Auguste Vestris


Critiques de livre / Book Reviews

Dans la même rubrique
In the same section

Alexander Pushkin, Master Teacher of Dance
Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus
’Reconstruction of the Stylistic Features of Carlo Blasis’
Mime in Ballet
Mind over Body
Henning Kronstam : Portrait of a Danish Dancer
Danser avec le Troisième Reich

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All sections :


Mind over Body
(by Maria Fay, A & C Black, London, 1997)

July 2003

Printable version / Version imprimable   |  1183 visits / visites

Under the title MIND OVER BODY, in the year 1997, Maria Fay, the renowned Hungarian professor, brought out a collection of essays that had originally appeared in "The Dancing Times". The collection came onto the scene before many had ready access to Internet, and as a result, may not be as widely known outwith Great Britain as it would deserve. To let the book speak for itself, by reproducing extracts with some of its major points, struck me as the best way to encourage foreign dancers and teachers, even those whose knowledge of the English language may be fairly slight, to plunge in and read the thing through.

Miss Fay has seen a great deal, and there is anger in her book, though masked by wisdom and an urbane manner. Her concern is with the abuse that many, perhaps most professional dancers face from their school years onwards. And she appeals to the teaching profession to take personal responsibility for bringing about a drastic change to the present state of affairs.

(The quotations from Miss Fay’s book are in italics, and this writer’s comments, in regular case. Emphasis added in Bold)

On Darwinism in the theatre

From Part 3 - Survival of the Fittest


A long and varied experience in the dance scene has convinced me that the way we have chosen the majority of our students during the last half-century, and teach (...) choreograph for, and treat them, could lead to a result where, generally, only the physically-fittest and emotionally less vulnerable, will survive and succeed.

(...) To a certain point, this might well be the correct attitude, as long as we could be absolutely sure that physical suitability and undeterred willpower are not the only qualities we would look for in a dancer, even if the running of a dance company is much easier, and safer, with such people. The danger is that, often in our profession, it’s not considered carefully enough that, although the fittest and the strong-minded are the most successful, this might not necessarily mean that they are the most talented individuals from an artistic point of view.

(...) Will artistic standards improve in the future, if we accept this, and make [future] generations (....) also believe that competition and survival of the fittest in the dancers’ society is just as unavoidable, valid and beneficially progressive as is proven in the animal kingdom, and in business ? Or are these ideas part of a mistaken ideology and attitude which may service conveniently some short-sighted or autocratic dance managements ?

(...) it might help if we first answer the key questions. Do we consider dancing as an art form, and our dancers as artists ? (...)

Only the human race is capable of producing art. Animals may move their bodies by instinct in a complicated and, to the human eye, pleasing way. (...) Dancers use their bodies to create intricate movements of which only a small fraction is the result of natural behaviour. Much of a dancer’s movement is motivated by thoughts and emotions which are the unique products of the miraculous function of the human brain. Trying to apply the laws of natural survival to a highly creative and complex life form - that of an artist, a professional dancer (...) may lead us to a mistaken ideology, and eventually to the decline of our art.

On "Vigorous" Teaching practices


Life for everyone is difficult and often unjust, full of suffering, and sometimes with horrors. Parents and teachers in every walk of life should tell the younger generation not only about the good and beautiful things (...) but also about the difficulties and ugly side of life (...) But should we make them experience all these things during their student years, just in order that they can stand up to things whenever, and if ever, they come across them in adulthood ? In ordinary life, we all wish to be good parents, but would we beat, abuse, cheat torture, overwork and injure our own children for these reasons ?

Perhaps we can understand the necessity and validity of this kind of teaching attitude in connection with the training of soldiers. Their feelings, indeed, must be toughened against injury, just as much as their bodies to endure all the horrors of war.

Considering that artists need to develop great sensitivity and intensity of feelings, it seems that to anaesthetise a dancer’s emotional life may result in more and more robot-like performers instead of susceptible, refined artists. The best mental preparation for young dancers’ professional lives is to build up devotion, respect and pride towards the art (...) to help them find their own identity and strengthen their self-confidence. This may be a far better defence against all kinds of insult and maltreatment (....), rather than over-challenging and provoking them whilst they are only students.

Now, is Miss Fay making all this up, off the top of her head ?

As many readers will be aware, the world-famous Paris Opera Ballet School at Nanterre has been at the centre of great controversy in the past few years. In late 2002, a labour-law report by the auditors’ firm "Socialconseil", was followed by a week-long tour of inspection by the DDASS (Direction départementale de l’action sanitaire et sociale), mandated to investigate allegations including moral harassment.

On December 4th 2002, the Paris daily "Libération", following the Socialconseil Audit referred to above, interviewed, amongst others, one of the School’s medical staff, Alain Faugouin, osteopath, who says : "I have seen stress fractures. The children are pushed to the limit, but without strict medical follow-up. As is the case for high-level athletes, they develop pathologies, which are brushed off lightly. The watchword is "put up, or shut up" (marche ou crève). When a child returns to work after an injury, he is not gradually brought back in. Suffering is seen as making the effort worthwhile."

On "physical criteria", and pigeonholing


Miss Fay recollects the first time she saw a likeness of Vaclav Nijinskii :

A big head was perched on a relatively long torso, to which short, heavy-looking arms and legs were attached, covered with well-developed muscles. Was this what the Blue God, the Spirit of the Rose, the Golden Slave, the one-and-only idol of so many people, looked like ? Today, a dancer of his height and proportions, even with a most outstanding technique, would be allowed to dance only character or demi-caractère roles (...)

Our teacher explained that though this great dancer had an astonishing ballon, and a very strong, all-round technique, what really made him unique was (....) his extraordinary quality, a many-faceted and sensitive artistry, and, above all, his magical stage presence.

I hardly guessed [then] what I strongly suspect now, that his real luck actually started when, as a child, he escaped rejection by the auditioning committee of the Imperial Ballet School.... His luck was everybody’s good fortune. For his male colleagues, he was a genuine and incomparable rival, who challenged and raised their standards. For the choreographers, designers and composers, he was an inspiration through his talent and capability.

(...) What an incredible loss it would have been for the art of ballet, if this exceptional talent had been turned away from a dancing career, on account of his unpleasing proportions, not fitting in, and being a bit odd and slow in his intellect. Still, I wonder whether he would be accepted today in any company-connected vocational school ?

Miss Fay then turns to Olga Preobajenskaya, a hunchback twice dismissed from the Maryinskii School,

"but there were numerous, more complicated and medically-involved examples in dance history, where a dancer’s ability and achievements have proven to be exactly the opposite to what common sense, the knowledge of anatomy, dance technique and dance medicine could have ever predicted.

Indeed ! Selection policies have reached a degree of craven fanaticism, that in another not-so-far-off time and place, would have gone by the name eugenics.

Oddly enough, many of our Schools and Theatres are now run by men and women who, as dancers, may themselves have been short and stocky, or had thick legs, or a broad neck, or a weight problem, but who are become, twenty years later, perfervid converts to Georges Balanchine’s aesthetic, blithely bouncing from the institution anyone who looks the way they looked !

Like cattle, youths and girls in vocational schools are weighed and measured on a weekly basis. No matter how intelligent, how musically gifted, how exciting, if their proportions be less than ideal, they will be sent down.

What does appear to be a textbook example, is the case of M. Medhi Angot, a youth of perhaps five foot eight or nine, who is amongst the ablest of the POB’s School’s graduates in many a year. Only this month, the POB declined to recruit him, on grounds, or so it seems, of his slight stature alone.

Where does that leave the Chosen Few ? In their heart of hearts, they cannot but know that their face and figure may well have got them to a place, where others’ greater talent has failed to reach. They may have "won", the way a prize puppy wins at a Dog Show. Not a cheerful thought.

On Teaching Cooperation rather than Competition

From Part 4 - the Art of Teaching


Miss Fay recounts how, being once called away during a class, she told her advanced students to form small groups, and "tutor" each other :

The news of this game-like tutorial spread fast, and I was obliged to repeat it with the rest of my graduates in other tutorial groups. They became quite popular as they produced immediate good results. From that moment we worked in this way regularly and systematically (...) we soon realised that the method could be applied also very effectively in repertoire classes, as most of the time these have to be divided into very small working groups...

Apart from the better technical achievements, this correcting, helping-each-other method gradually brought about a healthy spirit of teamwork throughout all the other classes and rehearsals. This good atmosphere added an extra lift to the pupils’ general progress (...) After a while I noticed that the graduate students didn’t limit our game only to the "privileged" tutorial and repertoire classes. They were often seen after class in studio corners and corridors, anywhere where they could work, correcting and helping each other in their pirouettes, extensions, batterie, balances etc.

Now, three or four years ago, Le Figaro’s weekly news magazine interviewed a graduating student at the POB School at Nanterre. I cannot recall the girl’s name, but I do recall her saying something to the effect : "Ici, on n’a pas d’amies, que des copines. Parce que nous sommes toutes des rivales" ("Here, we have no friends, just school-chums, because we’re all rivals"). Again, a year or so ago, the French press reviewed a television documentary broadcast, I believe, on France 3, and entitled "Des Racines et des Ailes". According to the press, the students at the Nanterre School declared that they decline to help a classmate in difficulty, because "we’ve got to learn to compete." A professor then steps in to reinforce that view.

It’s probably no accident that the Institut Charles Darwin International, is based, not in England as one might have expected, but right here in beautiful Romainville (93).

On the nature of the artist


Just as good craftsmen can cut and polish glass to a convincing imitation, intelligent and well-meaning teachers can utilise their professional skills to make a suitable physique move with pleasing precision. If a student be taught and polished with consistent care for many years by knowledgeable pedagogues, the result can easily be a perfect "fake". One might ask, "So what, if the fakes looks and dances as well as the genuine talent, who cares ?" Though not really talented, but with some feeling for style, nor truly musical, but able to keep in time with the music, nor very expressive, but intelligent enough to learn the basic technique of mime and theatrical gestures, and possessing a pleasing-looking body and face, in addition to perseverance, this imitation of a genuinely gifted dancer will pass quite well for a real one.

As long as dancers are pleasing to the eye, well-trained, stylish and disciplined, they will do a good job. That is exactly what it will be - a job done by good craftsmen- but do we really want to saturate our dance companies with good-looking artisans doing satisfactory jobs (...) ?

The perceptive audience will become gradually disillusioned (...) a different public will admire and demand the thrill of sheer physical virtuosity... without understanding or appreciating the traditions, style, refinement and deeper meaning of true dancing. It will be an audience hardly touched by artistic experiences.

An "infantile" profession ?


I am ashamed to admit how often I must have been guilty of using the words "girls" and "boys" when talking to other teachers and choreographers about dancers who are, after all, grown-up fellow artists.

Our unreasonable attitudes must affect dancers’ behaviour. In turn, this will influence the kind of image others may have about them, including their audiences. Perhaps this parent-and-child relationship is understandable in some of the traditional companies with attached schools, though it’s not to be applauded. Ballet masters, directors and choreographers watch young pupils growing up into mature artists, but they still can’t quite seem them as adults, just as in ordinary life parents and grand-parents sometimes can’t come to terms with their offspring growing up.

Because dancers’ careers are so short, we need to treat them as adults when they are teenage students, so that their maturation as human beings and artists will be enhanced and might even happen at an earlier stage than that of most other young people.

It is well-known that the artistic standard of an orchestra depends on how responsible and mature the individual performance is of every player....The most memorable productions from an artistic point of view (...) are the ones in which everyone, from chorus member to the leading role, gives a mature performance. This is even more true when performing the classics. The standards of dance production will also rise considerably if all the dancers involved are treated as mature individuals, so they can perform as such.

On the "Role" played by the Audience


Dance technique has never been as advanced as it is today and if we keep over-emphasising this in performance, we could lose the well-educated, deep-feeling, sensitive and critical part of our public. This would mean the loss of those very people whose sophisticated desires and demands motivate dancers to perform meaningful and artistic performances, and choreographers to create imaginative works on new subjects, in new styles, which, from time to time, may give rise to masterpieces.

An artistically demanding audience is just as much a part of the process of bringing talent to the surface and creating masterpieces, as the choreographer and interpreting artists (...) Dancers and dance-makers whose minds are conditioned to over-taking Time, and to quickly achieving public fame and recognition by stressing virtuosity, might end up with spectators whose tastes and demands will be hardly different from fans of such activities as athletics or acrobatics. Their public feedback will be limited to their own technical skills and craftsmanship, and will not enhance their artistic values to those who, given the time and opportunity, could and would become true, mature artists.

Where has that "well-educated, deep-feeling, sensitive and critical part of our public" gone ? Is Miss Fay over-stating the case ?

Only very recently, a European television station broadcast an interview with the Head of a world-famous school. Clad entirely in black perforated leather, the Head looked boldly into the camera, and said something to the effect (paraphrase), that "girls who are sent down from the school, can always become meneuse de revue". For those who may be ignorant of such things, in joints like the Crazy Horse or Lido, a meneuse de revue is the glamour puss marshalling the front line. She gets to wear a bit more clothes than the rest.

What does that tell us about what the Head imagines must run in the students’ mind ? About what the Head imagines those girls might wish to do with their lives ? About what the Head imagines runs in the public’s mind ?

On Auditions

Miss Fay reports on a statement overheard at an audition she attended :

"All of you will have to wear a number, and you will have a chance to finish the barre exercises. Afterwards, we’ll begin to weed you out gradually after each centre exercise. Those dancers in whom we lose interest will be asked to leave."

"(...) it isn’t a very nice way to talk", admitted a fellow adjudicator, when I mentioned my indignation about the use of the word "weeding" in connection with any human being, "but it’s just a manner of speech, a rather thoughtless cliché".

That may be so, but (...) doesn’t this manner of speech express just the kind of attitude so typical of, and damaging to, our profession ?

One might suggest it better to "weed out" these thoughtless and insensitive clichés from our professional vocabulary and "sort out for "riddance" the wrong attitudes, instead of the young, vulnerable dancers (...).

Perhaps the answer is to change the habitual practice of examining and auditioning dancers in a group.

It is unimaginable that students in other interpretative art forms (...) be examined or auditioned in any other way than individually. Why shouldn’t dancers deserve similar respect ? Isn’t it amazing how we dancers first create these customs and attitudes and then put up with them, though they are degrading and humiliating for both us, and the art of dance ?

In the professional operatic, choral, and orchestra world, conductors and choir masters find the ways and means to give each candidate enough time, separately and thoroughly, while adjudicators of students of music, singing and acting follow suit (...). These artists are assessed and selected from characteristics which make each a unique human being - their names, personal features, and their individual qualities. Is it only dancers who lack these distinctions ?

On private lessons in vocational schools

Throughout their studies and dancing life, dancers are always taught in fairly large groups. It is not so surprising - especially when technical problems occur - that from their early student years, they long to have private lessons (...). In all the other performing arts, it has been long recognised that frequent use of the "one-to-one" teaching method is the right way to nurture young talent. Consequently, the finances and timetable schedules in these schools have been organised to accommodate this. (....) if vocational schools would incorporate regular coaching and private lessons in their schedules, most probably dancers would be more secure in their technique, less vulnerable to injury and, later in professional life, the physical and psychological need for private lessons would be reduced.

On Music

Further essays in MIND OVER BODY deal with the importance of movement analysis early on in a dancer’s studies, on the potentially great value of dance notation seen, again, from the standpoint of movement analysis, and on the a-historical, anachronistic way in which repertoire is generally studied at the present time, with untold damage to the style.

Another, critical point Miss Fay makes, is why so many dancers today are tone-deaf :

"(In class) Pianists may choose music according to their own taste, technique, and what they believe would fit (...) from Bach to Honky-Tonky, from military marches to Chopin (...) by way of Beethoven to Stravinsky and Gershwin and pop: tangos for fondus, fox-trots for tendus, and so on.

Instead of being helped and inspired by music composed by great musicians from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries - the same periods from which the style of daily ballet classes is based - the dancers are accompanied mostly by music totally different to that style, or without any style at all. Students may become accustomed sub-consciously to ignoring the style and quality of the music played during their practice. When the teachers repeatedly remind them: "for God’s sake, listen to the music", they will just make use of the beat (...) To expect dancers to be musical (...) and sensitive to style, but at the same time to quasi "immunise" them against being perceptive to music, is one of the great contradictions !

K.L. Kanter