While scrolling through social media, I recently stumbled upon some thoughts that George Balanchine had regarding plié. These quotations started me thinking about how I teach plié and how each teacher passes on the art form to their students, as one generation trains the next.
I have never been a teacher who parrots back to my students what I had been taught. Rather I have always preferred to take the knowledge and training and experience that I have and look at it in a totally new way. I have allowed this information to live in my body, grow in my consciousness, and develop in my heart. And with this as my “jumping off point”, I have always tried to bring some thing deep, rich, and personal to my teaching.
The mechanics of a grande plié in first position are known to, and understood by, every ballet teacher: starting in first position, the dancer bends their knees, with a neutral pelvis, knees tracking over the toes, until the knees can bend no further while maintaining the heels on the floor. The heels will then come off the floor, allowing the dancer to reach the depth of the grand plié. The dancer then begins to straighten their knees for the ascent, heels touching the ground as soon as possible, the knees then continuing to straighten until the dancer has reached the starting position with perfectly straight knees. This grand plié is typically coordinated with one of several standard, agreed-upon, port de bras.
But dancing is so much more than mechanics, and a grand plié is so much more than what I have outlined above.
Pliés must always be in motion. They must be timed out to the music and executed at the correct speed, so that the dancer never stops at any point during the descent or ascent. There is a tendency for dancers to stop at the depth of the grand plié and then again when the heels first touch the floor as the knees straighten. These pauses in the motion must be avoided at all costs. Ballet is so often taught as a series of positions. In my opinion, Ballet is not an art of positions but rather an art of movements; the movement from one position to the next, and the movement that occurs internally, within each position.
A beautiful quality of movement is often developed by finding resistance against the space and the dancer must find that resistance as the plié descends and ascends equally. I have often asked my students to imagine that their head is touching the ceiling. As they begin each plié, I ask them to “press their head up against the ceiling” maintaining a long straight spine, and developing that sense of resistance. When the heels begin to come off the floor, I ask them to keep “pressing them down“. The energy of the heels should be working down toward the ground as they lift, thereby maintaining the heels as close to the ground as possible and continuing that feeling of resistance. As the dancer begins the ascent, the heels continue to press into the ground, the dancer getting the heels down as soon as possible, and then, as if there were a balloon or a pillow between their knees, the dancer “squeezes” up from the bottom of the demi plié. Regardless of which port the teacher prefers, it must be executed with that same feeling of resistance. I have always liked the image of “dancing inside a block of wet cement”; the arm connecting to the back and pressing through the “wet cement“ to create that resistance against the space.
Most ballet teachers will also ask students to have their eyes and head follow the hand that is moving. Classical ballet technique is filled with information regarding how the head should be held, positioned and moved and where the eyes should be looking. I have found that these simple directions will often cause students to develop a “blank ballerina stare“. Although I do believe that the eyes and the head need to follow the hand that is moving, I believe that the student needs to “see“ something much more interesting than their hand (whatever that may be for them), bringing something interesting and engaging to the work that they are doing with their eyes and their head.
Lastly there is the character associated with the grand plié. In my opinion, every step, every movement, every element of ballet has an associated character. I’ve always seen the grand plié as being simple, elegant yet majestic. I see so many dancers indulging in a “syrupy sweet“ overly emotional port de bras, head position, and quality of movement when executing grand plié. I ask my students to search for that elegance, search for that majesty and to use the music as a guide in finding that character. I usually prefer music for plies to be in a duple (4/4) meter rather than triple (3/4) meter. I find this helps convey a quality of simplicity and regal majesty that I prefer for a grand plié. I am so fortunate that I work with incredibly talented pianists who are very skilled at finding exactly the right piece of music for each exercise. When I do need to use recorded music, I always take the time to find the selection that conveys exactly the feeling for which I am searching.
Obviously, it would be impossible to explain all of this exhaustive, and probably ridiculously detailed, information in every class; the students would never have the patience to listen to it, and there would be no time for dancing. But I try to infuse each lesson with a little bit of this information; cultivating over time, a rich, nuanced, beautiful grand plié.