Ballet is a teacher, a teacher of life lessons as well as of quirks unique to the art itself. Returning to dancing full-time after a college hiatus has reminded me of many of these lessons, both sweet and sour. For example, I had blissfully forgotten just how gosh darn sore one’s toes become and how much one’s feet can ache after being crammed in pointe shoes for hours on a daily basis. The flip side of that, however, is the liberating feeling of removing said shoes and being able to spread one’s toes wide apart again. In ballet, the old saying, “beauty is pain” can very often be all too true.
Furthermore, training and performing in any dance form and especially in ballet, at least at a school or company worth its salt, teaches a person to push himself/herself. To perform and even to take class every day, one must have a solid work ethic and a whole lot of discipline. Moreover, one must allow oneself to be vulnerable for one is continually being compelled to move out of his or her comfort zone, through self-motivation, teacher-prodding, and new and challenging choreography. Trying and failing and trying and succeeding are part and parcel of the life of a dancer be he/she student or professional. Practice that pirouette again. Hold that balance a bit longer. One more time. A little more effort. And most importantly, don’t forget to put heart and soul into the movements as well. No automaton dancers. One’s passion for ballet is what one can draw upon to inform the artistry and grace that gives life to the technique.
Despite the mechanics, the technique, and the arduous work that I know goes into ballet, sometimes it still seems like magic to me. When I watch someone execute a step flawlessly or when the movements feel natural and good in my body or when I see the amazing feats of grace and coordination in balletic partner dancing, I find myself thinking of the tremendous gift that is dance and ballet and of the goodness of life. I experience a moment of wonder.
Some of these moments have recently come during rehearsals of “The Nutcracker.” This time-honored ballet favorite is familiar even to those who are not ardent followers of the dance world. Many professional companies perform dozens of shows of “The Nutcracker” each year during the Christmas season. Between rehearsals and performances, Nutcracker can easily consume a dancer’s life for three to four months. Dancers sometimes joke about being sick of hearing the music over and over.
However, I never get sick of it. Though the choreography of “The Nutcracker” differs company to company, Tchaikovsky’s incomparable music is the one exquisite and steadfast component to any production. Perhaps because it has been a long time since I have danced in “The Nutcracker,” I have a re-awakened and heightened appreciation for its beauty. Regardless, while listening to this grand score, I have found myself with goose bumps and not being able to suppress smiles.
One day as I was dancing to “Waltz of the Flowers,” I found myself almost becoming emotional while I was moving across the studio. My stamina and breath were flagging toward the end of the nearly 7-minute piece, but the music was swelling and building, and in that moment, I realized that I had to allow the music to carry me through to the end. The music and the realization that to little children in the audience, I really will be an enchanted flower dancing across the stage. I am a character in a fairy tale. And to me, that is pretty cool. Again, a moment of wonder, of magic, and of appreciation for the gift of imagination.
The famous ballet choreographer George Balanchine said, “See the music, hear the dance.” This quote captures in a nutshell the relationship between dance and music, namely, an intimate one that enhances both sides. I believe a prime example of this quotation is in “The Nutcracker.” The music is so rich and diverse as is the dancing, which includes several smaller dances or variations that reflect different nationalities. The music seems to be telling the story. There is the spiciness of Spanish, the sophistication and sensuality of Arabian, the breathless exuberance and strength of Russian, the excitement of the snow scene, the joy of the waltz of the flowers, and the majesty and romance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier’s grand pas de deux, among all the other colorful, beautiful parts. Throw in costumes and a set and the end result is truly awe-inspiring. (To learn more about a grand pas de deux, please see my previous post, Lessons in Love & Chivalry from the World of Ballet.)
These little moments of wonder are inestimably valuable, especially in our day and age.
Amidst the hustle-and-bustle of our daily lives, the concerns we may have about national and international events, and the modern technology that allows us to have a geyser of information and facts at our beck and call, it is rejuvenating and calming to allow ourselves to feel wonder and awe at the simple things in life and at the beauty of the world around us. Remembering this can help us on those inevitable days when our occupation or our particular stage in life can be overwhelming or feel monotonous. I know I am trying to recognize more and more the little things in life and to thank God for them.
As a closing thought, if you have never listened to Tchaikovsky’s musical masterpiece of the Nutcracker or if you have never attended a live performance of “The Nutcracker,” do yourself a favor and remedy that situation. It will be well worth your while.
You can watch an excerpt of “The Nutcracker,” filmed for television in 1977 and performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland, two icons of the dance world, here.