February 11, 2024

Ballet – Looking Back

About the Author: Suzanne Wagner
By Published On: February 11, 2024Categories: Ballet

Looking Back

The value of age is related to being able to reflect and to put important pieces of my life together, and to see the reflections of others as mirrors in my life that showed me their path in such a way that they allowed me to claim my own.
Ballet is an art that is passed down through the experiences of others. Ballet is a process where those that were before us share what they were taught and the wisdoms that they gained through trial and error, their own particular body faculties and organic abilities, the teachings of their teachers and coaches, the psychological awareness’s that they integrated, their own faith and belief in themselves, and the knowledge of how they learned to overcome insecurities, personal despair, injuries, and terrible disappointments.
What all dancers carry inside is a large bag of tools that allowed them to keep going when everything felt as if it was collapsing around their ears. All dancers created walls of protection around their delicate soul and deeply emotional hearts so that they could keep dancing.
Those I looked up to in the ballet world were all giants of talent and determination in their own way. Each created a few or many walls that prevented certain types of intimacy except along very narrow pathways. They personally laid down their own stones to create the pathway that they found made them into an enigma, a star, and a ballet deity.
Everyone dances for different reasons. The motivation that begins this journey is one that is deeply personal and yet rooted in the extreme joy of performing and the magic that happens on stages that transform these fragile human beings into gods and goddesses, fairies, witches, swans, willis, princesses and princes, and so much more.
For some, ballet felt like dancing on their grave.
For myself, I felt as if I was dancing for my life.
I was always trying to find all the hidden parts of myself. I was always trying to find the purest expression of who was really inhabiting this physical form. Ballet was a tool to discover my hidden selves. Ballet was my vipassana to discover all the shadow that had been suppressed, all the power that I had denied, and all the creative potential that I was afraid to show.
Watching Bruce Marks and Toni Lander dance when I was 5-years-old awakened a lifelong longing to become the beacon of hope in a world being swallowed by darkness. I saw ballet as that tool to hone me into what the divine needed to awaken the hearts and souls of others. I wanted my dance to help others to remember that there was something so very powerful inside each of them that was trying to get out and inspire them to embark on a journey to discover, remember, reclaim, and become whole once again.
I saw ballet as that essential tool that might be able to give me the opportunities through the insights of tremendous artistic effort, learning to trust my own body, mind, heart, and spirit, and then finding the courage to reach past my own insecurities to find that particular thing inside that made me unique, special, and worth this precious gift of life.
The challenge with ballet is that teachers, coaches, directors, and ballet masters and mistresses, often teach what they were taught and try to keep the purity of that teaching as they refine it and hone it into a sharper tool that can shape and mold bodies into the forms that they see as ideal.
I am grateful that my body held the flexibility, strength, range of motion, and the ability to show emotions through movement that many were drawn to. It gave me a doorway into this exclusive club called, Ballet.
Throughout my dance career, I had those that saw my potential and tried to shape it into the forms that they saw as ideal. And there were those precious few that saw that there was something else burning deeper within me that would not be bent to the wills of any one tradition.
I have been gifted to be trained in the Russian systems, the Bournonville style, the Balanchine Methods, and the Royal Academy of Dance. And I never fit into any of them completely.
When I was in Dallas Metropolitan Ballet, Ann Etgen and Bill Atkinson showed me a doorway to authentic expression through dance. They showed me that ballet was a bouquet of red roses with thorns. They taught me that the cost of talent would be some bloody fingers. And for that I am grateful. It was honest and it was real. Something that the ballet world loves to pretend is not happening.
Violette Verdy saw the fire in my eyes and could see that inside was great talent but not a type of talent that would allow itself to be molded into Balanchine’s form. She gave me a great gift when she said, “Suzy, you are going to have a problem here. You see you don’t believe Balanchine is a God!” To which I answered, “Of course he is not a god!” And she smiled and said, “You see! That is the problem!” She was right. Balanchine’s ego saw himself as a god and he wanted that title because he loved to shape ballerinas to his particular style and ideal image. Young dancers are idealistic and moldable. Young dancers want to please and see that becoming the image and ideal of a mentor allows them to dance more and have more opportunities to share this powerful gift and feeling that is inside.
Violette, could see that I had more going on in my head than most ballerina bunheads. She could see that there was a fire inside that would refuse to believe anyone could have total sovereignty over my dancer self. There was something wild and untamable inside that was burning to get out.
Ballet is an art for the young and those that want and are willing to be shaped by those supposedly older and wiser. But even then, there was something inside my own being that would not want to bow to any one person for too long.
The only God I trusted was Terpsichore. She was the goddess that was leading me in my core, and she understood my heart and soul more than any human I would encounter.
Arthur Mitchell saw my talent and immediately tried to shape it, but his approach felt aggressive to my sensitive nature. I recognized that he wanted to shape me but the tool he used in that moment triggered fear rather than hope inside my soul. But he taught me that there are teachers that will try to forcefully shape a student and that aggression was their form of love.
This was a lesson that I would learn many more times as I moved through my ballet career. Goodrun Leben used this tool quite effectively with me in the Myrtha rehearsals in Berlin. Her Russian-styled approach was that if you can do a solo 25 times consecutively in rehearsal, then once on stage would be easy.
While her approach was highly effective in building strength, it seemed to make her into a mean-spirited person who was deeply wounded in her core, unhappy, and angry most of the time. It was clear to me that I did not want to become her.
Eva Evdokimova showed me that when one has tremendous talent, deep compassion, and mental/emotional flexibility that one can become a dancer that everyone looks up to and wants to emulate. Yet, her life was also not without scars and even when we never saw her smoking, she too died of cancer. Smoking was the nemesis of the dancers in my generation because smoking helped to keep the ideal body weight required in ballet at our time.
Bruce Marks gave me more opportunities to explore and perform roles that allowed me to move organically in my own way and through his choreography allowed me to remember that I was and will forever be a Lark Ascending.
Helen Douglas taught me that one can find that freedom of movement through dance and not fit into any boxes that were previously considered the ultimate manifestation of ballet technique. She bent the rules and broke a few. She gave permission to try, to fail, and to keep trying. On so many levels she showed me that I could do it my way and allow her inspiration to guide me but to take it only as a guide … not the absolute truth that so many choreographers, directors, and teachers demanded.
Upon reflecting upon my dancing years. I see how I could embrace the American and Russian styles, as they fit my temperament and my great need to go big or go home.
While I had a powerfully controlling mindset, one would think that the RAD and Bournonville styles would be right up my alley. But the movement quality of the RAD training was much too congested for my taste and my heart could not beat through this style and find a higher expression. The RAD style is small and exact, and I was not small in stature nor a dancer that wanted to show as much finesse as fire.
I could watch Eva Evdokimova, Peter Schaufass, Peter Martins, and Toni Lander embody the Bournonville style with great grace, poise, and a sharpness of technique that gave their dance an appearance of flawlessness. And I understood that this frequency of dance related to their own personal way that their mind and heart could work in unison with this type of technique. They took a type of style and used their mind to refine it in the fires of the consciousness to make it even more unique, surprising, and intriguing to those watching.
I believe that how we are taught at the beginning of our ballet journey becomes our baseline. It is familiar and because of that comfortable. I believe our genetics also play a role in our ability to embody certain styles organically.
I remember watching Rudolf Nureyev dance the Bournonville style and it felt forced, tight, not organic for his body, and as if he was trying desperately to fit into that mold to prove the point that he could do it. But watching him it did not feel like him nor did it feel fun. It felt hard, unpleasant, and stressful. Which is counter to what all dancers are trying to accomplish on a stage. We want things to look effortless even if they are tremendously difficult.
Rudolf Nureyev taught me probably the most out of anyone. Rudi understood that he did not have to fit into anyone’s boxes. People came to see him. They came to see this wild, Russian, tempestuous God of a dancer on the stage. He pushed the envelopes in all ways. Some worked and some didn’t … but he tried them all.
But he knew the audiences came to see him. He recognized that it was not the style of dance they came to see but how his personality could move through it.
He taught me to never let others define you. He saw in my eyes something that burned also in his soul. While he was much better at letting that wildness out on a stage, he gave me courage to try that I had not had until he showed me how to do it.
Rudi used an unusual technique. That was to piss me off! Oh, and he pissed off many others, as well. But he knew that art was the pure expression of a soul. To him, ballet was not a system of steps and lessons that trained the body in specific ways. Ballet was the highest expression and full embodiment of a soul’s potential as it reached beyond the form of the body and was shaped by something divine.
He believed himself to be a God of Dance in this dimension. But his heart beat to the drum of Terpsichore … just like mine did.
I watched Eva, Rudi, and Toni dance to their death. But this entire life I was constantly trying to Dance for my Life.
Some cannot stop dancing. They are much like the Movie, “The Red Shoes”. Every ballet dancer understands that movie on a deep internal level. Every dancer feels as if they can’t stop. As I child I would just keep dancing. And even now, I continue to pirouette with words. It is clear that I too am still dancing.
This story is about my journey to find myself. Find the truth that was seeking ways to be seen, felt, and expressed.
I am deeply grateful to all the reflections that showed me their path, their passion, and their purpose.
And I am deeply grateful to myself for knowing that I could never be another person. That the journey was never to be a copycat of a style or to mimic a dancer that I admired.
It was always clear to me that the greatest risk was to be oneself on a stage. To be raw and real, honest and true to one’s own nature. That was because only on stage did one have that chance to move past the choreography and the steps. Only on stage was there no mirror in front of me showing me my flaws and faults. Only on stage was there no critic or ballet mistress trying to shape me into a mold that they saw as perfection. Only on stage did all that fall away, and I was allowed to stand in the place of accepting my own perfection in that moment. Only on stage did I have the opportunity to share the powerful feeling and love and dance that beat my heart and shaped my soul. Only on stage did I feel that I could capture the hearts in an audience and take them on a ride towards their highest selves.
It was only in those precious and sacred moments that my soul was freed from the confines of choreography and that I had a moment to allow true art to take over my very existence.
That was what made it so magical for me.
That is what made it all worthwhile.
That was what allowed me to recognize that the artist in me had many forms and shapes. But I was my own style and flavor. While some would like it, others would not. Ballet taught me that I could not live my life trying to please others and ever feel satisfied. I could only keep reaching to find and express my own authenticity. That would allow me to feel complete and whole.
From that place, the opinions of others dissolved away in their importance and that was where I found the courage that lived inside my heart to tell the truth, speak with kindness but with honesty, and allow others to have their perception but to never let another’s perception of me stop me from being who I really was.
Ballet was the path to my own maturity. Ballet was the journey I needed to become a better person. But it also showed me that I would have to eventually walk away from this thing I loved so deeply.
The strength of mind it takes to walk away from the thing that captivated one’s heart and soul for this entire life, is beyond difficult. Because ballet shaped me in ways that I still see even now.
I would not change one precious moment, whether good or bad. Ballet was a refining fire that my soul needed to go through to become the sharp sword of truth and light that I am still striving to become.
Ballet broke my heart … open. It is what I needed to understand this world and how my sensitive nature could find a way to dance in the darkness and in the light.
I can now see the brilliance and talent of so many along my path. But I can also see the tortured souls that struggled with their own darkness and those that could never free themselves from the heavy yoke of perfection.
I am grateful to all those who gave me a chance and gave me opportunities to stretch into becoming something more than what I saw in that moment. Those that gave me the hardest times were the reflections of my own hidden shadow. Those that saw my light gave me a doorway to shine that light out into the world even more brightly. I know that all of them are my spiritual family, and we were all seeking to find our own pathways, as we sought to dance towards life and light.
~Suzanne Wagner~

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