Artistry: Mystery vs Transparency
When I saw Frederick Wiseman’s 1995 film Ballet listed in our October issue’s “Moving Images” department, memories of the hours I spent watching this documentary flooded back. The film is a unique perspective on the lives of artists, and in remembering it, I thought about the conversations teachers might have with students—conversations about artistry, how we perceive it, and what enhances or impairs those perceptions.
The film, an intimate portrait of American Ballet Theatre, fascinated and frustrated me. Fascinated because it captures the reality of studio life at a beloved company—the politics, dramas, and (yes) wardrobes of the dancers. And frustrating because nothing is explained and no one is identified. That’s Wiseman’s style—no exposition, no titles, no voice-overs. He makes viewers work. More important, though, he creates a sense of mystique, providing enough access to a private world to enthrall us but not enough to let us fully understand it.
There’s value in that. Once upon a time, dancers lived behind a curtain that was opened only on occasion. Their private lives were just that—private, and full of glamour (real or perceived) and wondrousness (true or imagined). Think of the potency of Nureyev and Fonteyn, their chemistry, their exoticness. Now imagine if they had posted every detail of their lives online, how that intimacy might have diluted our experience of them as artists.
Today we see dancers in the studio, at home, on vacation. We watch them celebrate and complain; we see photos of their dogs, their babies, their bruised feet. We watch video clips of brilliant technique juxtaposed with face-plants and failed lifts. It’s fun, and it can be educational.
Yet perhaps something has been lost. At the theater, where once we might have seen only exquisite artists and supreme beings, now we see people like us. We see their beauty and athleticism, but we also know what they had for breakfast.
Being open and visible is a wonderful way for dancers to share their artistic lives with their admirers—but when we watch them through a diaphanous curtain, do we see art in a purer form? —Cheryl A. Ossola
DSL senior editor Cheryl A. Ossola, formerly DSL editor in chief, is a writer for San Francisco Ballet and a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. She holds an MFA in writing from the University of San Francisco.
Never Stop Dancing
The hours I spend sitting at a desk make me feel creaky; a recent “big birthday” turned my thoughts to using my life stages wisely and well. Perhaps that’s why Keep Dancing, a lovely 2010 film portrait of then-90-year-old dance icons Marge Champion and Donald Saddler, has been on my mind. (Saddler died in 2014.)
In 2001 Champion and Saddler performed together on Broadway. They had so much fun that they rented a studio to meet twice weekly to dance. In the film, we glimpse the nonagenarians stretching (Champion can still get her leg on the barre), rehearsing, laughing, and reminiscing. Footage from their glory days evokes memories from two long lives in show business.
You can’t help loving Saddler’s gallantry and devotion to dance, and Champion’s dimpled smile—Disney cast her at 14 as the model for Snow White—and sharp intelligence. “I had to learn a very, very important lesson,” she tells us, “and that was to accept every decade for what it gives you, not for what it takes away. And you can adjust. So you can’t do falls, or you can’t do lifts. But you can still move with grace.” You can’t help thinking they remained so mentally present, physically active, and creatively engaged because they kept dancing.
Others stay this active into their 90s, but I’ve known very few. Walk into any nursing home and you’ll see a more common scenario: elderly folks trapped by their bodies, confined to chairs and beds. A downward spiral of increasing immobility and health problems occurs only too easily.
Keep Dancing made me resolve never, never to stop dancing—and gave me a pang of envy for dance teachers! Research shows that daily exercise, especially dance, slows aging’s bodily and cognitive effects. But even dance won’t keep us young, of course. Champion tells it like it is: “Everybody wants to live eternally young. They’re fighting the wrong cause. They’re going to get old! They might as well find ways to enjoy it.” —Tamsin Nutter
DSL associate editor Tamsin Nutter lives in Berkeley, California. Formerly a marketing writer at MoMA in NYC, she trained at Vassar College and The Ailey School and danced with Regina Nejman & Company and others.