I broke up with ballet last year, on Valentine's day in front of group educators in a local library. It was a lecture demonstration I'd titled Breaking Classical, A Deconstruction of Ballet. Ballet was there and listened as I recounted our first date, courtship, a temporary separation, marriage, a bitter goodbye in 2000, and partnership that began in 2009 and faded in late 2015. Ballet and I are still friends, collaborators, but it's time to talk about why I no longer spend time in studios or call myself a dancer. After breaking up with Ballet, I wanted to see who I was without Ballet in my life, and that became even more challenging when I realized I wanted to know who I was without any dance in my life. I spent months laying on a studio floor trying to summon how else I might move if I'd not been trained as a dancer, and especially a classical dancer. I call this my 'potato phase'. It wasn't that I was laying on the ground in stillness, I felt like I was buried with no ability to move. Every part of my brain and cellular memory is synced up to Ballet, Ballet's history, memories of studio and performances, terminology, technique, and aesthetic. I went mad trying to think about how to move without all that information grafted onto me. It was a long winter.
As much as I loved the classical art form, I really don't believe I belonged in Ballet, I struggled to hold myself together so no one would see that I wasn't one of them. Did others feel that way too and I just didn't notice? It felt like they knew a code of behavior and decorum that I didn't. Ballet is that way, it slowly trains you to wear the elegance in your bones, to understand the unspoken rules, and to be obedient. It never stuck for me, there was always a part of me that didn't fit into that mold and kept spilling out. For decades I wanted nothing, but to be the regal ballerina that I saw in those that I aspired to, and those that instructed me. Ballet has high expectations, I did too - especially when my instrument was my own body. I couldn't get away from myself, my work. It's embedded into me: my movement, my thought process, my perception of myself and the world around me.
An important note to make here, because my artistic mother came to this lecture and I think it cracked her heart a bit to hear these words. So I share this as an aside: During a breakup, you always have to sort through the wreckage and pick up the pieces that you need to keep. The work ethic, the mentorship, the friendships, the physical skill, mental acuity, the love, and the acceptance of me for who I really am all remain pieces I hold closely. If you helped raise me to be a dancer, the artist I am today, or shared the studio and stage with me over the decades, please know - I'm not breaking up with you. I am breaking up with the dance between us.
This break up left me gutted, and I've even had people tell me to my face that it's such a shame I'm not dancing or instructing anymore, and I know they intend it as a compliment, but it comes out as though there's nothing else for me to offer. I gave myself over to ballet, dance, and instructing completely, and I can understand how it seems shocking to walk away from something that's been so woven into my life. And that's precisely why I broke up with Ballet, and dance. It was an unhealthy relationship - it took too much of me, it was me - and simultaneously not me at all. Not long after, I began seeking movement outside the traditional dance modalities; some improvisational, some experimental. It's been an absolute pleasure to color outside the lines this past year.
But let's sharpen the pencil a bit. In Dance Matters, Part 1, I talked about how dance is more than an art form, it's the expression, artistry, and often historical record of the people that carved their form of dance into existence. I also compared dance to a language, a form of communication, of storytelling. Knowing only one language or only reading one book is a fraction of light shining in a complex kaleidoscope of culture and history. I'm pretty sure not everyone dances the same. In the words of Deborah Hay, an experimental choreographer and postmodern dancer, "Why not loosen things up a bit and play with the possibilities?" But how can we do that if we don't also support diverse programming? Ballet will always be present in my life, in my body, and I will always be a dancer, but I consider those only part of who I am as a complete artist.
When I presented Breaking Classical [after the 'potato' phase], I wove my story amid a rambling history of ballet's lineage and brushed upon it's origins stemming from the royal courts of King Louis 14th, Jean Baptiste, Beauchamps and Moleire, Bournonville, Petipa, Cecchetti, and later Diaghilev. If you're not up on ballet history, these are all white European men. I included the few women who are noted as shapers of the tradition during that era: Vaganova and Taglioni, but it really isn't an art form created by women. It's an art form created upon women. [For a humorous take on that, I recommend classically trained professional dancer AND comedian Nikki White's thoughts on ballet's origins.]
There's a strict hierarchy in Ballet culture and it's a reflection of the colonial cultures that created the art, and give it that militaristic rank and file structure. Crystal Pite's piece on swarm intelligence, Emergence (2009) is a mirroring of bees and Ballet hierarchy. And it's my understanding that Pite designed the piece to subvert the Ballet hierarchical structure by pairing corps de ballet members with principal soloists and creating group ensemble sections that generate a feeling of connection among the company, equality. To perform Emergence is to re-organize the structure of the dance company performing it. And that sounds absolutely beautiful. And I felt that transformation resonating from the company members when I saw Pacific Northwest Ballet premiere the work in 2013.
It's fascinating how light hearted and playful Ballet is when little ones first start out and how intensely serious it is at even the pre-professional level. It's a honeymoon phase. As a little girl I flocked to Ballet not realizing the increasing pressure to pursue the art, and increasing obsession to be good enough for it, had eclipsed me by the age of 13. Ballet and I demanded a lot of each other. If it's all you know, then it's normalized. It wasn't until my partner, Mike, saw I and another dancer crying after class, due to some verbal ruffing up by the artistic director, that the question was asked, "Is this healthy?" I'd never considered an alternative before that moment. Leaving wasn't an option. Or was it?
I've nothing against Ballet, or dance, [or men creating things if you're still a bit wrinkled about that] In fact, I'm finding my way back to movement in a way that feels authentic and doesn't require that I adopt a persona, or feel like I need to hide my training either. Stepping away from the relationship is what allowed that to come forward, I knew Ballet had consumed me in way that shut out my authentic voice. [And before anyone offers Modern dance as an alternative, I can say the same for Modern dance. Modern is also a eurocentric art and while its origins stem from discarding the classical form, it also has become entrenched with 'othering' and structured molds of pedagogy that don't always welcome new narratives.]
It wasn't until last summer that I understood what it felt like to be myself in movement, among others. I felt safe, I felt authentic and also included. It felt easy to transition into the studio and back onto the street. I cried the day I had to leave that cocoon. The educator facilitating was a Julliard graduate, but also greatly influenced by the modern and postmodern work of Trisha Brown and Stephen Petranio. But there was more in the offering besides his artistic lineage, Gerald Casel brought a depth to the conversation that was present in all the work he shared. A decolonizing of the space and the habitual structures that dance so often perpetuates. His dancers took class with us and contributed to the dialog as colleagues not obedient employees. Partnering was explored as an opportunity to be in support of someone without being near them, an ally. And how to "democratize the spine" to make the work more accessible to the body.
Accessibility and support are why I'm writing. Is dance accessible? Is it supportive? And, in order to define those questions, I think it's important to ask, 'What does the word dance comprise?' or 'What qualifies as dance arts?' Because it's not just the mainstream modalities that are so often presented as a complete collection for a 'well-versed' dancer. And accessibility is more than providing access, it's about supporting other voices. It's also about creating community around diverse cultural practices and histories. When collegiate programs slash out world dance and leave a dance program with only a euro-centric narrative, it gives a narrow view of the vibrant dance culture outside this country - outside European culture. I joke about it, but a Butoh based workshop and six potatoes changed my life, my art path. I'm so grateful that it did.
And I am grateful, even though this letter doesn't quite show it the best [please see Part 1 for gratitude], that as a rural Montanan I've had the opportunities and privilege of attending ballet and conservatory training. I've had to actively seek out dance arts beyond the euro-centric narrative and I think about how much dance has to offer when we can meet another culture through their dance art. It's a form of a listening, and listening fosters empathy, increases awareness, and raises consciousness. Those all sound pretty good to me.