Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"The History of Ballet" from Voice of America

"The Rehearsal" by Edgar Degas, 1873

STEVE EMBER: I’m Steve Ember.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: And I’m Shirley Griffith with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Ballet is a formalized kind of dance performance with a rich and interesting history. The word “ballet” comes from the French language, and is based on the Italian word “balletto.” “Balletto” means a little dance. Ballet’s early roots began in Italy in the late fourteen hundreds. But it was in France that ballet developed into the form we know today.


STEVE EMBER: The French ruler Louis the Fourteenth had a big influence on the direction of ballet in its early history. He ruled France for seventy-two years, starting in sixteen forty-three. He started dancing as a boy and worked hard at it daily. He performed in long and complex ballets.

Louis the Fourteenth turned ballet into a form of dance that reflected his power and influence. Ballet’s many rules and extremely detailed movements expressed a person’s power and social relations. The king made sure that ballet became a requirement for the people of his court. He also started the Royal Academy of Dance, where important people could learn this art. The aim of this dance was self-control, order and perfection.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Louis the Fourteenth’s ballet teacher Pierre Beauchamps created a way to write down the dance steps for ballet. He helped to write out a system of rules for how the body should move during dance. These include the five positions of the body, which are still the foundation for all ballet moves today.

Many ballet steps are French words because of ballet’s important history in France. Examples of the names for dance movements include pirouettes, pliés and grand jetés.

Ballet slowly changed from a dance performed at the king’s court to one performed by professional dancers. By the time of Louis the Fourteenth’s death in seventeen fifteen, ballet had spread to other parts of Europe and was evolving in other ways.


STEVE EMBER: Jennifer Homans is the dance critic for the New Republic magazine. She is also a historian who teaches at New York University in New York City. In two thousand ten she published a book on ballet called “Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet.” She knows this subject well because she started her career as a ballet dancer.

Ms. Homans’ book is extremely detailed. She spent about ten years researching and writing the book. It shows how ballet changed over time. These changes are similar to the changing ideas about society, men and women’s roles, clothing and the ideals and limits of the human body.

She begins her book with an explanation of how the earliest forms of ballet began in Italy. This ballet was a kind of social dance that was performed during special occasions.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Catherine de Medici of Italy married the French King Henri the Second in fifteen thirty-three. She brought her interest in dance performances and traditions to France.

Ms. Homans describes how ballet developed and evolved during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Ballet then was very different from ballet today. Ballets were not stand-alone performances like they are now. Ballet dances were often included in other kinds of theatrical performances such as opera. And, people who performed in these dances did not wear ballet shoes, tutus or tight costumes as dancers do today.

People dressed in the fine clothing of their times. Women wore long dresses that covered their legs to the ankle. So, it was not easy to see what steps they were performing. This clothing also limited the movements women could make.

STEVE EMBER: Today we think of female dancers called ballerinas as the stars of the ballet world. But this was not always the case. It was not until the late sixteen hundreds that women began to perform professionally as dancers. And it was not until the nineteenth century that female dancers called ballerinas became the stars of the stage.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: One of the greatest ballerinas of the nineteenth century was Marie Taglioni. She was an extremely hardworking and strong dancer who spent hours each day perfecting her skills. She developed a special method of walking on her toes so that she seemed to be floating on stage.

The ballet “La Sylphide” made her internationally famous when it was first performed in Paris in eighteen thirty-two. She played a magical winged creature who falls in love with a human. Taglioni wore a white dress with airy fabric and pink roses. Her clothing marked the beginning of the traditional ballet costumes used in modern ballet.

“La Sylphide” influenced another major ballet, “Giselle.” This ballet is about a young girl named Giselle who loses her mind and dies when she finds out her lover is to marry another woman. Giselle returns as a ghost and protects her lover from evil spirits that have risen from the grave.

STEVE EMBER: Jennifer Homans says that “La Sylphide” and “Giselle” were the first modern ballets. They are still performed today, although with changes. Ms. Homans said by this period, ballet was no longer about men, power and important people. Modern ballet was about women, dreams and the imagination.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: By the middle of the nineteenth century, Denmark and Russia became very important places for ballet. Danish dance creator August Bournonville developed a new method of Danish ballet influenced by French traditions. Ms. Homans writes that in Russia, ballet was at first part of an effort to make the country more western. She says ballet there did not start as an art. It was a system of how one should behave. Dance training there developed into a military-like exactness, which continues to this day.

St. Petersburg became a center for dance supported by the Imperial Russian rulers. Russian ballet experts were extremely conservative and guarded its traditions fiercely.

The Kirov Ballet performs "The Sleeping Beauty"
The Kirov Ballet performs "The Sleeping Beauty"

STEVE EMBER: The French-born dance creator Marius Petipa lived in Russia for over fifty years. He helped redefine ballet in Russia by making it bigger and more expansive. One of his famous ballets, “La Bayadere,” was first performed in eighteen seventy-seven.

Petipa worked with Russian music composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky to create the famous ballet “The Sleeping Beauty.” Ms. Homans describes “The Sleeping Beauty” as the first truly Russian ballet. She says Tchaikovsky’s music pushes the mind and spirit of the dancer to move with fullness and care.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Dance creators Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov used Tchaikovsky’s music to create two other famous ballets, “The Nutcracker” and “Swan Lake.”

Russia’s importance to ballet continued in the twentieth century thanks to the forward thinking Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes dancers. He introduced Russian ballet to Europe by bringing top dancers, including Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky, to Paris. Diaghilev’s Russian ballets include “The Firebird” and “Petrouchka.” These bold works, in addition to Nijinksy’s “Afternoon of a Faun,” redefined ballet and modern art.

However, ballet changed during Soviet rule in Russia. The repressive government supported and controlled ballet and its dancers. Ballet became a sign of state culture, both for Russians and the rest of the world.


Suzanne Farrell listens to choreographer George Balanchine during a 1963 rehearsal in New York
Suzanne Farrell listens to choreographer George Balanchine during a 1963 rehearsal in New York

STEVE EMBER:In the United States, the nineteen fifties and sixties were a time of great economic success. This helped fuel support for the performing arts. Ballet was part of this success.

The New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater were two of the early American ballet companies. They travelled widely in Europe and other areas of the world.

This was part of the American government’s efforts to show the country’s dance culture. Russian-born dance creator George Balanchine worked hard to modernize ballet further and increase its popularity as an American art. So did American choreographer Jerome Robbins.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: The subject of Jennifer Homans’ closing chapter is somewhat unexpected. She says ballet has been slowly dying around the world since George Balanchine’s death in nineteen eighty-three.

She says today’s dance companies have the choice of recreating either ballet’s nineteenth century past, or its modern past. But there is little great new work or energy remaining. She says that she hopes she is wrong. But she says the force to awaken this sleeping art must come from outside the ballet tradition.

Many critics have dismissed Ms. Homans’ prediction. But her statement raises real questions about how an art based on the past can successfully survive in the future.

STEVE EMBER: This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I’m Steve Ember.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: And I’m Shirley Griffith. Our programs are online with transcripts and MP3 files at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

"Frank Lloyd Wright: A Great Building Designer" - VOA

"Falling Water" Frank Lloyd Wright

I'm Phoebe Zimmerman. And I'm Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program PEOPLE IN AMERICA. Today we tell about the life and work of the greatest American building designer of the twentieth century, Frank Lloyd Wright.


Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings for more than seventy years. He did most of his work from nineteen hundred through the nineteen fifties. He designed houses, schools, churches, public buildings, and office buildings.

Critics say Frank Lloyd Wright was one of America's most creative architects. One critic said his ideas were fifty years ahead of the time in which he lived.


Frank Lloyd Wright was born in eighteen­ sixty‑seven in the middle western state of Wisconsin. He studied engineering at the University of Wisconsin. In eighteen eighty‑seven, he went to the city of Chicago. He got a job in the office of the famous architects, Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler.

a Prairie style house in Oak Park, outside Chicago
Several years later, Wright established his own building design business. He began by designing homes for people living in and near Chicago. These homes were called "prairie houses."

Prairie houses were long and low. They seemed to grow out of the ground. They were built of wood and other natural materials. The indoors expanded to the outdoors by extending the floor. This created what seemed like a room without walls or a roof.

In nineteen-oh-two, Wright designed one prairie house, called the Willits House, in the town of Highland Park. The house was shaped like a cross. It was built around a huge fireplace. The rooms were designed so they seemed to flow into each other.

Visitors to Chicago can see another of Wright's prairie houses. It is called the Robie House. It looks like a series of long, low rooms on different levels. The rooms seem to float over the ground. Wright designed everything in the house, including the furniture and floor coverings.

Wright's prairie houses had a great influence on home design in America. Even today, one hundred years later, his prairie houses appear very modern.

In the nineteen thirties, Wright developed what he called "Usonian" houses. Usonia was his name for a perfect, democratic United States of America. Usonian houses were planned to be low cost. Wright designed them for the American middle class. These are the majority of Americans who are neither very rich nor very poor.

Frank Lloyd Wright believed that all middle class families in America should be able to own a house that was designed well. He believed that the United States could not be a true democracy if people did not own their own house on their own piece of land.

Usonian House
Usonian houses were built on a flat base of concrete. The base was level with the ground. Wright believed that was better and less costly than the common method of digging a hole in the ground for the base. Low‑cost houses based on the Usonian idea became very popular in America in the nineteen fifties. Visitors can see one of Wright's Usonian homes near Washington, D. C. It is the Pope-Leighy House in Alexandria, Virginia.


Frank Lloyd Wright believed in spreading his ideas to young building designers. In nineteen thirty‑two, he established a school called the Taliesin Fellowship. Architectural students paid to live and work with him.

During the summer, they worked at his home near Spring Green, Wisconsin. Wright called this house "Taliesin." That is a Welsh name meaning "shining brow." It was built of stone and wood into the top of a hill.

During the winter, they worked at Taliesin West. This was Wright's home and architecture office near Phoenix, Arizona. Wright and his students started building it in nineteen thirty-seven in the Sonoran Desert.

Taliesin West is an example of Frank Lloyd Wright's ideas of organic architecture taking root in the desert. He believed that architecture should have life and spirit. He said a building should appear to grow naturally and easily from its base into its surroundings. Selecting the best place to put a building became a most important first step in the design process.

Frank Lloyd Wright had discovered the beauty of the desert in nineteen twenty-seven when he was asked to help with the design of the Arizona Biltmore hotel. He continued to return to the desert with his students to escape the harsh winters in Wisconsin.

Ten years later he found a perfect place for his winter home and school. He bought about three hundred hectares of desert land at the foot of the McDowell Mountains near Scottsdale, Arizona.

Taliesen West
Wright said: " I was struck by the beauty of the desert, by the dry, clear sun-filled air, by the stark geometry of the mountains." He wanted everyone who visited Taliesin West to feel this same sense of place.

His architecture students helped him gather rocks and sand from the desert floor to use as building materials. They began a series of buildings that became home, office and school. Wright kept working on and changing what he called a building made of many buildings for twenty years.

Today, Taliesin West has many low stone buildings linked together by walkways and courtyards. It is still very much alive with activity. About seventy people live, work and study there. Guides take visitors through what is one of America's most important cultural treasures.

In nineteen thirty‑seven, Wright designed a house near the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is a fine example of his idea of organic architecture. The house is called "Fallingwater." It sits on huge rocks next to a small river. It extends over a waterfall. From one part of the house, a person can step down a stairway over the water.

"Fallingwater" is so unusual and so beautiful that it came to represent modern American architecture. One critic calls it the greatest house of the twentieth century. Like Taliesin West, "Fallingwater" is open to the public.

Larkin Soap Company Building,
Buffalo, NY. Interior.
Frank Lloyd Wright also is famous for designing imaginative public buildings. In nineteen‑oh‑four, he designed an office building for the Larkin Soap Company in Buffalo, New York. The offices were organized around a tall open space. At the top was a glass roof to let sunlight into the center.

In the late nineteen thirties, Wright designed an office building for the Johnson Wax Company in Racine, Wisconsin. It also had one great room without traditional walls or windows. The outside of the building was made of smooth, curved brick and glass.


In nineteen forty‑three, Frank Lloyd Wright designed one of his most famous projects: the Guggenheim Museum of Art in New York City. The building was completed in nineteen sixty, the year following his death.

The Guggenheim is unusual because it is a circle. Inside the museum, a walkway rises in a circle from the lowest floor almost to the top. Visitors move along this walkway to see the artwork on the walls.

Guggenheim Museum, New York City
The Guggenheim museum was very different from Wright's other designs. It even violated one of his own rules of design: the Guggenheim's shape is completely different from any of the buildings around it.

When Wright was a very old man, he designed the Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, California, near San Francisco. The Civic Center project was one of his most imaginative designs. It is a series of long buildings between two hills.

Frank Lloyd Wright believed that architecture is life itself taking form. "Therefore," he said, "it is the truest record of life as it was lived in the world yesterday, as it is lived today, or ever will be lived."

Frank Lloyd Wright died in nineteen fifty-nine, in Phoenix, Arizona. He was ninety‑one years old. His buildings remain a record of the best of American Twentieth Century culture.


This Special English program was written by Shelley Gollust and Marilyn Christiano. It was produced by Lawan Davis. Our studio engineer was Max Carroll. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Phoebe Zimmerman. Join us again next week for another PEOPLE IN AMERICA program on the Voice of America.


1. The Taliesin Fellowship was ________________________________ .
a: a club for recognized architects
b: a group of architects devoted to promoting houses for the middle class
c: a school for architectural students
d: a group of residents who owned houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

2. In 1937, near Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, Wright designed a house next to a small river. It is known as "________________."
a: Tallisen
b: Fallingwater
c: Roblie House
d: prairie architecture

3. Frank Lloyd Wright designed a house in the Arizona desert. His students built it using materials from the desert. This house is called "___________________ ."
a: Taliesen West
b: Tallisen
c: The Guggenheim Museum of Art
d: Fallingwater

4. Frank Lloyd Wright believed that a building should _____________________ .
a: seem to grow out of its surroundings
b: contrast sharply with its surroundings
c: contain spaces that are for specific purposes
d: dominate the landscape

5. Frank Lloyd Wright established his own design firm in the 1890s. The first homes he designed were for people living ____________________ .
a: in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
b: in the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona
c: in the hills of Wisconsin
d: in and near Chicago

6. " __________________" was Frank Lloyd Wright's name for a perfect, democratic USA.
a: Taliesen
b: Usonia
c: Sonoran
d: McDowell

7. Most of Frank Lloyd's architectural designs were completed between _____________________ .
a: 1950 and 1960
b: 1900 and 1950
c: 1860 and 1920
d: 1930 and 1970

8. Visitors to the San Francisco Bay Area can enjoy an example of Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture in ________________________ .
a: Daly City
b: Sausalito
c: Marin
d: South San Francisco

9. Wright designed a building that contrasted with the buildings surrounding it. This building is located in New York and has a circular pattern. It is ______________________ .
a: The Guggenheim Museum of Art
b: Johnson Wax Company Building
c: Taliesen West
d: The Marin County Civic Center

10. The prairie style of architecture features _______________________ .
a: very high buildings
b: low lying horizontal buildings and extended rooms
c: houses made of desert rocks
d: rooms with many walls and doors