Classical ballet is one of the more conservative of art forms. Dancers express emotion and character through the same vocabulary of postures that was originally set in 1760, and often with entire choreographies that have been handed down for centuries.
But even amid this rigorous cascade of tradition, there is room for change. Over the years, successive generations of ballet dancers have subtly tinkered with positions that are ostensibly fixed and limited by the physical constraints of a dancer’s body. The only changes ought to be a result of the dancers’ varying abilities. But that’s not the case – over the last 60 years, the position of a dancer’s has become increasingly vertical, with the moving leg in particular being lifted ever higher.
Elena Daprati from the University of Rome thinks that these tweaks have been driven by social pressures from audiences. When she reduced pictures of dancers to stick-figure drawings, she found that even people who have never seen a ballet prefer the postures of modern dancers to those of dancers 60 years ago. The results suggest that art can change very gradually because of constant interactions between performers and their audiences.
Almost more importantly, they show that the usually unquantifiable world of artistic expression can be studied with a scientific lens. In this case, the formal nature of classical ballet gave Daprati a rare opportunity to do so. Body postures could be objectively analysed, movements are standardised enough to allow for easy comparisons, and most of all, performances have been carefully archived for decades. That provided Daprati’s group with more than enough raw material for studying the evolution of ballet postures over time.