There was a very interesting article in Dance Magazine, in which the author Nancy Wozny queries: “Has the quest for versatility erased dancers’ movement signatures?”. I’ve never heard this question posed in quite this way. I have been bemoaning what I have called a “loss of artistry”. Dancers no longer seem to have a unique voice and I have written numerous articles on cultivating this unique voice; this artistry while training technique. But this concept of “erasing a dancer’s movement signature” very eloquently expresses exactly what I’ve been talking about. Ms. Wozny hypothesizes that the quest for versatility is the culprit; and that may be true. But I believe that this is only a very small part of problem.
Mikhail Baryshnikov famously said: “I don’t try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself.” And I believe that this is the source of his unique artistic vision.
Young dancers today spend an enormous amount of time on social media, watching the “stars” that they follow on Facebook and Instagram. They long to be like their idols and they copy what they see; putting their energy into dancing exactly like these “stars”… or perhaps even BETTER. But what they are looking at, what they are aspiring to, is the quantifiable: the length of the balance, the height of the leg, the number of pirouettes. And these quantifiables are often the basis of competition judging.
Although I work primarily in the preprofessional/conservatory facet of the dance industry, I am a frequent guest teacher at competition studios and I believe that competitions have much to offer dancers (and I’ve already discussed this in previous articles). But when it comes to developing artistry, a unique voice, a “movement signature”, I believe that competitions could be part of the problem. When I watch group competition pieces I am always stunned by the miraculous unison; the incredible uniformity in the dancing. And this “sameness” is rewarded in the judging. Similarly, when one watches videos of examinations and classes at the great academies we see that same uniformity. All the bodies are pretty much identical. Every movement, nuance, gesture, tilt of the head is meticulously sculpted and studied and honed. This uniformity; this “copying” of detail is not at all the same thing as the development of artistry or a “movement signature”. There was a recent interview with an ABT principal in which she stated that (and I’m paraphrasing) contemporary styles allow her to express what she has inside her…but when she dances classical ballet she is trying to “replicate what the great ballerinas before her have done.”
And right here is our problem. Students are copying their insta-celebrities. Competition dancers are striving for staggering unison. Great academies are selecting for extreme body uniformity and maddeningly and meticulously training finely honed details. And sadly, and shockingly, ABT principals are attempting to replicate the great ballerinas of the past. And we wonder why there seems to be no great ARTISTS any more. Well, I believe that our industry is training the artistry right out of the dancer.
I have always taught my students that our bodies are our instruments and our technique allows us to use these instruments. An audience will never be truly moved by watching technique. As we train we must each search for a way to make the work personal. There should always be a quest to say something new with each step; to use our bodies and our technique to breathe life into the choreography and to make the choreography, the music and the artistry a unified whole. As most of you know, I still take class regularly and I am always looking for something new. When I was about 45 years old I found a way to pull up just a bit more in my standing hip that gave a unique look to my retire. When I was about 55 I discovered a little nuance in the epaulment when executing tendu croise derrière that added an extra richness to the position. And now my retire and my tendu croise derrière don’t look like quite any one else’s. Using the music as a guide, I recently discovered a way to phrase a mazurka that gives it a little “something extra”. And every day I continue this search. I was taught by my teachers to “Feel the space”, Dance from the inside”, “Let the feeling cover the technique”, “Dance the sound…not the steps”. I pass these lessons onto my students. But I also teach them things that I have found on my own. I teach them to “dare to be still”, “find power in the simplicity”, “make the work YOURS”, “draw the audience in rather than shout the choreography out”. And as I continue to take class and I watch my colleagues I feel more and more that I am alone in my approach.
The uniqueness of Pliesetskaya, Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Gregory, Kirkland, Makarova, Farrell and (as recent as) Wendy Whelan could never been created by copying. Copying creates…well…a copy. What will thrill an audience is an ORIGINAL. And every day I am striving to create one; the only way I know how.