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What is meant by "line" in ballet?


james sinclair
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Hi!

 

Arabesque is one of the 'lines' that is looked at but - (and I'm sure there are people who will have more to add) - in my personal opinion I understand line to mean an aesthetic, and therefore somewhat subjective, parameter to do with the whole body creating a position or 'image' and 'good' line, while subjective, is directly affected by correct technique, alignment of limbs and whole body in space including head and eye focus.

 

Take, for example, the effacé line in classical ballet; the way I teach this is from the floor up. Feet in a secure 5th facing ouvert direction, then take a good and technically correct turned out dégagé or developpé devant. The arms then clarify the line further by taking the downstage arm into 5th and the upstage arm to 2nd but slightly lower than usual. The dancer then turns the head strongly to look into and beyond the elbow downstage. There should be a more open shoulder line too, with a feeling of breadth across the chest. Some teachers also encourage a feeling of slight upper back bend here.

 

Anyway - the mechanics of 'my' effacé versus someone else's is largely irrelevant on this thread but I've used this as an example of showing how different elements in the body come together to create 'line'.

 

You also asked about physical attributes I think? As the idea of what makes a 'good line' is somewhat subjective I think the physical requirements are too. I personally like a pure classical line which doesn't need too much flexibility, having said that most accept a 90 degree minimum for arabesque as standard, so some spine flexibility is needed as is turnout. Attitude lines become hard quickly if a student lacks turnout and spine flexibility. The rest of the preferences go back to things like long limbs/short torso, long neck etc which are the trends seen nowadays. But look back 50-60 years ago and lines were very different!

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I think of 'line' as some like the arabesque, which could be a tendu derierre or the leg lifted enl'air. Either way, a good line would mean for me, that viewed from the side, the heal is hidden away with the body not twisting to achieve this. I also think of line as something like a develope or grand battement. I would define a good line as the working hip not hitched up to get a higher leg. Or in something like grand battement devant, your upper back doesn't drop/sink forward as the leg goes up.

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"Line" in ballet is the physical shape of the dancer's body.  The shape  of the body outlined by the space around it.

 

The two main components of shape are curves and angles.  These are what the eye sees.  When those curves and angles are symetricall - which we often define as "pleasing" - our brains interpret that as "beauty."   When lines and curves are not symmetrical our brains interpret that as "jarring" - unpleasing.

 

An artist describes it as positive space (an object) against negative space (the empty background).  Each defines the other - we see one against the other - the foreground and the background.

 

In an arabesque, as the arms and legs come out of the body they create triangles.  However, if you took a pencil and drew an outline of the arabesque it creates a curving line running from the top of the dancer's head, down through the spine, and up through the lifted leg.  If the line is a smooth curve it is "pleasing" - however, if the leg is too high, the head too low, the spine misaligned - the curve is destroyed and our brains see this as misshapen.  

 

Generally  speakng, the human brain tends to see symetry as pleasing (beautiful) - a group of triangular mountains against a backdrop of curving clouds, for instance.

 

Another good example is a rrunning horse - the line running from its stretched out head, up and over the curve of its crest, down the curving of the neck, through the line of its back, the curve of the haunchs, and finally the lifted flowing curve of the tail.  All this set upon the triangular shapes of the galloping legs - themselves curving inward to the hooves.  We look at that and we say "how beautiful."

 

Line is helped immensely by the body being in proportion.  Margot Fonteyn was said to have perfect proportions.  That is a terrific advantage.  Good ingredients go a long way to making a perfect cake.  But it still takes a lot of work learning how to use those ingredients - how to put them together  - and how to serve them.

 

I hope I've said something here which makes some sense.

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That's a beautiful description Anjuli and very clear to visualise.

 

DD's teachers big bugbear on line is hands - or more accurately fingers - when a dancer gets the rest of the arabesque (or other position) as beautifully in line as possible for them and forgets to continue the line right through to the finger tips so the 'line' is broken right at the end.

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I would like to add that I personally don't view 'line' as a static thing. In something like an arabesque a good 'line' for me should not only look statically pleasing but should also convey energy. For me, an arabesque with a good 'line' should look like it is constantly growing - this is related to 2dancersmum's comment about fingertips. The best lines have energy running throughout the entire pose giving it the sense of growth. This doesn't mean an arabesque has to be over-exaggerated, a 90 degree arabesque with 'energy' is more pleasing for me than a 135 degree arabesque without energy. For example, this arabesque from Marianela Nunez - http://i20.photobucket.com/albums/b206/cheerbabe9139/Ballet%20Dancers/Marianela%20Nunez%20Royal%20Ballet/nunez2.jpg - is just over 90 degrees, but with the arms and position of her body aligned with her leg, also conveys a lot of energy into a pleasing 'line'... or it does for me at least!

 

I don't know if that made sense, but it's my two cents worth! I'm not sure if this fits with classical definitions of 'line' but is important to me when discussing arabesque line etc

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That's a beautiful description Anjuli and very clear to visualise.

 

DD's teachers big bugbear on line is hands - or more accurately fingers - when a dancer gets the rest of the arabesque (or other position) as beautifully in line as possible for them and forgets to continue the line right through to the finger tips so the 'line' is broken right at the end.

 

Your daughter's teacher is exactly right.  The line has to go out through those finger tips - unbroken - leading the observer's eye curving outward and gently upward to infinity.  The misplacement of a thumb - a forefinger - can destroy the entire effect.

 

That line also runs clear through to the dancer's lifted foot - it, too, must point to an infinity.

 

But the final "llne" is in the dancer's eyes - even with the correct upward tilt of the head - if the eyes are even slightly cast downward - the entire line is destroyed.  The dancer must be looking at that infinity - and she/he sees it - so will we.  The dancer has to show us where infinity is.

 

Thus - the dance never ends.

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I would like to add that I personally don't view 'line' as a static thing. In something like an arabesque a good 'line' for me should not only look statically pleasing but should also convey energy. For me, an arabesque with a good 'line' should look like it is constantly growing - this is related to 2dancersmum's comment about fingertips. The best lines have energy running throughout the entire pose giving it the sense of growth. This doesn't mean an arabesque has to be over-exaggerated, a 90 degree arabesque with 'energy' is more pleasing for me than a 135 degree arabesque without energy. For example, this arabesque from Marianela Nunez - http://i20.photobucket.com/albums/b206/cheerbabe9139/Ballet%20Dancers/Marianela%20Nunez%20Royal%20Ballet/nunez2.jpg - is just over 90 degrees, but with the arms and position of her body aligned with her leg, also conveys a lot of energy into a pleasing 'line'... or it does for me at least!

 

I don't know if that made sense, but it's my two cents worth! I'm not sure if this fits with classical definitions of 'line' but is important to me when discussing arabesque line etc

 

 

I would agree with this if energy is the desired result.  Sometimes the arabesque is one of sadness (Odette), or hesitation (Juliet), or triumph (Gamzatti), unrequited love (Giselle), youth (Aurora), etc.  

 

Odette's arabesque is particularly interesting.  Usually sadness is a curving inward of the body.  Odette manages to do this while still showing us infinity  - the infinity of her sadness.

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I know one of my teachers from a long time ago, Roger Tully, talked a lot about line. He seemed to base this on classical sculpture and principles in Art. He even invited us to some sessions where he tried to explain this more fully with lots of drawings and use of spirals etc. My memory is a little hazy as this was about 25 years ago now however he does talk a little about this in his book " The Song Sings the Bird" and is fascinating when it comes to describng the great en dehors and en dedans movements in ballet.

 

So certain angles can become very important and also the dynamics involved in positioning the body when making certain movements.

 

On one level any dancer who works hard enough can achieve good line but obviously it does help if the body itself is in reasonable proportion.....ballet being such a physical art......because it will be easier for such a dancer.

I personally don't think you have to have extra long legs etc to make good line even for arabesque. If you can hold the leg at 90 degrees to the body with the back reasonably upright still........and with the front extended arm marginally above shoulder height still and then project forward into an arabesque you should be able to make a really satisfying extended line from the front arm through the head to the back extended leg without having to get the leg up to 180 degrees and so on!! When you go forward into the arabesque the leg keeps its place held in the back at 90 and it's the body which moves both outwards and downwards.

 

Sorry if this is a bit too much.....but actually line is extremely important for a classical ballet dancer to be aware of and engage with so thanks for your question!

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Anjuli, I'd never thought about the eye line finishing the line, but now I so, that seems so obvious!

I will certainly think as much of my eye line tomorrow in class, as my other, more obvious extremities!

Sx

 

 

Gelsey Kirkland described this beautifully which I quoted verbatim in the article I wrote after observing her teach (she allows no interviews).

 

The quotes can be found here - scroll down a bit....

 

http://www.ballet.co.uk/magazines/yr_08/sep08/ab-gelsey-kirkland-teaching.htm

 

Personally, I found that even if my eyes were looking up and out - but were not truly engaged ( my thoughts inward) somehow that "emotional/mental inwardness"  broke the line.

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Ive been looking at the video Michelle kindly posted....have had to watch it two or three times....as found this description of not working for turnout so much and concentrate more on how the leg is moving within the joint itself quite fascinating. We are of course told not to let the hip lift but not about the action in the joint.....or the way it's constricting the back.

 

In practise however it feels the opposite to me....whenever I really try not to lift the hip my back just won't then let the leg go up at all!! I try for strongly extending the leg away etc but in the video you can clearly see the line is better the second time and her leg seemed to be freer as well......just that's not what I seem to experience!

 

I was fascinated by this "crease" more at the top of the leg BEFORE the hip joint.....I'm sure I would feel nothing there.

I think I will practise extending the leg with no turn out at all for a while.....obviously not in class.....to see if I can begin to connect with the joint more and what is happening there.

A very interesting video anyway!

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A good point Anjuli!!

 

Breathing in ballet is an art itself I think!!

When I am trying to hold an extension though, as its hard, especially a la seconde, breathing helps (as in yoga) to relax a little into the arabesque and hold for a little longer. With slower movements have more chance of remembering.

 

Where I forget to breathe a lot is in petit and grande allegro. Hence the inevitable over panting at the end of an exercise!

This is also the section where good line is likely to go out the window!

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Correct breathing technique sounds interesting, for the arabesque Gayle Kassing in her book "Teaching Beginning Ballet Technique" suggests Inhale as you perform the pose, and exhale as you leave the pose. Which to some degree I find contrary to breathing I learnt for martial arts, which would favour Exhaling on an extension and inhaling on the return. 

 

As for eye-line, I was always taught to imagine a little bird had flown off my finger tips and into to the distance, that's where my eye's should be. My local teacher "Nicky" has a thing about eye-line generally, not just for arabesque's. Even though my head and chin are up, if I dare to look down with my eye's at another dancers feet, my teacher spots it and I'm corrected immediately, she has eye's as sharp as a hawk, bless her. 

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In an arabesque, as the arms and legs come out of the body they create triangles.  However, if you took a pencil and drew an outline of the arabesque it creates a curving line running from the top of the dancer's head, down through the spine, and up through the lifted leg.  If the line is a smooth curve it is "pleasing" - however, if the leg is too high, the head too low, the spine misaligned - the curve is destroyed and our brains see this as misshapen.  

 

 

When is the leg 'too high,' Anjuli?

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In my opinion - and this is just my personal opinion -  the leg is too high when the line of the leg no longer compliments the line of the torso and continues through the arm.  The leg is too high when it obstructs the head of the ballerina's partner and thus spoils the overall shape they both make..

 

It also depends upon the genre of the ballet - what is acceptable in contemporary or neo-classical ballets is not acceptable (personal opinion) in classical or romantic era ballets.

 

When the curve of the line from the foot, going through the body to the extended arm becomes an angle - for me - the leg is too high.  Generally speaking, the classical/Romantic ballets were based on curved lines rather than angularity.  Even the tutus are more curved. 

 

There is a beautiful picture of Margot Fonteyn in arabesque with arms curved over her head (5th en haut) and her arabesque leg exactly at 90 degrees.  The curving line of her arms comes down through her spine, over the curve of her tutu, the curve of her thigh and calf and then through the curve of her foot and out the point of her shoe - to infinity.  One curve complimenting another.  If her leg was higher those curves would become angles.

 

It's a shame I can't put the picture up - but there are copyright issues.

 

In something like a penché, if the leg iis at 180 degrees, then the extended arm must point to the floor.  The gentle curve of the penché - leg to arm - is lost.  In more contemporary work if this is what the choreographer wants - that's fine.  But a Sylphide with her leg pointing to the sky - personal opinion - is not fine.  I'm also not a fan of a Swan with her leg by her ear - how can her arms possibly compliment that?

 

All personal opinion - for what it's worth..  

 

 

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