Written by Robyn Jutsum
As we make our way into May, we are thrilled to introduce new events and features here at The Ballet Spot. One of our many exciting announcements this Spring is the start of our Stars of Ballet Series which kicked off in April with a Le Corsaire-inspired class led by ABT Soloist, Luciana Paris. Over the next few weeks, Larissa Gerszke of Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Adji Cissoko of Lines Ballet, and formerly of National Ballet of Canada, will each be teaching their own class for the series, lending their perspectives as members of contemporary ballet companies.
Join Larissa on Friday, May 14th at 5:30 pm ET / 2:30 pm PT on Zoom and then mark your calendars for Adji’s class on Sunday, June 6th at 4:30 pm ET / 1:30 pm PT on Zoom. All levels are welcome to join!
But what is Contemporary Ballet? And how does it differ from Classical Ballet? From Neoclassical Ballet? What sets each of these styles of ballet technique and performance apart?
As defined by Ballet Arizona, Contemporary Ballet “is a genre of dance that incorporates elements of both classical ballet and modern dance. Often confused with modern dance (which is a separate style of dance all its own), contemporary ballet represents a departure from the restraints of traditional classical ballet technique and traditional rules of composition. Contemporary ballet has roots in the classical technique and vocabulary, but uses those roots as a place to explore, experiment, and challenge tradition.”
Contemporary ballet maintains the roots of the traditional formula of ballet but in production, contemporary ballet works do not follow the same structure as Classical ballets such as The Nutcracker or Swan Lake.
Classical ballets have a set of rules that define them:
Act II Pas de Deux from The Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake featuring Francesca Hayward, Cesar Corrales (Example of Classical Era): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=077BgT3h6As
Act II Pas de Deux from English National Ballet’s La Sylphide featuring Tamara Rojo, Steven McRae (Example of Romantic Era): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Mz7G4TNg6g
***For the sake of this blog post, our reference to “Classical” is synonymous with traditional ballet technique and vocabulary, what you first think of when you hear the term “ballet.”
Neoclassical Ballet, like Contemporary Ballet, is rooted in the classical. It takes on the role of the abstract with music to match. For instance, Igor Stravinsky’s compositions have been used in many Neoclassical works. The first noted Neoclassical Ballet is George Balanchine’s Apollo (1928) with music by Stravinsky. Neoclassical movement is abstract, athletic, and angular, sort of like, say, one of Pablo Picasso’s paintings. It does not have any strict rules when it comes to plot, costumes, etc., but it still holds an aesthetic that resembles Classical Ballet. Balanchine is attributed with establishing the Neoclassical style, and this style can arguably be seen as the bridge between Classical and Contemporary ballet.
George Balanchine’s Who Cares? is another example of Neoclassical elements in play.
Compared to a Contemporary Ballet like Dwight Rhoden’s Love Rocks, for Complexions Contemporary Ballet (featuring Larissa Gerszke)
Contemporary Ballet, though it shares many qualities with Neoclassical, involves more floorwork, more inversions (turning in of the legs, contractions), and the inclusion of acting, of moving, in the context of a plot. The plots, unlike a fairytale, are reimagined or entirely deconstructed.
The lines of a dancer’s body are stretched to its limits, with more extreme arabesques, dynamics of the port de bras, and further contortions of the body as a whole.
Keep in mind, just as defined by Ballet Arizona, Contemporary Ballet is different from Modern Dance. It’s a type of movement that has been evolving since it emerged. While Neoclassical was a product of the early 20th-Century, Contemporary Ballet is still being developed and explored in the 21st Century. William Forsythe’s 1987 In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated is an early example of a Contemporary Ballet. Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room would be another one and was our theme for March’s Cardio Ballet Classes! More recent examples, in the 21st Century, would be Justin Peck’s The Times Are Racing or Lines Ballet’s Shostakovich shown here (featuring Adji Cissoko who will be teaching her Stars of Ballet Class on June 6th!).
Choreographers and companies have emerged through the exploration of what Contemporary Ballet means for ballet and for the field of dance as a whole. Complexions Contemporary Ballet, which was founded in 1994, for instance, shares “The company’s foremost innovation is that dance should be about removing boundaries, not reinforcing them. Whether it be the limiting traditions of a single style, period, venue, or culture, Complexions transcends them all, creating an open, continually evolving form of dance that reflects the movement of our world—and all its constituent cultures—as an interrelated whole.”
Because it is an evolving concept, it’s difficult to nail down a one-size-fits-all definition for Contemporary Ballet. Dance Magazine has a fantastic article that includes interviews with several choreographers who offer their insight. I highly recommend reading the full article here, but I wanted to share a couple tidbits:
“There’s a quandary about the definition of contemporary ballet that hovers over the ballet world. The term at times seems deliberately ambiguous, almost as though we don’t want to define this era, to stay loose about it so it doesn’t get fixed...Here’s a definition: Work where the dancer has an incredible sense of complex coordination, where the full body is contributing to the movement and not the pose. It’s that overt sense of épaulement. In Forsythe’s company, where I danced for 12 years, it was about the fully investigated body, absolute physical prowess, going to the end of a movement and asking, How does that take you to the next place?” (from Helen Pickett)
“Classical ballet was very much directed toward the audience. Neoclassical started to change the shapes but was still toward the audience. With contemporary ballet, you turn the room. The audience is asked to look at what is happening between the dancers. But it still uses the classical vocabulary and the aesthetic of a beautiful line.” (from Annabelle Lopez Ochoa)
To better understand the overarching evolution of Ballet from its roots in the Italian courts of the Renaissance to the choreography emerging today, it is sometimes easiest to look at specific elements including pointe shoes, tutus, and the line of the dancer’s body. We could dive into each of these elements but for now, I wanted to include this short list of links to direct you to the many rabbit holes of ballet.
Needless to say, the journey of dance, ballet technique, and the ballerina has shifted greatly! And the world of Contemporary Ballet is expansive, continuing to grow in real time. Experience fun Contemporary Ballet movement in our upcoming Stars of Ballet classes with Larissa and Adji!
Sign up for Larissa and Adji’s upcoming Contemporary Ballet Workshops here.
Bridging is a great exercise for leg strength, knee alignment, and core stability, which is especially helpful for jumps in ballet. Check out these tips for practicing bridging, taught by pro dancer and Ballet Spot instructor Jennifer! Bridges can be done on their own, or as a warm-up for a ballet class.
Join Jennifer for virtual Beginner Ballet on Mondays at 6:30pm ET / 3:30pm PT, as well as Cardio Ballet in Central Park and on Zoom Saturdays at 11:00am Et / 8:00am PT.
This week's Move of the Week is a challenging plank series taught by pro dancer and Ballet Spot instructor, Ali! In addition to challenging your abdominals, this series targets your back, arms, and legs. A strong core is super important for ballet and dancing, as well as for everyday life to prevent injury, and improve posture and bone and joint health.
For more challenging and fun exercises, join Ali for Ballet Strength on Tuesdays at 5:30pm ET / 2:30pm PT and Sundays at 11:00am ET / 8:00am PT as well as Ballet Strength & Stretch Thursdays at 6:00pm PT / 3:00pm PT on Zoom!
Written by Robyn Jutsum
As we enter the second half of April (already?!), we are immersing ourselves in this month’s theme, Le Corsaire (French translation of ‘the pirate’)! The music was composed by Adolphe Adam initially, and over the years, the work of Césare Pugni, Léo Delibes, Riccardo Drigo, and Prince Oldenbourg have been added to the mix. Choreographed by Konstantin Sergeyev (1973) after Marius Petipa (1858), this Pirates of the Caribbean-esque ballet has its ups and downs, taking you down a swashbuckling rabbit hole in 3 acts with a prologue and an epilogue.
Though Petipa’s version is perhaps one of the most recognized versions, several interpretations have emerged over the years, including Jules Perrot’s in 1858, Agrippina Vaganova in 1931, and Yuri Grigorovich in 1994. Konstantin Sergeyev’s 1973 revival of Petipa’s version is the most common adaptation that companies in the U.S. perform, however, in Russia and parts of Europe, a 1955 adaptation by Pyotr Gusev is more often performed.
This Classical storybook ballet also contains one of the most well-known pas de deux in the ballet world, the Le Corsaire Pas De Deux, even becoming referenced in the ballet cult classic film, “Center Stage.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVMt5q2Zcow (Center Stage Clip)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKOhSaYlXrA (Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdDspzkwEkY (Marianela Nunez and Vadim Muntagirov)
Beyond this famous pas, the ballet has also created some other well-known chapters that are often performed independent of the full ballet, including the garden scene or, Jardin Animé, in Act III, and the odalisques variations.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EWSDX0iAyLI (DTH odalisques)
You can read a thorough synopsis of the ballet from ABT, broken down by act, here. The plot is based on the 1814 poem ‘The Corsair’ by Lord Byron. The ballet first opens on Conrad, a pirate, and his crew as they sail towards Turkey. When they arrive, Conrad falls in love with Medora, a girl being sold by a merchant and slave trader, Lankedem, at a bazaar. After Medora is sold to a pasha (high ranking Turkish officer), Conrad plans for his pirate crew to steal her back. Medora tries to convince Conrad to free the other girls that have been taken, but Conrad faces a riot as the other pirates do not want to let them free. In the chaos, Medora is recaptured and taken to the pasha’s palace. The pasha dreams of all the beautiful girls he has enslaved before being abruptly woken up by Conrad and his crew. Conrad and Medora are able to escape, however, their ship is overpowered by a storm at sea. The end of the ballet, the epilogue, leaves us with a scene of Conrad and Medora miraculously alive atop a rock, having been washed aside in the storm.
Today, Le Corsaire faces criticism for its outdated themes, sexism, cultural appropriation, and the general depiction of Middle Eastern culture and the slave trade. This is not uncommon, as other significant Classical and Romantic ballets such as La Bayadere and The Nutcracker have also fallen under scrutiny over the years for similar issues. When Boston Ballet put on a production of the ballet in 2016, Dance Informa assessed the balance between historical significance and spectacle in these types of ballets and touches on some of the issues that are embedded into the plot and production value. Here is another article that reviews ABT’s production* of Le Corsaire, pointing out the contrast between entertainment value (the lavish sets, colorful costumes, the prowess of the dancers) and alarmingly problematic themes (slavery, objectification of women, etc.).
Join us all month long for Le Corsaire-themed Cardio Ballet and special events including an exciting Le Corsaire ballet repertory class taught by ABT soloist, Luciana Paris, as part of our Stars of Ballet Series on Sunday, April 25th! You can also participate in this month’s Virtual Performance, choreographed by Eliza!
*Note that ABT and other companies have chosen to make updates (costuming, makeup, choreography, i.e.) to ballets like Le Corsaire to acknowledge the issues at hand
Follow along with Ballet Spot instructor and Radio City Rockette, Sam, as she guides you through 3 exercises for ankle agility and endurance, that you can do at home! These exercises will help your feet to feel stronger and more stable throughout an entire dance class.
Join Sam for a virtual Rockette-Style Precision Dance Workshop on Friday 4/16 at 6pm ET / 3pm PT on Zoom. No prior dance experience is needed.
Watch the 90 second video below to follow along with pro dancer and Ballet Spot instructor, Liz, as she guides you through two brief and effective exercises for ankle and foot stability. These are great exercises to do daily - with some consistent practice, you'll start to notice a solid foundation makes your entire body feel stronger!
You will need a lacrosse ball or tennis ball and something to hold onto for balance.
Join Liz for Ballet Breathe & Flow Saturdays at 2pm ET / 11am PT and Stretch Tuesdays at 6pm ET / 3pm PT on Zoom.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.