by Rhonda Ryman
Why a new dictionary of classical ballet terms?
It has always been a revelation for me to discover how centuries of studio work have evolved into a mechanically sound system of training the human body. Ballet movements that appear to surpass anatomical limits and to defy the laws of gravity are actually based on an intuitive understanding and application of scientific principles.
Blasis, Cecchetti, Bournonville, and Vaganova are among the visionaries whose insights advanced ballet training as a whole, yet they developed separate streams that often interwove and other times ran parallel within classical ballet.
When I began teaching dance at the University of Waterloo in 1975, I encountered students whose training spanned all methods. I needed a Rosetta Stone to help me sort out differences between the Russian, RAD, and Cecchetti vocabularies. The same name might describe different movements, the same movement might be described by different names. But most subtle were the positions or action with the same name but different nuances in performance. If I was encountering these problems, surely teachers throughout the world must be facing similar problems compounded by the fact that students were now travelling the globe in pursuit of their studies.
I decided to compile a dictionary that would include all positions and movements in the key schools - French, Danish, Italian, Russian, and English - keeping in mind that the purpose of the dictionary must be to describe rather than prescribe.
The ballet vocabulary, although based on French words, has evolved into various dialects according to time and place. The terminology that developed within each school reflects its unique approach to ballet technique and training and offers valuable insights. How do the various methods differ? How do their dancers differ? What unique characteristics distinguished one school from another? And most importantly, will these approaches continue to meet the aesthetic and technical requirements of the art form as it evolves?
In surveying the major published sources, kinesiology provided the framework for examining the general movement principles that formed the basis of the various methods, and dance notation provided the tools through which I could intimately study the specific structure underlying each method.
For this Dictionary of Classical Ballet Terms I chose to examine the work of Enrico Cecchetti (1850-1928) including his own writings compiled for his remarkable students while he was teaching at the Imperial School in Russia. As well, I studied other written sources including three manuals and three primers - plus books by several of his students. I used these first generation books as a starting point for describing how positions or actions were executed in Cecchetti's teaching. I then compared these descriptions to the notation of contemporary syllabus material. Where I noted discrepancies, I consulted key practitioners from centres in Canada, England, South Africa, and the United States. They were invariably generous in sharing their perspectives, and were most often in agreement regarding how movements are performed today. In cases where there were variations, I included the alternatives in order to illustrate the flexibility and richness of current teaching.
Ultimately, it is up to the individual artist to determine how each dance position or movement is to be given life. This involves informed questioning that can take place in the library as well as the studio. The exercise of revisiting past masters can only broaden the scope of ballet education by encouraging us to re-evaluate and revitalize contemporary training and practice. The challenge facing all artists is to reveal what is universal and eternal through the material of this time and place.
NOTE: The IPA Pronunciation code is in a font unavailable on the Web and is therefore not shown in these examples.
à la quatrième [IPA pronunciation code] a la kat-ree-YEM (Fr. to the fourth.)
Phrase used to describe the position of a working leg or an arm when it is extended at right angle to the plane of the body, either in front (devant) or behind (derrière), at various heights, e.g., pointe tendue, dégagé height, en l'air (demi-position), en l'air. In this Dictionary, the phrase to 4th is used. See directions of the body.
à la quatrième derrière [IPA pronunciation code] a la kat-ree-YEM der-YER (Fr. to the fourth back.)
One of the eight directions of the body. The dancer faces the audience, with the working leg extended to 4th derrière en l'air, the arms in 2nd position, and the head erect so that the eye line is directed towards the audience. May also be taken with the working leg pointe tendue derrière, or derrière en l'air (demi-position).
à la quatrième devant [IPA pronunciation code] a la kat-ree-YEM d(u)-VAH (Fr. to the fourth front.)
One of the eight directions of the body. The dancer faces the audience, with the working leg extended to 4th devant en l'air, the arms in 2nd position, and the head erect so that the eye line is directed towards the audience. May also be taken with the working leg pointe tendue devant, or devant en l'air (demi-position).
à la seconde [IPA pronunciation code] a la s(u)-GOD (Fr. to the second.)
1. One of the eight directions of the body. The dancer faces the audience, with the working leg extended to 2nd en l'air, the arms in 2nd position, and the head erect so that the eye line is directed towards the audience. May also be taken with the working leg pointe tendue, or en l'air (demi-position). Also called à la seconde (en face).
2. Phrase used to described the position or movement of a working leg or an arm extending sideways in the plane of the body, as temps lié à la seconde. In this Dictionary, the phrase to 2nd is used.
brisé dessus [IPA pronunciation code] bree-ZAY d(u)-SU (Fr. beaten jump; over.)
A brisé in which the working foot begins and ends 5th derrière. The dancer begins 5th derrière, arms 5th en bas; s/he brushes the back foot to 2nd at dégagé height, springs into the air joining the push-off foot behind the extended foot travelling sideways and slightly forward along the line of the working leg; and does a change of feet to land in the starting position. The arms may open outward to demi-seconde as the leg brushes to 2nd, with the eye line directed outward and downward along the line of travel. Or they may lift to a position slightly above and in front of 2nd, with the palms turned downward.
brisé volé [IPA pronunciation code] bree-ZAY vo-LAY (Fr. beaten jump; flown.)
A variation of a brisé which takes off from one foot, beats in front of or behind the body, and lands on the other foot, without travel. Usually performed in series. See brisé volé en avant and en arriére.
grand battement raccourci [IPA pronunciation code] grah bat-MAH ra-koor-SEE (Fr. big beating action; shortened.)
A variation of grand battement in which the working foot is drawn inward past the side of the supporting knee before it closes 5th position, rather than closing through pointe tendue. The closing is like a reverse développé action performed quickly and with force. cf RAD grand battement enveloppé. The opposite action is grand battement développé.
grand changement [IPA pronunciation code] grah shahzh-MAH (Fr. big changing.)
A changement performed with great elevation. May be performed en tournant, like a tour en l'air which starts and ends in 5th position with a change of feet. In Cecchetti's day, the dancer strove to do a plié à quart in the air, bringing together the flat of the toes of both feet before alighting.
grand fouetté [IPA pronunciation code] grah fwe-TAY (Fr. big whipping action.)
1. The name of a set adage comprising grand fouetté en face and grand fouetté en tournant, performed in Cecchetti's Monday and Saturday class.
2. An adage movement in which the dancer strives to maintain the position of the working leg in relation to the room while turning toward the supporting leg. When taken à terre, the tip of the working foot and the sole of the supporting foot remain on the floor during the turn; when en l'air, the working leg is raised and the supporting foot remains flat or performs a rise during the turn. Practised at the barre with a 1/4- or 1/2-turn, and performed in centre. 1) Taken at the barre with 1/4-turn. Starting in 5th devant with the arm 5th en bas, the dancer performs a développé to 2nd, opening the arm through 5th en avant to 2nd; s/he then rises to demi-pointe* and does a 1/4-turn (en dedans) on the ball of the supporting foot to face the barre, ending with the working leg extended to 4th derrière, both hands on the barre; and closes 5th derrière, feet flat. 2) Taken at the barre with 1/2-turn. Starting in 5th devant with the arm 5th en bas, the dancer performs a développé to 4th devant, lifting the arm through 5th en avant to 2nd; s/he then rises to demi-pointe and does a 1/4-turn (en dedans) on the ball of the supporting foot to face the barre, ending with the working leg extended to 2nd, with the hand corresponding to the working leg placed on the barre and the other arm raised to 5th en haut; then a 1/4-turn (en dedans) ending with the working leg to 4th derrière, and the other arm to 4th devant, arabesque line. A coupé dessous may be done to begin the other side. 3) Taken in the centre. The développé may be taken to 4th devant effacé en fondu with the arms opening through 5th en avant to 4th en avant in opposition; the dancer may straighten the supporting leg, lift the front arm to 5th en haut, rise to demi-pointe, and do a 1/8-turn to end en face with the leg adjusting to 2nd, or a 3/8-turn (en dedans) away from the raised leg which strives to maintain its position in relation to the room and adjusts to end in 1st arabesque de côté. Similar to fouetté en l'air. Variation: fouetté développé en tournant en dedans. [*Note: This action may be practised without a rise, turning on the whole supporting foot.]
relevé en tournant [IPA pronunciation code] r(u)l-VAY ah toor-NAH (Fr. lifting action; by turning.)
A spring from 5th devant en demi-plié up onto the back foot en pointe with the front foot lifting to the front of the knee (pirouette position), turning away from the supporting leg. The arms may move to pas de chat position with the body inclined over the leg that lifts. May end with an assemblé coupé devant to finish as it began. Also pirouette en dehors (formerly un tour en dehors de pirouette sur la pointe).
soutenu, e [IPA pronunciation code] soot-NU (Fr. pp of vt soutenir, to support, hold up, sustain; adj sustained; nm a sustained action.)
1. Term used to describe a series of pas in which the legs bend on the ending of one pas, then restretch and bend again before extending into the next, as for example assemblés, brisés, pas de bourrée, or sissonnes taken soutenu. The opposite is de suite.
2. An action in which the supporting leg begins en fondu and stretches as the working leg changes its position. See soutenu turn.
soutenu turn en dedans [IPA pronunciation code] soot-NU ah d(u)-DAH (Fr. sustained turn inward.)
A turn on two feet initiated by a grand rond de jambe à terre en dedans or, when preceded by a jeté de côté or a step to the side, by a demi-rond en dedans (from 2nd to 4th devant). May also be initiated without the rond (i.e., with the foot drawing directly from 2nd up to 5th devant. From 5th derrière with the arms 5th en bas, the dancer extends the working leg to 4th derrière pointe tendue en fondu and lifts the arms to 5th en avant; sweeps the leg through 2nd to 4th devant maintaining the fondu and opening the arms to demi-seconde; draws the foot to 5th devant en pointes, lifting the arms through 5th en avant to 5th en haut; immediately swivels on two feet toward the back foot which passes to the front as a full turn is completed; then lowers en demi-plié, opening the arms through 2nd to 5th en bas.
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