Recently I was in Yoga around about posture 16 in the series of 26 that is Bikram and I looked at my self in the mirror (as is the practice) and something hit me. I was fine. There in the 105 degree room sweaty, disheveled and literally a hot mess I actually felt good, I liked what I was seeing, and even better than that I happy. It is a feeling that overcomes me so seldom that when it happens I make a point of taking note of it. What I find so interesting is that with 24 hours in a day- 7 days in a week and 52 weeks in a year, on average if I strung this intermittent moments of feeling fine together I might barely clock a full week. Almost everyday there is some sense of inadequacy, of something not being right and needing to be fix, of being broken.
One late morning I sat across a table taking tea with a friend discussing topics related to body image. She told me a story of how upon seeing her judging herself in a studio mirror, stretching and pulling trying desperately to “improve” a teacher once told “Stop, you’re fine- you’re not broken you just have work to do.” That statement she says changed her life by changing her perception of who and what she was and what she was not. That statement moved me. It echoed in my head at the most interesting of moments: When I passed the mirror on my way to the shower, and lingered just a long enough to see that my behind and thighs are still (despite hot yoga four times a week) not what I want them to be, it floated through my head. When I was having a thin day and passed by a store front window and catch a glimpse of myself and like a rearview mirror it made me look larger than I actually was that phrase kissed my face like an crisp fall breeze. When I was teaching a class and felt my students weighed down with the reality that dance is hard, I spoke the words “You are fine, you’re not broken, you just have a lot of work to do.”
It is strange how such a small shift of thought can completely transform you from being a being damaged, helpless, or a victim of sorts to being empowered with the idea that within you, you possess the ability to alter anything. It allows you to become proactive in the solution, and sometimes the solution is merely learning to accept what the reality is. There are things you can change with information, work, and commitment, and there are things that are what they are. Your genes are your genes; you can’t alter your DNA. Things like your race, and your bones are what they are, and if you can’t change them then you can work to come to a level of acceptance and appreciation for them. It may take time, and the road to finding the beauty in you is neither short, nor easily found but the good news is, there is a road, there is a way- many ways in fact.
As I laid on my belly preparing to do the second round of Cobra pose finding myself contented, it prompted me to assess how I had been feeling about myself of late. Since starting the blog I have notice a heightened awareness of not only things surrounding the body and image but to my own feelings about myself. I find that since beginning this process I have notice that I have become more compassionate and accepting of myself. When I have a self-debasing thought I hear my own voice in my head telling me that I am fine, and there is nothing wrong with me. I supposed that one couldn’t preach it all day and not have it affect you in some way. I have found myself to be more balanced and less neurotic about my appearance. Certainly I have ebbed and flowed with bloatation but I have been able to see it as just that the tide of my body. I have also put on honest weight and been able to reign myself in without mentally flogging myself about becoming a cookie monster. Oddly my desire to bring awareness has brought upon me an awareness of not only how much work I have done, but how much more there is to do. I don’t think there is an “end point” or “finish” line per se, but there is a sense that some how little by little I am getting closer to myself, to my unbroken self.
Think what you will of the former Real Housewife of New York, but she does know her stuff when it comes to healthy eating and erasing the word DIET out of your vocabulary by changing your thinking about food. I’m feeling Ms. Bethenny and might be sharing some of her recipes. Listen to the great tips she has for sensible eating.
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I was extremely leery about seeing Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, frankly I’m leery about seeing any dance film, however I did summons the fortitude to take it in. I was enticed not solely by the hype of how phenomenal it was but also because of the looming Oscar buzz building around lead actress Natalie Portman. The buzz was not merely about her acting but her physical transformation. It is well known that when beautiful actresses go “ugly” for a film their chances for earning an Academy Award more than double, likewise if an actor gains or loses a great deal of weight to embody the character, they are almost a shoe in, at the very least for a nomination. Since there has been much ado about Portman’s 20-pound weight loss in the preparation for the role, I thought: me being who I am, doing what I do, am I not compelled to see the film so that I could be informed and contribute to the conversation?
I was a bit taken aback when I heard about this weight loss, I mean it sounded quite excessive considering that I could have never imagined that Lil’ Natalie Portman had 20 pounds to spare let alone lose. Had it been an actress of a more substantial physical stature I might well understand but Portman is naturally petite woman. Standing 5’3 she is already “Hollywood” thin which probably make her about a sample size 2 at the most, which is thinner than your average thin American woman, she is probably about the size and weight of an actual ballet dancer. What exactly was there to lose? Now before you launch in to the whole “But her character was having a psychological break, she was obsessive compulsive, and extreme, had an eating disorder and was picking twigs out of her back.” I get it, I truly do. I get that Portman went all “method” on us, I get that ballet dancers are twisted and warped and that Aronofsky was taking us on a journey into the darker side of the reality of the world of ballet. But there something else bothered me about the whole body thing surrounding this movie and I wanted to get the bottom of it.
In order to suss out what was stuck in my craw about this thing, I started to ask around, sometimes hearing other people’s perspectives can help me define my own. In preparation for this piece I had numerous conversations about the movie and some of the issues surrounding it. I spoke with the accompanist for my pointe classes, students, other dance teachers, choreographers, some parents, and friends. Most were fervently in defense of the movie and it’s portrayal of ballet dancers, and that world. They kept reminding me that it was from the perspective of a girl was having a psychotic breakdown. Trust me I get it, I get it! Most wanted to tell me that the Ballet world is like that, and these things to do happen. Well, I am a ballet dancer, and I know. I have known, have seen, and have myself been an obsessed bun head, with disordered eating and have cried over everything from double pirouettes not working, to not being cast. I even had that ballerina jewelry box, and though I did not have a ballet mother I had a ballet father who sewed pointe shoes and learn terminology and technique, he could trace ballet history form Diaghilev to Nureyev. Trust me, I get it. I know the hateful underbelly of the life of a swan. In truth, I am a “black” swan, and that’s a head-trip of another variety so please spare me the educational lecture about the world of ballet.
Full disclosure, all of these conversations happened before I relented my resistance to seeing the movie. Once I did, I discovered that what bothered me about the whole weight loss issue was not the actual act. I applaud Portman’s dedication to the role and the authenticity of her process, she lived, breathed (and evidently given her pregnancy and engagement to the films choreographer and her onscreen partner Benjamin Millepied) slept (with) Ballet. What crystallized for me was that I was taking issue with, and have concern about the language Portman used when promoting the film in regards to her preparations, and her perception of dancers and their world. You may find it nit picky but words have power, they create ideas, and belief systems. I tend to get a bit protective of the image of dancers, specifically ballet dancer (that of which I am one) and the drama, intensity, and dysfunction that is associated with us. Granted some of it is true and warranted but there is a hyped up mythology that surrounds dancers, and their lives that contributes to some degree to the detrimental behaviors real and those attributed to our field. I am protective of the marketed image and the idea and lives of dancers because long before young aspiring dancers master the techniques, often they take on the posturing of what they think they are supposed be; they dress a certain way, talk, walk act a certain way emulating a warped version of their idea of the real thing. They become heavy handed caricatures of what they idolize. Working from the outside in they give they credence to the adage “Dress for the job you want not the job you have” this can be highly detrimental because key elements in the marketed concept of how dancers are has to do with a level of dysfunction, obsession and the almighty ego. The latter can be the greatest undoing to a budding dancer. As a dance educator let me tell you it is all that pre-programmed information I, and my fellow colleagues have to wade through in order to get to the actual work.
Please let me explain my issue surrounding the film.
In the promotion of the film Portman told several media outlets that she trained for over a year for the role, she worked for 16 hours a day with Mary Helen Bowers the Founder of Ballet Beautiful learning to dance in the studio, lifting weights the gym and swimming to create the muscular definition and length associated with a ballerina’s form. This is all well and good, and quite understandable, there are many dancers who now cross train and for a non-dancer to obtain the physique of a trained professional dancer in one year it is understandable, and possibly even necessary to give the body balance. Though it is difficult, really impossible to cram ten years of a type training that permeates every facet of your physicality like dance into one year. Where one can achieve is the “look” of a dancer- the musculature, and the very specific blend of elegance, athleticism and strength, the realistic natural, “dancerly” comportment of a ballerina, the Port de Bra (carriage of the arms) is another story entirely. The former is is what Portman and her co-star Mila Kunis were trying to embody.
The reason dancers look the way they do is because they do what they do, the work of dancing creates the look. If you are physically active for 6-8 hours a day your body is going to reflect that in tone, strength and size (based on you genetics of course) These markers of were going to be especially apparent on a person who is not used to working so vigorously as Ms. Portman certainly was not. Once she embarked on her training regimen her body was naturally going to change and she was (without effort) going to slim down. At her size she would no doubt be skin and bones without trying. The part that baffles me is the fact that she decided to restrict her diet whilst in this process. Portman is already a vegan therefore she does not eat dairy, sugar, or animal flesh hence her caloric and natural fat volume could not have been very high to begin with and certainly not high enough to support her new training regime. Perhaps because her character was so emotionally unstable and obsessively striving for perfection, it was a natural choice that she would have an eating disorder and self mutilate. That I can understand, and that does happen, crazy people do crazy things and there are some crazy dancers. However when promoting the movie she discusses her choice to restrict her food intake as if it was the norm for dancers period-not disturbed dancers whose reflections wave back at them.
This clip of Portman man on ABC news is a perfect example
Ok ok I hear all of you out there saying “What are you talking about it is the norm!” Let me explain the way I see it before you bust a gasket.
I will be the first to say that weight and body image issues are huge in the dance world hence I stared my blog mybodymyimage.com to combat it. I am acutely aware of the issues; hell I am a product of them. I would say that 96% of dancers are disordered eaters, restrict and are almost obsessively aware of what they eat (or do not)- so it sounds like I agree with Ms. Portman- In a sense I do, but I will go a step further to say that dancers are no different than models, actresses, and some athletes. Most professions that are physical, performance aesthetically oriented have these same issues attached to them. Any time your appearance or where your physical performance is the product, the people who participate in those feilds with have some level of disorder where food and body image are concerned. Disordered eating is akin to but not the same as having an eating disorder. Restricting or have disordered eating does not necessarily mean that you are unhealthy. I am not advocating for disordered eating, I know that it is one slippery step away from full-blown eating disorders. I am saying that it is equally as common in other fields and professions as it is in dance. As an actress, Portman I am certain is well aware of it. We hear stories of actors and actresses dieting and not eating for days before awards shows, or fighting to stay “camera” thin. We see actors in between projects who plump up then slim down again when they go back to work. There is absolutely no difference! Dancers relationship to food and weight have not been “blown” out of proportion, I won’t even say that has been greatly exaggerated, but I will say that it is not as strange a concept as some would have you believe.
Keith Jackson former tight end for the Eagles, Dolphins, and the Packers used to jokingly say, “I could eat or diet my way out of a contract” He had strict weight guidelines that he had to adhere to. And what of Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps’ 10,000-12,000 calories a day training diet excessive? See here
What it is, is part of your job. Yes it can screw you up in the head, yes it can be detrimental to your health when taken too far or goes on too long but it is not uncommon. Dancers are not singular or special in this context. We are not superheroes or gladiators, we are not long suffering in matyrs for art. Please what we are is trained to endure what is necessary to execute our jobs. We don’t expect to be worshiped, it is a day at the office- you don’t feel like you do anything special until that curtain goes up and people applaud. It’s like firemen, policemen and people who serve in the armed forces they don’t go to work every day like “Wow I’m an everyday hero” (Note: nor to teachers and educators) they simple go to work and do the jobs they were trained to do. To an outsider these things that dancers do and the things we endure seem excessive but they, to us are not. Like Actors, singers, athletes are people doing a job, so are dancers, and they are just as twisted (if not more) than we are.
Perhaps what lay people don’t know or get about the ballet aesthetic is that a large portion of it simply comes from simply doing the work and feeding your body smartly. Think about it: if you take a technique class for an hour and a half and then rehearse for another 6-7 hours your body is going to look a certain way, period. I have witnessed it in myself and with young dancers who after completing their first season with a company, because of the workload and schedule they come back ripped and lean, and that doesn’t mean that they are not eating. That‘s one great thing about being on tour when it comes to calories its Burn Baby Burn!
What I find ironic is that the dancer that was used to be Portman body double, American Ballet Theater’s Sarah Lane was by dancer’s standards, healthy looking she’s tiny but not anorexic skinny or frail.
While we are on the subject of body double’s doing the dancing and irony, for all the training that Portman did, there were very few scenes where we see her actually dancing. There were above the waist shots where she “looks” like she’s dancing, there are Swan like rippling arms but when it came to hitting a step Lane was used and most of those scenes where shot from a distance and through the mirror. I will give Portman credit for the one scene where we actually saw Portman being partnered by Millepied on pointe, I even remarked that she had pretty good feet. Then there was the cringe worthy moment when Mila Kunis has stepping in for her after their wild night out. Nina is late and is told to warm up, she proceeds to go to the barre and do some really technically horrendous tendus. All was forgiven though when Kunis’ Lilly asks her “Did you have a lezzie wet dream about me? Was I good?” that push those flawed tendus right out of my mind.
Look we are all painfully aware (and sort of sick and tired of) the most recent idea of “The Ballerina” What is important to know is that throughout history she has changed her look several times. The ballerinas of the 1930’s and 40’s the heyday of the Ballet Russe where quite stocky and muscular. They did not look as if they’d missed a meal.
It was George Balanchine who revamped the Ballerina’s look. Where he gave her more freedom of movement, the look he had an affinity for restricted her diet. It is this aesthetic that we cling to today; she is petite, fragile, pale and hungry. That is our idea, however the truth of who the classical ballerina is has some (not a great deal, but some) diversity. She may be super tiny a là pin thin (and often criticized for it) New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan
the voluptuous American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland and who is built like Jessica Rabbit in a tutu.
Or one of my favorites Sofiane Sylve.
Both Misty, Maria, and Sofiane look like real women, instead of prepubescent girls, all these women are incredible ballerinas. Where Classical ballet is still quite elitist, racist and antiquated, it is Contemporary Ballet that is the liberator of the Ballerina- Contemporary Ballet the woman’s movement for the Ballerina.
I will close by saying that I enjoyed Black Swan. I thought it was highly entertaining albeit disturbing. I also found it highly comical for some the trite dance movie myths that were included, let’s just say that if you make it to the level of Soloist, you are not hobbled by a cracked toe nail, and when it does crack you can’t hear it. It doesn’t sound like my dog when she gets a hold of a chicken bone, and I have not idea who does fouette turns in their living room, who in New York has the space? and if you did you would most certainly have a square of Marley dance floor. I applaud scenes that worked to show the more realistic elements of the ballet world, physical therapy goes kind of like that, the burning of the ribbons so they don’t fray, all insiders knowledge and truthful. Ultimately I took it for what it was but had to make a statement and stand to say that dance is not the only place where this type of dysfunction exists, and when it happens where ever it happens it is egregious and harmful.
That’s my two cents, you can keep the change.
* personally I have adopted one of the lines from the movie as my new tag phrase “I’m the Swan Queen!” Because Portman gave you a little bit of “Sister” in the delivery. Of course I as a Dammit at the end- I’m the Swan Queen Dammit!”
I have to confess I have an aversion to dance movies, in my opinion a good let alone realistic one hasn’t been made since The Turning Point in 1977 unless of course you go back to the 1948 classic The Red Shoes. What is often most bothersome to me (and to most real dancers) about these movies is the hyperbolic way they portray our world. They simply try too hard to make dancers (especially ballet dancers) and our world something intense and, dramatic, catty and full of angst. T’ruth be told, it does have its fair share of drama, albeit most professions do. Perhaps ours seem more flamboyant because the end product is so theatrical. It could be because so little is actually known about what takes over the 10-15 years of training to become an inhabitant. There is an exclusivity, it is a world foreign to most, rarefied in a way, and there are so few non- dancers are able to get inside it in order to understand the sanity of the insanity if the world. It’s not just a job or a lifestyle; it is a mentality, a way of thinking that shapes the dwellers perception of the world both on and off stage. It is akin to the world professional sports, what you see, though oft times a glamorized exaggeration, is in fact true, but it is not the totality of that truth. Without the “Why’s” for the way things are, it just looks extreme and crazy. To understand it you would have to live it.
Since Black Swan is the current dance movie has brought the dance genre to the fore, I thought now would be a perfect moment to debunk some of the stereotypical myths dance movies love to promote. Some you will find in Aronofsky’s movie but they are ever present in films like Center Stage, Save the Last Dance, Fame (the original and the re-make) and The Company. Here I will deconstruct why those seemingly obligatory scenes in dance movies cause *real dancer to roll their eyes or giggle to the irritation of other audience members. It’s pretty simple, we get annoyed or tickled mainly because we know that these things just don’t happen-or at least not quite that way. Please let me explain:
The Myth 1 There are “Good” Girls and “Bad ”Girls: These simplistic characters are it present in most formulaic movie and television plots, well they have not been lost in dance films. The good girl (usually the protagonist) is recognizable in all the trite and true ways, she wears lighter colors, follows the rules and is just trying to do her best by everyone, her director, her fellow dancers and her love interest. She doesn’t drink, smoke, party, and has sex only when she is believes that she is truly in love, oh right it’s a dance movie so she doesn’t eat. The bad girl, is of course the antithesis, she wears dark clothes has a biker, rocker attitude complete with tattoos, booze, drugs, is slutty if not down right whorish, oh and she doesn’t give two shits what she eats, and she ain’t throwin’ up either! In the end she will probably end up getting kick out of the company or program, but she’ll let it roll off of her back because she’s already decided that she can make more money as a stripper.
The Truth: I know it’s a movie, and I doubt if creating characters with complexity and depth is really the goal in this genre. Real dancers are real people whether in a dance studio, on stage, walking the dog or doing a shot, they are as complex if not more then a doctor, schoolteacher, mother, or a waitress. We get that screenwriters are trying to make a point but it borders on offensive when you think that this is the best they care to create. These shallow characters, with the either/or good/bad polarities only reinforce the fallacy that that in order to be a great artist you have to be neurotic. When “bad” girls are displayed as the girls who have something of a “normal” life outside of the studio, (all of which is considered negative in the context of the dance world) it implies that somehow having a “balance” in life means that you is less dedicated. It’s just wrong. The concept that dedication, and passion equals myopia, and obsession, is part of the myth that makes dancers look crazy, and that just isn’t true.
Here’s the thing: part of what makes artists rich, multidimensional are their choices, and it is the breadth of their experiences and their ability to reference that informs them. You source your characters from the totality of your experiences – good, bad, sweet naughty or nice you have to have them. One last thought on this topic, dancers are like Catholic schoolgirls, it’s always the ones you least expect that are doing some of the wildest stuff, I’m just sayin’
The Myth 2: In the middle of a rehearsal an insolent arrogant dancer (usually the rebel) talks back to the artistic director or choreographer (who no doubt has a towel draped around his neck).
The Truth: Depending on the type of company you are dealing with (ballet, modern, contemporary, downtown- big, small, pick-up etc.) the dynamics will differ. These movies are usually about big juggernaut companies or arts school, when companies are big or historical there is usually an old school hierarchy where respect trickles down from the top and usually runs out around about the middle. You just don’t come out of your face at certain people. No one, new dancer or old who what’s a job has that much hubris. Now in smaller companies you might find a bohemian, collaborative sort of feel in these or newer companies these scenarios might be possible if not believable.
Having graduated from an arts school and having been a dancer in both ballet, post modern and contemporary companies, let me assure you these sorts of tirades from dancers towards directors are few and far between. If there is an outburst most commonly it is between two people on the same power level. When it does happen generally it doesn’t just pop off, there is some underlying subtext going on, some pressure build up. If it does occur, be sure there are repercussions and they are likely to be*more dramatic then presented in cinema.
To fully understand why incidents such as these seldom occur you must understand the environmental behaviors of dancers in the studio. We [dancers] *can be attitudinal and arrogant but these things are played out with graceful subtlety. We throw what is called shade.
Shade – V to do things undercover, sneaky, untrustworthy, two faced, duplicitous.
We are by our very nature shady creatures. In the studio most feelings of anger frustration, or dislike are not overtly displayed or verbalized but rather expressed in veiled and coded body language. In the studio dancers are very often muted characters their personalities and opinions are reduced to mumbles under their breath as they feign stretching with their backs to the object of their disdain. With head down over a ballet barre or with forehead to leg they throw shade (check the vocabulary word) and “read” directors and fellow dancers.
To Read- v to made a biting, often evil comments about a person place or thing; a spiteful opinion, or hateful truth, sometimes a bit of gossip. Example: “She’s so turned in it’s a wonder she doesn’t step on her own toes”
Along with undercover mumbled reads, apropos to the field, dancers also communicate their irritation and anger through subtle pantomime and facial expressions; the smirk, the shift of the eye to or away from a person, the turning one’s back says volumes. Dancers are adroit at camouflaging such behaviors, as we live in a world reflected (studios are walled with mirrors) thus one must be careful that an opinion no matter how slightly manifested in gesture is not caught by the wrong person at the right time.
Now the world of dance and its inhabitants are not without verbalized drama. Oh dancers know how to used their voices, but only in choice places. It is in the dressing room where true tirades happen. Dancers love to bitch to one another, albeit in a place where prying, tattling eyes and ears are limited. In safe zones gatherings of trusted colleagues vocalize their feelings. It is understood that these read and bitch fests are “privileged” and off the “official” record. They happen in dressing rooms, and walks to and from the subway, dancers rail over copious bottles of wine in apartments or restaurants (yes we do drink, some of us like fishes- another myth but to rest), we bitch about casting, and politics, money, our bodies, we imitate directors, choreographers and other dancers (some in present company for jokes, more often absent from the gathering, for jabs). We are capable of saying hateful things, or harsh truths behind one another’s backs. That having been stated, when approached by an authority figure most dancers are rendered struck deaf, dumb and mute. They are like the three monkeys see no evil, hear no evil speak no evil. They seldom stand up form themselves let alone others for fear of retaliation from the powers that be. Rarely are there face-to-face showdowns and when there are, they are not in the studio. Oh how I wish they were, then maybe some issues might actually get solved. Now, those in authority have the license to go off when ever and where ever they choose and they do. That’s a truth and *those tirades are built for filmmakers. Alas the lowly inhabitants of the dance world are not by nature confrontational creatures in the face of authority, all their “drama” is internalized, subtext and subtext is hard to catch on film.
The Myth 3: The artistically frustrated outburst: Picture a ballerina frustrated at not being able to execute a phrase, she drops to the floor in a heap, tears of her Pointe shoes and hurls them across the room.
The Truth: Wait a second now I have seen this one; I have seen this one back stage during an actual performance of Serenade. So I won’t say that this one isn’t true, dancers often act like petulant children during the process, however outbursts such as these occur when the artist reached an internal critical mass or perhaps, they are a drama queen by nature, we do have them. What is more common is the progression leading up to that point which looks more like a grunt of irritation, a stomp of a foot and then dejected walk to a corner of the studio for a sulk, or quiet tearing up. Not too exciting externally, not overtly cinematic, that’s because you can’t see their internal landscape, inside there could be a perfect storm brewing, all sorts of things are being stirred up that go to inadequacy, aging, fear of the next one taking your place, pain, injury, and fatigue. You can be sure that while that dancer is having “a moment”, others are reading her either because she is the resident drama queen and they are over it having seen it one too many times, the day is too long to deal with an attention seeker, or they might feel like she should have never been cast in the first place, hence she should be crying. Either way no one pays much attention because they are dealing with their own internal landscape that needs manicuring. Thus the dance is left alone to work through the emotion on their own and then get back to work.
The Myth 4: (These scenes in dance movies really irk me) The backstage wing scenes. There is always the person who shouldn’t be there who is standing in the wing enraptured clutching the light boom coveting either the dancer on stage or their role, whilst dancers oblivious to their presence whiz by them to make exists or entrances.
The Truth: These things just don’t happen, not like that. Backstage, if you don’t belong there, someone is going to rip you and new one for clogging the wing or being in the way. If it’s not a dancer trying to enter or exit, it will certainly be a stagehand. Stagehands are not joke. This is a work place and there is a backstage etiquette observed by show people, if you are not working in the show you shouldn’t be there and if you are allowed to observe you stand back- way back, out of the wing and out of the way. People have a job to do, the pace is quick, transitions crucial, and it can be dangerous if you don’t know what’s going on. Performers are in the zone of sorts, and focused. They talk to one another for sure, but to an idle observer between entrances, rarely. If you are so brazen as to sneak back stage during a performance when you are not supposed to be there you surely risk the wrath of someone harshly telling you to get the hell out of the way, (don’t take it personally – but move the hell out of the way!). At times there are guests backstage, people there to observe but they stay out of the flow of traffic like a fly on the wall. When they catch a dancers eye there is often a cursory “hi” or “hey” perhaps just a quick polite smile of acknowledgement from the performer who more than likely in their head is pondering, “Who the hell is that, and why are they back here?” There are no full-blown introductions or conversations about where this relationship is going, or why did you cheat on me? Please!
The Myth 5: After every successful performance dancers erupt into whoops and cheers.
The Truth: Not that there isn’t an incredible excitement when a ballet goes for the first time or when someone dances a new role but the adulation tends to be once again muted while on the actual stage. You are still at work, there is a curtain call to be done and frankly there is an audience in the house. I will tell you that there is often a cacophony of excitement in the stairwells and hallways leading —that’s right to the dressing rooms, there safely out of earshot of the audience there are whoops and hollers, some tears and of course some shade being thrown and people reading!
The Myth 6: Oh the Pain of it all. Dance movies love to highlight the physical pain and suffering that dancers endure, when someone gets injured there is always a loud crack! And a dramatic fall to the floor. There are shots of stiff upper lips and the stifled wincing and bleeding of toes.
The Truth: The life of a dancer is physical and hard on the body. It is arduous work and it can be is painful. There are some horrific injuries that happen and some of them are audible. What makes viewing dancers roll their eyes when watching scenes like these is the over dramatization of the daily pain. Here’s the truth, if you have trained for the 10-15 years it takes to become a professional dancer then the daily rigors, aches and pains are nothing more to you then the back ache or carpel tunnel syndrome an office worker sitting at a desk all day typing experiences. It is par for the course, and waking up to the click clack of joints and tight muscles are normal- it’s a state of being not necessarily “suffering.” To dancers this level of aches and pains, discomfort is akin to the soreness a normal person who go to the gym daily feels. To a lay person who is not acutely aware or in tune with their bodies it may sound like hell to in some form or fashion be sore all the time, but we have trained our bodies for years and this is for us normal, after a point you don’t even think about it because you don’t know any different. I’m sure that garbage men feel their backs from the constant hoisting of cans, hairdresser their legs from standing, musicians often lose a portion of their hearing, Wall Street Traders are constantly stressed and all of our presidents have gone gray, it’s not deep, it’s part of the job. It’s just a day at the office to us, it’s not dramatic, injury however can be.
Finally I think that Myth 7 is hysterical, Love in the studio: Every dance movie is really a backdrop for a love story. I’m not saying that love is not found in the dance studio, but have you noticed that in all of these movies the “romance” is between men and women, come one now. Do I really need to go any further with this one?
The Truth: Let’s just say that if there are any gays serving in the military that want a profession where they can be out and be open, they should become dancers because there is no such thing as “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” in our world. I’m not saying that you can’t find straight male dancers (and for sure if you do they do tend to be man-whores, most time having slept with a number of the women in the company what with the ratio being what it is) but it is more common to see romance bloom between two male company members, given the numbers. There are some hetro- romances that happen in the studio, even those that happen between dancer and director, but if you wanted a realistic portrayal of the dance world, then you’re going to have to get your man love on.
These are my 7 top ten myths of irritation when it comes to dance films. That’s my 2 cents you can keep the change!
a detailed analysis and assessment of something, esp. a literary, philosophical, or political theory.
1 a person who expresses an unfavorable opinion of something : critics say many schools are not prepared to handle the influx of foreign students.
2 a person who judges the merits of literary, artistic, or musical works, esp. one who does so professionally : a film critic.
Alistair Macaulay’s tactless comment about New York City Ballet’s Sugar Plum Fairy Jenifer Ringer is still not sitting right with me. It was egregious, catty and no doubt hurtful to Ms. Ringer. In addition it was insulting to all the ballet dancers who might actually look like women (yes, some real ballerinas have curves). What makes me so irascible is how susceptible critics can be to becoming distracted or side tracked by a dancers physical aesthetic, so much so that they completely forget to notice of the actual performance. Clearly in Macaulay’s case Ringer’s zaftig form caught his eye, so we know she was fuller than the average, we know little to nothing about her skills or artistry on that evening?
Next to the “play by play” style of critique, the critic who becomes enamored with performers beauty, form, or the opposite polarity grates my nerves. Like a civilian in Trueblood’s Bon Temps they can be easily “glamoured” by arched feet, sky-high legs, rippling chests and backs, skimpy costumes and light catching cheekbones or vice versa, they forget that they are there to see more deeply into the work. Critics are charged to evaluate the structure, content and composition of the work, to deconstruct movement phrases, perhaps even identify the linage of its roots, to make note of the harmony or contrast that the movement has to the music. They are charged with rendering their opinion as to whether the performers executed, and embodied the work, was their technique brilliant or brittle? Did they draw you in or push you away? Did their performances elevate the choreographer’s work or drag it down? When a critic gets caught up or distracted by certain physical characteristics that have little to nothing to do with the work, not only is it annoying but in actuality they are not doing their job, because they are missing it.
Quite frankly as a performer it’s insulting. While performing with Armitage Gone! Dance I personally experienced the effects of the glamoured critic’s gaze. In the founding days of the company was a small bunch, (Eight for the first project, reduced to five when the company “officially” formed) everyone was visible and in certain ways featured. Our racial diversity made it even easier for critics to distinguish us since no one looked alike, and as five, there were only two women Megumi Eda and myself. As is the mode of contemporary dance companies we danced half nude in couture leotards designed by Donna Karan’s own Peter Speliopolous. The preview press articles for the company were favorable and I was dubbed the Amazon from Philadelphia. One of our board members loved to introduce me as the “Amazon from Philadelphia” I was tickled as I had learned to take pride in my height and power, and frankly at the time I was feeling quite fierce!
Our premiere season at the Joyce was a hit! Karole was pleased and we were pleased for her and ourselves. When the reviews began to roll in we were all favorably mentioned but there was uniformity to my mentions:
At one point, Theresa Ruth Howard crossed the entire diagonal of the stage in three huge grands jetés, with her partner running to keep up with her. It was like having a javelin thrown at you.
(Joan Acocella http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/03/22/040322crda_dancing)
Ok, I’m a javelin.
…notable is the powerful Theresa Ruth Howard, shaken so her head snaps by William Isaac, the writhing line of her body achieving the asymmetrical punch of the music by Bartok. (Tamsin Nutter http://www.dpsny.org/onlinemag/review_en_2-3-04.html)
The next season we performed in this Dream that Dogs me for 3 weeks at the Duke Theater. The piece was in three movements the first feature myself in a quartet with the three males of the company (William Isaac, Leonides Arpon and Brian Chung) In it was thrown, slid, twisted, untwisted, shaken and stirred, it was like a fight for my life. In my mind I was a superhero fighting off three villains with an element of high sexual tension. In rehearsal I made jokes that at the end it was like an episode of CSI “It looks like the body was battemented here, dragged then Krumped here, then left to die downstage. There were at least three assailants.” In the middle of the violence was a gentle pas de deux for Chung and me, a shift in dynamics and quality form the beat down, slow, sexy and dreamlike movements (one of my rare moments) these were some of the comments that dogged me.
Theresa Ruth Howard, a former member of Dance Theatre of Harlem with a build like supermodel/beach volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, is the center of a knot of activity, her muscled legs unfolding at the center of the skirmish made by three men of vastly different sizes and temperaments: quicksilver Leonides D. Arpon, tender Brian Carey Chung and regal, aloof William Isaac. The Art Fuse: http://artsfuse.org/?p=155 Debra Cash
Ok, that’s so bad, I mean to be compared to a supermodel, who could be mad at that? However my body is nothing like Gabrielle Reece’s, I am closer in type to a bigger Naomi Campbell but the Reece reference help let the reader know how “Athletic” and “Strong” I was. I took it for what it was and kept it moving:
Three men and one woman emerge in blue for an energetic quartet with the fluid grace of liquid ink. The incredibly buff Theresa Ruth Howard drives Leonides D. Arpon, Brian Carey Chung and William Isaac like a team of eager sled dogs as they wind themselves over, under and alongside of her. (Lisa Rinehart http://danceviewtimes.com/2005/Autumn/10/armitage.html)
I am incredibly buff; ok that’s better then a lard ass…
Theresa Ruth Howard’s untamed mane, powerful, sinewy musculature and explosive energy constantly caught the eye of the audience, (Jennifer Wesnousky
The Joyce Theatre http://www.exploredance.com/article.htm?id=1746)
But before I get overly cynical (ok it’s too late for that but let’s pretend) let me just point out that saying that I am “Muscular” or “Buff”, is akin to saying that I’m Black. It is the second most blatant thing about me and you needed me an expert to observe that. So my thing was, what else did you discover Columbus? Where my body issues are not the responsibility of the critic sitting in the audience they are valid in this particular discussion. I have always disliked the muscularity of my body. I hated the way my body looked dancing but loved the way dancing felt. I have work hard to learn to “soften” or “feminize” my movement to compensate for my structure, which whether real or imagined I perceived as masculine. I have explored the variances of movement dynamic worked to use what I have including clean technique and flexibility, and yes power and strength to create depth and character. Every time I read a review that made mention of my build I felt defeated. All the work I had done in the studio to create relationships both physical and energetic with my fellow dancers, the weaving of an underlying emotional story was pointless. As far as the critics were concerned I could just came out in my little blue velora two-piece costume and posed like a hulking body builder. The comment that cut deepest, and shut me down was made by Seth Rogovoy critic-at-large of the Berkshire Living Magazine he wrote:
In Armitage’s case, while her female dancers aren’t on pointe (as are McIntyre’s for much of the time), there are still plenty of references to and uses of the balletic vocabulary in her works, which, other than for the lack of point, at its most extreme can seem like ballet on steroids. Armitage favors taut, muscular bodies — the phenomenally ripped Theresa Ruth Howard displayed some muscles I never even knew existed on the side of her hips — and much of her choreography builds on pairings — duets, trios, and more — and includes lifts, twirls, and all manner of interlocking activity that both is and isn’t balletic. (http://rogovoy.com/news1306.html)
Let me explain. I have always had these overdeveloped hip flexor muscles, I have always hated them so they make me feel mannish. Later I discovered that I have an extreme case of hip displysia – basically I have no hip sockets, and these hateful muscles are the only reason I have never dislocated. I have since learned to appreciate the wonder and intelligence of my body I managing to hold me together. However this review came long before this discovery. The idea that of all the things that I did on that stage that night, this person could only see- or thought the only thing worth mentioning about me were my bizarre hip muscles. I felt reduced. Rogovoy not only used my body as an extreme example of Armitage’s body type, but he said precious little else about the actual work.
As a dance writer and sometimes critic I do understand how one can get sidetracked in a performance. It happens to me all the time, the way that a dancer holds their neck or uses (or doesn’t use) their feet or arms, or if they seem to be trying too hard to draw focus, things like these annoy me and are hard to shake in the process of watching. However if saddled with the task of reviewing the work I have to get past myself and force myself to see more broadly. Everyone has a preferred aesthetic and is either drawn to or repelled by particular things, critics are human albeit one would expect them to be adroit enough to circumvent such blatant pitfalls. We expect a critic to go deeper than the average layperson, to render some insight, some cultural, historical, or artistic context to what is being presented; hence why I detest the play-by-play I think it’s a cop out. After all your half blind grandma with a hearing problem could probably do that, but we don’t let her word influence whom gets grant money and future bookings do we? It could be called lazy, or bad critique, but often I think it has more to do with the critic not really knowing how to deal with what they are seeing, not knowing where to “place” it. Perhaps it goes against a core aesthetic preference or the standard of the form and they can’t get their heads around it, perhaps it makes them inappropriately uncomfortable or aroused, or perhaps because of their hubris they can’t admit that they just don’t get it, can’t explain, it or it’s just far beyond them, but they have to say something so they wing it by either stating the obvious or giving a blow by blow or worse feigning comprehension. Let me be clear I am not talking about not liking a work and giving an unfavorable review, I am talking about not “liking” a work or reviewing around it primarily because they don’t get it, either aesthetically, culturally or it is not what they perceive as the type of work that particular group “should” be doing or typically does. There is a difference. Sometimes things are just bad and sometimes thing are just different.
There is nothing more infuriating to directors, choreographers and dancers alike then when you read a review and you know that the person is clueless, lost in comprehension and pulling things out of their ass. It happens quite a bit especially when there is an expectation as to what the work of a particular group or choreographer should be or look like. If it challenges the predefined concepts of the expected, then the critic might find themselves at a loss and go with the above mentioned stand bys of critique, or even discredit or dismiss the work entirely. Once again I’m not saying they have to like it, but what would be so wrong in saying that they don’t get it, that it falls outside of their scope of understanding (genre, culturally, historically) then go onto share their experience of the work which would be completely valid. You can’t be an expert at everything, and you don’t have to be, when in the position of not knowing, a visceral response base on your expertise would not only suffice but be much more useful and respectful.
Not to pull the race card (perhaps given my being black Amazon I am more sensitive to this side of things) but I see it quite a bit with the work of artists of color. For example if Ailey does something understated, and not as “high energy and crowd pleasing.” (As has become it’s trademark) it can be considered a let down by critics. It can be hard for them to see those dancers, those bodies do…”less”, and have it be recognized on the same level as their usual work. There was a critic who labeled the music of James Brown and Aretha Franklin Robert Garland choreographed to in Return (Dance Theater of Harlem) as music of “Disco era”. Seriously? There are elements in Alonzo King’s work that I think confounds critics all around, especially coming from a man of color who works through the ballet technique. African dance based work as well as pure Hip-Hop and the fusion of all of the above often go over their heads culturally, thus they resort to the camouflaging tactics that make them look and like they had a clue, where they may sound erudite those in the know know better! Why BS? Just say you are clueless, actually that might be more interesting and you might what to do some investigation and learn something for the future. It certainly would be more honest.
It may seem like a digression but I find it part and parcel of the issue, it goes to an inability to assess work beyond certain elements, and giving a limited analysis of work or an artist for whatever reason. We like to think that the people charged with rendering critique are more knowledgeable in the field then the common person, they must have a deep understanding of dance or theater and will use that information to back up their opinions. And often times they do, but I suspect when they sit in a darkened theater, and the curtain goes up and they are presented with something that stupefies them (good, bad, inexplicable) or they get stuck on something they can’t get beyond there is a sense of vulnerability that must wash over them. That vulnerability is quickly sublimated into panic at having to write about it. To compensate for uncertainly they choose an angle, sometimes they take the easy way out and state the obvious, or make thinly veiled connections that have nothing to do with what was really presented but makes them appear erudite. Sometimes they feel themselves drunk with power and the possibility that an insult or dig whether well crafted or warranted will cause a ripple though the community and wield their words thoughtlessly. I get it, I just would like to pose a question to them, when your work goes to print, does it support, or contribute to the art form? Critique is often a hard and thankless job and sometimes it hurts. However when it serves to elevate, educate and inform, after the sting wears off there is something substantive left behind to be taken into consideration it can be appreciated. So I would like to ask the critics of the world to do something for me, basically tell me something I don’t know.
Pina Bausch’s VollMoon
It was a bittersweet feeling that crept up my spine as I entered Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Gilman Opera House on October 8th. The anxious expectation that usually accompanies audience members awaiting the spectacle that is Bausch was tempered by the reality that her death means that there will never again be a “New Pina” to see. It was in a sense like attending a memorial service. I have been a fan of Bausch but not one who worships at the “She can do no wrong” alter. Where I am a follower, personally I have never regarded her work and being “lovable” I feel it far too layered and complex to make such a blanket incomplete statement. A more appropriate term for my feelings might be to say that I find her work evocative, which can go in a myriad of directions – love, hate, discomfort, humor, sadness, and remembrance hence making the experience varied from moment to moment. There are times when I am completely enthralled, and others when I am bored, irritated, and anxiously waiting for a segment to end. I find it akin to watching Butoh visually stunning, at times slow to get to the “point”, and having soporific moments, but if you take the journey you end up on the other side, in a different place, and transformed (if only from endurance).
I was pleased that this production VollMond (Full Moon created in 2006), kept me enraptured throughout. The simplicity of the set (a huge boulder and a stream of water upstage) along with intermittent rainfall was mesmerizing. Along with the visual affect of the spray, the use of the sound of water falling, crashing against the rock, splashing or being waded through created a separate character that enhanced the other elements (lights, music, costuming and dancers) and added another layer to the soundtrack of the piece. The one place Bausch never disappointed is in her choice of music. It always rocks. There were of course the trademark use of chairs, fire, clothing and ironic often saucy dialogue. Bottles of water, and glasses acted as foreshadowing of the aquatic theme and were introduced early with glasses being filled to overflowing and streams of water spit from the mouths of dancers. Those of us in the front rows grew a bit nervous wondering if a Gallagher like rain ponchos would be in order (they weren’t). There were the quintessential Bauschisms of repetition both gesturally and verbally- a woman cuts a lemon and while squeezing it on her arms, neck and head repeats “I wait, I wait, I wait” which in time emotionally transforms in to “I cry, I cry I cry” and back again to the waiting.
It is in brief moments like these when I fall in love with the mind of Pina for her ability to distill emotions, relationships, and the often-poignant banalities of life into 30-60 second snippets that communicate the depth and sad, silly irony of the situation. For me this is her brilliance, this and her movement. Ok this moves into a nebulous place for me, as there is as much to be lauded as there is to be questioned. There are few things that get under my skin when I watch this incarnation of Pina (for she like any artist has moved through her “periods”) the men in her company move- and when I say move the four-letter word is not enough to express what they physically execute. Both in solos, duets and in-group work they dance with a reckless abandon that is at once exhilarating and frightening. Rainer Behr and Fernando Suels Mendoza are inexplicable phenomenal, both together and alone. However the women are more tempered, almost politely lady-like while highly sexy and enticing. Their work is often more gestural and refined. The trademark long glamorous gowns seem to restrain them from lashing out and breaking loose. What is not bound is their hair. The hair is used like a third arm or leg crafted into the movement phrase—constantly being slung to and fro or manipulated in some way (this for me is a source of irritation I just want for a pair of scissors). It is as though to Pina these two things represent femininity -a long evening gown and flowing hair. Interestingly enough in Vollmond the women not only have to content with the abundance of hair and skirt but the effect the water has upon them. Witnessing them sloshing around weight ed by fabric made me think of the women in Victorian times that died at sea when ships went down unable to swim under the weight of their dresses they drowned. I wanted to liberate them from their bondage gender costumes and as Djimon Hounsou said in Spielberg’s Amistad “Give us our free”.
Where the women are entangled either in their hair or dresses their emotions and frustrations are liberally taken out on the men, in the form of with S&M like orders, slaps, denials of affection or the aggressive pursuits. I have always found Bausch’s take on relationships, power, control and sex (all of which carry a sort of redundancy) fascinating, truthful and highly telling- what is says about her is unclear but when one’s identifies one’s self in a scenario it is either comforting, highly unnerving or hilarious.
One thing that was interesting about the company was that they are all mature dancers. It was refreshing to see. The level physical and emotional understanding and gravitas those dancers embodied was palpable. It was wonderful to see the experience s of a body- the life it has lived, the lessons it has learned seep through and saturate the movement with intent and purpose. It’s like red velvet cake, sweet and delicious.
Vollmond was enchanting. Whether it was sheer exhaustion or the high that taking that physical journey through her work bringing her closer to them or them to her I am not sure, but at the final curtain call you could almost feel her dancers hearts and spirits reaching out to touch hers. Bathed in the wash of accolades and bravos they stood arm in arm collectively searched that point in the Universe where the now and what was gently, and ever so gently caress. In that moment there was a quiet divinity.