My doctoral dissertation MULTIPLE EMBODIMENT IN CLASSICAL BALLET, Educating the Dancer as Agent of Change in the Cultural Evolution of Ballet, positions the ballet dancer as an experiencing artist into the core of the evolving tradition and dancer’s artistic identity. The dancer is seen as an experiencing agent of change within the art of ballet, rather than an object, material or instrument to perform the dance.
The research proposes a way to teach ballet which acknowledges and gives space to this agency by introducing divergent teaching, that is, teaching that allows for multiple responses and solutions to given tasks. And by introducing structural images of the dance as tools to create with within the ballet context.
The concept of multiple embodiment
The concept of multiple embodiment is defined as a result of the research. It promotes the idea that one and the same movement in the ballet vocabulary can be performed in many subtly or more distinctly individual ways in terms of its artistic quality. For instance, when the dancer performs an arabesque he or she repeats a traditional codified form. However, in each performance of that arabesque, there can be something in the dancer’s experience of it that is fresh and new, something that transcends the arabesque as the dancer has known it before. Something that could also therefore be called creative. Every performance of an arabesque (or any other movement of the ballet vocabulary) is to some extent individual while it at the same time represents the known form. The intention in teaching multiple embodiment in classical ballet is to enhance this flux, the individuality, perhaps creativity, not to hide it.
Tools to multiple embodiment
When, as a teacher, I do want to enhance this individuality in performance, the question arises: “How is it possible to communicate to dancers these subtle or more prominent individual differences, the individual dance qualities, and how to enhance them in the dancers’ performance?” The teacher and dancers need tools.
In this research I have used as tools what I call structural images of the dance. They are qualities inherent in the movement/dance itself. They can be spatial components such as progression in space, projection into space, kinesphere (the space surrounding a dancer) planes or directions and so on. Or they can be movement actions, such as transference of weight, gesturing, twisting, gathering towards or scattering away from the centre. They can be dynamic properties of the dance, such as having a certain kind of timing or flow in the movement. They can be relationships of body parts playing with proximity and touch, just to give a few examples. (Preston-Dunlop 1998)
The structural components of dance are constituents of the medium itself and therefore communicate the formal qualities in dance, including those inherent in the ballet vocabulary. The structures and structural components are the building blocks of form as content. They indicate what can be intended in formal dance material. The dancer can choose and change intention in the same dance material thereby producing multiple embodiments of the same step. The structural components were used in this research, in the ballet workshops, as images to intend the ballet vocabulary. Different embodiments of the same step lead to the possibility of choice in the performance. Choice can lead to interpretation of the movement in terms of its inherent dance qualities.
Structural images reveal the quality so to speak underneath or behind the ‘step’. According to Preston-Dunlop we can call these hidden qualities deep structures of the dance. The dancer can give this underlying content a new embodiment of his own. This is how the images serve as tools to movement exploration, interpretation and composition. With these tools the teacher can create tasks that ask for multiple solutions, interpretations and compositions in the ballet class.
Practical research and emerging themes
The practical research was conducted in ballet workshops in which the dancers were asked to discuss their experiences while performing ballet with the structural images in mind and when reacting to divergent production tasks (Mosston & Ashworth 1994). The comments dancers gave of their experiences during the work could be divided into three categories.
The first category of experiences that dancers gave was named obstacles to experiencing ballet as an open qualitative form. An obstacle was a momentary or more persistent inability to engage with the dance in an open-ended way, that is, to experience it in a new way. Dancers reported associating feelings of artificiality or pretentiousness to performing ballet on the lines like “In ballet I put on a form” or when a dancer was performing ballet with the image of gesturing she might comment “I dislike this as it makes me feel pretentious as I am being taught to be like in a ballet class”. Sometimes the dancers felt tied by their movement habits, not being able to change their mode of attention.
The second category of dancer comments was named revelations. Revelations were experiences that in one way or another informed the dancers and facilitated performance. They restored the artistic feeling to the dance. Dancers talked about this feeling as “soul” to the performance or as being “not only mechanical performance, adds something…” Dancing might be described as more playful and dancelike than usual.
Revelations facilitated performance by informing the dancer artistically and technically. It gave new and unexpected awareness of the body and its movements. It facilitated performance for instance by improving the dancer’s ability to balance or by giving relief from unnecessary tension.
Revelations were characterized by spontaneity and indeterminacy. It was not possible to anticipate the image’s effect at a certain time to the dancer’s experience and performance. The same image could give a different kind of revelation at repeated explorations.
The third category of dancer’s experiences was stretching limits. Stretching limits indicated that in the experience of embodying the dance, a new way of performing had been found, which in one way or another created a tension between the established manner of performance and the new emerging one. For instance, when the image of free flow destroyed the neat composed form in ballet, many dancers questioned whether it was possible in ballet performance.
The interpretations of dance that emerged as a result of introducing open-ended divergent tasks in the ballet classroom echo the above mentioned three kinds of experiences. Interpretation as reproduction repeats a fixed movement style. Open and layered interpretations were the dancer’s own solutions followed by exploration with the images. Form-breaking interpretations echo the changing of form and possible border crossing between traditional movement and the dancer’s newly created new form.
The compositional tasks gave the dancers the possibility to expand ballet vocabulary, to mix ballet with their own movement style and to create new movement combinations having ballet as the starting point.
Theoretical explanation of dancers’ comments
My theoretical explanation of the dancer’s comments follows Csordas’ idea of cultural becoming as being simultaneously cultural representation and phenomenal renewal (Csordas 1994). The obstacles, revelations and border crossing (stretching cultural limits) are seen as representing the cultural cycle of embodying, transcending and objectifying the traditional norms and practices. The tradition is represented and at the same time transcended as in my example of performing an arabesque. In the embodiment of the dance, which includes representation and transcendence, the dancer as a human being plays an important part. Often the dancer is considered to be the choreographer’s material or instrument. Different mediums have different kinds of materials. It is different to be paint in a painting and to be dancer in a dance. The paint does not experience it to be artistically meaningful to be paint in a particular way in a painting. But the dancer does experience the meaningfulness of becoming in the dance and becoming the dance. My explanation of the findings are based on Csordas’ double vision of cultural flux as representation and transcendence, considering cultural becoming to be both semiotic and phenomenal at the same time. The dancer is experiencing and intending the cultural codes and their renewal in the dance while dancing.
The dancers’ comments (obstacles to experiencing, revelations and stretching cultural limits) exemplify their experience of the motivation of the semiotic codes in the culture. In this case dance/ballet seen as a culture, a community of persons creating and maintaining esthetic norms and practices. Because the dancer embodies the dance in his or her body and with his or her senses, the embodiment is one of representing and at the same time living the evolving codes of the dance.
The feeling of artificiality or pretentiousness while performing, a main obstacle, talks to me about a meaning that is firmly established in the tradition and repeated in such a way that it is not renewing itself.
Revelations were described as indeterminate and spontaneous bringing with them artistic feeling and informing the dancer about performance possibilities. Therefore they speak about codes in the making and strong motivation.
The feeling of stretching limits talks about the dancer’s experienced new possibility in performance that is artistically motivated to him or her. However, in terms of the cultural environment the dancer suspects that it may not be readily accepted. It breaks established norms. The dancer has to decide whether to push it forward or to yield to the conventions.
In multiple embodiment of classical ballet, ballet is understood to evolve through representation and transcendence and the dancer being in the key position of the activity experiencing the change. Ballet teaching is seen as forwarding an evolving tradition rather than, as is often said, simply forwarding a tradition. Forwarding an evolving tradition means that we leave space for the dancer’s agency. In multiple embodiment of classical ballet the opening out of the qualities in the vocabulary for personal choice and discovery and divergent tasks of interpreting and composing leave freedom for the dancer to explore within this space.
Principles of teaching multiple embodiment
In the course of the research principles describing the teaching of multiple embodiment were crystalized. In addition to the vocabulary seen as open to many qualitative expressions and the structural images as tools to intend and communicate the dance, multiple embodiment aims at enhancing the experiencing of the dance. The dancer’s intention of ballet with the image is not yet enough. The dancer does not yet know what this image has to give to his or her dancing at a particular time. It is not enough to know about dance, it needs to be embodied and experienced. Therefore enhancing experiencing is one principle of teaching multiple embodiment. Only experience enables creativity through transcendence.
The teaching of multiple embodiment intends to be a seamless continuum from learning the vocabulary to interpretation of it and co-authorship in ballet based composition. Subject-matter is not separated into compartments of technique, improvisation, interpretation and composition. Instead they are all part of an integrated learning process. Improvisation in the workshops was a way for the dancers to experience the moving with the structural images in mind and to warm up for the class. Experiencing the vocabulary through the images led to interpretations of the ballet movements and divergent teaching style gave a pedagogical opportunity for the dancer to create compositional products in class. When ballet vocabulary is expanded or new compositions created in the ballet class, the dancer comes to develop movement skills ordinarily practiced in a contemporary dance rather than a ballet class. Multiple embodiment included these in ballet classes without subject borders. Thereby the classical vocabulary is expanded by the dancer’s creative work and integrated with other dance vocabularies beginning from the dancer’s individual movement style. Multiple embodiment of classical ballet, by being open to the continual evolution in ballet as art, allows the dancer to gradually develop his or her agency as an active member of the developing culture. The dancer is educated, through initiation into the experience of existing conventions and by giving the freedom to act as a developing artist, to become an agent of change in the cultural evolution of ballet.
Implications of teaching multiple embodiment in classical ballet
The present research has shown one way to teach ballet that provides a continuum from re-vitalizing the performing of the traditional ballet vocabulary to creating with it.
Dancers and choreographers have expressed the need for a contemporary ballet dancer to become versatile not only in the traditional vocabulary and qualities but across dance styles. The dancer needs the ability to change according to visiting choreographers’ idiosyncratic styles as well as the ability to integrate many styles in one performance. Performing the traditional vocabulary with multiple qualities and occasionally expanding it gives the dancer a possibility to practice a wider performance range in the ballet class.
Contemporary choreographers increasingly create the dance in democratic co-authorship with the dancers. Reacting to divergent tasks of interpreting, expanding or composing dance material prepares the dancer for the new working methods in contemporary ballet that expect the dancer’s creative participation.
By juxtaposing tradition with the developing forms of contemporary ballet, multiple embodiment illuminates the connection between them and shows a way to include both in the education of a contemporary ballet artist.
Csordas, Thomas. 1994. The Sacred Self, A Cultural Phenomenology of Charismatic Healing. Berkely, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.
Mosston, Muska & Sara Ashworth. 1994 (1966). Teaching Physical Education. USA. Merrill Publishing Co.
Preston-Dunlop, Valerie.1998. Looking at Dances. Great Britain. Verve Publishing.
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