Dancers and decisions in their dancing

Performing my work, "Gated Lies," in the Philly Fringe festival (Photo: Bill Hebert)
Have you ever gone to a performance and seen a dancer perform a piece that you are familiar with and thought to yourself, "What were they thinking?" I recently came across a video that a friend had posted on Facebook of Paris Opera Ballet dancer Dorothee Gilbert performing the solo and coda from Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (click the link to watch, Blogger's Youtube feature decided it didn't want to find this video). Any knowledgeable Balanchine dancer or balletomane would watch this video and cringe. The solo is completed, for the most part, as it is typically executed. But when you start to watch the coda, you become acutely aware that Dorothee made some horrible decisions in dancing this piece. For instance, she is trying to be cheeky with the movement of her hips. While Balanchine dancers do lean into their hips to create a falling into the next movement motion, it is not executed with such vulgarity. She also exits in pique arabesques, which is not proper, and she changes the way that the fouettes are typically executed. While most classical pas de deux can be altered to highlight a dancer's strengths, this isn't the case for any Balanchine ballet. All Balanchine ballets are governed by the Balanchine Trust. If you want to alter the choreography, you must get the permission of the Trust or one of their associates. Why did Ms. Gilbert take the liberty to make these unacceptable changes? Lets discuss.

When I first entered the professional ballet world, I pretty much did whatever I was told. I was late to the game with my ballet technique and I had to make up a great amount of time in my final two years of training. I would only do what I was told to do, never rebelling or questioning. I never made any choices about my dancing and I was afraid that my intuition was wrong. As my career grew, I realized that, at times, I had a little more leeway in making a few decisions. Perhaps, I chose to execute a step with a certain accent or I emoted a little differently than I was told. But when it came to steps, I didn't feel like I had the privilege of taking even minor artistic liberty. When I entered the contemporary dance world, my mind was blown when I was told that I should do it my own way. I wanted to be told exactly what to do since that was all I knew. It took me well over a year to adjust to this difference. It was difficult for me to pick up choreography because I was so stressed about perfectly replicating the execution of a movement that had no name or clearly defined position. I was eventually told that there was no perfect and that I should decide how it would look. If the choreographer didn't like the decision that I made, they would tell me and I would find a new way to execute. In the end, I ultimately had more leverage in deciding how I would perform a piece. With all of this in mind, as I started to watch other dancers perform, I began to be a little more lenient in my judgement of their decisions, especially on a ballet stage.

Dancing Balanchine's "Rubies" w/Leah Merchant (Photo:Angela Sterling)
With all of this knowledge and experience existing in multiple facets of the dance world, I find that it is hard to put blame solely on dancers for making poor choices in their performances. If I'm in the studio every day and get to see why a dancer makes the decisions that they do, then I feel I have more of a right to be judgemental. For instance, looking at the video of Dorothee Gilbert that I posted above. Did Dorothee teach herself that pas de deux? Did she learn it from a video and change the things she didn't like? Maybe a Balanchine repetiteur set the piece on her and changed the choreography to suit her. Or even, perhaps, after that repetiteur left, Ms. Gilbert's coach felt that they could change the steps. There are so many possibilities that could have influenced the alterations and stylistic choices within the choreography. But in the end, the performance is judged as if she was the only one involved in creating her performance. It is true, she is the one dancing the piece. All of this criticism appears to be a reflection of her and the quality of her dancing.

Unfortunately, for dancers, we are thrown onstage without any of the support that created our performance. Company class teachers, ballet masters/mistresses, artistic directors, stagers, colleagues, and anybody else that influences technique and the performance that happens onstage are largely left uncredited aside from a name and title in a program. When the reviews come out, a critic may say, "Stevie danced an unmusical, mannered performance that lacked emotion and spark. She seemed nervous and had multiple missteps." While the dancer receives and consumes the criticism, nobody points out that the artistic director didn't leave enough time for rehearsals and Stevie, being the 2nd cast, only had one run-through of the piece prior to performing. It wasn't mentioned that her coach told her that her character is generally unemotional or that the conductor played a completely different tempo than what was rehearsed. It is a great stress to dancers who are being told exactly how to perform to make their own decisions, even if they disagree with their instruction. Not only is their reputation on the line, it is also possible that their job may be on the line.

Why am I pondering all of this on a blog about freelance dancing?As a freelancer, aside from having leeway to make decisions about where you work, you have much more freedom to make your own choices within your dancing. Outside of class, most of the work that freelancers perform is fast-paced and transient. There generally isn't enough time to develop the typical submissive relationship between those in charge and yourself that is ever-prevalent in the dance world. It seems to me that there is somewhere around a month-long grace period where everybody is on their best behavior when entering a new workplace. Those in charge are less aggressive during this time and those subordinate are less likely to rebel. For this reason, corrections and style tend to be suggestions, instead of demands. This grace period allows for a dancer to explore their own decision making and to truly dance as they would choose to do so. This means that dancers take greater responsibility for their decisions. It also means that one has the opportunity to truly dance as the artist that they are.

"My version" of the "Nutcracker" variation (Photo: Ruth Judson)
While freelancing allows one to make more choices in their dancing, it can also be frustrating when you feel that you aren't ever getting any coaching. Working for multiple employers doesn't really give enough time for artistic staff to identify the areas of your dancing that need more work. This is why it becomes important to self-regulate and keep up-to-date by doing your homework. I regularly read reviews, see performances, discuss technique with friends, and watch Youtube videos. Dance is founded on replicating movements that are shown to you. Use your best judgement and be vigilant with self-correcting. I would even suggest recording yourself dancing a piece you are working on or performing class work.

It is very freeing to be in charge of what choices you make while rehearsing and performing. Sometimes, a dancer can develop a relationship with a coach that brings out the best in that artist. At other times, an aggressive coach that has too little time with a dancer or is more interested in their own ego than developing an intelligent, confident artist can leave dancers suffering from decisions that weren't even their own. The next time you see a performance that leaves you befuddled, take a moment to think about the whole picture before laying all of the blame on the dancer for their performance. We exist in such a hard career. The more that artistic staff and critics can empower dancers to step out of the eternal student role, the better off the dance world will be as a whole.

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