THE ANCIENT proverb declares that the eyes are the windows to the soul. It follows, therefore, that for effective communication between artist and audience in dance, particularly ballet, which is an extroverted art form, correct use of the eyes is essential. An audience will often notice the expression of the eyes and the grace and co-ordination (or otherwise) of the head and arms of a dancer before commenting on any virtuosic feats, but it is nevertheless an area that is sometimes neglected by teachers perhaps under pressure to achieve the ever-increasing demands of technique.
The late Anne Woolliams (founding dean of Victorian College of the Arts and former director of the Australian Ballet) insists that both areas require equal attention. In her seminal book, Ballet Studio, she argues that the shape of the arms should determine the tilt of head, the light and shade on the face and the expression in the eyes. She adds that when this co-ordination happens unconsciously, it lands “the dancer on the credit side of the enormous gulf between the technically strong and the technically beautiful”.
Robyn White, artistic associate of the Queensland Ballet (QB), agrees that eye line forms a vital part of co-ordination. She teaches students in the QB Junior Extension Program and Professional Year as well as company members that the eyes must always follow the hand. This is in line with the Russian/Vaganova methodology where epaulement is characterised by the harmonious shapes made by the relationship between torso and head as well as the direction of the eyes. White believes this connection of eye to hand makes the whole body relate, allowing the audience to see the thought behind the gesture. And once you have that framework established, she insists, the rest follows. The head and the eyes become freer, which is especially important for ballet dancers attempting contemporary work, when they often encounter difficulty with release of the upper torso and head.
In Joan Lawson’s The Principles of Classical Dance, the “Rules of the Head” state that, while the head leads the movement, the “eyes must be trained to find the direction to be followed before the movement begins because, without training, the eyes will instinctively look straight ahead even when the movement is sideways”. It is very easy for students to forget that the eyes are part of the head, particularly in class where many get used to glancing sideways in the mirror. The eyes should always be pointing in the same direction as the nose, otherwise the dancer comes across as being insincere.
Looking down, such as when watching your feet, invariably causes the chin to drop, destroying the line of the body and setting up potential for tension in the upper chest and shoulders. Woolliams points out that correct alignment of the head, where it balances “loosely” on top of the spine, improves stability and balance, and therefore frees up the eyes to be more clearly expressive.
Focus is extremely important, and not only in turns, jumps and for balancing, where the direction and height of the gaze can determine the position of the weight over the supporting leg. It is also pivotal to the establishment of line. I remember the legendary Miss Beryl Nettleton of the renowned Nettleton Edwards Studio (Auckland), encouraging the class to focus along and past the raised hand in arabesque, to beyond the walls of the studio. It has remained an indelible memory about the importance of focus in creating line. A long line, such as arabesque, demands “a long look”, corroborates Woolliams.
The ill-effects of poorly directed focus can sometimes be seen both in an eisteddfod and examination context. Students sometimes think they should focus their main attention on the one person who is controlling the result – the adjudicator or examiner. Apart from making the recipient of the attention feel uncomfortable, the narrow and very short focus also invariably compromises the dancer’s line.
White wants her dancers to look outwards when walking towards the audience (as in curtain calls) focusing on a particular spot or imaginary person towards the back of the theatre.
She encourages the dancers to actually see what they are looking at. In pas de deux she says dancers should make a choice about what part of their partner’s face they focus on, and to always to make an honest connection with each other.
The eyes, therefore, in symbiotic partnership with the head, arms and hands, assist technically in helping balance and aesthetically in perfecting line. But importantly, as Woolliams says, “they are the most eloquent aid to communication, which after all is what ballet is about”.
This article was first published in the April/May 2011 issue of Dance Australia