Retiré: Trials of a Triangle
The retiré position, though quintessential on its own, holds exceptional importance because of its role as a gateway to so many other steps.
A lot of ballet pertains to shapes. A plié [plee-AY] draws a diamond in between the legs. Arms in first position should always be a properly rounded circle. A good rond de jambe a terre [rawn duh zhahnb a tehr] will draw a half moon along the floor, and a grand jeté [grahn zhuh-TAY] creates a rainbow in the air.
In keeping with this pattern, a retiré [ruh-tee-RAY] creates a triangle in between both legs. Today, I'm twirling over that triangle.
The retiré position, though quintessential on its own, holds exceptional importance because of its role as a gateway to so many other steps. The pirouette, the développé, the relevé passé, the fouetté, and the saut de basque are the first in a long list of movements that would not be possible without the retiré.
Gail Grant's manual describes retiré first using the literal translation: withdrawn. This makes complete sense. From fifth position, one leg withdraws from the ground, drawing a line up the leg until it reaches that coveted triangular shape. Grant goes on to say retiré is a "position in which the thigh is raised to the second position en l'air with the knee bent so that the pointed toe rests in front of, behind, or to the side of the supporting knee."
Let's break this down using the diagram to below. Like I said, the retiré is basically just a triangle, which means there are three lines. First, the thigh of the working leg, which rests in "second position en l'air." In ballet, à la seconde designates a movement to the side. En l'air means it's off the ground. In a retiré, that thigh must be high enough en l'air so that the bottom half of the working leg can bend underneath and connect to the supporting leg's knee. In a petit retiré, the thigh lowers so the foot can rest on the supporting ankle, at sur le cou-de-pie [sewr duh koo-duh-PYAY].
Wherever the toe connects-- front, side, back, knee, or ankle-- the dancer must ensure that it does indeed connect. A bent working leg that floats offshore of the supporting knee breaks the continuity of this second line in the triangle and can often throw off a dancer's weight placement.
The thigh of the supporting leg finishes out the triangle, connecting both parts of the working leg. This connection means that the leg must remain sturdy and steadfast in order to handle that resistant force of the working leg pushing against the knee. In order to do so, dancers must have all of their weight over that supporting leg.
You can try this at home: stand in parallel with your weight equally distributed over both feet. Then, without transferring your weight, try picking up one foot. Notice how quickly you start to fall over! Now, stand with your weight equally distributed again and before picking up that foot, think about sending all your weight into the supporting leg, careful to keep the weight over the toes rather than the heel (so you don't fall backwards!). You should be able to lift the foot off the ground without any problems! We tend to do this naturally as human beings, but when dancers start attempting more complex one-legged positions, our bodies have a way of forgetting to keep the pressure centered over that supporting leg. We have to think consciously about almost exaggerating our weight placement, otherwise the weight of that retiré leg so high up in the air will pull us off our balance.
High school geometry class taught me that every triangle has three sides and three angles, so now that we've established the sides let's discuss those angles. The first and most simple one is in the bend of the working knee. Like any other position in ballet, the knee must be turned out, and that turnout must come from the hip. It can be easy to use the resistant pressure of the foot against the supporting knee to crank the retiré open into a flat position, but this can place unfortunate stress on both knees and create weird angles. Instead, we have to squeeze our hip muscles to create a rotated leg before we bend into retiré.
You can also try this at home. Stand in parallel again and squeeze your glutes and outer hips as hard as possible. You'll notice that you feel energy trying to push your heels forward and toes out. That's turnout, and that's what we need to engage to get that triangle flat.
This brings me to the second angle, at the top of both legs. The hips must remain even. It's tempting to pop the working hip upwards because this makes it easier to rotate the leg and gives the illusion of more turnout, but like most everything in ballet there are no shortcuts. Uneven hips destroy the line of the triangle we're going for and throw off the posture in the lower back. This can send stress into the muscles and bones of the low spine, which is not what we want at all! Moreover, uneven hips make it a lot harder to find our center of weight and thus will lead to issues balancing and turning later on.
Finally, we have the third and most contentious point of a retiré: the working foot at the supporting knee. There are two factors to consider here. Firstly, we have to make sure the working foot continues the line of the leg. Because we're pushing against the knee, it's easy to push the ankle out of alignment and "sickle" the toes, which is universally considered ugly. This is yet another reason we have to mold our turnout from the hips rather than pushing for it from the toe.
Secondly, we have to make sure the toe is in the exact right position. In classical technique, a retiré devant [ruh-tee-RAY duh-VAHN] tends to be the long form version of what teachers will call a simple retiré. Devant means "in front," so the working toe rests in front of the supporting knee. If we specify the retiré to the derrière [deh-RYEHR], or back, the toe goes behind the supporting knee. In the Royal Academy of Dance, the big toe just touches the back of the knee; the foot does not cross the supporting leg. In Vaganova technique, the heel brushes the back of the knee and the entire foot sticks out on the other side of the knee. This may sound like a small difference, but I can confirm firsthand that teachers from both disciplines will notice the difference, and they will make a big deal about it.
A retiré de côte [ruh-tee-RAY duh koh-TAY] means the toe rests in the exact side of the supporting knee. This position is the takeoff point for a développé à la seconde,
and is also used during a retiré passé [ruh-tee-RAY pa-SAY], when the dancer traces their toe through all three retiré positions to move their leg from the front to the back, or vice versa. Rather than just moving the toe around the knee in a sort of horizontal semi circle, the dancer has to lift from the thigh to allow the toe to come out from under the kneecap and travel up and around to the back, all while keeping the hips square! See the below video for a good demonstration of a relevé retiré passé; watch for all three positions!
Passé, or passed, is almost always used interchangeably with retiré, even when the leg is not changing positions. In fact, there are probably many dancers out there who couldn't tell you what a retiré is because they've only ever heard it referred to as a passé. No matter how common this nomenclature becomes, however, it's still incorrect in reference to traditional ballet technique.
Technically, retiré is a static position and a passé is a movement that sometimes involves that position.
I don't know how this confusion started, but I think it may have to do with Balanchine and the increasing overlap between jazz, contemporary, and ballet. When classical dancers turn in traditional pirouettes, they keep their toe in retiré devant in front of their knee until the very end of the pirouette. Balanchine turners approach the pirouette as an ongoing retiré passé, meaning they'll lift the working leg higher and higher throughout the turn as they move from retiré devant to de côte during the pirouette. Watch classically trained Akane Takada at 0:17 and compare it to Balanchine trained Kathryn Morgan at 8:12 to see what I mean.
It's hard to spot this movement in Balanchine turns because we tend to see the whole dancer spinning rather than the minutia of that toe lifting over the knee. Thus, it's easy to think of that passé as a static position and perhaps over time this detail blurred our differentiation between the two.
Because the pirouette is one of the most common uses of the retiré, it's easy to understand how this blur then transferred into the position in general. This could be especially true in the last two or three decades, when techniques have grown to overlap given the growing commonality of dancers traveling internationally to train and compete.
Moreover, casual observation tells me that Balanchine-trained dancers tend to take a simple retiré to the de côte, placing their toe on the side of the knee rather than the front. Did this come from those pirouettes or was this something Balanchine wanted specifically? I'm not sure.
Jazz and contemporary dancers use the term passé exclusively. This makes sense because they often work in parallel, drawing a parallel triangle with their working leg. This means that the thigh cannot be in "second position en l'air," and there is no such thing as a parallel retiré according to Gail Grant. Since passé is a movement and not a position, it doesn't have such strict rules when it comes to turnout. This subtlety, combined with Balanchine's neoclassical style, makes it understandable why the passé became the term of choice for modern and contemporary dancers. Plus, as ballet and modern continue to intermingle, consolidating terms tends to make things easier.
I'm not trained in Balanchine, so this is all just as educated of a guess as I can make, but it's what makes sense to me. Some argue that the difference doesn't matter at this point. Why should we care about the original name for a position anyway? As I've said before, understanding the detail and meaning of each step in classical ballet is a fundamental tool in building appreciation and awareness for the absolute precision of our discipline.
As we learn about these words, we create awareness for the historical language that we're preserving every time we step into a ballet studio.
To end, watch Jurgita Dronina in the Medora variation from Le Corsaire and see how many retirés you can find! Answers are at the bottom of this article.
I first published this article on the original twirls4thoughts blog, Oct. 28 2019
Answer: Dronina does 42 retirés! This includes all her pirouettes, her enveloppé turns at the beginning, and all her posé turns at the end. Some of the them are done as petit retirés.