Go For Fouetté Gold

The London 2012 Olympics are in full-throttle and we’re currently glued to the TV watching athletes going faster, higher and stronger. Even though in gymnastics – an event so closely associated with performance and artistic values – we now see a noticeable decline in dance and performance quality, incredible feats still make us think of ballet, where technical fireworks like the infamous series of 32 fouetté turns provide thrilling moments on stage.

Pierina Legnani – renowned for her formidable technique – was the first ballerina to ever perform a sequence of 32 fouettés en tournant. The ballet was Petipa’s Cinderella, but when she eventually incorporated this “trick” into Petipa’s Swan Lake, the step became something else: a stroke of genius. Many in the audience were carried away by the thrill in Legnani’s execution and marvelled at the contrast of Odile’s flamboyant manners with Odette’s graceful restraint.

The famous Russian ballet historian and critic Vera Krasovskaya wrote:

Petipa brilliantly set off Ivanov’s Odette, with her elegiac arabesques, against Odile, the bird of prey, with her resilient and commanding attitudes. His skill triumphed in the fouetté – a sequence of thirty two of those highly virtuosic turns – which was no longer a technical stunt but the culmination in the depiction of cunning temptation: the swift repetition of the dancer’s spins put the finishing touches to Odile’s character.

These days, with the evolution of technique and personal abilities in certain roles, the most gifted dancers tend to add an extra dimension to their turns, with multiple pirouettes and or port de bras detailing. Often these extras are at the expense of a perfectly executed series of fouettés. But in a ballet like Swan Lake – where Odile is supposed to be confident and triumphant – just how important are 32 flawless turns?

The Argument for Substitution

In her autobiography, Maya Plisteskaya confesses she had always had trouble with fouettés, so as Odile she opted for a different step (typically a manège of piqué turns and châinés) that was dramatically consistent. Her execution was so fast and exciting that there were very few complaints, as she managed to deliver the same afterglow that fouettés give to the coda:

Likewise, in her debut as Odette/Odile, NYCB’s Sara Mearns (renowned for her artistry and now one of NYCB’s best interpreters of the role) went for 12 fouettés combined with a mànege of piqué turns. In an interview given to Gia Kourlas at the time, she explains this choice:

Your leg, by that time, is dead. When we were in the dress rehearsal, I didn’t really fin­ish the fou­ettés; I just kind of walked around and Mer­rill [Ashley] and Sean Lavery said, “You have to have a plan.” So I did a ver­sion of what I wanted to do: fou­ettés into piqué turns without even pos­ing to go into them, and I was fine with it.

Another case for substitution was made by the superb technician Nadia Nerina. She once had her Odile execute 32 entrechat-six to get back at Nureyev, who had overshadowed Nerina in a previous performance of Giselle. Even though this wasn’t a case of a “Plan B” substitution, it goes to show different technical tricks can be equally effective.

Keep on Turning

One could also argue that Odile’s 32 fouettés are a requirement of the role (they illustrate her excesses and wicked ways and serve as a climax to the Black Act), that the step is like a difficult note in an opera aria. Only “practice makes perfect’ and there are many dance fans and critics who would rather watch “solid singles” than “messy multiples”. A few examples:

ABT’s Gillian Murphy in the coda of the Black Swan Pas de Deux

Murphy is the “Queen of Quads” and of the changing port de bras.

Viengsay Valdés as Odile

There are so many clips of Valdés getting away with amazing tricks (see this clip of Cinderella), but this one just shows her amazing control.

State Ballet of Georgia’s Lali Kandelaki in Don Quixote

Kandelaki barely travels. She also introduces pirouettes à la seconde and changes spots in the second part.

Tamara Rojo on fire as Kitri

Another Kitri: Russian fouettés might not be the prettiest, but look at how fast Natalia Osipova can turn!

Plus five more:

In your opinion, which dancer(s) should take Fouetté Gold? Cast your vote in the comment section or tweet us @theballetbag.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Russian Ballet in the age of Petipa by Lynn Garafola. The Cambridge Companion to Ballet, Edited by Marion Kant. Cambridge University Press; 1st Edition, 2007. ISBN-10: 0521539862.
  2. The Borzoi Book of Ballets by Grace Roberts. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN-10: 1162767057.
  3. Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans. Granta Books, 2011. ISBN-10: 1847082564
  4. The Life of Ballets of Lev Ivanov (in English) by Roland John Wiley. New York City. Oxford University Press (1997).
  5. A Swan is born by Gia Kourlas. Interview with Sara Mearns, TONY, February 2006.
  6. Nadia Nerina Obituary at The Telegraph. October, 2008.

Her favourite ballets feel like good books – one can see them 1,000 times and they always feel fresh. Linda loves Giselle, all full-length MacMillan plus Song of the Earth, Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, Balanchine’s Serenade and Agon, Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations.

5 Comments

  • August 17, 2012

    Amande Concerts

    What an interesting post. My favorite has to be Valdes in Black Swan

  • [...] we have been busy discussing whether only a perfect series of 32 fouettés will do for the character of Odile, the Black Swan, Alice Pennefather dropped by the general rehearsal of ENB’s Swan Lake and [...]

  • August 6, 2012

    lorry

    Ive seen Murphy pull those crazy fouettes/pirouettes live and she’s just mesmerizing. I’m not a fan of fast & messy Russian fouettés at all. I loved the control of Valdes – medal! I’m a big fan of control and precision. Give me French fouettés any day :)

  • August 6, 2012

    Jane Scholl

    Tamara Rojo is the queen of fouettes – so steady – she makes it look easy and fun. Her Odile fouettes are definitely gold!

  • August 6, 2012

    Katherine Barber

    Fantastic post! The pique turn/chaines combo just doesn’t do it for me. And I’m not a fan of the super-fast Russian fouettes (though I admire the technical skill to do them). Ooo, so hard to choose. Viengsay Valdes just makes you gasp out loud. with that gazillionuple pirouette at the end! I guess she gets my vote.