Anyone else see this article recently?
I’m happy to tell you that I saw it first on 4dancers.org but I was excited to see it broadcast in a venue beyond the dance blog-o-sphere.
I love this article.
I mean, I haven’t got a fraction of the ballet knowledge Kaplowitz has, nor do I get to see world-class ballet nearly as often as I would like, nor am I of an age where I would have been able to see the likes of Cynthia Gregory perform.
Yet this argument resonates with me because she managed to put into words something that’s been bothering me for some time.
I certainly understand the magnetic attraction of the feats of human ability. As dancers we’re always striving for higher extensions, multiple turns, higher jumps, etc. It’s part of the constant improvement we all crave. So to see dancers who make our own impossibilities seem effortless, well, it’s awe-inspiring, absolutely! I don’t want to take anything away from that. Plus, once we are able to get the extension to 100 degrees, 90 seems easy. Once you get a triple pirouette, the double somehow comes easier (I assume… I’m still working on getting doubles consistently!). Striving for more, higher, better definitely has a purpose.
And yet, there is so little focus on the subtleties that eventually athleticism seems to be all that is left.
I am reminded of a video one of my young friends posted recently. It was from a dance competition (rant for another post); a child of around 10 or so was performing a very intense modern piece. The choreography would be lovely… if a much older (and, dare I say, more thoroughly-clothed) dancer were performing it. This child executed the steps well, but what little emotion she expressed seemed disingenuous. This isn’t a criticism of the dancer… she’s a child and I hope to goodness she didn’t have the life experience to add the requisite emotion to the piece. But that’s the thing… certain roles require a degree of emotional maturity to make them truly moving.
So, okay, age-appropriate choreo, alright…
But there is a training component to it, too, and it’s something that I feel is generally lacking. I look at pictures from the old Vaganova school and see the children in line at the barre with their heads all in precise epaulment based on the exercise of the moment. Okay, so it’s a little bit robotic-looking, but learning where to tilt your head and direct your gaze and position your body are all essential building blocks to creating beautiful artistic expression later on. It gets us out of the rut of staring face forward or (worse) staring at one’s reflection in the mirror relentlessly.
Nowadays it seems like much focus is placed on what everything below the waist is doing that no one cares about the flick of the wrist, the shape of the fingers, the tilt of the chin, the direction of the gaze. I see this with a lot of students. Port de bras is lazy and static, the gaze is unfocused. Hands look as though they’ve been transplanted from a Barbie doll with fingers stuck and lifeless. Facial expressions range from joyless grins to constipated (I think the constipated look is supposed to represent angst or something, but it really just serves to distract from some truly beautiful dancing). Rarely do I hear anyone comment on these things, though.
Have we forgotten that dance is an art form, not just an athletic endeavor? Where’s the joy (or the sorrow, or whatever the piece is meaning to represent)?
I love Kaplowitz’s description of Gregory’s interpretation of Aurora’s dance… that a certain step may be performed multiple times in the dance, but the execution may change throughout because it’s not just a développé à la seconde for the sake of showcasing the dancer’s prowess… it’s a développé meant to help tell the story.
I don’t think this is limited to story ballets. Sure, sometimes it’s darned near impossible to pull any sort of storyline out of contemporary choreography and it may seem like dance for the sake of dance, but it’s still attempting to evoke some sort of emotion from the viewer, is it not?
This reminds me of something Judith Jamison, the former artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, said during an interview with the PBS NewsHour: “If you’re just here to see how many pirouettes you can do, or how high you can raise your leg, or how high you can jump, that’s not what gives memories. I mean, people don’t remember me for how high my legs went, even though they went up very high, and how many pirouettes I did. They don’t remember me for that. They remember me and any other dancer because something touched them inside. It’s an indelible memory on the heart and in the mind.”
Obviously you need to be at the top of your game physically, but never forget why you’re on stage. You’re not there to show off for the audience, you’re there to share with the audience. What do you want them to feel? Simple awe at your physical feats? Or awe mixed with emotion? Do not allow the audience to sit passively by and be a spectator. Invite the audience to join you for the ride.