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Monday, January 31, 2011

Striking a Balance: Physicality versus Creativity

It's no secret that dancers strive to keep their bodies in top physical condition. The incredible athleticism demanded of dancers tempts dancers and dance fans alike to insist "dance is a sport!" I submit that art can be just as demanding on the body, mind and soul as sport--in some cases, even more so. The way I see it, dance is an athletic art, demanding the rigorous physical discipline of athletes as well as the creative capacity of painters, writers and actors. Sometimes it's a struggle between mind and body--as we constantly assess ourselves in the mirror it is easy to get stuck there, to forget that dancing is more about our technical execution of the steps or the size of our thighs. Such carelessness results in "robot dancers" and tricksters--dancers who have all the right physical capabilities but lack the imagination necessary to bring art to life on stage. 
 Growing up, I felt no reserve on stage. I loved pretending to be someone else on stage, transmitting stories and ideas through the near-sacred junction of music and movement. I struggled with the technical side of the art. True, I was blessed with natural coordination and musicality, but my body was naturally inflexible, flat-footed and stumpy. Luckily, beginning ballet at such a young age magically molded decent (though by no-means incredible) arches into my feet while focus and discipline helped me gain the technical strength I needed. By my late teens my whole situation had flip-flopped: I was so concentrated on my technique that my performing became more reserved, safer, boring. 
  Since then, I've struggled daily in finding the right balance. Maybe balance isn't the right word--maybe it's about extremes: extreme technique AND extreme artistry. That's what makes dancers memorable. But how can we achieve that? I used to think the answer was to help students develop artistry at a younger age. Most teachers don't begin working with students on the artistic and creative side of their dancing until adolescents, which is also the time students become the most self-conscious. As I teach classes of my own, I wonder how to integrate elements of acting into the ballet curriculum without 1) teaching a full-blown pantomime class or 2) distracting students from the technical foundation that is so important in early training.

What do you think? Should instructors bring artistry into the classroom earlier? If so, how?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Connected to Art: Dance Online

   I can’t pretend to remember a world without the internet. Even in kindergarten I went to “computer” class to play KidPics and make my own “world wide web page” complete with glowing hot pink comic sans font. In the days B.G. (Before Google), I used Yahoo! Search to find Harry Potter fan pages and the American Girl website. Still, with all my pre-pubescent millennial generation knowledge of https and hyperlinks, I remember very clearly when dance wasn’t online.
    The “real” dance world, the world of professional dancers and elite ballet companies, seemed impossibly distant to me, an overly-ambitious nine year old practicing pliĆ©s and tendus at a small studio in South Texas. I checked out video tapes (remember those?) of Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake from the library, and recorded every version of Nutcracker that aired on PBS in the month of December. Those perfect ballerinas in their glistening tiaras and pristine pointe shoes* were entirely otherworldly, human only in theory. Together the music and movement magically transformed those girls into Dancers. I longed to become one of them, but I wasn’t quite sure how. When in my long years of training would the transformation from dancer to Dancer be complete? At twelve, at fifteen, at the ancient-to-me age of eighteen? How many fatigued muscles, frustrating classes, and fractured ankles would it take for me to transcend my humanness?
    Something shifted in my awareness of “real” Dancers when I received my first issue of Dance magazine. I read interviews with the dancers I watched on video tapes, the choreographers whose names I’d heard whispered reverently by my instructors or fellow dancers. News about dance companies, shows, and schools made me feel connected to this world. I realized that there was no such thing as a Dancer—they were all just dancers, regular people surrendered to an art form larger than themselves. Suddenly, the reality of dancers-as-people became immensely more thrilling than the abstract form of Dancer. I eagerly awaited the arrival of Dance every month and added subscriptions to Dance Spirit and Pointe when it arrived on the scene a couple of years later. I purchased and checked out piles of dancer biographies and read them in one sitting each.The humanness of dancers made the ethereality of their performances all the more alluring. Print publications connected me to that humanness, made me feel a part of it all.
     These days, dance lovers no longer need to wait at the mailbox for the arrival of the latest pile of dance magazines. Dance blogs like The Winger regularly feature behind-the-scenes looks at dancer's lives while others feature company news and gossip. Choreographers upload reels and rehearsal footage to YouTube, and ballerinas have Twitter accounts. Much has been made lately of the new move by certain companies to draw back the curtain of mystery surrounding ballerinas. New York City Ballet recently began the practice of inviting the audience to ask questions of a company dancer before or after performances. Dancers blog and tweet and stay connected with fans and admirers in a more immediate way than ever before. In my opinion, this is a natural extension of the role than print journalism played in past decades. In an age when information can be shared more rapidly than ever, the escalation of audience’s desire for more information is organic.  Reminding audiences and young dancers that their favorite ballerinas are human too can only be a good thing. I think a sense of familiarity towards dancers increases our interest in their careers, and (hopefully) will nudge us as a culture toward spending more time (and yeah, money) at live dance performances.
    I wonder, however, how print dance journalism is affected by the dance world’s leap onto the internet. Will hard copy dance magazines become obsolete in the next decade?  For the sake of preserving the monthly Christmas feeling of finding a new Dance magazine in my mailbox, I hope not. 

*Little did I know they were actually little satin pink torture chambers