by Kimberly Peterson
In the new series “Breaking Pointe”, a documentary style show highlighting the world of professional ballet inside Ballet West from the CW network, there are several brilliant things which happen here: 1) – a no holds barred look at life as a professional dancer, the ups and downs of this on their professional and personal lives, their own development as artists and people; 2) – it brings into sharp relief the nature of the competitive atmosphere of professional ballet and the ramifications of this atmosphere on the work ballet produces.
In the first episode, we are introduced to several of the dancers in differing points in their careers, who are getting ready for their annual contract renewals, or conversely, their pink slips. The Artistic Director, Adam Sklute, in speaking about how he must make difficult decisions for the good of the company, states: “The best recipe for creating a hardworking and well-functioning dancer and artist is if all the dancers know that they are special, but also that they are expendable.” This statement resonated with me and instinctually. I found myself bumping up against it as I watch these people struggle for an unattainable perfection, while knowing and accepting that they will never truly find it, never really have security or rest. There is only the constant pursuit of perfection.
While this may be the way in which ballet chooses to conduct itself, the manner in which they operate their business, I seriously doubt the efficacy of this kind of an environment not only on the people who work there, but also the work that is eventually produced.
These dancers, who are up for renewal every year, are constantly in a state of fear, constantly worried about who may upstage them, who may take their role, who may be better than them and how they can improve to fight to dance another year. Despite their artistic director’s insistence that after he hands out contracts the dancers are able to focus only on dancing, there is absolutely no way in which that can happen when you are consistently having to measure major life changes against their profession, their jobs, indeed their entire careers.
In such a system, there is no room for collaboration, no room for accepting difference and therefore diversity suffers, no room for different bodies or times of life. They dance on borrowed time, knowing full well that in their world, you have until about the age of 30-35 before you are done. Not because of any outright ageism, but because the body changes and ballet does not. The roles you play are fixed, not open to interpretation, because time may change but ballet does not. Execution of the form is rigid and often painful, the virtuosity of these dancers coming from a training regimen which outpaces many Olympic athletes – but while dance may change, ballet does not.
From the outside, this world of ballet functions largely as a business, and for this reason, you can see how it may make some sense to keep everyone constantly in competition with their fellow dancers – competition could bring about better performances, more willing and pliable dancers, decreasing tempers and egos and preserving the hierarchy. However, this constant competition also completely destroys the idea of mentorship, of collaborative learning, of positivity. In fact, in business, successful businesses that invest in the people they hire long term are often among the most innovative and cutting edge leaders in their industries. It is surprising that an art form so reliant on the contributions of their employees, would fail to recognize the investment they could be making into their dancers in favor of a competitive atmosphere which erodes the ability for innovation and development.
Perhaps this attitude explains why ballet has had such a difficult time remaining relevant as a field, while dance as a whole has progressed and developed towards movement innovation, personal interpretation and connecting with the audience.
Lack of positivity too plays a role in the workplace and the work produced. Happy employees make better work, do better work and are far more likely to reinvest in their jobs through innovation and development. The inability of the ballet dancers to be positive, to engage in their work in a positive and encouraging environment is part of the notion that accomplishments are individual, and that no one’s individual accomplishments are good for anyone else. Beckanne receives a write up in a dance magazine as a young dancer to watch, an up and coming dancer article. However, despite this major accomplishment, Beckanne keeps it to herself, not wanting to share this accomplishment knowing that it will set her against more senior dancers who will feel jealous and create tension at work. It is only at the insistence of another dancer making a public remark alluding to her upcoming article that she says anything about it at all!
Personal accomplishments are everyone’s accomplishments to a certain extent. Celebrating them marks excellence and achievement, pushes others to work harder for recognition and rewards the members of the group with a boost to morale. Hiding your excitement over roles or over magazine write-ups is due to the competitive nature of the business, but is also encouraged by statements such as “special, but also expendable”.
What might happen if people were encouraged to congratulate others rather than to simply show no emotion over something all the dancers value? Might there be some hurt feelings, perhaps, but professionals should know that such disappointments are not to be dwelled on, but used as a catalyst for bettering themselves. It opens doors for mentorships, creates dialogue for hope and encouragement. But to not acknowledge them at all feeds the destructive loop of perfection that eats away at confidence and can destroy working relationships and environments. In the field of dance, this can destroy the artistry of the work produced.
Many a dancer struggles with perfectionism. It’s somewhat of an epidemic, and no discipline that I have found has avoided it. The artistry that weighs on dancers is a burden that we strive to deliver with grace and elegance, honesty and sincerity. But to see so many gifted people in one place, all struggling to feel that they have accomplished something great, is truly disheartening.
Rex, who is a gifted dancer and a beautiful mover, struggles to accept that he has the talent to really grab a hold of a principal role. The first cast for this role goes to another dancer, more confident, but less consistent. Women placed under such pressure to conform to the minutia of roles made for women several centuries ago, lack the ability to take any joy in the roles they are playing – dropping their facade of happiness the minute the music ends. How can it be that such a lack of confidence can exist when the dancers here are among the best in our nation? Why no sense of belonging, no sense of worth as a contributor in the field, or to the dance itself – outside of what the director or the other dancers see in them? It is a curious predicament that would seem to be the natural result of such an atmosphere where “special but expendable” is the motto.
These dancers are certainly not prisoners, they are there of their own accord and continue to fight for their places. There can be no blame laid on the institution because it exists as such, when people continue to embrace it that way. However, it does make one pause to consider – if the dancers truly knew they were special in a way that was not contingent on others, what would be the visible results? If the dancers were able to focus on their interpretation of the stories they told, rather than the execution of the minutia of movements, what would unfold? If the dancers encouraged one another, embraced their own physical changes due to injury or age, and sought to be the best they could be despite not having constant competition between themselves; what would happen to ballet?
That is a question, which I think is worth answering.
What do you think?
Contributor Kimberly Peterson received her Bachelors and Masters of Arts degrees from Texas Woman’s University’s prestigious dance program.
Her 4dancers.org columns, Musings and SYTYCD, focus on on relevant issues in the field of dance including aesthetic education, choreographic process, performance, critique and the role of dance in our culture.
She serves on the Volunteer Advisory Committee with The Soap Factory in Minneapolis; specifically working with developing the Haunted Basement, implementing studio artist workshops/lectures and connecting performance artists/dancers to the gallery through integrated performances.
Drawing on her experience with creating and producing dance works, Kimberly has served technical theater roles, event coordinator, volunteer and as an advisor in various roles at several organizations. Most recently these include: RedEye Theatre, The Soap Factory, Minnesota Fringe Festival and MNPR’s Rock the Garden in collaboration with the Walker Arts Center.