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.