Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ballet and The Whole Self

Today I'd like to talk about how complete ballet is; a wholly satisfying and fulfilling endeavour if there ever was one. Ballet in particular requires so much of the dancer that, more than any other form of dance, it is a constant, intensive exercise in self-examination.

I posted a video a while ago of Aria Alekzander of the Houston Ballet. "What do I feel like when I dance?" she asks. "I feel alive. I feel like the most of me gets to be exposed to the rest of the world. I feel like everything I feel and am on the inside I get to share with people in the most honest way." This is actually an amazing way of expressing why so many dancers have a deep love affair with ballet.

Ballet requires literally all of you; everything you have and more. Ballet dancers use their entire bodies to express themselves, to tell their own, or another person's, story. The movement inherent in ballet pushes the body to many physical extremes. Ballet is a magnificent display of extreme flexibility, strength and agility. And physicality is not all that is required. A dancer must be musically educated: they must understand music's technicality, sometimes studying entire scores. Dancers need to understand dynamics and tempo. Every single movement they make must be a response to the timing and variations in the sound of the music they are dancing to. Dancing is so necessarily intertwined with music: it must seem like the dancer is somehow creating the music as an illustration of the story they are portraying.

A skill that aligns with musicality is that of acting and performance. Dancers are actors- they play roles. As stage actors know, however, engaging an audience can prove challenging. Good acting does not a good performer make. Dancers must engage the audience with their face and eyes. While thinking about the technicality of the movement, their dancing must seem to create a magnetic aura around them. Every single movement must be infused with energy and with meaning. A dancer acts with their entire body.

Don't for a second think that once a dancer learns their steps, they can focus on acting and immerse themselves in their character. Ballet technique is an ongoing struggle that requires a lot of brain power. Take, for instance, the simplest action in ballet: the plié. Here's a piece of advice. Don't ever ask a dancer what they are thinking about when they perform a plié. Simplest action in ballet? Yes. Simple? No. Proper turnout requires immense upper leg strength. Correct posture literally takes years to learn (I still don't have it and I've been dancing for upwards of thirteen years), as does proper carriage of the arms. Ankles must be supported so that the feet don't roll forwards. Exhausted already? You haven't even started the plié. Studies have been done on the ridiculous amount of activity that takes place in the brain while a human being stands on one leg. Now imagine the brain activity of a dancer standing en pointe on one leg, with their other leg lifted as high as possible behind themselves. No wonder so many dancers become intellectuals.

There is clearly a lot to think about. For an exercise in brain power, try working against yourself. We've all done the tummy rubbing, head patting thing to prove we can isolate different parts of our body. This isolation is something dancers are particularly good at. While their legs might be working harder than they've ever worked yet in their lives, no tension is shown in the upper body. Arm movements are not jerky and forceful, they are smooth, delicate and flowing. No matter how hard a dancer's bottom half may be working, the fluidity and ease of the upper body makes it look as though they are relaxed and floating on water. That's part of what makes ballet so beautiful. 

The fact that this post is so long and hasn't ended yet illustrates my point. The next skill I will point out is spatial awareness. A dancer must be completely aware of the numerous intricacies of their own body. They must know what a beautiful, long line feels like, since they cannot always be checking themselves in the mirror. However, on stage and in class, a dancer must also be constantly aware of their surroundings. Using the space that is available to its full potential helps to engage an audience's interest, and adds animation and depth to the dancing. When performing a ballet, the dancers' spacing on stage has been planned with the utmost detail. Making a movement as large and grandiose as possible doesn't matter when you are dancing in a corps de ballet and must stay in one exact position. 

Staying in that exact position may not matter so much when a dancer beside you is about to kick you in the face. Whatever must be sacrificed to make a ballet look beautiful must be sacrificed, even if it is proper technique, or missing a step to move slightly out of the way. If a corps dancer in front of you has musical timing that is slightly off, you follow him or her exactly. A line of dancers all slightly off from one another looks terrible. The same goes for a dancer in front of you whose spacing may be slightly off. If you're supposed to stand exactly behind her, you stand exactly behind her, no matter the cost. 

Let's recap: physicality that relentlessly pursues perfection, an awareness of your body's aesthetics, emotions, response to the music, spatial awareness, focus, memory of entire company repertoires, and attention-capturing energy. In my opinion, there is no other pursuit in life, except perhaps figure skating, that requires every facet and facility that you posess. And that is why ballet is so endlessly satisfying. Every time I dance, I spend myself, my whole self, every part of my self on this one goal. All my experiences, all my emotions-- past and present-- go into making my dancing expressive and beautiful. 

My respect, gratitude and admiration goes out to every dancer who gives themselves over, completely, to ballet every single day.

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