by Richard Siegal
The following is a collection of confused and contradictory thoughts on a subject of absurd complexity. No effort is made to bushwhack for the reader. I offer instead doubted credos, semi-aphorisms, and aborted theses. This may be the most precise definition we can offer at present of Contemporary Ballet Technique.
I am not qualified to speak about this subject. This is perhaps my sole qualification to teach it to others. All three terms – contemporary, ballet and technique are suspect and each merits a devoted scrutiny. If my teaching imparts anything of these subjects, it is largely a function of the phenomenon of how a student receives information, how we learn.
"Actually it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it ... it is left up to (the reader) to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks."
Walter Benjamin, "Illuminations", NYC 1969
Q. How do you fool students into believing that you are teaching them?
A. Don't let on that you are not. (They are no fools.)
The deception begins with the class title. It does, after all, contain the word Ballet.
Thanks to my freak association with "Ballet" Frankfurt and William Forsythe whose name evokes the vanguard of "Contemporary Ballet", I am assumed to have credibility. I make no effort to disillusion the students so that they might learn what they think they are there to learn. I cannot make them learn. I can only set the stage for them to teach themselves.
"When I teach I am at all times trying to get out of the way."
I say, "From 1st: Demi inside foot and a heel and stand up outside foot and a heel tendu front seven and a eight." If I propose this am I teaching anything? Is this, at last, Ballet? Contemporary? More clues are provided by the music, the reputation of the school, the clothes we wear, who is dancing in the room with us. No matter how neutral I try to be as a teacher I can never escape the context. Why would I want to? The context aides me.
Things I control: my language (not it's reception), my tutorial comportment (more and more), tempos and juxtapositions of the exercises, my dancing (less and less).
"When you dance you must at all times try to transmit everything you know (he means, don't know) about dancing."
Where what I (don't) know about dancing intersects with (not) teaching ballet: In my teaching, the juxtaposition of the exercises subscribes to the multi-generational project that is ever resulting in the sequence of movements designed to strengthen and increase range of motion in a graduated progression for the purpose of achieving a class of coordinations = Ballet Technique. This social desire has become more and more rational in proportion to our understanding of how the body (and the person in the body?) functions and responds to our will. I agree with this heritage.
To know a thing is to misapprehend it.
Technique, techne - to experience a thing is a form of knowledge.
When we learn we teach ourselves how we think HOW THINGS SHOULD BE.
The contemporary is constituted by the historical.
What ever became of Terpsichore?
"Dancing resists time and location." (And language, I say)
Paul Valéry (paraphrased)
Ballet is a mentality.
Ballet is a mentality I will never understand because I was not reared in the culture, because I've only seen a fraction of the canon, and most importantly, because I never danced the canon. I am an impartial anthropologist at best, a stranger reporting.
Ballet is a spirit I contain and deny as a responsible contemporary cynic.
"Throw not away the hero in your soul."
Nietzsche, "Thus Spoke Zarathustra"
Contemporary Ballet Technique resists credos, is an oxymoron.
Here is what I said at the end of my last class when I noticed them all sitting on the floor and perspiring: Well it seems that you have gotten what you wanted. Meaning, you look radiant (inspired). Meaning, have I done my job well? Meaning do it again tomorrow and after tomorrow because the only meaning is in doing it again and again. My job is to mediate.
[For the record, I will always believe in effort, in discipline, whether I possess it or not. It is an article of faith, not a 19th century will to unpuzzle the world, though mastery is an inevitable byproduct.]
Here is what I said to those who chose to come back the next day (sotto voce): What are you doing here? Are you sure?
A disconcerting point of identity to be healthfully acknowledged on occasion is that the process of becoming a dancer and maintaining a trained body (read physical identity) capable of housing and withstanding the ravages of Terpsichore (she is with us still, like it or not) is also a function of the market's demands.
[For those who like it not, are Against Terpsichore, in discussing Contemporary Ballet Technique we depart from the notion of the ineluctable monolith of Contemporary Dance Technique. Dance can also be performed which does not invite Terpsichore. Can Ballet? Is this the sole providence and defining characteristic of Conceptual Dance, the kissing kin of Postdramatic Theater? What other dance forms exist which can celebrate the rather inert?]
In French, the word "Formation" is apt. It infers stereotyping the student for the purposes of entering a social production of movement. The ever-accumulating canon defines the skills a qualified dancer ought to possess. It is this sense, this class of skills that "Techne" discloses.
Today's ballet dancer may spend her entire career training for and performing nothing but Classical Ballets. Is she Classical? Here we are obliged to enter the murky waters of Historical Reconstruction. Suffice it to ask,
An unidentified Ballerina of the Imperial Ballet in the Petipa/Pugni Terpsichore, St. Petersburg, circa 1870
were this ballet to be revived, would this unidentified Ballerina be reconstituted?
Profiting from the reliable authority of a powerful search engine we find that history does indeed provide a clue but without providing the answer.
An unidentified Ballerina of the San Diego Ballet in the reconstruction of Petipa/Pugni Terpsichore, California, circa 1980
Nonetheless, contemporary pedagogic notions of weight and release, gravity and bone, Alexander and Feldenkrais Techniques, advances in physical therapy, Pilates, Gyrotonics, the proliferation of Yoga and other Eastern movement/belief systems, club and street styles have fused with classical training systems (Vaganova in particular) to great effect. The Classical range of skills have profited from the hybridization along with every sphere of Human Movement Potential. If she stands in B-Plus for yet another entire 4th act, chances are she does it better than the ghost who stood where she stood 150 years ago. Is there a frontier to Performance?
But in German, the word "Stunde" reminds us that the skill set is refined inside and outside of the Conservatory. Not all dancers who habituate ballet classes harbor even unspoken desires to "become" a ballet dancer. Those of us who know what it is to be driven by an image or presentiment of somatic mastery may gravitate towards a ballet "Stunde" on a regular basis, to smash our egos against the rocks of absolute geometry and physics, because we must do hard things. And what artifacts are harder than ballet's?
With tears in her eyes, "I just don't feel my body when we do the barre. I did last time you were here teaching (one year ago)."
Me, "Today you are not a ballerina." More tears.
I should have said, "Feel your body a year ago."
I try not to take her misery personally. It is nothing for either of us to be proud of. Although I am not responsible for their learning I am still responsible to my teaching.
"You are actually in a position to awaken the desire of people to dance, through the medium of the relational, moving geometries that ballet is composed of."
"The technique one is effective only if confidence circulates."
(Google translation of "La technique n'est efficace que si la confiance circule")
By the way, what is to be said on the relationship between Position, Poseur, Posé, Pause, and Possession?