Monthly Archives: October 2010

Les Noces and the Power of Ritual

I was recently invited to speak on a panel to a group of students at Julliard about the ballet, Les Noces. It was choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska to music by Igor Stravinsky and premiered in 1923. I danced the piece with Dance Theatre of Harlem and Boston Ballet. While there is a lot of information on this historic piece and it’s creators, and myriad ways to approach this topic, in my personal ruminations one aspect of the ballet kept coming up: ritual.

Malidoma Some, distinguished African elder and Shaman, points out the difference between ceremony and ritual. In a ceremony, events are “reproducible, predictable, and controllable, while rituals call for spontaneous feeling and trust in the outcome (The Healing Wisdom of Africa, 145).” Rituals call upon the presence and guidance of spirit with deliberateness and intent. They create a safe community setting for a loss of control (Some).

While Les Noces is obviously not an authentic ritual, it is suggestive of one through the high emotion expressed in the music and the way the  choreography shows the community gathering in a show of support for the couple getting married; the responsibility of the success of the marriage is taken on by the whole community. Ritual brings the support of the community to people who are undergoing an important transition in life. Certain things, like marriage, are not meant to be experienced alone.

So, even though the piece is theatrical, I think its ability to evoke ritual is one of the reasons why it has endured until today. In our modern life, we are cut off from that ancient tradition. We are so alienated and hungry for an authentic connection to spirit. In indigenous cultures, art is seen as a gateway to the mysterious spirit world. But in our modern life, we take our art in measured, somewhat predictable doses. We know when the show will end and what we’ll do afterwards. We are distanced from the art we observe. We are taught to judge it critically. To shield ourselves.  A security guard monitors our every move. His presence intimidates, shouts, “Do not touch the art!” Sometimes a great artist manages to crack the shield. I cried once at a Martha Graham performance watching Terese Capucilli.  It made those around me really nervous. Uh oh! Grand display of emotion over here. Can’t have any of that. Security!

But deep down, we remember that the first song, the first dance, the first painting happened in a passionate ritual setting. We are longing for a safe place to cry, to express our grief, our anguish, our ecstasy. We are longing to throw off the memory of someone who ridiculed our expression. Told us we couldn’t sing. Told us we looked stupid when we danced. Made us afraid. Made us defensive and taught us to judge others. Taught us to wear a mask. Taught us to take everything so fucking seriously. We are longing to be heard. To bring forth our genius. To discover and manifest our purpose. For our gifts to be recognized and utilized and appreciated. We are longing to feel like we matter. To feel touched, loved, held, healed. To look deeply into the eyes of the beloved other and to acknowledge the mystery of it all. All of this is made possible through ritual.

I’m not saying I got all this from Les Noces. But Les Noces certainly suggested that dancing wasn’t about me. It was about us. I felt the strength of a group focused with intent. Everyone literally, from the singers in the pit to the dancers onstage, was on the same page. Something bigger than me, than any individual, was moving through us all and it was powerful. It was ancient. And it rose up in me and roared from the belly of the earth.

I cannot promise the Julliard students that they will hear the earth’s roar or the stirrings of an ancient power. But I want to suggest here that I think one of the reasons why I had that experience with Dance Theatre of Harlem had to do with how the ballet was taught to us. It was handed down to us orally by Bronislava Nijinska’s daughter, Irina. In other words, it was given to us with extreme love, care and personal investment. We never saw a video.

I’m going off on a bit of a tangent here, but as dancers, I think we have to be reminded of the importance of the oral tradition that was used to create and teach dances in the past. Using a video can be extremely harmful to the dancer, first of all, because it encourages one to capture generalities, instead of something specific. Secondly, a video cannot communicate the intent behind movement. And finally, and worst of all, a video robs the dancer of having a first-time experience. The first-time experience is crucial because it allows the dancer to enter into the experience openly, without preconceived notions that would limit that experience.

I haven’t danced in a company in over four years. I hear stories about dancers being left in the studio with a video tape. After they’ve learned the dance more-or-less, a ballet master eventually shows up to coach. It makes me wince, this do-it-yourself attitude. This lack of support. Not everything can be done alone. Not much can be done alone. Even these few words need you to read them in order to be something.

Thank you for reading, by the way. Seriously, I need you. Who knows, maybe I’ll meet you dancing around the sacred fire one of these days. No? When I invite people to sacred gatherings, many shut down. Perhaps the word ‘ritual’ evokes images of gruesome human sacrifice or wild naked orgies. Some are simply afraid of feeling vulnerable. But I think just as nothing great is accomplished alone, nothing transformative is accomplished without making oneself vulnerable.

In ritual, I’ve been deeply moved in the way the group responds with compassion and patience when someone, sometimes myself, stood to speak, voice trembling with fear before the crowd,  or overcome with emotion trying to get the words out. Each time the speaker was  warmly encouraged to continue and depending on the amount of emotion expressed, even physically held by the group. The first time I saw people supporting each other this way, I wept. I am crying now remembering it. I thought of my days dancing professionally and how I wished we had held each other when we came off stage after performing something difficult.

So, yeah, an authentic ritual setting is safe. Trust yourself. You will know if it is authentic. It can be liberating and deeply transformational. Nobody will laugh at you, only with you.

You can come home, now.

Come home.

Art in Academia

Note to readers: I want to confess that I really struggled with this one. There was a lot of anger behind it and I am wary of sending that energy out into the universe without pointing towards a solution. Maybe the solution is wanting to raise awareness about this issue. I am open to suggestions…if you have the time, please click on “comments” above and read Ken Ludden’s words.

There has been a long-standing quarrelsome relationship between the arts and academia. While there are universities and high schools out there doing a great job with the arts, all too often the arts are relegated to an inferior status behind math, the sciences and humanities. Then, the arts themselves have their own hierarchy with visual art at the top, followed by music, then drama, and lastly dance scraping the bottom of the barrel.

It reminds me of the internalized racism of enslaved and/or colonized peoples with the lighter-skinned, straighter-haired people looking down on their darker, kinkier-haired sisters and brothers. It’s really no wonder that the evil legacy of our country’s origin and its resulting self-hatred have survived in education, the supposed doorway to a better future, but really a kind of intellectual class system.

Educators, many of whom are so-called liberals, uphold this hierarchy of study while paying lip service to the need for arts in an educational setting. The art form is not seen as worthy in and of itself; it has to latch onto other disciplines and courses of study in order to be validated in the eyes of the academic institution.

But here I am, just a stupid dancer who knows how to use a semi-colon. Recently, I was demoralized to hear of an advisor at a so-called arts school tell a student that she was too smart to major in dance at college. In another instance, a well-known dance educator lamented the limitations of just training dancers. Pew!

On the one hand, I sympathize with that educator. The dance world can be a narrow environment but it doesn’t have to be that way. Before we downplay the importance of training artists we  have to ask ourselves what that actually takes. How many teachers can lead someone through the fire of transformation? I’ve seen a lot of people give class, but not many have the ability to initiate, to support, a student through the process of becoming an artist, to endure the sheer stamina of it. And of course, the reward. It’s like giving birth.

We used to say that such-and-such a teacher can make dancers. That was a compliment. It referred not to a teacher that had a star clientele, a trendy following, but to someone who could make stars. Where would I be without Madame Darvash? Those of us who’ve had someone like that take us under their wing are forever grateful.

I’m not saying that there’s no place for outreach programs, art appreciation and courses that link art to say, medicine. Of course there is. I celebrate that. The more the merrier. I’m saying that in academia, these kinds of programs are emphasized and taken more seriously than the actual training of the artist. Fine, that’s their prerogative. It’s their house. At the same time, they can’t run a respectable house by ignoring the arts completely and they know it. An absence of the arts would discourage potential students. And taking an arts class at these institutions ain’t free.

People are starving for experiences of authenticity, beauty and being moved in their souls. We have always needed that, but now more than ever as art is increasingly institutionalized and separate from every day life.

What I want to say is that of course there is lots of room for intellectual study around the arts, but I think we need to remember that the intellect is in service to something higher. Call it the great mystery. Call it spirit. Call it whatever you like, but what we are ultimately striving for is transcendence. The intellect has to work with other parts of our being. It is not a stopping off point.

All art is ultimately a way to transcend the intellect. It is a tool, like the body that I mention in the previous blog. Art is a way of connecting with the divine. Simply put, if spirit ain’t in it, you ain’t really dancin’.

I want to add here in case you skip the comments section above that I’ve received a lot of feedback since posting this blog. I want to make it clear that I am not against the role of “amateur” art. I am not in any way suggesting that those who teach “amateurs” are sell-outs or fostering mediocrity.  I teach those who are professionally focused and many who aren’t. What I’m getting at, in summary is that a great arts class, dance class, is important and useful in and of itself regardless of the student’s ambitions. There is something that we as human beings need to experience through art that is not less important than say, math.

What I am against is the classist attitude against those that do choose to pursue it professionally. I am against figures of authority and influence telling someone that it is not worth their while to pursue the arts over other things. And I am against prioritizing the intellect above and against other aspects of our being, of our humanity, especially with regards to teaching the arts. A college doesn’t have to take on the arts if it’s not their thing. That’s fine. But if they do take it on, even in a secondary way, it should be respected and valued for what it is.

Also, though I personally prefer an apprentice/master relationship to learning anything in life, we are in a culture now that makes it more and more necessary to have “that piece of paper” as my mother calls it, meaning a degree. Many dancers are going to college because they feel that societal pressure; they feel that they will not be professionally validated without it should they wish to teach later on. We are making it harder on kids to choose not to go to college and that needs to be addressed.

Ballet Body, Ballet Spirit

At it’s finest, ballet evokes grace, beauty, dignity, elegance, assiduousness, refinement, humility, respect and spiritual purity in an individual who is willing to endure its demands in a course of serious study. I’m not saying it will make you a saint. I’m saying that it will reveal these qualities within you in moments. And these moments, if consciously recognized and embraced may bleed into other areas of your life. In this way, like a rock transforming into a crystal, the art of ballet may be used as a tool for transformation.

Ballet is not the only way to embody these qualities. It is just one way and it may or may not suit any particular person’s style. However, I’ve suspected that people get turned off of ballet because when they see it on stage, it often appears that these  qualities are reserved for a particular race, economic status and body type and leave many feeling excluded.

My first experience of ballet was in a poor little studio above a liquor store with a bloated linoleum floor and no mirrors. We danced to the musical strains of a scratchy old record player. My first teacher was black. The other students were of all races. There was no sense of elitism or prestige. Nevertheless, authentic beauty and spirit reigned in Miss Joan’s little classroom and I loved her.

As the 21st century world seems, at least according to the tv commercials, to be more inclusive of race, body type, sexual preference and, you know, all those things that outwardly make us different, the world of ballet seems to be, like the fashion world, tightening its grip and promoting exclusion in the area of body type: only the thinnest, finest facilities need apply.

At a recent concert, I was appalled to hear a ballet school director lean over and whisper with regret that one particular girl, though talented, had a poor body. I couldn’t for the life of me see what he was talking about. The young dancer’s body was fine, in fact better than fine to my standards. I nodded kindly to the director’s comment as one would to a child’s ramblings or a crazy bum on the street.

Beautiful bodies have always been prized in ballet. But what is desired now takes things to a whole different extreme. Women should have the proportions and flexibility of a rhythmic gymnast. Certain stars of the ballet world have made this look fashionable at the expense of other kinds of bodies that are perfectly able to dance ballet and have other strengths. It seems to me that there used to be room for variations in body type as different types were designated for different roles. Not everyone plays the princess. But it seems nowadays, to get your toe in the door, it has to fit within a narrower and narrower aesthetic range.

I remember a young woman who I trained with who had, even for that time, a difficult body for ballet. Nevertheless, she was an extraordinary talent. You simply could not deny her. She went on to become a soloist with a reputable company. But in today’s world, I just don’t think she would have a chance. That is so, so sad to me. Do I really want to teach in and represent a world that would not allow her to dance? Honestly, I am starting to hate it. I think the ballet world is literally starving itself to death.

I want to make it clear that I am not against a beautiful, easy body. I just think that the ballet world has strayed from what ballet is actually about. It is not about the body itself. The body is just a tool, like a hammer. We fools are all sitting around admiring the beautiful hammer instead of the beautiful house it could make. And the thing is, the more houses you make, the prettier your tools get.

For any body that approaches ballet, easy or challenging, the task is the same: to go through the body in order to transcend the body. I have noticed that often those with easy facilities get stuck at the physical level. Because the physical level is easy, they never encounter the struggle, the pain of the spirit breaking free. But the struggle is in fact there for anyone who attempts ballet. If you have not found it because you have an easy body, it just means that you are not digging deeply enough. Those with more challenging bodies encounter the struggle to transcendence immediately and recognize that struggle as essential. In other words, when you are in so much pain, in order to continue  your practice, you have to connect with something else. Something higher, spiritual, energetic, whatever you want to call it.

That is the goal in the practice of ballet. You are not the picture. You are merely the frame that houses the picture, whether you have a pretty frame or a mediocre frame. Either way, the frame must be transformed in the process of training so that it has the strength and stamina to house the picture. (That is what teaching and mentoring is about. I wonder if this emphasis on body type is partly a result of lazy teaching).

And the picture that you are framing…well, that’s the light. Your body is from that light. It is beautiful and worthy in the eyes of that light and that light loves to flow through you.

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