Juliet Burnett on the dancing life and how working with Wayne McGregor (on Chroma) unlocked some greater thoughts on how dance can be made better…
I’d been having trouble with a movement phrase in a highly technical, very classical solo. For nearly half an hour after rehearsal had finished, I’d been assessing and dissecting the phrase, trying to pinpoint the problem. I tried the steps over and over with a different idea each time (Einstein said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”). I was hoping for a Eureka moment, but this time, there wasn’t one.
It’s a familiar scenario for the classical ballet dancer, and it can all too easily descend into a frustrating confrontation with your own imperfection and the reality that the ideal of classical ballet perfection is, by definition, elusive. Flawless, seamless, precise, clean, weightless (but solid and strong), effortless, elegant: these are the qualities that are generally perceived as beautiful in classical ballet.
Striving for such lofty ideals should imbue the classical dancer’s approach with a gutsy ambition and greater purpose, but too often an over-disciplined, careful, ‘proper’ approach, and an increasing tendency to hyper-analytical technical problem solving impedes our mission, holding us back from really dancing. At our worst, we unconsciously submit ourselves to be moulded in someone else’s ideal, denying our natural responses, or we resort to mimicry to achieve a result. Caught up in the unrelenting nature of the classical dancer’s quest, even the most well-balanced and pragmatic of us can lose touch and become ensnared in these traps when encountering difficulties, or when lacking stimulation.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Last month when The Australian Ballet staged Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, Wayne came into the studio himself just before the premiere to oversee the final stages of rehearsal. Before we had even begun to dance, he invited us to join him in a thought-provoking exchange: “tell me about intention versus attention”; “what is a movement phrase?”; “is there a difference between looking and seeing?” Many of us had worked with Wayne in 2009 when he created Dyad 1929, so were acquainted with his choreographic language and approach to the creative process. However, by virtue of dance being a mute art form, we aren’t used to being posed questions and answering them verbally, and because of those occasional lapses into submissive moulding, sadly, we tend to doubt our own thoughts and ideas about our art. But questioning, not always accepting things as they are, is surely the essence of progress, as is conviction of purpose. That day, the simple notion of being questioned did two things: first, it put all of us into the same arena of discovery together, and secondly, it empowered us with our own thoughts and ideas. After initial hesitation, the room became invigorated, as though after many years the windows and doors had been flung open, letting in blissful fresh air. If only we knew how easy it was to unlock them ourselves, any time we liked. It wasn’t until we started dancing that I noticed a third product of the conversation: the questioning and exchange of thoughts became perpetuated in the movement, in the energy within and between us. The studio was abuzz with bodies truly engaged with each other in robust, and at times tender, conversation.
Wayne’s ideas are hugely appealing for classical dancers, not just because they are new, or just because his choreography is exciting to dance (these things do help, of course) but because they force us to rethink our perspective on our dancing, and on classical ballet. From a purely aesthetic perspective, it seems at first almost paradoxical: his work inverts classical technique, pushes the principles of classical movement and disturbs the purity of the classical line to its extreme. Much of what he asks of his dancers, such as experimenting with what he calls “asymmetric rhythm” within the framework of the music, and almost alien-esque responses to movement, are vastly departed from classical ballet. But then there are many universally applicable ideas, such as the questions he posed to us in the studio – intention versus attention, consideration of phrasing, looking or seeing – these are all hugely pertinent in classical ballet. Wayne encourages his dancers to “misbehave beautifully”. This idea incites in me an almost childlike thrill, and pushes me to think and dance more dangerously, but also makes me wonder if we are just too ‘nice’ sometimes in classical ballet. Surely the art of classical ballet could bear some provocation – respecting its tradition is one thing, but placing it under high protection in a glass case in a museum is doing an art form that can maintain its relevance today a disservice. If we allow this precious attitude, and similarly, this warped focus on technique and gratuitous acrobatics to consume classical ballet, we could even be endangering it. Classical ballet, after all, is dancing – not to be placed on a pedestal, but to engage with and be engaged by. So, could I misbehave beautifully in a tutu and pointe shoes too?
One of the roles of art, apart from that of questioning and reflecting life, is to convey beauty. As I delved further into Chroma, the questioning continued: “what exactly is beauty?” I often wondered. Dancing in the pure, Zen-like space created by John Pawson, beauty manifested thus: sometimes things are as they are, not to be questioned, but to summon our senses to a place of contemplation; of simply being. A major thrust of Wayne’s philosophy is rekindling your awareness: of your self, your dancing, ideas and those you are dancing with. Being aware and present is such a mind-blowingly simple concept, but we have lost a frightening degree of it in the age of the unrelenting and immersive cycle of smartphone-checking, emailing and texting. We are often too busy cataloguing the moment that we forget to actually live the moment. With awareness and presence of mind, we are able to be spontaneous in our expression in performance, and to problem-solve more readily on the spot if something goes wrong. We become more receptive to our internal processes (physical and mental) and to people around us. We become sensitive to our surroundings. We possess clarity of thought and intention. If dancing is a heightened form of communication, how can we expect to be successful in it without awareness of our intent, of those we are dancing with, of the space around us? But this is not just how we should dance; this is how we should live life. As such, Chroma, with its distillation of theatrical elements to the purest state, truly communicates the essence of being, and as the departure point for a multitude of reactions and experiences, perhaps an analogy of human nature.
Each dancer’s individual experience with a ballet will be as varied as each audience member’s, and both dancer and audience will perceive beauty differently. The expectation that every dancer will enjoy equally every ballet they dance, or that every audience member will enjoy equally each dancer’s interpretation, is wildly impossible. And with this thought, that elusive ideal of classical ballet’s perfection becomes exciting again instead of daunting, as I am snapped into the realisation that art’s subjective nature makes it a pursuit in which there is no definitive, right answer; there is no complete end point, only the journey in which you create for yourself. Isn’t that… beautiful?
With this spirit, let’s allow ourselves, in whatever medium of expression, to dance our dances with our own instinct and conviction – because we have something to say, not because we are being told to say it. Why is that beautiful? Because that’s freedom; that’s living.
After Wayne left, I returned to the studio in my tutu and pointe shoes to tackle that nuisance phrase in my classical solo again. What could I say with it? What do I think is the most beautiful step in the phrase and how could I play with the movement and music to highlight it? What is the music’s quality? If only I had known how easy it was to unlock the windows and doors myself, any time I liked.