Hollywood is coming out with yet another ballet film, The Black Swan, starring Natalie Portmann. My daughter and I saw the trailer for it before the feature film Burlesque, starring Christina Aguilera and Cher. We couldn’t say enough great things about Burlesque. On the other hand, The Black Swan will not get my money. Out of curiosity, my daughter may see it with her dancer friends. I’m not a fan of Stephen King books or films, and this latest dance movie seems to fit that bill.
Last night on one of the entertainment news shows, Natalie Portmann and Milla Kunes spoke briefly of their experience during filming of The Black Swan. They both implied that there was a mean-spiritedness among ballet dancers. There was no indication whether or not they worked with a real ballet company, or if they were speaking from hearsay. Generalizing that ballet dancers are one thing or another in a news clip, doesn’t make it true.
The media has done a good job to help stereotype people from all walks of life. Don’t we all know more than we care to know, about Lindsay Lohan and Brittney Spears? According to the news that drones on about these two, they are out-of-control, spoiled-rotten, alcoholics. I’d just as soon leave them alone to sort out their own lives. Give me a break, and them.
I personally think ballet is not the right fit for everyone. Moms wanting their toddlers to dance prettily in ballet slippers, pink leotards and tights, should be very careful not to overstep their children’s enthusiasm for the art form. When it stops being fun, or when the children have mastered all that they can, and can do no more toward advancing to higher levels, moms should accept that their children may want to, or need to, involve themselves elsewhere, where they may be happier, and more successful.
As with anything in life, parents need to walk a “fine line,” between what they want and what their children want. I think the best approach is to involve our children in the direction their lives take, on an ongoing basis. As we help them strategize we should pay heed to the signals they give off, whether vocalized or not. Of course they don’t always know what they want, but often times they know what they don’t want. I think both are equally important. Steering them through a maze of choices is not easy for us or them.
After seeing a close friend perform in a recital, our 8-year-old daughter decided she wanted to dance. So she enrolled in jazz, tap and ballet classes at the same studio as her friend. During the three years she danced there, our daughter advanced into classes with students older than she. After year-end recitals, audience members approached my husband and I to congratulate us on our daughter’s dancing. Those were the first times I heard words I have continued to hear at her performances, “I couldn’t take my eyes off of her” or “She has tremendous stage presence.”
When we moved west, our daughter enrolled in a private studio originated by former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal, Deborah Hadley. When she first saw our daughter in a ballet class, her arched feet had Hadley inquiring “Who’s that girl?” That December, our daughter was cast in the role of ballerina doll in The Nutcracker’s party scene. Her joy at receiving such an honor dissolved when upon opening night, the Russian teacher responsible for staging the ballet, told our daughter she had not “performed” the role, but only executed the technical steps.
When our daughter told us what had happened on the ride home, we were, of course, upset. But not wanting to cause her additional grief, I advised her instead to perform for herself, not for her teacher. I also told her something I’ve continued to tell her “Dance every role, no matter what it is, as though you’re a star. You’ll have done your very best, and that’s all you can do.” The only thing I tell her now, before a performance is “Have fun!”
Throughout her entire journey towards a career in ballet, our daughter has received encouragement from all who have seen her dance. Teachers, artistic directors, choreographers, and fellow dancers, have consistently told us that she had great potential. Audience members have congratulated her performances. I was most moved when a brother-in-law, who saw her dance for the first and only time, said his eyes welled with tears when he watched her perform a solo with Northwest Professional Dance Program in Portland a few summers ago.
With what our daughter seemed to have going for her in talent and work ethic, becoming a professional ballet dancer was still no guarantee. There was competition, disappointments, stresses, politics, tears. Having been a corporate career person before becoming a mom, I suffered the same traumas in my workplace. The difference is I was paid better, but my daughter has more passion for her job than I had for any of several I worked.
When I moved to Atlanta to enable our 16-year-old daughter to train with Atlanta Ballet in the hopes she’d become a member, moms of students there would ask the secret to her success thus far. I would tell them it took 50% talent, and 50% a combination of other things.
From what I could see, the right candidate for a professional dance job needed to be able to withstand the extraordinary pressures of competing for company openings, and then roles, socializing with older, more senior dancers, speaking on one’s own behalf with staff, maintaining a healthy body, physically, mentally and emotionally, and living within one’s means, on salaries that are below minimum wage in some cases. Who could, or would, want to subject themselves to such a career? Not me, but then I’m not cut out for such a life. Not many are, but my daughter is.
Just as not all people are created equal, not all ballet companies are cut from the same cloth. Probably unknown to the lay person is the fact that there are many, many, many dance companies throughout this country, and abroad. Some are big, with 50 or more full-time dancers, and then there are companies like my daughter’s where there are only 15 members, 8 men and 7 women. Besides the difference in numbers, there’s a huge difference in budgets. Bigger companies, like Pacific Northwest Ballet, enjoy $15 million to $20 million budgets; my daughter’s gets by on a shoestring budget of $4 million.
Just as a corporation’s modus operandi reflect the style of the “head honcho,” the CEO/President, so too does a ballet, or modern, dance company reflect its artistic director’s style. And we all know that the top man can run the gamut, from monster to saint. Having witnessed both styles in my former career, and my husband’s and daughter’s careers, it seems what kind of boss and work environment we get is in the “luck of the draw.” I’ve always subscribed to the belief that within any organization, be it a household, a company, or a church, whatever occurs, filters from the top down. Bad management begets a bad environment begets mostly cranky, negative whiners.
So while there are ballet, and modern, dance companies who fit the descriptions of Portmann and her fellow actor, there are those like my daughter’s, whose artistic director has shown courage and concern by allowing her a 3 month leave to address health issues, with a guarantee that she can return to her job in January. He and his staff have shown her great love and support. So I know, first-hand, that one size does not fit all in the ballet world.
neither is ballet a career for everyone…hugmamma.