Blog – Ballet is a Band of Brothers and Sisters
Ballet is the embodiment of Good over Evil. But behind the glorious red and gold curtains of the stage is a life that had a dark underbelly.
As dancers we reach for the epitome of what are the highest potentials of humanity, while showing the tumultuousness of the human condition. We are on that stage showing that joy, but it often comes from great pain and suffering. We try to make impossible things look effortless, ethereal, and passionate. The experience of dancing on a stage always feels to a dancer as if we are reaching for a gold ring, a peak experience where life, art, breath, emotion, pain, hope, longing, and love find a tenuous point of balance for a brief moment in time.
Ballet is incredibly difficult. Just as so many athletic and other artistic moments can be. But what is clear to all dancers is that ballet is an artform. While it requires tremendous athleticism, what propels a dancer forward is not just technical proficiency but how one call allow the body to become a vehicle for powerful moments of emotional and artistic expression of what is buried deep inside.
As a child, I was attracted to ballet because of its innocent beauty, its purity, and its lightness of being.
Yet, the more proficient one becomes in the world of ballet, we have to recognize and embrace the reality that it can be quite the opposite.
Every dancer I know, still holds that flame of innocence and magical wonder. Every dancer reaches to be more than themselves in those special moments on stage. Every dancer knows that to succeed, one needs to face that horrible mirror in the rehearsal studios every day. We need to be willing to see the mistakes and failures and deal with constant feelings where we believe we have fallen short of our own expectations. Or the expectations of others. But it in our own inner critic that is the loudest and that has the greatest impact over our self-esteem.
Ballet is a daily grind on every level. Everyday ballet dancers wake up stiff and sore. It becomes so automatic that we don’t even realize it until we retire.
Even after I retired, it took me months of feeling as if something was very wrong … every day, until I realized that what was missing was that I was not hurting and in pain.
One cannot become a great dancer without knowing how to channel pain in other directions. We learn how to focus so strongly on what we are attempting, that we learn to override sensations of pain.
That is because if (as a dancer) you collapse, trust me there are lots of younger dancers hungrily waiting for you to fail so they can get their chance. Dancers don’t do that to be vindictive but they know that unless one is wildly talented, opportunities can be few and far between. One has to leap at any chance or opening that becomes available.
Ballet companies are like a pack of wolves. They are deeply connected … and they are family. They work together and they accomplish a lot together, but when a leader shows any signs of weakness, instantly there are those ready, willing, and able to fight and take down the leader to take their chance in the limelight.
The competition is always there in the studio and it is always in the mirror staring back at you. Every dancer knows their own weaknesses, strengths, skills, talents, and abilities. We are competing with ourselves first and foremost.
Ballet is a type of intense servitude to a mistress that is forever wanting more. What ballet costs each dancer is tremendous. Careers can end dramatically in a rehearsal studio with a shattered knee or quietly as the body begins to be unable to take the constant pounding on a hard wood floor.
Ballet dancers are seen as glorious, beautiful, and more like a dream than human. But in my generation few dancers survived past 35. There were those exceptions to the rules, Nureyev, and Fonteyn to name a few.
Every dancer knows that the life span of a dancer at the top is relatively short. Unless you are in Europe (because of the financial backing of governments for the arts) so you have job security, or if you are in the Prima Ballerina/Danseur category. But generally, in a professional ballet dancer career, there really is no money to be made.
We do it because we love it, and we have something inside that has to dance. And at the end of most careers, the body is broken in some way, either physically or emotionally/spiritually.
Ballet is the embodiment of a Fairy Tale. But all Fairy Tales have a dark side that must be confronted to succeed.
I saw myself as that sweet innocent girl that wanted to be the positive, ethereal, characters. But directors and choreographers saw something inside me that was darker and much more dangerous. Throughout my career, I would play the nemesis to the angelic characters. I did not see inside myself, what those directors and choreographers saw in me.
At first, it was a curiosity and then I realized that I liked being the dark characters. I loved being the manifestation of that hard reality in life where there will always be those who will try to thwart the goodness in life and not allow everything to go smoothly.
Being the evil and dark character allowed me to express those feelings that I had never given light or air to. The rage I had inside became a type of fuel that allowed me to leap higher, spin faster, and command center stage. Deep inside there was a part of me that did not want to be just sweet. I wanted to be considered formidable. Those dark characters gave me those opportunities to be my worst self in every way. But those dark characters required a type of seething emotional intensity to explode out of my body in order to shock and terrify an audience. It was my job to make them catch their breath and see in the anger, rage, fear, and pain that they too were hiding from.
There is a great joy in expressing forbidden emotions that in the fake rules of what is a socially acceptable world requires, and that humanity is asked to tap down and hide.
Those dark characters gave me great joy to express and embody.
Ballet pushes the body to the limit and then keeps asking for more.
Ballet is a type of obsession and for some it becomes an addiction that controls them and does not allow them to stop. Nureyev was the perfect example of this.
In Ballet, one never shows weakness. One must hold a level of confidence in oneself and abilities in each and every moment. That does not mean we ever feel as confident as we express in the external world. Not by a long shot. One does not get to the top by holding the illusion that we are the best. Quite the contrary. We struggle to climb that ladder by practicing what we do not do well. We learn that talent will only get you so far. The rest has to come from determination, the willingness to see where we fall short of the mark, and then diligently working towards finding ways to break through the restrictions of the body, mind, emotions, ego, and soul.
I remember moments when something was choreographically being asked of me that seemed impossible. In that moment, I actually recognized that this quality or type of movement was something I have never done. And I don’t even know if I could do it. That is where the repetition and tremendous muscle control comes in handy.
I have been amazed and surprised to realize that I was able to do something that seemed impossible. As a dancer we learn to trust in our instrument … our body. And we learn that it is critical to figure out how to let go in those moments, so the mind does not interfere with the body knowing and wisdom. Overthinking things can often cause a disaster.
I have also had moments when I did not know how to do something but a partner, had a clue or had a level of conscious competence. And because of that partner, everything went swimmingly and almost magically. If I learned to trust him and allow him to guide the moment. That is where ballet also taught me so much about trusting other dancers. In reality, we have no choice. We are a team out there on a stage dancing and weaving together a story. Everyone is needed to make the story happen and make sense. We need to learn how to be fully present with each other and to know how to trust another but also how to compensate if they falter.
Ballet is an art that holds a type of core agism in it. Every dancer knows that we cannot do it forever. We are always thinking about what we are going to do after ballet.
In Europe and Canada there are organizations that help dancers retire. Not so much so in the United States.
To be in the limelight day in and day out, to have so many talented people constantly working on your behalf to make a performance memorable … is a situation that most people will never experience. And that is something so very wonderful.
What I appreciate most about my dancer career was the opportunity to be so many characters. I got to express a wide range of emotions fully. Most people will never know the feeling of having so much power on a stage because my character got to express a type of mental and emotional manipulation to control others. In ballet, I got to use my sexuality to cause war, mayhem, raping and pillaging. I got to feel extreme states of awareness by dancing ballets by Helen Douglas and I will be forever grateful to this most talented of choreographers. Most people will never feel the level of anger that wants to seek revenge at all costs. Myrtha gave me that gift. Most will never know how it feels to feel betrayed to such a level that one wants to create a spell that a young girl will prick her finger and die on her 16th birthday. Carabosse taught me that and so much more.
I learned to love my darkness. I learned to embrace the powerful parts of myself that I had hidden in the darkness. And I am a better person because of that. I can call upon any of those archetypes at any moment and in the blink of an eye I can embody them fully in a way that will make antagonists back up and suddenly re-evaluate if attacking me was a good idea.
I am more whole because of having the chances that ballet offered and in learning to deal with the complicated egos that wanted to make me into something that I was not … nor did I want to become. Thank you to John Hart for that lesson.
Every character in my repertoire was a deeply personal journey into hidden parts of myself. Every role I played allowed those roles to become more alive, vibrant and integrated into my core being. I believe no part of ourselves can be left behind. Ballet offered a kaleidoscope of archetypes for me to learn to embody and embrace. I am more comfortable in my core and expressing raw emotions in my life because of it.
I have people say to me that they have never met anyone as authentically open as me. That makes me smile. Because dancers cannot help but be more raw and real with ourselves, others, and our lives. It is why even retired, ballet dancers and all dancers are a powerful band of brothers and sisters. We understand each other from a deeper place than where most humans live their lives from. We are safe with each other because we have battled the barre, carried each other to safety, fought daily side-by-side, we have competed, argued with ourselves and each other, we have taken huge risks and we have watched each other fail and succeed. We are not afraid to tell others that they did a wonderful job. We compliment from a place of honesty and respect. We know what it takes to reach for excellence, and we know that souls such as us are a rare breed. I am grateful to hang out with any dancers of any style or expression. They are my family. We are all tribe. And we will always have each other’s backs.