In the Eyes of the Beholder
More and more dancers are breaking stride with the conventions of beauty in our field—both in what’s considered a beautiful dancing body and what’s considered beautiful artistically. Dance Magazine interviewed nine forward-looking dancers and choreographers to get their insights. We asked them three questions: What do you find beautiful onstage? How has this changed for you? Can you give an example of what or whom you find beautiful?
Artistic director, INSPIRIT, a dance company
One of the main characteristics when I think of beauty is self-possession. In my mind, people who are self-possessed are automatically beautiful because they’ve honed a persona that is authentic. What comes across in performance is that understanding of what makes things work on a visceral level, and it kind of spurts out from there.
When I was coming up in the field, I loved to watch Gwen Welliver, who danced for many years with Doug Varone. I would call her the liquid metal transformer because she could turn from soft to steel in like 2.3 seconds. Choreographer Andrea Woods gave me my first job out of college; I learned from her about intention and understanding where the movement comes from. She can contort her body into what’s not thought of as pretty positions and still be beautiful.
It’s taken me a while to come up with my own idea of beauty. Coming from a small North Carolina town, being African American, having a physique that isn’t necessarily the norm, beauty was something that I was striving to attain, not something I thought I already had. So I was always trying to fit the mold of something else. But when I became involved with companies like Chuck Davis, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Bill T. Jones, and Liz Lerman, where that kind of self-possession was more valuable than extension or physique, I started to understand that there was something of mine that was unique which other people didn’t have.
Artistic director, Alexandra Beller/Dances; faculty, DNA Dance
What I find beautiful is authenticity, which is about emotional integrity and intense presence. I like when the space between things is magnified and electrified, between bodies or between moments in time. I find it beautiful when something onstage turns a mirror to me and reflects something out of my own mind or heart or life. When I was a teenager, the obvious, the clear emotionality is what appealed to me. I wanted catharsis. Now my emotional life is more subtle and complex.
Jeanine Durning is so incredibly a reflection of human life in all of its awkwardness and strife and weird beauty and unexpected pleasure. I feel the spontaneity of her decision-making, the potential for discovery of every moment.
Of course it’s beautiful to watch the amazing virtuosity of a ballet dancer. But it doesn’t touch me in the same way as Jeanine. For me the things that are the most beautiful are the most human. What ballet reflects back is perfection, which is not something that I really feel. What Jeanine reflects back is this life of being human and failing and succeeding and struggling, and that’s what moves me.
Artistic director, Ballet Nouveau Colorado
When an audience sees somebody be very vulnerable and free onstage, it allows them to feel vulnerable too. And the fragility of our egos and our hearts, combined with the power of the body, is something I find beautiful.
I love to see people try new things. I can be sitting in the house watching a rehearsal or a performance, and suddenly I’ll see something even in my own work that I’ve never seen before, simply because the dancers chose to explore that in a different way. Those new moments of beauty are incredibly exciting.
One thing that is important to me is the dancers’ eyes—where they choose to put their focus, or how they see the space around them, or how they complete a moment with their eyes. My wife Dawn Fay, associate artistic director of BNC, has an incredible ability to use her eyes, to narrow in on thought and to bring the entire audience with her.
The classical form is the basis of everything we do, so of course it appealed to me when I was younger. As I grew and changed and experienced life, I came to realize that some of the most beautiful things are not those ideal moments, but the difficult things you have to deal with—your own oddities and insecurities, and what comes out of that as you try to come to terms with yourself. When a dancer is able to use their own struggles as food for their art, I think that’s when they really reach beauty.
Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
A lot of people find beauty in lines and feet—that whole “perfect” thing. But my eye always goes straight to the person who’s most comfortable onstage, someone who’s truly alive. You can’t teach that.
Body image is my biggest enemy. I’ve always fought the stereotype of the bone-thin long limbs. I have a very muscular physique, with very little effort. Even with starvation it wouldn’t be thin. It’s taken a while, but now I’m comfortable knowing I’m a woman and I’m beautiful.
I went to Complexions not wanting to show my legs because they were so white. But they told me, “No, that’s beautiful.” And they told me not to cover up the tattoo on my ankle—it’s part of who I am. That was an eye-opener.
I’ve kept growing at Cedar Lake. We’re barefoot one minute, on pointe the next. We’re breaking the type-casting of the ideal ballerina or modern dancer. We work with so many different choreographers. The process with Ohad Naharin was like someone cracking my head open. I love to work one on one with a choreographer. I wouldn’t give that up for anything. To be created on is what’s beautiful for me.
Soloist, Boston Ballet
When I was 17 or 18, I was impressed by things that were technically amazing. I loved dancers who were hyper-extended and could do tricks, who had the wow factor. But as I got older, my idea of beauty became more complicated. I guess it’s really when people get lost in the moment of performance, when their movement flows musically. Watching my friends in Boston Ballet become different people onstage—that is beautiful.
I find the way Larissa Ponomarenko works beautiful because it shows how much she cares. The details of her arms and her head—you see her working on them in rehearsal, and then you see the way they transform her performances. And choreography—I’ve seen Béjart’s Boléro on tape, and it gives me goose bumps. It’s very different from what I’ve danced, and it has some kind of magic for me, even on videotape.
Artistic director, Francesca Harper Project
For me, dance is a place to unleash your soul. Working with William Forsythe and in creating my own work, I love to straddle the line between beauty and ugliness or pain. At some points the most distorted positions when you’re choreographing become the most beautiful, vulnerable movements—stronger than something that’s familiar.
As you get older and work on your spirituality, it transforms from having external beauty to developing your internal beauty and having that radiating out from within. I think of Sarita Allen’s solo in Lar Lubovitch’s North Star—strong, sensual, fluid, angry, and vulnerable. Beauty is an expression of all these things.
Dancer, Dance 2XS Chicago
I love the fusion of hip hop and modern dance. It’s not just all hard-hitting commercial moves, but a lot of it flows from doing a popping move into something that melts, using extension, defying gravity, effortlessness.
Seeing The Nutcracker when I was little, it was the costumes and the characters. Now, it’s the use of space, the music, and energy. I never realized how much it takes to make something look effortless, to get to that level, so I appreciate the beauty of it even more through my own understanding as a dancer.
Kevin Maher’s musicality and the fusion of hip hop and modern dance in his choreography are amazing!
Karen Callaway Williams
Dancer, New Jersey Tap Dance Ensemble
The quality of someone’s personality coming out through their dance. Lately, I’ve been watching older dancers who still have the joy and love of dance. And that comes out through their movement even though it may not be as technical.
Sometimes younger tap dancers think the speed and the technical tricks are beautiful. But then they see a tapper who has grace and style and it’ll redefine beauty in their brains. They’ll see something that makes them catch their breath and say That’s what I want.
I still go back to the older masters like The Nicholas Brothers and Peg Leg Bates; the Cotton Club and the Apollo chorus dancers like Hortense Allen Jordan, and Marion Coles of the Silver Belles. When I watch them, I think I don’t have that yet. They’re in their 90s and still tap dancing. Sure, kids are gonna dance around and jump over people’s heads, but there’s a style you don’t see nowadays. That’s what I see as beauty.
In the past three years I’ve learned that it’s not about beauty. It’s more what turns you on mentally, physically, emotionally. It’s about being in the moment. It’s part of your life. It’s an act of being. Has nothing to do with beauty. To me, beauty is just a word, no more of a thing than the word “salt.” Batsheva taught me that I did have an idea of beauty before and helped to break it down. I realized I had been confined in a box. The connection between effort and pleasure, to really feel the effort and enjoy that—that creates the beauty. It’s not about being a dancer; it’s about being a person.
Interviews by Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Margaret Fuhrer, Emily Macel, Wendy Perron, Lynn Shapiro, and Jennifer Stahl
Photo courtesy Beller