Technique Spotlight: Momentum

Now that we have covered alignments in a standing position, and know our direction, it’s time to discuss momentum. After all, dance is movement – and we need to know in which way we are going!

Momentum on the stage is indicated through stage directions, which are given not based on where the dancer is standing, but on what the audience sees. As such, stage left is actually to the right, and stage right – it’s the left! This can be very confusing, but once memorized, makes for simple instruction to dancers (or actors, or anyone performing on a standard proscenium stage).

stage-directions

Ballet uses up the whole of the stage – this is one of the reasons that ballets are usually performed in the biggest and deepest theatres possible, such as the main theatre of the Wharton Center. In class, we use the whole of the studio floor – our stage – to perform en centre. Commonly, centre exercises are performed moving from one corner of the floor to the other, in a diagonal direction. In theatre parlance, you would begin the exercise upstage right, and dance through to downstage left (or vice versa). Many classical ballets also use circular choreography (especially in pieces that emphasize turns), which make full use of the floor. When dancing on a stage, it is also very common to use the wings – the sides of the stage hidden by curtains, and make a number of entrances and exits throughout a single piece of choreography. Of course, our studio spaces at MSU do not have wings, so we instead use the space along the wall to give our centre exercises a similar feel.

I understand that all of these terms and movements can be extremely confusing, especially to those who are new to ballet. I will always demonstrate momentum for a piece when giving instructions for any particular exercise, so if you can’t remember the terminology, just follow along with the demonstration – and feel free to ask me lots of questions!

Advertisements

Technique Spotlight: Direction

In the blog post on 20 January 2017, I introduced the first movement concept in ballet: body alignment. Now that we understand alignment, it’s time to think about direction. One of the main questions to consider is: is my body position open or closed?

To assess whether a position is open or closed, the best indicator is to look at a dancer’s legs. If the legs are outstretched from each other (such as a battement tendu from P1 to P2), then the direction is ouvert – open. If the legs cross over one another (a battement tendu from P5 that crosses the body), then that position is croisé, and would be considered “closed.”

ballet-8-positions-of-the-body-large

Direction is the first step into making a movement. It is the facing of the body at rest, just before taking a step. As such, it is extremely important to understand direction, since it affects the movement of the body as the dancing begins.

In addition to the eight body alignments, positions may be performed either moving forward (devant) or backwards (derriere), which indicates the direction in which the working leg is moving. For lateral positions (such as a tendu from P1) wherein the leg is extended directly from the hip without crossing or opening diagonally from the body, this is often termed as a position à la seconde (quite literally, “as in second position”). Additionally, positions performed en face (directly facing the audience) are sometimes also described as à la quatrième, or “on the fourths,” as indicated in the image above.

There is a lot of French vocabulary applied to direction – more than is needed, in my opinion. For simplification in class, I will usually just indicate forward or back – à la devant or derriere – to the students.

With our alignment set and our direction understood, we can move! Next stop: momentum!

Technique Spotlight: Body Posture – Alignment

Where am I standing? How should I stand? And in which way am I going?

Alignment in dance is crucial, but it can be extremely confusing. I’ve been struggling with how best to introduce this material in our very short class periods, especially as the French terms used for alignment positions all sound somewhat alike (écarté, éffacé, épaulé…) and the actual difference between the positions can be difficult to grasp when one is first starting out.

As such, I’ve decided it best to break the topic up into three different elements: alignment, which indicates how and where you stand; direction, which indicates the incline of the body in a particular stance, and momentum, which indicates where you place your feet, extend your legs, and move. We’ll start in this post with alignment.

Ballet is a 3-D art. It uses the full space of the stage, and balletic movements are performed in a specific alignment of the body. Most of what we have done in class has been performed facing directly forward towards the mirror (en face). However, that is just one of the alignments that is available to the dancer. Many ballet schools use a series of specific terms to describe the alignment of the body during performance (though the terms differ dependent on the school or technique being taught). Most have eight distinct alignments of the body, practiced in a box or square manner with each point being numbered. The alignments that we will utilize most often in class are as follows:

  • Croisé means “crossed” in French, and can describe both crossed position of the feet (such as P3 and P5) as well as the alignment in which the leg is extended across the body.
  • En face means that the dancer is facing completely forward.
  • Écarté is an opening of the body, with the leg extended outward instead of across.
  • Effacé means “shaded,” and indicates that one arm is shading the body while the legs are opened. It’s sometimes described at the opposite of croisé.
  • Épaulé is “shouldered” (such as an epaulette on a military jacket, which covers the shoulders). Épaulement, in which the dancer looks towards or over one shoulder, is a common expressive technique which helps to heighten the emotional quality of the dance. In épaulé positions, the arm extends forward while the dancer faces over one shoulder. I will ask advanced students already familiar with épaulement to use it at the barre or en centre when working the corresponding form, but it will not be necessary for those in Basics or those beginning Intermediate with no previous training.

Many ballet academies will use a square or box marked on the studio floor to help students learn the different alignments, as is shown in this video from the Royal Ballet in the UK. I have seen some classes that use a large square of foam or linoleum in order to show students the different corners to reach with their feet.

cechetti-ballet-corners

Imagining a box on the floor can help the dancer to both correctly align the torso as well as maintain the proper direction for the leg and foot when performing movements such as the tendu.

For those looking for more detailed information, I highly recommend this great blog post from The Ballet Bag.

Next time, we’ll talk about direction!

Technique Spotlight: Piqué

Piqué in French means “to prick, or be stung.” A piqué movement in ballet consists of the dancer lifting the toes of the working foot/leg to “prick” the floor. We have engaged the piqué in two movements so far – at the barre in combination with the dégagé (disengaged) tendu in both classes, as in a turn in the Intermediate class.

The piqué turn is a traveling turn, and are usually performed in multiples (such as three turns in succession). In a piqué turn, the dancer lifts his/her leg into a strong passé and turns either on the demi pointe (if in slippers) or full pointe (if in toe shoes). Piqué turns are found in both the adage and allégro rhythms in ballet, and have also been adopted into other forms of dance, such as jazz.

Arms in the piqué turn typically move from second position to first position as the turn is performed – this helps both with momentum (so that that full revolution of the turn is completed), as well as keep the upper body upright (so that the dancer doesn’t fall forward or to the side).

Because piqué turns travel, it is very important to spot during the turn so that the dancer doesn’t become dizzy or disoriented. This video from BalletHub shows a dancer en pointe doing numerous piqué turns, and gives some great tricks for keeping the upright alignment in the turn. One aspect of the piqué turn that may differ dependent on style or school is the format for the passé – whether or not the toe is held in front of the knee (en dehors) or behind it (retiré/en dedans). Both are correct and have their advantages, but in our classes we are performing piqué turns en dehors (with the toe tucked in front of the knee).

do-ballet-piques-step-8

I find that this helps novice dancers to maintain an upright posture during revolution even if they do not have strong turn-out, whereas the turns performed in retire sometimes lead to the passé leg sliding out of position (and thereby wrecking the dancer’s balance) during rotation. This very detailed blog post from Dance Advantage discusses the different forms of piqué and shows some great examples of ways that piqué (both in barre exercises and in a turn) is utilized.

Piqué takes a lot of practice to master – the operation of lifting and controlling the toe as it pricks the floor is something that only repetition and exercise can secure. But it is a critical and useful movement in classical ballet, and one that every dancer should aspire to achieve.

Technique Spotlight: Pas de Bourrée

Whenever you hear the phrase “pas de…” you know you’re talking about a step. There are lots of different steps in ballet: some are named for animals that they imitate, such as the pas de chat (cat’s step) or pas de cheval (horse-like step), and some are named instead for the place in which they originated (such as the pas de Basque, which started off as a step from a courtly Spanish dance). This is the case with one of ballet’s most common and important traveling steps: the pas de Bourrée.

The pas de Bourrée is traditionally a quick traveling step, most often performed in the allégro rhythm. It evolved from a common three-step motion performed in French courtly dance. Pas de bourrée begins with extension of the first leg while demi-plié, closing the first leg to the second as both transition to relevé, extending the second leg to an open position while relevé, and closing the first leg to the second in demi-plié. This video from Maegin Woodin shows a good example in slow motion of how to do a typical pas de Bourrée. This step is so useful that it has also been adopted and adapted by other forms of dance, and is now commonplace in jazz and musical theatre as well as classical ballet.

pas-de-bourree

As shown in this video from the Royal Ballet of London in the UK, there are many different forms of this step, which is a core movement for crossing the stage. There is a piqué pas de Bourrée, in which the toes are picked up and prick the floor (piqué) during each step of the movement. There is also the pas de Bourrée couru or “running Bourrée,” in which the dancer travels on his or her toes in a crossed position (usually 5th position). One can also perform a pas de Bourrée en tournant by using the three-step motion to turn the dancer’s body (a very common application). As seen in the video, one can perform an entire piece that is nothing but different variations of the pas de Bourrée!

Pas de Bourrée is performed both to travel across the stage as well as an in-between step performed between turns, arabesques, and jumps. It is found is every piece of balletic choreography – I have yet to see a performance, even a short one, without a pas de Bourrée.

We’ll be introducing the pas de Bourrée in Ballet Basics this week, and reviewing it in Intermediate on Wednesday. Getting the pas de Bourrée right takes some practice, but by starting off slow and working up to more quickly paced steps, every dancer of every skills level can master this fundamental technique of classical ballet.

Technique Spotlight: All About Feet

As discussed in an earlier spotlight, there are five standard positions for the feet. In addition, there are several different techniques used to position the foot along the support leg during steps, turns, and exercises at the barre:

Cou-de-pieds: “cut the foot” – a position in which the toe is pointed at the ankle of the supporting leg. Used as a starting position for different movements en l’air (in the air), including the traditional battement fondu.

cou-de-pied

Coupé: “to cut” – an active transition step in which the foot is pointed at the supporting leg just above the ankle. The coupé step can be performed in front of the supporting leg (devant/en dehor) or behind the supporting leg (derriere/en dedans).

coupe

Something to be aware of – the different schools of classical ballet often have different names and conceptions for the same kinds of movements. Coupé is a good example of this: in some schools of ballet, the coupé is actually performed closer to the knee than the ankle, and in others, the coupé is synonymous with a cou-de-pieds. In our classes, coupé will refer to a position of the toe about 4 inches above the supporting leg’s ankle.

Passé: “passed through” – a position in which the pointed toe is passing the knee of the supporting leg. It is also sometimes just referred to as a retiré. As with the cou-de-pieds and coupé, the passé can be performed in front of the supporting leg (devant/en dehor) or behind the supporting leg (derriere/en dedans). A strong passé is extremely important for turns – especially the classic pirouette (turn on one foot). This very good article from BalletHub looks as the different elements of a proper passé and gives some great tips for dancer improvement.

passe2

Each of these forms can be practiced either with the whole foot flat on the floor, or on the demi-pointe (en relevé). Passé especially is most often performed up on one’s toes, either on the demi-pointe in soft slippers, our on full pointe in toe shoes (as Laura DeLorenzo from the Ellison Ballet in New York is, below).

passepro

We will practice all of these different positions during our exercises at the barre, and will then utilize these fundamentals whilst performing steps and turns en centre.

Technique Spotlight: Plié

The word plié in French means “to bend.” A plié in ballet is a movement where the body dips towards the floor by bending the knees. It may sound simple, but performing a plié properly means carefully aligning the body and utilizing not only one’s knees, but also the muscles in the core, thighs, and feet.

plie1

A proper plié is a fully vertical movement – the bending of the knees makes the body go up and down. One of the trickiest aspects about pliés is not to allow the body to sway either forward or backwards, but to use the abdominal muscles to hold the body from the waist-up so that it is fully erect. The thigh muscles must be strong enough to bend the knees without pushing the body forward (or causing the dancer’s bottom to stick out!) This is one of the reasons that all dancers, from beginners to prima ballerinas, begin their exercises at the barre with a series of pliés in all of the different positions.

In our classes, we work to perform two types of pliés: the demi-plié, or half-bend (a small dip at the knees), and the grand plié, or big bend, wherein the body sinks downwards (sometimes causing the shoulders to dip below the level of the barre). We move through the demi-plié when progressing to perform a grand plié. With demi-pliés and grand pliés in 2nd position, we have an additional obstacle – working to keep our heels on the floor! In all forms of the plié, we must also remember to utilize the turn-out from our hip joints to keep our knees over our toes (a phrase that will be repeated in more than one ballet class).

knee-rotation-fig1

The plié is one of the most important movements in ballet – it is the basis for a number of jumps and turns, as well as a way to perform rélévés (coming up and down from our toes). Pliés provide strength to jumps and cushion to landings, as well as power to the beginnings of turns and spinning movements. As such, we’ll continue to open every class with a full round of pliés, and work together to make sure that this important fundamental is practiced in each class.

Technique Spotlight: Glissade

The glissade (“glide”) is a traveling step most often used in allégro pieces. One begins a glissade from a croisé foot position (usually fifth position), performing a plie and then sliding the working foot outward into tendu from the body. The dancer then shifts weight to the working leg, releasing the support leg and bringing both feet back together, which allows the body to travel in a line. Glissades are usually performed with changement, so the feet change as the glissades themselves are stepped (if you start your series of glissades with your right foot, you’ll change from right, to left, to right again). You can very clearly see the changement in this video from the Royal Ballet (UK), wherein the dancer is performing glissades in a row very slowly.

Glissades can be performed moving side-to-side (a la séconde en décoté), on in a diagonal across the floor. They are often seen as an in-between step, used to transition between a small jump such as a sauté changement or assemble or as a traveling motion in-between turns.

One of the most important aspects in performing glissades (and any sliding traveling step) is to keep the feet supple on the floor – much like the tendu, wherein the base of the foot slides against the floor before coming to a point in the toe, the foot performing the glissade should fully brush the floor before pointing. This motion allows flexibility in the foot, which helps to increase speed. We’ve been performing glissades in both Ballet Basics and Intermediate quite slowly, but usually, they are very fast! As speed increases, so does height, making the glissade a little less like a step and more like a jump (as seen in the second half of the video above). Keeping the knees in demi-plié and using the natural bounce of the body – the ballon, as it is called in ballet – also helps maintain speed through the movement and helps to reduce risk of injury by allowing the bent knees to absorb the motion of the body.

In this video featuring dancer and choreographer Maegan Woodin, Ms. Woodin demonstrates the individual steps included in a glissade as well as a good way to practice glissade using the barre for support. If you wish you practice at home and do not have a barre, a strong, sturdy chair may be used to help you balance.

Glissades take a lot of practice to perfect, so make sure to work on them slowly at first to cement your technique. As with the grand pliés and grand battements, it’s best to gain control first – THEN speed! (Or height, or depth…)

Technique Spotlight: Développé

As one might surmise from the word, développé means to develop. Sometimes also translated as “to unfold,” it is a transition between movements wherein the working leg is bent (usually in coupé or passé) and then extended out from the body.

Developpe

As shown in this video from the Royal Ballet in the UK, the extension can be directly to the front, to the side, or to the back, where in the working leg can be bent (en attitude) or fully extended into an arabesque. There are three particularly challenging aspects to performing the développé correctly:

  1. Keeping control of the speed of the working leg, so that it unfolds slowly and in time with the music (commonly in adage),
  2. Maintaining proper turn-out as the leg moves into passé and then extends from the hip joint, and
  3. Keeping one’s balance as the working leg performs its full extension. The body may wish to pull forward or lean backward in order to accommodate the leg, but it’s very important to keep the core centered on the supporting leg and not allow the upper body to collapse.

How to overcome these two obstacles? PRACTICE! The development of a strong core (especially abdominal muscles, gluteal muscles and hamstrings) is the key to a proper développé, so this is quite literally a case wherein practice makes perfect. I have found that performing the développé on the floor is a great way to work the necessary muscles and improve both turn-out and height in the extension. This video shows a great exercise for developing a strong développé a la dévant (extending to the front) by working on the floor, and allowing the floor to support your back so that you can really work on strengthening the leg. You can also work on the développé a la seconde (out to the side) by laying on one side on the floor, and slowly working the extending leg into passé rétiré (keeping the toe behind the knee) and then outward.

Utilizing the barre to maintain balance while exercising can also help, so long as the dancer remains aware of posture and does not lean over onto the barre for support. It’s hard work, but it is worth is for that beautiful line (and stronger legs)!

Class Music & Notes: Basics, 12 February 2016

Happy Valentine’s Day, dancers! I hope you had a wonderful weekend.

In Ballet Basics on Friday, we worked on a variation of this battement tendu en centre exercise, wherein we changed between performing tendu par terre in P5 to the front and the back and then moved into tendu à la second, wherein the extended foot moved directly to the side. We have also begun to better connect the movements of the lower body to our port de bras – a practice that we’ll continue to hone throughout the semester. I’ll post soon about two other technical aspects – direction and alignment – that we’ll be discussing as we transfer exercises from the barre to the centre.

The music that we worked to in Basics on Friday for centre is Mazurka #2 (which happens to be track #2) by Maria Szymanowska from Alexander Kostritsa’s CD, Three Generations of Mazurkas. (Alex is a phenomenal pianist as well as a friend of my family back home in Ohio, and I was lucky enough to receive his latest recording as a gift this past Christmas.) I find that mazurkas make for lively music in the studio – a little lighter and airier than a waltz, but not too quick (or too slow).

Enjoy! See you in class on Friday.