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Primas, Assolutas, Ballerinas and Nobles


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I've just had a look on Youtube, and found a clip of Ashton talking to Makarova about Pavlova.  He said she was technically quite limited(although that may have been because her repertoire was also a bit limited).  However, he said she had the most incredible speed, together with a natural grace which he said was lacking in current generations of dancers. 

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Makarova's Giselle was pretty unbeatable at the time for me. And her Swan Lake wasn't bad either!!

 

 

 

I have to say that I never saw Makarova live on stage, but I have seen plenty of clips of her, and I hate, hate, hate how slooooooooooowly she does everything!  A trend that seems to have affected every dancer in this country ever since. 

 

If you see a clip of Pavlova doing the original Dying Swan, and then compare it with Makarova, the latter does it at half speed.  Very beautiful, no doubt, but nothing at all like the original. 

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When you watch clips of some of the dancers from Pavlovas era lets say pre 1950 they all seem to have a lot more speed across the stage and perhaps a generally lighter quality. Also I'm sure there were more beats in the choreography for women then so all seem to have very fast footwork.

 

But times do change and usually with a mixture of for better and for worse.

 

I definitely think the technical demands on today's dancers are greater so hence some things at slower speed......higher extensions etc

 

I agree Makarova did take some things at a slow speed......enough to interfere with the music on occasions......which can be irritating if too extreme but in her case the sheer beauty and at times unusual stillness of her dancing forgives those slight liberties for me!!

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As much as I enjoyed, generally speaking, Makarova's dancing - I thought the tempo she chose - as in the grand pas de deux in Swan Lake,  was a great dis-service to the music and the composer and musicians who are also artists.  

 

As for Alonso turning while blind....

 

There was a brief time many years ago when her sight was restored and she found it distracting.  She said that she followed an "inner spot."  The only time I could tell that something might be amiss was when she did the slow promenade tour in Act ll of Giselle.

 

When she had to exit into the wings someone would stand there and guide her off by voice.  But to watch her launch herself off into the air - for what to her must have been a dark abyss - into the waiting arms of her partner (himself a fine dancer) must have taken courage beyond my ability to comprehend.

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  • 5 months later...

I was prompted to search the database for a debate on the definition of "ballerina" by what I regard as sloppy journalism. In a report on Silver Swans an RAD initiative to get more fossils like me into dancing Emma Ailes, the reporter, wrote that  "the oldest ballerina was 102." Now that 102 year old lady is truly remarkable and she deserves our congratulations but she aint no ballerina.

 

I had always thought that the term "ballerina" was an honorific rather like "Queen's Counsel" at the Bar. It does not apply to woman every dancer nor even to every woman principal but to principals of a few major companies with an international reputation such as the Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theatre or the Bolshoi and maybe a handful of other outstanding dancers elsewhere who may or may not be in major companies but are nevertheless special.

 

Is my understanding and irritation shared by other subscribers or do I have to accept that the term has become so diluted by references like the one that appears above that I now need to use descriptive language like "outstanding female principal dancer with [the Royal Ballet]" rather than ballerina.

 

On a related but slightly different point I seem to recall that HM appointed the late Dame Margot prima ballerina allosuta.   However the other ranks of ballerina (prima and ballerina simpliciter) appear to be by acclamation.  Perhaps there is a need for an Academy of Ballet rather like L'Académie française for quality control.

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with my ballet-loving lexicographer hat on, this is what the OED has to say. Note the "esp." (especially, but not exclusively).

ballerina, n.
Pronunciation:  Brit. /ˌbaləˈriːnə/ , U.S. /ˌbæləˈrinə/
Inflections:   Plural ballerinas, ballerine.
Forms:  17 ballarini (plural), 17 (19– nonstandard) ballarina, 18– ballerina.
Etymology:  < Italian ballerina (a1492), feminine form corresponding to ballerino (see ballerino n.). Compare French ballerine (1858 as †ballérine ), Spanish bailarina (early 17th cent.), also German Ballerina (17th cent.). . Compare prima ballerina n.

In plural form ballerine after the Italian plural form.

 
The following quot. probably shows an apparently isolated earlier borrowing of the Italian word (with the ending, compare -ine suffix4):
a1576   L. Nowell Vocabularium Saxonicum (1952) 100/2   Hoppestre, a woman dauncer, a ballarine.
 1. A female ballet dancer, esp. one who undertakes a leading role in classical ballet.
1789   A. Young Jrnl. 31 Oct. in Trav. France (1792) i. 216   The ballarini, or female dancers, have the same fury of motion.
1815   Byron Let. 4 Nov. (1975) IV. 330   We have had a devil of a row among our ballerinas.
1878   in C. Grove Dict. Music I. 131   The first professional ballerina of note..was Mlle. Lafontaine.
1878   in C. Grove Dict. Music I. 132   These eminent ballerine.
1911   J. E. C. Flitch Mod. Dancing ix. 127   At seventeen they [sc. pupils at the Imperial (Russian) Ballet School] begin their career as members of the corps de ballet, from which the most prominent rise upwards..through the various grades of..premier sujet, première danseuse or ballerina, and ballerina assoluta.
1936   ‘C. Brahms’ Footnotes to Ballet ii. 70   But whatever her position (whether she be ballerina or chorina), the dancer is extended at her best in this work.
1952   Evening News 5 Jan. 4/3   A young dancer not yet accorded ballerina status.
1986   S. Minot Monkeys v. 83   Mimi Vanden was one of those girls who sat with her back arched and held her neck taut like a ballerina.
2001   Kenyon Rev. Winter 157   Adams weighed more than today's dancers, and her solidity makes the duet look more sexually dangerous than when danced by today's highly skilled but rail-thin ballerinas.

 

I would say in general parlance that yes, "ballerina" means "female ballet dancer" (what else would we call them, unless we opt for the ungainly "female ballet dancer" or revive "hoppestre" (now there's a thought)). And I don't think it's  a "dilution" if you look at the earliest quots from the OED, which seem generic. Amongst ballet lovers we say things like "she's a real ballerina" with the special meaning you ascribe to it, but we can't expect the general populace to adhere to this. It's quite clear from the context about the 102-year-old dancer that she isn't Margot Fonteyn.

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Now here is a good topic - who among the ballet dancers of the last few years should have received this title officially, do you think?

 

I shall now settle down and wait for the debates to begin!  :)

 

Sylvie Guillem, Natalia Makarova, Aurelie Dupont. I also see Marianela Nunez, Tamara Rojo and Sarah Lamb as possible 'candidates' for the title in the future.

 

For the male equivalent: Misha! Nicolas le Riche and Irek Mukhamedov. Steven McRae and Xander Parish are also shaping up to be future ballet 'gods'!

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I think "ballerina" makes more sense when used to describe a professional female ballet dancer as opposed to someone doing ballet for a hobby, even at a fairly high level of performance. For a student to refer to herself as a ballerina is a bit pathetic but I suppose it does show ambition. As for "prima ballerina," I'd assume maybe that would most sensibly apply to current or former principals at professional ballet companies.

 

Wikipedia (not the greatest source, I know, but I didn't get anywhere with Britannica or the OED) lists 12 assolutas but doesn't really go into detail about how the title is bestowed - there doesn't seem to be a recognised mechanism, which might be why there aren't any modern assolutas. If governments got into the act, they'd be sprouting like weeds.

 

As for contemporary ballerinas who deserve the assoluta title, I've seen Uliana Lopatkina mentioned in that context more than once.

Edited by Melody
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........................................

Wikipedia (not the greatest source, I know, but I didn't get anywhere with Britannica or the OED) lists 12 assolutas but doesn't really go into detail about how the title is bestowed - there doesn't seem to be a recognised mechanism, which might be why there aren't any modern assolutas. If governments got into the act, they'd be sprouting like weeds.

 

As for contemporary ballerinas who deserve the assoluta title, I've seen Uliana Lopatkina mentioned in that context more than once.

 

On this occasion I think I prefer Wikipedia's Glossary to the OED with the greatest possible respect to those who take a contrary view :

 

"Italian for "female dancer". As late as the 1950s a ballerina was the principal female dancer of a ballet company who was also very accomplished in the international world of ballet, especially beyond her own company; female dancers who danced ballet were then called danseuses or simply ballet dancers. Ballerina was a critical accolade bestowed on relatively few female dancers, somewhat similar to the title diva in opera. The male version of this term is danseur noble (French). Since the 1960s, however, the term has lost this honorific aspect and is applied generally to women who are ballet dancers.

 

In the original Italian, the terms ballerino (a male dancer, usually in ballet) and ballerina do NOT imply the accomplished and critically acclaimed dancers once meant by the terms ballerina and danseur noble when used in English. Rather, they simply mean one who dances ballet. Italian terms that do convey an accomplished female ballet dancer are prima ballerina and prima ballerina assoluta (the French word étoile is used in this sense at the Scala ballet company in Milan but has a different meaning at the Paris Opera Ballet.) Danzatore (male) and danzatrice (female) are general terms in Italian to signifiy dancers."

 

Wikipedia says that the honorific usage persisted until the 1950s. It shows that I am a fossil but you knew that anyway. However, I am not convinced that it is extinct even now. For instance, the brilliant young Sierra Leonean-American dancer Michaela dePrince (now with the Dutch National Ballet Junior Company and about to perform at the Linbury) has disavowed the description ballerina in a later press interview preferring the  terms "dancer" or even "person".

 

I could not agree with Melody more about the undesirability of governments appointing dancers "prima ballerina assoluta" although I am afraid that it has already been done. That's why I suggest an Academy - perhaps an international association of organizations like the RAD that already examine and accredit students - to take over that role.

 

I have seen only one acknowledged prima ballerina assoluta on stage and that was the late Dame Margot.  However, I have seen other great principals from the Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre who have thrilled me just as much.  Doubtless there are others around the world but I have not yet seen enough of them.

 

Finally, I know it is fashionable to scorn Wikipedia but it isn't too bad and it it not always wrong. In fact, I have contributed to it occasionally though never on dance,

Edited by terpsichore
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What a great thread! My candidate for danseur noble has to be Anthony Dowell. I think there should be another title for heroic male dancers such as Mukhamedov and Vassiliev.

 

Regarding Assolutas, I have a vague feeling that Adeline Genee was awarded this title.

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I would also add David Wall to the danseur noble category.  For me, one of the best of this genre of the last 50 years.

 

Young Nicol Edmonds of the RB looks to me like he may one day inherit this mantle, which seems to be becoming more and more rare these days.

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I would also add David Wall to the danseur noble category.  For me, one of the best of this genre of the last 50 years.

 

Young Nicol Edmonds of the RB looks to me like he may one day inherit this mantle, which seems to be becoming more and more rare these days.

Would agree that Nicol Edmonds has the look of a future "Prince"

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The problem with the Wikipedia entry is that it clearly hasn't looked at the actual evidence of how ballerina was used in English historically!

On the danseur noble front, my candidate is Robert Tewsley.

 

Ah but words acquire secondary meanings through use and other processes. 

 

Male dancers who have impressed me include in strictly alphabetical order Acosta, Baryshnikov, Dowell and Nureyev. One day with your help I will get to Russia and perhaps see some of the Bolshoi and Mariinsky's dancers. .  

 

Someone mentioned Xander Parish as a future star.  I saw him as a student in York at the Yorkshire Ballet Summer School some years ago. He was clearly special even then. He's a Yorkshireman who also likes cricket so that makes him a good chap ipso facto. I hope to see him in London this summer and, with one day perhaps Russia.

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One might wonder why the title of Danseur Noble was not acclaimed for Nureyev?

 

Was he  not - on stage - a prince?

 

Granted he was not "above it all" in the same way Bruhn was - but is that necessary to the concept of "prince?"

 

I think that both titles - danseur nobel" and prima ballerina assoluta" should be bestowed on dancers with an international reputation.  A dancer who wherever they go is first - a name above the marque.

Edited by Anjuli_Bai
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I think that both titles - danseur nobel" and prima ballerina assoluta" should be bestowed on dancers with an international reputation.  A dancer who wherever they go is first - a name above the marque.

 

I don't think danseur noble has anything to do with international reputation. It's the princeliness thing.

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I don't think danseur noble has anything to do with international reputation. It's the princeliness thing.

 

A prince above the other princes.  Bruhn was not a prince among princes - but a prince above the other princes.

 

I have to disagree - I think a danseur noble -  just as an assoluta - does imply an international reputation.

 

It surely has up to this point.

Edited by Anjuli_Bai
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Please forgive this double post, but why is Anna Pavlova's name not included (at least I've never seen it) in the list of assolutas?

 

For me the answer is that while she certainly had an international reputation, was widely beloved and a singular presence - she did not acquire her reputation and fame by dancing the classical repertoire.  She was not known for her role as Odette or Giselle et al.

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As I understand it, danseur noble is a type - like demi-caractere - rather than a title: so someone could be a danseur noble without being a great dancer - Derek Deane, for instance.

 

So, then, one might ask does that mean a dancer who sucessfully dances Siegfried, et al therefore a Noble?

 

 

 

Isn't the assoluta title conferred within a company?  As Pavlova was an independent I can understand her not being designated as such.

 

I've always understood it to mean from what I've read - it is a general acclimation - other dancers, companys, audiences, critics and other movers and shakers in the world of ballet.  And it  includes dancing the title roles in major classical ballets, in a major company/s, on a major stage/s.

 

It is not a "local" thing - as I understand it.

Edited by Anjuli_Bai
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That's just what I was thinking, MAB, prima likewise. Somewhere out there is a film clip where Maria Alexandrova introduces herself as "prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Theatre".

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That's just what I was thinking, MAB, prima likewise. Somewhere out there is a film clip where Maria Alexandrova introduces herself as "prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Theatre".

 

As I understand it - prima ballerina is different.  It implies first - or among other firsts - within her company.

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Isn't the assoluta title conferred within a company?  As Pavlova was an independent I can understand her not being designated as such.

 

I think Fonteyn was appointed prima ballerina assoluta by HM but that may have been in her capacity as patron of the Royal Ballet. 

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Fonteyn was formally awarded this title during the celebrations for her 60th birthday. I think the term 'prima ballerina' is often awarded by dancers to themslves when the appear in articles and other publicity. I don't know of a case of it being specifically endowed.

 

If we are listing personal wishes for danseur nobles please may I suggest Desmond Kelly.

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Grand Tier Left, on 07 Apr 2014 - 4:26 PM, said:


"Somewhere out there is a film clip where Maria Alexandrova introduces herself as "prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Theatre".


 


In Russia ‘Prima Ballerina’ means female Principal and  ‘Premier’ means male Principal.


http://www.bolshoi.ru/en/persons/ballet/


 


When Maria Alexandrova called herself a ‘prima ballerina’, she just defined her rank in the Bolshoi Ballet company.


The ranks are awarded by Artistic Director.


Dancers are promoted from Corps de Ballet (which include coryphees) to Soloists --> First Soloists --> Leading Soloists --> Principals (Prima Ballerinas and Premiers)


 


In my memory, the Bolshoi's most exemplary danseur noble was Nikolai Fadeyechev.


Edited to add the last line.


Edited by Amelia
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What a great thread! My candidate for danseur noble has to be Anthony Dowell. I think there should be another title for heroic male dancers such as Mukhamedov and Vassiliev.

 

That's a good idea.  Tenors are often described as being 'Lyric' or 'Heroic'  (My German is practically non-existent but doesn't Heldentenor mean heroic tenor, e.g. Siegfried in the Ring Cycle?)  Perhaps we should follow the same example with male dancers so Acosta is most definitely the heroic type but Bonelli, to give current examples, is more lyrical. 

 

.

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With regard to the title assoluta, it doesn't appear to be a term used as a description for female dancers in recent years. (This may be different in Russia). I have only seen this description used in reference to Ferri. Perhaps this is because dancers do not remain with one company throughout their career, and there may be less motivation to apply the term - mind you Ferri danced with several companies, so my logic doesn't apply to her. I think it is sad this isn't a term generally recognised for someone of the status of Makarova.

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