Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Dog Breeding, Ballet and the Drift to Extremes

aussiegall / Foter / CC BY
Recently I have been thinking about the role of breed groups devoted to the preservation and improvement of pedigree dogs. I think my essential problem is with the idea that preservation and improvement are contradictory goal. And improvement general related to what is better my modren and largely aesthetic standards.

As such, I was very interested to read Daprati, Iosa & Haggard's (2009) paper "A dance to the music of time" (full text here). In this paper they essentially trace the ballet positions performed by the Royal Ballet of a sixty year period. You may wonder what the contection is, but hang in there and I will explain.

As the authors note: "Classical ballet is traditional and conservative: dancers today use the same positions that were codified in 1760" (pg. e5023). Likewise, pedigree show standards are written descriptions of how a dog should look, intended to be conservatively adhered to across time.

When photographs and video of the same ballet were analyzed it was shown that not only have the positions changed, they have changed in a consistent way cross time--with positions becoming more extreme. Over time legs have become more elevated, hips turned out more and lifts higher. And even to the untrained eyes these changes are easy to see, with positions that once involved the leg raised are 130 degree in the 50s now being lifted almost vertically into the air.

These more extreme position were found to be more appealing even to naive viewers, and they requires fitter and more expert dancers, as such they can be seen as "improved". At the same time they are a distortion of the original tradition, and much more demanding--and potentially damaging--for the dancer who is working at the very limits of their bio-mechanical abilities.

I would argue that the improvement of dog breeds may sometimes share similar qualities. It will tend to select for more extreme positions, sizes, colors and coats--to meet our aesthetic tastes and demonstrated the ability of the breeder. But doing so must distort the tradition conformation of the breed, and potential also its behavior and temperment--sometimes placing a strain on the health of animal near the limits of their phylogentic range.

I think the question needs to be whether the goal is to preserve, or to distort--and are the distortions deemed desireable by the show ring or the market place also desireable for the dog? Because as the audience we must come to realise that an aesthetic that destroys that which it beautifies is a perversion of the art, or of the breed.

Daprati, E., Iosa, M., & Haggard, P. (2009). A Dance to the Music of Time: Aesthetically-Relevant Changes in Body Posture in Performing Art PLoS ONE, 4 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005023

See also:
Ballet postures have become more extreme over time

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