Ballet pushed to the edge
Aplomb, symmetry, bars, harmony, control: these are just a few of the terms typically used in ballet, whether we are talking about the “Belle Danse” of the 17th century, Romantic ballet that came along a century later or, to a lesser extent, neo-classical dance.
There is nothing really surprising in all of that, if we bear in mind that the “ballet” genre became an artistic form established during the reign of a certain Louis XIV.
The King ruled single-handedly over a centralized, brilliant, domineering country, founded the Académie Royale de Danse in 1661. Like music, like theatre, its mission was to sing out his glory and it would be codified as such for this purpose. The King danced, he was gracious. The ballet masters placed him in the centre of the space and, whenever he was not on stage, they organized the choreography in line with his viewpoint. Rules relating to perspective and to hierarchy were applied on stage which offered a metaphorical understanding of the world. The King reigned over an art which aimed to “civilize” bodies around him, to liberate them from their passions, to nurture them.
In L’Entrée d’Apollon Louis XIV demonstrated, first and foremost, his status as King. Right at the heart of the action, he organized the space around himself, presented himself frontally to his subjects and, as such, bestowed on the dance, this art of entertainment, his Royal Majesty.
Swan Lake – Marius Petipa
Whilst Romantic ballet reintroduced passions to the very heart of its reasoning, while also promoting pantomime, the technique that it established only furthered the rules of an art created by the Sun King’s ballet masters.
At that time, Louis XIV wrote that the art of dance should be acknowledged as “one of the most honest and most necessary for training the body and for giving it the first and the most natural dispositions for all sorts of exercise including, amongst others, those with weapons”. Two hundred years later, the corps de ballet was more structured than ever and really stemmed from academism in the sense that it referred to a doctrine or a teaching that was sanctified... military? Let’s not go as far as confirming this.
Agon – Georges Balanchine
Agon is unquestionably the prototype of this reinvented ballet which only talked about energy, rupture, breaking away, acceleration and imbalance. Balanchine presented bodies which expressed American identity. Posture angularity, broken ankles and wrists, pelvises projected frontwards, axes distorted, nothing seemed impossible for these athletes engaged in speed.
He told this story through his dance, an abstract story that did not need narration, which had been popular in Europe for such a long time. Yet, Balanchine did not undermine all the academic structure in his work.
One Flat Thing Reproduced – William Forsythe
Forsythe created One Flat Thing Reproduced and questioned verticality. In this choreography, twenty tables cover the stage; they become the dancers’ horizon, “horizon” in the true sense of the term because it is the horizontal that stands in the way of the verticality of bodies in movement. The space as a whole is explored homogeneously by both performers and spectators, and the perspective that they provide on the stage is totally embraced, without any order of precedence. Like our world, it is devoid of a centre and becomes a web of sequenced movements, linked one to another.
Amélia - Edouard Lock
Edouard Lock does not rebuff pointes, in fact quite the contrary. Lock gives us the impression that the performers are like mechanically wound-up dolls, wound up to the point of not being able to go on. When the upper part of the body gives in, it is as if the history of posture, of control, has been shattered, this history, this intrinsic part of ballet, is explicitly pushed to the edge, and Lock makes sure and certain it is so. Beyond this limit, the body becomes panic-stricken. How on earth would it be possible to push the experience even further?
In more depth
BEAUSSANT, Philippe. Louis XIV Artiste. Paris : Payot, DL 1999, cop. 1999. 287 p. (Portraits intimes).
BOISSEAU, Rosita. Panorama de la Danse Contemporaine : 100 chorégraphes. Paris : Textuel, 2008. 671 p.
GINOT, Isabelle, MICHEL, Marcelle. La Danse au XXᵉ siècle. Paris : Larousse, 2002. 264 p.
LE MOAL, Philippe (dir.). Dictionnaire de la Danse. Paris : Larousse-Bordas, 1999. 830 p.
MASSON, Nicole. Versailles et la Vie de Cour. Paris : Chêne, impr. 2013, cop. 2013. 239 p. (Esprit XVIIe).
NOISETTE, Philippe. Danse Contemporaine : mode d’emploi. Paris : Flammarion, impr. 2010, cop. 2010. 255 p. (Mode d’emploi).
Holder of an MA of Arts from the University of Bristol, Associate of English, Olivier Lefebvre is a dance historian, lecturer and editor. He collaborates, among other things, on the development of the online dance video library Numeridanse.tv as well as the lecture program of the Popular University in Normandy.
Sélection of excerpts
Text and bibliography selection
Maison de la Danse