The Power of Striving for the Impossible "Perfect"
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.
You know Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as the men who parody your favorite ballet variations—and make it look good. But there's more to the iconic troupe than meets the eye.
A new documentary, Rebels on Pointe, goes behind the scenes of the company, and it's full of juicy tidbits about what it's like to be a Trock. These were some of our favorite moments:
After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.
By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.
You know that how you care for your body before curtain can impact your performance. But with so many factors to consider, it can be difficult to nail down an exact routine. How much rest is enough? How close to showtime should you eat? We asked the experts.
How do you make your athleisure collection stand out from the pack? Get the ultimate studio-to-street seal of approval by having dancers star in your campaign, of course.
For his second collaboration with activewear brand Carbon38, ready-to-wear designer Jonathan Simkhai traded in his usual top models like Gigi Hadid and Karlie Kloss for the original Hiplet dancers—and the resulting video is as cool as we'd expect from such a fierce collaboration.
Last week, we highlighted the deliberately, hysterically bad @biscuitballerina Instagram account, created by a then-mysterious dancer with a great sense of humor. This week, the artist behind @biscuitballerina—who turns out to be Royal Ballet of Flanders corps member Shelby Williams—got in touch with us to set the record straight about the intentions of those LOL-worthy posts.
Her photos and videos, with their exaggeratedly cringe-worthy technical flaws, are NOT meant to mock amateur dancers. Instead, Williams is actually hoping the account will help all dancers move past their shortcomings and accept themselves and their dancing.
Everyone knows that training is the cornerstone of a successful career in dance. But as a dance educator, I also take comfort in the fact that high-quality dance training helps shape students into genuinely good people (in addition to creating future artists, which is a wonderful goal in itself.) These are the lessons dance teaches that help make students into better humans:
Improvement Takes Commitment Over Time
In my tap courses at Cal State University, sometimes students are shocked when they can't learn something quickly. In today's world, we're used to getting fast results. You need an answer—Google it. You need to talk to someone—text them. The cooking channel wants your dinner to be easy, the physical trainer wants your workout to be five minutes, Rosetta Stone can have you speaking Mandarin in an hour.
Again and again, dance teaches me that when the filters fall away between people—when the boundaries of geography, religion and politics soften—the beginning and end of our relationships is always human.
In March, I traveled with Keigwin + Company to Cote D'Ivoire, Ethiopia and Tunisia, on a tour sponsored by the US State Department and facilitated by DanceMotion USA/Brooklyn Academy of Music. Our mission was cultural diplomacy: Simply, to share ourselves with diverse communities, to promote common understanding and friendships.
Our last stop was Tunisia. Until that point, we had mostly been learning varieties of traditional African dance, and sharing American modern dance. But Tunisia was different. The dancers already had a solid grasp of contemporary movement invention. Though we didn't speak the same language, we could make movement vocabulary with surprising ease. Everything about our backgrounds was different, but there was this special intersection through dance that seemed to present an open door to collaboration.
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.
Christopher Wheeldon's new Nutcracker for the Joffrey Ballet was huge news when it premiered last winter. The choreographer shifted the setting from the home of a well-off German family to the Chicago world's fair, making the hero the young daughter of a working-class, Polish immigrant sculptress. This month, WTTW Chicago, the city's public broadcasting station, will premiere Making a New American Nutcracker, a new documentary showing how Wheeldon and his high-profile collaborators made the magic happen. Premieres on WTTW11 and wttw.com/watch on Nov. 16 before appearing on public television stations across the country. Check your local listings.
For most dancers, walking into the theater elicits a familiar emotion that's somewhere between the reverence of stepping into a chapel and the comfort of coming home. But each venue has its own aura, and can offer that something special that takes your performance to a new level. Six dancers share which theaters have transported them the most.
GLENN ALLEN SIMS
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Glenn Allen Sims in Alvin Ailey's Masekela Langage. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy AAADT
Favorite theater: Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain
Royal details: "The theater is gorgeous and ornate, with deep red upholstery and gold trim. There is a huge royal box in the center, which takes you back to when kings and queens were watching performances there."
Impressive facilities: Even the dressing rooms are a sight to see: Amenities for the dancers include large, carpeted rooms, and towel service.
The business side of dance can often fall second to the art. Contracts, which usually appear after you've done the hard work of securing a job, can seem like an inconsequential afterthought. You might decide to simply sign without reading the terms—or be understandably confused by all the legalese.
Ultimately, though, contracts can play an important part in setting the expectations for your job. A basic understanding of the legal terms you might see can go a long way in making sure that signing is a positive step toward growing your career.