Bourrée Girl

What’s a bourrée girl?

Posted in About by bourreegirl on April 13, 2010

“Bourrées,” explains Suzanne Farrell in her memoir, Holding On to the Air, “the small, light, fast, traveling movements of the toes on pointe with straight legs, are one of ballet’s most basic, most beautiful, and most difficult steps to master.” (Yes, they came from a folk dance step meant to suggest a drunken stagger, but they’re not supposed to look like that anymore.) They lent mystery and ethereality to the sylphs of the Romantic ballet, delicacy and precision to the classical Sugarplum Fairy. When Kenneth Macmillan’s Juliet was transported by love, she was transported by bourrées. And Farrell says, “Bourrées were of extreme importance to Balanchine” and “appear in virtually all his ballets.” In other words, through a series of technical and expressive revolutions in ballet, this step has remained “relevant” for dancers, as many of us feel ballet remains relevant for humans.

And when I started going to dance performances with the explicit intent of reviewing them, I noticed a lot of bad ones. Almost no bad dancing, really, but almost no good bourrées. I wasn’t homing in on them on purpose, but I noticed that I was starting to despair of seeing any good ones. When I finally did, I thought they said something about the dancers who performed them, or the choreographers who’d set them. The quality of the bourrées in a ballet could, I thought, be a sign for the qualities ballet lovers look for in both old and new works: attention to detail. Dedicating time and respect to perfecting something small. Artistry in service to illusion, expressivity and mood. A moment of suspension, the hum of a tiny bird whose wings and heart beat faster than anything.

With all that in mind, you’re totally justified in asking, is Bourrée Girl the best you could come up with? Clumsy, isn’t it—I mean, you just added “Girl” on to the word and called it a blog? Are you wrapping yourself in a bourrée flag, are you sitting in the catbird seat, are you claiming some kind of finicking superiority beyond the normal critical realm or perhaps suggesting that your own personal bourrées are something to see?

No. I don’t do pointe anymore, and when I did I didn’t have any particular sense that I was one of the world’s bourrée greats. (Not that I don’t remember with great fondness the bourrées Ann Smolen generously assigned me for my first solo, but I was twelve and most of you weren’t there.) And I’m not claiming to have a higher standard than ballet critics generally; we’re all allowed our preoccupations, but I think we all want pretty much the same thing from a performance. The other question, of course, is Thurber’s.

Am I then setting myself up as a Bourrée Defender, swooping in wherever bourrées are threatened or suffering? Mmmmaybe. But honestly, this is the most space I’m going to give to the bourrée in any entry, ever. It’ll come up, but mainly, I’m going to talk about the ballets I see, praising the partnering and the lighting, complaining about the costumes and the music, speculating on the artists’ sources of inspiration and funding, and passing along amusing remarks overheard in the ladies’ room line.

I named this blog after a line in a book. When Balanchine was creating the role of Dulcinea in Don Quixote, Farrell wrote in her memoir, he  “knew that the only way to make his dancers practice a certain movement enough was to put it in a ballet where the public would be watching, so Dulcinea became a ‘bourrée’ girl . . .” The phrase isn’t mine, but it suits my purpose. Dulcinea, an idealist’s ideal, is a bourrée girl. “Bourrée Girl” is going to be a home for an idealist’s ideals. And it’s possible that the only way I’m going to practice dance writing enough is to put it in a place where someone can see it.

What about the baroque dance form called the bourrée? It’s really a different thing, and someone else can do a blog about that one. What about the Flemish folk-rock band Kadril’s “Bourrée de la belle inconnue”? I like it. I like the hurdy-gurdy, and I like the poster’s comment that the French folk dance “is sometimes described as the seduction dance, where one only uses the eyes to seduce.” But that could be made up. Anyone can write anything online.