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Why I Quit Professional Dance

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I fell in love with the grand ballet of the 19th century when I was young. I trained and danced in a big company and quit when I found myself dancing less of the classics and more of the contemporary works of today which I find uninteresting and stupid. Im probably the only person in the world that only like a few of Balanchines works or Tudor or Grham. Is there anyone who is like me?

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Solor, I think that if there were very many others like you we would not have any ballet companies in the world! While I think there are many of us who love the classics, personally I really enjoyed dancing the few Balanchine works that I got to do, and I absolutely adored ALL of the Tudor rep! I never did Grahm, so can't respond to that. But I think part of the challenge of being a professional dancer was to work with different choreographers and learn all kinds of different ballets. While we don't have to love all of them, they can still be fun and chanllenging to dance. An all Petipa rep could get old pretty fast I would think.

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You are definitely right about that Madame. I just meant that for myself personally I was disheartened by MY OWN experience and I was wondering if there was anyone who felt the same. Thanks for your response :) . Although the works of the people I mentioned aren’t my faves, I do indeed have a great respect for them.... please don’t think I don’t.

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Solor, I'm sure there are others like you -- I know we have one or two posters who'd be happy only to WATCH the 19th century classics :) (We have more balletgoers here than dancers, by the way.)

I agree with Victoria, though, that most dancers, especially American dancers, want as varied a repertory as possible. You'll have to start your own company :)

I've talked to very few dancers -- two, to be exact -- who felt the way you did. Both were in major companies, and weren't happy, as they put it, dancing so many ballets that didn't use their training. Both left the field.

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However, the idea of a "museum company" does seem piquant to me. So many companies have said, "We aren't a museum company," that the field is wide open! Pierre LaCotte sort of began the "bring 'em back alive" approach to restaging classico-romantic ballets of the past, and today the rigor of the scholarship involved has evolved to a considerable degree. There must be a place for the Museum Company, since so many have said they don't want the job. Now, the question remains, is there a venue anywhere that possesses both the audience and the economic wherewithal to support such an expensive scholarly and artistic project?! There, it would seem, is the sticking point!

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Solor, I know what you mean. I love Petipa :D. I love Graham, too, when danced by Graham dancers--ballet dancers just don't have the training for it (that goes the other way, too; the difference is that Graham dancers don't try to do Sleeping Beauty). I don't know if I'll ever love Balanchine, and I haven't seen much Tudor, but the one ballet I've seen was fascinating. Ashton is one of the best, too. Of course one must be ready to dance all kinds of different choreography; that's how we progress, but many companies don't seem to know where to place the emphasis anymore.

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I have been told precisely what you have written above, by more people in the trade than I care to recall. So you are not alone - you were just bold enough to resign what it started sapping your joy in dancing, rather than allowing yourself to turn sour. And you are bold enough to express the dim view you take of "modern" art, in public.

Personally, I am not a fan of Petipa, but that's neither here nor there. It brings us back to the quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, which has been raised in various forums on this Website.

I take my Hat Off to any theatrical artist who refuses to go out in some of the degrading, ludicrous, rubbish slithering across our stages at the moment. And as you well know, the Refuseniks will often be "punished", by not being cast in the classical stuff they are good at.

There's a battle on at Paris at the moment - someone in the Town Council doesn't want to pay for a "sculpture" called something like Me and Me. It's a live parrot, in a cage, with a tape recording of the artist playing, reading the words Me and Me. Then you recall the story of the charwoman who scrubbed away Jacob Beuys "sculpture" called Fettfleck, which was just a great lump of butter on a chair. Beuys' insurance company sued the Museum's Management, I think it was at Dortmund, for not protecting the whopping Fettfleck. I think Beuys lost though, that was about twenty years ago. Then there was a man at Frankfurt, forget his name for the moment, he had "dancers" come and throw pigs' blood all over their naked bodies, and do something with the symbols of Christianinity that I don't think I should repeat on a family Website. He was in the employ of some official institution. There is also some weird professor who's got an exhibition of dead, embalmed human bodies with which he tours Europe, I think he calls it "art", and the British Customs people tried to stop him from bringing it in on hygiene grounds, but they failed, UNFORTUNATELY.

I mention these examples from non-balletic fields, because classical ballet is none of those things. It is not a fraud, it is not an imposture, it is not sick and morbid, and it is not wool-over-the-eyes. It is a highly technical, carefully thought-out system for expressing musical ideas in a clear and UNIVERSAL way that , with a bit of effort, is accessible to the layman's understanding.

I've written elsewhere about the absolute crap that is being thrust down our throats at the Paris Opera at this very moment - dancers m.......g on bidets, pink plastic s..... organs tied to the girls' monokinis....stars of the opera going out topless... and I do mean topless.

The choreographers who do this sort of thing to dancers, many of whom are just kids, KNOW they are destroying their minds, but the high salaries are paid to the régisseurs and the choreographers dearie, not to the dancers.

Would you have gone down on stage like that ? Would you have allowed your self-respect to be trampled on ? You got out, while the going was good.

We have got to stop madmen from DETERRING and DISSUADING intelligent, well-adjusted kids from entering the trade, by putting on shows like this, so bad, that they make Liberace look like Rudolf Serkin.

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Yes. I agree.

I also got out when the going started to go "conceptual" and there was less real dancing to be done.

(there were other reasons, too; but that one was a catalyst)

There seems to be a movement in Europe towards this "conceptual art"; it is even so in the schools. (the normal schools, not Ballet schools...)

It seems not much attention at all is paid to technique or artistry; it is the "concept" which counts.

This carries over onto the stage and mainly serves to allienate an audience, which then loses interest in allowing some of their tax money going to support theatre.

But the discussion was about dancers stopping dancing professionally.

And I agree with Solor on this.

For what are we teaching and preparing our students now?

It is depressing at times, isn't it?


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Diane, I think what you said about conceptual art, and what is being taught in schools is important. It's one of the difference I've noticed, too, between American and European critics -- and of course, there are always exceptions. But often, when I read a Scandinavian or a German review, especially, I feel I'm reading about a play, not a ballet or dance. In a narrative ballet, the "acting" is judged, it's all about the story, about interpretation.

I asked a Danish friend about this, and asked him how they had been taught to analyze literature in school. He said it was all about characterization and motivation. They didn't study plot, setting, quality of the writing, or even how well the book had been structured. The work was taken as it was, and they talked about the people.

As an American, brought up to believe that our public schools were the sinkhole of Western civilization, I was stunned by this. As early as 13 and 14 we had to write book reports that did not tell the story (I remember being frozen in fear at the time). One essay had to deal with setting, one with structure, etc. And that certainly carried through to university.

I take the European point that we Americans are too caught up in technique and structure. ["So what if the guy was totally unsuited to do Albrecht, was 5 feet tall and spent the whole night fiddling with his cloak and grinning at the audience. He did 15 multiple pirouettes!"] I wish there could be a middle ground.

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In my training, I knew over and over again I didn't want to be engaged in Modern Dance. Various people told me you have to do it or else no ballet company will ever hire you. But I figured, why should I commit to a professional ballet career dancing dances I didn't want to dance?

So I didn't study modern dance.

And now, I dance for a ballet company that does not use modern dance movement. Our movement vocabulary is entirely classical.

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I've said this before, but, if it's worth saying once, why not twice - or more, for that matter...

The sort of "work" I've described above is absolute rubbish.

The people who choreograph rubbish fight tooth and nail to get commissions from the top CLASSICAL companies.

Egregious example - Blanca Li, a gymnast and night-club artist with no classical training, who gets on like a house on fire with someone, only her hairdresser knows for sure, in the POB, and has got commissions to "choreograph" if that is the word, on the company. Not a workshop mind you, the company at full throttle, including a few étoiles thrown in for good measure. After bombing out with "Sheherezade" at Garnier, we suddenly find Blanca Li catapulted into the top spot at the Deutsche Oper unter den Linden!!!!! She quit after a few weeks, but that's another story altogether.

Choreography today is 99% dancer-driven. No matter how dire your choreography is, a classical dancer, bursting with commitment and superb technique, will be called in to make it LOOK like art. The same piece of litter choreographed on a "modern" dancer whose technique is, shall we say, limited, might not go down a treat with the Board of Directors who have just shelled out a £150,000 commission for the "creator".

But for us wizened oldies - A sow's ear by any other name, would smell as....whatever

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Katharine Kanter wrote:

The same piece of litter choreographed on a "modern" dancer whose technique is, shall we say, limited

Do you mean "whose ballet technique is limited?" Modern dancers often have wonderful technique but are often faulted because it isn't ballet technique. By contrast, ballet dancers will perform a modern work hideously and be praised for their "good" technique--usually meaning high extensions and conventionally pretty lines (which isn't necessarily good ballet technique, either). Of course, if the modern dancer doesn't even have good modern technique, that's a different story.

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Thank you, Hans. I agree.

There are many who believe that modern dancers are simply dancers who couldn't be ballet dancers. I would say that maybe half of the modern dancers came to it that way. There are others, like me, who have no interest in the classical repertory, are much more interested in the process of creating work and movement and CHOSE to be modern dancers.

There is also the false belief that all ballet dancers can do modern. They can't. The techniques are very different. Not better, or worse, just different.

It is perfectly fine to decide not to dance because you don't like contemporary repertory as long as you acknowledge that there are those of us out there who decided not to dance because we didn't like the classical repertory.

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One of the great fallacies out there is that a modern dancer is simply a failed ballet dancer. There are people who migrate in either direction, but I think the difference is in temperament and sympathy, not in ability.

That being said, I hope you have at least *some* interest in the classical repertory, LMC! That's what this site is all about, after all. If you have none, why would you be here?

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I like to watch it. I hated to do it.

So I go to see the classical repertory with great pleasure. Of course, I go to see everything, good and bad, classical and not, and usually enjoy it. It has to be REALLY bad before I can't find anything to like about it. But that doesn't happen very often.

However, I don't like Giselle at all. Don't know why. Just don't like it.

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I still dance but Im not as into it as I once was....I need to be put into a time machine and taken back to the turn of the century Id have a blast (dance wise anyway). Its not that I dont appreciate the modern works of today, or the technique achieved by my generation of dancers, but it seems to me that dancers are more preoccupied with how high thier legs go, or by how many pirouettes are done. I just got a hold of Roland Wileys book "A Century of Russian Ballet" and I was stunned by how much more the dancers of that time were judged by emotion and feeling than anything else. Obviously they were not as good as the dancers of today, and I keep that in mind in acknowledging the way that they looked at ballet then, but the way dancers danced in those days seems to have come from a different place than what is seen today. I can, like anyone else in pro-dance do ten revolutions or achive a high extension, but when I made it into a ballet company I got so pissed at how emotion-less my fellow dancers were, and by how much I was doing ballets that were, to me, just made more for the sake of being different. EVERYONE today is fabulous! When I won my first dance competition I remember thinking..."I was 'better' than those other guys?" I wasnt....we were all good. I just saw a film of the ballerina Olga Lapeshinskaya dancing an abstract work from her time and I loved her....she wasnt as good as we are technically today but she was so emotional! So brilliant! Like Margot Fonteyn...to watch her on film in the Sleeping Beauty gives me a smile from ear to ear every time! Id rather watch her than anybody!

Anyway thats why I became disenchanted with ballet...or I should say professional dance. Not only that the money sucks! Its cool though I teach now, take class. Ive gotten into ballet history and its music BIG TIME. Ive gotten into modeling lately to. Ballet gave me a nice body and a flair for angles and posing! :)

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One of the most depressing things for me about being a dancer was that I didn't perform enough. Yet I was always in companies that were taught, coached, and directed by people who danced every night on multi-week seasons (and sometimes on long national and international tours). That was frustrating to them too, I think, although I don't know how many understood how damaging it was to company morale to spend so much time preparing for so few performances.

Another bad thing was seeing multimillion dollar commisions go to hacks for ballets that would have been better on Broadway (where also, of course, dancers are paid better). I know many will disagree, but I believe the standards for choreographers in ballet companies is very weak right now compared to those for modern dance companies.

And in terms of executive directors, in many cases it seems you have to submit to more rigorous testing to get a job at Wal-Mart than to run a company (I think this is true, alas, for all kinds of nonprofit orgs).

Finally, as a male dancer, I became increasingly aware of how well men are treated, in general, over women; and the glass ceiling women face in a profession in which women are woefully underrepresented in the higher echelons. And it's frustrating to see how many smart, experienced women dancers are tethered to incompetent men who "run" and "choreograph" for companies (I won't name names...I'm sure I don't have to!). I didn't want to be part of that anymore; Stanley Williams aside, I learned more about ballet from women (teachers and dancers) than men, from my first class to my final performance.

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Ray, thank you for this thoughtful post. I think you raise issues that should be of concern to ballet boards and directors everywhere.

The lack of performance issue is very important -- I think it's frustrating to dancers as well as artistic directors to rehearse for weeks and then only have 2, 3 or 4 performances. One way to solve this is what Miami City Ballet does (and others too, but there's is now a regular practice) and that is dance the fall program, say, in three different locations. I think that may be a good model for the future. It not only gives the dancers more performances -- which is necessary! You can't get into a role if you only do it once or twice!!! -- but also brings the company to different neighborhoods and audiences.

I now firmly believe that the way to attract new audiences -- young, ethnically diverse, just plain new -- is to GO TO THEM. Don't try to guess what they want -- which seems to have resulted in The Targeted coming to their Target Quota program -- but not to anything else. HOWEVER, if you take what you're doing to a college campus, or a black/Hispanic/Asian neighborhood, you find that the denizens go to the theater that's on the street they know, and may well like what's there. (I've seen this happen.)

There's a related problem in that you can't dance this year's works for another 3 or 4 years, if ever. So if the company works on a challenging ballet this season, they'll never get another shot at it. Watching SFB last week doing "Dances at a Gathering" over four performances -- and seeing it get better, deeper each night (and the opening was perfectly acceptable) reinforced this for me.

All of this mitigates against developing dancers -- and, I think, developing audiences, because audiences never get to see first-rate work danced well.

Another bad thing was seeing multimillion dollar commisions go to hacks for ballets that would have been better on Broadway (where also, of course, dancers are paid better). I know many will disagree, but I believe the standards for choreographers in ballet companies is very weak right now compared to those for modern dance companies.

I don't think many people will disagree with this on this site! Nothing wrong with Broadway, but Broadway is Broadway and ballet is ballet -- Balanchine and Robbins choreographed for both, but they knew the difference. Some of the commissions wouldn't get near Broadway, which does have high standards in its own genre. They're just plain hack. I absolutely agree wiith your comparison to modern dance companies. There are schlock modern dance companies too, but there are many who not only strive for high art, but cast and rehearse the dancers carefully -- again, this goes to respect to the dancers and the audience.

I've often had similar thoughts watching some of the contemporary dance works that are in so many company's repertories, some of which are competent, they're just not ballet; and some of them are way below our local modern dance choreographers. Audiences cheer for them, but they don't go to the local modern dance perofrmances, where the could see at least the same level of the same type of work, and often a higher level. "Oh, no. We only go to the ballet," some say. (I've asked!)

All of this goes to the poor health of ballet today -- and if dancers are quitting because of it, it makes it all the more sad.

You've really struck a nerve here, Ray :) This is one of the main reasons I founded the site.

(As for the poor level of artistic direction, and the hiring process, more and more it's being done by search firms. In one hiring process, the first question that people were asked when the firm began its search is "what name would be known to your audience." )

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Yes there certainly is bad modern dance out there! I meant to add, though, that in applying for grants, I know that modern dance choreographers and companies are generally held to a more rigorous standard of review in corporate and nonprofit giving. Presenters also seem to be hypnotized by big names over quality of work. Shouldn't this worry us?

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I think Ray has excellent points, but I'm going to state other positions, less in disagreement (by and large, I think he's right) than to open the discussion.

The sad thing is I don't think they are hypnotized by "big names" over quality. They're just trying to cover costs and get bodies in the seats so they can present another concert rather than go bankrupt.

I think almost all of Ray's frustrations have the same problem at its root. Ballet loses money. Every performance a regional company does puts it in danger of increasing its debt, or puts a producer at the risk of the same. We've got to find ways of fixing this problem, whether it's increased public funding, increased ticket revenue, increased audiences - or any of them in combination. I think that Hack Work we think might be "popular" is a desperate attempt to solve this problem. The problem is, if it happens not to be wrong in the short term (I think it is), it's still wrong in the long one.

It's hard to respond to the thorny question of gender discrimination in ballet, because it's there (Elephant? What elephant?) I will say I've seen it come up in seminars; DTW had one not for ballet, but for dance in general, and I found the announcement for it genuinely discouraging. It sure sounded like any man who attended could be pretty sure he was going to be held personally accountable for gender inequalities in dance. Why would I go? What dialogue was going to come out of this? Was anyone going to believe that it's hard as hell for some men in the art form too? If there's a cabal out there for guys to get power and bucks in ballet COULD SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME THE SECRET HANDSHAKE? I feel left out.

Needless to say, this is a personal response! :) The numbers show a real story of women not having any power in ballet. But honestly, almost no one has any power in ballet.

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Ballet has always lost money. Diaghilev lost money, but he didn't do trash. I think there's a point that companies are desperate to find ballets that are hits, and we're in a stage where the thinking is "PINK. I just read a survey where PINK is the favorite subject. Let's do a PINK ballet." or 'BASKETBALL!!!! Our home team is in the playoffs. Let's do a BASKETBALL ballet." I think tlhat's true.

But I think that -- perhaps because of the press of day to day business, perhaps becuase there's no Lincoln Kirstein -- there are few companies that have anyone with the time, taste and breadth of background to choose repertory wisely. In many companies -- obviously, there are exceptions to all this. One, two generation ago, artistic directors chose choreographers with whom they had worked. They still do, but THEN those choreographers were Tudor, Ashton, Balanchine and NOW they're Dwight Rhoden and Val Caniparoli (just to pick on two; sorry if they're your favorites :) ) So that's part of it. And there is a circuit. One year, everyone does Lila York, the next year it's someone else. Or you pick someone you met when you were guest teaching and seemed like a nice guy -- that's how you get on the circuit :) Competition juries, summer programs, hang out where the guys doing the hiring hang out. (Easier said than done, I know.)

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But the ones who do have power tend to be men and not women. It's hard for everyone -- life is hard for everyone -- but men have a better shot, which is not to say an easy shot, or one guaranteed to succeed. That said, I certainly don't approve of giving men who attend such seminars a hard time. They deserve a big hand just for showing up, which many wouldn't bother to do.

On the other hand, this is a contentious issue, and people do take it personally. Yes, the women can get harsh ("At last! A sitting target!") but I've seen men in a similar kind of setup raise their hackles in an are-you-calling-me-a-sexist way, when nobody is doing anything of the sort. (Like Michael Douglas in "Disclosure" – "When did I have the power? Huh? When did I?") I don't go to those things any more. :)

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