Whose to Judge?

Does the identity of ballet rest on presenting a certain image of the ballet dancer?

After a visit to almost any art gallery you may find that artists have been making fat an issue over the course of thousands of years. Artists like Rembrandt, and Renoir were two of the first with their creation of nudes of women with beautiful curves that to today’s standards no longer fit the “ideal” image of beauty. Perhaps a far more fundamental question than the one posed above is, out of all the various forms of human exposure, which art requires complete exposure of the human body, besides the nude in painting, sculpture or photography?

Ballet, without a doubt. Ballet dancers although, to some degree masked by the layers of costume, tutus, and tights- make themselves some of society’s easiest targets of bodily scrutiny. Dancers open their bodies up in the geometric contoures, shapes, and various movements of precision that ballet has systemized. Ballet commands sacrafice in order to achieve the immediate dance community’s acceptance, as well as fit society’s widely held ideals of beauty. Historically, these ideals are the unfortunate causes of many women, men, and ballet dancer’s battles with deadly eating disorders. It is the professions that demand the bodily attention that regrettably result in some of the most dangerous eating disorders, ballet’s being anorexia. Models, dancers, and most anyone in the public eye are constantly being put under pressure to represent a certain image. In ballet there is a definite image a ballerina must present that exemplifies allt hat ballet is. Ultimately, it is the ballet dancer’s performance that embodies what people may take away with them after a performance, and in doing so identify the art.

When a dancer has even the smallest of imperfections there can be no hoodie worn to replace the corset, or sweats to replace the tutu. To be an overweight dancer does not mean the dancer is automatically a bad one. I know of some pretty incredible heavier performers who have beat all odds and leave audiences amazed by the ingenuity of their dancing. The flaws, however small they may be are unfortunate to have to point out, and the size of a ballerina is perhaps the most controversial debate in ballet today. However, the flaws of the artists are also a part of the identity of ballet, and the ballerina as well. It becomes the dancers resposibility to thus transcend their flaws and be the greatest dancer that they can be.

The size of a dancer is not only a modern ideal but, rather an obsession that can be traced to ballet’s origins and some of it’s earliest starlets. Today, there are many female, and male dancers with obvious flaws, who have surpassed all expectations and made far more lasting impacts in ballet than those dancers who possessed bodies that were “ballet-perfect”. But, then again this is their task: “in an Apollonian art that requires purity of line, precision of execution and harmony of appearance, dancers with less than ideal shapes must bring other qualities to bear”. Many dancers have, and will continue to do so, with or without the perfect “ideal” ballet body. I would say that although the body in ballet may not be irrelevant, a dancers body isn’t everything. While a dancers body is the subject of the most obtuse observation, and at times blunt discussion, at the end of the day it’s all about the dancing, and overcoming the standards of the profession that bind.

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Too Thin, Too Tall, Too Fat, Too Short…

Does body type matter in ballet today? A whirlwind of controversy over recent reviews that singled out dancers bodies for criticism rather than the artists dance, movement, and athleticism has raised more than a few eyebrows among dance critics, and dancers alike. In the introductin of the first in a series of issue related posts I described the ever so uncertain future of a ballet dancer, and vowed to introduce my reader’s to the most important make it or break it trials that dancers are consistantly faced with. Society and it’s standards may be changing, changed, or may in the future change when it comes to what the ideal woman is but, it sometimes seems as though ballet is moving at a pace of it’s own. Over the years we have all seen the images backed, and supported by the media, entertainment and various other sources of public influence. The image of a double -zero, size zero wearing, bone showing, dangerously skinny girl is the image of the “ideal” woman portrayed by media and is accepted by the public as the normal sizing of a woman.

This image has been revealed to be a completely false portrayl of the “average” woman time and time again yet even when the cutain’s fell and society knows fashion, entertainment, and media’s take on the ideal woman of disasterous porportion has nothing to do with the real average 5’5, one hundred and thirty pound, healthy, medium build woman. This implications and stigma from years of being bombarded with one ideal body type for a woman has taken it’s toll. In the world of ballet the damaging implications of this profound stereotype, in addition to the issues that have arisen primarily caused by this mindset are impossible to ignore. New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay in a now nototrious review of New York City Ballet dancer Jennifer ringer’s performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy in “George Balanchine’s, The Nutcracker” remarked, ” looked as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many”. The comment set forth a whirlwind of protest among readers on the internet, fellow correspondants and fans alike. While Mr. Macaulay’s comment is all too familiar in the realm of ballet it is also a stark example of the fashionable images of beauty ballet dancers bodies are forced to reconcile with.

As a ballerina who has been intensely scrutinized because of my size, I understood the overall critique made by Mr. Macaulay however, I have reviewed footage of the performance in question, as well as various other roles Ms. Ringer has performed in and I have yet to see the “one plum too many”, he spoke of. In ballet the dancer- for example, the case in point, Ms. Ringer wasn’t overweight by any standard and the bodily scrutiny dancers are forced to succumb to is more a criticism of the dancers inability to bring forth other qualities;when their shape is considered less than “ideal”. No dancer, no human has “the perfect ideal” shape because afterall there is no perfect ideal. However, in the dance world, dance critics, compnay directors, and those in control of who works, and who doesn’t have “ideals” of what they want the ballerina to look like. An ultra thin Ballerina isn’t necessarily  the “ideal”. In response to Mr. Macaulay’s criticism of Ms. Ringer, she explained on the NBC Today Show:

“It’s a physical profession  profession. We’re dancing all day long…. But if you’re too thin, you can’t do the job. That’s where people run into trouble. When I went through my eating disorders, I went through anorexia; when you’re weak, you can’t do the job, and you can’t perform it well.

As a dancer, I do put myself out there to be criticized, and my body is part of my art form. At the same time, I’m not overweight. I do have, I guess, a more womanly body type than the stereotypical ballerina, but that’s one of the wonderful things about the New York City Ballet. We have every body type you can imagine. We have tall, we have petite, we have athletic, we have womanly, we have waif-like. We have every body type out there. They can all dance like crazy. They are all gorgeous, and I think dance should be more of a celebration of that.”

I couldn’t have explained the duties of a dancer any better than Ms. Ringer did in her above description. Today, in such an open and modern world you would think the beautiful differences on stage would be celebrated and admired. The harsh truth remains that while many closed doors in society have been opened, the “fashionable- media supported portrayl’s of what a woman is to look like have kept the doors of acceptance closed to ballerina’s. I pose the following questions to my readers: Whose to judge what the ideal ballerina is to look like? And why are the bodies in ballet of such great importance?

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The Less Fortunate -What Happens if the Happily Ever After Doesn’t Happen?

As a dancer, a student, an admirer of the craft, and a former ballerina who has sought after a professional  ballet apprenticeship I have asked myself the question no person, no dancer wants to face, what happens when my happy ending doesn’t happen? As a student first and foremost today, this question isn’t as scary as it was when dancing took center stage in my life. Today this question of mine isn’t so scary because, I have made choices and chosen paths that have led me to San Francisco University rather than the San Francisco Ballet. I would really like to emphasize the “I” in that statement because, it can feel like an absolutely crushing defeat when the individual is not in command of the ship they run. Unfortunately  the life of many professional ballet hopeful’s is one of little control, few certainties, a lot of work, and long hours. In the first of a total of three issue related blog posts I, to the best of my abilities will bring you, my readers into the trials and tribulations of a  ballet dancer.

I would imagine, and hope that not very many of us have experienced the pain, and helplessness related to a lack of something that may seem so trivial but, truly means so much. By this something, I mean the ability to choose. The ability to work hard towards a career and one day achieve this career isn’t always a luxury us dancers are afforded. Rather, it is the first part of this sentence that dancers know all too well; those in the ballet profession are in no way strangers to working hard and are definitely “afforded” the right to do so. However, it is after the weekly weigh – in’s are over, and the four year tuition to the best of the best ballet academy’s have been paid, and the eight hour point classes have been taken, when all of the work has been done, and all of the oats sowed that these professional ballet aspirer’s should reach the professional level, right? Or, at least get some sort of apprenticeship? Wrong.  

As many of us  have learned early on with the infamous “life’s just not fair”, the sad reality is that it truly is all so unfair,and although it’s especially hard to attest to in the realm of ballet, the art I love more than almost anything it is important for myself as a dancer,and others to acknowledge that ballet dancer’s relinquish themselves to the riggid structure that surrounds them, and after years and years of hardwork must many times face the fact that they may never reach professional heights. As a dancer it was important for me to acknowledge the cracks within the system and work from them because, it has been a life lesson thus far that those who rock the boat and make waves rather than sail along, don’t always succeed in changing their conditions ,and can actually make the system worse by doing so. At a very early age I learned the formality and riggid structure, so restrictive and removed from the standards of day to day life is all that ballet encompasses, and to take away from even the negative would mean taking away from ballet itself. So, for the most part a traditionally trained dancer whose goal is to reach an apprenticeship is taught to fully embrace the art, succumb to instruction that confines, and all that may be deemed necessary to in the end succed, or possibly fail.

Sounds crazy, to conform to an institution and follow all that it entails in the hopes to one day gain the recognition and respect for the beloved craft, while understanding that all of the hard work may never pay off.  Ultimately this was my biggest challenge, and unlike many inspiring dancers that take the negativity, and rejection and used it as motivation to keep reaching to attain their goals, the loss of my apprentice contract was something I did not take well. As an apprentice, you go from being the top dog at your studio to the most expendable member of a large company, at the whim of budget cuts, injuries, poor timing or the preferences of a fickle director. The loss of my contract lead to anger, confusion, and eventually lead to my decision to pursue academics which I knew would provide me certainity. The certainity that the work I would invest would eventually lead to a career, and skills in which I could count on, something as a dancer I lacked. When a dancer recieves an apprentice scholarship it becomes all too easy to see it as the happy ending of the story, I mean afterall as previously mentioned with the countless hours of work it is the only reward, and the first real step into a professional company. Unfortunately, although it may be the first step into the major leagues, it’s just a foot in the door at the end of the day,and many like myself do not proceed smoothly upwards through the ranks, eventually leading toward derailment before they can secure any type of position within the corps.

It is for the few and far between, gifted, well deserving dancers that secure positions within  professional company’s, and use the negativity and rejection to better themselves that I dedicate this post. Many of these inspiring stories of dancers who have been turned down ,contracts retracted, and have perservered on to be successful ,are highlighted and can be read in the up -coming month’s reputable ballet magazine, Point magazine:  www.pointmagazine.com

 

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Bessie Awards

The New York Dance and Performance awards were established in 1983 by David R White and was initially produced by Dance Theatre Workshop. Bessie awards are named after the dance educator and inspirational mentor Bessie Schonberg. The awards are focused toward honoring primarily experimental, noncommercial work.

Recently, rather unfortunately David R White who had been the executive director and producer of Dance Theatre Workshop left New York, as well as another main supporter-subsequently causing the awards to loose focus and eventually fizzle out. One of the few performance awards out there which had outsiders amped because of it’s originality in honoring innovative dance had almost disappeared. Why was such a major event in the dace world loosing steam? Well, with little to no media attention-award shows like the Grammy’s, Emmy’s, and Oscar’s take center stage in the public eye while awards like the Bessie’s virtually disappear. I myself, being the dance fan that I am I had to do some serious research to discover awards given to producers, choreographers, and dancers because the reality of things are that performance awards are not brought to the public’s attention, or advertised the way they should be.

With the Bessie’s loss of direction came an effort to revamp the Bessie’s. Among those appointed to do so was one of my favorite dance choreographers-Reggie Wilson, who is responsible for some of the most spiritual innovative dance technique. Reggie Wilson is a member on the board of Dance Theatre Workshop, and a recipient of a Bessie award in 2002. Upon taking part in the re-focus of the Bessie’s he stated to reporter Gia Kourlas: “It shouldn’t be this way. It should be so valuable and important to get a Bessie that I would do anything for it.” So, why isn’t  it so valuable and important to get a Bessie? Well, as previously mentioned many do not know about the Bessie’s. The awards are also going through a complete makeover-inside and out. According to the New York Times the producers of the award show have been switched around from the Dance Theatre Workshop to Lucy Sexton, a performer, choreographer, and director. In an interview with The New York Times, Lucy Sexton has said major changes are in place to bring the Bessie awards out of hiatus. Winning a Bessie herself in 1989, I definitely feel she has the passion ad drive to bring the awards up from “grass roots.”

“Dance is so ephemeral, and performances happen in such a short period of time — someone’s at Performance Space 122 for five nights, and that might be the only show they do for two years. If you don’t make it to any of those five nights, how does it exist?” I couldn’t agree more with Mrs. Sexton’s statement. If the media ignores such a huge part of the performing arts, and no one knows about them, the responsibility falls upon ourselves to recognize one another’s accomplishments in the dance world. I see the Bessie’s as a new start toward the performance arts finally being given the well deserved credit, and I also recognize that they are fairly new unlike the given examples of publicized award shows. The Oscars have definitely been around a lot longer than the Bessie’s. Over time, with the fully capable, committed producers, choreographers, and performers. I am confident that the Bessie’s will only become better in future years.

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Origins of Dance

I am a firm believer that dance is an integral, essential component to a healthy society, it demonstrates the abundance of possibilities for human expression, and ability. Dance assists in communicating within our own cultures, as well as with those outside our cultures. If I had to create an institutional definition of dance, much of what I have just said would be apart of defining dance. However, I do not believe that dance can be put into a box and defined for all that it isn’t or all that it is for that matter. Whether it is defined eloquently in terms of it’s “origin myths”, as such explained by Andrea Deagon in a peice entitled, “In Search of the Origins of Dance”, or rather clumsily defined as nothing more than , “moving rythmically to music” by the free dictionary.

In Andrea Deagons, “In Search of the Origins of Dance”, the Ph.d. in Classical Studies, and a 1984 graduate from Duke University, gives her readers an in depth look at where dance may have originated from and under what context. She notes her curiosity first being sparked by her studies of Middle Eastern dance, and from where it may have originated. In her words, “what are the origins of this moving and powerful dance, so rich with layers of meaning? Why are we drawn so naturally to search for these origins, and how can we best answer our own questions?” Like Andrea Deagon I have sought to understand the various meanings and origins of dance. The one art form through which I can truly express myself. However, over the years I have come to find that dance is one of those rare art forms in which it’s meaning is not easily attained. In my opinion it is such an open art form that I don’t think a definition for dance is even attainable. When we are inspired by something, mesmerized, shocked by it’s beauty, or misery, it is only human that we try to understand it.

Through seeking to understand dance we search for its meaning, we may even try to re-create it’s origins. As humans we seek truth, we recognize beauty, and honor all that invokes the truth and beauty within us. For me dance is what draws truth, and beauty from within me. But, no history that is true is simple-dance, it’s origins and in all that it is, I know today it is not simple. Dance means something different to everyone. It is up to the individual to create their own operational definition that holds truth to them. I may never know the true origins of dance but, I know it’s apart of my life, and will always be. I may not know it’s full history but, I know it’s here and I’m glad. Whether dance is being used to bring cultures together, understand one another, or express ourselves. It is important to appreciate that dance can do all of these things.

“In our dance -if not in our scholarship – we may invoke any truth, any image, and experience we want to represent, from ancient priestess to village maiden, from prostitute to queen.”   – Andrea Deagon

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Can We Listen to the Needs of Dance?

A workshop based upon the given presenter’s knowledge, research, and training in the field of creative listening have developed a program. A movement in which uses an improvisation method developed by Cheryl Varian Cutler and Randall Huntsberry. The inner workings of the method include a three-dimensional process of listening. A way of listening I never even knew existed. It encorporates listening to yourself, to others, and to the environment. The workshop focuses on a key aspect of creative listening: “entrances and exits”. Upon coming across such an extraoridinary connection between a first love of dance and a favorite among the multitude components of the subject of English course work-creative listening. I felt almost immediately compelled to share with my readers this amazing technique of learning to hear for the needs of dance.

   

The afore mentioned focus of the workshop represents a foundation for future possible offhand movement structures. As well as create dialogue that addresses both the process of listening, and it’s importance in Today’s world. The workshop also connects work with the reference to the tasks with improvisation based choreography. Among the unorthodox contemporary methods of the workshop, I felt the questions most beneficial to myself as a dancer were: “How do we know when to enter the dance? How do we know when to leave the stage? What happens to the dance when some dancers exit, when a dancer is left alone? How can we stay present to what any given situation needs?”. Lastly, my favorite question explored- “how can we learn to listen to our dances and allow them to tell us what they need?”

Through each session the questions are explored both in a literal sense as well as in a metamorphic sense. Each session incorporates the given themes to be explored with time to take part in reflection and workshop exploration. The workshop represents a fun, new way of approaching the art of dance. I myself am always looking for new innovative ways to look into dance, and being a dancer I stay informed and connected through my immediate dance community, as well as various other dance blogs and sites. If you would like more information on this, and other workshops please visit:  www.danceacrosstheboard.blogspot.com ,or http://www.listeningunlimited.com/bios.html

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Some Old, Some New, Some Incredible

It was a regular Monday night that I sat wondering about the how’s of discussing a dance. A dance that I was so intrigued and taken back by that I began to fear my descriptions and history of this incredible creative art form would in some way take away from it. The dance form I speak of has been credited for starting a somewhat revival in the Brooklyn dance world which is infamous for its innovative, street, pop, lock, and break dances . The dance stems from an Afro-Carribbean freestyle dance called brukup (also known as bruk up and bruckup).

It’s origins began in Jamaica during the 90’s by a street dancer with a broken leg, brukup flourished in and around Brooklyn’s inner city housing projects and had a brief but, lasting relationship with hip -hop culture in 1997, when Busta Rhymes featured it in the video for “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See.” Rather than fall victim to being labeled as nothing more than a trend, and fade into obscurity like so many other urban dance crazes (we all remember the harlem shake, the worm, and tea-cup). Much of brukup’s evolutionary success stems from modern technologies(YouTube videos) ability to sustain and, keep movements going.

It is the Web-savvy dancers as well as Caribbean super star’s like Bounty Killer who have built an online brukup fan base stretching as far as Sydney and Shanghai, uploading videos on YouTube, and in turn generating millions of views that keep the subcultural art form going. However, the movement is not just virtual, a graphic designer and street dancer by the name of Albert Esquilin started a dance crew called, “Bed Stuy Veterans”, with his childhood friend in an effort to spread their own strain of brukup dancing, which entails various aspects of pop culture, and often references comedic parts of action movies like “Lost Boys” and “Innocent Blood.”

The brukup dance “craze” originated in a place, and time where dancing provided an outlet- a safe haven, so to speak. Dance is for so many people living in inner city dangerous neighborhoods the only way out of the madness, and provides a way of expression beyond the given norms of violence. Shawn Theagene, a member of the Bed Stuy Veterans has recalled the impact, and importance of dance in his life, stating:”Dancing has saved my life, plenty of times, I had friends that were shot dead hanging out on the corner. I would have been there too, If i wasn’t out dancing somewhere.” Such a statement, only substantiates how powerful the art can be ,and what good has been done in the name of dance; as well as all the good that continues to come from dance.

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