Ballet and the 21st Century
by Dr. Peggy Willis-Aarnio
universal theme of Classical Ballet is the exploration of the relationship
between a man and a woman. Specifically, over the last two centuries, Classical
Ballet has described, in infinite variety, the coming together of a man and a
woman (as mortals, as gods, as royalty, as spirits and so much more) in its most
powerful and yet beautiful, gentle and perplexing grandeur as expressed through
a harmony of spirits and exquisitely performed movement. This experience, to the
viewer, is heightened to a zenith only when the performers go beyond their
native talent and personal charisma (their "star" quality) by bringing
the evocative power borne of correct and complete Classical Ballet schooling to
their performances as well. Natural, but unschooled talent is rarely enough to
really reach the most basic emotions of the audience, but neither is brilliant,
virtuoso technique by itself without the human input of the artist. Our goal in
Classical Ballet at the dawn of the 21st century is not only to insure that the
best possible Classical Ballet training becomes more universally available to
all aspirant Classical Ballet artists, but also that these budding artists be
prepared to breathe real life into their performances by adding the dimension of
personal spirit and soul. Only by complete and thorough schooling can we free
our 21st century Ballet artists of their worries about technical execution and
thus free their minds to express their artistic vision and spirit (as well as
brilliant technique) in their performances.
century will go down in history as the era of the development of
scientifically-based and physiologically sound Classical Ballet training due, in
large part, to the work and contributions to Classical Ballet pedagogy by the
great Russian teacher/educator and choreographer, Agrippina Vaganova. Vaganova
stated that "classical" means perfection. Without the technical
perfection that this training affords, a ballet artist can almost never achieve
true artistic greatness (a greatness not based on personality or association).
"Classical" ballet endures because it achieves technical brilliance
which can then allow the artist to shape the choreography and the
"message" of the ballet into a powerful statement that can move and
inspire the audience. Though the audience may not understand why or how they
have been touched, it is an exciting and pleasurable experience that most often
results in a desire to relive this experience over and over again, by going to
see more ballet programs in the future. This is how a long term, enthusiastic
ballet audience is cultivated in any community. We have seen this phenomenon
over and over again in the U.S.
If you watch
a ballet performance, and what you see is a very stiff, muscular person
executing a series of dance-like movements, then the artist you are watching has
not mastered the technical challenges of their art. Choreography in dance should
be a transparent phenomenon, just like the words of a story. The words should
not stand out as words, but should work together as a whole to convey an idea or
a story, or a feeling. In the 21st
century, Classical Ballet technique and vocabulary will endure, but how that
technique and vocabulary are used to communicate with an audience may vary
Technique and artistic expression are the commonly recognized ingredients that must be present before Classical Ballet as a fine art can actually make a statement or communicate a thought. As we reflect on the art of ballet over the past one hundred years, and what the components of successful performances are, we must be aware of and recognize the following elements:
definable purpose or motive.
character and meaning given to the work by the performing artists.
character and meaning given to the work by the Choreographer, and associated
designers, librettists, and composers.
Classical Ballet deals, almost exclusively, with the coming together of a man
and a woman (usually in a spiritual rather than a carnal display), and the fact
is that this activity is at the very core of human experience, it is not
difficult to understand that this theme will be a major driving force in shaping
the artistic expression of both ballet artists and choreographers alike, as the
art enters the 21st century.
hundred years ago, someone would have suggested that in less than 80 years, we
would be able to travel from Paris to New York in three hours, conventional
wisdom would have resoundingly dismissed this notion as absurd. As a result of
information now available worldwide (as a result of the end of the cold
[cultural] war), we are at just such a juncture now in ballet. We now have the
knowledge available to virtually eliminate technical worries as an item of
concern for any future ballet artist or choreographer, but we must approach the
issue with an open mind. It is now possible to prove that artists of the caliber
of Baryshnikov, Nureyev, Makarova, Semenova, Ulanova, Mezentseva, Komleva and
the like are not isolated incidents of a serendipitous combining of timing and
natural talent, but a deliberate achievement that can be reproduced over and
over again when a teacher has access to and is willing to consistently apply the
teaching principles developed and recorded by Agrippina Vaganova and her
While it is
true that classical works of art will endure the test of time, in the future, in
ballet, if we cultivate a knowledge of the contributions of the great teachers
and choreographers of this century, we will be able to develop the art in ways
that will enrich our lives in ways we can scarcely imagine now.
proven the cultural benefit from preserving the achievements of the past. But,
it is now time to begin an exploration of new and expanded possibilities as
well. This search would include combining the communicative power of several of
the most powerful traditional art forms, including opera, traditional theatrical
stage, Classical Ballet, and interactions with electronic media to include
computer generated imagery and sound, as well as video and film. This quite
likely will take the overall experience of ballet to the next level. Here, the
performing artist and the choreographer, as well as vocal artists, visual
artists, playwrights, and media artists will all be able to combine forces to
really put some power behind their visions. After all, real life is made up of
complex, interactive experiences.
The art of
Classical Ballet has many potential purposes, but one of the noblest is to
"keep man from falling." It is a vehicle that helps us to be able to
look past the imperfections of reality long enough to see a clear vision of what
promise the future holds if only we are strong enough and principled enough to
hold fast to a higher set of values. The message and the vehicle can ultimately
save our lives, and more importantly, our spirits. In this context, a true
artist is one who becomes a star as a result of how well they explicate the
message and meaning of their art, not the one that attempts to try to draw
accolades by showing off their special tricks and skills. The performing artist
is only one of the gifted contributors to the overall success of a performing
work, along with librettists, composers, choreographers, teachers and coaches.
that we can look for in new Classical Ballet works is the combining of the forms
and discoveries of the past with knowledge and technology that is just now
unfolding. They will also take
advantage of a broader base of insight and inspiration by bringing a perspective
borne of the traditional theater into the work and introduce an interactive
matrix of traditional and electronic music forms and live action as well as live
and computer-generated electronic imagery. None of these elements, or combining
them with each other is "new," but none of these combining in the
recent past have been particularly successful in the long run. The challenge now
proposed is to refine these relationships as the knowledge and skill levels in
each of the separate areas continues to improve, so that the amalgams will
become more effective and more memorable. By
combining Classical Ballet with drama, music, technical effects and the talents
of a playwright, a new genre of ballet may well be born.
always searching for new ways to increase the effectiveness of communication in
dance, as well as in the other arts. As we move into the 21st century, why not
take the power and greatness of both the traditional and emerging art forms, and
continue to look at new ways to combine them to increase the final impact of the
whole to a greater level than a mere mathematical combining of the various
parts? In this way, instead of forcing a competition between “Old” and
“New” methods and means of expression, we can draw strength and vision and
purpose from all these sources. In this way, instead of risking the destruction
of an artistic perspective because it can't compete financially, or
ideologically, perhaps we can actually open a door to a new path that does it
all, as we open the door to the new century.
“ballet” is simply a theatrical production. By the definition applied by
Agrippina Vaganova, the term “classical” means perfection. Therefore, a
Classical Ballet is as perfect an expression of a theatrical production as
humanly possible. With or without a libretto, the perfection of the technique
and vocabulary of classical dance has lived through the twentieth century, and
with new works on the horizon, its prospects in the twenty first century are
even more promising. This
Ballet Gala Program
starring The Saint-Petersburg Classic Ballet of Marina Medvetskaya is
intended to pay homage to the great traditions and the bright future of this
spiritually uplifting and inspiring art form. The language of dance endures as a
true universal language among peoples and is truly our inspiration to the future
of classical dance.
Copyright, 1999, Peggy Willis-Aarnio, All Rights Reserved
The Saint-Petersburg Classic Ballet Theatre of Marina Medvetskaya, the Gold Medal Winning Company from Saint-Petersburg, Russia, 2007
Meaning of Movement and Classical Ballet
by Dr. Peggy Willis-Aarnio
We all understand the importance of music.
The rhythms underlying music affect our soul too.
How much more important is movement in terms of how it affects our soul
also? Put the two together and you have a very powerful art, and
that is what classical dance is founded on, the strong rhythms and beautiful
harmonies of music. Without it,
classical dance could not and would not want to exist.
When you enroll your child in dance studies, have you ever
imagined how it would affect their spirit.
Classical dance studies prepare the body to perform the most difficult
and sophisticated movements know to the human body. These are the movements that have endured because
of their lasting ability to uplift the soul.
Many choreographers today are abusing the privilege of making a dance by
showing not only ugly but very disturbing movements in the name of being
“modern.” Actually, these
movements are very primitive in structure and offer nothing but confusion to the
human spirit. Now, if you can
image, many of these confusing and disturbing movements are being shown on
stage, many times solely for the purpose of upsetting the audience. This is self-serving and is not real art.
The Aniheim Ballet states
Each student will be
affected by their lessons in various ways and we take that responsibility
seriously. The positive effects of higher self esteem, improved posture,
development of talent, stress reduction, self expression, physical conditioning
and the pure joy of movement are benefits of dance training that we witness
daily. Students are offered the same high quality of training regardless of
their ultimate motivation. Some students go on to professional dance careers,
some incorporate their dance experiences into an improved quality of life, some
are motivated by the discipline to apply it to other areas, some become
enlightened audience members, but all have the same shared experience of
excellent dance training.
Ballet is the foundation
dance form for our school as it enables dancers to achieve more in any dance
form that they may pursue. ...
A professional training program and career guidance are offered to those dancers seeking a future career. Student concerts are offered to all students at whatever their current level of accomplishment. The focus of AB's student concert recital is the development of self expression, appreciation of artistry, teamwork (equal to any sports league), joy of dance, the theatrical experience, and a sense of accomplishment.
Ballet training is the foundation of many professional
training schools around the world. Very
little was known, however, in how to scientifically train the body for
predictable results and results with no injuries, until recently.
By recently, I mean since, 1979, when Vera Kostrovitskaya’s book, School
of Classical Dance, was published in English.
The publication of this book in English finally gave American’s a
chance to view the education of dance in physiological and scientific terms.
Very few, though have had the opportunity to study it.
Everyone always talks about the positive benefits of ballet
training, but very few speak about how movement affects us.
A movement is to the eye what music is to the ear.
A classic in anything has endured the test of time.
What this means is that it is as effective today as it was when it was
first inspired. Styles change with time when new demands are placed on them,
but a classic is encouraged to stick around and be enjoyed by future
generations. In music,
Tchaikovsky’s works are enjoyed today and appreciated today as they were in
his own lifetime, if not, even more. The
same is true of classical dance. Marius
Petipa, the world famous choreographer of Russian Classical Ballet, works, are
still being performed today due to his ability to understand the nature of
music, beauty and theatrics, and weld all of these into a complete artistic
A ballet is simply a theatrical presentation.
So, a classical ballet is a theatrical presentation of the repertoire
(body of work performed by a company) that has endured the test of time.
Agrippina Vaganova, from Saint-Petersburg, Russia is the
teacher who founded the ballet education system that is taught in Russia today,
realized the importance of classical dance; and in many articles that she wrote,
encouraged the continuing study of classical dance for anyone who wished to
study movement and its lasting effects on the human soul.
There is also “friendship through beauty”, as was told by
Zakarov, the famous Russian Choreographer from Moscow.
This is a side benefit when you study classical dance, but classical
dance stands for something much more important than one could image.
It has the power to transform people’s lives, wishes and hopes.
One of the most important things that a parent can do today
is to enroll their child in classical dance training. Even if the child does not wish to become a classical dance
artist, their study of a traditionally based art form will enable them to
unconscientiously become aware of movement and develop a sense of beauty that
will enrich their lives forever. A
sense of professionalism and discipline in this rich art for will enable them
carry this professionalism and discipline into all areas of their lives and help
them become mature and productive members of society.
Learning what is good is movement is like getting nourishing
and good food for the body. Ugly,
harsh and pounding music produces ugly, harsh and pounding movements.
These movements and rhythms are animalist in nature and distract our
soul. We are pulled away from
beauty and are encouraged to be negative in spirit.
In classical dance, we have strong pulsing movement but the movement is
rich in construction, full in melody and has a structure that is complete and
meaningful. Empty, pounding
movements to empty pounding music results in empty, pounding thoughts and
actions. Garbage in and garbage
out, is one way to think about it. Literally, our actions are a result of what we put into our
spirits and music and dance are very powerful ways of influencing the spirit.
This is why parents need to know the wonderful and lasting influence of a
tested and true art form...an art form that has given millions uplift and
pleasure to the spirit. It is
enriching, it is enduring and it is a positive influence on all aspects of life.
We are truly affected by everything, everyone and especially
by the arts. Today, much is being
passed off as arts when it is not art at all but a self-indulgent activity under
the guise of art.
The meaning of movement is reflected in our society today.
Never before have we seen our children move and act as though they are
part of an organized activity, pornographic in nature.
Classical ballet is the opposite of this. Unfortunately we see so much of
this “new” movement on television and in films, today that we actually seem
to be encouraging our children to move and behave in ways that would have been
considered as obscene just twenty or thirty years ago.
The movements of classical dance and their meaning are pure,
inspiring and have passed the test of time.
The nobility and the sense of purpose that embodies classical ballet
movement uplifts our spirit and can still bring us out of the depths of
depression. The great Russian
Teacher and Coach, Agrippina Vaganova teaches us that classical means perfection.
Like a diamond is to precious stones, so is classical ballet to
dance. It is to be studied,
treasured, admired, enjoyed and preserved.
Congratulations on caring enough about your children to give
them an exposure to this beautiful and enduring art form...that of classical
dance. Their lives cannot help but
be better for it.
Copyright, 2004, Peggy Willis-Aarnio, All Rights Reserved
Professor Peggy Willis-Aarnio and Natalia Dudinskaya,
Vaganova Ballet Academy Museum,