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Rev. Amy Ziettlow

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No More Recitals? A Ballet Barre Manifesto

Posted: 06/11/2012 4:38 pm

No more recitals.

I realize that even by uttering in print the three words above I could be stirring the ire of dance teachers and mothers across the country, especially during this season of dance recitals. Many parents, costume-clad youngsters and dance mavens may consider the notion of "no recitals" a sign of the apocalypse, but I would like for us to imagine a world with fewer recitals and more ballet barres. A world that purposely eschews our human desire for showmanship and unearned performance and lifts up the art of disciplined choice and earned rewards for accomplishment, which I recognize will be a hard sell in a world now defined by YouTube and reality TV, a world of mass produced recitals.

Growing up in the world of classical ballet, which for me was shaped by the teaching of the Ballet Russe greats Roman Jasinski and Moscelyne Larkin at the Tulsa School of Ballet, I only knew ballet without recitals. No costumes, no months of rehearsing a dance, just the ballet barre and class. Ms. Larkin's philosophy when asked about recitals was, "If you are good enough to be on stage, you are good enough to be paid."

Yet the lure of the stage persisted and for many of us came to fruition when we auditioned for and were cast in a child role in the annual Nutcracker production. We'd do anything to get on stage. One year, when I was too tall for the child roles but not advanced enough to understudy the corps de ballet roles, I even played the clock, shuffling to center stage hidden within a grandfather clock façade as the ominous bells tolled to mark the beginning of the battle with the Mouse King. Once proficient in pointe work, many of us were invited to understudy roles or serve as extras in performances, which taught me several invaluable lessons about the dance world, and ultimately about the real world:

1) Hustle for what you want,
2) Learn the rhythms of your environment and your team quickly,
3) Despite your level of talent, those who are healthy in body, mind, and spirit find their way to the stage in the end, and
4) Applause ends, but the barre will always be home.

The draw of the stage was powerful but it was clear that the road to the stage always passed through the land of the barre. And although the lure of the footlights may have initially brought me to the barre, learning to love the unique ways that my body moves and spins and jumps to the relentless beat of my heart kept me there and transformed the barre from a place of work to a place I call home.

Several years ago the popular movie Center Stage traced this struggle all committed, young dancers face as their ego and drive face off with the humble equalizer of the barre each day. We quickly see how both negative and positive coping mechanisms arise, from eating disorders and depression to friendship and self-awareness. Towards the end of the film, one young dancer, Eva, finds herself overlooked, not cast in a prestigious role, and ready to quit. But in the quiet of the evening, she returns to the now silent studio where her teacher, Juliet, will remind her that the stage is a mere vacation while the barre is home.

Even in the recent ballet thriller, Black Swan, we see the frightening ways that the lure of the stage can serve as a destructive and distorting mirror of self-worth. When we seek to ground our existence in the reflective mirror of the audience or our family or those we admire or those we desire or even our own eyes, we become distorted, our connections to our intimate relationships as well as greater community fracture, and madness and destruction soon follow. I don't remember seeing a barre in Black Swan.

With the home of the barre missing, there is nothing to steady you, to humble you, to ground your existence and drive. I believe that the barre is not only a studio prop but embodies a philosophy of dance training summed up well by the quote printed on the front of my childhood ballet school's brochure. I am paraphrasing a bit:

It is when children are young that they must be taught discipline, finding ways to control the movement of their bodies and their emotions, even to eat less, so that through the art of discipline they will learn to resist mediocrity.

The journey to excellence and the will to resist mediocrity may or may not lead to the stage but always begins at the barre: a never-ending system of support that silently girds the studio and makes maturity possible. As the opening plies welcome you to class, the barre reminds you that every movement demands its moment and every moment proclaims that "dance is the breath of life made visible." Ms. Larkin espoused this belief in her school and company, as did many of her contemporaries in the Ballet Russe tradition. 2012 has marked the passing of several of their greats and in the coming decades more will be lost. We lose a generation of teachers who opened a door for American dancers to fall in love not just with performance but with the ballet barre. Your love of the barre may or may not earn you the right to seek the rush of performance but often leads to a love for excellence and beauty, a love that will long outlive the high of applause.

To read more from Amy Ziettlow, visit www.familyscholars.org

 
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