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Ballerina: A Look at Ballet Today and Yesterday
Why do We Love Ballet?
Since the first ballet was performed in Italy in the 1600’s, ballet has been the passion of even kings. Louis XIV opened the first ballet academy in France. Believe it or not, only men were allowed to dance and it wasn’t till twenty years later that women were given the chance. Since it beginnings, ballet has held a fascination for many. From the European Elite, to the modern day school girl, ballet has been the revered by many, as the dance of angles.
My grandmother was a great admirer of the art of ballet and would never miss a performance, when the dance companies would come to Cuba to perform. My mother was a student of ballet from the time she was nine and continued taking classes and contributing to community performances, till her late teens. There have been movies that center around the lives of dancer. Many people remember The Turning Point, with Shirley MacLaine. The Turning Point was a monumental hit, which centered on the lives of ballet dancers, and their struggles to keep their careers. There have also been many documentaries about the revered art of ballet and the lives of famous ballerinas.
History of Ballet
Ballet was invented in Italy as a form an interpretation of fencing. The first Ballet was named: Le Ballet Comique de la Rein (The Queen’s Ballet Comedy) and it was performed in Paris in 1581. Le Ballet Comique de la Rein was directed by the famous violinist and dancer, Balthazar de Beaujoyeux, the performance was accompanied by music, poetry and songs.
In 1661 King Louis XIV opened the Academie Royale de Danse', which was the first school of ballet. Ballet was such a passion of the royals, that the king himself, took part in one of the ballet performances. At that time only men danced. These men performed dressed in women’s costumes, using masks and wigs to play female roles. It wasn’t until 1681 in Le Triomphe de l'Amour (The Triumph of Love), that women finally got to dance to.
In it’s infancy a significant part of the ballets, were the group performances. In group performances, poems were recited and they also sang songs. French ballet teacher and choreographer, Pierre Beauchamp invented the five basic ballet positions. In 1700 the book, Choregraphie , was publish. Choregraphie , was a guide to the ballet positions and steps. Then in the seventeenth century, the opera styled ballet was invented. In the eighteenth century ballet evolved even more and the performers began to wear different dresses, hairstyles and footwear, the famous toe dancing was developed around this time. The most notable ballet of the eighteenth century was Letters on Dancing and Ballets (1760), which was choreographed by the Frenchman, Jean Georges Noverre. It was in the nineteenth century that such timeless classics, as Sleeping Beauty and The Swan Lake, were first developed and choreographed. Both these classics have since then become the passion of many theater audiences.
In the timeless art of ballet, and of those who have risen to the rank of Prima Ballerina, there have been a few legendary dancers, that have taken ballet history by storm. The names that stand out and will always be remembered among ballet admirers are: Russian dancer, Ana Pavlova, Paloma Herrera, Alicia Markova, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Danish dancer, Erik Bruhn and there is also the Cuban ballet legend Alicia Alonso. Only several dancers, from every generation, that rise to the ranks of being legends of the dance.
The Journey Begins, from Student to Prima Ballerina
One may wonder, how did these performers began their journey in this timeless art? In the ballet documentary, titled Ballerina, which is an intimate portrait of the lives of the ballerinas from the Kirov. The documentary began by stating how the most famous ballet masterpiece is The Swan Lake . In Russia, ballet is passion shared by most people there. Most girls in Russia dream of becoming a ballerina. Becoming a ballerina requires eight years of study.
The most prestigious academy is the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, located in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Vaganova Academy was established in 1738 by Agrippina Vaganova, who has cultivated the method of training in classical ballet that has been taught since the 1920 in most ballet academies.
The selection process is very strict, and only thirty girls are selected out of the hundreds that apply for the academy. The academy has, what would be considered peculiar demands. The girls that are selected, usually possess a certain body type, consisting of a: small head, a long neck, long arms, long legs and a very slender figure. During the admissions exam the girls have to perform in their underwear. So that the judges could better tell what kind of body, the girl will develop in the future, although many of the experts say that it is sometimes hard to tell at that point
The training at the academy is very rigorous, and only half the girls make it through their studies at the academy. The purpose in making it so difficult, is so that the one that succeeds has a better chance of being selected by one of the leading ballet companies. The need for self discipline is imperative to assure success. The hardest years for most students at the academy are the first and the last year. This all leads to the last trial, which is the graduation ceremony.
All the work they do in the final year is geared towards the graduation ceremony. Theatre directors come to see the students during the exam period, in order to make their selection for their dance companies. The most prestigious dance company is known as the Kirov. The Kirov is housed in Russia's most prestigious ballet theatre, the Mariinsky. In order to be selected by the Kirov, a ballerina has to be the best of the best. This is the equivalent of being the star, in the biggest show in Broadway. The Kirov has one hundred and twenty female dancers and one hundred male dancers. Even though the work is intense, the female dancers at the Kirov are the thought after.
Life at the theatre is far more complicated than at the dance academy. Relationships are more difficult, with a greater degree of seriousness. You must be very circumspect; you never know who is examining your work.
One director puts it this way “Joining the profession is like joining a convent in terms of self deprivation.” The career span for most ballerinas is so short. They begin their training at ten, and with eight years of training they are not ready for the theatre till they are eighteen. Once selected the career normally lasts till the dancers reach the age of forty. Of course, there are exceptions; some dancers have danced well into their sixties.
Rehearsals are crucial, because the effort put into rehearsals, often determines the quality of that night’s performance. There are some very dedicated artists, these individuals are so dedicated to their craft, that they even come to the theatre to practice on their day of. The main objective of most dancers is to become, a prima ballerina. In Russia prima ballerinas are treated with great respect, they have a prestigious standing in Russian Society. The selection of prima ballerinas, rest with the theatre directors.
Russian Ballet is considered more extreme, than how it is practiced in the rest of the planet. To the Russian people, ballet is considered an art to be revered, at the end of each performance, many of the admirers gather at the back of the theatre to greet the performers and to give them gifts. The exchange between the admirers and the cherished performers is very emotional and full of love.
Portrait of a Dancer, Profiles of Several Exceptional Dancers at the Kirov
Alina Somova, was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. Somova graduated from the prestigious Vaganova Academy in 2003, and was hired by the Kirov Ballet. Alina has performed in the following productions: Sleeping Beauty (Fee Candide), La Sylphide (Sylphide), Giselle (Mona), Swan Lake (Odette-Odilie), Le Cosaire (Medora), and Etudes. The ballets she loves the most are Balanchine’s creations. She was the first in her family to be a dancer. Her thin constitutions and features come from her father, who is in construction. Alina Somova is now about twenty four, and has a very promising career ahead of her at the Kirov.
Evgenia Obraztsova was born in St. Petersburg, Russia 1984. She graduated from the Vaganova Academy in 2002 and joined the Kirov Ballet Company. She has performed in the following productions: La Sylphide (Sylphide), The Sleeping Beauty (Fee Generosity), Raymonda (Variation), The Fountain of Bakhchisarai (Dance of the Bells), Don Quixote (Cupid), Le Cosaire (The Three Odalisques), La Bayardere (Dance of the Bayaderes, Shadows), Romeo and Juliet (Juliet), The Legend of Love (Shyrin), In the Middle Somewhat Elevated (Forythe), The Vetiginous Thrill of Exactitude (Forythe), The Nutcracker (Masha), The Magic Nut (Rat jester). Obraztsova received the Gold Medal at the 2005 International Ballet Competition. She also stared in the French film Russian Dolls , which was directed by Cedric Klapisch. The movie was filmed in Paris, and is already out on DVD. She was a student of the famous ballerina coach, Ninel Kurgapkina, she has done an outstanding job preparing the young Evgenia. Evgenia Obraztsova has the makings of an international star.
Svetlana Zakharova was born in the Ukraine, in June 1979. She started to study dance at the age of six at a local studio. At the age of ten Svetlana joined the Kiev Choreographic School. After six years at the Kiev she entered an International Young Dancer’s Competition in St. Petersburg, Russia. Svetlana won second prize in the competition. Following the competition, Svetlana continued her training at the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia. Svetlana graduated from the academy in 1996 and was hired by the Kirov at the age of seventeen. Soon after joining the Kirov Ballet Company, she was promoted to being a principle dancer. Svetlana has performed in the following productions: Nutcracker (Masha, Pas de Trois, Doll), Don Quixote (Queen of Dryads/Kitri), The Sleeping Beauty (Princess Florine, Princess Aurora), Giselle (Sulmah, Giselle), Swan Lake (Big Swan, Odette-Odile), Chopiniana (Waltz in C sharp minor, Mazurka), Le Crosaire (Gulnarah, Medorah), The Fountain of Bakhchisarai (Maria), Romeo and Juliet (Juliet’s Friend), Apollo (Terpsichore), La Bayadere ( Nikia), Serenade (Soloist), Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Symphony in C (First Movement), Jewels (Diamonds), Poeme de L extase , Manon ( Manon), Now and Then (by Neumeier), Young Lady and Hooligan (Young Lady). Zakharova has won several award, these include: The Baltika Prize in (1997), Gold Sophit (1998) which is the St. Petersburg theatrical award, and the Golden Mask. Having won so many honors, yet still so young, Svetlana Zakharova is one of Russia’s best and most talented stars of the world of ballet.
Russian Ballerinas are in a class all by themselves. With their rigorous training and their selfless devotion to the art of ballet, they have taken the dance to new heights. These stars of today and tomorrow are honored in the ballet documentary Ballerina. If you have ever wondered about the magical world of ballet, this is one documentary you will want to experience.
For more information on the world of the ballerina and on these amazing women, who bring the dance to life, here are some links for your convenience.
Information on the: Kirov, the Vaganova Academy, and the history of Ballet.
Articles with information on Alina Somova, Evgenia Obraztsova, and Svetlana Zakharova