Is ballet becoming too competitive?
With ballet competitions growing in number and popularity every year, it seems today’s generation of young dancers are developing in a world where a dancer’s talent is judged more on technical perfection than artistry. The operative word here, though, isn’t technique or artistry, but judged. After reading this article debating the danger of ballet competitions, I’m feeling pretty unresolved about my feelings on the matter.
Growing up as a competition kid (Starquest, IDC, Sophisticated Productions, what up?!), I looked forward to competition season more than Christmas. A chance to perform in front of what I pretended were my adoring fans out there in the uncomfortable high school auditorium seats? SIGN ME UP. Plus it also involves wearing a bejeweled leotard and maybe even winning a shiny trophy at the end? I’M SO THERE.
When my love of doing hitch-kicks to a broadway hit a la All That Jazz waned, a growing love for ballet engulfed my life like wildfire. I was finally learning about turnout and barrework and my type A personality appreciated my body’s enthusiasm for this new kind of movement. But there was something missing. I was still taking class Monday-Saturday and sweating through my ballet slippers, but something did not feel quite right. That is, until I heard about Youth America Grand Prix and realized how little I had been performing since I left the jazz/tap/lyrical world behind. YAGP introduced itself to me as a new opportunity to perform. An occasion to hit the stage and have people watching me dance. This is the reason we study ballet in the first place, no? To perform.
me performing at YAGP in 2009
Of course, an important point made in the aforementioned article is that this audience we are performing for at competitions is not exactly ballet’s intended audience, the public, but instead it’s ballet itself. In other words, it’s us: the fellow dancers, ex-dancers, ballet moms, dads and grandmas, choreographers, directors, teachers, and coaches. Of course we think it’s incredible when a 16-year-old nails 4 pirouettes en pointe, but what about her blank stare? For some reason, a stale face and lack of expression is overshadowed by a 180 degree ecarté and this, my friends, is exactly the problem with ballet competitions today.
After competing in YAGP for several years, I realized it wasn’t the awards ceremony that I had benefitted from, but all of the training leading up to the big event and my performance itself that were enriching my dancing. Of course the fact that there was a chance of winning a title certainly revved up my gusto in rehearsals, but it was during these rehearsals that I was actually growing.
If I could write a letter to my YAGP-competing-aged-self, I would tell me to take advantage of those long, hard rehearsals as a chance to improve my technique and each day consider how my artistry is changing to fit a character. When it came time to perform I would tell myself to let go of the stressful turning diagonal at the end of my variation and let my expression come through, because that is what performing ballet is really about. Expressing yourself through movement. And that right there, is how you win a competition without even placing. Training advice with an extra helping of cheesy goodness for your Wednesday afternoon. Thoughts, anyone?