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The Redefining of a Dancer's Body : Many are pumping iron to meet the demands of modern choreography

March 18, 1990|GIGI BERARDI | Berardi, a free-lance writer, is the author of "Finding Your Balance," a health and fitness book for dancers, due this year from Princeton.

Before each of his San Francisco Ballet company classes, Lawrence Pech works out in the gym with Nautilus machines and a physical and mental conditioning program known as Pilates. Dancer/bodybuilder Lawrence Leritz is at Gold's Gym, L.A.'s weightlifting mecca, six days a week. Kathryn Karipides is in her studio every day and just by using her body weight for resistance, has built up strength and maintained a highly visible muscle definition at the age of 53.

Today more and more dancers are trying to dance longer and look stronger. While performances and rehearsals have always been demanding, modern choreography increasingly calls for dancers to execute repetitive power moves or difficult off-center balances. And contemporary works are getting longer--requiring dancers to have much more stamina.

The men have an especially rough time. They are expected to lift their partners and to dance. But even the women are finding a need for upper body strength and body symmetry to prevent injuries.

As a result, many dancers have turned to pumping iron and working out to define and strengthen their muscles, to remain healthy and maybe to prolong their careers.

It wasn't long ago that only a few men in the top ballet companies had the strength to execute a sustained lift. The men in the companies were divided into two types--smaller men capable of dancing the virtuoso variations and bigger men who carried the ballerinas.

This is changing, according to choreographer and former Royal Ballet principal David Drew. Artistic directors and choreographers are now defining a whole new generation of superdancers with muscle definition and s tamina. For example, Drew says that at his school all the males receive weight training and recent graduates are performing overhead lifts with ease.

Bruce Marks, artistic director of the Boston Ballet, says: "We're getting away from that lithe, elongated look in ballet. Now audiences want to see people working hard in a performance. So not only do dancers have to dance differently, they have to look different."

Most ballet companies today perform contemporary works as well as the classics. "If the ballet companies just did 19th-Century repertory, the dancers wouldn't need any extra strength training," explains Marks, a former principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre. "In Bournonville choreography, there's hardly any lifting at all. But now companies perform complicated contemporary lifts. Dancers have to look strong and be strong."

Daniel Duell, artistic director of Ballet Chicago and a former New York City Ballet principal, agrees. "As long as the strength training doesn't interfere with the line or grace of movement, it can be an asset--especially in partnering."

Patricia Wilde, artistic director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and one of NYCB's best-known former principals, adds: "For 'Theme and Variations,' you need a certain amount of muscle for the elevation. I have one very big and muscular soloist and I wouldn't hesitate to cast him in 'Theme.' And that's a ballet that also requires a very soft, cat-like quality.

"As long as the proper line is there and I have the partners for the big dancers, I'll cast them in major roles. That's the problem, though, finding the partners matched in weight and size--aesthetically and physically."

Artistic directors--many of whom were dancers themselves--know that having a safe technique and a strong body is the only way to safely perform lifts. The strength usually means having more muscle mass or definition.

"Look at Peter Martins. He's beautifully defined," Duell says. "Eddy Villella too. Perhaps some people thought he was overly muscular; but he was still graceful when he danced.

"As an artistic director, the muscle definition is one of many considerations in casting. Right now I have a very thin but toned dancer. He still needs more muscle mass. What can I do with him in 'Apollo?' The muscular definition is part of the presence."

Dancers, too, are searching for a new image. They want "real muscles, not pads" in their costumes. "Sometimes it's just vanity," says Christine Redpath, NYCB assistant ballet master. Not every person in the company lifts weights, but Redpath says several dancers are "really serious" about it. "They use machines and other gym equipment. They work on press lifting especially, others work on leg exercises. There are some who should do it and don't."

"Some boys from New York City Ballet lift weights," says Adam Luders, principal dancer at the company. "This really isn't necessary if you are a principal. It depends on your priorities. I would rather think about the part than its physicality. You should spend time in the studio and think more about what you are doing."

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