I love watching great dancers perform pirouettes, with endless turns done effortlessly. However, I know how difficult pirouettes are as I struggled with them in may dancing days many years ago; no matter how much I watched Mikhail Baryshnikov video tapes and practiced, I was not a great turner.
Even more difficult are pirouettes on pointe performed by women (with few exceptions, only women wear pointe shoes). A pirouette on pointe is more difficult than turns in ballet flats (slippers) on relevé. The turning surface on pointe is very small relative to turns on relevé and any imperfection in the turn or lean in one direction will throw the dancer off. I looked at a pointe shoe toe box that is in contact with the ground and compared it with the turning surface of a dancer on relevé. The turning surface on pointe is much smaller, probably 30%-40% of the area that a dancer relies on when on relevé. The smaller turning surface on pointe means the dancer is less stable during the turn. It is not uncommon for men, who wear ballet slippers, to do more than three pirouettes. However, it is a much more difficult task for a woman on pointe to perform three or more pirouettes.
ABT’s Gillian Murphy is a great turner on pointe and makes multiple turns with great form look easy. For an interview on pointe shoes, I asked her about her approach to turning and any advice she could give to young dancers:
I’m always finding new ways to approach pirouettes. Finding a natural rhythm and spotting coordination are most helpful and is highly unique to the individual dancer. I find that dancers generally get so tense right before they turn that it can throw them off. The entire body needs to be engaged and the legs must be ready to fire quickly. All this comes from dynamic barre work. In addition, there also has to be a balanced sense of freedom in the supported but lush plié and in relaxing the neck enough to spot effectively.
Most importantly, I would encourage young dancers to enjoy turning as a part of dancing rather than as a separate and scary “trick.” Turning can be exciting to watch (and I love the feeling of turning!) but in fact, many of my favorite dancers usually do solid and beautiful double turns. It is their artistry and musicality that set them apart as truly exceptional.
My ballet video dictionary features Gillian in fouettés and pirouettes on pointe. In the first video above demonstrating fouettés from Swan Lake, Gillian’s consistency in hitting second position (leg to the side in the air) on every turn is remarkable as she alternates between single and triple turns. Her arms are unvarying, with her right arm always slightly lower than her left, with her upper body steady. To illustrate her great symmetry throughout her turns, I capture still frames of Gillian in second position (2:30). Look how each frame is remarkably similar. Less proficient turners move downstage, alter their arm positions, and vary the height of their leg to the side, making the turns look awkward and off-kilter.
The Mariinsky’s Olesya Novikova is in the second clip from Don Quixote. Noteworthy is the aggressive movement of her right arm as it moves in perfect unison with her right leg during the whipping motion at the beginning of the turn. Very nice.
The second video below shows Gillian doing triple en dehors pirouettes (turns toward the working leg-a dancer in fourth position with right leg in back would turn in a clockwise direction) from Le Corsaire. In the second clip, Gillian does a triple pirouette to a double turn in attitude position (leg bent behind her), a very difficult sequence from Swan Lake.