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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?


  1. Blogspot ate my first comment. Blaghhhh. Okay, round two:
    I don't know from dance, but I do think that artistry and creativity should be emphasized in education far more and far earlier than they are now. Like you said, the technical aspect of whatever endeavor it is can be honed with practice and dedication, but if you don't begin with a passion, it's hard to end with one. And passion isn't necessarily sustainable; so many people lose theirs, but kids seem to have an endless supply. Learning what to do without learning why you're doing it or how to make it yours is only going to make it seem like drudgery, and that's not what art should be. Obviously I'm talking about it at its core, because there are going to be days when you don't want to dance/write/paint/learn, but you still have to, but it's better that the "have to" come from your own drive and desire to express and better yourself than from obligation.

  2. I've dealt with something similar in the college vocal performance scene. I've seen a lot of classical singers who have great technique but absolutely no character or expression when they sing. In my opinion, this is a big problem. Particularly in Operatic performance. I agree with Marlena in that artistry and passion should be taught alongside technique much earlier on than it is now. In whatever you are doing, it is important to start with passion and not just a desire for perfection. Once you learn the technique, it will always be there. Expression and artistry, however, is much more difficult to come by if it wasn't there at the begining.