“What is Ballet?” enlightens students about Swan Lake

Students entering the Matchbox last Saturday afternoon could faintly hear the beautiful orchestration of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet upstairs in Tarble Commons. The Peripeteia workshop, “What is Ballet?”, taught by Gabriela Brown ‘18, garnered an audience walking in with varying levels of familiarity with ballet — in true liberal arts fashion. Some participants were dancers and others simply wanted to learn more about the art.

Brown began by introducing herself to the class. With 14 years of dance and ballet training under her belt from musical theater as well as from the Pacific Ballet Academy, she has an impressive knowledge of ballet history, technique, and culture.

A Powerpoint presentation she created and shared with the class recounted the history of ballet from its origins in the Italian Renaissance to its development and popularization in the French court of King Louis XIV and in Russia during the Romantic period, which produced such famous ballets as The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty. Brown then discussed more modern ballets like George Balanchine’s Jewels and the contemporary ballet company BalletX (who recently performed at Swarthmore). She pointed out to the class that modern ballet is rooted in traditional technique but experiments with deviations from the classical style.

With the history of ballet laid out for them, students were invited to try some positions and techniques. To simulate barre exercises (the first half of a typical ballet rehearsal), Brown instructed participants to hold onto the back of a chair and follow her through a series of pliés and relevés. Being an experienced dancer she then demonstrated centre work where the techniques of barre are combined into the fluid movement of the dance.

The class was also able to participate in stretches at the end of the class and ask Brown any specific questions they had. Some students inquired about the tendency of professional ballet companies to prefer skinnier body types.

“I think some of those standards are a bit ridiculous,” Brown insisted. “Sometimes [professional companies] will sit you down and say ‘We’d like you to improve your lines,’ which is how they tell you that you need to lose weight … Ballet should be fun and accessible to anyone who is interested.”

Brown informed the class that her goal was to demystify ballet so that in the future, when her students attend a performance of Swan Lake, they will understand and appreciate the beauty and grace of the professional dancers who began their careers long ago with simply learning how to do a plié.

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