Posted on September 5, 2016
“Voices, of all sorts, became central to my life as a dancer.” This thought, held by Patricia Linton, founder of the oral history project Voices of British Ballet, contrasts with perceptions of ballet as an art form without words. It is however true, and it’s in this spirit I’ll be writing what I hope will be many more monthly blogs on the Dancing Times website. I want to reveal something of the voice of the dancer. Though I cannot speak for the entire ballet world, I aim to give you a glimpse into the ideas feeding movement, what – in my opinion – is relevant to practitioners today.
I’ve been thinking about the ways voice is used by dancers. Audiences are fascinated by hearing dancers speak: my friends are more willing to attend cinema relays of ballet because they have additional interviews with cast members, producers and choreographers during the interval. This rightly, and wonderfully, opens up our world. Observe, though, who is doing the talking. Not swan number seven. “…At City Ballet, if you’re not a principal dancer – no matter what age you are – you’re kind of considered a child. In the Broadway world, no matter what you are, you are an adult.” In the New York Times on August 1, Georgina Pazcoguin – a soloist with New York City Ballet who is currently dancing in the Broadway revival of Cats – said what I’d been musing on for months; it’s everywhere in ballet.
Progress is a slow march, but why does the Victorian idea that children should be seen and not heard seemingly pervade ballet studios across the world? There is a huge amount of unpacking to do here; after all, ballet is an art form that celebrates the ancien regime, traditional gender ideas, and chivalrous behaviour. This is part of the attraction for many, but plainly put, in what other profession would it be common practice to organise groups of people by saying: “girls over here; what are the boys doing?” It’s a regular occurrence in the daily lives of most professional dancers, but if you worked in a bank and used a similar kind of language you would be considered patronising, or creepy. What’s amusing is that I wasn’t referred to in this way when I was studying at school: Central School of Ballet had a policy of referring to students as men and women, and we all called each other by our first names, even – shock horror – staff.
There is an inherent problem in ballet, too, since a large portion of our time is spent dedicated to performing already existing works. There are the steps, which must be performed at a set time, but how many combinations of choices for discussion are there? Possibly endless if you are the ballerina working with a gifted stager who understands that fresh interpretations are what oxygenate established ballets. As you move down the roster, however, choices become increasingly stagnant. Making corps de ballet work individual and vibrant takes sensitivity from the ballet staff. For dancers, there is a satisfying puzzle offered in moving together, but standing alone.
I’m not advocating full debates at every rehearsal (we’ve all silently rolled our eyes at that one dancer who is constantly questioning spacing), just perhaps a reassessment of our attitudes. Much of my feelings are tangled up with professional etiquette, spawned from the traditional ideas that ballet reinforces. Within a corps de ballet, each dancer is there to support the other, to make minute adjustments for the sake of the overall look. Yet in the heat of a rehearsal where someone may be doing something to upset the synchronicity, is it your place to question them? Usually not if they out rank you. When we perform on stage, people speak of dancing uninhibited, “like nobody is watching”, of discovering more by making your limbs talk. Paradoxically, so much of my dancing life has been learning to quell that same impulse in the studio.
I become frustrated at the fear that prevails in our profession about discussing working philosophies. Problems fester because too many of us are concerned we’ll fall out of favour with artistic directors. It is a courageous dancer who directly asks for something from their management, but this integrity should be encouraged. When I was 18, ballerina Leanne Benjamin very frankly asked, “Where did I want to dance?” Embarrassingly, I didn’t have an answer because I didn’t know I had a choice. I thought I’d end up where I would. Knowledge is a spiral staircase; you can only see things when you’re ready to, and today I see this is not how to make the most of your dancing life. Let’s verbalise and make choices. Let’s make sure we all understand the world isn’t filled simply with black or white swans.
Pictured: Sarasota Ballet in Frederick Ashton’s Valses nobles et sentimentales. Photograph: YI-CHUN WU