I’m in our daily 9:30 company class. The lilting adagio music rolls from the speaker. I feel the rhythm and familiar pull of limbs stretching and bending, left hand on the barre, foot methodically rising and falling.
Suddenly I realize that my left leg needs to turn out more, but also that I have to relax my ankle, try to bend a bit deeper, feel my rib cage spiral a bit more to the left, and make my arm a little lower. My teacher catches my eye. “You’re working too hard,” she says. “You have to look like you’re not working.”
image | Ryan Livingston
My teacher doesn’t mean stop working, of course. She means that I should have a relaxed, calm upper torso like I’m at a garden party, while my legs, feet, and core are busy performing hundreds of precise acts to strive for some measure of perfection. Unlike the Olympic gymnasts with their feats of strength and concentrated visages, ballet dancers are supposed to give the illusion of effortlessness. Still, I’ve always thought we have it better, as we don’t get docked points if we fall down, as long as we get up smiling.
image | Shelby Lynn Joyce
This paradox of working your muscles fiercely in order to look like you’re as light as the air is not the only contradiction—the physics of dance is full of them. In order to rise from the ground, you push your strength down into the floor. In order for your leg to reach outward, you feel the oppositional pull of muscles toward your center. When your leg reaches behind you in an arabesque, you spiral your ribs the other way. In jumps, lightness comes from heavily pushing away the earth.
Dance teachers are constantly asking impossible and contradictory things. Rise into the air in a jump and contract your muscles so that you remain aloft. When Ricardo Melendez asks us to do that in modern dance class, fifty percent of me laughs because he’s literally telling us to defy the laws of physics and fly. But the other fifty percent of me watches him demonstrate what he means and sees that, yes, he does appear to hover for an impossibly long moment. Suspended between opposing forces, the dancer is always in a state of reaching and reaching and never arriving. Dancers are constant students who never graduate.
A wonderful old Russian teacher I studied with one summer expressed one of my favorite sentiments about paradoxes and ballet. She said that the role of Giselle is the true test of a dancer’s measure because of the contrast inherent to the role. In Act I, Giselle is a happy peasant girl, lighthearted and carefree. In Act II, she has been jilted by her love, died of sorrow, and become one of the willies—angry female spirits who dance men to death in the forest. So in Act I, Giselle’s heart is light, but her body is heavy, corporal. But in Act II, her heart is heavy with loss, but her body is lighter than air.
So keeping in mind the fact that Giselle went batshit and died, I think that carrying around the weight of all those contradictions can be difficult, all the physical and emotional forces pulling in different directions. And in the middle, there’s you, reaching toward the earth and toward the sky.
Paradoxes are the worst thing about dance. They’re also the best.
Come see us dance! Virginia Ballet Theatre will present its third annual Sweetheart Concert Series on February 13th and 14th at 7:30 p.m. at the Roper Performing Arts Center. For tickets and information, visit TRDance.org.