The more time that I spend sitting in a theater, the more I worry. I worry that we, the current crop of teachers, are training the “special” right out of our students. I recently sat in my seat of a Broadway theater, eagerly awaiting THAT moment. I’ve experienced it countless times; that moment when the performance in front of me would reach out, get inside me, and move me and change me in a way that nothing else could. I sat there for two hours and forty minutes. I heard excellent singing. I saw excellent dancing. I saw excellent acting. I heard excellent musicians. But THAT moment never came; I simply felt nothing. And this has happened over and over again for the last several years. It has happened at the theater, at the ballet, at the opera, at concert dance performances and at the concert hall.
I remember my youth. I remember sitting in theaters and being thrilled by the performers that I saw: dancers like Baryshnikov, Kirkland, Gregory and Bujones; broadway stars like Chita Rivera, Jerry Orbach, Carol Channing and Angela Lansbury; musicians like Horowitz, Heifetz, Argerich and Rubinstein. Rarely am I seeing these kind of performances any more. And the more I talk to my colleagues, the more I feel like we might be part of the problem.
Dance teachers (especially in the competition world) are training their dancers to perform with stunning uniformity. Voice teachers with whom I speak are trying to groom their students to produce a specific, particular “sound”. Acting teachers are cultivating students that give performances with a chilling naturalism.
But where is the magic?
I think to a degree these teachers feel that they are producing what casting directors are looking for. But sometimes casting directors don’t know what they are looking for until it walks into the room.
Now I’m not saying that those special, moving, captivating moments are completely gone. Katrina Lenk certainly created a world that transported and thrilled me in her brilliant performance in The Band’s Visit. But those performances are becoming less and less frequent.
I recently stumbled on this video of a little boy dancing:
I think we can all agree that this child has something very special and he feels what he does from a very deep place. He clearly has a long road to the professional stage (if that is indeed his path) and there will be many teachers who will have a hand in helping him build a technique. It is my hope that the process of building the technique that he will need will not squash the gifts that he has.
I remember my training with Luigi, Gabriella Darvash and Frank Hatchett. I remember them talking of astonishing dancers; dancers like Maya Pliesetskaya, Gene Kelly, Michael Jackson. I remember them encouraging us to find what made each of us special, unique and astonishing. I remember Luigi saying so often “I don’t train chorus dancers, I make stars”. Yet today, as I still take class regularly, it is rare that I hear teachers discussing anything other than technique (save a few who touch on musicality).
I have always believed that every teacher has something unique that they bring to the table; every teacher has something that they bring their students that nobody else and bring. I have certainly had a unique path; I started dancing at 26 and I cobbled together my training by studying exclusively in open classes with world class teachers. This required a lot of “putting it together on my own” and this has provided me with a unique perspective on how a dancer is built. I have always made this perspective the foundation of my teaching. But now I am examining my work more closely. The Joffrey Ballet School has placed their trust in me, and obviously my students will need high extensions, dizzying turns and soaring jumps to be employable today. But I am mining the memories of how Luigi, Madame Darvash and Frank Hatchett nurtured us to be WHO we were, not the technicians they wanted us to be. And I am allowing those memories to come flooding back and to flood my classroom. I clearly can’t BE Luigi, or Madame Darvash or Frank Hatchett. They were unique talents and brilliant master teachers. And I certainly don’t want to parrot what they said to me; because it won’t be MY perspective. But I am determined to find the SPECIAL in my students. Not every student will have the potential to be another Margot Fonteyn, Gwen Verdon or Fred Astaire. But someday a student may walk into my classroom with that magic laying dormant inside. And I am, more and more, feeling the responsibility to find that magic and let it shine. I am striving to be part of the solution; to do my tiny bit to help bring that magic back to the stage. And maybe some of my colleagues will agree with me; and maybe they won’t. But I have always been determined to do things MY way. Clearly what we are currently doing is producing a result; but is it really the result that WE want?
I want to see the magic.