How often we hear that the Russian ballet school is the strongest, the French school is famous for its fine technique, the American school is neoclassical, and the British school means Margot Fontaine. Let's try to figure out what are the particular features of the most important ballet institutions in the world, and, by the way, what the Russians have to do with it.
Global ballet processes in America began with George Balanchine: it was he who decided to unite the classical tradition with American athleticism, swiftness and dynamics. Yes, some form of ballet had existed there before Balanchine came to the States. Even at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, ballet numbers were staged for musical performances; a bit later participants of Diaghilev's enterprise started opening their studios, for example, under the direction of Mordkin and Fokine; Anna Pavlova's tour was influential. But it was Balanchine, who was taught in St. Petersburg, who created that symbiosis of the classical laws by Marius Petipa and the nature of local dancers, which formed the basis of the American ballet school.
In the list of names, right after George Balanchine, we should mention Jerome Robbins (by the way, he was one of the directors of the cult movie West Side Story, 1961). Robbins added a great deal of artistry, sense of humor, emotion and open freedom to his work; his favorite phrase that he used to say to dancers was “take it easy”. It is easy and open, and very American, isn't it?
Some of the most important productions of American ballet are primarily Balanchine's plotless ballets. His idea to blend music and dance into a frantic single whole became the driving force of the American school and neoclassicism. There are many examples here, but we will name two masterpieces that can be seen in Russia: Symphony in C and Jewels. The first is a symbol of unity of the troupe, dance and crystal music; the second is the memories and fantasies of Balanchine himself about France, a little about Georgia in a jazz mix and about Russia.
A choreographic mixture of graphics and orderly classics, athleticism of dancers, freedom and a sense of humor forged the impetuous and charming style of the American school. By the way, this requires perfect training in classical technique and high speed of execution.
The history of the British school goes back to the date of establishment of the Royal Ballet Company. It was founded in the 1920s by Ninette de Valois, a member of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. From the very first days, British ballet incorporated all the best that the Russian school had created, and combined this with the natural self-command of the English character, synthesizing the centuries-old theatrical tradition in dance and performances. That is why, British performances often have powerful plots and human stories, even if we are dealing with works without linear narrative.
Sir Frederick Ashton is called the creator of British ballet. He managed to finally blend the Russian ballet and the British character. According to his recipe, the language of the classics lay on top of English lyricism, irony and love for dramatic theater. Choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, whose name you must know when dealing with the history of English ballet, went even further down this path: many of his productions turned into blockbusters on stage resembling of the classical films of the Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Speaking of Sir Frederick Ashton, we should mention that one of his most beloved works in the world was Marguerite and Armand, created especially for the grand dame of Covent Garden Margot Fontaine and her partner Rudolf Nureyev. A brilliant example of a "story" even in plotless choreography and of the British dance style. MacMillan's list of productions immediately suggests Romeo and Juliet, the most famous ballet version of Shakespeare's drama.
The British school means both aristocratic performances and great epic literature. On the English ballet stage, choreographers tactfully “wrap” the drama into poetic movement.
The history of ballet in France started in the 17th century with Louis XIV; at the end of the millennium, the noble art fell into decline. It was rediscovered for the great country by Sergei Diaghilev, who introduced the public to the Ballets Russes, and Serge Lifar, who headed the Paris Opera in the late 1920s and returned the former glory to French ballet.
If you can’t wait to look for an example of the French school, then go to YouTube and enter the name of Sylvie Guillem - the etoile of the Paris Opera, the muse of Rudolf Nureyev and half of the world, the last prima ballerina assoluta of the 20th century. Divine lines, perfection in everything, alien charisma - she danced the entire classical and neoclassical repertoire of the Opera, and then became the main inspiration of contemporary dance.
To get acquainted with the high style of the French school and Serge Lifar, look for videos of the Suite en Blanc ballet: here you will see both precise choreographic compositions and forms requiring all-ruling virtuosity - the subtle charm of French classics.
It was thanks to Lifar that the purity of dance, technique in absolute measure, grace of execution and the famous perfect feet, for which the legs of the main Parisian stage are famous to this day, returned to the stage of the Opera, capable of demonstrating the fastest battus in the world (the word “battu” derives from the French verb “battre” - to beat; jumping movements that are made more complicated by one or several beatings of one leg against the other). All these principles have been passionately supported by the guardians of the French school for a hundred years.
It seems surprising, but whatever school we describe, they all begin with Russian ballet. This art came to Russia from Europe. It was perfected by both the French and Italians, who trained ballerinas, staged imperial performances or just brought their skills when coming on tours in the 19th century (by the way, the 32 fouettes trick was brought to Russia by Italians, but it was here that it became a mandatory element). At the end of the 19th - beginning of the 20th century, Marius Petipa was gradually knitting together the Western ballet art with Russian emotionality and melodiousness of gesture and movement - a national school was emerging.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Sergei Diaghilev, Anna Pavlova, Olga Spesivtseva, Vaclav Nijinsky and other legends of the Russian Seasons brought ballet back to Europe. But even after their emigration, the ballet craft continued to develop in Leningrad and Moscow: this was possible thanks to the methodology of Agrippina Vaganova, dancers who were passing their skills from foot to foot, new editions of Petipa's ballets, great choreographers and composers. Despite the Iron Curtain and the fast-changing 1990s, stars of the Mariinsky (Kirov) and the Bolshoi theaters were conquering audiences all over the world with their school and fullness throughout the entire 20th century.
If you want to enjoy a perfect Russian ballet, go see Swan Lake by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, edited by Konstantin Sergeev. The noble pattern of the Odette-Odile dance, with the finest nuances in every gesture and movement thought out to the last detail, is an ideal embodiment of the Russian school style.
Russian straightforwardness, aristocracy, simplicity in postures, positions of arms, head and shoulders have become the world example of the classic form - something that is honed to perfection according to the legendary methodology of Agrippina Vaganova.
George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins
Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan
Marius Petipa, Agrippina Vaganova
Jewels (chor. George Balanchine), Symphony in C (chor. George Balanchine), In the Night (chor. Jerome Robbins)
Suite en Blanc
Marguerite and Armand (chor. Frederick Ashton), Romeo and Juliet (chor. Kenneth MacMillan)
Swan Lake (chor. Marius Petipa), Chopiniana (chor. Mikhail Fokine),
Speed, graphics, sense of humor
Fine technique, quick feet
Tactful performance, lyricism, plot
Aristocracy, simplicity, "singing" top and arms
Late 19th - early 20th century