The Great Illusion

“Onstage, we are ethereal. In the studio, we are human.”

Tutus. Tiaras. French twists. Satin, theatrical pink pointe shoes. The world of dance is a glamorous one for sure. But behind the curtain is the reality-human beings who sweat, lose their breath, and feel pain. Behind the scenes dancers are doing everything possible to maintain a level of technical and visual perfection. Tissues are on hand for blotting at sweaty brows, ibuprofen to mask a nagging pain, the reddest of lipsticks to make your smile stand out-the tricks are endless. But the final product is worth it. It is enough to sway children to step into the studio and try a ballet class. It brings a tear to the eye and stirs applause and standing ovations. It is the great illusion.

Coppelia hair 2013-stage ready
Coppelia hair, 2013-stage ready

The display onstage is enough for viewers young and old to think that ballet is a piece of cake. What could be better than dancing around dressed in a fabulous outfit with a cavalier to pick you up and spin you around on your toes? But there comes a point in training when the game changes. The work of the art form rears its ugly head and, sadly, many are not up for the challenge. For some, the daily physical battle and quest for perfection is too high a cost for mere moments of greatness onstage…but, to others, this is everything.

The daily life of a dancer looks much different than the snap shot that is captured onstage. Although an aura of glamour remains in the studio, the picture is not as pretty. While the audience sees a preened soloist and cookie cutter corps, each Shade or Wili looking exactly like the next, in the studio not just characters exist, but human beings. Tights frequently are riddled with holes, warmups protect aching muscles, “trash bag” apparel is as far as the eye can see, but the work does not suffer as a result. Although dancers may not look their absolute best 100% of the time, studio work provides the growth and strife that every dancer needs to experience.

In the studio, 2015
In the studio, 2015

“For some, the daily physical battle and quest for perfection is too high a cost for mere moments of greatness onstage…but, to others, this is everything.”

In the studio, we see the details (it’s like showing your work in algebra and calculus; it’s the meat of everything-the reason the answer exists). The stretches, the care that is taken with the body, the incessant practice of a simple movement-it all happens there. In class and rehearsal, the process is not hidden away under glamour. The athleticism shines through. Onstage, we are ethereal. In the studio, we are human. I was always told that class is your time. The time to take chances, to be relentless, and to push myself to my absolute breaking point. But unlike a sport, the stage is not the place for that kind of behavior. There is room for passion and expression, but technically it is not a time to be overly brave. The illusion does not allow for mistakes.

The next time you go to the ballet, either contemporary or classical, you should appreciate the work before you. Behind the glitz and glam and gobo lighting are artists who work every day to create beauty through movement. The product they present before you is one that has been nurtured. The time spent in the studio has made the experience what it is at that very moment-a chance to be flawless. Presentation is pristine, pain is masked, and the days toiling away at perfection are unknown to you. This is the great illusion of the stage.

Stage meets studio. Getting ready backstage, 2014 - Photo Courtesy of Keith Alan Sprouse
Stage meets studio. Getting ready backstage, 2014 – Photo Courtesy of Keith Alan Sprouse
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