Classical Ballet: An Athlete’s Realm or an Artist’s?

“It takes an athlete to dance, but an artist to be a dancer. ”
~Shanna LaFleur

The following is a blog post by fellow blogger Rachel K, whose mother, Sylvia Armit, was a principal ballet dancer in East Germany before the Berlin Wall came down. Rachel posed a very good question: one that is endlessly discussed in the dance world and that never yields a definitive answer by any objective measure. Personally I think classical ballet is a combination of both athleticism and art, the lack of either of which would not make ballet the fascinating art form that it is.

The athleticism––or what we call “technique”––is definitely there to serve the art, just like culinary art wouldn’t be an art unless the chef has mastered all the cooking methods first.  Some commentators criticize that today’s classical ballet is turning into a competitive sport with an emphasis on technique. But if you look at ballet’s history, in the 18th century the Italian school was known for its “bravura,” which was incorporated into the Russian school and then continues on to the present day (the bravura aspect is particularly emphasized by the Bolshoi Ballet). It’s just that the Russian school has injected an even greater emphasis on the artistry—the expression of the soul and acting skills to bring out the character of a role. So even within the ballet world there has always been varying degrees of emphasis on artistry vs. technique.

Some ballet dancers like Misty Copeland are not shy about highlighting the athletic aspect of ballet because they feel that it is often “hidden” or neglected by the viewer—so much so that the art form is under-appreciated as it appears so “easy.” Copeland was recently featured in an “Artist Meets Athlete” video with basketball player Sean James as well as in the advertisements of Under Armor to make a statement and to inspire.

Albert Einstein once said: “Dancers are the athletes of God.” This is not too far from the truth.

But no matter how much or how little ballet dancers emphasize their athleticism in public, I believe that the true artist will always place artistry above all else.

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