Our guest blogger, American ballerina Merrill Ashley, was a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. She is now a répétiteur (coach) and travels worldwide to work with some of the world’s greatest dancers. Considered to be one of the great George Balanchine ballerinas, Ashley danced roles Balanchine created for her. Her book, Dancing for Balanchine, was published in 1984. She is co-author and co-artistic director of the video series “The Balanchine Essays”.
In this guest blog, Ashley shares many links between ballet and science, mathematics, architecture, sculpture and more. Her observations emphasize that we live in a very intertwined world and reinforce the importance of integrating arts learning across the whole curriculum.
My desire to be a ballet dancer was sparked by a ballet teacher who asked the students to jump over a pile of coats on the floor in the middle of the studio. He asked us to pretend they were leaves blowing in the wind. I loved the idea of flying through the air, dipping, spinning and traveling far and wide. We were defying gravity! Gradually, I began to equate being a dancer with being like a bird – able to control the force of gravity and move in enviable ways that other humans or animals simply couldn’t.
As I became a more accomplished dancer, I danced in ballets like Swan Lake where I was asked to move like a bird. I had to be able to use my arms and neck in way that resembled a swan.
I was asked to move like other animals, too. My legs had to have the strength and boneless look of an elephant’s trunk, even while being able to make small delicate movements with them – just as an elephant’s trunk can pick up a single blade of grass. Waiting on stage to dance certain steps in a ballet, I had to have the energy of a cat waiting to pounce; I had to be still but ready to move quickly in a split second. So I began to study animals more closely to see their special ways of moving. It was a wonderful way to study the world of science and nature.
The more I danced, the more I saw a parallel between ballet and sculpture.
Sculpture is usually static and motionless. Ballet is beauty in motion through poses and shapes made by the body. George Balanchine, the great 20th century choreographer, took inspiration from sculpture and made living images evoking them.
This famous sculpture by Antonio Canova was the inspiration for a moment in Balanchine’s ballet Serenade. While the movement is inspired by and done with music, I began to see what George Balanchine meant when he said his ballets made you “see the music, hear the dance.”
Looking at ballet from the point of view of the audience, one easily sees parallels between ballet and architecture. This is especially evident when there are numerous people on the stage, and the patterns of movement constantly reveal themselves. The patterns shift miraculously, like patterns in a kaleidoscope. Knowing geometry helps you quickly understand your place in the pattern as you move. Just as a new building must fit the size of the lot and be designed for a specific purpose, the size and shape of the cast of a ballet is determined by the space and number of dancers. When Balanchine choreographed his first ballet in America, he had 17 girls to use. He had to design a pattern that used all of them. He decided on one that looked like rows of trees in an orange grove. He said if he had had 16 girls, he would have made a totally different formation for the opening pose.
Of course there were other connections to science that I learned about through studying and performing ballet. I learned about anatomy and medicine from dealing with injuries. I began to notice light and how it changed the look of things (which, of course, painters have known for centuries.)
I learned to love many different styles of music as choreographers chose pieces by a myriad of classical and contemporary composers. There are numerous other connections, but by now you I expect you are thinking of some of your own. I hope you will share what you have observed about how dance integrates with core subjects and all of the arts. It’s enriching!
Thank you for inspiring us, Merrill!
Please email ideas you’d like to share with us to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dance on! Susan and Mary