Ballet—Is It All Grace and Beauty?
MELODIOUS refrains fill the theater, and, as I watch with keen anticipation, the curtain opens on a medieval village of eastern Europe. The corps de ballet of the Guaira Theater, Curitiba, Brazil, presents what many view as the greatest of the romantic classical ballets—Giselle.
The flowing melody soon becomes a lively waltz as Giselle and other peasants dance during their grape-harvest festival. The story is that of a young girl’s ardent desire to dance and of her tender courtship with Duke Albrecht. As they dance a graceful pas de deux, the nostalgic beauty of the music prepares the audience for tragedy. Her joy turns to madness, leading to her death. Then she is reunited with Albrecht as a spirit, to continue dancing from midnight till dawn.
What has made this and other ballets so appealing to many people? Just what is ballet?
Ballet and Its History
Ballet is a combination of several arts. Musicians compose the music. Artists paint or design the scenery and clothes. The writer thinks up the plot. Often the writer is also the choreographer. With his knowledge of body movements and dance technique, he produces the ballet (from the Italian ballare, to dance). Finally, the well-trained dancers interpret the story.
In 1581 Catherine de Médicis, queen of France, together with her court nobles, performed the first reported ballet. Thereafter it continued to be entertainment for the European nobility by the nobility.
King Louis XIV, himself fond of dancing, established the Académie Royale de Danse in 1661. But it was the Italian choreographer Carlo Blasis who founded the Code of Terpsichore and coded the five basic positions of the feet. Finally, during the 19th century, women began to dance on their toes or points. All technical skills were in harmony with the body’s natural lines. The dancer was to express beauty of line and fluidity through movement.
European monarchs invited French and Italian choreographers and dancers to establish ballet at their courts. Filippo Baccari offered his services, not to nobility, but to the Moscow Orphanage as an experiment. It surpassed all expectations. Of 62 pupils, 24 became soloists. The orphanage became the cradle of the Bolshoi, and the foundation of ballet in Russia.
Soon choreographers were no longer content to please the eye. Dauberval, a well-known choreographer of the 18th century, said: “I want to win the hearts.” Ballets that accomplish this are still popular today. Giselle touches the deepest of all human emotions—since “love is as strong as death is.”—Song of Solomon 8:6.
The Disciplined Technique of Ballet
The first lesson begins at the bar with the five basic positions. The muscles are then strengthened and kept supple with daily exercise. The ligaments are stretched to their full capacity to obtain greater flexibility. The body becomes able to move with the greatest possible speed, control, agility, grace and lightness. As I well know from my own experience, it is only with daily practice that perfection of balance, precision and beauty of movement are achieved.
It takes 10 years to become a skillful classical ballet dancer. This requires hard work, discipline and dedication to the art. Still, each generation has just a few really gifted dancers. Said choreographer George Balanchine in The Dance Has Many Faces: “One is born to be a great dancer. No teacher can work miracles, nor will years of training make a good dancer of an untalented pupil. One may be able to acquire a certain technical facility, but no one can ever ‘acquire an exceptional talent.’ I have never prided myself on having an unusually gifted pupil. A Pavlova is no one’s pupil but God’s.”
Benefits and Possible Dangers
Physically, ballet expresses perfect functioning of limbs and joints. When applied to selected children, it can lead to physical improvement. A postural curve can be improved with the help of an expert. Infantile paralysis, where muscle weakness is involved, may be corrected with years of ballet exercises. One of Brazil’s leading ballerinas began her career this way, and Alicia Markova started ballet training to correct flat feet.
On the other hand, ballet is not healthful for those with certain deformities. A slight spinal curvature can become a permanent deformity after only three months of exercises. Nor is it recommended for children with enlarged big toe joints, highly arched feet, tightly knit feet with little or no arch, knock-knees and bowlegs due to rickets.
Problems can also arise when a young person practices at home. Why? Because most modern homes have tile, parquet, marble, cement or vinyl floors, and these lack resilience; but what is needed is a wooden floor with a springlike quality. Dancing on surfaces that are unyielding can deteriorate muscles, ligaments and joints, and can make the spine rigid, causing spasticity.
On the other hand, when done properly, rhythmic dancing and music have a beneficial effect on the mind. For reasons unknown to doctors, participating in them may help to dispel negative attitudes and produce optimistic traits. Ballet music is even used as a therapeutic treatment for the mentally ill.
Is All Ballet Enjoyable and Recommendable?
Ballet today has the benefit of a technique developed over 300 years. While some schools are faithful to the tradition, others abuse the dancer and the art. Some modern choreographers are overdemanding, requiring that the dancers force their bodies beyond what is natural. One choreographer who started his company with a vengeance said: “We broke all the rules.”
Also, the moral aspect of contemporary ballet is affected by today’s standards. Oleg Kerkinsky wrote in The World of Ballet: “In the past, ballet was widely regarded as a display of pretty girls for tired businessmen and rich aristocrats; those days are gone, but there are still many people who go to ballet primarily for similar motives. It is obvious that physically fit young people wearing brief costumes or close-fitting body tights must have a strong erotic appeal; this is often emphasized today by the deliberately suggestive and sensual movements devised by many modern choreographers.”
In the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin three ruffians use a young girl as a prostitute and there is no doubt left in the ballet goer’s mind that her movements suggest the having of sexual relations. This is not what people with good morals want to see. Rather, they follow the Christian standard recommended in the Bible at Philippians 4:8: “Whatever things are righteous, . . . chaste, . . . whatever virtue there is . . . continue considering these things.”
Other dramatic ballets can be entertaining as well as instructive. In The Prodigal Son the ballet goer sees quite clearly where the evil forces lie. The wickedness of Herod is contrasted with the moral pureness of John the Baptizer in the ballet Salome.
Ballet was intended to express beauty of movement, and many of the classics combine this with themes that appeal to the healthy emotions. Such ballets as The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and Coppélia are in the repertory of most companies.
Ballet or What?—A Wise Decision
Most performances are not complete ballets but so-called divertissements. These are often parts from well-known ballets. Thus, from The Sleeping Beauty we have The Blue Bird. In a recent presentation of this, I watched the technical skill of the ballerina. Her precision and poise came naturally. Much hard work had gone into her efforts. She deserved more than the bouquet of roses presented to her.
Reflecting on my own first lessons, I thought about the possibility that lay before me of a ballet career. Yet at the age when I would have become a qualified classical ballet dancer, a change occurred in my life. My purpose in life came into clearer focus. By studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses, I learned about the Creator’s thrilling purpose for humans to live forever in perfection on this earth, not in its present state but transformed into a paradise. (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1-4) The Bible also alerted me to untruths presented in some popular ballets, such as life hereafter in Giselle. God’s Word taught me that the dead are not alive in another world but are asleep awaiting a resurrection.—Ecclesiastes 9:5; John 5:28, 29.
Moreover, I was moved by the realization that we are fast approaching the point in the Creator’s timetable when great changes are to take place in life on this earth. How much more important it was to dedicate my life and time, not just to an art, but to the spreading of a message that will bring permanent joy and everlasting life to those who accept it! (John 17:3) So I decided to take up missionary service as a career, instead of ballet dancing.
Of course, that does not mean I forgot all previous interests. I still appreciate the wonderful God-given gifts expressed in ballet, and perhaps you do too.—Contributed.
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It takes 10 years of hard work, discipline and dedication to become a skillful classical ballet dancer
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Moral aspects of contemporary ballet are affected by today’s standards
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Ballet can express beauty of movement and is enjoyed by many. However, there are other aspects of it that must be considered
The Sleeping Beauty