The Various Ballet Methods
Ballet’s known history dates back to the Italian and French Renaissance. Over time it has gained favor around the world. But as the art of dance was passed from generation to generation, various more or less differing ballet schools, or “methods,” arose. Because of this, we distinguish among six world-renowned ballet methods today.
The French Method
Also known as “L’école française,” it was founded at the world’s first school of dance—the Royal Academy of Dance (Académie Royale de Danse), founded in 1661 by Louis XIV. It is from precisely this school that the ballet of the Opéra National de Paris was born.
The French method is viewed as ballet’s foundation. It established ballet training as it is used, with changes of various extents, by the other ballet school methods as well.
This technique’s stereotypical traits include a relaxed and elegant port de bras. The dancer’s feet should work with utter precision, and a great emphasis is placed on high insteps. A flawless dancer should have a high range in their hip joints. Their dance should be above all poetic; the French school therefore makes frequent use of épaulement poses.
The Vaganova Method
In Russia under the Czars, two ballet schools were founded quite early, in the 18th century, one in St. Petersburg and the other in Moscow. Among their best students was Agrippina Vaganova. Through her high leaps and perfectly managed technique, she earned the moniker “the queen of variations.” She later became the director of the Imperial Ballet School (later the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet) and began teaching her own dance method.
It consists of these same high jumps, numerous pirouettes, and of course an expectation of 100% flexibility of the body. Thanks to training sessions where they perfect individual motions at an extremely slow tempo, dancers’ bodies build up enough musculature for all this. This is intended to aid the dancers in holding and controlling their bodies, enabling them in turn to perform nearly acrobatic feats.
This Russian school also emphasizes expressiveness and theatricality. This dance method is abundantly used in many schools worldwide. The Prague Dance Conservatory primarily teaches the Russian technique as well.
The Cecchetti Method
It bears its name after the Italian ballet dancer and mime Enrico Cecchetti.
Cecchetti was active in the UK at the start of the 20th century. England stayed with the original French style, but Cecchetti nevertheless continued refining his technique to greater heights through his method.
Its exercises—firmly set for every day of the week to the point of being routines—brought dancers the capability to achieve previously unseen successes. The daily repetitions in Cecchetti’s sophisticated plan provide dancers with evenly developed bodies, which is naturally beneficial for their health. Other traits that are specific to this method are a fairly formal port de bras, differentiating it from, for example, the French school, as well as slightly less drawn out 5th position for the legs, providing for healthier functioning of the lower body. Cecchetti studied the lower body in depth and created a method for foot positions that is used worldwide to this day:
1) pied à terre – the dancer’s entire foot is on the ground
2) pied à quart – the dancer’s foot is lifted slightly above the ground
3) pied à demi – the dancer’s foot is slightly higher, halfway on tiptoe (sur la demi pointe)
4) pied à trois quart – the dancer is more than halfway on tiptoe
5) pied à pointe – the dancer is on tiptoe (sur la pointe)
Classical dance technique currently most frequently uses positions 1, 4, and 5.
In the UK, the majority of Cecchetti’s techniques—not just those concerning the lower limbs—are used to this day. The English love purity of motion without excessive mannerisms and insist upon perfect technical execution. And precisely Cecchetti’s method enables dancers to perceive every muscle in their body and thus achieve this perfection.
The Bournonville Method
August Bournonville was born into a family of dancers in France. His father Antoine Bournonville studied under the renowned French dancer, choreographer, and philosopher of dance Jean Georges Noverre. August studied at the Paris Opera and obtained his first engagement there as well. He later moved to Denmark, where he founded the Danish Royal Ballet. Here he began to devote himself to choreography (his world-renowned works include, for example, La Sylphide) and created his own dance technique.
Bournonville’s method is well-known to this day. It is primarily appreciated for its refinement and nobility. It feels fluid and effortless despite being, of course, very technically demanding. This method is also characterized by the use of épaulement with an emphasis on correct leg positioning. It is known for, among other things, its grand jeté with the rear leg lifted in attitude. The goal of the Bournonville method is for the dancers to appear elegant, unforced, and full of natural grace despite the extreme strain of their movements. The dancer’s eye-line tends to be lowered to give it a friendlier look, in contrast with e.g. the Russian school, which heeds a certain pride. The execution of pirouettes is different here as well: the dancer’s leg is usually held lower than is the case in other techniques. The leg speed that typifies Bournonville is emphasized as well; it should be in contrast with the graceful movement of the hips—“the legs are the rhythm, the hands are the melody.”
The Balanchine Method
This method would never have arisen without the brilliant Russian choreographer George Balanchine. Russian dancers most likely deserve the most credit for exporting and teaching ballet overseas. Balanchine earned fame in the USA after founding one of the world’s best ballet schools, named the School of American Ballet. Balanchine promoted the “new classics,” and because of this, he is also considered a pioneer of the new ballet style known as neoclassicism.
Elements from other dance techniques such as jazz dance have made their way into this style as well. It does not insist so much on precision, nor are its students selected through predefined criteria. There is much more room here for the dancer’s personality. Other special aspects include more rounded arms, sporadic use of épaulement, and doing pirouettes whose ready position always starts from a tensed rear leg.
As the art of ballet gradually made its way into new countries, naturally a sort of signature was formed by the new dancers who taught future generations their art. Therefore it could also be said that there is an infinite number of ballet schools and methods. Those listed above are the ones that we consider the best-known and most-used at the moment. Still, this is a fairly subjective selection, based on the Czech schools and their teachings.