How can we bring batterie back to its former glory?
By Joseph Carman
Scratchy entrechat sixes. Brisé volés with no brio. Royales unfit for a king.
One of the toughest technical areas to master in ballet, batterie too often is relegated to an afterthought. Despite the proliferation of extreme technique, encouraged by ballet competitions and Darwinian physicality, beats, it seems, haven’t earned the respect accorded to fouettés and grand jetés. Even in distinguished ballet companies, have they become the snubbed steps of ballet vocabulary? Why is that? And do teachers, dancers, and choreographers need to pay a little more attention to batterie?
“Yes, I have noticed a lapse. I don’t see many people stressing batterie,” says Patricia Wilde, the former New York City Ballet star who originated the lead role in Balanchine’s Square Dance, a study in devilish batterie. “I really think it’s a shame, because it gives a wonderful excitement to so many ballets and variations.” Wilde, a teacher at Saratoga Summer Dance Intensive and former artistic director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, notes that when she guest teaches company classes, “most of the women don’t do any kind of real entrechat cinq or entrechat six de volée.” And in some performances of Balanchine’s choreography, like Ballet Imperial or Raymonda Variations, the batterie has been watered down or omitted outright.
Maxim Beloserkovsky, formerly a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre who now teaches and coaches male students at Ballet Academy East in Manhattan, feels that batterie has been shoved aside for more flashy tricks. “Young, aspiring male dancers immediately ask me for major steps—right away they want to do double assemblés, double tours en l’air, pirouettes à la seconde, jetés en manège with double saut de basque—this kind of powerhouse technique,” he says. “It seems like the question of batterie is never even raised. Nobody really wants to do sixes or brisé volés.” (The one exception is double cabrioles, a beating step male students want to conquer quickly.)
One reason for students’ myopia is their desire to ape what they see—from watching live performances to attending competitions to scanning YouTube. “When they see that nine pirouettes brings the house down, they just concentrate on those particular elements,” says Beloserkovsky. In the competition arena, Beloserkovsky thinks men are overrating warhorses like Le Corsaire and Don Quixote and underestimating a Flower Festival in Genzano variation or a La Sylphide solo as medal-worthy. “If God gave you good feet and you trained well, you can deliver a phenomenal ‘James’ variation,” he says.
In his young men’s class, Beloserkovsky decided to teach some steps from the “Bluebird” pas de deux, which is riddled with beats. He asked them, “Have you ever experienced seven entrechat sixes in a row and finished with a double tour?” Attempting those and the string of brisé volés from the coda proved to be physically exhausting for the teenagers.
You’d be hard pressed to find someone whose beats surpass those of ABT principal Herman Cornejo. When he launches into a double cabriole éffacé, his legs resemble snipping scissors while his hips remain quiet and his port de bras retains perfect classical form. Batterie played a crucial role in his early training with Bournonville-influenced teacher Vasil Tupin at Instituto Superior de Arte at Teatro Colón. Cornejo’s first principal role was James in La Sylphide, which requires superb batterie with a relaxed upper body. “Today’s technique is moving toward circus training, which I understand—year after year, technique progresses with more jumps, more turns,” says Cornjeo. “But there are techniques like beating that are left behind. I guess because it’s a hard thing to train and some teachers didn’t do it when they were young, they just don’t teach it.”
A dissenting voice in the batterie discussion is Dmitri Kulev, director of the Dmitri Kulev Classical Ballet Academy in Laguna Hills, California, and a recipient of a Youth America Grand Prix “Outstanding Teacher” Award for each of the last five years. He believes that technique is improving in all areas, beats included. “In the 21st century, ballet is moving forward,” he says. “Girls are jumping and beating more, boys are becoming stronger. As knowledge moves forward, ballet is moving forward.” To his credit, one of Kulev’s male students, Tate Lee, recently nabbed third place at a YAGP event, partly because of his exceptional beats in a variation from La Fille Mal Gardée.
He cites the Russian stars Ivan Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova as role models for younger dancers to push the boundaries on jumping and beating. “Vasiliev didn’t invent a triple cabriole, but he did it so well that the world is loving him and watching him, especially the boys,” he says. And Osipova’s springy entrechat quatres in Giselle create an almost slow-motion illusion that has inspired his female students.
Batterie’s particular method of utilizing musculature requires a refinement of technique that takes years of practice. “I remember my teacher used to hold a stick against my stomach so I would keep my arms down, because in Bournonville you’re not allowed to use your arms to help yourself during the beats,” says Cornejo.
When Cornejo teaches master classes at the Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, he works with jumping from and into second position, Bournonville-style. “It’s good for working the inner thigh strength and stability,” he says. “I tend to introduce that to my little ones. All the beats are very flat, so you can focus on your base.”
Barre exercises starting at a young age facilitate the technique. “It begins with the dégagés,” says Wilde. “Leon Fokine always used to give us a whole beat combination with entrechat six and royales at the barre using dégagés. And Mr. Balanchine gave a million and one dégagés at the barre—very fast.”
When students reach 12 to 14, Kulev ratchets up the petit and medium allégro demands. Beloserkovsky tries to allot at least 25 minutes for combinations with batterie in his pre-professional classes. For his own training, Cornejo adds beats in conjunction with the Pilates reformer, using the board to push off. “For professional dancers this can be a healthy way to train your beats without getting too tired,” he says.
Tina LeBlanc, former ballerina with San Francisco Ballet with a formidable petit allégro, now teaches girls in Levels 3 (ages 10 to 11) and 7 and 8 (ages 15 to 19) at the San Francisco Ballet School. “Frappés are important,” she says. “The speed of the feet with a fast attack.” If the girls aren’t crossing their legs enough during batterie in the center, she makes them go to the barre and use it to push off of to feel the correct action. With petit allégro combinations, she has upper-level students beat the combination on the second go-round and then reverse it with beats on the third set. “I try to make it part of their regular daily regimen,” she says. “This way, they get used to moving quickly and having their minds move just as quickly, if not a little bit ahead.”
As a teenager, LeBlanc learned a significant lesson when she was in Joffrey II and teacher Rochelle Zide instructed her—pay attention, ladies—to jump with the men, batterie included. “At that point I realized I could go a little farther and always push for more,” she says.
But how can women approach beating without losing their feminine style? “Like anything else in ballet, it’s important that you don’t see the strain,” says Wilde. “A sous-sus with an entrechat six should have the lift and lightness to it, emphasizing the feeling of up rather than the down.” For brisé volés, which take strength and coordination to move out into space, LeBlanc says, “you have to keep the beautiful shape of the upper body.”
More than anything, dancing Balanchine ballets helped Beloserkovsky, whose Russian-based training focused on a Romantic 19th-century repertoire, develop the necessary speed for brilliant batterie. But ballet competitions, because of the restrictions of the Balanchine Trust, don’t often feature Balanchine variations or pas de deux. (One notable exception: In 2000, the New York International Ballet Competition included Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux.)
And speaking of choreographers, why have beats disappeared in new ballets? Think of the scintillating batterie in Balanchine’s Symphony in C or the scherzo section of Ashton’s The Dream. “You could say that beats might be steps that are hard to use when telling a story,” says Cornejo. Wilde points out that contemporary hyperphysical choreography is already so demanding: “You have to be doing something with your little finger while you’re doing something with your thumb. Maybe because there’s so much else going on, they don’t stress batterie.” Another argument is that if dancers can’t execute beats well, why bother to even use them in choreography?
There are a few bright spots, however. Alexei Ratmansky, for instance, ingeniously integrates batterie into his choreography. “Alexei wasn’t a typical male Russian hero dancer, so he took every opportunity to perform La Sylphide, because he had a very light jump with phenomenally strong feet,” says Beloserkovsky, who danced with Ratmansky in the Ukraine. “He’s a big fan of the sparkle of footwork and beats.”
A greater consciousness about the possibilities of batterie could be embraced by choreographers, teachers, and, of course, dancers. “Beats have been overshadowed by the tricks and the obvious attractions,” says Beloserkovsky. “But if you don’t have them, certain ballets will never be in your repertoire.”
What it takes to excel in beats
• a solid core
• exceptionally secure turnout (especially in à la seconde)
• strength in the inner thighs and adductor muscles
• pliantly resilient feet and toes
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