DIY University: Ballet; Week 4 Day 4

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The Independent Online
Ballet dancers walk in a very silly way: their toes do not face the direction of travel. Instead their legs are unnaturally twisted at the hips so that a greater variety of poses can be struck at a moment's notice with elegance and economy. It is called turn-out and it has its roots in the formal dances of the French and Italian courts.

The five positions of the feet were already established by the mid-17th century, but over the years steps were added by succeeding generations of virtuoso dancers. To the core repertoire of stances were added the various poses on one leg (arabesque, attitude), jumps (jete, pas de chat, cabriole, ballotte, etc), and turns (pirouette, fouette, promenade, etc).

The transformation of the vulgar trick of toe-dancing into an art form is traditionally attributed to Marie Taglioni, who stuffed her satin slippers with cotton and rose on tiptoe better to suggest the light-footed fairies then in fashion. La Taglioni's greatest success was in August Bournonville's 1832 ballet La Sylphide. She created such a sensation that a group of fans with sound digestions stewed and ate a pair of her slippers in fetishistic tribute. The modern ballerina's ability to rise on to points and stay there is made possible by rigorously trained foot muscles, well-fitted blocked shoes and several yards of sticking plaster.

So if ballet is mostly French in origin, why do we associate it with Russia? Although obliged to import its earliest dance teachers from France, Russia soon made up for lost time with Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa (another Frenchman) creating works such as Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, which have survived substantially unchanged to the present day.

The pre-eminence of Russian ballet in the popular imagination is partly thanks to Petipa (and his collaborator Lev Ivanov) but mostly due to the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who hired some of St Petersburg's finest to form an international touring company in 1909. The popular success and enormous influence of Les Ballets Russes were largely thanks to Diaghilev's unerring ability to cherry-pick the creative forces of the age. His taste and judgement led to a masterly fusion of the contemporary arts, fashionably decadent visuals by Benois and Bakst, modern music from Stravinsky, and transcendent performances by Nijinsky, Pavlova and Karsavina. Every one of these singular talents was to quit Russia for good in the creative diaspora that followed the revolution.

Ballet's popularity with ordinary citizens and commissars alike ensured its survival, but although the classics were treasured, new choreography, cut off from international stimulus, either stagnated or developed along brash Soviet lines.This dearth of creative talent was masked by the fine dancers still being produced in numbers that astonished Western audiences when the Bolshoi and Kirov began touring abroad with dancers like Ulanova, Nureyev, Makarova, Baryshnikov and Asylmuratova. Inevitably a shortage of red meat and fresh ballets led many of them to defect to the West.

Britain had long been used to regarding ballet as a foreign import and any home-grown talents modified their names accordingly: Hilda Boot became Hilda Butsova; Hilda Munnings, Lydia Sokolova; Peggy Hookham, Margot Fonteyn. Britain did not evolve a native ballet until a former Diaghilev dancer called Ninette de Valois (real name Edris Stannus) set up her Academy of Choreographic Art in 1926, an enterprise that by 1956 had become known as the Royal Ballet.

Just as Russian ballet had grafted native folk traditions on to the basic classical technique, De Valois rooted British ballet in national dance (the Royal Ballet has its own morris-dancing outfit to this day). De Valois thus laid the foundation for the characteristic English style of neat, fleet footwork enshrined in the works of Frederick Ashton.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, George Balanchine, who left Russia in 1924, was discovering the lean, rangy bodies of American dancers and the jazzy perfections of Broadway and incorporating these elements in the neo-classical style he forged for his adopted country.

Although all ballet companies try to preserve a national style their programming is often depressingly similar. The core repertoire of 19th century classics is usually mixed with more modern, often plotless works. Twentieth century ballet may have addressed everything, from gang rape to the Holocaust (and that's just Kenneth MacMillan), but ballet can only tell very simple stories. Ballet-haters often complain that the fairy- tale plots are silly. They forget that there are only so many relationships you can get across without saying a word - as Balanchine once remarked: "There are no mothers-in-law in ballet". Plots are necessarily simple but eternal: boy meets swan, boy loses swan, boy gets swan.

Tomorrow: Myth