Not too long ago, a friend aptly noticed that I often refer to our goal as dancers as “reaching as close as we can to perfection.” He wanted me to unpack that statement. What does that even mean? Are we talking about technical attainment? Power or finesse? Maybe something else?
As Steven put it, we’re transitional beings… we’re of this world, and whether we like it or not, perfection is not an option. Such a thing is an illusion.
But having a personal idea of perfection does present a way forward. It is the needle on our compass. What are we reaching for in ballet if not an ideal?
The fact that perfection is unreachable doesn’t mean that our work is meaningless. No, we’ll never reach that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but we will see many things on our journey.
On a physical level, what’s important to gauge is your progress. Are you improving, even if it’s only in small ways? If there’s one lesson that I’ve had to learn as an adult, it’s that progress is slow and sometimes impossible to see from one day to the next.
Especially because in ballet class we don’t really quantify our exercises. Who says “I did 120 tendus today. Tomorrow I’m shooting for 130”? That would be ridiculous. The point of ballet is never to show brute force; finesse always has to accompany strength.
That’s why coordination and self-understanding is king, and why it’s important in ballet to have a specific goal in mind while we’re dancing.
What’s your goal for the combination? A smooth développé? Sharp musicality?
And then what’s your goal for the day? To focus on turn out? To use the arms in a free way?
If you have a goal, you can explore your body and find out what it needs to move ever-closer to your ideals. Of course, having a good teacher that can point out the things that you might be missing yourself is paramount. We are often blocked by unconscious habits.
And so, with our idea of perfection in mind and our understanding of movement towards that goal, we improve our technique, step by step.
What we have to remember more than anything though, if we are to consider ourselves artists, is that these skills need to be means to an end, not the end goal. As artists we need to use those skills to express something about humanity to our audience.
There are competition dancers and dancer athletes, and those pursuits are also worthy in their own right, but to truly consider ourselves artists, we ballet dancers have to realize that our point is not to show perfection – it’s to convey something about the world to our audience. Too often have I seen dancers, people who consider themselves artists, to show off merely the fact that they are well-versed in ballet technique.
All those technical skills that we’ve worked on perfecting for so long, have to act as a conduit for the artistic vision. This is what rehearsals should really be about: a preparation to bare your soul.
While reaching for some kind of artistic perfection is possible, it may be an even more abstract idea than that of technical perfection. At this point it becomes a focus less on the external world, and much more on the internal.
Here the questions are: “Are you feeling what you intend to be feeling?” and “Does it read to the audience?“. In other words, is your performance honest?
There is a huge difference in trying to jump as high as possible and doing a jump out of anger, thoughts of escape or euphoria. The mindset from which we approach movement can affect enormously what the audience receives from the performer, and that’s what I want to make clear here.
For a performance to be transcendent, to really connect with the audience, we have to be in tune with both the outer physical world of our bodies and with the inner world of our own psychology.
These worlds are never disconnected. But sometimes we focus on one at the expense of the other.
At the end, this is a story about life. All of us must find a way to be happy by being in tune with our inner and outer world. The way we do that is by having a vision of perfection, choosing where we want to focus our energies, and practicing. We’ve all heard that practice makes perfect. That’s a lie. Perfect makes you practice.
Next time on the blog, I’m going to ask a few beautiful dancers from different backgrounds and different milieus to share with me their biggest obstacles to their improvement in dance and the reasons they have devoted their lives to ballet. Stay tuned!
Side note: As a perfect example of how perfectionism can be its own obstacle, I’ve been debating whether or not to release this article as is. There’s so much more to say and better ways to say what I already have written, and I know that if I spent more time on it, I could improve on this article. But I can’t make this article perfect. So for now, I better release it in all its imperfection, and be content with what I have the ability to create in this moment.