Sunday, May 2, 2010

Musings on artistry (Part 3)—Being “in the moment”

When reflecting on artistry and expression, I recall a lesson I learned in ballet class about a month ago.  My ballet teacher—who once worked with legendary choreographers, danced in the original Broadway production of “West Side Story,” and rubbed shoulders with movie stars—was emphasizing the importance of being “in the moment.”

She had us do a simple port de bras: with the arms rounded and held down in front of the hips (like a pair of parentheses), you raise them up, preserving the roundness, to mid-torso level, and then open the arms wide.  While you do this, you are supposed to follow the movement of your hand with your eyes and head.

Now, in my less-than-humble opinion, I do lovely port de bras, with flowy wrists and soft fingers.  However, my teacher took one look at me, and said, “No, no no. You’re not seeing your hand.”  And it was true; I was inclining my eyes in the direction of my hands, but I was really half-admiring my reflection in the mirror.

“You have to see your hands!” she commanded.  So I did it again, but this time I actually focused on my hands.  I genuinely watched them move through space. 

My teacher’s response: “There, that’s so much better!”


This experience was a sort of epiphany for me.  Because “looking” without “seeing” is precisely what I see when I watch Yu-Na Kim perform.

In my opinion, Yu-Na Kim does all the choreographed movements perfectly; she gets all the facial expressions correct, but I feel like she is merely “doing” it without “feeling” it.  It doesn’t seem genuine to me. 

Akiko Suzuki, on the other hand, is also called an expressive skater, but everything she does seems genuine to me.  That’s real fire in her tango, and real joy in her “West Side Story” routine.

And this, I realize, is why I can love both gentle Mao Asada and fiery Diana Vishneva—because both seem to be honest in their performances, no matter how wildly different they may be.

Personally, I’d rather see Mao Asada genuinely caught up in her own performance, completely forgetting about the audience, than the “Look! I'm emoting!!” style favored by Yu-Na Kim.

The same goes for ballerinas—I love Vishneva and all her over-the-top drama because I’m convinced that she’s absolutely crazy—about ballet.  This is the artist who rehearsed the mere act of opening the door in “Giselle” five-hundred times (five hundred!) to make it perfect.  This is the performer who crashed into a scenery piece while exiting the stage but returned to finish the ballet, bloody knee and all.  This is the ballerina I can see dancing until she drops dead onstage.  So while other people may find Vishneva too wild, too passionate, I love it—she’s 100% convincing to me.

In contrast, Natalia Osipova, the Bolshoi ballerina known for her gravity-defying leaps and speedy turns, left me cold when I saw her perform in “La Sylphide” last summer.  Like the people sitting around me, I was amazed by her technique, but while they swooned, I cringed at every artificial expression that seemed to say, “here’s my cute face,” and “here’s my sad face,” and “Look-now I’m dying!”

Unsurprisingly, honesty in performance is another quality dancers admire about my other favorite ballerina, Julie Kent.  ABT soloist Cory Stearns said, “I feel when Julie Kent dances, she finds something so deep inside of herself and brings it out.”  Miami City Ballet principal Jennifer Carylnn Korneberg echoes, “I'd have to say that the ballerina I admire most from this generation though is Julie Kent. She has such an honesty, purity and selflessness about her dancing that takes my breath away.

So it seems that the quality of “being in the moment” rather than “showing me the moment”—the ability to not only portray a certain emotion but also to find something inside oneself to make it true—THIS is what I value most in terms of performing.

Truth and beauty.  That’s all I ask for.

Musings on artistry (Part 2)—“Beauty in motion”

After considerable self-reflection, I have realized that there are three things I look for in terms of artistry: beauty, musicality, and expression. 

“Beauty” stems from the skater or dancer’s technical prowess/physical ability—does she have beautiful lines and positions?  Does she carry herself gracefully?  Is she flexible; does she turn out?  If I took a snapshot of this position, would it be beautiful?  Is her execution flawless? Does she make the steps seem effortless? 

I love both Mao and Vishneva because they are—to borrow the title of Vishneva’s solo show—“beauty in motion.”  Vishneva herself said, “When you turn your technique into lightness, that’s what is worthwhile.”

And that is what I see when I see both Mao and Vishneva perform—an uncanny ability to appear lighter than air, like impossibly ethereal beings.  They make even the most difficult, complex steps look effortless and beautiful.

These qualities appear to be the very ones that ballet dancers themselves admire.  Two of the ABT corps de ballet members picked my other favorite, Julie Kent, as the dancer they most admire for these reasons.  Melanie Hamrick said, “She is the essence of a ballerina and beauty; even if she’s doing something that is so hard, she looks weightless and effortless.”  And Hee Seo echoed, “I think the most important thing—and it took me years to come to this conclusion—is that you have to be beautiful. Julie Kent is the most beautiful dancer in ABT. She’s not doing large, big pirouettes, but she is so beautiful.”

Julie Kent and Roberto Bolle in MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet”

Perhaps it is because of my ballet training, and perhaps because of my extreme attention to detail, but I value beauty in dancing and in skating very highly.  And since I am very flexible despite sitting in an office all day long, I am extremely critical of the lady skaters who lack flexibility (which seem to be the majority).  I instinctively look for beautiful body lines and extension, and I can’t help but cringe when I see awkward, ungainly positions. 

And this is why I can be perfectly content watching top-class dancers or skaters practice even the simplest steps.  There might be no music, they might be completely unaware of my presence and making no effort to perform, but the sheer beauty and apparent effortlessness of their movement is enough to keep me fascinated.


Beyond the exceptionally pretty technique, there is the innate musicality of Mao and Vishneva that I admire.  Other dancers and skaters may seem to respond well to the music, they may seem to express it well, but in the case of Mao and Vishneva, I feel as if the music is flowing through them. 

A friend of Rudolf Nureyev once exclaimed, “You are a Stradivarius,” while watching him dance on the grass without any music other than the beat of his own heart. “Inside you are singing, and the steps are coming.”  This is what I feel when I watch Vishneva and Mao: their bodies seem to be the very instruments producing the sound.

To me, they are able to do this because they use their entire bodies—not just the arms and the face, but the entire torso and back—to express the music.  I am used to watching ballet from the back of the balcony.  I can barely see the performer’s face, but if she carries the music in her body—in the curve of her back, the tension her shoulder blades—then I can feel the emotion.  Expression through the body is extremely important to me.

Mao Asada dancing to the music in her heart

(This is from the 'making of' video for Mao's 2009 Asience CM.)

But what about “performing”?

Musings on artistry (Part 1)—My conundrum

I know I haven't posted about Mao's journey for awhile, and I do intend to get back to that eventually, but in the meantime, here are some of my thoughts on artistry--this is something I've thought a lot about recently...


For me, summer means ballet, and last year’s season gave me fresh fodder for determining what exactly I consider to be superior “artistry” and “expression.”

And after 2009 Worlds, when everyone was raving incessantly about Yu-Na Kim, I felt a need to analyze and articulate why I disliked her style so much.  Although I had never been a fan of hers, I could readily acknowledge that she was very good: she has huge, powerful jumps, great speed and a discernable polish to her performances.  Starting in the 2008-09 season, however, her style and expression really began to annoy me.

As I mentioned in one of my early posts, comparing Mao Asada and Yu-Na Kim is quite tricky.  They lack the obvious physical differences that separate, say, gymnasts Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson.  So by analyzing and articulating why I like Mao and why I don’t like Yu-Na, I have learned a lot about what I personally value in terms of aesthetics, expression and artistry. 


I freely acknowledge (and have often seen) that other people will disagree with my opinions.  I took ballet lessons from a very young age and played the violin; those experiences have definitely shaped my views on artistry.  But I think that most people haven’t had the classical training I received, so they don’t look for ballet lines, and they focus primarily on facial expression instead of full-body expression.

Ballerina on ice

I had long known that I loved Mao because she is a ballerina on ice—such flexibility, such gorgeous lines, such graceful lightness.  On the other hand, Yu-Na lacks flexibility (though not as badly as others), and although she might be “dramatic,” she generally is not that graceful, and she does not emote through her whole body.

And up until summer 2009, I figured that I favored Mao, who was sometimes accused of lacking expression in her face, because facial expression doesn’t really matter to me. 

Indeed, I had a clear history of picking the graceful, beautiful, subtle performers as my favorites—even though others called them “cold,” “expressionless,” or “boring.”  During the 2008 Summer Olympics, I was a big fan of Nastia Liukin, with her gorgeous lines and balletic grace, but others called her “bitchy-looking” compared to the “effervescent” Shawn Johnson.  And it was not until I saw the willowy, ethereal Julie Kent that I became obsessed with ballet, even though others found her “cold.”  Even my favorite violinist, Julia Fischer, is notoriously anti-flashy, anti-celebrity; she uses her superlative technical talent to let the beauty of the music speak for itself.

Last summer, however, the legendary ballerina Diana Vishneva turned my world upside down.  Here was a performer who is known as much for her force-of-nature on-stage persona as for her “exceptionally pretty technique.”

Here was an artist who demands attention and so fully captivates viewers that the New York Times dance critic Alastair Macauley once wrote, “The sheer luster of her presence is often startling; I know of no dancer today who so gloriously seems a source of light.

Diana Vishneva in Don Quixote

After the Opening Night Gala where I saw her dance live for the first time, she became my absolute, uncontestable favorite.

But this development created quite a conundrum for me.  How could I reconcile my adoration of the soft, subtle Mao Asada and my love for the fiery Vishneva?  And how could I so turned off by Yu-Na Kim’s diva-ish performances but awed by Vishneva’s ability to own the stage?  How could I make sense of these seemingly contradictory preferences?