Paradoxical Control: How Romantic and Enlightenment aesthetics are created in ballet today

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Classical ballet is indisputably a cultural product: its forms, themes, and images all derive from the cultures and time periods in which the dance form was created and developed. Two especially important times in the shaping of ballet as it is recognized today were the Enlightenment and the Romantic era. The most important aesthetic results of these contexts are the idea of perfection through symmetry and geometric form, the imagery of yearning tension, and the illusion of weightlessness and ethereality, the defiance of gravity. While superficially opposed, one glorifying the rational and the other idealizing the unexplainable, the two movements in fact merged harmoniously in dance, and this combination itself gives ballet its particular aesthetic. It is in the use of control to create the illusion of freedom that the ideals of the Enlightenment and the Romantic era meet and merge to create and execute the specific aesthetic ideals of ballet. In this paper, after introducing the cultural and historical bases of the particular aesthetics of ballet, I will attempt to explain, using the laws of physics, how the image of weightlessness and suspension is created in the movement vocabulary of ballet. I will also outline how a dancer, understanding the laws and predictions of physics, can use this understanding to consciously extend her body and her dancing to appear just past the limits of gravity in order to create the illusion promoted by Romantic era ideals. A final section will discuss how these illusions are conveyed to an audience through the lens of neuroscientific inquiry, another significant product of the Enlightenment. These discussions will also highlight the overarching theme that unifies these three disparate points: a desire to attain the unattainable and the worth of the endeavor towards that unachievable goal. The Enlightenment posits physics, empiricism, and logical thought as the most valuable ways to understand the world while Romanticism seeks to display that which cannot be understood. Ballet takes both and combines them, using physics to predict how the world should work and then going against that expectation to create the illusion of being unaffected by these laws.



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Lipkin, Anna (2014). Paradoxical Control: How Romantic and Enlightenment aesthetics are created in ballet today. Honors thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from

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