Toni Bentley writes exquisitely well about the many paradoxes of being a professional ballet dancer; and I have thought of this passage from Winter Season quite often during my many years of dancing with the New York City Ballet. Like paint on a canvas each dancer in a company represents a particular facet of a choreographic work—some of us are watery mauve stains, some are impasto globs of blue. We are often many different shades and brushstrokes within the same ballet, or within several different ballets over the course of an evening. There is tremendous liberation to be had in such a position. We are not creators; but we have the privilege of embodying monumental acts of creation. To perform Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco or Serenade is akin to inhabiting Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel. It is an honor and a joy. It is often a transcendent experience and probably the closest to the divine that I will ever come. It is, at best, to feel fully alive, to be piercingly present in time and space.
But there is also a decidedly negative cast to Ms. Bentley’s words. And though I think dancers are far more creative than pots of paint, I understand what she means. Can one truly be considered to be
I decided to create this space to share some of my musings and observations about my admittedly bizarre profession. I have always been a hopeless nerd: I tend to read every ballet book I can get my hands on and spend lulls during my rehearsal days watching old footage in the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center. Up until a bad injury a few years ago my approach to this research had always been casual. But while rehabbing from a major surgery—during which time it was unclear if I’d ever be able to dance again—I was bereft. (The other problem with being both artist and medium in one package is the terrible loss of identity one experiences when one’s instrument breaks.) I realized then that writing about dance could be a way to stay connected to my art, to keep my sense of self a little more intact. Since I have been blessedly back to work, I have found that the writing process really helps to inspire me onstage and I have become hooked.
Also, at City Ballet, where we perform different ballets every night for grueling—yet exhilarating—six-week stretches at a time, there is naturally not enough time to think about each ballet in depth. Frequently, the season’s first performance of a work is also the first actual run-through! This is part of what makes the life of a dancer so exciting. Bentley explains: “we the performers can only do—the moment the curtain rises. For us, all thought and reflection are out of place; it is too late. We must be like trained animals and active instruments, responding to the learned stimulus of the music.” She is correct: to be onstage is to be all spontaneity and muscle memory and light. Let this, then, be my forum for thought and reflection.