Katharine Kanter is a Paris-based British writer. Although her activities are not confined to the dance, she has contributed to DANCE NOW and to the major French- and English-language dance websites, and has written a number of polemical essays, such as ‘Affects’ as a Subject of the Classical Dance, and What’s wrong with Balanchine. In recent years, she has collaborated with institutions such as the Conservatories of the City of Paris, the Centre national de la danse at Pantin and the Accademia nazionale di Danza at Rome, to arrange seminars and master classes on Bournonville and Cecchetti. Founder of the website http://auguste.vestris.free.fr/ and of the Société Auguste Vestris, a non-profit, public-interest association, she has recently translated into French Roger Tully’s The Song Sings the Bird: A Manual on the Teaching of Classical Dance, published by Gremese in April 2009.
Q. How and when did you become interested in ballet?
Forty years ago, I was trained up to a “high” level. My knee then gave way. But what was deemed high at the time … laugh ! At sixteen, my level was lesser than a ten- or eleven-year-old at the Paris Opera School today.
Q. From your writings, you seem to prefer classical ballet. Why do you not like modern ballet?
Cannot recall ever saying that I “didn’t like” modern ballet. Depends on what you mean by “classical” or “modern”. Are Ashton’s Symphonic Variations modern or are they classical?
Perhaps you mean people like Jirí Kylián. In a nutshell, Kylian uses classically-trained dancers because they move well and look nice on stage. Otherwise, it’s nightclub dancing. Showgirls, the Bluebell and Lido Girls, are properly trained too, as you know. But Kylian does not really use the step-vocabulary. Few do.
Or perhaps you mean “modern dance”, the step-free phenomenon of which Isadora Duncan was a pioneer?
The term “ballet” refers to a theatrical branch known as melodrama (the other being lyric opera), performed by classical dancers. They are so called because they rely upon an intelligible step-vocabulary, the basic principles of which have stood the test of time. Indeed, the vocabulary proceeds down to us from ancient, pre-Christian era India, along with the turnout which makes it all possible, and of course, the Indo-European tongues!
Classical dancing is thus a highly-evolved LANGUAGE.
The language of this dance is inseparably intertwined with classical modal/tonal music. It rests upon the instrumental line as airs do upon the score in lyric opera.
Q. Are there any choreographers working today that you admire and why?
Not many, but then, people who work in the classical idiom live and die unnoticed.
We have a talented fellow teaching here at the Paris Opera, Jean-Guillaume Bart, who choreographs, but no major institution seems to want his work. It’s extremely frustrating.
Liam Scarlett and the Frenchman Ludovic Ondiviela, both in their early twenties and at Covent Garden, choreograph in the classical mode.
The Modern Art lobby is dangerous, and well-financed. For example, the European Commission has a nasty outfit called D.A.N.C.E. (http://www.danceacrosseurope.com/), that subsidises Frédéric Flamand, William Forsythe, Wayne McGregor and Angelin Preljocaj … The latter, who works out of a purpose-built pad known as The Black Pavillon, has put up a work at the Opera, MC 14/22 Ceci est mon corps, that has to be seen to be believed.
What they get up to when the lights are out…
Q. What do you think of the current state of ballet instruction at professional ballet schools? What can be done to improve it?
The error is to start from the premise that we are training children to dance, rather than to become citizens who happen to be dancers.
Over the past thirty years, the physical demands of what passes for choreography have turned so extreme that the physical now rules the roost. The process begins with weeding out everyone who lacks certain recondite bodily and kinetic characteristics.
There is now discussion of including “classical” dance into the Olympics. Shows how far we have fallen away from its actual function: to exploit an area of the mind that would otherwise lie fallow.
Man is not a pure abstraction. He exists in the metaphysical, in constant movement between the tangible and the intangible. His mind cannot allow the body to simply subsist as a lump of unformed clay. Just as Man has increasingly imprinted his mark upon the universe, so has he imprinted it on the mind’s fleshly abode – the body.
On paper, geometrical shapes, as an abstraction, may not be seen directly, even by a geometer, as a vehicle for affects. In classical dancing, however, they are! In the process of change from one dancing shape to the next, there arises a distinct, if indescribable, emotion.
In music – notably the string quartet – the movement of thought is so swift, so fugitive, that there arises an impulse to “hold it back for a moment” by some other means. Dancing necessarily moves more slowly than vocal or instrumental music. It lends leisure to focus on shapes and their trail of affects, and to consider a paradox: the voyage of the mortal frame’s evolutions through the mind, long after the shapes have faded from view.
Disruption, however, has greatly obscured our horizon over the past twenty or so years: the disarticulated, the hyper-extended.
Apart from their sheer ugliness and indecency, the critical issue is that these extremes are unscientific. They cause irreversible physical harm. The career is now a full decade shorter than in the 1970’s. People retire at 28 or 29, in severe pain.
Is the public aware of the suffering? Definitely, although perhaps not quite consciously. It has become part and parcel of the thrill, seeing people hurt themselves, live.
Out there on Youtube, there’s a six-part documentary on the Bolshoi School, (http://www.youtube.com/v/KDLGaaURoII), where Osipova, inter alia, is seen pulling herself into a pretzel. Monstrous! And the Bolshoi is probably not the worst!
Over the last twenty years, the academies have adopted methods of both physical and psychological conditioning, first developed during the Cold War by the military to compete in the Olympic Games, and for commando purposes.
Although these people may not actually be brain-dead, they do act as though they were!
In the great state academies, consensus-thinking rules. If someone turn up with a revolutionary idea, he will be voted down or compromised out of existence by Committee. The consensus now is all about picking up the leg, spinning out a shocking trick or two, and to hell with what happens to’em after age twenty-five as cartilage begins to dry out!
The unspoken question behind all this is whither Beauty? In Europe, we still have some fine ancient cities, but everything we have built since World War II doesn’t bear the looking on. In general, American urbanism, those suburbs, the strip malls, and so forth, depress all sense of beauty. Architecture and urbanism are the museum to the man in the street.
Look at this business with Michael Jackson. A cult of ugliness, shared by tens of millions!
Ugliness surrounds us on all hands. The towns, the electronic media, the shrieking signs and neon-lighting, junk-food and slovenly T-shirts, our awkward posture and walk, our whining speech, reflect an ugliness that is both CAUSE and EFFECT of the ongoing economic and financial breakdown, which is, first and foremost, an intellectual and moral breakdown.
Another CAUSE, the Revolt of Beauty, must begin to act.
Classical dancing is not the only such CAUSE, but it can, and may become, an important one. It can, and may become, alongside the study of classical music, a critical pedagogical tool, the slightest gesture being a matter for exact measurement. The criteria for measurement are found by searching for truth, whether in anatomy, physics, or the apparently-elusive notion of BEAUTY.
Apparently-elusive, because the more one know of anatomy, the physics of movement, the laws of music, the more intelligible, and intense, that notion becomes. Never so intelligible though as to lose its mystery, because at the end of the day, the beauty that moves the public and one’s colleagues watching in the wings is a secret of the moral struggle of the individual, locked in his heart.
The impulse to make technique into a vehicle for thought, is a moral one. It is because the artist intends to intervene upon society through a dialogue with the public, that he has entered a theatrical branch. Although when very young, one is swept up by a desire to astound and impress, the rigours of the profession are such that this promptly gives way leaving only, in essence, the moral impulse.
There remain today few callings where the subject is the search for truth and beauty, through a study of physical principles that we disregard at our peril. To the degree that the artist is committed to that, he is a leader in a society otherwise devoid of leadership.
This may actually be what “training a dancer”, is about.
Q. Of what importance to you is the story to a ballet?
It can be important, and it can be irrelevant – look at Symphonic Variations. There’s no story. The story are the ideas.
Classical dancing exists because there are movements in the mind, proto-ideas, that cannot be conveyed in any other form.
A ballet libretto traces a frame within which to “hang” those proto-ideas.
I have been re-reading Noverre libretti. Compared to the original sources he relied upon – such as Aeschylos – the libretti, though picturesque, are naive and reductionist.
We can do better than this. Let us turn to the ancient Greeks, particularly Homer, and explore the relation between the step-language, modal/tonal music, and the type of metaphor characteristic of Greek dramaturgy.
Q. Do you see modern music whether it be jazz or symphonic or popular as having a negative effect on ballet in terms of inspiring non-classical movement? Do you see any other negative effects? Any positive effects?
The dancing human body does not recognize music that is atonal, dodecaphonic, aleatory … Those forms, whose emotional charge is negative or indifferentist, “pollute”, as a friend is wont to say, the well-spring of emotion.
What we now call “Jazz”, along with so-called “pop” and “rock” music are products of Theodor Adorno’s Princeton Radio Project(1938).
The Loser’s Whine of Country‘n Western, throbbing guitars, amplified noise, morbidly sentimental Crooners – Sinatra, Dean Martin – all this has been done to foster infantilism as the basic mind-set, with its accompanying, infantile forms of sexuality.
The latest twist, Techno and so forth, has the rhythmic sophistication of gang-rape – pardon my French! A primitivist construct, worked out by musicologists like Adorno, who’ve sold their beanie to the highest bidder.
Q. What advice would you give to a dancer who wanted a strong classical training?
No matter how excellent your vocational academy’s repute, find a teacher willing to work with you privately, to go beyond The Look.
Q. Why a website called Auguste Vestris? Who is he and why did you name your website after him? What is your website trying to accomplish?
Auguste Vestris was known in his day as Vestris fils, son to Gaetano, an Italian dancer who was as celebrated on the 18th Century stage as David Garrick. Being extremely vain, Gaetano, unlike his son, never did show an especial concern with pedagogy.
But, early in the 19th Century at the Paris Opera, Vestris fils and two or three associates achieved a breakthrough: the merging of grand adagio technique with the old terre-à-terre dance to create a new dance – the grand allegro.
Certainly it was the music of Beethoven that led to this breakthrough.
The grand allegro took the majestic forms of the grand adagio, and raised them up off this earth, adding as a further ornament to transcendental virtuosity, the batterie from the terre-à-terre dance.
One might compare that to the change from the spinet, to the harpsichord, to the fortepiano. On altering the instrument’s mechanism, its registration, its range, its tuning – the mathematics and the physics of it – not only keyboard technique, but above all, composition entered a new domain.
This encapsulates the notion of progress. The earlier forms of classical dance were not rubbished, contradicted or ignored – they were used to go beyond. They became outdated not because “fashion” changed, but because the Vestris faction surpassed them.
We tend to lag about a century or so behind breakthroughs in music. So, had this élan not been throttled early on by the Romantics, choreography would have taken off in the 19th Century, the way instrumental music did in the day of Bach.
Finally, you ask what it is that the Vestris Website is trying to accomplish. As a friend says: “Use your mind, the way a boxer uses his fists”.
The essays on the “Vestris” site are polemical. The site is designed, deliberately, to be a spearhead against the Romantic movement, against the trampling on natural law. To keep independent, it takes no advertising, no perks, nor does it pay for articles or interviews. As Editor, I stay off the cocktail party circuit, and have few friends amongst theatrical artists currently gracing the stage.
Nor does “Vestris” exist in Cyberspace alone. On July 14th 2007, the Société Auguste Vestris was set up as a non-profit Society, what the French call an Association 1901, recently declared in the public interest. Its activities had begun well before 2007 though, notably arranging, with Danish, French and Italian institutions, lectures and master classes on Cecchetti, Bournonville and others in that specific tradition.
At the present time, the Society has but a few active members, and mainly young, because we need to act with energy and determination. They first gathered on the weekend of March 7th and 8th 2009, in the cellar of a Lebanese restaurant at Paris. Might one venture to say that twenty years from now, people will be proud to have been there? One hopes! Anyway, within about six years, I plan to hand the Society over to three or so younger people, whom I know have the brains, and the guts, but a lot needs to get done by then!
Q. You seem to have a strong affinity for France and a great fluency with French. How did that come about?
Personal history – No comment. But being as I am a republican with a small r, General De Gaulle, like Enrico Mattei, stands on the right hand of God. Perhaps no accident that one of my middle names is Lorraine, for the Croix de Lorraine.
Q. You recently translated Roger Tully’s The Song Sings the Bird into French. Why did you choose to translate that work? What is it about Roger Tully’s methods of ballet instruction that you particularly like?
Little is now written about classical dance technique other than picture-books, or four-hundred page cook-books on Vaganova technique.
A Big Mess has been made since Sylvie Guillem became the Big Thing. That woman has been a disaster for the trade. It is all about picking up the leg, spilling over the shoe, twitching one’s muscles at people…
I don’t buy this.
Nor does Tully. The Song Sings the Bird is not a manual to help you pick up the leg. It examines the workings of two or three fundamental physical principles that underpin the technique. Maintaining the line of aplomb, the use of the oppositions in every step, and the principle that the body moves first. You do not throw the arms and legs out, and hope the torso will catch up. Or, rather, we do – only to retire at age 27 badly injured.
If you do those things right, you will stop picking up the leg. Because it destabilises the entire technique. Think about it!
The publisher, Gremese in Italy, decided to bring it out in French first, under the title Prémices du geste dansant , because of the importance the profession still has in this country.
As this was done on a volunteer basis by all concerned, no pecuniary gain whatsoever, we none of us feel any compunction about flogging it!
So, yes, read the book. It’s out in French now, and it’ll be out in English, also published by Gremese, in two or three months.
Q. What are the most important skills a ballet instructor should have?
Know who precisely it is standing before you, and teach HIM. Not some imaginary ideal of a “ballet dancer”.
And remember that people who in their youth are subjected to cruelty, whether in the form of open insult, torrents of rage, withering scorn, snide remarks about body-shape or grim-faced pessimism, will be scarred for life. Could the sado-masochists amongst us now retire? Thank you.
Q. What are the skills you like to see in a ballet dancer?
Assuming they COULD, and danced as they SHOULD, they’d be out of a job.
If a woman were to walk in for an audition and refuse to pick up the leg. If a man were to say to a choreographer, “Dangerous, those lifts! I won’t do this. Nor will taking off my clothes help your choreography !”
You know what would happen.
So let us get that sorted. Then we can talk about cherry-picking skills.
Q. When you go to a ballet what do you look for in the choreography?
Personally, I am more sensitive to the step-language, and how it corresponds to the music, than to any story line. Which is the where-and-whyfore of Symphonic Variations, or Bournonville’s Schools for that matter, because those Schools are choreography.
I would like to see how the corps de ballet may be deployed.
Unfortunately, few choreographers see the moving geometry of large groups, because they lack opportunity to put up larger ensembles in the classical form. This takes experience.
An undoubted masterpiece of wave-movements rippling through a crowd are the First and Third Acts of Napoli.
I remain dubious about Petipa’s use of the corps de ballet, those tiresome lines and diagonals, nor did Petipa pay much heed to what Noverre says about everyone in the corps de ballet being a living figure.
There may nevertheless be value to a story-line, if it allow the choreographer to push the boat out in terms of the affects. Pushkin’s poem Eugene Onegin was an interesting choice by Cranko, as it presents subtle ironies not theretofore dealt with in ballet. Onegin does not boil down, as so much in the theatre does, to thwarted love! Unfortunately, Cranko’s mastery of the step vocabulary was poor, and he fell back on Goleizovski-style partnering to fill time. But it does give one an idea of what lies ahead.
Q. On your website, I was reading a biography of Auguste Vestris by Auguste Bournonville and came upon this complaint by Bournonville of the dancers of his day:
“At the moment, unfortunately, there are on the Continent very few danseurs who have not been reduced to being lifting machines and props for equilibristic groupings, while the danseuses outdo one another in tours de force. The ballet is hereby losing its importance as artistic performance, and degenerating into something that ought to be relegated to the carnival tent.”
This complaint seems in many ways to echo your own criticisms of ballet today. Is this then perhaps not a timeless complaint of the old generation of the new generation, or is it based on something more real?
As we’ve just said, Bournonville was a student of Vestris, who was not a Romantic, but a classicist. At that time, the leading dancers were men, while the technique developed by Vestris, the grand allegro, is most especially a technique of the man. And in the pas de deux in Vestris’ day, the man and the woman both danced.
Unfortunately, owing to meddling by romantic Aesthetes such as Théophile Gauthier, no major advances in technique have been made since the 1840s.
The Romantics hated men, because they reject the principle of reason that man represents. By loosing these fluttering little female creatures all over the stage, they sabotaged what Vestris and his students had been up to, and drove self-respecting men out of the ballet, by turning them into lifters.
That is still with us today, save that we call it Goleizovski-style partnering. The Soviets, Grigorievich, but also MacMillan, Neumeier and most of our contemporaries, are all an outcrop of this Romantic arbitrary.
Arbitrary for many reasons, including the anti-anatomical. Arbitrary, because the emotional quality of the “lifting machine” pas de deux, is the Wagnerian Liebestod.
Q. Is it a conflict that perhaps is just an inevitable result of dance being a human performance, and while ballet is an art, human beings will always try to outdo each other (or we could say extend human capacity) in terms of agility, speed and flexibility?
Young men are dominant, pushy and competitive. They are men!
Might competitiveness, though, not occasionally be vented upon thinking up new steps?
Flexibility ! Grand jeté as the splits, arabesque penchée as the splits, jeté en attitude as the splits, développé as the splits, sissonne as the splits… What a BORE!
Does anyone, ever, ask what this does to spinal column? To the hip?
As for agility, speed etc. the human body has not changed in hundreds-thousand years, save in height.
Disregarding the laws of nature has brought the profession to the brink of extinction.
As we see from the remains of cavemen, none ever lived beyond 40. That certainly put a cap on creativity! The oldest ballet dancer on stage now tends to be about 28. We’ve fallen behind the caveman! Could that be putting a cap on creativity?
Q. Dancers nowadays train in gyms and use new exercise techniques that are constantly improving their physicality. Do you see this as a conflict with the development of their artistry?
Whatever is meant by “improving” physicality? A dancer’s flat today is basically a glorified medicine cabinet. The three A’s –Arthritis, Anorexia and Amenorrhea are rampant. What is the effect of popping anti-inflammatories for most of one’s adult life?
One is more than disappointed, to hear men’s teachers saying that “now we have to get the men’s legs up beyond 90 degrees too, so we’re introducing plenty of stretching”!
No-one seems to have stopped for five minutes to ask WHY we need greater range of motion than in everyday life. The reason is simple though, and sets its own limits: ballet is theatre, and in the theatre, for a gesture to carry across the footlights it must be amplified. Acrobacy, to the contrary, explores physical forms that are sensational, indeed, monstrous. No dialogue between public and acrobat is possible or even desired.
In the ballet, whatever does not serve the purpose of expression is superfluous.
Beyond the optimal i.e. physiological, ambitus of articulation, the dancer will suffer pain, not perhaps at 17, but certainly by the age of 23 or 24. Thought and emotion will wither, like a snail drawing in its horns.
The medical literature on this would fill the Library of Congress.
Do we care, at all, about what happens to these people?
Learn not to expect a heroin fix when you walk into the ballet! Must we sit there like stupid fat babies and expect to be entertained?
Q. Beside the best known world class ballet companies, are there any that you see and admire today and why?
Owing to budget, I do not get round much.
Q. You seem very much a ballet historian. Why are the methods of Vestris or Bournonville important to a ballet student today? Why are they important to the ballet audiences of today?
I think this has been answered. And no, I’m not a historian.
Q. Figure skating and Irish dancing and popular dancing seem to be growing in size yet ballet seems to have the same audience it always has had. Why do you think that is and what can be done to expand ballet’s audience?
We need to clean up our own act. There has been one Swan Lake too many. What about new choreography relevant to our time, OTHER than Forsythe and Wayne McGregor limb-cracking?
As for the public, try this:
-Turn off the television,
-Stop playing cell-phone and video-games,
-Trash the joints, the coke-lines, unhook from porn,
-Bin Hollywood films and Techno,
-Quit living off fat and sugar.
Prepared to do that?
Or, there is no hope for the ballet.
We cannot compete.
Q. Are there a few books you could mention that you think anyone interested in ballet should read? Any videos of performances that you also recommend?
Well, I do think people should read Tully’s book, or we would not have translated it.
There are countless things out there one hears nothing of, but let’s start with Noverre’s Letters. As it happens, the first complete edition will be published in Italy for the 2010 bicentenary by Flavia Pappacena. And Bournonville’s writings, notably his Etudes chorégraphiques (published in Italy in 2005 by LIM), his Theatre Life (out of print).
Obviously one needs to read Vaganova’s Basic Principles and Blasis’ Elementary Treatise; Dr. Kenneth Laws’ Physics and the art of Dance is worthwhile. Although I disagree with her use of modern-dance terminology, there are insights on the least-action principle in Anna Paskevka’s book on technique, Ballet beyond Tradition.
The best thing you are ever likely to read on the Modern Art lobby is Laure Guilbert’s Danser avec le III Reich (ed. Complexe, 2000, out of print). Someone should translate that into English!
Tamar Karsavina’s writings on technique are all worth reading, and all out of print. You’ll have to get them second hand.
Beryl Morina’s Mime in Ballet, probably the only work on the subject, and Dene Barnett’s The Art of Gesture (Heidelberg, 1987).
The Bournonville Schools (in three volumes: scores, DVD, steps). Some have protested at the dancing, notably of Fernando Mora, which is not up to scratch. Look beyond the actual dancers, to the steps please! Although the volumes were issued by the Royal Theatre in 2005, a Snafu on the Theatre’s website makes them damned hard to order. Perhaps through the Dance Books catalogue. Good luck!
A wild card is Achim Wolinski, some of whose essays have just been published by Prof. Stanley Rabinovitch at Yale University Press (beware though – Rabinovitch never danced, and his terminology is BIZARRE to a degree!). Be that as it may, Wolinski, who was in point of fact a specialist in Leonardo, was one of the few who ever saw the step-language, metaphor, and the affects as a single configuration.
There is doubtless a lot written in Russia that I, for one, know nothing of, more’s the pity.
Performance videos, a question mark.
Most classical dance on film is stashed away in the archives of Danmarks Radio, the British Film Institute, etc., owing to rights issues that sum up to – Dog in the Manger!
None of Margaret Dale’s films (including the original cast of Ashton’s Fille mal Gardée) have been issued on DVD, nor has the Rambert Collection, donated to the BFI, and that goes back to the 1930s.
Many of these films were made at public expense by State institutions. Unfortunately, as the State divests itself of all property, in favour of private investors, anything unlikely to bring cash benefits will be ignored.
Meanwhile, the archives rot away.
What a crying shame! An international treaty agreement between the major theatres and the public agencies that originally did the work is urgently needed, to set these films loose in everyone’s best interests. Let’s pull a team together and get cracking.
Some of the books mentioned by Katharine Kanter are available on Amazon.
Jean-Georges Noverre – Letters on Dancing and Ballets
Agrippina Vaganova – Basic Principles of classical Ballet
Carlos Blasis – Elementary Treatise upon the Theory and Practice of the Art of Dancing
Kenneth Laws – Physics and the Art of Dance: Understanding Movement
Anna Paskeva – Ballet beyond Tradition
Beryl Morina – Mime in Ballet
Dene Barnett – The Art of Gesture: The practices and principles of 18th century acting