I want to do so many things and I have so many ideas, still at my age, if anything, I have more-they are undone. I want to do big, great things. It is like when you watch a movie and some part of it takes you away somewhere else, and you watch that movie to go to that place, as a form of escapism-I don’t always watch movies over and over-but a few I do-then one day, you have watched it so much, and you know exactly at what part you reach that nirvana, and it is over too soon, too fleeting, and you suddenly realize that it is not real. It is not your life, you are not the one getting away, and you need to do something like that, but you need to do it. Not watch it.
I switch from books to media, to music, to puzzles, to writing, to doing, but I always have to do so much to keep my mind sharp, that I do not really just put everything down and do things. For one reason, when you get out of school, you have to work-you do not get to read as many books, write as much, or make art as much, because you have to work. The period in which you are expected to do something, or show you can do something so that you will be picked to do more somethings is very short in school, and if you view life as having to be decided upon before you mature, then not only is their more chance for you to change your mind about what you really wanted to do, or find out what that is, but also it decreases the number of people educated enough to do anything important. In other words, more education is better.
It takes years of practice to do anything really, really well. Short of perverse genius, some people who are picked to do things based on childish endeavors continue to produce nothing of consequence, whereas, someone who might not have had time to develop into greatness doesn’t get the chance. Other times it is the person who is pinched (Nureyev, Makarova) that has the drive and ambition to make it and be better than anyone else. I do not think there should be an imaginary window or so much pressure to be picked to be someone’s muse at an early age. A dancer develops into an artist or they don’t, but it takes TIME. I think the lack of truly great artists has a lot to do with the pressure on young students to get somewhere, and be something, before they have had time to develop into anything, leaving them feeling flattened if they don’t do something quick. Yes, this happens to so many people, and I think it retards or stops people from studying dance for longer. “If I haven’t become this by such and such a day,” is nonsense. Surely, people do, but becoming great with all the opportunity in the world, all the gifts and all the right teaching, doesn’t happen often, and if it does at all, it is through years of continuing to develop, actually. I do not think greatness can be measured in ones so young or that it should be expected of them. And one thing all great dancers do have in common is that they don’t quit!
I told my friend today, again, “the sky’s the limit!” It should be and you choose your words very carefully with children to encourage all of them to do their best, and no child should be out of the running. Some of us are very conscious of that, as educators, and parents ARE educators, but somehow, some educators (teachers) even parents, are not. An elitist program can be a problem, but there are dancers who now currently have more talent, but one day, many other dancers will “catch up.” I am for more opportunities for all dancers to do that, one way or the other. I think if more money was spent by parents, and other people with money, on improving children’s chances of learning to dance, get them off the street, out of their cafe lifestyles and into a path of discipline and increased self-esteem, respect for the arts, there would be more and better dancers, opportunities for those who are professionals looking for work, and more tickets bought by ballet aficionados to ballet performances because they would not be adverse to going. An example is my son, age 27, who will sit through a ballet performance because he took class for a few months and respects the hard work. Everyone in ballet takes something away from it, whether they are a new parent helping for the first time at a backstage show, or an usher who gets to watch all the performances, or a cinematographer who is rapt by the precision, sweat and myriad imagery to capture and relate. Everyone is pleasantly surprised by ballet and dance. Surprised to find they like it.
Despite efforts of people to make art with ballet, preserve the integrity and meaning of its movements, teaching, choreography, costumes, in different periods of history, ballet breaks down. Like a car on the road it needs a tow, a repair, maybe a rehaul, to bring it back onto the road and getting the attention or use it deserves. There are constant discussions about ballet and a legion of fans across the world and yet how many actual dance performances can you say you viewed this year in person. anything done for or in the field of ballet, requires notation, the libretto, the photos, the video, the distribution, everything, because it is an art of the moment. Dance. But in order to expose yourself to art, you can walk out on any Thursday night in most beach towns and get a glimpse of it, you can hear music, taste food, wear fashion, and reading material abounds, but dance you have to sit through and watch and go see. You have to go to the theater to do this and like a live performance of music-nothing compares. It is okay to watch it on tv, Vimeo, YouTube, in theaters on enormous screens, but it is eminently better and more exciting to sit in a seat (any seat) at the theater and watch ballet being performed live. It, after having been to the theater, will enable you to get up out of your seat and start to dance, and suddenly, watching dancers perform live, you realize it is real, and necessary and important.
One of the most important aspects of education, being an educator, is putting aside the customary snobbery that might accompany considering oneself an expert on something, vastly experienced, knowledgeable or wise and give one’s students the benefit of the doubt, equal opportunity, and chances, repeatedly to prove themselves, opportunity to improve, and practice. The bad get better, but they can also learn other things. I have learned from being able to do things, or not being able to do things is always a state of mind, frequently. The handicapped can learn from dance, the geek, the tomboy, the football player, the debutante, the delinquent. And in a supportive environment these children can be taught to dance correctly, to work hard, to see aspects of art like line, symmetry, and composition, that they would otherwise not be able to comprehend at all, through an activity that most of them can never consider boring. They also learn discipline, social graces, about music, costume, stage design, choreography, scenery, acting, and it can lead many of them to pursue careers in the arts which are supportive of the expressive movements, whether it be acting, film, tv, dance, music, etc. There is art in everyone and a need to express themselves. It is always the best part of me, and the most intimate, which I bring to a choreographed work, and to be able to compel and persuade, and enliven, invigorate, and reach people through a performing arts medium is most gratifying and rewarding. It affirms in us that we are individuals and this is a lifelong self-esteem booster. it can be what gets a fat man off the couch at age thirty when he has let himself dissipate, or a woman, in remembering what he felt like working hard and creating in dance. It can be continued throughout life, and dancers age, but they can keep right on dancing, just like pregnant women.
But in the beginning of any growth of a movement must be organization and structure, and big, BIG thinking, to get an idea off the ground. it can be deflated if enough energy is not instilled into it, or if enough belief is not created, and that makes promoting it and perpetuating it a big job, too. Lots of people have worked hard in that field and created good shows, but they have lost their momentum, believing it need to build, grow, but without resources, it can’t. It is human energy which makes all things grow, and life needs to be imbued into the substance of a thing to get the ball rolling and the energy expended to propel it in any given direction. Without the interest, dedication and true spirit of invention involved there is no momentum, no human energy. So in order to speed things up, get the ball rolling, you have to excite people. There is no point in flogging a dead horse or dealing with people who do not share your vision exactly. They will hold you back, prevent that energy from multiplying and creating the momentum necessary to catapult the vision or dream into the atmosphere and into tangible presence-reality. Without the big bang, or a ton, of life and energy, our people, environment and planet would not have been created, and it is exactly that which can be taught in the studio of a ballet class, things can happen and do, but it is not all about a defined end result, sometimes the energy happened in the process, develops, and momentum of each individual is nurtured by their teacher. A lot of little pops eventually produces a big pop and competition is essential-not negative, debasing, and judgmental competition, but life, energy and momentum, better and better and better! So it is important to stop thinking sometimes and just dance, try, and imagine what the possibilities can be for all children in dance and by each of those children themselves to be allowed to dream, because you never know where the momentum is going to come from. Diaghilev said he could not dance a bit, but he was inspired to take dance to a level the world had never before experienced it, and it was not just the dancers of the New York City Ballet that made those first shows and created that company, it was the patrons and subscribers who came to see ballet inserted between acts of vaudevillian fare, who simply learned to appreciate ballet by exposure to it, and in the same way, when you put a group of children in a room to teach them dance, kinetics occur and develop, which grows upon them and movement ensues, through which they learn to appreciate art in all its forms, and expression and communication. Simple physics really. Mass x velocity. No conservation! Does anyone want to stand in the way of the force of that collision? Keep on dancing!
I’m often asked how we remember all of the steps to the vast repertoire we dance at New York City Ballet. Corps members might dance 20 ballets in a short six-week season. Principals might dance 10 or more, and often we will rehearse three or four ballets during the day and then perform a completely different ballet that night.
I find the music to each ballet to be the key to remembering all of the steps. With choreography as musical as what we’re blessed with in my company, someone just has to sing the music to me, and my body will do the steps. Each ballet must have its own little piece of my brain that is reserved just for that ballet, ready to be called up whenever the music is played.
When we’re learning a ballet for the first time, whether it’s new choreography or one of the famous ones already in the company’s repertory, we do it systematically, going forward in chunks and then going back to the beginning to dance the piece through up to the point we have learned. Once we can successfully get from the beginning up to where we stopped learning, we then go forward to learn another chunk before returning to dance it from the beginning again. Layer by layer we train our ear to hear the music and how it matches up to the steps. With enough repetition, the music is inevitably linked by some mysterious connection to our muscle memory so that eventually, we don’t have to think about the steps. Our bodies know what to do, leaving our brains free to give flight to our imaginations in performance.
It is certainly easier to learn a ballet if I’m already familiar with the music or have seen the ballet before so that I have a frame of reference for what I’ll be dancing. If I have not seen the ballet before, I’ll watch a tape if possible so that my brain can have a map in place for where my part in the ballet will go. However, I try not to watch tapes too often if I can help it because it is too easy to find myself mimicking the ballerina dancing the part on the tape; I’ve always wanted to do parts in my own way, even while I take inspiration and guidance from the wonderful ballerinas who have gone before me. Balanchine and Robbins often made different versions for different dancers, and they wanted their ballerinas to be unique. Though both choreographers have now passed away, their ballet masters try to follow in their spirit as they teach each successive generation of dancers these masterpieces. Though the steps might be mostly the same, artistry is left up to the individual.
And each dancer’s artistry is radically different from another’s, so that ballets change and evolve according to which dancer is dancing which part. Most of the ballets in the repertory of the New York City Ballet have no story line; there is often drama, but that drama comes from the music and the steps. I’ve realised that a lack of story line actually gives the dancers more opportunity to place their own personal interpretation into a role.
For example, in the last movement of George Balanchine’s Vienna Waltzes, a solitary woman dances in a ballroom with a man playing a partner who materialises as if from her imagination. There is a moment when the music comes to a standstill and then starts over, slowly and haltingly. I’ve never danced the role and have only watched it, but I’ve always thought that at that moment, the woman’s imagination becomes so powerful that she conjures up a real man from her fantasy world. I’ve seen some ballerinas interpret it this way, and have seen others remain remote, looking at their partners as if they were not quite there.
One day while watching a rehearsal of Vienna, I asked my friend and fellow principal dancer Tyler Angle, “Do you think he becomes a real man there?”
Tyler looked at me with interest and said, “You know, I’ve seen it done both ways. It depends on the ballerina – I’ve always wanted him to become real. But Jenny, you and I are always searching for a story even when there is none.” And he is right about that. I’m one of those dancers who searches for some hint of a story, even in the plotless ballets.
Musicians from the New York City Ballet orchestra have told me that they love to play for our company because of the great music the choreographers have chosen for the ballets we perform. But what may be thrilling for a musician to play can be difficult for a dancer to decipher, and some ballets have more difficult music than others. These I have a harder time learning and assimilating into my body. If I have to rely on counting the music to keep my place in the choreography, I find I have to use a different part of my brain that isn’t a natural part of my dancing. These ballets take more focus, and I’m often more nervous for them; sometimes the second I let the performance side of myself take over, I stop counting the music. With these ballets, I have to do a lot more physical repetition and mental dissection of the music before I feel that I really know the ballet.
Also, the music we hear from the orchestra is often completely different from what we have been hearing in the studio. We have wonderful rehearsal pianists who play for us during the day, but often the piano accents notes differently than a full orchestra does. The arrangement written for the piano might highlight different sounds and melodies from what we would hear from the orchestra pit during a performance. Also the piano can set a more obvious tempo, whereas sometimes the orchestration is written as more of a wash of sound. There have been plenty of stage rehearsals, particularly of brand-new choreography, that have fallen apart completely because none of the dancers could tell where they were in the music. This is of course incredibly frustrating for the choreographer, and the dancers usually go into a panic as what seemed so certain and comfortable just the day before suddenly becomes an unknown.
This happened to us the first time we had an orchestra rehearsal for a ballet that Peter Martins made called Naïve and Sentimental Music to music by John Adams. It used almost every principal dancer on the roster, 26 of us either onstage at the same time or just exiting and entering. We were all experienced and used to dancing under every kind of stress, but when we were onstage for our first orchestra rehearsal and suddenly couldn’t find a beat or a melody in the music, we just stood around and stared at each other, befuddled. Peter had anticipated the problem and rehearsed us often to a CD of the orchestra version of the music, but somehow the orchestra sounded wildly different from the CD’s version of the piece. It was hard for us to find any kind of rhythm or melody to anchor our steps. In group sections where we were supposed to be dancing together, it looked like we were all doing different choreography because we were so out of sync. Peter was obviously very upset, because the premiere was only days away.
We eventually figured out that in every section, there was somebody who could hear where we were supposed to be. Those who were musically lost just found a way to watch that dancer and stay together with his or her movements. We counted for one another and gave one an- other significant looks. During a section where the women danced in a revolving circle and we couldn’t make eye contact with one another, Janie Taylor called out the counts for us. Before a finale step that Jennie Somogyi and I led off, we would look at each other across the stage, nod, and take a large preparatory step so that we started at the same time. At other times, when in doubt, we just watched whoever was in front, and even if we thought she was wrong, we did what she did.
Somehow we pulled it off, but we were all stressed about it. For this ballet, it was not necessarily the dancing that was hard but the musical and mental focus required to do it correctly. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that many principal dancers counting music loudly at the same time, both in the wings and onstage, looking questioningly at their opposites and partners to see if they were correct. But in the end, hopefully we looked professional from out front! We tried not to move our lips too much as we counted…
Looks a lovely book!