I’m referring to the ballet. We will be watching the performance of one of the greatest ballerinas of all time – Natalia Makarova. Even though Anthony Dowell, her partner in this performance, appears to be doing hardly anything at all, that is all part of the deception. Male ballet performers, referred to as danseurs, must be extremely athletic. About twenty years ago there was a professional football player in America who had spent some time as a youth in the ballet. He said not only was this excellent training, he was in better shape as a dancer than he was as a professional football player.
The reason ballet is not viewed by the public as an exceptionally difficult form of athleticism is that at the very highest professional levels of performance, every effort is made to disguise, if not make invisible, the physical effort that ballet requires. This is generally true of any of the performing arts – the great pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff could perform the most demanding virtuosic passages by sitting perfectly still at the piano, moving hardly anything except his arms, hands, and fingers. It requires many years of training to reach such a level of deception in ballet, and often the very best dancers, like Rudolph Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Natalia Makarova – start as children by working on a rigorous daily routine of exercises.
It is often said in any of the performing arts that having extraordinary technical skills is a sine qua non of being a professional. To truly be a professional, and aspire to greatness, you must go well beyond technical skill, and display an artistic sensitivity that moves audiences emotionally. An example of this skill can be observed when dancers perform en pointe. This is the French term for dancing on the tips of your toes – at least that is what it appears to be to the audience. The danseuse – and it is almost always women who dance en pointe – actually has specially designed ballet slippers with heavy cardboard padding at the toe, allowing the dancer to rest her weight mostly on her foot, and not on her toes. It takes many years of practice to build up the ankle and other foot muscles to carry the body’s weight properly when en pointe, and dancers are normally not even allowed to attempt this technique until they are teenagers, when their bones have ossified and strengthened sufficiently to take the stress without causing permanent damage. In addition to all this work, the danseuse must perfect her ability to rise up to the pointe position effortlessly and gracefully, and return down to a flat position on the floor with equal delicacy.
This is where the artistry comes in, and in classical ballet in particular, there is a further emphasis on what is called the “line.” This is the imaginary line that can be drawn visually from the dancer’s toes up through the ankles, knees, and to the thighs, when viewed either from a side angle or directly on. In performance, a dancer must maintain as straight a line as possible when en pointe, but the concept of the visual line applies to all other aspects of the performance. If a ballerina is arching her back by falling backwards with her head and arms draping down to the floor, a beautiful arc must be achieved from the toes, travelling up through the torso and back down to the arms as they reach the floor.
Line work is particularly important when dancing in slow movements. The example we are going to see is a traditional pas de deux, or dance for two people. Perhaps the most famous pas de deux is to be found at the end of Act II of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet. The story to the ballet is from a fairy tale. An evil sorcerer has placed a spell on Odette, a princess, which turns her into a swan by day. The spell can be broken only by true love, and when Prince Siegfried sees Odette on the shores of Swan Lake, he falls in love with her. He woos Odette during their dance together (the pas de deux), and she begins to succumb to his ardor. This dance takes place at the end of Act II, and when the sorcerer appears and sees what is happening, he reminds her of the spell by turning Odette back into a swan, forcing her to follow him and not the prince.
Natalia Makarova was one of the greatest ballerinas in the role of Odette during the 20th century. Her line work is exceptionally pure. The elegance in her performance is breathtaking – the seemingly uncalculated refinement, languor, and delicacy in her every pose, and in each transition to a new pose, is uniquely Makarova’s. There is fear in her performance, evidenced by the quivering of her feet and her arms withdrawn to her chest, but this gives way to acceptance and the awakening of love for Prince Siegfried. The Siegfried in this performance at the Royal Opera House in London is Anthony Dowell, and he does exactly what he is supposed to do. He stays in the background, seemingly doing nothing, yet all the while supporting his partner gently, matching his movements (and his visual line) to hers, and at his most impressive, lifting her above his head with no apparent effort at all. He grants to Makarova the illusion of weightlessness, as befitting someone who is a swan by day and thus gives you the impression of that most graceful of birds.
The clip you will want to look at is at the 48.10 minute mark, which is the beginning of the pas de deux. This section ends at her encore bow at the 56.38 minute mark, so stop there and I will then draw your attention to something truly extraordinary. This is a one hour clip, so if you are having trouble up-loading it, you might have to switch to another browser like Firefox, or go directly to the clip on YouTube, here.
To see this transformation, you can simply hit play in the clip above, and watch the end of the Act, or forward to the 1 hour and 05.15 minute mark (1:05.15). Both Natalia Makarova and Anthony Dowell have long since retired to the teaching profession, and you can see why aspiring ballet artists eagerly seek to enroll as their students.
(Photo is of Natalia Makarova on the occasion of the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors.)