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Ballet Scene | Putting the French Back in Ballet

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Refine your classes with a touch of French style

By Vanina and Dennis Wilson

Ballet’s roots may be Italian, but its native language is French. Yet, were it not for the French terms and expressions common to all ballet classes, American dancers might easily be unaware of ballet’s French legacy.

Origins of the French school
Ballet’s roots lie in the Renaissance court dances of Italy, in the form of lavish outdoor spectacles (called “triumphs”) and banquets. The art form made its way to France courtesy of Catherine de’ Medici, queen of France, who placed violinist Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx in charge of court entertainments. His best-known feat was staging what is now considered the first ballet, Ballet Comique de la Reine, in 1581.

Not only was the first ballet performed in France, but in 1661 France saw the first creation of formal academic dance technique (danse d’école, generally translated as “classical ballet”) in the Académie Royale de Danse. In 1713 France’s King Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” an excellent dancer and one of the most flamboyant and glamorous of history’s monarchs, founded the Ballet School of the Paris Opera (POB School). It operated under the direction of the Académie and still trains dancers in the danse d’école technique.

The Ballet of the Paris Opera (POB), home to such familiar names as Marie Camargo, Louis Dupré, Auguste Vestris, and Jean-Georges Noverre, dominated the ballet world in Western Europe in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Every major dancer of the time performed there (including such luminaries as Maria (aka Marie) Taglioni, Fanny Elssler, and Carlotta Grisi), and it was there that La Sylphide and Giselle premiered and made an indelible mark on ballet history.

Training in France
The POB School was the first school to teach ballet. Louis XIV evidently understood the considerable advantages of teaching ballet in a school environment, with set exercises and advancement to higher levels allowed only when students demonstrated that they could perform lower-level exercises competently. The strict adherence to classical ballet technique has assured the continuity of danse d’école through generations of dancers. The POB and its school preserve the tradition of classical ballet in its purest form.

French-school instructors teach ballet as if they were constructing a building: without a proper foundation, the structures resting on it, no matter how highly ornamented, will be neither stable nor aesthetically pleasing. This “building block” concept has been imitated to one degree or another by most other schools of ballet to produce top-quality dancers.

Other notable aspects of the French approach to ballet training include its emphasis on simplicity and cleanness. To promote cleanly executed steps, the combinations in the first years of training are very simple and short; the patterns are limited and practice is repetitive to the point of tediousness. Instructors at the POB School hold that students must perform ballet basics impeccably before they attempt more elaborate combinations.

French-school instructors favor series of exercises calculated to work a specific part of the body or a particular movement (e.g., assemblés or sissonnes). They emphasize vivacity and liveliness, especially in the lower part of the legs, even in simple barre exercises, and introduce exercises that promote foot flexibility and sharp knee articulation at early stages of training. The result is the development of rapidity in movements of the lower leg, which renders small steps light, sharp, and airy. By contrast, adagio exercises or high extension of the legs may not get the attention in the French school that they receive, for example, in the Russian school.

This approach to ballet instruction has produced excellent dancers; even POB School students who do not enter the POB are in high demand throughout the world. The thorough mastery of the basics allows these dancers to adjust easily to different styles of ballet and choreography, wherever they may end up performing.

It has also influenced French ballet instruction outside of the POB School. Very few non-POB students pursue ballet as teenagers, at least partly because there are few professional ballet opportunities in France. French ballet schools do not, therefore, have teenage students dancing in amateur productions, which are common in the United States. Thus French instructors do not feel pressure from students who want to perform beyond their abilities. They are free to emphasize the basics and ensure that students “get it right”; there is little or no pressure to advance students to more difficult moves simply because they are now 14 years old, or because the next ballet being produced requires some techniques that they haven’t acquired yet.

Distinctiveness of the French School
Because cultural and national characteristics give particular “flavors” and different approaches to the art of
ballet, dancers’ performances reflect the school of their training, even when performing the same step. Indiana University professor Violette Verdy is particularly qualified to assess the differences that result from training, since she was born and trained in France yet spent most of her performing career as a principal dancer with New York City Ballet. According to Verdy, what distinguishes French ballet from other styles is its eloquence. She notes that “French ballet has a sense of form; American ballet has a sense of movement.” She points out that ballet’s deep historical roots in France add weight and density to that country’s interpretation of the art form.

Violette Verdy notes that “French ballet has a sense of form; American ballet has a sense of movement.”

Verdy adds that Russian dancers have a “more pronounced sense of drama” than do French dancers. The desire to express deeper emotions has fashioned ballet technique to allow more extended port de bras, more dramatic upper-body motions, sharper angles in the positions of the head, and extreme leg extensions. The lyricism of Russian ballet contrasts with the more reserved and subtle French danse d’école.

Among other styles, the Royal Danish Ballet’s Bournonville style emphasizes ballon and batterie; American ballet, symbolized by Balanchine’s neoclassical work, is noted for its fluidity, brilliance, and free spirit. In contrast, the French school distinguishes itself with elegance and purity of execution.

Dancer characteristics
As in all ballet, the French school aims to develop harmonious and eye-pleasing lines of the body. Female dancers in particular aim for charm and elegance in their dancing. Dancers hold their heads with soft angles and incline the chin upward to include spectators in the balcony while pushing down the shoulders to make the neck more visible and projecting the chest forward from the upper back. Épaulements and arm movements tend to be more discreet and reserved than in other ballet schools.

These aspects of carriage impart majesty and nobility to ballet poses and moves, possibly a holdover from ballet’s origins in court dance. However, the emphasis on form and appearance may, according to Verdy, result in overly stylized performances, with dancers striving mainly to remain within the set boundaries of danse d’école, particularly when performing the POB’s classical repertory ballets.

The beauty of movement in French ballet lies in simplicity and precision. Influenced by 18th-century Italian dancers, French dancers have perfected the vivacity and the rapidity of the lower leg in small allegro and pointe work (taqueté). If the feet play a major role in all ballet schools, the French school has perfected their function and developed their capacity to its limits, and French dancers love to show them off. The feet are more than the pointed extensions of the legs, and their elegance and flexibility tend to steal attention from a leg movement.

Adapting elements of the French style 
Ballet students everywhere can benefit today from the French tradition of training. When instructors emphasize placement and executing the basics properly before tackling more challenging moves, there is less of a chance of injury. Students who dance the basics well will look elegant and majestic, even without achieving technical virtuosity.

Some students and parents may feel that this approach holds students back, does not challenge them, or does not lead to what they might think is more impressive dancing that they see elsewhere. Yet an emphasis on footwork, exercises to increase the rapidity of lower-leg movements, precision in performing steps, and a focus on the upper back and carriage of the head are all aspects of the danse d’école that are worth incorporating into any school’s ballet training.

One aspect of training that helps students develop speed in footwork is the quick bending of the knee in movements like battement frappé and coupé. For instance, instead of practicing battement frappé with the accent out, it will be done with the upbeat on the cou-de-pied. Also, including some quick coupé (bringing the foot in on the cou-de-pied devant and derriére) at the barre helps increase the quickness of the bending of the knee.

French ballet dancers make great use of their adductors for quick closings into fifth. The practice of quick and low (no higher than 25 degrees) battements jetés develops the strength of the adductors. The jetés should be done either facing the barre or with the back to the barre, keeping the rest of the body as still as possible.

Students also benefit from practicing the barre regularly without ballet slippers, so that they can better feel the articulations of the foot and the instructor can check on the position of the foot on the floor, flat and on demi-pointe.

France’s legacy
The year 2013 will mark the 300th anniversary of the POB School, which has played a crucial role in preserving pure classical ballet technique. While there have been stylistic and pedagogic adjustments—thus allowing the art form to survive—the core of French technique has remained unchanged. It is the root of all varieties of ballet. Regardless of where they train, ballet students should understand that there is more French in ballet than its terminology.

To Learn More
Only a few old publications exist about the French school of ballet, most of which are in French, such as Grammaire de la Danse Classique (Genevieve Guillot), Les Verbes de la Danse (Suzanne de Soye), Le Monde Merveilleux de la Danse (Odette Joyeux), and Le Ballet de l’Opera de Paris (Ivor Guest).

Some of the work at the POB School can be seen on DVD in Les Enfants de la Danse (documentary on the school) and Etoiles: Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet (documentary on the company and the school). One of the best ways to observe the work of the POB School is to attend the biannual class demonstrations at the Paris Opera—popular performances that are often sold out.

Many DVDs are available that display some of the repertoire of the POB company, including The Paris Opera Ballet: Seven Ballets (1989) and The Paris Opera Ballet: Six Ballets (1985).

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August 2014
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