Dancers & Companies

The Power of Striving for the Impossible "Perfect"

Silas Farley as Cavalier in Nutcracker. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy NYCB.

As dancers, we often talk about perfect feet, perfect turnout and the perfect execution of steps. We spend our days in diligent pursuit of the total mastery of our bodies. We seek to fully conquer space and time. We want our dance to be perfect, which is a powerful incarnation of our deeper human longing for personal perfection.

But in dance, as in life itself, there is no perfection in the sense of a state of flawlessness at which we can arrive. Our humanity keeps us from that.

However, there is always perfection in the sense of formation: the unending process of refinement. Incrementally progressing through sustained training and exploration is what gives the dance life its vitality. I believe that this process is for our good, because it provides us with the opportunity to cultivate devotional delight in the details of imperfect practice, to feed our need for discovery and to grow in humility.


Each day, I have the honor of investigating the art form that I love in the company in which I had always dreamed of dancing, New York City Ballet. Every morning begins with technique class, which is a refiner's fire. Class is designed to bring the entire body into order by accomplishing a systematically laid out vocabulary of movements as perfectly as possible. That can seem daunting at 10:30 am.

Matthew Murphy for Pointe

But if I accept from before entering the studio that balletic perfection is an impossibility, and that the real goal is to arrive at a greater personal mastery than the previous day, then the class is a joy. I can view the exercises as a treasure trove to be mined. I can savor the intricacies of each step. Every gesture becomes precious and worthy of my utmost attention.

I often think of this company class like a cloister of monks saying their morning prayers. They rise at the same time each day to orient their lives towards a perfect power greater than themselves. They do this in full view of the fact that they will never be fully like that power, only just a little closer each day. But that aspiration is their making. They are beautified even in their imperfect pursuit of the great beauty.

There is no such thing as a perfect performance. The performance is a living, breathing reality that cannot be fully captured and then assessed as definitive. There is always a movement that could have been clearer, an interaction that could have been richer. If I ever felt I had completely and flawlessly realized a particular dance, then there would be nothing to keep striving for within it. The foibles can often be the most instructive moments.

I had such a performance as the Cavalier in the pas de deux of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker last year. Nearly the entire dance was the best my partner and I had ever done it. But at the very end of the adagio, I faltered, which caused her to fall. We both recovered well and finished the show with energy and presence.

Of course we were disappointed by the mistake. But the blunder set the beauty in relief. It forced us to reflect on every other moment in our performance and to appreciate all that had gone well. I will have greater sensitivity to the moment where I stumbled when I tackle that role again. Aiming for perfection onstage gives us an ongoing gift of discovery.

Perhaps the greatest insights that I've gained about perfection as a continuing work of improvement have been through my role as a teacher at the School of American Ballet. I have the responsibility and task of shaping my students. I aim to creatively conform them to certain aesthetic precepts that will give them a strong foundation for their dancing.

But I must do this with the mindset that I too am still learning about this art. I do not have perfectly complete knowledge. Whatever command of the information I do have is not for me to selfishly retain. I am to put it all at their service in order to make them great. I am being formed even as I form them.

Silas Farley leading an In Motion workshop. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy NYCB

I have also recently been considering what this work of perfecting the performance means for the audience. I think that they come to watch us dancers reach for perfection. That is the magic of the live performance. The audience members possess the same instrument as we do, giving them physical empathy with our every motion. As they sit and witness, their bodies participate too, thinking and feeling anything from "That looks like it hurts" to "I wish someone would hold me and support me like that." The viewer knows the frailty of the performer's frame, which makes them find the performer's feats all the more dazzling.

The dancing bodies onstage can also display a vision of perfectibility, people at their best. The dances can model the collaboration and order for which the audience yearns. This is why the performance, imperfect as it is, often means more to them than mere entertainment. It is inspiration and consolation.

Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.

But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.

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Dancers & Companies
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.

Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

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In The Studio
Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!

We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.

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News
Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


Rant & Rave
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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Dance in Pop Culture
Roberto Bolle and Kenall Jenner on set. Photo via tods.com

I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."

It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.

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Training
Anne Arundel Community College students, PC Kenneth Harriford

Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:

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