Looking Back, Looking Forward: Why Understanding Ballet's Rich History Can Inform Its Future

November 24, 2015

This story originally appeared in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of

It’s a truth often repeated about ballet that it is an art with a strong oral tradition, handed down from generation to generation. Aspiring dancers learn the same steps that their teachers learned before them and perfect the same skills: turnout, pointework, épaulement, balance and, above all nowadays, flexibility. Sometimes, in the quest to achieve ever-greater heights of technical skill, other aspects of the art recede into the background. Nuances of interpretation and style can seem less important, even though they are the very things that ultimately make a dancer interesting to watch. That’s the paradox: In the age of ubiquitous sky-high extensions, the richness of a performance counts even more.

In part to push back against this single-minded focus on technique, some teachers and company directors are making a conscious effort to right the balance between technical flair and a fuller, more sensitive understanding of the art. This takes many forms: dance history classes, careful coaching or simply conversations about alternative interpretations of a role. There is a hunger for these discussions. “We’re living in the age of extreme technique,” says Alexandra Tomalonis, a distinguished dance writer who teaches ballet history at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC. “But many of the students who come to my classes know little about the history of the art form.”

Gabe Stone Shayer in Ratmansky’s new bluebird pas de deux. Photo Courtesy American Ballet Theatre.

In Tomalonis’ classes, dancers read about the court ballets of Louis XIV and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes; they watch videos of legendary dancers from the past, like Galina Ulanova in Giselle and the original cast of George Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto. “They’re so visual,” Tomalonis says of her students, “that when you show them a video, they quickly begin to pick up the different styles.” With her help, the dancers’ eyes are opened to the ideas and esthetic values that underpin those styles. Ideally, it is a process that will continue throughout a dancer’s career, in collaboration with coaches and ballet masters with long performance histories of their own.

“We’re living in an age of extreme technique.

But many students who come to my classes know

little about the history of the art form.”

—Alexandra Tomalonis

For those who are interested, the classes can be a revelation. Michelle Katcher, who studied with Tomalonis at the Kirov Academy before moving on to the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet in New York City, found them to be hugely influential to her way of thinking: “Before taking her class, I didn’t have a full understanding of what was out there; I had no idea what I liked.” Reading and watching multiple interpretations of a role helped formulate her tastes, and through them, make decisions about her career. She now dances for Ballet Arizona, whose repertoire combines classical and romantic works—including, recently, August Bournonville’s Napoli, Balanchine and new ballets.

It’s also easier to slip into the style of a ballet if you can get inside the head of the choreographer. Last season, for example, Alexei Ratmansky created a historically informed Sleeping Beauty for American Ballet Theatre in which legs were kept low and slightly soft, generous épaulement was used, and chaîné turns were executed on half-pointe. Gabe Stone Shayer, who danced the bluebird pas de deux in the new production, described the process: “Ratmansky showed us old pictures and brought in passages from books to give us an idea of the style and the story.” This engagement with history made the steps feel fresh and alive, infused with an understanding of Marius Petipa’s musicality and wit.

Margaret Barbieri, shown here with Sir Frederick Ashton, is known for her vivid coaching of Ashton’s work. Photo by Leslie Spatt, Courtesy Sarasota Ballet.

Margaret Barbieri, a former prima at The Royal Ballet Touring Company (later Birmingham Royal Ballet) who is now the assistant director of Sarasota Ballet, and director of its affiliated school, remembers: “Before I did my first Giselle, I read all the books I could find on Giselle and the Romantic period. I looked at all the lithographs. These are the kinds of things my husband (director Iain Webb) and I try to pass on to our dancers.” Through their work, the company has made its name as one of the greatest repositories of British 20th-century ballet, especially the works of Sir Frederick Ashton, with whom Barbieri and Webb collaborated in the studio. Barbieri, in particular, is known for her vivid coaching of Ashton’s ballets. When she set Birthday Offering on the company, she recounted anecdotes about each of the seven ballerinas for whom it was made. As the Sarasota principal Ellen Overstreet noted, “not many dancers get that information passed on so directly.” The production sparkled.

Sometimes, a single interpretation can change the way one conceives of a role. Lourdes Lopez, who directs Miami City Ballet, recalls the shock of seeing Olga Spessivtseva’s rendition of Giselle on YouTube in a video from the 1930s. The film reveals the wildness and spontaneity of Spessivtseva’s interpretation, far more naturalistic than what we see today, and much less pretty. It can be liberating to see firsthand the work of a mold-breaking artist from another era. And a useful reminder that there is no one way to approach a ballet, even one as familiar as Giselle. (Lopez, too, has instituted a dance history class at the company’s school.)

Olga Spessivtseva. Photo Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.

For dancers who can see beyond the lower arabesques and retirés of earlier generations, a knowledge of the past can offer evidence of different, perhaps more personal, ways of moving. Shayer, who studied at Gwendolyn Bye Dance Center and The Rock School for Dance Education before completing his training at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, first heard about Soviet-era Bolshoi dancers like Vladimir Vasiliev and Ekaterina Maximova from one of his earliest teachers, Alexander Boitsov. When he saw them on video, he felt an immediate affinity with the Russian style. “My classmates were obsessed with current dancers and how high their legs could go, but something that stayed with me was the passion of the old Russian dancers,” he says.

History and style are intertwined. Without understanding the first, the second can be hard to grasp. Nicole Duffy Robertson, a former Joffrey Ballet dancer who now teaches weekly history classes at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City (which is not affiliated with the Chicago–based dance company) considers the preservation of the Joffrey legacy to be an essential part of her mission, even as the company moves away from the repertoire of founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino. Robertson devotes a quarter of her one-year course to Joffrey Ballet history: “I like to emphasize Robert Joffrey’s vision: the breaking down of barriers between ballet and modern dance, the encouraging of new choreography that was American through the embracing of popular music and culture, multimedia and political content”—all ideas that have trickled into the wider ballet repertoire.

Ballet is more than pliés and well-placed pirouettes; it is a continuum that constantly builds on itself, looking forward and back in equal measure. It helps to be aware of the meandering arc that has led it to where it is today. As Lopez puts it, “The more you know the history, the more you feel part of something bigger than yourself.”