The Dance Around the Dance: Ballet and Performance Studies

The Dance Around the Dance:  Ballet and Performance Studies

 “The Dance around the Dance”

“(Ballet) Dance is about the position of the body in space in relationship to the music and to the architecture of the stage”

~Professor Michael Vernon, Chair of the IU Ballet Department


The above quote is from Professor Michael Vernon at the Open Talk before the Spring Ballet on March 22, 2008 at the Musical Arts Center, Indiana University Bloomington.  The Ballet Department always holds a small lecture about the performance before each show begins.  According to Prof. Vernon, this enables the audience to have a well-rounded picture of the performance, and to also make the dance seem more accessible to the public.  He also stated that it is an accepted idea in Ballet that the dance movements must follow the music in a parallel fashion, and that an inherent “musicality”, or expressiveness, in the dancer must be present for there to be “good dancing”.  However, I would like to focus on how this idea of correct kinesthetic position in relationship to the music and the architecture of the stage space correlate to the performative rehearsal social space.  In this case I am using the sound board to represent the music, as well as the orchestra pit itself, rather than the actual music.  I would like to therefore define the performative social space as I will discuss it within this context of the Spring Ballet rehearsal.

“The performative social space is the physical area around which the performance takes place, which encompasses the audience, the backstage, and any part of the environment that serves as a platform for social interaction within the context of the performance event.”

There are rules for aesthetic correctness within the actual dance, but there are also rules for correct social body placement in the auditorium by members of the audience.  I will focus on the performative rehearsal social space, rather than performance space, as I am more interested in how members of the dance company interact with each other in the audience while watching the dress rehearsal, rather than the concert attendees.  These dance company members are “insiders”, and therefore have an “emic” perspective that propels their bodily behavior in the social space.  I am calling this paper the “Dance around the Dance”, rather than the “Dance within the Dance”, because it seemed to be that they were doing a different kind of dance “around” the stage in preparation for the performance.  This seemed to be more of an extroverted social dance, rather than introverted “dance within”.    If dance is the kinesthetic awareness of the body’s position in space in relationship to the architecture of the physical space, then there indeed is a dance going on between bodies while moving around the performative rehearsal social space in preparation for the big event.

Music and the social space in which it is performed share a unique symbiotic relationship; one tends to mirror the other, and vice versa.  Dr. Anya Peterson Royce in her Anthropology of the Performing Arts (Royce, 142) says that, “Space is the arena dance commands.  Its use is limited only by the limits of human ability or by the deliberate choices of particular genres.  Music can create space in the imagination of the listener but it is not constrained by physical space.  Poetry, as a written narrative form, plays with images of time and space even as we breathe it and make it our own”.  I venture to add on that this space extends out from the stage to encompass the audience, and thus becomes the social space.  Dance commands the entire auditorium when a performance is held.  It is not only for the stage that this idea of correct kinesthetic awareness encompasses.   Royce hints at the large use of space that ballet uses by saying that, “Dance genres vary considerably in the extent to which they ‘use’ space.  Classical ballet is extravagant in its use of both horizontal and vertical space; the only limits are those of the human body.”  I believe that this “extravagance” of space usage extends to the auditorium seats where people are sitting who are partaking in the musical event.  In this case, it is the ballet directors, musicians and other dancers who are the audience members during the rehearsal, not the concert goers who will be in audience on performance night.  Therefore, I believe it is a heightened intensity of these ideas, as the members are a part of the ballet company, and intimately understand the aesthetics of ballet from a performer’s perspective.

If sculpting the space around the dancer is the idea behind ballet, and the auditorium seats are included in this space, then we must talk about human interaction and social hierarchy to understand the motives behind people’s social kinesthetic behavior.  In T.M. Scruggs’ article, “Come on In Northside, You’re Just in Time”, he describes a jazz lounge in Chicago, and how the audience was very much racially and gender divided in terms of social hierarchy within the performative social space (Scruggs, 180-183).  While Scruggs does not give a verbatim definition of the performative social space, he does describe the setting of the musical event very accurately to portray the social dynamics at work.  According to Scruggs, “The concept of place can involve and intertwine both geographic and social meanings”.  Here I see that Scruggs is interchanging the word “place” with “space”, and I do believe that one can see how ideas about the performative social space must include ideas about the place where the performance is carried out.  What part of town is it on, the “northside” or the “southside”, as in Scruggs’ article?  Is the audience racially diverse, and how does this alter people’s physical use of space?  Is there a gender hierarchy underpinning the event?  Scruggs noticed that the audience at his jazz performance was split; whites from the upscale northside and women tended to sit up front to really listen to the music, and black locals and men tended to sit in the back to talk.    He then goes onto describe the scene of the musical event, so that one can get a picture in the mind of how the room was laid out.  I believe this is a good technique for giving an intense description, so I will do so for this musical event I am investigating.

The auditorium set up consisted of the stage at the head, the orchestra pit below, and seating that encompasses two levels.  The sound board was placed approximately in the middle stage right side of the auditorium.  The orchestra pit and the sound board are the power hubs of the performative social space, as this is where the music is produced, which will define how the dance is performed, and perceived by the audience members.  The importance of the musical stations in the theatre shows the interconnected relationship of the music to the dance.  In an interview with Prof. Virginia Cesbron she stated, “Its (ballet) all about the music”.  This statement highlights the fact that we must not forget the importance of the musical production in the performative social space.  The social hierarchy is as follows from top to bottom:  1) ballet directors, with Mm. Violette Verdy and Michael Vernon at the top; 2) the Conductor or Maestro, and theatre technicians; 3) other dancers; 4) ballet fans who are allowed into the dress rehearsal.  There was a sound technician at the sound board who would be running the sound for the performance, as well as a lighting technician behind the stage.  These technicians seemed to be exempt from the social rules of ballet, as they had the responsibility of making the show run smoothly, and they could move freely within the theatre without making any social faux pas.

Another aspect of this scenario is how people were using language to make distinct social boundary markers.  I found that verbal language was used to tell people where they should be moving within the social space, but also “body language” was another method.  Verbal language was employed by the senior Ballet Madame, Violette Verdy, in a very kind and polite manner.  However, the other ballet directors with less status used direct and impolite speech to operate the social boundaries of the auditorium.  The “body language” used was similar to the verbal language within the ballet hierarchy; the directors with less clout used a more assertive approach to define the social space, for instance, by walking in front of our camera as we were filming.

I will now employ a writing technique that John Van Maanen (101) calls an ”Impressionist Tale” on how I found out what I did; this will highlight what is unusual or extra-ordinary to show what is usual or ordinary.

Impressionist Tale

I would like for you to see the journey that took me from the outside world into the archetypal world of the preparation for the Spring Ballet.  I say “archetypal” because it seemed that everything in this social landscape had an esoteric meaning; the position of the body in space in the auditorium had a certain significance that would reflect back on the individual’s character, as personal choices must be made as to where one puts one’s body in relationship to the sound board and the orchestra pit, which is where the ballet directors converge to alter the music for the show.   Also, I want to show what behavior is not accepted in this atmosphere to highlight what is the norm.

We were late arriving to the theatre that night; it was pouring rain outside, and we ran to the MAC, or Musical Arts Center, where the Spring Ballet was having their dress rehearsal.  First we tried the front doors; they were closed, as it was after hours.  So, we had to run outside again down to the theatre stage entrance doors; the big red doors at the bottom of the hill.  We thought we could take the elevator to the lobby to get into the auditorium, but as the program had started, the doors were locked!   I had my dance student with me, Alexandra, as she had the video camera.  Getting and keeping a good quality camera has been a challenge for me this semester, and so I had to rely upon what was available; a high quality video recorder on a Nokia cell phone.  It was on her phone, so I could not borrow it and give it back to her, she had to be there to film it for me.  It turned out to be fortuitous, however, as her assertiveness got us into the auditorium.  I am not sure I would have been as persistent; I probably would have just left.

We had to take the elevator back downstairs and try to enter the auditorium from backstage.  I was horrified at this point, not wanting to draw attention to myself.  At this time I was remembering a quote from Anya Royce, Anthropology of Dance Professor, which goes something like this:  “A good dancer draws attention to the dance itself, a bad dancer draws attention to herself”.  We asked a few dancers in the basement how to get up to the auditorium seats, and they point to a stairwell, and said, “take these stairs up one flight, turn right, and follow the black curtains around to the side of the stage where there is a set of stairs down to the audience”.  We do as we are told, and feel like spies in the process; Alexandra takes my picture in the spiral staircase as we ascend from the womb of the theatre to have proof of our espionage.

At the landing we find ourselves directly backstage standing next to ballerinas who are getting ready to go on to dance.  I am feeling horrified.  Again, I do not want to draw attention to myself, it is painfully obvious that we are lost.  We did not speak to any of the dancers, simply fumbled around in the dark in the theatre wings, getting engulfed in the black velvet curtains, Alexandra leading the way.  To the left I see the lighting technician, and I feel as if I am seeing the puppet strings behind the screen.  As we stumble out onto the stairs at the side of the stage, I feel as if we have been birthed from the backstage out into the light of the auditorium, and everyone’s eyes go to us.  I wanted to hide, but had to seem nonchalant about our actions.  We sheepishly make our way to find seating, and as we have to take video footage, we needed to find good seats, and QUICKLY.

Our eyes are drawn to an open area in the center of the auditorium; there is a convenient opening larger than the other aisles, and so naturally we are drawn to these seats.  We sit down, and look over at the right of us; there is the sound board.  Sitting there is the Department Chair, Michael Vernon, and also some other instructors I did not recognize.  However, they became very familiar with us, even though Prof. Vernon did not seem to recognize me.  He had signed a consent form to allow me to videotape anytime I would like this week, but I did not realize the privileged position I had taken in the auditorium by sitting in the sound board aisle.  The sound board is the nexus of power and authority in the audience social space; it is where the Ballet Directors sit and critique the show, but more importantly it is where the sound is edited before being heard by the audience.  This is the power center, and we went directly to it and assumed an authority that had not been granted to us.  Videotaping was allowed for us, but I am not sure they really wanted us to do it, or at least do it well, as a member of the audience.  If Ballet dance is about dancing or moving appropriately to the music, then being an audience member has to do with moving appropriately in relationship to the symbols of the music at the rehearsal, the sound board and the orchestra pit.  I could have come very early, set up a video camera in the back of the auditorium, but I wanted to sit with the other people in the seats.  I wanted to have their vantage point, as I felt that playing the role of videographer would have separated me from the flow of social discourse that is necessary to my participant observation.  Alexandra and I dressed as other dancers in the audience were dressed, yoga clothes or workout clothes, so that we would blend in, or so we thought.  Prof. Vernon gave me permission but did not recognize me at the rehearsal, and so therefore I was treated as a dancer, not as a researcher, and participating in the event in this manner actually turned out to be beneficial.  I had insight into behaviors that would have been oblivious to me if I had been at the back of the auditorium taping with WTIU.

As we sit down, I feel a woman behind us stare and give us condescending looks.  Prof. Vernon walks by us with a very disgruntled look on his face as he excuses himself to walk by us in the aisle, not once, but twice.  Then, Madame Violette Verdy walks up from the seats below us, and says in a polite manner, “Ladies, could you kindly move back a row?  We need to come and go in this aisle a lot, so it would be helpful if you would please move”.  Of course, when Mdm. Verdy asks you something you DO it, she is the “Grandmother” of the Ballet Department!  We move back a row, and then the women who had been staring at us says after we have moved all of our bags, could we please move another row?  At this point I felt this instructor with less status was abusing her power, and making us feel odd and embarrassed.  She was not particularly nice about it, and made a point of showing us that she did not like us sitting there by walking directly in front of our camera while we were filming.  I do realize that she needed to come and go as she pleased, but she did it more than once, and did so unapologetically.

We watched the ballet that Mm. Verdy choreographed and was premiering for the Spring Ballet, “Inoui Rossini”.  She was the only person in the auditorium who went to the orchestra pit and conversed with the Maestro about the music.  Also, she was physically showing the Conductor the speed at which his arm strokes should be to produce the right tempo for her dancers.  She seemed to be the only person there who used their authority to navigate the social space to produce the music that was needed for the dance by physically going to the orchestra pit.


I have used this tale to illustrate what is considered the “norm” in terms of kinesthetic or body placement in the auditorium for this performative rehearsal social space by showing what not to do.  Upon reflection, I see that if we had been on time I would have missed this opportunity to see the social matrix lit up before me as I stumbled my way into this dance.   Also, as we were about to leave, Ballet Madame Violette Verdy went to the Conductor and corrected the tempo for a piece of her ballet that she was premiering.  She asked that they do the piece again, and this time a bit slower.  She was the only person in the whole auditorium who walked up to and talked with the Maestro that night; even Prof. Vernon did not do this, although he had the authority to do so.  I can only imagine what would have happened if we had dared talk to the Conductor in the orchestra pit; that area of the auditorium was strictly off limits to those who were not with the social power to cross those boundaries.

I would speculate that these invisible social lines form a tight matrix in every event where ballet is performed.  Learning the boundaries of correct kinesthetic awareness is a dance not unlike the dance that is performed on stage; the social rules serve as the music that is being danced.

Sources Cited

  • Cesbron, Virginia. Professor of Ballet, Indiana University.  Personal Interview, February 5, 2008.  Bloomington, Indiana.
  • Royce, Anya. Anthropology of the performing arts: artistry, virtuosity, and interpretation in a cross-cultural perspective.  Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, c2004.
  • Scruggs, T. M. “Come on in North Side, You’re Just in Time”.  Current Musicology, Nos. 71-73, pp. 179-199.   Spring 2001-2002.
  • Van Maanen, John. Tales of the Field:  On Writing Ethnography.  University of Chicago Press.  Chicago, IL.
  • Vernon, Michael. Professor and Chair of the Ballet Department, Indiana University.  Open Talk, Spring Ballet, March 21, 2008.  Bloomington, Indiana.