Dance: Pretty vs Ugly

What first spurred this discussion was what Thaddeus mentioned in Improvisation is that most college educated dance students in 2009 America (in this case at University of SC) are not familiar with American choreographers. Why? Partly because they’re not interested and don’t research it, partly because ballet is the focus, and anything not classical ballet seems foreign. The thing that dancers need to know is that even mainstream ballet companies are looking for dancers who can expand on the vocabulary of classical ballet.

What is it that makes dance pretty or ugly? For a classically trained eye, I appreciate the technical excellencies of dancers and cringe at the mediocre. Where does the line lie with contemporary and modern dance then, that is revolutionizing dance in America? That in itself is a discussion to be had: How can American choreographers revolutionize and revive dance in America? What does choreographer mean? A choreographer is more than someone who puts movements and steps together to music. In my opinion, the term choreographer should be retained for those that bring something new to dance. In Thaddeus’s words, “A choreographer makes NEW dance, something that has not been done yet ”

Classical ballet has strengths that surpass other dance forms. Its carefully developed techniques have evolved across Russia, Europe and America. We need to be careful that as dance companies try to bridge the gap between classical and contemporary, old fashioned and creative, that we do not lose the purity of classical dance and classical form. Without classical ballet, there is little structure to go off of. Contemporary and modern dance classes both stem off the traditional ballet barre warm-up to prepare the body for the rigors of the dance. Will ballet be lost? I think not. It will remain a solid basis for dance. Dance schools must present ballet in its truest form and training for students from a young age, and begin to expose them to the more elaborative styles after they have a the base.

What William Forsythe did was take ballet and deconstruct it, looking at the movements in their most basic form and then expand on them; he developed the improvisational guidelines for the ballet dancers. Forsythe’s Improvisation Technologies give the dancers freedom to exaggerate the movement, dig deeper, interpret, and exaggerate the movement within bounds.

Jirí Kylian is a renowned contemporary Dutch choreographer. He took ballet and did a lot of what Forsythe has done, taking ballet and maintaining the purity and the line of the classically trained dancers, expands on their capabilities. I like to think of the dancers being challenged above and beyond rote memorization of steps, poses, and variations that make up classical ballets. The classics are to be admired, but anyone who has seen five seasons of Giselle come and go, the classics can provide the creative dancers no creative outlet. And that’s what most dancers are: artists and creators. I have a conviction the artist gets starved out of many ballet dancers in big ballet companies.

The neatest thing for me to see at my time in Boston Ballet was the dancers given works by Kylian and Forsythe as well as choreographer-in-residence Jorma Elo. The smart dancers soared. It may have taken them awhile to get out of the rut of muscle memory and mind-block, but the creative dancers soon stood out because of their willingness to step out of their comfort zone and experiment with movement and their body’s limitations. It was incredible to see an entire classical ballet company challenged in that way. Each of the dancers grew by leaps and bounds when they had to work with a new choreographer rather than learning the steps of Don Quixote from four years ago.

That is where I want to be. If I failed somehow back then that is the reason I have lost the devotion and spark that made me willing to spend 12 hours of every day living and breathing dance, it is what it is. I cannot change the past now. I can, however, take the opportunities given me here and find inspiration in everything I observe and feel and transpire it into movement: the basis of improvisation. Think. Smart dancers think. Perhaps the smart dancer in me that has been inhibited, subjected, restricted, can come out in improvisation, in words, expression through writing that can enhance or promote dance moving forward in our society. Thinking may be my downfall, but it may also end up being my way back into dance. Dance is my heartache. I want it to be my freedom.

So, what defines pretty or ugly in dance? For me it has been before the classical line, the elegance, the embodiment of the ephemeral, the impossible perfection. It is the finite details of the flourish of the pinkie toe pointed upwards at the end of a stretched arabesque leg. That is wonderful. But it can only last so long. People want something tangible, something they can begin to understand, not grasp completely, or it would lose its appeal, but something more human and earthy. So it is with dance. If the audience can feel the struggle, see the effort, they will lean in, not out. What is he or she trying to do with his or her body? What is she trying to say? It is alright for dancers and choreographers to make their dance more human without lessening it. Perhaps becoming more human means becoming more ugly, more rigid, unstructured, unsure at times. Perhaps it means becoming more intellectual, prodding the mind for answers, raising questions, and begging to be analyzed. The choreographers that thrive are the ones that give their dancers something to create and build, and their audience something to think about and interpret. The only way dance will survive in America is if choreographers rise to give dancers nourishment for mind and body and audiences something to chew over rather than simply entertain.

I love watching pretty dance. I could watch Romeo and Juliet by ABT every Saturday for weeks. I did that summer I spent in New York! Ahh, the Met… But a dancer whose work is always changing, shifting and growing, would keep me coming back to see what they are going to do, what they want to say, even if not every part of the process is pretty. The emotion and the intent become the part that keeps me intrigued. A ballet dancer can do that in her role, but it is very difficult. It is easier to do that in dance forms that provide some room for improvisation.

I could go on comparing one to the other, but both art forms are valuable. Contemporary dance and rising choreographers are harder to define than the classics; but isn’t that what art is? Not easily put in a box? I want art that makes me think and learn about myself, other people, and my environment, about life. Sometimes it is nice to take break and live momentarily in the surreal, but don’t we have enough of that in 21st century America already? Art is contrasts our lifestyles to keep us sane. It is changing. It is essential. It is sometimes ugly rather than pretty.

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