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Margaret Mullin and Theresa Ruth Howard on Ballet Training and Aesthetics (and More)

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I listened to Margaret Mullin's third conversation with Theresa Ruth Howard for her "Beyond the Barre" podcast, in which they discuss ballet training aesthetics, social media, and more.  I found it a very interesting discussion.  I agreed and empathized with a lot of what they said, so this is going to look disproportionally like disagreement, but a couple of things pressed a bunch of buttons, so I'm responding to that.

Unfortunately, it's not yet linked directly from the website, but it's available on iTunes and the usual podcast suspects.  When it is linked, it should be from this page:https://www.premierdancenetwork.com/category/beyond-the-barre/

First off, I want to say that as far as classical ballet is concerned, Mullin walks the walk:  in Sleeping Beauty, as Fairy of Purity, not only did she know what ballet she was in, she understood and conveyed why she had been invited to Aurora's Christening.  She was exquisite.

While I understand that competitions can bring out extreme, trick-filled performances that makes fellow dancers scream and try to emulate them, the younger the louder, I think that, aside from Prix de Lausanne, which comes with great training opportunities, even a competition like YAGP, which encourages more screaming for my taste, has some tremendous benefits, not in any order:


a. Personal coaching in variations.  I get that this is a double-edged sword psychologically, since a coached dancer is the center of attention, and it doesn't ready a dancer to be in the corps, where they will be given 50 seconds to learn a role and be in the back line.  However, while working deep into a variation, dancers can absorb lessons in style and technique that they might not even be able to implement right away, but need to have in their brain to pull out when they are given 50 seconds to learn a role or are shadowing in the back of a rehearsal or are working on their own in a studio.

b. Working with choreographers.  They might be doing traditional (more-or-less) versions of classical variations, but, more typically, they do original work for their contemporary choreography.  They can learn what it's like to work with different personality types and working styles, and they can get one-on-one instruction in contemporary style through the choreographic process, which they might not have much time for when immersed in daily ballet classes.

c. Master classes. Part of YAGP and other competitions is being able to take master classes with a wide range of teachers in a short period of time.  Getting exposure in class to teachers affiliated with many companies and/or schools can be invaluable and, for example, can point to a summer intensive, that the dancer may not have considered, a choreographer that appeals to a contestant, and/or a more specific movement style than the student gets at home.

d. Scholarships.  Not every kid will win a prize, but important judges, who have scholarships and places in their summer and year-round programs, are watching them.

e. Stage experience in a new/bigger/higher stakes environment.

f. Open-mindedness.  On the whole, company-affiliated schools mostly discourage participation in competitions, and it seems to me that success and self-esteem is measured by whether that student is chosen by that company. I don't have stats, but, anecdotally, from listening to many dancers speak at Q&A's and in podcast and print interviews, dancers who talk about participating in competitions seem to be ess single-minded about only wanting to be in one company and more open to opportunities to create a different career path, sometimes deliberately performing with more than one company, sometimes doing so by chance/luck, and often choosing to perform with companies outside North America.  They might even have a broader career, including dance outside of ballet or other arts outside of dance.

Which leads me to my second quibble:  I think it's great that Misty Copeland and Francesca Hayward are getting and taking opportunities to perform in film, and that a slew of dancers and choreographers are, like Balanchine, and many of Balanchine's dancers, creating dance for musical theater and performing on Broadway.  This is nothing new, and it has nothing to do with Instagram or any other social media, and it didn't just happen when there were few or no ballet companies:  Jacques d'Amboise took leave from dancing with Balanchine at NYCB to do "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" (1954) and "Carousel," (1956) for example.  

Almost all ballet dancers have so few opportunities to earn a downpayment on a home and have some money in the bank doing only ballet, and maybe even to make connections into their next career, to allow their bodies and minds to take a well-needed break, and to see if the grass is, indeed, greener, elsewhere.  If I'm sad I don't get to see them dance ballet, that shouldn't be a driving factor in their decision. IMO, each one should be able to do an individual cost/benefit analysis without being thought lesser: they know what they put into their ballet careers and the trade-offs involved.

Fame might be tricky to navigate, but it isn't inherently bad, either.  

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