Bodies of Work

By David Allison

“It’s ok to appreciate the multifaceted nature of the body, its intelligence, beauty, and athleticism. It is all a part of the complex expression of the body/mind connection that can move us to a very deep understanding of ourselves and the world.” Emily Molnar, Artistic Director, Ballet BC


Not long ago, I wrote an article for Ballet BC, about how to watch a ballet performance. It was meant for people like me; people who are entirely new to the world of dance and have a lot of questions. Many people came up to me and said they enjoyed that article, and learned something useful from reading it. You can still read it here. I hope you find it useful too.

Because that first article was fun to write, and found an audience of fellow-newbies, I started thinking about what else people might want to know about ballet. The answer was fairly obvious: we want to know about those magnificent muscular bodies moving around up there on the stage; the Gods of Youth and Beauty.

You look at those bodies and you can’t help but feel guilty about missing the gym today, or eating too many donuts at the office last week, or all the cheese you just wolfed down at the pre-show reception. You wonder about your misguided youth spent leaning against a bar, drinking beer and eating pretzels. You look at those bodies with a mixture of awe, admiration and envy. Some who are more honest will also admit to feeling desire.

I also thought about how, compared to other forms of artistic expression, dance is the most ridiculously personal form of art-making. For the dancer-as-artist there’s no tool between you and the audience: your body is the tool. With a painting, the artist has a brush and a canvas and paint and time to help keep the audience a healthy physical and temporal distance away from the act of creation. Singers aren’t half naked, Lady Gaga aside. Actors have props and sets and a script. But with a dancer, it’s just you on a stage. That raw exposure could feel liberating (the way film people talk about how theatre is more fulfilling) and certainly must be absolutely terrifying. You and I look in a mirror and wonder if the chocolate-cake-binge from last night has had any ill-effects on how we look. Imagine pondering that in front of a couple thousand people while wearing a scrap of cheesecloth.

I think we all have questions we want to ask about dancers’ bodies. I’m sure I’m not the only one. But just walking up to someone and asking them to talk about their body is a pretty awkward thing to do. Like walking up to someone and asking about their receding hairline, or querying the origin of a particular nasty pimple on the side of someone’s nose. You just don’t do it.

So I needed some context, a setting, and some activity that would make talking about bodies absolutely natural. Then I could really dive into body-talk without feeling like a total weirdo.

Branislav Henselmann, the charming Executive Director of Ballet BC, helped. He arranged for two dancers, Peter Smida and Scott Fowler, to meet up with the strongest man I know, my fitness trainer and friend Greg Smith. I included myself in this experiment to make a quartet, and for pure entertainment value, because I am not strong, I am not flexible, I am not young, and I am not a dancer. And because someone had to write about this afterwards.

The four of us would workout in the gym under Greg’s supervision for a couple of hours. And we had planned another day to spend a few hours in the dance studio with Peter and Scott in charge of the proceedings. The dance studio hasn’t happened yet. There were injuries and scheduling problems and cross-country tours and, well, if it ever does come to pass that I am in a dance studio being bossed around by two professional dancers, I’ll write and tell you all about it. Turns out it wasn’t 100% necessary for this article after all, as there was so much else to say.

Out of Context

Peter and Scott and I reported to the gym for duty one Saturday afternoon, with Greg promising to work us hard for an hour or two. It was the first time Greg had met Peter and Scott, and the first time all four of us had spent any time together. The idea was to give all of us a chance to get to know each other a bit, and be comfortable doing physical things together, so we could more naturally talk about how our physical-selves are part of our daily lives.

For Scott, Peter and Greg, their physical-selves play a huge role in how they make a living. For me, I’m happy if my physical-self will fit into the jeans I bought last month.

Right away things started to get interesting.

When Greg corrected the angle of Scott’s elbow by 10 degrees, or had Peter move his feet a few inches wider apart as he lifted a barbell, both of the dancers were surprised by how precise the movements were. This is where art and science clash, in the sweatiest way possible. Getting your body parts from A to B is 150% scripted in the gym, while getting from A to B in dance is more fluid and open for interpretation. Dance people talk about “finding the freedom in the movement,” which is definitely NOT the case in the gym.

Greg’s instructions felt very much like what I imagine choreographic instruction is like. Anytime someone is telling someone else how to move their body in space, a common language is going to make those activities feel connected. I’m not sure why I was surprised that there are only so many ways to say “move your feet a few more inches apart,” but I was.

There was talk of resting more weight back on the heels (gym) instead of having your weight up on your toes (dance). We noticed that standing in the position that most gym-exercises require, with your butt out and shoulders back, is almost the exact opposite of the “coiled and ready to spring into action” stance that is the starting point for dance movement. Yoga has a stance too. So do racquet sports. All new to me, all of this talk of where my body is in space, and why it is good or bad.

Greg has trained hundreds of people how to lift weights over the years, and one of the first things he noticed about Peter and Scott was how expertly they controlled their bodies: “They know how to turn specific muscles on and off, and make things work even in unfamiliar surroundings with unfamiliar movements. It’s obvious they use their bodies professionally all day long,” he said.

I hate doing new exercises for the first time because I am inevitably bad at it. But with Peter and Scott, no matter the task assigned by Greg, they were fearless. They attacked unfamiliar challenges. They simply acknowledged when something was new to them, then did it, aced it, and waited to be told what was coming next. There was a distinct lack of whining and pleading. It hardly sounded like any of my workouts at all.

As an artist — any kind of artist working with any kind of medium — you can’t be afraid to do something wrong. It’s essential, as Virginia Woolf famously quipped, to “kill your grandmother.” You have to be willing to let it all hang out and not worry what other people think. Mastery of the tools of your art, in this case the body, is the other prerequisite if you are going to be any good at what you do. Seeing Peter and Scott in the gym, fearless and in such control, made it abundantly clear that they are artists of the highest calibre.

Relative Sloth

A few weeks after our workout, the dancers and I had brunch. Both Peter and Scott talked about how sore they were for a few days after the workout. The workout made them realize in a very muscular way that they spend most of their professional time lifting and pushing weights, but almost no time at all pulling anything.

They also wanted me to clearly understand — they stressed this a few times — that at the time of the workout they had been on vacation and hadn’t done anything physical for two whole entire seven-day-long calendar weeks.

To them this seemed like an absolutely Olympian feat of unimaginable slothfulness; like they invented the entire idea of not doing anything physical for two weeks. Surely no one had ever been so lazy before!?!

They were convinced the post-workout soreness they felt was related, in an important way. They wanted me to understand that while they were sore, it wasn’t entirely their fault.

Dancers’ Parts

I was lucky enough to talk with Peter and Scott on numerous occasions, and body-focused questions kept jumping up. The Q&A that follows is a compendium collected from several encounters, with conjoined answers that make it seem like Peter+Scott are talking with one voice.

Q: Are you, or were you, self-conscious that you were committing to an art form requiring 100% self confidence about your body? You are often mostly naked up there on stage. Or close to it.

We get handed a pair of tights on our first day of dance class when we are kids. It is a bit strange on that first day, but it’s like a costume when you are that young, like dressing up for Halloween. And then it just becomes natural.

Q: Does that sense of exposure get in the way of what you are trying to say or does it embolden you and make it easier to command attention from the audience? Do you use the audience’s awe as a tool to get them to pay attention? You know you are being stared at for sometimes less than artistic reasons?

A: At some point the art overtakes the shyness and the exposure becomes secondary. Maybe the reason for the tights is to help you (the dancer) figure out what people are looking at and how to take control of that dynamic. The costume (or lack of costume) is there to articulate the choreography and enhance the communication.

Q: When you look at a dancer what body parts are you most aware of? Is there something we should be looking for? Are stronger legs or broader shoulders or bigger arms a signal to a choreographer to use a dancer in a certain way? Are there messages that we can pick up from the way a dancer presents his or her body, above and beyond the intent of the choreography?

A: In classical ballet a short torso with long legs and arms has always been the ideal. It’s basically torsos moving in space, with the legs and arms doing all the talking. In contemporary ballet it’s different, not as strict, but length will always be important. Length is a good thing but proportion is more important. You want to be long and fill the room with energy, length allows you to create a bigger statement, to be more. Tall guys always get partnered with girls, because the girls are often on point, so the short guys end up looking even shorter. Peter is tall, and he is surprised when he isn’t partnered with someone for a piece. He just expects it as his fate.

Q: You’ve talked to me about how you interpret what the choreography gives you; to make it work as part of the team but be unique to your own self. Tell me specifically how your body helps you do this. How do you use a shoulder, for example, to make something yours?

Some movements are obvious, they are part of everyone’s vernacular as a human being. We can all make a happy movement or a sad movement. Sometimes it can be simple and literal. Other times it’s more abstract: we need to make a sad or melancholy feeling happen without resorting to the vernacular of everyday movements. More inventiveness is required. Other times it might just be purely about physicality and celebrating what the body can do….look how high I can jump! You shouldn’t try too hard to understand everything. It’s not often a literal message, more just a mood or a feeling that we are trying to create.

Q: Physically, what’s hardest?

A: The hardest things are the unison parts. Those are the hardest rehearsals, where we are all trying to look exactly like everyone else, because we aren’t exactly like everyone else. We all have our own training and our own mechanics. Trying to look the same is really about everyone using their bodies differently to achieve the illusion of sameness. Group work is ironically the most individually challenging thing we have to do.

The First Time

A week after Greg saw his first Ballet BC performance, which was also the first time he’d seen any ballet performance at all, we met for a coffee. What follows is almost verbatim what he had to say. Fact is, the normally taciturn Greg had a lot to say and I had a hard time keeping up:

“Other than watching Black Swan this was the first time I’d seen ballet, and I’d only ever really thought about the stereotypical classical stuff. It was not at all what I thought it would be. I kept trying to understand it, to look for some kind of structure. I guess I wanted a story to follow, something that would help me understand what I was looking at. But I couldn’t find any.

Of course the first thing I noticed was the bodies. Even though I’d met Scott and Peter and worked out with them at the gym I didn’t recognize them on the stage. They looked much bigger, their bodies seemed bigger, and the way they carried themselves was bolder. I was very surprised.

I noticed a lot of chaotic body movement, compared to the movements we do in the gym. The amount of movement in their trunks, their torsos, was really unexpected and fascinating to watch.

I’m nervous about meeting these guys in the dance studio. My world is all about being 100% in control and it seems like their world is all about letting go.”

After Watching RITE on Saturday May 9th, 2015

Along with some close friends, including one novitiate who had never been to see ballet of any kind before, I went to Ballet BC’s final performance of the 2014/2015 season. The first dance of the evening was called RITE, after Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the score for a ballet first performed in the early 1900’s that caused riots in the streets. Yes, art caused riots.

The modern-day version we saw was choreographed by Ballet BC’s multi-talented Artistic Director Emily Molnar, and featured intriguing set design by Omer Arbel (shapes suspended from the ceiling were actually giant constellations of salt crystals grown in huge vats of water) and a musical score by local indie legend Jeremy Schmidt.

The stage was full of dancers, black silhouettes that seemed hugely alone and disconnected, living in their own worlds, yet connected at some DNA-level as they involuntarily acted out the rituals of birth and struggle and resilience and perseverance and finally, maybe, acceptance of death and rebirth. No pretty little bagatelle about a happy ballerina and a handsome prince here. This was, instead, the biggest, most elemental story of everything, always and forever.

Dancers were alone, in groups, in clusters, alone, everywhere at once and then nothing. It was dark, but natural, and fecund, and the music by Jeremy Shaw – Drone Music – was the only thing that could have been the score for this. The incessant thrumming nature of it was thick like peat moss; deep spongy layers on the forest floor. The music, like the dancers, was everywhere, but hard to follow, and sometimes very alone. It felt like the music for the beginning and the end of the universe.

It was muscular music. And it was muscles and bodies and salty crystalline sweat that drove the action forward. All ballet features bodies and athleticism to some degree, but in this dance the body was an attractant, it was bait, a tool, a burden, a plaything. It was the sensual material that makes the world. To see all those lithe and beautiful bodies reveling in their fleeting power, was at the same time hauntingly sexy and horribly sad.

The Ghosts

I was alone in my seat at the theatre watching all this. But I wasn’t really alone.

My friend and fitness guide Greg Smith was there with me, because he taught me how to perceive my body in new ways, to be aware of what it can do, and how it wants to be pushed.

The Dancers Peter Smida and Scott Fowler were with me, even though they were on stage, because understanding them even as little as I do made the journey they were going through on the stage more physically knowable. I’d stood beside them and lifted weights with them and knew where they were strong and what it was like to be in their minds, just a little bit.

Branislav Henselmann, Ballet BC’s Executive Director, and Emily Molnar, the choreographer and Artistic Director, who have quite literally taught me everything I know about dance, were whispering in my ears, even though they weren’t.

My love was beside me. My friends were near. A ballet virgin, an initiate, was part of the party.

This is why the process of getting to know everyone and thinking all these thoughts about flesh and blood and muscles and bone and joints and injuries and strife and aging — this was why all that happened to me. So that I could experience this dance on this night.

We were all there alone, apart, living our life in our own bodies, out of control of the world around us, but controlled, together, united in a dance. A dance that was, and is, and ever shall be, much bigger than the one on the stage that night.

Check out more from David Allison at his website, and on Twitter.

Greg Smith, Peter Smida, Scott Fowler and David Allison, post-workout at Kalev Fitness.