Funny, I wrote an essay on this very subject, which I've pasted below. My vote is yes, there is such a thing as too much technique. I chose to gripe about Paloma Herrera--the most expressive feet in the world, the least expressive face in the world.
The grand pas de deux from Don Quixote is one of today’s best-loved pieces of classical ballet. It is overstuffed with tricks that can electrify even the most cynical—or the most ignorant—observer.
It is a terrific vehicle for the part of dance that is easiest to appreciate: technical virtuosity. When executed well, the pas de deux goes down slickly, easily; it appeals to our laziness by telling us when to applaud.
But it is not friendly to artistic interpretation. Most often danced in excerpt during gala productions, it relies on showmanship rather than strength of character for momentum. Even the most ardent ballet enthusiasts have trouble locating where the dance falls in the ballet’s plotline—or remembering exactly who Kitri and Basil, its dancers, are. Removed from their context, they become two-dimensional, simply “Spanish”—a term that is illustrated by little more than a snap of the wrist or a lifted chin.
It takes a great artist to rise above the limitations of this thoughtlessly ostentatious pas de deux, to do more than “go down easy.” I was hopeful that Paloma Herrera, dancing the role of Kitri in American Ballet Theatre’s performance of the work on July 12th, could be that artist. And there were moments—as when Herrera, after neatly completing six whip turns, extended her perfectly articulated foot to the side—that were truly beautiful. Technical powerhouse that she is, however, she performed like a wind-up toy—her eyes glazed over, her hands cocked in an irritatingly crude parody of flamenco dance. Ultimately she was not able to transcend the constraints of the choreography, because she is not, as this particular evening demonstrated, an artist; she is simply a singularly brilliant technician. But both Herrera and Don Quixote are still—as the violent ovations following the performance indicated—audience favorites.
Why are today’s dancegoers preoccupied with mindless technique? Because they think of the ballet stage as an alternative to the sports arena. Our culture worships the athletes of the sports world—and appropriately so, if, as some have dryly suggested, sports have become the closest analogue we have to popular religion. Dancers are certainly athletes; the 12-minute Don Quixote pas de deux requires at least as much strength and stamina as does a set in a professional tennis match. But dance is not, as countless teenage ballerinas have been informed by their field hockey-playing peers, a sport. Sports can occasionally achieve a level of artistry; Michael Jordan’s particular grace comes to mind. But art is incidental to sports, a lucky accident, whereas it is a definitive quality of dance. The ability to interpret a dance artfully is what makes a dancer a dancer, rather than an exquisite machine.
Many ballet schools, in an overenthusiastic tribute to the cult of the dancer-athlete, have begun to place greater emphasis on technical perfection. Students are often required to take three ballet technique classes daily, but are almost never offered classes in dance history—a subject critical to the performance of classic ballet roles, and to the interpretation of new ones. Even “variations” classes, in which students learn brief solos from famous ballets, have become exercises in simple technique. When learning Giselle’s first-act variation, young dancers are almost never told that the solo immediately precedes Albrecht’s betrayal of Giselle and the girl’s resulting madness and death—orienting context that should affect the way they approach the dance’s sweetly delicate choreography. The students learn only the steps, and strive only to execute them perfectly—the way a gymnast works to perfect her routine. Is their thoughtless dancing still beautiful? Certainly. But is it art?
The performing arts, in which people act as instruments, are uniquely affected by this confusion between technique and artistry. When two creators are involved in the art-making process—a choreographer and a dancer, or a composer and a singer—the evaluation of the resulting product is complicated, especially when that product uses a medium—ballet, or opera—categorically described as “art.” Take our current example: The Don Quixote pas de deux, despite its limitations, has rightfully been classified as “art” since its premiere. Marius Petipa, its choreographer, crafted some truly eloquent moments. And since ballet itself is steeped in royal tradition—even the most modern interpretation of ballet technique preserves its courtly demeanor—many regard any ballet performance as art by default. Herrera’s ability to interpret Petipa’s choreography beyond flawless technical execution could be seen as only the third layer, then, of an already well-decorated cake. Is her performance of an acknowledged choreographic masterpiece, employing her dazzling ballet technique, artful—even though her own take on the choreography is coldly artless?
Herrera’s fans think so. They enjoy “world-class” dancers, just as they appreciate “world-class” baseball players: people who get the job done in a straightforwardly impressive way, whose talent is easy to judge objectively. But they would have been puzzled by Kyra Nichols’ famously subtle take on “Vienna Waltzes,” a ballet with few technical demands. Nichols was not a technician; but like all great dancers, she used her head as well as her feet. And as a thoughtful dancer, she would have left them not only with beautiful images, but also with beautiful thoughts—thoughts that would have required digestion, required an attention span extending beyond the doors of the theater.
They—or, more honestly, we—are becoming increasingly attracted to things that are easily processed and evaluated, that have a definitive “best.” We like players who win; we like businesses that make money; we like dancers who can do six pirouettes. What we are becoming uncomfortable with is the subjective—which defines art—because it is difficult. We don’t want to think, as art forces us to do, because thinking is effortful. And as the world becomes increasingly mechanized, increasingly digitized, increasingly effortless, we are starting to believe that watching a dance performance, like watching a televised football game, should be effortless, too.
Delight in beautiful form is justifiable; impeccable technique is an intoxicating thing. But it is not enough to sustain the world of classical dance—unless we are willing to sanction the transformation, already begun, of stage into stadium.