I started typing tutorials in fourth grade. Typing is something big kids and grown-ups do on the computer, so starting tutorials indicated how much older and wiser we obviously were than our only-three-months-ago-third-grade selves; typing is also one of those things you’re actually supposed to do without looking, so there’s this look-Ma-no-hands feeling to it. Learning to type? Pretty big deal!
There is a similar experience in learning to dance. Ballet, like language and music, is a pearl necklace. Elegant. Effortless. Effectively sophisticated, but made from simple pieces strung together. Broken down, the ballet basics are individual pearls, just like letters or words. We use these words to make sentences, and those sentences to express ourselves. We were trained to speak like everyone else, just with a different language: Movement.
We make mistakes while typing, right? Typos! I personally live in fear of typos because, when noticed by readers, typos suggest sloppiness, a lack of time or care. And while I don’t have loads of time, I CARE SO MUCH. Luckily we have Spell-Check when typing. We make typos (so to speak) while dancing, but there is no backspace for wrong notes or missed cues. No deleting sounds or slips, no retyping missteps. That’s what makes a live show so different from a studio recording, what separates performance from other forms of art: What happens, happens. And it’ll never happen again! That is special.
When we forget an entrance, we figure out a way to get onstage that still makes sense. When a hair-piece goes flying, we play a bit of imperceptible football to kick it to the wings. When we fudge steps, we would never interrupt the narrative to cry, “Cut! Redo.” We believe our mistakes are as much a part of the show as our successes. When something goes wrong, we are trained to charge onward. We are trained to re-forge truth.
“We are basically very honest people,” Toni Bentley said in The Winter Season. I agree! On one hand we’re the purest, most truthful bundles of sentience you’ll ever cross; on the other hand, we can find difficult to be honest with ourselves because the best way to make a mistake onstage means not only acting like it was supposed to happen, but believing it. Being in character requires you to remain convinced that everything you say, or do, or dance is true. And you can tell who believes what they say or do onstage because they are the best performers. Making imperfection beautiful (onstage, while everyone is watching, in real time) is problem solving so instantaneous that you might never know the difference between my choreography and my recovery. You wouldn’t and, if I’m doing my job real well, neither would I. We stand by everything we say, even if we didn’t mean to say it. We see and decree everything meaningful and beautiful, even when it was ugly or in the wrong key. If you think doing the splits is impressive, you should see our mental acrobatics, our constant adjustment and justification. We change our story in little ways all the time. We rehearse our sincerity. We create our own belief. So, yeah. Basically very honest people.
Dancers don’t enjoy the luxuries of revision, subtraction, rethinking, or revision in privacy. We can only add, persuade, and redirect attention live-time, onstage. If you think of improvisation as half our Spell-Check, the other half will be endless preparation. Typos are so distracting. If I noticed you use the wrong form of “your”, for instance, my eyes might widen as I struggle to fight off an involuntary disdain and remind myself that typos don’t make you a bad person and we can still be friends even though Spell-Check is built into almost every interface we use so really YOU HAVE NO EXCUSE, but by that time I’ve almost forgotten your point entirely. There is a point to performance, and typos take away from it. Rehearsal exists for everything our hair-trigger adaptability can’t cover. (Ask our families, friends, and lovers alike, they know the line: “I can’t, I have rehearsal.”) We rehearse a story for weeks! It’s easy to consider rehearsal redundant (do you REALLY have to rehearse this every day for a month?) when it’s in fact a necessary refinement (yes, we REALLY have to rehearse this every day for a month). It’s a filter, a sifter. It’s like panning for gold. The idea is that we’ve strained out as many impurities as possible by opening night so we can, without show-stopping mistakes, simply tell the story.
I believe a ballerina’s greatest responsibility lies in storytelling. Ballet is hard. I mean, that’s what we signed up for when we picked up a passion demanding athletic transcendence and wordless eloquence. But when the house lights go out, the conductor taps his podium, the curtain parts as if by magic, and the audience falls into my favorite hush? Our job then isn’t to nail the steps. Our job is to tell the story. “The show must go on!” That’s the expression. Come what may, it’s a point of honor to finish the performance. It’s a promise to forget ourselves and tell you something more important than our typos.
Typing tutorials started in fourth grade, but I took my first ballet class in first grade. I learned how to tendu before I learned how to type. These are the things I think about as my mind wanders during hours spent at my full-time, wonderfully mundane day-job. Every morning at 6am I kick off my office-appropriate heels and hip-check my ergonomic chair in favor of standing in socks to do plies and releves before afternoon training and rehearsal. I certainly bring dance with me everywhere I go, but then I realize everything is a sort of dance.