Decoding Ballet Methods

Decoding Ballet Methods

Many dancers are trained each year in a specific ballet “method”. These methods of training have a vast history leading to their survival of the ages. These methods were preserved through remaining choreographic works and schools of training. Ballet training methods build dancers to reflect a certain technique of ballet. A ballet “method” isn’t to be confused with a ballet “style”.

A method reflects training curriculum and technique whereas the “style” reflects an era’s trends, concepts and images. The oldest and most famous schools of ballet on the planet uphold one of the eight ballet methods religiously so their dancers all reflect the same finesse and divergent technique. A dance company relies on the chosen method to assure that the dancers all dance alike (so the choreographic works will look as clean and precise as possible). Here is a list of ballet methods or techniques:

Bournonville Ballet Method

The Bournonville method of ballet dancing is not only a method of training and technique, but a choreographic school developed by August Bournonville (1805 – 1879). August was the choreographer for the Royal Danish Ballet, a ballet company who continues to use his choreography and teaching methods till this day. This method focuses specifically on the romantic style since it was born in the romantic era of ballet. August Bournonville not only preferred a more romantic tone to his choreography, but he preferred his ballets tell a vivid love story. Bournonville knew a great deal about musical theatre, so he incorporated a rich array of expression into his works.

Bournonville said himself that “dance should be an expression of joy”. This method displays the movement as effortless though it is very technically challenging. The Bournonville method dancer exudes fluidity, seamlessness, and musicality. The technique is refined with delicate detail. It is not only expressive and romantic, but it touches the heart with dramatic pantomime.

The Bournonville technique begins in the shape and softness of the arms. This method has distinctive and specific lifted torso framework. The legs must define musical rhythm while the arms define the melody; this combination exudes musicality. The Bournonville technique also relies heavily on epaulements, and many movements begin and end in fifth position. Bournonville pirouettes are executed with a low develope into seconde and outside pirouettes use a low develope into fourth. Many poses are recognizable as Bournonville, including tendu derriere having one arm in fifth with the other down at the side (with a touch of epaulement of course).

Bournonville ballets display technically challenging roles, but usually in reversal of what we’re used to…Bournonville establishes the importance of the male character whereas other methods focused more on the female. This ballet method is such an honest and revealing style using pure and precise movement. The choreography forms a harmony while telling a story. Some of Bournonville’s ballets were La Sylphide, Napoli and Flower Festival in Genzano.

Russian Ballet Method

The Russian method of ballet came straight from the Imperial School of Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia back in the nineteenth century. Imperial at that time, meant it was the property of the dictator in charge. Imperial ballets were originally “commissioned” works. The works at this time were commissioned by Sergey Diaghilev who later founded the Ballet Russes as well as developed protégés such as Vaslav Nijinksky, Anna Pavlova and George Balanchine among many others.

The Imperial Russian technique reflects a classical style of ballet. This method is technically challenging, flamboyant and larger than life. The balances are longer and more daring; the jumps are higher, the turns last for days… Each Russian trained dancer was pushed to their limits. According to this method of ballet, pantomime was childsplay. Ballet dancers were now here to show the world how difficult and impressive ballet was. It was a mere show of brute strength and talent. Ballets no longer told a story; it now only showcased brilliance of technique. Needless to say, it made the Bournonville technique seem a bit pedestrian in comparison…

A particular distinction of the Russian trained dancer includes a very confident, somewhat proud demeanor. Russian technique distinctions include putting the hands on the hips, and tossing the hand up at the end of a difficult sequence or during one. The Russian dancer has an extreme focus on line. Russian technique training is very intense; the arabesques are expected to be higher and the jumps more powerful…

Russian ballet dancers are chosen at a very young age and literally molded with the Russian ballet method. These children that are chosen usually have long limbs and neck, a short torso, a pretty face and talent. Many of our greatest ballet dancers to date came from the Russian school of ballet. Many defected from Russia though due to the lack of creative freedom and the strenuous training.

Some of the finest ballet classics emerged from the Russian Imperial Method. These ballets display virtuoso movement and were a grand spectacle. Such ballets are still very well known and ballet companies today still bring in a huge audience for them: La Bayadere, Coppelia, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet and Swan Lake.

Vaganova Ballet Method

The Vaganova technique was developed by Russian student Agrippina Vaganova. This method spawned from the Russian technique as many others did. Vaganova danced at the Imperial Ballet School then she later taught there when it re-established as the Leningrad Choreographic School, The Soviet Ballet, and now The Mariinsky Ballet. The Vaganova ballet technique is not only Russian, but it has elements of the French and Italian schools of ballet as well.

The Vaganova method concentrates on lower back strength and the “boneless” look of the arms. Vaganova trained dancers execute ballet movement with an especial effortlessness by using supple arms to contrast the robust movement of the legs. The arms would give the dancer an ethereal look as if she defied gravity. Many movements of the Vaganova technique require the dancer to remain in the air for as long as possible to give the dancer an illusion of floating. This requires extreme flexibility and extension. The arms and legs appear longer and leaner by the stretch and line of the pose. A Vaganova trained dancer executes movements with clean precise lines and movement with special attention to placement (forming the ethereal illusion).

Today the Vaganova method is used by the Vaganova Ballet Academy in Russia as well as many ballet schools around the world. Vaganova trained students have found success in the world’s leading ballet companies. The world-renowned Bolshoi and Kirov Ballet in Russia both use the Vaganova technique.

Cecchetti Ballet Method

Enrico Cecchetti developed his own ballet training method in London (1918). Coming from Italy, Enrico and his wife opened a dance school and influenced British ballet throughout the ages. Many new methods spawned from the Cecchetti training method. After dancing in Milan as a young man, Enrico Cecchetti migrated to Russia and ended up working for Diaghilev by training his school of dancers. He taught at the Imperial School in St. Petersburg. When the Ballet Russes began to tour the world, students did not want to leave the daily Cecchetti classes that afforded them such exquisite training.

The Cecchetti technique is very involved; the student is trained then tested in stages and graded. Each Cecchetti instructor is to be registered with the Cecchetti Council of America so that they can continue the legacy of Enrico Cecchetti’s evolved method of ballet. The Cecchetti students go through a training system that pays special attention to basic principles of the anatomy’s refection of grace, balance, strength and the ability to adapt to any other style given through choreography. The Cecchetti technique reflects a purity and employs consistent lines, and a concise style of movement that is developed in the dancer through many years of consistent corrections of body placement and the embodiment of creativity and intense musicality.

Some of the world’s greatest ballet masters were trained in the Cecchetti method including Vaslav Nijinksy, Anna Pavlova and George Balanchine, who all contributed greatly to modern classical ballet.

Balanchine Ballet Technique

George Balanchine defected from The Soviet Union back in 1924 and became a part of the Ballet Russes as a main choreographer which made him quite famous in the dance world early on. With roots in Cecchetti, he defined his own personal method through the numerous ballets he created. George Balanchine went on to create The American School of Ballet and from it stemmed The New York City Ballet. He was always known for having a “muse” who was the star dancer. He also had a “thing” for Stravinsky and Tschaikovsky – many of his ballets were choreographed to their musical works. He had a deep passion for dance that transformed traditions into a more artistic display of expression and neoclassical qualities that forever changed ballet.

The Balanchine method employs define hand-work and port de bras, intense spurts of energy, and powerful and theatrical displays of dancing that has changed the landscape of dance for the world to enjoy. Balanchine’s emphasis of line and athletic dance redefined many aspects of ballet technique which makes this style a blatant stand-out above all the other ballet methods. Balanchine tweaked the arabesque to employ an open hip to the audience when usually the arabesque shows only a complete side-view of the dancer.

Some of the modern world’s ballet masters danced the Balanchine method including Mikhail Baryshnikov, Allegra Kent, Susanne Farrell and Gelsey Kirkland. Balanchine created some of the most famous ballets including: Symphony in C, Jewels, The Four Temperments, Stars and Stripes and he also re-choreography many of the greats including The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Coppelia which all are still danced today in the Balanchine technique.


photo credit: Francisco Morais via photopin cc