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More That a Bit About Ballet

Ballet is difficult and demanding. It requires a vast amount of stamina, patience, and focused effort. And the requisites to become a successful performer start early. Many people begin at age 7 or 8, basically trading childhood for training. Late bloomer Misty Copeland, the first black female soloist with American Ballet Theatre, took her first formal ballet class at age 13.

Ballet is especially difficult because it doesn't pay terribly well. You really don't hear about ballet dancers partying like pop stars do. That's partly because of the demands of the job but also partly because there's not that much money in this art form. Of course, that's due to the fact that many of the more recent generations simply haven't been exposed to it, either in the opportunity to perform in a class at school or even in an opportunity to see, a field trip to the Met. Without an audience, ballet suddenly seems like Latin... ancient and useless.

Now, obviously, there are some wealthy people who do support this art form, and those that support do it very, very well, at times doubling or possibly tripling the salaries of the dancers by becoming sponsors. But if you are expecting to become wealthy as a dancer, well, you might just sign on for the next Justin Bieber tour and skip Juilliard. Ballet is celebrated but in a very narrow area by a group of people who are aging quickly.

Also, the window of performance is a relatively small one. Because of the demands on the body, many dancers hit their stride in their mid twenties and are retired before their 45th birthday (presuming they manage to get through it all injury free), moving on to choreographing, teaching, administration/managing or perhaps leaving the world of dance to move on to an area that permits them a better payday.

Ballet dancers are perhaps the closest thing we have to Court Jesters. They travel in the upper echelon, but typically are from more modest lives. So, they must negotiate both the world that celebrates them and the lives they actually live.

It's not easy.

And all of that is when everything is right: when the pointe shoes fit, when you're feeling physically strong, when your dance partner is on the same page, when you're mentally there.

And there are issues with personalities, from choreographers to directors to the selection of productions to the selection of dancers for the roles. Just like any organization, the ballet is a dysfunctional family, so the problems that come are just as often psychological as they are physical.

Planning a season is difficult because you also must examine what the other ballet companies are staging this year and if they tour near where you are, how that might create issues for both performance groups. There is less a sense of rivalry between ballet companies than there is a sense of trying to survive during an era where people are less interested in this art form than they are in others.

There really is a lot to ballet, besides the dance.

But in the dance, ballet tells you a story through physicality, the use of the body, and with no words. In that sense, it is the highest form of mime! However, the abuse that dancers must put themselves through is both diabolical and gorgeous. It takes a massive amount of work to make it all seem effortless and beautiful.

And keep in mind, the USA has practically no government funding at all for our Ballet companies, as Europe does. So it's tougher to lure the best dancers worldwide to perform in the United States. If a top dancer joins The Royal Ballet in London, they get a tremendous flat, a fantastic stipend and a much finer lifestyle in comparison to someone like Sarah Lane, who danced for Natalie Portman in her Oscar winning role in "Black Swan," but still has to take the bus in from Jersey each day.

This is also why Soccer hasn't become big in the USA. Because there is very little money in US soccer (a typical pro soccer player here gets about $60,000) none of the best athletes in high school and college focus on that as a potential career. they would stick to the four major team sports (basketball, football, baseball and hockey) or might go into a sport like tennis or golf where they can earn millions for their efforts. And with no star athletes, the sport itself is uninteresting to many fans, which is why they won't support it, guaranteeing that it will remain uninteresting.

I'm not saying you should "pity" anyone associated with ballet. I just think most people have no clue about what the lives of the people staging these performances really are about. I mean a film like "Center Stage" (which featured a couple of ABT dancers: Ethan Steifel who just retired this spring, and Sascha Radetsky) can give you a soap opera style take, and yes, there is a kernel of truth to some of the machinations in the process of performing the film portrays. But it's always in the small, day to day elements that the real story is told.

The fact is the life of a dancer is extremely difficult, requiring a lot of sacrifice and toil; the reward is smaller than you would imagine, sometimes not covering the basic expenses. But they are honored to do it. Only the people who are truly talented and truly motivated to commit to this art form are able to succeed. And the sacrifices extend beyond the performer, as families have to make decisions: Parents sending their kids to foreign cities for training. Spouses going on extended tours of other continents. Trying to have a life while facing all the demands of this career has an impact on all of the people in that sphere.

I am a great admirer of anyone who makes such tremendous sacrifices in order to bring their art to the world.

I'm heading out now to reacquaint myself with all things ABT, so there'll be plenty of commentary about it in future weeks.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 8th, 2012 03:08 am (UTC)
No mention of the CW's Breaking Pointe which got renewed for a second season? It's about a ballet company in SLC, so it may not be the grandeur of the NYC Ballet company, but I thought it was a fun watch. Though I don't know how much of it was dramatized...

My friend says that the ballet in NY has cheaper tickets to their rehearsal performances and that's on our list of things to do when I'm on an extended NY trip.

I enjoy the ballet, though I haven't been in a long time.
Oct. 8th, 2012 04:35 am (UTC)
I confess I haven't seen an episode of "Breaking Pointe," not because I wouldn't but I just haven't had an occasion to see it. I didn't mention ABC Family's "Bunheads" either! Haha. It, too, is returning for a second season.

Really, all US ballet companies I think face similar issues, if they are in Seattle, San Francisco, Salt Lake or New York. The problems are similar, maybe on a smaller scale but just the same.

ABT dress rehearsal performances are actually pretty great. You usually see a few principal dancers in the roles, not just one, and the seating is typically good since those performances are rarely "sellouts."
Oct. 8th, 2012 11:27 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this thoughtful post on an art form close to my heart. I studied ballet from age 4-11 and dreamed everyday of making it. That said, by age 11 it was clear that I wouldn't have the right body for it, so that was the end of it. Well, that and I probably didn't have enough talent.

Still. I love ballet to this day.

You might also want to check out two currently in repertory theatres feature length documentaries -- First Position and Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance. Both focus largely on the US. Really fantastic, both of them.

Oct. 9th, 2012 01:37 pm (UTC)
I think when you have an interest in something, especially at a very young age, it stays with you for life.

I have heard of both of those docs, and I would love to see them. Of course the Joffrey is the reason we don't do as much business in Chicago!
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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