A Few Thoughts On Being Un Danseur
One of the things that I really, really appreciate about my amazing array of ballet teachers is that all of them have, in one way or another, taken it upon themselves to mentor the living daylights out of me.
At my birthday party, whilst being predictably extra for the camera (because I am the world’s biggest ham), I did one of those dive-to-the-knee moves that dudes do all the time in ballet, like this thing:
…only more dynamic, of course.
There are several of these in the choreography for this year’s Showcase piece (though I’m actually on the opposite line, open to the audience instead of closed).
BG said something like, ‘That reminds me! Be bolder about going to the knee.” And then we had a chat about that, and about why.
At one point, he said to me:
“No matter who you are in your daily life, on stage and in the studio, you should be the man every woman wants and every man wants to be.”
We went on to talk about what that means: about the genteel, elegant, graceful masculinity that remains a staple of the art of classical ballet, and how to embody it.
This was not, by the way, in any way intended to disparage my own particular way of being an androgynous kind of boy the rest of the time, or even the role of that kind of ambiguity in other sectors of dance. It was, rather, a question of the ideals of the classical form.
The example we talked about was actually L’Ancien, who is a lovely, very slender man, deeply genteel—but classical ballet is packed with examples. David Hallberg, who manages for all his lithesome beauty to perfectly embody every fairytale prince in the history of fairytales; Mikhail Baryshnikov, who is tiny and not, at first glance, what one typically imagines when one imagines Prince Charming, but who does the same; Rudolf Nureyev, a prince among princes for the whole of his career regardless of his late start, his fiery temperament, and reputation for obstreperousness…
- Like, he’s 5’6″. He’s smaller than I am, and I’m not tall. I kinda vaguely want a t-shirt that says, “Taller Than Baryshnikov” ;D … in case you’re wondering, it’s a quote from a conversation I had with one of my ballet girls ages back. I almost made it the tagline for this blog, but figured it was a bit too obtuse for that.
Anyway, the classical ideal of the danseur entails strength collected under the hand of gentility, fire cooled by courtesy, and boldness tempered by grace. It acknowledges raw, animal power—that’s what gets your grand allegro off the ground—but yokes it with beauty. It couples force with tenderness.
Regardless of one’s gender identity, that seems like a pretty good ideal.
At the end of the day, while you show off your strength in moments of bravura, you must also know how to use it in the service of your partner. Without the latter, the former won’t get you very far. And if you’re a dick, nobody wants to partner you, no matter how good you are.
- This directly informs my answer to the question, “Should boys be exempted from dress code requirements in ballet schools?” My answer is an unambiguous NO. If the girls are required to adhere to a dresscode, the boys should do them the courtesy of doing so as well (if nobody has a dresscode, then this is entirely irrelevant). This may be the very first lesson any danseur learns in the art of courtesy: yeah, you’re special because you’re a boy in ballet, but part of what you should do as a boy in ballet—an essential part of the job—is to treat every girl in ballet like she’s the specialest girl on earth. Besides: without every girl who loves the ballet, whether from the stage or from the audience, ballet would die a pretty swift death. The first lesson every danseur should learn is respect.
In an article that I wrote for an academic anthology, I observed that ballet has shown me the kind of man I want to be and is teaching me how to be that man. I said the same to BG the other night. He smiled: that smile that says, Cool, you get it.
One of the things I like immensely about BG, by the way, is that he lives that ideal. He may be his own kind of Extra; he may be a little crazy—but he approaches the world with strength, magnanimity, and grace. He believes in justice and stands up for it without resorting to coarseness or mudslinging. He’s the kind of person who takes the time to ask how you’re doing when you look a little off. Also, he stands up straight (that’s him in the green shirt in the photo above, by the way: you can pick him out pretty easily, since he’s the only other guy :D). He’s definitely on the list of people I’m glad to have in my corner.
All of this reminds me of an exchange I had with K while working on a partnering bit: after we ran it once, she said, “Give me more strength.”
I realized I’d been too soft—a little timid, actually. Not that I was afraid of her: rather, I was afraid of shoving her over or something. The next time I engaged a little more, and the whole thing went better on each subsequent run (except for the time that I came in at a weird angle and offered her the wrong hand: she managed anyway, incompetent partner or no).
On one hand (HA!) I love partnering; on the other hand (HA SQUARED!) it scares the hell out of me a little, because RESPONSIBILITY OMG. But, like, that’s part of The Thing.
In other words, part of being a danseur is understanding that you both literally and metaphorically hold others up.
There’s also knowing when to hold yourself together and when to let go. In that vein, I’m taking a rest day today. The next day off in my calendar is a week from Friday, and while I love Monday night class, I have a long show and two auditions this coming weekend in addition to the usual array of classes, so a day off seemed like a good idea. I’ll probably take class Friday morning to make up the gap.
Which reminds me of the other bit of mentoring BG did the other night. On our second drink, he explained an important rite of passage for professional dancers: taking class with a hangover. Also the universally-understood hand gesture that says, “I’m gonna keep it at a simmer to save the marley.”
Fortunately, I really don’t get hangovers, so while I wasn’t at my very best in class on Sunday morning since I was running on 5 hours of sleep, I at least didn’t find myself praying to Bilious all through class.