The feat of the fouette

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Pierini Legnani (c 1896), the first dancer to perform the 32 fouettes.
Pierina Legnani (c 1896), the first dancer to perform the 32 fouettes.

One of the best known bravura feats in a classical ballerina’s repertoire is the 32 fouettes. They are a balletomane’s favourite moment. The dancer walks purposefully to the centre of the stage, focuses, prepares, and then starts to pirouette, releveing on pointe on one leg while the other whips around her. She completes eight, then 16, you think she will finish, but the music keeps going, maybe changes key, and still she keeps turning, 20, 24, 28, 32, until she finally finishes with a flourish. They are a triumphant defiance of normal expectations of strength, balance and dizziness. 

Traditionally the 32 fouettes (full name fouette rond de jamb en tournant), are always performed in two of the most famous showpieces in the ballet repertoire – the famous Black Swan pas de deux in Swan Lake and the virtuoso wedding pas de deux in Don Quixote. They turn up in other ballets as well, such as La Bayadere and Paquita, but not many demand the full thirty two. 

The 32 fouettes require impeccable control, timing and balance and take many years to master. They demand strength of the supporting leg and foot, perfect coordination of the arms and legs and the ability to “spot” so as to not get dizzy. The dancer must judge the amount of force required to keep turning and pull up her body into a compact unit. She is not supposed to wobble or move off the spot. And all this while performing under a blinding spotlight, in time to the conductor’s baton and a live orchestra and often in front of an audience of thousands of judging eyes.

Fouettes are a moment when the human body gambles with the forces of nature – gravity, torsion and speed. Like tightrope walking, juggling or Olympic snow jumping, they have that element of danger that occurs when years of training are pitted against the unpredictability of chance. A tiny lift of the shoulder or misalignment of the hip and and it could all go horribly wrong. They are a heart-in-the-mouth physical demonstration that not everything in life can be controlled. But when it is, we marvel.

The first ballerina to perform 32 fouettes on pointe was the Italian Pierina Legnani, who was making her debut in a performance of Cinderella in 1893 in St Petersburg. The choreographer Michel Fokine, then a student, was a witness. “She turned with amazing force and assurance,” he recorded breathlessly, “standing on one toe in the centre of the stage and without moving an inch from the spot. The artists were awestruck by her virtuosity and expressed their approval with thunderous applause at each rehearsal.” So impressed were the Russians that they immediately began learning the Italian method. 

Two years later, Legnani went on to star in the leading role of the Swan Queen in the first full-length successful production in what is possibly the most famous ballet of all time -- Swan Lake. Her astonishing feat of 32 fouettes was included in the choreography. Thus the 32 fouettes were written into ballet history and into the role that has become the ultimate testing ground of any ballerina. 

Despite advances in athleticism and technique, performing the full 32 fouettes on stage is still a challenge. Many of the greatest dancers of the past – Pavlova, Alexandra Danilova, Maya Plisetskaya – avoided them, and Margot Fonteyn was criticised for wandering around the stage as she spun. More recently,Misty Copeland, the African/American principal of American Ballet Theatre – known for her strong technique – couldn’t complete the full 32 in a performance of Swan Lake. She was rudely and publicly criticised as a “failure” by an audience member in a twitter exchange that went viral. 

Copeland countered that a ballerina should not be defined by how many fouettes she executes. The 32 fouettes, she said, had an artistic intent and were not a mere display of “insane tricks”. “The point is to finish the third act with a whirlwind movement that sucks [the prince] in just one last time before it’s revealed that Odile is not Odette”. 

Some dancers love doing the fouettes, and will even throw in extra turns or flourishes of the arms. Ako Kondo, principal artist of the Australian Ballet, is the company’s unofficial “fouette queen”. “I like doing them,” she declares. “I really enjoy challenging myself. I’m aways the first to to want to do them in class. My teacher in Japan would say, ‘you have to be able to 64 in class if you want to 32 on stage’. That really helps me when I have to come forward and do them after a marathon like Swan Lake.”

As Copeland reminds us, ballet is an art with its own rules and technique is its language. “Insane trick” or pertinent choreographic moment, ballerina’s joy or bane, the 32 fouettes are engraved in ballet history and are unlikely to wobble off stage in the future. 


 This article first appeared in The Australian Ballet’s Balletomane magazine.



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