Auguste Vestris


26 juin 2010, septième soirée : Vera Volkova

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In the same section

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Vera Volkova
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Souvenirs de Madame Volkova
Memories of Mme. Volkova
Piotr Frantsevitch Lesgaft (1837-1909)
Remarques sur Les Notes de Volkova sur les temps d’allegro
An Analysis on Volkova’s notes on Allegro
Extraits des Carnets de Vera Volkova
Vera Volkova au Danemark
Vera Volkova in Denmark
« Précipiter une nouvelle ère poétique »
Vera Volkova - Looking and Seeing

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An Analysis on Volkova’s notes on Allegro
by Julie Cronshaw

26 June 2010

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“Firstly” Volkova writes in her notes about technique, in allegro, “I think it is not stressed enough the fact that one never at any time stands on two feet-even in the fifth position. One’s weight is always on one or the other foot already in preparation for the step that is to follow.”

However there is much room for misunderstanding in this statement and it needs some clarification.

Upon a first cursory reading it appears that Volkova is asking her students to stand on one leg at a time.

She then observes, that a competent dancer understands how to use the basic principle of transference of weight, from one foot to another, in order to move “from one position to another as quickly and as accurately and therefore as economically as possible.”

This is at once obvious to the classical dance practitioner, of course one must stand on one leg in order to be able to transfer to the other one.

L’Institut Smolny où Volkova enfant suivait ses études académiques à partir de 1914
Cliché A. Meinertz

Immediately the classically trained dancer will concur with Volkova, in that it is a given that one stands upon one leg, the weight of the body slightly over on the balls of the feet enabling the standing leg to take the weight of the torso and, more importantly enable the dancer to tilt and twist the pelvis in order to extend the working leg into gloriously high acrobatic extensions. Unfortunately in this we have all at once come across a fundamental contradiction in the application of aplomb, which is the first of the basic principles of classical ballet.

The sustaining of the weight of the body on the standing leg, which is what most dancers do, implies that the leg itself must sustain the entire weight of the body, which is of course foolish since the muscles in the legs are designed principally for dynamic action and there are far stronger structural muscles for sustaining body weight available in the pelvis and back. The principal of aplomb is a subject which must be dealt with in another discussion, but upon reading Volkova’s notes a little further she begins to clarify how the dancer can transfer weight without getting stuck on ‘two feet’. First she mentions to be always: “on top of the leg” and then noting another underappreciated fundamental: “The fact of working from the centre of the body out towards the extremities rather than from the extremities inwards.”

It becomes obvious that by using the leg as a structural support, which it is not designed to do, movement will become increasingly laboured as the leg muscles are doing two jobs: both structural and dynamic. Hence Volkova’s note on being economical: “Such a lot of time is wasted dancing on two feet.” Time and a lot of energy are expended in the overuse of the legs when there is no true physical alignment of the body, or what was termed originally “a-plomb”, the “plumbline” or vertical line, straight down the centre.

Note also how Volkova uses the word “economical”, implying a conservation of effort and her need to explain how to do this, which she does later in her description of movement coming from the centre of the back and the legs and arms obeying, as it were, the directions they are given from the back. This is a crucial observation and is reiterated several times, further illustrated with a comparison to a tight-rope walker (with the carefully balanced spine being the man on the rope and the pole ends constantly in flux as his flexible hands and feet).

Then Volkova states another, much vaunted maxim, again much misunderstood: “Don’t hang on the barre, stand on your own leg!” A closer reading will note that she means standing on one’s leg however and not in it, which is for the most part what today’s classically trained dancer generally does in order to be able to place her weight over the balls of the feet and thus rise onto releve. She is balancing with apparent ease, oh! and she is most definitely not hanging onto the barre, but unfortunately has forgotten Volkova’s advice to keep feet and hands from straining with the effort- and how can the dancer do otherwise because the body is not actually placed correctly to begin with! The tiny adjustment of aplomb away from its original centre and over onto the balls of the feet has caused these knock- on effects. With the pushing up onto releve comes a rigid upper back, a strained neck, ankles and hands, loss of epaulement, turnout that cannot be correctly sustained by the pelvis (and is compensated for further down the leg) and instability of the joints in the lower back, pelvis, knees and ankles.

Of course, it is almost impossible thus to be truly quick, accurate and economical in allegro when one has been trained in this way!

Volkova concludes her observation on the necessity of fondu as preparation for the development of an allegro quality she deems most important, incorporating “fluidity and softness” into the jump. She is using both the principal of transference of weight combined with a correct use of the supporting leg from a terre to releve. She states that, at that time, during her time, the fondu was not used in “European” schools. This appears true when one observes a class of Cecchetti for example, whose Method was still ostensibly being taught (how accurately is another matter for discussion) in London at the time Volkova was there. Cecchetti did not stipulate for there to be a separate fondu exercise at the barre, however, the fondu is used extensively in many of his adagio and pirouette exercises, and numerous allegro combinations do require much “fluidity and softness”, or what is perhaps termed the “plastique” of the original Russian school.

Perhaps it would be a good idea for dance practitioners and historians to re-read with great care the technical notes left to us by the great ballet teachers of the last century lest we misinterpret their words in order to justify and accommodate our current fashionable take on classical ballet technique.