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The Washington Ballet: Ballet 101

Dance for Dummies

by Dani Crawford

January 12, 2004 -- England Studio, Washington, D.C.

Last week I attended the first of four classes being held by The Washington Ballet under the above title. When I first heard they were offering this course to subscribers, I chuckled...but of course, immediately signed on as I knew I definitely fit the bill.

I wasn’t sure what to expect as I entered the England Studio where rehearsals are also held. What I found was a sea of like minded dance fans not very learned about ballet and dance but quite eager to become enlightened and to learn how better to get more out of, and enjoy to an even greater extent, the world of ballet.

First, you should know that the artistic director of the Washington Ballet is Septime Webre. He is a vibrant and very enthusiastic man who seems to have boundless energy. He often holds post-performance talks and gladly answers a multitude of questions from the audience. He seems very keen to further the interest and understanding of ballet and dance and that extends all the way down to tykes in the city’s Outreach program. He seems to want others to love ballet as much as he does. At least, that is my impression of him. Therefore, it really came as no surprise to me when I walked in and found him at the head of the class waiting for us, his new students.

Our first class focused on the history of ballet from the Baroque and Romantic periods into the Classical period, touching briefly on Neo-Classical. He used video clips and dancers from the Washington Studio Company to demonstrate the various styles from those periods. A good deal of time was used to discuss Petipa and at that point two of the company’s principal dancers, Runqiao Du and Michele Jimenez came on to show us a few pas de deux including one from “Swan Lake” and one from “The Four Temperaments,” demonstrating Petipa's style and then as a juxtaposition – Balanchine’s. He also had video clips to show us the similarity of pattern but the vast difference and how Balanchine tapped into the kinetic value of Petipa’s technique; and again this was demonstrated on tape and by the dancers.

I found this to be quite fascinating and I guess it really is easy to see all of this if you know what you are looking for...which is one of the objectives of the course. While he touched briefly on Balanchine, 20th century ballet will be studied in a later class. Also to be covered more in depth will be technique and style, partnering, how ballets are notated, dancer training, choreography and choreographers (can’t wait for that one), more on what to look for when watching a ballet and an insider's look at dancers and dance companies.

The funniest part of the evening came when Septime made us all get up and stand in front of the mirror along with him and the dancers and he taught us the five positions. He then also taught us some ballet mime. (He had earlier shown a clip of Bournonville’s work – which came in handy for me as I went to see the Royal Danish Ballet that weekend). In any case, we giggled through it all and actually we didn’t do too badly, though perhaps a little wobbly in fifth position.

To say I enjoyed this class is an understatement. When I did go see my next ballet, I felt just a bit more in tune with what I was watching and that indeed added to the experience. I’ve no idea if other companies offer such a course, but they should consider it. It’s not only interesting and fun but, of course, you also meet other people with whom you have something in common and that is always wonderful.

I know this probably sounds quite silly to many on this site who already have a great knowledge of ballet. But we all have to start somewhere and I am grateful to have someone to actually show me the ropes in such a wonderful setting. My sincere thanks to The Washington Ballet and in particular to Mr. Webre for this unique experience. I can hardly wait for my next class. I just hope he doesn't try to get us up on pointe next!

Edited by Jeff.

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