Covent Garden ballet dancers have been lifting their legs higher and higher

For the last 50 years or more, ballet dancers performing The Sleeping Beauty at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden have been raising their legs progressively higher. This trend, identified by Elena Daprati and colleagues, provides a wonderful example of how aesthetic form evolves over time, reflecting a mix of changing audience taste and artistic creativity.

Deprati’s team collected photographic and video archive material from performances of a single piece of choreography – the “Rose Adagio” of Act 1 of The Sleeping Beauty – that has been performed in near identical fashion for decades according to strict tradition.

Despite the strict rules, the researchers found that between 1946 and 2004 dancers have been progressively increasing the vertical angle of their leg raises. The dancers’ aim appears to have been to increase the vertical line of their whole body, rather than to merely raise their leg as high as possible. If leg height was the aim, then we’d expect to see body position lean outwards to aid leg height, but in fact body position has remained relatively constant.

It’s unlikely this trend for steeper leg angles is simply a reflection of dancers becoming more bendy and agile over the years. The same trend was seen even for relatively easy positions in which the leg-raising dancer is supported by a partner.

Moreover, the researchers converted the old and new dance positions into stick men and quadrilateral shapes (by connecting the end point of each limb), and found that 12 non-expert participants consistently showed a preference for the more modern positions.

It’s not clear whether this means audience taste has been influenced by the dancers’ steeper leg raises (this seems unlikely given the participants were non-expert) or if instead the dancers have aspired to meet audience taste and demand. Most likely, the consistent yet gradual change over time reflects an interaction between artistic innovation and audience aesthetic taste. It would be fascinating to know what an audience from the 1940s would make of the new style. Alas, this is surely impossible to test. Even if participants were recruited who enjoyed ballet in the 1940s, their tastes could well have been influenced over the years.

“At a time of increasing interaction between science and art, our work makes the strong and timely methodological point that artistic culture can be studied scientifically,” the researchers said. “Artistic culture, like other human behaviours, is dynamic, measurable, and rooted in human sensory and motor experience.”

Daprati, E., Iosa, M., & Haggard, P. (2009). A Dance to the Music of Time: Aesthetically-Relevant Changes in Body Posture in Performing Art. PLoS ONE, 4 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005023

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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