The following is an excerpt from an imaginary conversation between a student and master teacher. It explores the relationship between work and play in the dance classroom.
Student: I was wondering about something. When I dance outside of ballet class, I usually have more fun than when I am in class. Sometimes class seems like too much work. Should it be so difficult?
Master: Only if you make it so. You see when you’re outside of class you are involved with the perfection inherent within the sweep of your movement. In class there is this presumed demand for perfection before you know what it is you’re trying to perfect. What you should really be looking for in class is the perfection found inherent in the movement, what we spoke of before when you were dancing for fun. Finding the perfection inherent in the sweep is like a dimension – you cannot invent a dimension, it already exists and it is simply your job to find it and identify with it, creating an emotional relationship with it as you do when you are dancing outside of class. There is a sense of exhilaration, an emotional connection with this dimension of movements. It stands right next to you. For example, have you ever played on a teeter-totter?
Student: Well, sure.
Master: Well, what got you on the teeter-totter was curiosity about the up and down movement. It looked fun. But at first it’s clumsy when you jump on the teeter-totter and you feel like you’re going to fly off. Unsteady. But as you continue to play you get more comfortable with the swing, the to and fro, and you learn the other person’s rhythm instinctively. With the inspiration of wanting to have more fun and exhilaration, your nervous system inherently starts pushing with more force and effectiveness. You find the inherent technique of the teeter-totter. You then get really good at the movements, you feel more confident, even feeling able to put your hands in the air. And someone watching would experience your confidence and clarity of intent. They would sense a perfect kind of relationship with your partner and the mechanics of the teeter-totter. Thus making you appear perfect.
Student: But that doesn’t seem like ballet class at all.
Master: That’s exactly what ballet class is. It’s the spirit of the movement. Being perfect is like copying a master artwork. There is no inspiration behind it, or ultimate expression. You may possibly learn about the nuts and bolts of painting but very little of self-expression.
Student: You talk as if ballet should be fun.
Master: Of course it should be. If you’re going to sweat that much it better be fun. If not it’s a kind of torture.
Student: But what about finding that perfection you talk about? Shouldn’t that take work?
Master: Well, lets go back to the teeter-totter. How did the two get so good at working together? Playing with the to and fro, to the point where you were taking great risks to feel more exhilaration and freedom. You moved with sheer abandon, not constrained by a perfect imposed technique. When something is imposed it introduces limitations. And from that perspective to be perfect would be a prison.
Student: Then what is the perfection you’re talking about?
Master: To be “perfect” contrives your ability to understand by creating those limitations. To be “perfect” is to be done. What you are seeking is to perfect your awareness, to understand your relationship with the concept of the movement; to detail your sensation with it and articulate your experience.
Student: Then you’re not really talking about perfection at all. You’re saying that perfection is undesirable – perhaps even impossible. Then why take class at all?
Master: To refine your awareness. To get to a very keen approximation of a kind of total physical consciousness, and your emotional relationship with it. Let’s put it this way: could you be perfectly angry at any time?
Student: How could you be? That doesn’t even mean anything – “perfectly angry?”
Master: Exactly. But when you’re willing to fall for what you stand for then your anger is riddled with passion, love, and purpose. That is the closest thing to perfect expression. But it has one key element that “perfect” does not – the element of spontaneity, inspired by purpose. It doesn’t have to be right or wrong, but sublime in its appropriateness.
Student: But we’re talking about dancing, about physicality. How can you have that much purpose in a rond de jambe or a plié?
Master: All those things exist in those movements. The possibilities and dimension of those movements are infinite. There is no perfect plié or perfect rond de jambe.
Student: That sounds so intense. How can you take class that way?
Master: Art, like life, only has limitations if you seek them.
Student: But I’m not seeking limitations.
Master: To be perfect is to be done – there is no place to go. Let’s put it this way: the closest thing to perfection would be God, and as far as I know God is never done, but constantly expanding the heavens with infinite diversity. And diversity is a singular theme.
Student: How so?
Master: Diversity is a theme, an idea. How diverse you choose to be is up to you. Do you have two ways of doing a rond de jambe? Three? Ten? Is there a perfect way to say a word? Is there a perfect singular definition? If there is, there’s not much chance for poetry or expression. You can take a word and actually change its meaning with the emotional inflections in your voice. In other words, I could say, “I love you,” in such a way that anyone hearing would know that I was actually saying I hated you. So the dimension I talk about that is standing next to you is the element of your intent.
Student: So that is what class is about? Your intent? The possibilities of your movement?
Master: Yes. Because being perfect is trying to be something you’re not, which makes you uptight and tense. But when you’re working to cultivate your awareness and relationship with the movement therein lies actual purpose, which then frees you from the bondage of perfection.
Student: And then you can have fun?