The Artist at the Barre

Finding artistry in a world obsessed with technique
Published in the April/May 2006 issue.

Why is it that one ballerina moves you to tears while another leaves you cold? The answer, in a word, is artistry. Not all dancers are artists, no matter how accomplished or experienced. Some dancers create roles and some perform them. Those wielding the most brilliant technique are not necessarily the most expressive. Occasionally a dancer is blessed with exquisite precision and soulful interpretation. Seldom does this synchrony happen by accident; just as dancers work to mold the body, they must also train the artist within.

“You can’t really get artistry until there is a trust between teacher and dancer, when they feel they can make mistakes in an effort to achieve something,” says Suzanne Farrell. Considered Balanchine’s final muse, in performance she was transcendently expressive in the full range of abstract to narrative ballets, combining lyrical freedom with technical ease and dancing with fearless abandon and sparkling musicality in some of the most devilishly difficult repertoire ever created.

“[Ours is] a visible art,” says Farrell. “You don’t just send your legs out onstage, but you send your whole self. [Artistry] is who you are, how you carry yourself—not how your legs dance, but eyes, head, shoulders, arms—the uniqueness of all of that.”

When we watch a dancer, we are drawn to the persona unveiled on the stage. The most intriguing dancers are those who pull us into their world as we watch. “Often dancers masquerade behind their technique and don’t reveal anything about themselves,” continues Farrell. “The more you reveal, the more interesting you are.” And the stronger a dancer’s sense of self, the more fully he or she can interpret each role, bringing the steps to life through the many small choices in accent, attack and expression that make it his or her own.

“My honesty was the most alluring quality I had,” says Stephanie Saland, whose 21 years at New York City Ballet were marked by a transparency of feeling unusual in a company known for abstract ballets. Dancing lead roles in ballets by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, Saland illuminated each step and gesture with a clear sense of intention.

But how exactly can artistry be cultivated? “I think you cannot just be artistic,” says Susan Jaffe, a former principal with American Ballet Theatre. “You can’t just throw everything to the wind, but understand [that] there is a depth and seriousness in the work.” Jaffe is famous for delving into her roles with such intelligence and subtlety that she seemed to reveal something new about every familiar character. Now, she encourages her students to develop artistry through awareness. “Even when you are standing at the barre,” she explains, “there is an inner core, an understanding on a deep level of where a movement comes from and your own experience of it.”   

Farrell, Saland and Jaffe were noted for their artistry as dancers; now as teachers, their task is to pass their knowledge forward. They share a generosity of spirit as they step into line with their own teachers and mentors.

Saland credits her teachers—Stanley Williams at the School of American Ballet, independent teacher Tina Bernal and, of course, Balanchine—with pushing her to explore new ways to work. She refers frequently to the idea of leading with the heart, an approach she learned while being coached by fellow NYCB company member Gelsey Kirkland. 

Developing artistry is a matter of both working closely in class and rehearsal with a teacher or coach and working in the studio alone. Farrell remembers working long hours by herself “as if the most important person in the world were watching me.”

Studio hours may be spent perfecting steps, which need to be understood, conquered, embraced and celebrated, but the individual dancer also needs to embark on a process of discovery, studying those who went before as well as exploring phrasing and musicality.

To dance with artistry is to use every aspect of the music—even its absence. “Silence also has an energy, a beauty,” says Farrell. In terms of music, though, “some people will hear a big cymbal crash or an oom pah pah,” she continues. “Sounds are important in different ways and require different energy. All the nuances and shades of the music should be how you move.”

Jaffe encourages her students to imagine that they are the music, to use “the breath within the adagio, to find what is sharp, bright, staccato, lyric, soft, dynamic—all the different ways a dancer needs to move.”

To develop the whole self, reveal that self through movement and go beyond steps, the dancer must cultivate the imagination. While it is important to spend hours in the studio, too many can limit a dancer’s experience of people, the other arts and all that bring color and life to performance. To deepen her knowledge and fuel Farrell’s imagination, Balanchine took her to visit museums and art galleries in Europe; now she takes her own dancers to see sculpture and paintings.

While studying acting, yoga or meditation can facilitate the performer’s craft, to expand one’s artistic reach, Saland recommends dancers “go to a comedy improv class, a voice class for actors or anything else that makes you uncomfortable… and see it through. We dancers are in a constant state of vulnerability,” she says. “[To dance is] quite courageous. Things that are usually covered or concealed for us are square one. That is a lot of exposure.”

Discomfort—pushing past the safety zone—is part of developing artistry. “It takes daring,” says Farrell. “Ballet is moving time through space, not standing in one spot! Be adventuresome. Use gravity to enhance movement not to inhibit it. What makes artistry is how you conquer space.”

Ultimately all this homework—transforming steps into choreography, living through the music, reading plays, seeing paintings or studying the historical context of a role—must evolve into dancing. “It’s one thing to stand at the barre, use the épaulement and understand body position,” says Jaffe. “But it’s different to take those ideas and energies through space. You have to commit not just physically, but with your soul.”

 

Choreographer, teacher and dance writer Suki John lives in Connecticut, where she is earning her PhD.