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Watch: How morning ballet class has changed over the last 200 years

The all-important morning class has changed considerably over the centuries as the art form has evolved.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

17 February 2016 at 3.21pm | 2 Comments

Morning ballet class is an essential part of any ballet dancer’s day. As Royal Ballet Soloist Kristen McNally described during World Ballet Day 2015, ‘class is all about getting the body warm for the day’s rehearsal – and it’s also a great time to concentrate on yourself, to improve your technique’.

Modern ballet class starts with exercises of increasing complexity at the barre before the dancers move into the centre of the room. It’s a format that has remained more or less unchanged since ballet technique first began to be codified in the early 19th century, by the influential teacher and dancer Carlo Blasis. But the exercises themselves have changed quite a bit, as former ballet mistress Ursula Hageli explains in this film.

Ursula is joined by six Royal Ballet dancers to demonstrate how exercises have changed from Blasis’s era through the late 19th century and right up to the modern dancer: ‘we’re going to see side-by-side how the dancers have got much more supple and movements have got bigger.’

One fundamental change in ballet since Blasis’s day is the dancers’ turn-out, which has ‘increased from 45 degrees to 90 degrees, which is actually a very difficult thing to do – we have to do that by holding onto the muscles at the top of the leg. However, when all this turn-out started it wasn’t quite as well thought through, so they had a vice to turn out the feet – which must have been excruciatingly painful’.

An obvious difference to the class itself is the length of exercises. Class today at The Royal Ballet lasts about 90 minutes (45 minutes each at the barre and in the centre) and covers a wide range of movements. In Blasis’s day ‘the barre used to last just 15 minutes, because they just did two or three exercises and that was it. Today’s dancers are doing more exercises but of shorter duration’.

Blasis’s long exercises mean Gemma Pitchley-Gale and Marcelino Sambé, as dancers from Blasis’s era, are often left performing their exercises long after the other dancers have finished. But there are benefits: Marcelino says that ‘it feels like you get warm really fast’, and for Gemma, ‘it’s nice and lengthening because you have the time to think about where everything is placed’.

Some of ballet’s simple steps have changed since Blasis’s day, such as the petit battement, ‘a really little beat round the ankle of the foot’. For Blasis the foot was ‘really low round the ankle, opening just from the knee, sideways – it helps for all sorts of little steps. As time goes on they start doing it on demi-pointe and they wrap the foot round the ankle. And then, as we do it now, we have a fully pointed foot that goes back and front, and we can even have them just to the front’.

Finally, they move onto stretching – but ‘in the days of Blasis they didn’t have any stretching, because they did something called plastic poses’, where the dancers would practice certain static dramatic poses. ‘They would do that for three to four minutes and then would put little mime sequences together’ – something Marcelino and Gemma seem to enjoy!

Watch more films like this by subscribing to the Royal Opera House YouTube channel:

Find out about other ROH Insights events.

ROH Insights are generously supported by The Paul Hamlyn Education Fund.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Josephine Johnston responded on 23 February 2016 at 11:50am Reply

    Very interesting as a teacher for 40 years . Was at j a class last week with period dancing. And would like to see more and attend seminars like this . I have worked with Ursula in the past and would love to watch and meet her again. I have many ballet scholars who would love these days

    Thank you x Josephine. Johnston

  2. Katherine Ranner responded on 20 August 2016 at 10:49pm Reply

    I'm a Cecchetti trained dancer and it's really interesting to see that what we do today is most like the 1880s dancers as the Cecchetti method has been well preserved down the generations.

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