for the book to go to print, I've made new friends, and one of them, Leica Hardy from Halifax wrote to me: "Another myth I might add would be to lift the elbows in second position to shape the arms. Of course when students lift the elbows to shape their arms the next correction their teacher gives them is to push down their shoulders…"

Tighten your buttocks and push your heels forward are devastating! The consequences on alignment and the muscular functioning have ended many a career, not to mention all the aches and pains they are responsible for. Not even “the good student”, willing to satisfy every wish the teacher pronounces cannot simultaneously get away with these myths.

Please, get up and TRY THIS: Stand with parallel feet and tighten your buttocks. Do your legs turn out? Do not be timid. Use the magnificent force of your muscles. If you believe adductors, muscles inside the tights, turn out the legs, try with them. Now, turn out your legs the way you usually do, and with all your strength tighten your buttock muscles again, how do you feel? Now push your heels forward, go on, do not lose your balance, hang on there, stop shaking…Try walking! Running! These are only two harmful teaching devices ballet tradition has become accustomed to using. I invite you to try all the other ones I have listed as well!

___________________

If we admit that it is unethical to force a body into positions that are impossible to move in, much less dance in, it becomes obvious that the evolution of ballet teaching has gone too far. We should affirm that a movement is ethical only when the “right” feeling, a basic notion of bodily wellness with no superfluous muscular contractions, is achieved. We should also acknowledge that this is a subjective experience, and its rightfulness has to be felt by the person doing the movement.

Annemari Autere, IADMS, 17th Annual Meeting of the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science, Proceedings (page182).