In Pursuit of PERFECTION

By Jacobs, Laura | Pointe, April/May 2015 | Go to article overview

In Pursuit of PERFECTION


Jacobs, Laura, Pointe


All dancers strive towards an unattainable ideal. Writer Laura Jacobs explains why the most interesting artists transcend their imperfections.

It was perfect. Nina says of her debut as Odette/ Odile. It's the last scene of the 2010 psychological thriller Black Swan and these are the last words this character, the ballerina played by Natalie Portman. will ever speak. Her relationship with perfection-physical, technical, artistic-has haunted her throughout the movie and finally, changing from Odile s black tutu to Odette's white one. she pulls a shard of broken mirror from a wound beneath her ribs. Could there be a better symbol for the dark side of a dancer's pursuit of perfection? The studio mirror, so innocent and embracing in those first delightful years of dance class, has become a maddening dagger of constant criticism.

The soprano Maria Callas, revered by generations of opera-lovers, was famously imperfect in her technique and was cherished all the more for it The pianist Vladimir Horowitz played with such phenomenal elegance and fire that no one cared about the flubs Most painters, even those with superb draftsmanship, move beyond or beneath correct technique to brushwork of extravagance and strangeness. And a poet like Emily Dickinson, who turned grammar on its ear-who's to say she didn't achieve her own technical perfection, a new grammar created for the bubble of perception in which she lived and wrote?

Classical dance is different from these arts, perhaps because it begins as an athletic endeavor. Early on. the challenge of training one s body to move in Euclidean traceries and celestial spheres is a beguiling sort of sport The energized tendu, pirouettes with a stable axis, jumps with life and loft, placement that is lightly rooted yet yearning to fly-learning this embodied language of secret meanings is fun But as the athleticism of ballet matures into the art of ballet, a change occurs. The technical refinement that is a professional necessity becomes, as well, a spiritual quest.

All artists feel this quest to some extent, but none feel it in every joint and muscle the way dancers do. or face it daily as dancers must, in the alternate universe of the studio mirror, a fifth dimension that reflects all flubs and flaws, not to mention ounces and pounds One of the powerful tensions of classical dance is that this profoundly physical art form so often expresses fleshless states, both existential and supernatural. The truer a dancer's line and the more pure her technique, well, the more convincing the airy, soulful illusion. This is a reality that the tenets of political correctness cannot change

Furthermore, young dancers on a career track develop an eye highly sensitive to. and sometimes distorting of. flaws that the nondance world will never perceive Rudolf Nureyev ardently wished his legs were longer and he worked devilishly to get the appearance of length. The young Gelsey Kirkland, so uniquely gifted, desired instead to look and dance like Suzanne Farrell; it took years for Kirkland to accept her own body and its brilliance. …

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