As dancers, we thrive on that ability to transcend the normal and become someone (or something) else on stage. It places us among the lucky few people who have the opportunity to experience that intangible freedom of another world.
But aside from those precious moments in performance, we spend hours and hours in the normal classroom grind, preparing ourselves for rehearsal, where we’ll spend hours and hours preparing for the product—our performance. The overwhelming majority of our time as ballet dancers is spent either preparing or preparing to prepare for time on stage, and naturally, we strive to make the most of it.
But all too often, I find myself working so hard on technical improvements in class that I forget to perform, to live the motivation of my movement—which is, after all, one of the greatest gifts of dance and the reason I’m there in the first place.
A couple days ago, I had the opportunity of taking a master class with Robert Fairchild, principal with New York City Ballet. I have to admit, I was pretty nervous. But as he began class, I was surprised by how relaxed, how stress-free (yet exacting) the atmosphere was. He spoke to us as fellow students and artists, sharing his recent technical revelations (an image of lightning striking through the supporting leg in frappe) and his least favorite steps (his body isn’t a huge fan of arabesque).
He gave us a lot of individual attention and technical corrections, but most of all, he urged us to express through our eyes, to reveal the essence of who we are as individuals. No vacant expressions or tense concentrating faces were allowed. If he asked someone to show him a step again to improve the footwork, it wasn’t good enough until it was demonstrated with full artistic commitment and correct head placement. The class became so much more than a technical struggle; it was, rather, an artistic experience.
Gaining the confidence to go beyond steps to express through movement the essence of my individual humanity was something that I struggled with as a young dancer. It takes a lot of courage to do this, to really dance and become that vulnerable. But that human connection is the reason why people come to see live dance—otherwise, all we’d need were computer-generated dancers on screen who could perform infinite pirouettes and balances without the struggles (and extraordinary accomplishments) of basic humanity. It’s so much more than just putting on a “performance face” while on stage. It makes dance an expression of the heart and makes connection with the audience a transcendent experience.
My turning point came when I realized that even though my turnout isn’t 180 degrees, I’m human, and that gives me something worthwhile to express. We are all valuable with something unique to share, and whether we are short or tall, flexible or muscular, thin or not, dance gives us the opportunity to say it through movement. Of course, we absorb and work within the aspects of the choreography we are given, but the spirit in our eyes and a deep understanding of what we are dancing are what take us from the level of technician to artist. Even if we spend very little time performing on stage, class is the perfect opportunity to do just that.