Research Paper: Importance of Ballet Technique in the Modern Dancer (2014)


                 “Technique is freedom,” is a quote that some believe Vaslav Nijinsky said while others believe it was Martha Graham. Regardless of who said the quote, a strong background of technique opens the door to improvisation, risk-taking, and self-expression. Strength, stability, and flexibility are the basis of ballet technique that can enhance modern dance training. With extensive training in ballet technique, dancers can experiment with other styles of dance and become more proficient technicians. As a foundation for dance technique, a form of expression, and a means of physical benefits, ballet technique can play an essential role for the modern dancer.


                  Ballet technique was developed from court dances, some derived from folk dances, and then used as a building block for other styles such as modern dance. The pioneers of modern dance did not fit the ballet standards or were looking for a more expressive form of dance so they participated in complete abandonment of ballet technique and a new style emerged. To further explain, historical background must be introduced. 


                  Dancers began studying the codified ballet technique extensively during the reign of Louis XIV in France, where, in 1661, The Royal Academy of Dance was established. It was not until twenty years later that women were allow into the academy (Briat). The Academy of Dance, lead by Jean-Baptiste Lully from1672-1687, transformed ballet from court entertainment into a professional art form. Ballet technique was taught by Pierre Beauchamp, one of the first dancing masters, and documented by Feuiller notation during this time period. During the 18th century, Ballet became the craze throughout Europe. Ballet transitioned into dramatic expression and was more than just another element in an opera or play. The turn of the century lead to the development of many popular characteristics that define ballet technique; females or the main focal point, pointe shoes, tutus, an illusion of effortlessness, flexibility, and storyline of fantasy (Au 24-45). In the 19th century, The Royal Academy of Dance created and premiered some of the most famous works such as La Sylphide (1832) and Giselle (1841) (Briat). These examples incorporate all of the definitive elements of ballet technique. Because the art form was rapidly growing, the ballerinas gained fame through touring the world. As the twentieth century approached and ballet was becoming unoriginal, Russia took control of the art form and ran with it, enhancing the well-known characteristics of ballet technique to stand out from the rest of the ballet community. Marius Petipa, a French choreographer, moved to Russia and choreographed several classic ballets such as La Bayadére (1877), Sleeping Beauty (1890), The Nutcracker (1892), and Swan Lake (1895) (Au 61-68).


                 Russian ballet in the 1900s found a role for the male dancer and began highlighting their talents, especially Vaslav Nijinsky. Nijinsky was first noticed in Les Sylphides (1909), choreographed by Michel Fokine. Folkine was a choreographer for the Ballet Russes, directed by Serge Diaghilev, in Russia. Ballet Russes began touring around the world and spreading the art form (Au 69-83). Choreography by Folkine and Nijinsky is where the rebellion against traditional ballet technique began. When Nijinsky was hired as a choreographer for Ballet Russes, he began exploring with experimentation by abandoning the academic ballet technique. In the book, Ballet and Modern Dance, the author discusses Nijinsky’s influence on ballet through his choreography of The Rite of Spring. “The illusory lightness and effortlessness of the classical ballet was replaced by a sense of heaviness; symmetry was eliminated; and the primeval quality of the score was expressed through repetitive passages of walking, stamping, and heavy jumps” (Au 84). “The audience reacted violently to the premiere of The Rite of Spring” (Au 84). Change was occurring in Russia. Meanwhile in America, some changes were already being made.


                Ballet first arrived in America with the touring of Ballet Russes in the twentieth century. For a while American ballet mirrored that of European ballet. Before ballet, vaudeville was thriving and served as a melting pot of many styles such as acrobatics, clogging, Spanish can-can, and ballet. Not everyone fit into the mold of the European ballerina. Three American women, Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, and Ruth St. Denis, had the desire to seek new ways of dancing. Loie Fuller, who lacked formal dance training, focused colored lighting onto her skirt and drapes in the 1890s. Ruth St. Denis studied Spanish dancing, theatre, and ballet and combined her training with her interests in the Indian culture. St. Denis met Ted Shawn, a ballroom dancer, and collaborated their diverse backgrounds and eventually formed the Denishawn School which was “dedicated to the loftiest principles of the art of dance” in 1915 (Au 87-94). Fuller and St. Denis made great changes away from ballet technique but the complete abandonment was achieved by Isadora Duncan.


                 Isadora Duncan excelled in ballet but did not achieve artistic fulfillment in the style. Duncan believed that movement originated in the solar plexus and radiated out of the body through “normal ‘movement repertory’ of human beings” (Au 89), for example, skipping, running, hopping, jumping, and walking. Her movement was inspired by nature which is where most of her dancing took place. In addition to dancing riverside, she danced barefoot and wore a Greek white tunic. Duncan discarded all classical elements of ballet technique. After making a name for herself as the “girl in the little white tunic,” she visited Russia in 1904, where she shared her style with Folkine and Diaghilev (Au 91). During this time frame, Folkine began exploring the removal of classical elements, in the Ballet Russes but he denied being influenced by Duncan. Isadora Duncan’s complete abandonment of all classical elements provided inspiration and paved the way to a new style, called modern dance.


                  For the past century the division of ballet and modern dance has begun to decrease and fuse together. In the 1920s the Denishawn School produced three influential modern dancers: Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman. These dancers developed their own individual style and technique within the style of modern dance. Martha Graham’s technique is focused on “contracting” and “releasing” from the core of the body. Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman’s technique is based on “fall and recovery” (Ambrosio 79). The balance, strength, control required to perform these techniques are taught and trained through ballet based exercises. As the years pass, fusions and separations of ballet and modern occurred.


                The Washington Post released an article in 2014, regarding ballet and modern dance in our generation called “Ballet, modern dance separated by blurred line” by Rebecca Ritzel. The author discusses the relationship between modern and ballet by interviewing professionals. Alicia Adams, the vice president of international programming and dance at the Kennedy Center, said, ‘“A long time ago, the line between ballet and contemporary dance became blurred”’ (Ritzel). The exact moment when the line became unclear is unknown. Maybe it was when the ballet dancer, Rudolph Nureyev premiered in Martha Graham’s company in 1984 or in 1970 when Alvin Ailey, a modern dance choreographer, began choreographing work for American Ballet Theatre (ABT). The faint line was demonstrated by the programming at the Kennedy Center this season with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a top modern dance company based out of New York City. The work Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater presented in February was a piece called “Chroma” choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Some history of “Chroma” is that it was originally choreographed for the Royal Ballet in London, England in 2006. After its premiere in London, the work was set on several ballet companies in the United States including Boston Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. Recently Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater presented “Chroma”, “The River,” which is a piece commissioned by Alvin Ailey for American Ballet Theater in 1970, and “Petite Mort,” choreographed by Jiri Kylian, a contemporary ballet choreographer. These three works are typically performed by ballet companies rather than modern dance companies but the company received awesome reviews (Ritzel). The dancers of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater are required to train in both ballet and modern techniques.


                 Robert Battle, the artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater said, ‘“So much of the training that my dancers have is informed by ballet”’ (Ritzel). In an interview with Battle, he presented his views about ballet technique and the modern dancer:

                ‘“At ballet’s beginnings, it was avant garde, for its time. And its rules kept getting                      broken, by Nijinsky and later by Balanchine. To me, modern dance came out of                          that, breaking the rules, just maybe more severely. It was about taking off the toe                    shoes and conveying the weight of the human condition, as opposed to being                            ethereal. But they are still closely related. When you see ‘Revelations,’ [an original                    piece in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s repertory] you can see                                  arabesques and all these other positions with French terms. Without ballet, you                        can’t have the modern. What struck me about ‘Chroma’ wasn’t just the ballet that                     was in the work, but the use of the torso. It was shocking, in a way, to see the                         Royal Ballet dancers move that way, and it flipped the coin. There are contortions                     you don’t expect to see in ballet”’ (Ritzel).

The sharing and fusing of techniques in this day and age is extremely popular and almost a requirement to succeed as a professional dancer.


                The codified technique the pioneers of ballet created stands as a foundation for other techniques. Jeremy McQueen, author of the article entitled “The Importance of Ballet Training”, writes about his experience with ballet training throughout his dance career in concert dance as well as theater. McQueen states that he has come to the realization that the most important factor in the success of his professional career is his ballet background. He said, “Ballet…set the foundation for my strong technical ability. With strong ballet technique, it is easier to transition between all of the dance styles, thus making yourself highly marketable as a performer” (McQueen). As a young dancer Jeremy recalls, “My dance teachers taught me early on that in order to have a strong foundation in any career, ballet training would help me. Not necessarily because I wanted to be a ballet dancer, but they felt that ballet would give me the discipline, focus and structure I needed in order to take those training experiences and apply them to my day-to-day life as a young adult/professional” (McQueen). Ballet technique teaches respect and professionalism that carries into other styles of dance as well as everyday life. Even within the strict standards of ballet training, the dancer is able to portray the emotions of the soul.


                  Jeremy McQueen, a professional dancer, says “In concert dance you don’t have to sing, but you are still telling a story with your body and your technical ability” (McQueen). Story telling refers back to the roots of ballet and pantomime. Technical skill can enhance performance. According to Dr. Jim Taylor, self-confidence is key in executing and performing a piece of art. Increased technical ability will ensure stability, flexibility, and accuracy resulting in a confident dancer. It is important for a dancer to trust their body and rely on technique to be able to express the emotion of the piece (Taylor). Helanius J. Wilkins’ teaching include in his technique classes a strong ballet technique allows the modern dancer to take more risks by falling off balance and having the ability and strength to recover quickly. Also the precision learned in ballet training translates into clarity, accuracy, and attention to detail in modern dance (Wilkins). As a proficient technician, a modern dancer with ballet training can explore the possibilities within the style as well as the possibilities outside the style. This concept goes back to the quote, “Technique is freedom”. An analogy is more education equals more opportunities. With strength, stability, and precision, the qualities taught and trained in ballet technique, the dancer has the knowledge to improvise.


                   Ballet technique provides many physical benefits that will enhance the modern dancer. According to Judy Fisk, author of “How Does Ballet Help Your Fitness Level?” ballet training includes all aspects of physical fitness. Fisk says, “Ballet training involves…healthy body composition, cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance and flexibility -- and of motor fitness: power, speed, agility, balance and coordination” (Fisk). While ballet builds extreme strength in muscles of the feet and ankles, back, calves, and hip rotators it can create a muscular imbalance with the quadriceps, hamstrings, and arms. Ballet dancers need to participate in other strength training methods such as lifting free weights, Pilates, yoga, and cardiovascular exercises (Fisk). The physical foundation that ballet provides will produce a strong, physically fit dancer if accompanied by weight training, cardiovascular endurance, and stretching.


                 Modern dance requires the dancer to be strong, accurate, and expressive. With extensive training in ballet, an essential foundation is built. Traditional qualities such as story telling that are instilled in ballet technique allow for confidence in the modern dancer that leads to self-expression. The characteristics ballet training inspires the dancer to possess are applied to other styles in addition to the dancers’ daily endeavors. Discipline presents an opportunity for the dancer to excel in the physical aspects of the technique such as strength, balance, and flexibility. Ballet training provides the modern dancer with respect, professionalism, physical benefits, confidence, expression, and dedication to the art form of dance.


Works Cited


Ambrosio, Nora. Learning about Dance. Dubuque: Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 2010.Au, Susan. Ballet and Modern Dance. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 2002.


Briat, Olivier. "The Paris Opera's History." Opera National De Paris. 9 March 2014 <http://www.operadeparis.fr/en/l-opera-de-paris/l-institution/histoire-de-l-onp>.


Fisk, Judy. "How Does Ballet Help Your Fitness Level?" 26 November 2013. Livestrong. 2 May 2014 <http://www.livestrong.com/article/530979-ballet-fitness-level/>.


McQueen, Jeremy. "The Importance of Ballet Training." 27 June 2010. The Winger. 17 February 2014 <http://thewinger.com/2010/the-importance-of-ballet-training/>.


Ritzel, Rebecca. "Ballet, modern dance separated by blurred line." 24 January 2014. The Washington Post. 17 Feburary 2014<http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/ theater_dance/ballet-modern-dance-separated-by-blurred-line/2014/01/23/0438dbac-8382-11e3-a273-6ffd9cf9f4ba_story.html>.


Taylor, Dr. Jim. "The Performing Attitude." 1987. Dr. Jim Taylor; Inspire, Inform, Transform, and Perform. 2 May 2015 <http://drjimtaylor.com/2.0/dance/#>.


Wilkins, Helanius J. Ballet Technique in the Modern Dancer Jessica M. Clevenger. January-May 2014.