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Advice: Maintaining creative spirit and voice...


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Here is one of those phantom topics that appears to me lately in the wee hours of the morning when I should be sleeping. Maybe parents of professional dancers can share their thoughts about this. I am trying to reconcile what we parents of older teen dancers have learned, as our eyes are opened - so far - to the realities of today's classical ballet as a choice for a career and the years of happily dedicated training that have gone behind it.


Ballet is inherently disciplined. Not just for the body, but for the mind and the emotions whether in training or a job context. Body, mind and emotions - a lot of discipline. But it is also an art, in the end, and it is artistry and creativity which is I think what most parents see when their young child dances at home and their spirits beg to go to ballet class. Art requires creative freedom to bloom. You may have a child like mine, who has been determined to be a ballet dancer from before she could speak a full sentence. Your child may now be an adult and living this ballet life. My question is this. How does a professional ballet dancer continue to grow creatively, and therefore with happiness in their life while constantly under the subjective artistic eye of someone else's artistic vision and with the constant and necessary uncertainty literally from year to year of whether their body (not their creative or intelligent mind) is a fit for this other person's vision and not feel like a puppet without a voice? Do they continue to grow artistically and creatively, even when they are not in those transforming moments on stage in one of their opportunities to perform? How do corps dancers, for instance, reconcile their need for expression of artistic individuality while they are still performing corps roles?


And one more thought...how do young professional dancers reconcile their natural need to have normal dialogue, voice their concerns and basically just learn to communicate in such potentially unstable and hierarchical contexts?

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Hopefully they find themselves in an environment where they don't feel their creativity is stiffled in any other way than the normal issues that occur when one has to start from the bottom and work their way up again. This is what we mean when we've stated that when ballet becomes the job, for some the fun ends or lessens. But even if they do feel a bit stiffled, they learn to advocate for the creativity that desire or feel is lacking in the environment and make ways for it to happen! It may be that for a time that creativity comes from other areas in their life for a time. Dancewise, they should begin to make the connections where some of the wonderful off season and layoff opportunities begin to come their way. Those do take time to cultivate but they make for a hugely creative environment in the summers to feed the creative soul until such time as the dancer is able to perform more individual roles where a bit more creativity is allowed.


Hopefully, they also find themselves in an environment where along with classical works, they get to work while new classical works (less corp usually) are being created or new contemporary works being set. This allows a bit more of the creativity within to be shown and honored. Understanding that in larger companies, a new dancer may not be involved in this process for some time because those opportunities usually go to more seasoned dancers. But they also can find outlets to choreograph, they can seek out summer performances which generally involve the creation of new works. They can teach and be creative in the classroom with their own students. They can take up other creative outlets: dance photography, painting, etc.


In reality, while they may feel like a "puppet without a voice" for the newer dancer into a company this is not much different than a new worker in the corporate environment. It takes time in the environment to figure out what you can and can't say, who you can and can't say it to, and if you can say anything at all and expect to keep your job. But at the same time they realize this, they must also learn to own who they are as a young adult. Understanding that they may or may not be able to control if they are the vision of someone else. They must bring to the table that which they can: adaptability, work ethic, etc. Knowing that if they are planning for their future, any determination that they are no longer a fit for this place will not derail their ability to move to the next venture with ease because they never stopped planning for the "just in case".


Corp is about blending and making a group of dancers dance beautifully and in sync. It is not about the individual, but it is still about the expression of a creative and artistic being. Just not about the expression of that creativity to benefit the individual. And this is hard to deal with for some. I know a dancer who spent every lunch hour in an empty studio dancing and choreographing. Another dancer took classes at a local studio that offered lyrical classes because those fed her creativity a bit more. It's all about learning to work within the confines of your environment to still feed that need.


DD had the opportunity to speak with a dancer who left a very large company for a smaller yet fabulous one. Besides being promised over and over again to be promoted and this being one reason for her leaving, another was that she longed to have the ability to be in on the creative process and that was more easily achieved in that smaller company than the larger one she was in for years. That conversation confirmed for DD that it was okay to be a big fish in a small pond for the short years she had planned to dance at that time. (Ha! We surpassed that time she set 2+ years ago)


I found that with DD, making sure that she balanced her friendships in the company with friendships outside the company were incredibly important. While an outsider might not understand the day to day frustrations of a dancer, they might be a safer place to vent.

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Momof3 is so wise and her observations are spot on! Especially her observations about being a new company member and the purpose of the corps as well as the importance of life outside ballet!


I think there are opportunities to feed the creative soul even when a dancer is new to the company and spending most of the time blending into the corps. It's good for a new dancer to be friendly with more seasoned dancers who might know of opportunities that are either dance or outside the field too. During dd's first year, in the spring, her company associates invited her to participate in one of the local houses Fashion Show. She was also included in promotions for Fashion Week and later in the fall. No, it's not dance but it allowed her to spread her wings, perform in a different context and wear some killer shoes and dresses! DD also took Argentinian Tango and Hip Hop classes during the year so she could "keep moving" in different ways. During her second year, she was asked by colleagues to participate in the choreographic workshop. One of the pieces was set on her as the principal and not only was it a wonderful compliment but it definitely fed the creative soul. There's a lot that goes on in and around ballet companies. It's just a matter of settling in, developing a reputation as a smart and hard-worker and being nice and friendly. If your dd finds it takes a while for things like this to happen, there are always on-line college level courses to enrich the mind and stimulate the imagination!


edited to address the final question:

As for communicating within a company.... it gets easier with time. Again, once the dancer establishes themselves are hard-working and smart and as a team player, the ballet staff begins to count on him/her. When that happens, dialogue becomes easier. Other than a passing hello, most dancers really don't have long dialogues with the AD. The AD of any company wears many hats and is a busy person. When and if your dancer ever sits down with the AD, it's usually the AD's agenda. I know my own dd has a written list of her goals: short term and long term and keeps it with her all the time. Whenever she meets with the AD, she takes the list with her and she found it appropriate to share it with him and he said she was very motivated and very smart. He was impressed. Her point of view is that it's her responsibility to manage her career, not the AD's. If her goals are being met or worked towards, then the company is a good place to be. If not, it's time to look further afield.

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Wonderful information, Momof3! Your experiences, and those of your dancer are so valuable in our process of educating our great parents here who are trying to learn so much while supporting their young dancers. :thumbsup:


I can only relate my own experiences, in terms of dancing with a major company and starting in the corps. I loved it from day one. All I had ever wanted was to be there, to dance every day, to travel and perform, to work and learn from great dancers, teachers and choreographers. And I had that opportunity! I don't remember ever feeling creatively stiffled in any way. I was doing what I wanted to do more than anything and making a living at it. (More or less....the pay in those days was pretty sad, but, that was just all a part of it and not the most important thing at all.) Of course I wanted to do solo roles, and become a soloist, and I was fortunate enough to do that. But ballet is a process where one is constantly striving to learn, grow, and become better and better, and it is that process that keeps you going. New ballets every year, different choreographers to work with, different styles of ballet to learn, and always the performing! Every performance is a creative thing, as every one is a little different. You are learning constantly, exploring new works, finding new ways to make every performance better, whether as a corps member, a soloist, or a principal dancer.


Along with that, there was the knowledge, for me anyway, that my life was in ballet, one way or another, forever. So learning to teach, exploring choreography, studying music and other arts that all become a part of one's growth as a dancer, are how one can continue to feel creative and productive. I loved teaching and just really always knew that was where I was going, ultimately. And, again, I was very fortunate to be able to do that...and still do it, and still love it, even at what some might consider a relatively "advanced" age! :D


Editing to say that swanchat's post is also excellent! I was writing when she posted. :)

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This is a really good question, Marigold (and I'm all too familiar with those sleepless nights, so here's wishing good sleep for you tonight :flowers: ). I really want to think about it some more, but have some initial thoughts that resemble those posted above.


The first word I thought of when I read your question was "resilience". The kind of resilience that has been discussed in a number of threads here. Momof3's and Swanchat's posts are spot on, and I would say my DD's experience thus far closely resembles Ms. Leigh's description. Ms. Leigh's comment that "it is the process that keeps you going" is exactly the kind of stimulation I think my DD feels. You can walk into yet another Flowers rehearsal and go through the motions you know so well, or you can make something of it each and every time. Research new to you (existing, not newly created) choreography by watching multiple versions on YouTube. Know the subtleties of each version and the preferences of the person staging the work. Listen to the music over and over again. Pick it apart. Put it together in chunks. You get the idea.


I understand what you mean about being under someone else's artistic vision, but I think one way a dancer becomes "part" of that vision (and not subject to it) is through dependability. Preparation above and beyond the call, always knowing every spot in the corps, always marking on the side instead of sitting down, always being prepared to be thrown in...I think all of these things result in a different trust relationship between dancer and AD. There is a time and place for the dancer to voice his/her artistic opinion, but I would not say that that never happens, in fact quite the opposite after some time and experience and trust have been cultivated.


I'm anxious to hear what others have to add.

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You can walk into yet another Flowers rehearsal and go through the motions you know so well, or you can make something of it each and every time.


And sometimes, after a killer week of performances (night and matinee) and rehearsals of classical, neo-classical and contemporary styles (all in the same day), artistic fulfillment comes in terms of being happy you just managed to survive and learn the vision expected of you. :mellow: That and like Miss Leigh says

doing what I wanted to do more than anything and making a living at it
Even when dd is way past tired and way past sore doing work blending in the corps with a few opportunities to learn (not perform for the most-part) solo roles, she feels fulfilled. Miss Leigh pointed out that she was fulfilled by learning from great teachers, directors and choreographers. I've heard this repeatedly from our dd. The artist in her is honored to be taught by these people who protect and pass on the art!
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Interesting question Marigold, and interesting answers. As mom of a dd, I am driven but not quite as creative, and frankly, would not of thought of this question, and I certainly don't have an answer.


But in reading about dancers, I have always been struck with the restless desire to create that often is discussed. Currently, I am reading Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear. As a "rule follower", I was almost uncomfortable with the brash way that Peter Boal pursued creativity when he was "stuck" in the corp at NYCB...to the point of hiring his own dancers to work with the choreographers that he wanted to dance with, and getting donations to put it all together and present it in a theater, and quitting for a season to dance and study in Europe. Such drive, impulsivity and desire.


DD currently plays the piano or draws, mostly ballet inspired illustrations, when she is tired of the disciplined routine. Her pre-pro training, with endless hours of repetition and the coveted class of rep once or twice a week, is also hard for a creative soul. She is actually looking forward to time in the corp someday...a chance to use the skills learned in a variety of ways and working with other skilled dancers and choreographers. But I suppose even that gets routine after awhile, and then inspiration is pursued as mentioned above so eloquently, or as evident in other dancer's lives.

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Thank you all! It’s so great to hear your voices on here, opening up some windows into how you or your children live this dance life. I tend to be a positive thinker and I realize my posted question reflects that I am in one of those transition phases of parenthood that grabs you in the middle of the night and shakes your thoughts up! I recall going through this months before each of my older two left for college for the first time and I knew I couldn’t affect their happiness or success in any direct way. The wee hours of occasional sleepless nights do tend to edit out all but your greatest concerns and a person’s brain is not in the best shape at that time to understand their own life, let alone someone else’s future!


But those boxes of old unsorted photos have surfaced again – the ones that hold reminders of happy and creative childhoods that are now just about completed. :( My youngest is my dancer and she has, as have most older children whose parents frequent this board, made ballet her life. She’s been at living on her own this year spending an average of 7 hours a day in a studio, with little time but weekends to finish high school. On her off hours, besides school work, she and her roommate buy ingredients to cook their meals, eat who knows what, and begin the day again… at the studio. Her experience at this point in this particular school would possibly be said to be a version of what life could be like in the future, as far as a number of things. And that’s good preparation. I have never felt I needed to ask her if she is still happy, because she is such a resilient soul, is level headed and insists on a light hearted attitude periodically, fortunately, verging on goofy. But at one point I did ask and she looked at me in disbelief. She does really find happiness in the overall whole process and would not trade it. The day to day grind is not a grind for her. I can see that when I finally get to go observe a class, but for those of you on the board who have dancers at residential programs, you may know what I mean about wondering while waiting to see them dancing again. But for this parent... those boxes with the unsorted photos have been re-surfacing, filled with evidence of this very creative child’s life . At this stage, we parents have an inkling of this hard ballet life that lies ahead now and you think of that, then look back at the box and you just hope the little person who is in the box is still going to be allowed to be expressed, being that they are also still inside the adult. To that end, I guess I shouldn’t worry, because what better way to allow that to happen is there than to pursue an art, like dance?


We still don’t know where her road will lead, of course. She’s choosing another year of training for herself, knowing her own body and what she thinks she personally needs to be to be the best candidate for a company job. Momof3 and swanchat, your practical advice and sharing of your daughters’ successful navigation of their paths is so generous. Your daughters should make you so proud! Among so many good points, thanks for the reminder that there will be a time off for creative and intellectual pursuits.


Ms Leigh, what always strikes me about your posts is your positive attitude towards life and how you did clearly find happiness in each part of your life in ballet. Your presence on BT4D is so warm and I am realizing this is why. You did understand how to make your life in ballet a happy life! Thank you for reminding us that the pursuit, itself, really is a process and that personal creative growth is very much as important. In fact, everyone's replies here have touched on this! I do see evidence of that happening in my daughter’s life, whether she reveals to me that she had made a decision to speak to a teacher or choose to cook eggs for more energy the next day… it’s problem solving and creative thinking, as much as opportunities for artistic creativity that makes a happy person! I realize as a mother that I often quietly smile about this. And I will know, when I see her perform soon, the process of the every day survival will have actually enriched her dancing with self-knowledge, as will her experience with challenging personalities she has met. Even the locking herself out of her apartment will add some patina!


And lovemydancers,



I understand what you mean about being under someone else's artistic vision, but I think one way a dancer becomes "part" of that vision (and not subject to it) is through dependability. Preparation above and beyond the call, always knowing every spot in the corps, always marking on the side instead of sitting down, always being prepared to be thrown in...I think all of these things result in a different trust relationship between dancer and AD.


This is so interesting and good to hear from your view down the road. I see how this can work, as in the relationships necessarily interdependent, one on the other, in any creative process. Come to think of it, of course I have heard ADs interviewed who speak of, at some point, recognizing and allowing a dancer they trust to take an artistic decision where they want. Similar to actors who have reached a point in their careers where a smart director gives them the reigns. This is something some day I hope dd, (if she makes it to this point) will experience. This is why at the still student level, something such as learning and rehearsing a lead role for someone who was sick was - yes, invaluable, whether she performed it or not. There is a constant readiness and what I notice is that it is not so much a competitive readiness (as I don't think dancer families can live compatibly that way) but a gentle mutual support that seems to go on and it's touching. And I am sure an AD feels supported in the same way from dancers who can be trusted to be prepared.


Lastly, I have to read Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear, learning.a.lot! Yes, dd is also looking forward to or hoping for time in a corps someday and knows very well her reasons why. These young dancers are so wise by now. This is one reason worrying moms like me should be kept at bay!! :happy:

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I just wanted to add this wonderful little article from today's paper about one of my favorite dancers. :wub: He speaks of how he maintains his creative and artistic curiosity, while continuing to work so intensely in the regulated world of ballet. Thank you, Mr. Hallberg!



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  • 3 weeks later...

I'm a little late to this thread but would still like to contribute dd's ability to maintain her creative and artistic curiosity while working in the world of ballet. When daughter started her apprentice job, the company was rehearsing for La Bayadere and there was an odd number of dancers in the Kingdom of the Shades. The ballet masters were struggling how to make the number of dancers to fit the music. My daughter made a comment that it was simple math and showed them who to move in time with the music so the footing would end at the end of the music. She received her first kudos from the staff right there. She is open and a problem solver and thought that ballet mistress one day would be a neat job. But she needed the strength and challenge beyond the ballet studio. In her premiers she gave several parties as she loved to cook and entertain. Everyone in the company was invited. Cooking was an outlet for her. She baked for the studio and for another studio nearby as well. The most frequent requests were her "big American Birthday cakes". Then when she moved to a similar sized company in another country, she was expected to collaborate with the director on daily basis which kept her on her toes.He fed on his dancers and they fed on him. Sort of a symbiotic relationship. Still she found stimulation in collaborating with the director but has had added sewing leotards to her creative repitoire which she wears in class. She is an avid learner of culture, history and photography and watches all forms of dance and writes it off her taxes as continuing education. When watching old friends dancing at their companies, dinner usually follows the performance and there is usually a lively discussion about the performance, how the performance could be improved, what was the choreographer's intent etc. Museums and old cities help create those imaginative juices to keep flowing.


Edited to add: I forgot: she had to learn two new languages as she moved to different companies in different countries, both required in order to understand what was going on in class and rehearsal and necessary in order to survive in the city where she was living. Cooking from cookbooks in different languages, using metric units has been challenging. She always said that she learned the most, language wise, when there were mishaps, like looking for a lost box at the post office or explaining symptoms of illness to a doctor. I think that the experience of new language, new country, new culture can be very stimulating and forces you to think outside the box.

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What a motivated and accomplished dd you have Isu! Inspiring! I needed that this am! Thanks for sharing!

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I woke up this morning and just had to edit all those errors (never try to write coherently at 12:30am!)....not to mention, I left so much out that drives creativity in my dancer, so please excuse the revised edition.

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