Ballet is a style that is very prominent within the dance industry. It is often the first style of dance a child will engage with. It may also be one style of dance that has stood through time remaining, in most cases, in it’s classical form. However, like all styles, ballet is adapting and creating within itself new possibilities for movement that come out of new collaborations with choreographers, musicians and artists to name a few. But when does ballet stop being ballet, and instead become a different style?
Ballet has a history, as much of the terminology suggests, it’s main origin is France. In the 1500’s dance became something that had entertainment values and was not just for personal activity, the ballet de cour performed for the French Queen, Catherine De Medici. These performance encompassed Italian music and dance as well as the French dance culture, but were still indistinguishable from the social dances used within the culture. Le Ballet de Polonais (1573) is perhaps a turning point in establishing France as the dominant country in Europe’s development of dance, as it combined French verses and Italian music that allowed for vocal drama to be depicted on stage. From here dance was able to develop to the French taste allowing elegance and symmetry to be emphasised and thus creating the art form of ballet we have now (Carol Lee, 2002).
We can define ballet as “an artistic dance form performed to music (…)”, this first statement really could define any dance form. The definition then goes on to state that ballet uses “precise and highly formalised set steps and gestures”, here the word that stands out in making ballet is “highly”. In many other dance styles the moves need to be precise and have specific steps and gestures, for example hip hop, each move is often precise in order to replicate to the whole group, the choreography may include formalised set steps and gestures like the Running Man. Ballet stand out as most, if not all, the movement material is a set step within the ballet terminology that has been laid out. Going on further into the definition we find that ballet is “characterised by light, graceful movements and the use of pointe shoes”. This creates the notion that dance is to be an elegant affair in which the moves look effortless.
While this may seem that ballet is a highly restricting art form, it may be for some that this creates boundaries in order to contain and motivate creativity. There are a few types and styles of ballet that help to increase the variability within the art form. Story ballets depict a story, giving the ballet a timeline and a structure. Plotless ballets use movement to interpret the music, create emotions or to depict images. Ballet may have three main styles: Classical, Neo-classical and Contemporary. Classical ballet is very much the form of ballet that most will think of when conjuring images of ballet, the symmetry, the elaborate costumes and sets, and the graceful movements that are usually story based. Neo-classical is a slight divorce from classical ballet that can incorporate elements of asymmetry and simplicity to a faster paced often plotless narrative. Contemporary ballet is heavily influenced by modern dance and utilises floor work and turned in legs that may or may not include the use of pointe shoes.
I think here it’s hard to interpret where the line is then drawn between further styles of dance. When does the dance become a contemporary work of art instead of a contemporary ballet piece. While elements of ballet often occur in dance pieces, they are not all included under the term of ballet. The boundary here is blurred and becomes further blurred through collaborations of contemporary artists and ballet companies.
I, like many others, saw Akram Khan’s work, Giselle (2016), with the English National Ballet. The work itself utilised the traditional ballet story but used new movement vocabulary to depict the story on stage. While there were elements of ballet within the piece, I believe the piece crossed over the line towards what is ballet and what is contemporary. Having a clear defined style or genre to the piece would not increase my enjoyment of the work or in fact decrease my enjoyment, it just provoked within me this debate that would spark this writing.
Before seeing Akram Khan’s work, I had previously seen a few of Matthew Bourne’s works. Both artists work with ballet dancers and are mostly showcasing traditional ballet stories. However I would definitely say that there is a stylistic difference between the two outcomes. Bourne’s work still uses the core ballet technique and movements to rework the classical storyline into something different, whereas Khan moulded the movement material in order to show the classical storyline in a different form. Stylistically I believe had Khan’s Giselle been a one act work, showing only the second half, I would have been more inclined to place the work within the framework of it being a contemporary ballet, although I would probably still be reluctant to do so. The movement of both acts was far from the classical form, although adhering to the need for it to flow easily and freely, classical positions of the arms were not used in favour of more contemporary arm positions. I’m more inclined to place the second act of the work in the ballet category not just because of the introduction of pointe shoes, but more because the movement material became lighter and had more structure, there was also a greater inclusion of gesture that allowed the story to be told.
Another main difference between the two choreographers in how they choose stage “ballet” is the use of set and costume. While Bourne remains true to the classical depiction of ballet as having elaborate set and costume. Khan had muted coloured costumes along with minimal set. The large aspects of the budget went on the large rotating wall used within Khan’s Giselle as well as on the elaborate costumes used for the Noblemen and women. The costumes used for dance within Khan production were not elaborate instead simple, knee length dresses that hung from the body, no netting in sight. While production values themselves cannot make a style, they can address the intentions of those behind the scenes, and while it is not uncommon for Neo-classical or contemporary ballets to have such a simple costume, it may reflect an idea that the production itself was not to be interpreted as just another ballet. Although based on what I saw I’m not sure anyone would file it away as being a ballet replication.
While ballet remains within our culture it is seeing a renewal of movement as ballet companies reach out for inspiration. So at times it may be hard to distinguish the line between ballet and other forms of dance. While my writing here has discussed this categorisation of styles it is also important to note that the style of dance doesn’t matter. Instead a greater importance should be placed on the enjoyment of the work and an appreciation of those who worked hard to create the piece.
I would love to hear your responses to this discussion on where ballet ends and a new style begins as well as your thoughts on Akram Khan’s Giselle.