“There’s an apocryphal story about Louis XIV,” notes my former dance history professor, Shelley C. Berg. It’s a warm, sun-drenched afternoon in Los Angeles, and I’m face-to-face with her over Zoom. She continues, “One of his dancers executed an entrechat quatre, and Louis really didn’t have quite the skill that this particular nobleman did. So he went to his ballet master, Pierre Beauchamp, and asked him to create a step that looked like it. Legend has it that that’s why Beauchamp invented the changement battu, so he could have the shape of the entrechat quatre, without executing the two crossings. That’s why the step became known as the royale for centuries after.”
Dancers, it seems, have always been interested in mastering the latest physical feats. However, as the years have continued, these new dance tricks seem to grow more and more daring, and while fascinating to look at, it makes me wonder, why do we dance at all? How does this affect artistry? There are plenty of athletic endeavors in this world that can make the viewer stop and stare; Usain Bolt’s show-stopping performance in Beijing or Simone Biles’ death-defying gymnastic stunts come to mind. A night at the ballet, on the other hand, is not meant to blow the audience out of the water with cool dance tricks. The virtuosity of the dancers is meant to be a vehicle through which a story is told or a feeling is felt. Dance as an art form is constantly walking a fine line between the expressive and the virtuosic, but the techniques and skills were always meant to serve the art. However, as I watch dancers today, particularly the young ones, it seems to me that these roles have reversed. Talent is dripping from their pores, but the content seems to be missing. Aesthetics, though always highly valued, seem to be prized and prioritized above all else. So what’s to be done, and the more important question, is this even a problem?
The legs are high and the turns are numerous, but the story is somewhat absent.
According to Berg, this tension between the expressive and the virtuosic is, at least within the western tradition of dance, as old as the art form itself. She relates some early inklings of this friction with the strident differences between Marie Camargo (1710-1770) and Marie Sallé (1707-1756), a pair of female dancers often characterized by history as rivals. Camargo was dynamic and agile, executing jumps often reserved–at the time–for male dancers, like the aforementioned entrechat quatre. She removed the heels from her shoes, shortened her skirts, and was apparently the first dancer to establish turnout at ninety degrees from the hip, a demanding posture that is seen as de rigueur in ballet today. Sallé, on the other hand, was expressive and dramatic, often performing in a Greek-style chiton. Though Camargo’s style was more in vogue at the time, Sallé is still remembered and celebrated for her artistry and lauded as the first recorded female choreographer in the European dance tradition.
“There’s that pendulum swing of virtuosity and expressivity,” says Berg, “one is usually in the ascendant while the other takes a backseat for a while until the pendulum swings the other way.” As our conversation continued, she touched on Auguste Vestris (1760-1842), the French ballet star renowned for his unprecedented athleticism. “He thought himself, his father, and Napoleon were the three greatest men in Europe,” she quips, alluding to his reputation as a virtuoso. We chart a course through the Romantic Era, where artistic sensibility was paramount, and dance artists consistently devised new methods of how to improve dance technique to better service storytelling through dance. The advent of pointe shoes serves as a prime example.
Though certainly a fantastic feat of strength, it was also an exercise in artistry and theatrical illusion. Brought to the masses by Marie Taglioni (1804-1884), she underwent a grueling training regimen to make her pointework possible. “Her father had her practicing six hours per day. Two hours of barre in the morning, two hours of adagio in the afternoon, and two hours of jumping at night,” shares Berg. Taglioni’s focus was on her shape and form, not circus-style eye-catching tricks audiences seemed to love, and yet it is Taglioni that history remembers from this era. The pendulum had swung again.
From Taglioni onward, the balancing game continues, with each generation trying to strike the right mix between lyrical expressivity and athletic flights of fancy with everyone from Marius Petipa (1818-1910) to George Balanchine (1904-1983) and Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) to Martha Graham (1894-1991). However, in the mid-twentieth century, Berg notes a technological development that completely changed the field of dance–easily accessible video recordings. Suddenly, it was possible for everyone to see what the best of the best had to offer. Additionally, during the Cold War (1947-1991), there was a massive increase in touring dance companies, due in part to easier travel as well as the cultural tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.
And just like Louis XIV, twentieth-century dancers desperately wanted to master the latest skills they saw their peers executing. The aesthetics that are still popular in the western dance tradition today like hyperextended knees, leg extensions to the sky, and overly flexible feet began to gain traction. Yet, it wasn’t solely about the look. Berg notes, “Higher legs became a ground post to signal that you could achieve something that the choreographer might want.” She also brings in the powerful dancers of Martha Graham’s early days. Virtuosity here is a necessary tool in dance, deeply needed to tell a story. After all, what would Balanchine’s Apollo be without a few legs to the sky here and there? How would Graham’s Heretic get the message across without the raw physical power oozing from her dancers?
Just like Louis XIV, twentieth-century dancers desperately wanted to master the latest skills they saw their peers executing.
The trouble is when we forget that we’re meant to tell a story with our abilities. Just like video recordings and touring companies accelerated virtuosity in the twentieth century, here in the early days of the twenty-first, it is already being pushed further by another development: social media. While the good and evil aspects of social media could be discussed ad nauseam, I will only say this: it is much easier to see the latest cool dance tricks by passively scrolling on TikTok than it ever has been. Unfortunately, social media only offers bite-size moments, it doesn’t offer the viewer the full artistic context of that crazy leg extension or daring floorwork. It only allows for a moment to admire the aesthetic beauty of such a physical achievement. So, humans are going to do what they do best: mimic. It’s the dance equivalent of finding out that not many people can lick their elbow–you want to try it and find out if you’re one of the people who can.
As a result, it seems that at the moment, there is a bit of an unraveling. The legs are high and the turns are numerous, but the story is somewhat absent. Perhaps it is an effort of choreographers to entertain and hold the interest of their twenty-first-century audiences, or of dancers who feel that they are worth nothing if they don’t have a développé à la seconde to their ear, but physical skill and prowess do not answer the question “why do we dance?’
“There’s got to be something innate in the performer that understands the service of technique and how that is a handmaiden to the art [of dance], to the greater good of the artistic vision,” says Berg. The goal of the dance artist is not just to entertain or generate shock and awe in their audiences, but rather for the audience to identify with and participate in a common human moment. While the experiences we have on this earth are unique, the emotions surrounding them are not. A truly great dancer or choreographer can capitalize on this knowledge and create a cathartic moment for their viewers, using their bodies to tell a story in a way that only a dancer could.
The trouble is when we forget that we’re meant to tell a story with our abilities.
So what is to be done? Is this just part of the evolution of the art of dance? Perhaps, but my hope is that we can educate the younger dancers that come to us, iPhones clasped tightly in hand, begging to learn the latest trick. Remind them that this is a sport and an art. Encourage them in class to perform and develop their artistic sensibilities, not just their physical abilities. The virtuosic and the expressive are both necessary ingredients for a compelling artist. Sacrificing one for the sake of another is to risk degrading dance as an art form. Dance artists of all stripes, professional, pre-professional, hobbyist, and otherwise, must be reminded that virtuosic and expressive tendencies require a “both/and” approach, not an “either/or attitude.
Shelley C. Berg is a professor emerita of dance at Southern Methodist University. A former dancer with the Slovene National Ballet and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, she earned an M.A. in performing arts from American University and a Ph.D. in performance studies from New York University. Professor Berg is a noted dance historian who served as president of the Society of Dance History Scholars and on numerous national dance boards and panels, leading to significant historical reconstructions of classic masterworks. She is the author of numerous book reviews, book chapters, essays, conference papers, and publications, including Le Sacre du Printemps: Seven Productions from Nijinsky to Martha Graham, the Dance Research Journal, Dance Research (UK), and Dance Chronicle. She has earned more than a dozen honors, grants, and awards from national and federal foundations and organizations, including the National Endowment for the Arts and Dance USA as well as a Ford Senior Research Fellowship from SMU.