Auguste Vestris


"L'en-dehors dans le marbre"

(The Turnout, as it appears in Marble)

On the Occasion of the Praxiteles Exhibition at the Louvre

Paris, April 9th 2007

Forwarded by an amiable third party, this author has now had the opportunity to read, carefully, the article by S. Dancre and Ph. de Lustrac in the March 2007 issue of "Danser", entitled "L'en-dehors dans le marbre" (The Turnout, as it appears in Marble) and written to herald a major Praxiteles exhibition that has just opened this past March 23rd. at the Louvre.

Anything that calls for over five minutes' research in a dance publication today is so unusual an occurrence, that one can only applaud the aforesaid article, despite premises that are not entirely solid.

The authors' thesis, argued somewhat confusedly, is that the ancient Greeks "invented" the turnout. They further muddy the issue, by expressing uncertainty as to whether it were "invented" by the Greek sculptors, or by their soldiers and athletes, and write,

"(the Greeks) had noted that by widening the normal aperture of the feet, by rotating the leg outwards.... they could increase both the amplitude of leg movement, mobility, stability, and balance".

This, they say, was observed from life, and taken into Greek sculpture from whence it meandered, through Italy, into the ballet:

"Nowhere [save in classical Greek sculpture] could the Renascence artists have found a precedent [for the turned-out position] ... that position having been invented outright by Greek art." (nulle part ailleurs les artistes de la Renaissance n'auraient pu trouver l'exemple (...) une complète invention de l'art grec.)

As it happens, neither in art nor in life did the Greeks "invent" the turnout.

As a conscious act, as a verb, the turnout is ancient, and probably dates from the period of the Vedic Hymns - six, seven or eight thousand years ago, we are not entirely sure.

How do we know this?

Bear with me.

The Greek language, like all European tongues save for the Finno-Ugaric, is actually a form, and in the case of ancient Greek, a very proximate form indeed, of Sanskrit, of which the Vedic Hymns are said to be the divine expression.

More so actually than prose, serious poetry is the basic form of language (the spoken language being closer to poetry than prose), and it rests upon meter, i.e. a standard of measurement (iambs, trochees, dactyls ...).

The modal forms of music that accompanied the Sanskritic hymns, and that underly Western tonal music, express, though more abstractly, such measurement, understood here as precise frequencies, and the lawful (including dissonance, corresponding to dissymetry in the plastic arts and dance) relations between those frequencies. A many-tiered notion, metrics also means the way time is divided, which in turn includes both length (quantity in poetry) and stress (emphasis).

There is poetry, there is music, and there is dancing.

Any culture with a science of metrics so evolved as that of the Vedic hymns, must have experimented with the turnout: the relationship between the three basic forms of art - poetry, music and dancing - being inextricable. In a culture where one of the three is so manifestly scientific, the other two will be so perforce. Even had we no tangible proof - and tangible proof we do have - of the turnout's great antiquity, we could adduce it from that evidence.

On the Indian sub-continent, the earliest, major theoretical work on the dance as a theatrical art form is known as the Natya Shastra, believed on the Indian sub-continent to be divinely inspired. I am sorry to say that I have not read its 36 volumes, although I am acquainted with certain of its ideas. This work is, at the very least, 2500 years old, and the technical basis to which it refers, considerably older. The Natya Shastra antedates Praxiteles (active around 360 BC), by at least a century, and probably by two or three centuries.

To the authors of the Natya Shastra, the turnout was a known and established fundamental of the dance, as one sees from pre-Christian era Indian statuary of dancing Gods, demi-Gods and devotees, where the turnout is a more pronounced and central technical feature, than in the work of Praxiteles.

Just as we in Europe have never ceased to speak "Sanskrit", as that manifests itself in modern European tongues, so the Indian dance never died out in Europe, but has remained, like a trace element, in trace form, glinting here and there amongst the so-called "popular" or "folkloric" dances both on the Continent and in the British Isles.

Now, S. Dancre and Ph. de Lustrac pursue their argument thus,

[at the time of the Italian Renascence] "dancers gradually, and quite empirically, acquired a vaster faculty for movement, by imitating as though passively, the turnout as shown by Greek statuary" (ce fut la simple imitation presque passive de l'en-dehors montré par les statues grecques [par les danseurs] qui leur permit l'acquisition progressive et tout empirique de capacités de mouvement plus étendues).

Sorry, but I do not really see this.

Counter-proof is very close to hand, at Munich in fact, through an example not Italian at all, nor even German, really, and that reveals a turnout so marked, in positions so nearly identical to those of European classical dancing, that it would immediately be recognised in any Academy today. Definitely not a "gradual" acquisition of turnout by "passive" imitation.

I refer to the group carved in wood, by one of the finest sculptors of the German Renascence, Erasmus Grasser. It is known as the "Morisken Taenzer", and so priceless that the Munich Museum has devoted an entire room to house the ten small statues that remain of the original sixteen. The Group is nearly 600 years old!

In English, "Morisken" means Morisco (converted Spanish Muslims), and more loosely, Moorish, the Moors, the Moroccans, the North Africans - in fact, the exquisite dancing figures are probably strolling players, Jews and Muslims come up from Spain, who reflect a direct Indian dance-influence into Spain through the Silk Road.

Apart from the turnout, the most striking feature of the Moorish Figures, is the sweeping épaulement.

As it happens, the reason we turn out the leg from the hip is NOT to increase the amplitude of leg movement. Neither soldiers nor athletes (Greek examples given by the aforesaid authors) use, or need, turnout beyond the normal, physiological 30 degrees (la marche en épi de blé), and yet their amplitude of movement is phenomenal, look at the stride of a marathon runner.

The purpose of turning out is to increase the amplitude of upper-body movement, relative to the legs. It is THEATRICAL, and its sole purpose is expression. The turnout allows the dancer to create two entirely separate planes that are counter-posed, as the stability of the lower body becomes such, that the upper body is freed to act expressively.

Stand on the diagonal, feet parallel. Then sweep the torso into épaulement, backwards and forwards along the diagonal, without freezing or blocking the foot. The heel of both feet will straightaway be drawn into turn out! Épaulement and turn-out hold in a natural and necessary relation. Under the impact of Balanchine, much if not all current teaching of the classical academic dance has striven, unfortunately, to dissociate the two.

Épaulement corresponds to the term contrapposto in the Renascence plastic arts. Painting itself, can be seen as a branch of theatre - it is meant, like theatre, to be LOOKED AT. Though the en-face can on occasion be used to great effect, as can stark profile, plainly, a painting whose subjects stare flat-on (en face) conveys but a narrow range of Affects, as one gathers from the paucity of Cubism and similar schools.

Dynamis and morphè

Finally, one welcomes what is perhaps the most important issue raised - though again, confusedly - by S. Dancre and Ph. de Lustrac, in respect of the Greek terms dynamis and morphè.

Our authors write,

"alternant des masses musculaires et des membres les uns contractés et en action, les autres au repos, ils étaient parvenus à exprimer l'essence même du corps, son dynamisme (de dunamis, " force, puissance ") l'autre étant sa forme (morphè). ("... in alternating muscular groups and limbs, some contracted and in action, the others at rest, [the Greeks] had managed to express the very essence of the body, its dynamism (from the Greek, dynamis, force, power) and its form (Greek, morphè)".

To be precise, the term "dynamis" in classical Greek, is used in contra-distinction to "energeia".

Dynamis would correspond to the Renascence use, in Italian, of the word "virtù" (in the mind) and also, to "impetu" (in physics), while energeia, is the consuming of the power to work, that is unleashed by this "impetu". Energeia may be a substance or process visible to the eye, while dynamis is a process invisible, or rather visible to the mind only, which is why dynamis, in New Testament Greek, is sometimes used to mean "unleashing a miracle"- appositely enough.

In the classical dance, we are dealing not with the application or injection of power or force, as such, into movement, but with the relationship between "virtù" and the forms. As is well known, most ballet dancers are slightly-built individuals, with a light bone structure, as the wear-and-tear on a heavy skeleton would be too great. How can so frail a structure cover the stage at one leap, unleash variations blinding in their virtuosity or create new thought-objects, as fresh, as vivid as the waves of the sea? It cannot be by the application of power, or force, because those frail bones would break and shatter at the mere touch of Dynamis, that manifests a Will greater than the physical, human body could normally bear. The Forms, the Morphè, that correspond to the Russian notion of plastique, are both the buffer for Dynamis, and the vehicle through which it is expressed, as one sees in the work of a truly great dancer such as Thibault. One form dissolves into the next, through releasing the opposition - that is épaulement, while the impetus to do so, is the Dynamis.

Now, as Roger Tully insists, Form is Function, while the entwining of the two, creates meaning.

What meaning may lie behind the forms?

Returning to Praxiteles, whose presence at the Louvre has touched off this whole debate, the material sculptures cannot be separated from the theological ideas that animate them. Praxiteles was active shortly after the time of Socrates. His work, from which all degradation, self-inflicted or otherwise, is absent, reflects the Homeric, and then Socratic notion, that the body is the temple of Man's soul, and that this soul is something immortal. That Man's reason is a still centre, lawful, ever-present, more efficient in its action than the many-headed madness raining down from Olympus.

Before the invention of moveable type, it took endless hundred years for an idea, no matter how great, to wend its way through the world. Thus, the impact of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ did not express itself fully as a shock-wave greater than anything known to recorded history, until the explosion of genius during the Italian Renascence.

Amongst the countless manifestations of that shock-wave, was a deep change in the Affects known to the dance.

Now, according to the Natya Shastra, the Affects (Rasa), are nine in number:

Sringar (love), Vira (heroism), Bibhista (disgust), Raudra (anger), Hasya (mirth), Bhayankara (terror), Karuna (pity), Adbhuta (wonder), Shantha (tranquility) and Vatsalya (parental affection).

The fundamental Affect in the Indian classical dance, is deemed to be Bliss (Ananda), which is, in essence, a state of ecstatic contemplation.

This cannot be described as identical in every respect, to the idea of sacrifice known to the Christians, amongst whom Beethoven was a leading figure two centuries ago. That sacrifice is, in art, expressed through the conscious paroxysm of effort, undertaken by the artist in order to express to one's fellow man, the fullness, the beauty, the dignity of life.

In Beethoven's day, and through his inspiration, experiments with transcendental difficulty were conducted in the main, at the Paris Opera, to the effect, that the Western classical dance finally freed itself from the Nine Rasas only. It left this earth. The dance of great elevation became a dance of great spiritual elevation.

The thoughts, feelings and emotions that characterise it, as indefinite as they are infinite in variety, are real, and they are all orientated, they have a directionality, and they are a force. This force is not Bliss (Ananda), although it partakes of it. It is a benign, a benevolent power, the equivalent of a Platonic Form, shimmering, infrangible and eternal. The Affect behind all Affects in the Western classical dance is thus not Dualism, an unending struggle between unconquerable evil faced with obstinate good, but a declaration of the Good.

The Aphrodite of Knidos

More generally, the Praxiteles Exhibition affords indications as to what may be the classic ideal, in the dance, and how that pertains to the considerations on "action" raised by the authors of the "Danser" essay.

The Exhibition presents two major replicas of an Aphrodite of Knidos believed to be by Praxiteles (original lost), one dating from 150 BC, known as "the Kaufmann head" (from the von Kaufmann Collection) and the other, from about the First Century AD, found at Martres-Tolosane and now held at the Musée Saint-Raymond at Toulouse.

Both heads would qualify as a masterpiece of sculpture.

Only one, however, entirely meets the criteria for the classic ideal, and that is the Kaufmann head.

The Martres-Tolosane head is that of a real woman, of great personal beauty. The glance looks out, if not boldly, at least frankly, and frontally. The lips appear to speak and breathe, their curve is utterly real, and sensuous, as is the incline of the slightly over-long neck. Although every extraneous detail has been put aside, nevertheless, the personage is real.

The Kaufmann Head, almost three centuries older, can only be that of a God.

Everything in the countenance is organised to draw the viewer to a gaze bent neither to the past, nor to the present nor to the future, but to eternal time. That is why the chin of the Kaufmann Head is slightly pointed, as opposed to the slightly-squared and faintly-dimpled chin of the Martres-Tolosane head - the eye will not rest on the chin, that becomes a vanishing line, but is rather drawn upwards. The incline of the head too, is slighter: as opposed to the sensuous curve of the Martres-Tolosane figure, that of the Kaufmann Head speaks of the Affect "Lost in Thought", very remote from any purely aesthetic or hedonistic consideration.

Strongly dissymetric, the Kaufmann Head cannot properly be observed en face, whence it is quite enigmatic, although the tutto tondo is close to perfection - neither from the back, nor from the side, nor from below can one catch out a dead angle, while from wherever one view it, the spiritual force hovers, perfectly steady. The countenance's right side expresses the Affects of Assured, Divine Determination, while the left, is lost in Divine Speculation on the course of events. It is the instant before all action.

Dancers will know this as the gathering or collecting upon oneself, in the instant before unleashing the firestorm.

In the Martres-Tolosane Head, dissymetry is used more to naturalistic effect, and to spur on aesthetic interest, than to philosophic.

Although in the theatre, the particular character that one portrays may literally bring us down to earth with a thud, the Affects that inform the action peculiar to the actual technique of classical dancing, the Instant before all Action, are more closely akin to those of the Kaufmann Head, than that at Toulouse.

A voyage on which this "little" matter of the turnout has launched us.

Note (1): In late March, Henri Charbonnier, Inspector of Dance, presented a paper on the history of the turnout at the Conservatoire du XIème arrondissement, that this writer was regrettably unable to attend. Reports would be welcomed.

Note (2) - Strongly turned-out dancing figures, in silver, have also been found in the Ukraine, dating from the Tenth or Eleventh Century - several hundred years before the Renascence.

Note (3) - The Praxiteles Exhibition at the Louvre does have shortcomings.

First and foremost, the "explanatory" texts posted up on the walls beside the sculpture, are anything but: they teem with Greek expressions that will literally be Greek to the layman.

Perhaps more importantly, the layman will be quite baffled by the throng of Hellenistic, Roman and modern copies - in some cases, outright pastiches - of Praxiteles, notably the Phryne and 'Apollo Sauroktonos' sections.

Thirdly, the translation of the explanatory texts into the English leaves greatly to be desired. For example, we read, "While in the 18th Century, the progress of archeology imposed a conclusion to the most illogical restoration." Translated from the translation, what that says in plain English is that scientific progress finally put a halt to amateurish and incompetent attempts at restoring ancient works of art. Surely the Louvre, even in this Day of Darwinian austerity, can afford the services of a native English-speaker?