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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.
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While Solange was busy helping big sis Beyoncé give Coachella its best performances of all time, an equally compelling project was quietly circulating on Instagram:
When I wrote about my struggle with depression, and eventual departure from dance because of it, I expected criticism. I was prepared to be challenged. But much to my relief, and horror, dancers from all over the world responded with support and stories of solidarity. The most critical response I saw was this one:
"Dance isn't for everyone."
This may as well be a mantra in the dance world. We have become entrenched in the Darwinian notion that the emotionally weak will be weeded out. There is no room for them anyway.
In his final bow at New York City Ballet, during what should have been a heroic conclusion to a celebrated ballet career, Robert Fairchild slipped and fell. His reaction? To lie down flat on his back like he meant to do it. Then start cracking up at himself.
"He's such a ham," says his sister Megan Fairchild, with a laugh. "He's really good at selling whatever his body is doing that day. He'll turn a moment that I would totally go home and cry about into something where the audience is like, 'That's the most amazing thing ever!' "
New York City Ballet continues its first year without Peter Martins at the helm as our spring season opens tonight.
When he retired at the start of the new year, we plunged headfirst into unknown, murky waters. Who would the new director be? When would we know? Would we dancers get some say in the decision? Who would oversee the Balanchine ballets? Who would be in charge of casting? Would a new director bring along huge upheaval? Could some of us be out of a job?
In the world of ballet, Arcadian Broad is a one-stop shop: He'll come up with a story, compose its music, choreograph the movement and dance it himself. But then Broad has always been a master of versatility. As a teenager he juggled school, dance and—after the departure of his father—financial responsibility. It was Broad's income from dancing that kept his family afloat. Fast-forward six years and things are far more stable. Broad now lives on his own in an apartment, but you can usually find him in the studio.
Bales of hay, black umbrellas, bicycles—this Midsummer Night's Dream would be unrecognizable to the Bard. Alexander Ekman's full-length, inspired by Scandinavian solstice traditions and set to music by Mikael Karlsson, is a madcap celebration of the longest day of the year, when the veil between our world and that of the supernatural is said to be at its thinnest. The Joffrey Ballet's performances mark the seductively surreal work's North American premiere. April 25–May 6. joffrey.org.
"There's an ancient energy in Fana's movement, a deep and trusted knowing," says Jeff, director of the Chicago-based Deeply Rooted Dance Theater. "Because I witnessed the raw humanity of his dancer's souls, I wanted my dancers to have that experience."
Growing up in a family-owned dance studio in Missouri had its perks for tap dancer Anthony Russo. But it also earned him constant taunting, especially in high school.
"There was a junior in my sophomore year health class who was absolutely relentless," he says. "I'd get tripped on my way to the front of the classroom and he'd say, 'Watch out, twinkle toes.' If I raised my hand and answered a question incorrectly, I'd hear a patronizing 'Nice one, Bojangles.' "
Choreographer Sergio Trujillo asked the women auditioning for ensemble roles in his newest musical to arrive in guys' clothing—"men's suits, or blazers and ties," he says. He wasn't being kinky or whimsical. The entire ensemble of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is female, playing men and women interchangeably as they unfold the history of the chart-busting, Grammy-winning, indisputable Queen of Disco.