Creating an Artist: What Can We Learn From Europe?

By Andrew Carroll

It has often been remarked that “Europe breeds artistry,” and that, to a certain extent, European dancers have an edge compared to their American counterparts. Looking at the history, culture, and government systems of funding in much of Western Europe, one does not need to be of Einstein-ian intellect to understand these statements. In defense of the American dancers, it is noted that they possess grit, tenacity, and a hunger that exceeds that of some of their European equivalents, yet the elusive artistic core lags or appears untapped in our culture. Certainly the environment of Europe provides a cultural banquet to nourish artistic growth, but does the European approach to training dancers incorporate more diversity, which in turn can contribute to greater creative growth? If so, can American dance schools fashion strategies based on this assumption? More specifically, to create an artist, what lessons can we learn from Europe?

As one may attest, European culture historically provides abundant settings and opportunities to partake in artistic experiences. As most European countries developed through royal courts and their lavish ambiance, the arts flourished as weapons to illustrate the opulence of individual kingdoms. Truly, before our modern-day icons of wealth and power – expensive cars, technology, and other indicators of wealth – the arts provided proof of wealth and status. As such, kingdoms encouraged the growth and necessity of the arts as symbols of aristocracy, which, in turn, engrained an appreciation for arts even in the masses as music, dance, theater, and art trickled down and became established as cultural legacies. In addition, royal courts spent lavish amounts of money and set precedents for subsequently elected and constitutional governments to support the continuity of this way of life for future generations of Europeans. Just walking many city streets of Europe provides enriching cultural experiences: the monuments, museums, historic architecture, and works of art can stimulate and deepen aesthetic knowledge. Indeed, strolling the streets of Paris, London, and other major capitals bequeaths abundant examples of art and the marvels of creativity. This is the legacy of many European monarchies and their respective cities that grew up with this tradition. This heritage includes, of course, the launching of national schools to train artists, which still bear artistic testament today. The national dance schools that blossomed still feature established curriculums that train dance artists via multiple approaches.

Arguably, to a budding dancer, this is an opulent atmosphere in which to “feel cultural” and to become immersed in artistic pursuit. Surely, the environment supports growth and refinement and, more importantly, exposure. This exposure is the key to what, perhaps, is missing in American training, and can be seen as instrumental to the cultivation of more artistic depth. Often, this lack of artistic interpretation has led to statements that European dancers are “better artists.” Undoubtedly, the environment supports this. Yet, beyond this loaded and ripe European setting, which is conducive to artistic imagination, can European tradition and training methods assist other (often envious) environs to foster the creativity necessary for artistic growth?

The national ballet school model, long established by major European ballet companies, possibly provides clues to some strategies. Through conversations with those trained within these select academies, it has been noted that the curriculums mandated as required study provide students and developing artists with exposure to various art forms, which in turn foster creativity on many levels. Ballet, of course, stands at the core of many of these schools, providing the necessary foundations of line, alignment, discipline, and control. Yet, the visionary founders and subsequent leaders realized the value of introducing multiple art forms to dancers creates awareness and opportunities as to how each can contribute to performance. Classes in music theory and in playing a musical instrument provide dancers with the nuances necessary for choreography:  shadings, rhythmic variations, syncopations, lingering and stretching. Classes in theater and mime work on creating honest characters who are believable to an audience. Improvisational study and composition offer essential building blocks for future choreographers. Studies in modern, character, and jazz dance and pas de deux create versatility, so important to the diversity dance companies now require.

Finally, the study of dance history endows students with vital background on what they are presenting to an audience. Indeed, how can a dancer even begin to effectively portray a Myrtha if she does not know that Myrtha is a dead icy queen of dead maidens who died in heartbreak? Or how can a young Prince Siegfried honestly portray his character and appear “artistic” if he does not know that the character has just turned 21 and does not want to accept adult responsibilities and leave childhood behind? If given this information through historical study outside the studio, perhaps he would envision his own sense of impending adulthood and call on that experience to fuel his performance.

This wealth of artistic information given through curricular study, combined with the rich cultural milieu that exists in many European cities, supplies ample exposure for young artists. So how can Americans augment cultural exposure shy of erecting an Eiffel Tower or London Bridge equivalents? (Unlikely!) Conceivably, we could look to the instructional model of the national schools.

Though the U.S. has its share of exceptional dance teachers and schools, the product is more often emphasized rather than the process. “We’re cutting classes in order to rehearse sections of Nutcracker,” I hear. Or, “we need to end class early to practice a routine for the competition next week.” Often  the final product – “being the best/turning the most pirouettes/assembling the largest casts” – trumps true training necessary to succeed in a dance career. Many schools cite lack of time as the crucial issue. Some will state that it’s unfair to compare the private dance school model here in the U.S. to that of the national ballet academies established by long-extant European companies supported by generous government funding. Most assuredly small studio schools in Europe do not offer the same cornucopia of offerings, but their students are able to work toward admittance to these national schools.

Well then, what about the training curriculums of schools associated with major American ballet companies? The major schools have the benefit of professional dancers in residence to provide exposure to artistry, but what of the courses of study? In researching the websites and classes offered by these major schools, the results indicate limited diversity beyond ballet, modern, and character dance (which does provide some diversity, and prepares young dancers for the big story ballets that often incorporate these European genres in the context of the ballet.) The School of American Ballet, which offers music classes and ballroom classes (according to the website), and The Pacific Northwest Ballet School, which offers a history class (per its website) join a few others that realize the significance of augmenting ballet, modern, and character dance. In general, though, the curriculums focus on the physical aspects (yes, very important), but neglect additional studies to enrich artistic exposure.

So, is there a way and a desire to adapt a more European approach to training here, specifically in regards to exposure? Absolutely. The major schools, which traditionally have trained some terrific technicians, might consider adding dance and art history to their courses of study, to give students background and character information that they then could utilize to fashion interpretations. Studies in music should be encouraged, and perhaps some sort of art appreciation courses could be instrumental to introducing other art forms, so needed in our present age of multi-disciplinary collaborations. Mime, theater, voice, and other genres can also be encouraged.

At the local level, in the private studio schools, which also have produced some brilliant technicians, the exposure to the arts might be more limited, especially in smaller cities. Without the benefit of having a professional company on hand to provide artistic stimulation, the task of exposure is more challenging than that of the major schools. However, there are tactics that could be employed to mimic the European approach. Field trips by schools to dance events, museums, orchestras, and art openings might instill inspiration and begin the process of artistic awareness. Teachers could offer short history lectures, or better yet, assign students to research ballets on the Internet to learn their stories and characters, and then augment that process by asking them to find related YouTube videos of the ballets being researched (what student, dance or not, does not spend time on the Internet?). Workshops in music, theater, mime, and composition could support growth of artistic sensibility and understanding of integrating artistic approaches toward one’s own presentation.

The traditional European approach to dance training as defined by the national schools not only created fine dancers, but established training methods that fully embrace the idea of incorporating the arts as a whole to create a whole dance artist. American schools may lack this rich tradition, but they can strive to integrate many of these approaches to begin the process of refining a more complete artist.

Andrew Carroll has an extensive background in the performing arts, which includes performing nationally and internationally for nine years as a soloist with the Pennsylvania Ballet Company in Philadelphia, and a principal with the Ohio Ballet prior to that. His career spanned performing throughout the United States as well as appearing throughout South America, China, and Europe. In 1994, he was named one of six cultural ambassadors to the City of Philadelphia. In 1996, Carroll joined the College of Creative and Professional Arts at The University of Akron, teaching advanced levels of ballet, ballet history and choreography. He was director of The University of Akron Dance Company for 13 years, and helped to organize and plan numerous campus residencies and outreach programs, including with The David Parsons Dance Company, Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet, Doug Varone and Dancers, among others. He has been a master teacher, choreographer, and guest artist at Towson University, Grande Valley University, Verbs Ballets, The Rock School, The Ohio Ballet and The Canton Ballet. In 2010, Carroll accepted the position of assistant professor of ballet at the University of South Florida, Tampa, teaching ballet, history, partnering and choreographing. He has since presented internationally for IUGTE in Austria, and is currently researching popular culture and its impact on dance. Carroll holds a BFA in dance and an MA in arts administration.


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