Competitions may be good for the artist, but are they good for the art? Can anything meaningful be achieved by placing the artist above the art? There have been great dancers, who through their work, elevated the art form as a result of their authenticity, their worship. Then, there were others that became stars, but it was all about them. I don’t want to name names or point fingers here. Things have always been that way. But I do want to look at the rising phenomenon of competitions in dance and raise a flag or two.
When I was about 16, my teacher at the time suggested I compete in the Prix de Lausanne, a prestigious ballet competition in Switzerland. Financially, such a proposition was out of the question. It was hard enough for my single working mother to keep me clad in pointe shoes from week to week.
In addition, my poor self-esteem at the time made the idea of going to a competition insufferable. Being black was challenge enough, thank you. It was all I could do to show up to class in a friendly environment. Also, at that age, I possessed an intuitive clarity that was difficult to communicate to adults. I had a habit of simply doing or not doing things based on my own inner knowing which often ruffled feathers. When my teacher continually suggested a competition, I questioned the extent to which her own agenda was involved.
All that is to say that I value a person’s, especially a teenager’s inner knowing, even when I do not understand it. One thing that teaching has taught me is to, under no circumstances, interfere with an individual’s nature. It can only lead to resistance and regret. Better to find a way to work with their nature, not against it, even if that nature is competitive. I recognize that their soul knows what it’s up to. For one such as this, a competition may be part of their path.
For all I know (and what I secretly hope) is that those who pursue competitions may get what they need if not what they want, like the moment when Luke Skywalker enters the cave and is confronted by Darth Vader, only to realize that the person behind the mask is himself.
I do not ultimately know what lessons are being taken from such endeavors. I would have to be closer to it in order to observe it, but something keeps me away from these competitions. I grock a wrongness. But this is what I’ve observed in students who come to me after being fed on a steady diet of competitions: first, a lack of understanding in the foundation of movement, in how the movement is supported. In other words, they can do tricks, but they rarely have the effortless quality of a movement that is properly supported, grounded and balanced. Second, I see emerging a “contemporary” vocabulary that is wishy-washy, predictable and self-indulgent. Finally, there is a lack of artistic sensitivity, thoughtfulness and interpretive ability.
I recently saw someone perform their “award-winning” variation from Corsaire. He hit all his jumps and turns, but it didn’t seem to occur to him that he was supposed to look sexy, manly, raw, powerful. It’s as though those qualities never crossed his mind. It was weird. Like watching someone play at Corsaire. He knew he could meet the technical demands, but nothing about himself as a human being was risked or exposed.
Perhaps this dancer will go on to be a great artist. Anything’s possible. But I think that artistry has to be practiced just as much as turns and jumps. Your dancing, your art, can only ever express yourself. And that self will be exposed, no matter how many turns you do.
Balanchine said that once you do more than two turns, people start counting. He didn’t want the spell of his choreography to be interrupted by egoic excess, the lyricism of a phrase to be scratched by shouts of “Look at me! Look at me!”
These competitions seem to encourage that “Look at me!” approach to art. But one of the hardest things to learn about being an artist is that no one wants to look at you. No one gives a damn about your brilliance. They want to see themselves through you. Now, as a teacher, I think it’s better to learn this when you’re training, instead of running off to competitions, seeking rewards for a mastery you haven’t earned.
But hey, that’s just me.