Coaching the artistry of three popular ballet variations
Valentina Kozlova coaches a student at her Dance Conservatory of New York.In a professional production, Giselle’s Act I variation is set in a small forest village. Trees and a cottage fill the scene as she joyously dances for family and friends, played by the corps de ballet. But when a student performs the solo at a competition or performance, she is often onstage alone. Though her costume looks the part of a peasant girl, no backdrop, props or townspeople are there to emphasize the storyline.
The artistry of a variation is often the most underdeveloped part of a dancer’s performance. When pulled from a full-length ballet and shown out of context, it’s easy to focus solely on technique. Learning about the ballet’s history and narrative will inform the dancer’s movement and help her embody the character she is portraying.
The Sleeping Beauty
Princess Florine and her partner Bluebird are entertainment at Aurora’s wedding celebration. Much of the choreography echoes the Bluebird’s, such as the first sequence of steps where she tries to imitate his flutters. Princess Florine is youthful, bristly and vibrant, not cute. She is royalty and dances with elegance. “She’s a princess emulating a bird—she wants to fly, but can’t,” says Nadia Thompson, ballet mistress at Milwaukee Ballet. Much of the variation’s port de bras is literal in its storytelling. “Your hand is up by your ear because you’re listening. Reach your other arm up like a bird wing, stretched to the end of your fingers,” says Thompson.
Transitions convey much of Princess Florine’s personality. She should burst onstage with a sprightly, quicksilver attitude. When she walks, her weight is up and forward over her toes, and her steps and preparations are quick, energetic and playful. Getting to positions quickly will help avoid a soft, nuanced look.
Giselle, Act I
Orlando Ballet School student in Giselle, Act IA peasant girl with a weak heart and a great love for dance, Giselle performs a celebratory yet fragile solo in Act I. “Giselle dances with a quiet confidence, assuring her mom that she’s not going to overexert herself,” says Thompson. She should approach her turns with freedom and joy, only to catch herself and show restraint. Her hops are done with clever ease, and she finishes on her knee with her head humbly bowed.
Most of Giselle’s gestures are directed at Albrecht, her love interest. “She relates to the people around her,” says Dierdre Miles Burger, director of the Orlando Ballet School. “Giselle never flirts with the audience.” When imagining others onstage, ask dancers to focus directly at “someone.” Having other people pose as Albrecht and the mother in rehearsal will give the student a visual aid.
Kitri’s first solo, Act I
performs Kitri’s Act I variation.Unlike Giselle, Kitri flaunts her technique and flirts openly with the audience. She’s fiery and gutsy, but not sensual. “The danger is making it too hot for young girls,” says Valentina Kozlova, director of Valentina Kozlova’s Dance Conservatory of New York and founder of the Valentina Kozlova International Ballet Competition. “It’s a feminine variation, but still very elegant. Many people misinterpret the role and play too much with their eyes and eyebrows. It becomes a satire.”
Kitri exudes confidence. Her runs should be grounded, and when she puts her hand on her hip, she presses her palm down and pushes her elbow forward in assurance. Her fan helps emphasize her flirtatious, spirited nature, but it should be used subtly. “Some people work too aggressively with props and make too much noise,” says Kozlova. Students should feel as if it is an extension of their hands. Playing in front of a mirror without doing the steps will help them build a relationship with the fan. “It’s not just about opening and closing the fan,” says Kozlova, who breaks down how to move the arm, elbow and wrist. “It’s all about the angle and the style.” DT
Setting the Stage
Give dancers context before diving into a role.
Build artistry during technique class. “I try to get the younger kids to be expressive in class,” says Orlando Ballet School director Dierdre Miles Burger. “That way when they’re older, it’s not as hard to get it out of them.”
• Consider age and maturity level. “Young students ages 10–12 don’t have the knowledge or experience to do serious roles,” says International Ballet Competition founder Valentina Kozlova. A fairy variation from The Sleeping Beauty is more appropriate than Kitri for a student this age.
• Watch the ballet with students. Putting the piece in context will help them understand the role better.
• Gather video clips of different ballerinas in the role to see different interpretations.
Julie Diana is a principal dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet. She has a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania.
Photos from top: by Rachel Papo; by Andres Acevedo, courtesy of Orlando Ballet School by VAM Productions, courtesy of VKDCNY