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The Essence of Dance

I LOVE the ballet and the movements of the ballet. It has inspired me a lot,'' says Keith Leonard, the English sculptor who made the floating work in white fiberglass called ``Pavlova,'' shown on this page.

In his studio in St. Ives, Cornwall, Leonard has a plaster cast of the great ballerina's foot on point. He had it made many years ago from a life-cast he saw in an art gallery and has used it in his teaching of sculpture. It has also fed his own work: He has drawn it many times.

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``From looking at that foot, I thought I knew Pavlova,'' Leonard says. He read about her and compiled a list of qualities (and some physical characteristics) that he felt she expressed. Then he found a photograph of her ``in a characteristic ballet posture,'' and he began to bend some thin galvanized wire to make ``a simplification of the pose.''

This wire basis was then developed by means of plaster bandage. ``I began to see the germ of an idea and made the armature stronger and bigger,'' Leonard says. He strengthened it further with a coat of fiberglass. Eventually, with the technical assistance of one of his sons, various adjustments were made and the work was laboriously polished.

The result is a sculpture of many views and angles, born out of movement: a thing of line, rhythm, curve, and convexity that lifts itself weightlessly from the horizontal of the ground to the aspirational verticality of its upper elements. It seems to epitomize dance rather than describe the body of a dancer, conveying essences rather than recognizable human forms. Perhaps its subject is transcendence.

LEONARD believes that the human form, at its best, is ``extremely beautiful'' and can even be ``almost divine.'' He has made sculpture working directly from a life model. But in retrospect he thinks that ``beautiful as it was, it didn't take me as far as `Pavlova.' '' This sculpture he describes as ``the equivalent of a beautiful form within me.''

As a student at London's Slade School of Fine Art, Leonard was taught by Prof. A. H. Gerrard, and later studied under Ossip Zadkine in Paris. He calls Gerrard ``a marvelous teacher.'' Leonard was, in his own words, ``educated entirely on the human form.'' Lines, directions, and rhythms have been gathered from his long study of human form and put to independent use in his sculpture.

The idea of sculptural form, or mass, as taught by Gerrard, still bears on Leonard's practice today. A sculpture's mass, as he understands it, ``starts from the center and grows outward ... to the surface. You add information that moves outward [from the armature] to nodal points, and ultimately you come to the surface.

``On the way, you discover all kinds of sculpture. Often you discover a symbol for what you are making before you get to the surface - and that is where original modern sculpture is achieved.''

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This sense of directions and arrivals ``beneath the surface of things'' agrees with Leonard's conviction that the ``changing angle of a direction ... evokes certain qualities.'' Horizontality ``would evoke peace, I would think, wouldn't it? The vertical, aspiration - though it's not quite as tight as this sounds.''

Geometry, too, which ``almost speaks of a supreme sense of order,'' is important to Leonard.

And, he says, graphs ``brought me into the curve.''

The line of a graph (which is a ``statement about human life'' used informationally for ``all subjects - metallurgy, geography, the weather - whatever'') charts degrees of intensity, activity, time, speed, and so forth. It does this through curves that climb steadily or jump up suddenly or decline gently. Such a curving line is the source, for Leonard, of ``wonderful shapes.''

PERHAPS it is also the alert responsiveness that a graph's curving lines evince that appeals to this sculptor. Similarly, he charts and choreographs movements and emotions in his works with an incisive suppleness. His sculpture ``Pavlova,'' a highly intuitive, three-dimensional ``graph'' of a dancer, is an image of extraordinarily fastidious sensitivity.