Two days ago, The Guardian published an article featuring two “grand dames” of ballet: “Ballet´s Gillian Lynne and Beryl Grey: dancers should be pushed to the limit”. They both claimed that contemporary dance is not as hard as it was 70 years ago. But, most interesting, they also complained about the changed nature of ballet performances nowadays. According to Grey:
“There doesn’t seem to be as much depth of spirit and soul. It’s much more acrobatic. People want to see millions of pirouettes and legs going remarkably high. It’s a bit more like a circus, and the depth of feeling that one tried to express [previously] isn’t always there. You find it in one or two dancers. I think it reflects society. We’re a much more superficial society … Even though art does reflect its age, I would love to see less accent perhaps on technique and more feeling. I often come away impressed [with] what I’ve seen, but it hasn’t moved me.”
I have reflected on how ballet photography has changed over time elsewhere, and I can see what Grey means. This is one of the many pictures of Anna Pavlova, one of the most recognized ballerinas of the Russian Ballet around 1900, posing as the Dying Swan
Here we can see the very Grey
And these are some of the contemporary pictures we can find in popular websites like Pinterest
Svetlana Zakharova (unknown photographer)
These pictures could confirm Grey´s suspects: the first pair of pictures are about expression, the second one about technique. While we all could try to imitate the gestures of the first ones, we could suffer severe damage if we try the second.
But this is not entirely truth. Anyone who has danced knows that expression and technique are not separated concepts, and the greatest dancers are precisely those who master both of them. Moreover, one could say, with reason, that the contemporary pictures I have chosen are not representative enough. And I would agree with this critique. I don´t think all contemporary dance is about technique (the last picture is very expressive to me indeed, and you cannot see this video without being moved ).
However, I also do think there´s has been a change in the history of ballet and its photographic representation, and that this change is related to emotions. I agree with Grey that art reflects society, or better, reflects on society. Art appropriates, rejects or negotiates contemporary concerns. And emotions are among our contemporary concerns. Are we a superficial society, as Grey points out? Probably, but this doesn´t mean we don´t feel. We feel other things, and we value other feelings. Is not the amazement about the limits of the body an emotion? Why being moved about legendary, tragic histories of love should be most worthy than being impressed by the movement alone?
Feelings have not disappeared, they just changed.