Is Dance Becoming Mainstream?

Dance in the Mainstream

From the dazzling tutus and glittering tiaras of the big ballet classics to the modernised works of flesh-coloured leotards and soft ballet shoes, the popularity of dance appears to be increasing rapidly. Arguably as a result of the viral nature of social media and the innovative experimentation that is taking place in studios all over the world, the dance world and its audience are privy to fantastic creations and experiences which provide for their expectations.

Despite the modernisation that ballet is undergoing, for example as a result of Wayne McGregor of Random Dance’s instatement as Resident Choreographer of The Royal Ballet in 2006, it is clear that the classics of the ballet world are also able to satisfy the hungers of audiences. McGregor’s influence over twenty-first century dance is undeniable, and whilst his work is technically outstanding and completely compelling, the repertoire of the Royal is also made up of works that have resided there for centuries. Classics such as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker are three of a number of well-known and loved productions which are presumed to stay within ballet repertoire for years to come.

Classical ballet was once seen as a high culture, rather than a popular one, yet this is also changing. The Royal Ballet LIVE was screened online in 2012, providing 200,000 dance-lovers and non-dance fans alike with the opportunity to take a peek into the working lives of professional ballet dancers. The iconic film production Black Swan starring Natalie Portman also took the ballet world by storm, depicting a violent and manipulative ballet environment, but ultimately extending ballet’s reach to wider audiences, increasing its popularity. The London 2012 Olympic Games also demonstrated a cultural shift, with ballet proving to be an influence in more than one area. Team GB swimmer Liam Tancock revealed that regular ballet classes were included in his cross-training, and Birmingham Royal Ballet’s principal Matthew Lawrence created a routine for the five times British champion gymnast Frankie Jones for the Rhythmic Gymnastics British Championships ahead of the Games. Dance is clearly demonstrated to appeal to and provide for a wide audience reach.

Dance has also been able to reach audiences through social media, making it ultimately accessible. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and various other platforms are able to translate the art of performance and reception to many who may not have the opportunity to access dance originally. For example, many dance companies have Twitter accounts clocking up thousands of followers, who are able to connect with and access a valued insight into the life of the company, rehearsals and classes – even the founder of Twitter is a ballet fan!

Past Dance Practices

Thomas Wilson's "Correct Method of German and French Waltzing" (1816)

Viewing traditional dance from many countries around the world can be eye-opening. It is a refreshing change to view other techniques, hear different music and see different costumes as a source of inspiration. For the performer and choreographer, traditional dance practices from other countries and cultures can often be a learning curve in their methods of working.

There is a wealth of information within different dance practices, and especially those regarded as traditional, in order to inform and progress the art form. These practices are extremely different from the urban dance forms, dance sneakers and nude leotards we see in today’s dance scene, yet some are still very popular, considering Strictly Come Dancing and similar television shows for example and how mainstream it has now become.

For instance, what is now called the Viennese Waltz is the original form of the waltz which emerged in the second half of the 18th century. It was the first ballroom dance performed in the closed hold or “waltz” position, derived from the Ländler in Austria. The dance that is popularly known as the waltz is actually the English or slow waltz, danced at approximately 90 beats per minute, whereas the Viennese Waltz is danced at around 180 beats a minute. As the waltz evolved, some of the versions that were performed at the original fast tempo came to be called a “Viennese Waltz” to distinguish them from the slower waltzes. Today dances of Ballroom or Latin origins still play a large part in social cultural context, and are accessible too.

South East Asian dance, also plays a big part in today’s dance scene. Bharata Natyam and Kathak dance are both highly influential in choreographers’ work, such as Akram Khan, seen in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Bharata Natyam is a classical Indian dance, denoting various 19th and 20th century reconstructions of Cathir, the art of temple dancers. As a traditional dance-form known for its grace, purity, tenderness, and poses, today Bharata Natyam is one of the most popular and widely performed dance styles and is practiced by male and female dancers all over the world. Similarly, Kathak is one of the eight forms of Indian classical dances, with the dance form tracing its origins to ancient India. Its form today contains traces of temple and ritual dances, and the influence of the bhakti movement, using its past as a catalyst for new.

Today’s strong notions of Kathak, and many other forms of dance, in choreographers’ and performers’ work demonstrates the sheer strength and legacy of dance, and how much the past influences the present in every single dance discipline.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Nutcracker’s Royal Touch

Margrethe II of DenmarkDuring the festive season, the dance world is abundant with Holiday inspired productions, and 2012 is no different. The Nutcracker is always a sure-fire family favourite, full of ballet slippers, magic and mystery, however one version this year is standing out for a very different reason. Queen Margrethe of Denmark, it has been discovered, has designed all the costumes (more than 100) and four large stage sets for The Nutcracker which is currently being performed in Copenhagen by the Royal Danish Ballet at the Tivoli Theatre until 22 December 2012.

Choreographed by Artistic Director Peter Bo Bendixen, The Nutcracker is displaying Royal flourishes as a result of the Queen’s talents. For the past two years the Queen has been immersed in every aspect, from sketching each costume individually (as a celebrated artist under a pseudonym) to designing the set and correcting the choreographer on historical and cultural inaccuracies. Members of the ballet company have had to experience costume fittings with the Queen, and she has been fully involved in the whole process, regarding the production as “work” and making the dancers feel as comfortable as she possibly can.

This year the Queen of Denmark celebrated forty years on the throne, but has demonstrated a clear talent in the land of theatre, ballet, and the Kingdom of Sweets, drawing upon much knowledge and research to aid her life beyond the palace walls. The director of the production aimed to make the Danish Nutcracker ‘feel’ very home-grown and Danish, with the Kingdom of Sweets replaced by Copenhagen’s Tivoli gardens, and the fairy-tale writer Han Christian Anderson distributing the presents on Christmas Eve.

It is clear that 72-year-old Queen Margrethe devotes much of her time to the arts, having attended almost every ballet shown in Copenhagen in addition to having taken ballet classes for the past thirty years with a group of her childhood school friends.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Dance in the Media

Dancers

Having seen a huge influx of dance and the performing arts in the media recently such as So You Think You Can Dance, Got To Dance and Dancing with the Stars, it comes as no surprise that the number of participants engaging in dance classes has increased considerably. A survey conducted by YouGov in 2011 in the prelude to the Dance Proms at the Royal Albert Hall found that just over 1 in 5 British adults have become interested in dancing as a result of shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and So You Think You Can Dance, not considering those throughout the rest of the world and of alternative age groups, donning their dance shoes and pulling on their leotards.

The appeal of dance runs far and wide and today dance seems to have taken on a more of a popular culture persona as more people are becoming aware of it and its benefits. Pirouetting against the stereotype, ballet, for example, does not have to be girly and strictly disciplined; there are a huge variety of dance class choices meaning that there is an option for everyone. No sooner had gym culture taken over our lives, dance cults began to make an appearance, such as Zumba and Bokwa, reinforcing the notion that engaging in physical activity does not have to involve a treadmill.

Naturally, open classes such as those at Pineapple Dance Studios and Danceworks to name just a couple of dance studios in the capital, regardless of those throughout the rest of the country, mean that dancers new and existing will dig out their legwarmers or invest in some shiny new ones, obtaining those essentials to embark on or continue their dancing lifestyle. Dancewear is also increasingly becoming ideal for gym and leisurewear, making it versatile, up-to-date and inspirational, be it performing high kicks, squats or champion chill-outs.

It seems the dance bug is here to stay!

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The History of the Tutu

Alexandra Ansanelli in a Pancake Tutu (Royal Ballet 2008)

Since the beginning of ballet history and up to the present day, tutus have been the centre point(e!) of all classical ballet, be it in a little girl’s dream in pretty pink tights and shoes or even in the snazzy modern costumes of George Balanchine’s ‘Rubies’ in Jewels. Tutus have changed in design over the years but have always retained the certain illusive quality that surrounds ballerinas. To many, tutus epitomise the ethereal, magic aura that surrounds ballerinas on stage, and without a tutu, the performance may be quite different.

The term “tutu” derives from the audience members in cheaper seats, which were originally at the front of the auditorium. These viewers were able to see beneath the ballerina’s tutu: the length of these was dictated by the ballet patrons who wished to see the dancers’ spectacular feats whereas those in the cheaper seats had a view of the ballerina’s derriere, or the French “cucu”, which eventually became “tutu”.

It is said that the first tutu was the Romantic tutu worn by Marie Taglioni in the 1832 performance of La Sylphide – the Romantic era – which showed off her footwork. This style of tutu was and still is of three quarter length in a bell shape, also seen in Giselle. The Classical tutu followed, which is a shorter and stiffer skirt of a slight bell shape ending just above the dancers knees and extending outwards from the hips, seen in Balanchine’s Jewels worn by the ‘Emeralds’. Next was the Classical Pancake tutu which is short and extends straight outwards from the hip. It may also contain a wire hoop along with extra stitching to keep the layers stiff and flat together. The Balanchine/Karinska tutu was next, also known as the “powder puff” as a short skirt with no hoops and a fuller appearance. By no means least, and certainly not the last for ballet as it is known today is the Platter tutu, with its flat top which sticks straight out from the ballerina’s waistline, with skirts continuing to define both the shape and style of tutus.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Wayne McGregor and John Travolta

Wayne McGregor

Wayne McGregor CBE, the resident choreographer at The Royal Ballet, has revealed that he first became interested in dance while growing up in the 1970s. It was seeing John Travolta in Grease and Saturday Night Fever at the cinema that made him realise that was the type of dancing he wanted to do, with those moves and dance forms the ones he began to imitate, which many a jazz shoe clad dancer may still emanate today. Shaking his hips and donning his flares and high-heeled boots, Wayne McGregor set out on a dance journey that he probably would never have guessed would lead him to one of the most prestigious, tutu wearing ballet companies in the world: The Royal Ballet.

McGregor’s parents encouraged him to be academic, but also gave him the confidence to try anything. He went on to take part in amateur dramatics, organise tea dances and form his own dance company (Wayne McGregor | Random Dance) but never set out to hold such a key post at The Royal Ballet. One of McGregor’s most recent works, Carbon Life, saw a very different style of ballet: black ‘block’ pointe shoes dominated the stage, accentuating the lines of the leg in a different capacity through abstract, cube-like costumes, a far cry from McGregor’s Travolta inspiration!

McGregor has revealed that he is obsessed with the technology of the body, reflecting the values of Carbon Life and at an extension, creating super-human bodies for his dancers. In addition to his contemporary and classical credits, McGregor is also known for choreographing Radiohead’s Lotus Flower video and for serving as movement director of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire… both of which lacked leotards and ballet shoes! Part of McGregor’s aim is to continually find a way to communicate ideas through the body to audiences in order to help them think differently about the world around them… and dance itself.

Image courtesy of body_pixel on Flickr.

The Olympic Spirit

Darcey Bussell Olympics 2012 Closing Ceremony

As the one of the most anticipated parts of the Closing Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, dance and ballet in particular proved themselves as a continually powerful and strong art form. Darcey Bussell and her corps de ballet of a 200-strong ensemble formed the final section of the Ceremony, drawing huge support and countering many political arguments that tutus and pointe shoes should not be as important as they are perceived, and proved, to be.

The ensemble of flame-haired Mohicans included dancers from The Royal Ballet and their counterparts from other British dance companies, such as English National Ballet and non-professional dancers who took part through auditioning. The red and orange leotard clad piece, Phoenix of the Flame, was choreographed by Alastair Marriott and Christopher Wheeldon for the climax of the three-hour spectacular, forming the crux of the British and Olympic spirit.

Bussell came out of her retirement in order to feature in the extra special production as a former Royal Ballet Principal. She descended onto the centre of the stage on a flaming phoenix where she joined Royal Ballet principals Gary Avis, Edward Watson, Nehemiah Kish and Jonathan Cope for a performance inspired by the Olympic flame and spirit to encompass the incredible atmosphere and talent of the Games.

Despite retiring in 2007, Bussell has continued to be active in the art of classical ballet, tights and all. Earlier this year she was announced as a judge for the next season of the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, and as the fourth President of the 92-year old Royal Academy of Dance.

Image courtesy of the Official site of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.