Sunday, May 2, 2010

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?



  1. I've noticed from the forum that many members seem to have similar tastes in music. My own preference is for Chopin over Mozart when it comes to piano pieces. It may have something to do with my lack of patience with very technical pieces :) but I like to think it is because I can always put some of my own emotions into Chopin pieces. Whereas with Mozart, there is very little room for interpretation; I used to get scolded by my piano teacher whenever I played with rubato in classical pieces.

    Certainly, I think that my appreciation of Mao's artistry and style has a lot to do with the fact that there's a kind of spontaneity in her skating, even though her choreography would have been decided long beforehand. In her step sequences, Mao doesn't seem to think about what the next move should be; she simply does it.

    (One of the reason, I think, for my disliking of the 'face-slapping' move in Bells: too choreographed).

    And yet there is a cohesiveness to Mao's skating. The change from one element to another may look spontaneous, but there is an overall sense of symmetry behind her skating. A three-dimensional balance, whereby a move on one plane would be countered by a step in another, so that her step sequences look 'complete'.

    Thank you for writing this set of entries on a very fascinating topic :) Really, one could write a whole thesis on 'what is artistry' (although, I would say you're already approaching that with the level of analysis in this blog!)

  2. I love Chopin and dislike Mozart too! Mozart is the one composer that I really can't bring myself to like. (Though I suspect that is in part because he wrote mostly in major keys, and I have an overwhelming preference for minor keys.) The only piece of his that I regularly listen to is the Adagio from Piano Concerto No. 23--but that's probably because it's in F-minor. ^_^;;

    You're probably right about people on the Mao forum having similar tastes in music.

    So you played the piano? Interesting. I do think that people who have some sort of classical training, whether it be in dance or music or maybe even in the visual arts--we tend to like Mao because we have learned to pay attention to the subtle details--and that is what Mao excels at. The way she holds her arms, the little flourishes...

    I agree with you about the face-slapping. Even after Mao was able to infuse it with genuine emotion, it just seemed so forced and so un-Mao-like.

    Thanks as always for reading! You always have such interesting, insightful and well-written comments; it's a pleasure for me to read them (here and on the forum)!

  3. Whoops, the Mozart piano concerto Adagio is in F-sharp minor (duhh). It's one of my favorite keys, along with C-sharp minor! :P