32 Fouettes

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After the recent Kennedy Center Honors, I was reading the articles about each honoree in Washington Post. The article regarding Natalia Markarova  credits her with saying, “Technical things are getting more mechanical…Take Swan Lake, the Black Swan Pas de Deux. Now, my goodness, they’re turning not just 32 fouettes…but double or triple pirouettes. And what is fouetter in French? It means ‘to whip.’ That is characteristic of Odile, cruelty and attack. It is artistic point…And if you change it for just pirouettes, you change the meaning, to no meaning.”


My mind has been whirling about this for the last few days and I would love to have some discussion about everyone’s thoughts on this comment. To begin with, I started to think about the two versions of Swan Lake that I personally own on DVD and have watched a few times. The first features Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn  I know that it probably isn’t fair to compare them to anyone, but I also have the American Ballet Theatre’s version featuring Gillian Murphy and Angel Corella. I much prefer Fonteyn’s performance over Murphy (and I am not sure Corella even holds a candle to Nureyev, but really is that a surprise?).

Whenever I watch Odile dance I am always waiting for those turns and not necessarily to see if the dancer can do it—I know they can do it, they wouldn’t have the part if they couldn’t do it—but I want to see Odile kick some a**.  For some reason I never made the connection of fouette translating to whip, but when I read that statement by Markova everything suddenly made sense. In essence, Odile is whipping Siegried and the fouettes are not simply trick ballet, but making a statement about why she is there and the type of person she is.

I have never actually counted the fouettes in either of my copies of Swan Lake, so I decided it was about time. Murphy does not do 32, she does about 24 with a lot of turns in between; she probably does do more than 32 revolutions. When I counted Fonteyn she only did 28 (not to be too forgiving, but in the version I have she was 48; Murphy was 26). That made me think; does anyone actually do 32? Yes, Natalia Markarova. And, boy, does she kick a**. Since I haven’t seen her entire version of Swan Lake I need to track it down because I think she may hold something over the others. In addition to Markarova, I also found a clip of Maria Alexandrova, who intersperses front attitude turns into the fouettes, which did not work for me at all. It did seem a little harder than the extra revolutions that Murphy did, but I don’t think attitude turns work for Odile at all. Attitude turns are almost too pretty to really work along with the fouettes.

Natalia Markova as the Black Swan

I myself have never actually done 32 fouettes in the studio, much less in a full-length ballet. I can remember being a teenager and during our summer program (it wasn’t called an intensive quite yet) we would have a little down time in between classes. I remember a few of us trying to “out fouette” each other and attempt 32, but I am doubtful that we even made it into the teens.

Recently, I have heard rumblings that 32 fouettes isn’t really challenging anymore. Nowadays, dancers can do so much more. Here is the first thing I want to know; is it really possible that 32 fouettes (particularly when performed in the second act of a full length ballet in which one dancer is playing two parts) is considered easy? I have never danced Swan Lake and I am not a professional dancer, but I don’t understand how they can be easy. Perhaps I am simplifying but, I have always considered pirouettes to be easier than fouettes, so are more pirouettes or interspersing pirouettes with fouettess really harder? Yes, you are going faster so it looks trickier, but is it harder? The last time I did more than a double pirouette was more than a decade ago, but I remember the feeling of doing more than two as being almost like floating and I was in a zone; whereas having to whip my leg out for a fouette was hard and not so intuitive. Of course I am remembering something I did as a teenage student a long time ago. So I am not asking this in a rhetorical way. I cannot do 32 fouettes or 32/42 pirouettes and I would love to know; is 32 fouettes really so easy that it needs to be altered with extra revolutions or attitude turns? Do you think not doing the 32 fouettes changes Odile’s purpose in the ballet?

I am not sure if the fouettes make the difference or if it is something more, but just that clip of Markarova seems superior to the others. I have never been a huge Markarova fan, but when she finishes the fouettes she seems so in control, so confident, so Odile. None of the others have the oomph that she has and none of the others do just a straight 32 fouettes (Fonteyn comes the closest and she does do straight fouettes she just doesn’t quite make it to 32).

Sometimes I believe there is an inclination of younger generations to want to discredit the older generation and say they are better than the previous, to prove themselves by negating what the previous generation accomplished.  In film, people often write off silent films or black and white films as being primitive, but, in reality, some of the most beautiful, genius work was created within those constraints; not having sound or color was in no way a negative. It is often stated that if silent films had lasted for a decade longer than the art of film would be significantly stronger. I think not learning from those films has stalled many contemporary filmmakers. Not giving credit where credit is due inevitably hurts you. Imagine if you met an artist who wrote off Michelangelo or Monet or Picasso? I wonder if the same can be said of altering those 32 fouettes. There is something about that leg coming out and whipping around 32 times. Sometimes a piece of art reaches a peak where it just needs to be respected. And just like Casablanca should never be remade, I think Odile should always do 32 fouettes, what do you think?

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Showing 6 comments
  • candice

    As a turner, I was able to complete 32 fouettes from a young age, though since I have never been Odette/Odile I have no idea how harrowing it would be to do it at the end of three acts knowing you have one more act to go. However, I have watched many principal dancers struggle with it in rehearsal and it all comes down to rhythm, the whip not just of the leg but of the head too. There is a clear rhythm dictating a fouette for every count in that piece of the coda, but it requires a great deal of precision to stay on the music, especially when there is live orchestration. The tempo needs to be just right and often you need it to pick up a little towards the end. Single fouettes are actually more like a half turn and it can be easy to over shoot it. The dancer can get ahead of the music and then that is a disaster. For someone who is a turner, a good solution to this is to do a double or triple fouette every third fouette. Personally, I think it is also very satisfying musically with this particular piece. One more thing to consider is the plie of the standing leg inbetween each turn. If you stay up for more turns, the less you have to come down and use that leg as a brake, and the difference of 26 to 32 is probably enough to make that leg a little happier. As an audience member, I can really appreciate the multiple turn sequence if it is used methodically and contains the same whipping energy with every spot of the head.

    Makarova is someone I think everyone does still respect, and for good reason. She probably also got tremendous respect from the conductor and the exact tempo she desired (or else). I don’t think adding more turns is about thinking the new generation is better than the old. A lot goes into personalizing a role and I have a feeling Murphy and Makarova differ on other fronts as well. My personal fave Black Swan is Susan Jaffe…..that should be your next tape to watch;-)

  • Heather

    As someone who was also known as “a turner” and cast as such, I agree that the 32 Fouette feat was also something I accomplished fairly easily, but it was and will always be a daunting task. Candice is right. When it comes to consecutive turning, the rhythm is essential, and sometimes throwing in doubles and triples here and there actually break down the turns in as way that makes it easier to accomplish. And as an added bonus, it’s sometimes more impressive.

    I always used my ability to fouette as a way to get around my laziness in fact. I remember in performances throughout my career, a feeling of relief when I got to the fouettes because it meant for that bit of time I could just turn and I didn’t have to think.

    I think there is an interesting conversation to be had about the artistic value of the 32 fouette standard because really I don’t believe there is as much artistry to it as there is simple technical prowess. I have never thought of this as an expression of Odile’s character, but more as a moment for the dancer to show off her mad turning skills. I must admit that I usually watch that coda with the kind of fever and attention that most people reserve for sporting events. I want the dancer to show me the best turns she’s got and I want to be impressed by them.

    Makarova makes a valid point, and I know that my generation of dancers still held her in the highest regard. But in all honesty, I personally think that adding ones own “spin” (pun intended) to the fouettes actually makes for a more compelling interpretation of the part.

    Also, Susan Jaffe is hands down my favorite Black Swan as well. If anyone has ever perfectly nailed that part, it’s her!

  • lara

    I loved reading that article about Makarova as well. I thought her perspective on what matters as an artist was chilling and beautiful. As for the 32 fouettes, I don’t think the number is quite as important as the intention behind them. Still, if it’s a classical company, I generally go in expecting 32, otherwise, I’m open to contemporary reinterpretation. Great post, thanks for the read!

  • stephanie

    The reason this interests me so much is because prior to hearing Markova’s commentary on the artistic significance of executing 32 fouettes at this precise moment in the ballet I always viewed the feat as pure bravura, a chance to show the audience the ballerina’s technical prowness. But Markova sheds a different light on it; each fouette, whether 32, 24, or 28, has a purpose, making the whipping turns so much more than a step that separates the mice from the men, so to speak, in ballet. It makes me view the choreography differently, and I love that that can happen with a ballet that is over a century old.

    I am not a natural turner. Throughout my career, I’ve often been labeled a lyrical dancer, whatever that means. So, for me, 32 fouettes is an undertaking. The most I have ever had to perform was 12 in the Grand Pas de Deux from The Nutcracker. It was a part of the pas that I dreaded; sometimes I was successful and sometimes my nerves got the better of me. But, perhaps, if I had understood the purpose or necessity behind the technical step I may have had a different sentiment than trepidation.

    And despite all of my ballet-centric gripes, this is what makes dancing so special; dancers, at least the good ones, always strive to blend athleticism and artistry. When that is done well — one should not overpower the other — words are not sufficient enough to describe the experience.

    Thanks for sharing this Chelsea.

  • Raewyn Whyte

    Tonight I saw Gillian Murphy in the Royal NZ Ballet’s Swan Lake partnered by Qi Huan (Royal NZ Ballet principal dancer) and a few days ago saw Australian Ballet principals Ty King-Wall and Amber Scott in the same production as guest artists. Scot presented the requisite fouettes, faltering at 28.
    Murphy characteristcally delivered a series of fouettes interspersed with triple pirouettes with variant arms — stupendous technically and in effect putting paid to ant habit of counting the darnmned turns: she was opdile and wnated all eyes on here, and this was a great way to get that!

  • Ashley

    I just came across this posting while searching for information on the Swan Lake “32 fouettes”. My local company just put on their production of Swan Lake and I counted how many our principal dancer did and she stopped at 29. So I have been researching all day to see if anyone has actually performed 32, I’m going to have to hunt down the Natalia Markarova performance! Thanks for writing about it.

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