Artistry in seven shades of grey

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Alina Cojocaru as Manon, with Joseph Caley as Des Grieux, at Manchester Opera House. Photograph by Laurent Liotardo.
Alina Cojocaru as Manon, with Joseph Caley as Des Grieux, at Manchester Opera House. Photograph by Laurent Liotardo.

Last year, I had the pleasure of dancing alongside the world renown ballerina, Alina Cojocaru, in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, with the Queensland Ballet. I was the sleazy rich guy, Monsieur GM; she played the title role’s duplicitous temptress. If I had a dollar for each time someone said – “Alina’s such an artist!” – I would be richer than Elon Musk! It was a well-earnt compliment which made me think two things: (first a selfish thought) What about me? And then, philosophically, what do we mean by artistry?

Understanding artistry is important for everyone. As a dance practitioner, you will be judged in your training and performance for your adherence to these hard-to-define qualities. As leaders and educators, you guide the progression of the artform with excellent artistic offerings. And, as an audience member, you act as the artistic barometer with your attendance and applause. What is clear is that a performance full of artists can elevate an average production to good and a great show to amazing. Yet it is unclear for most as to how this is achieved. Furthermore, opinions vary, as artistic offerings in all genres are always subjective. Look at acting and films, such as the movie review website, Rottentomatoes. I mean, seriously people, how could Notting Hill only have a positive rating score of 79 per cent? And Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant were brilliant . . . weren’t they?

In unpacking the grey zone of artistry in dance, first you need to appreciate the traits that all artists share – or as I like to call them, “The seven shades of grey” – because they are distinct, yet hard to define.

Shade 1: Musicality

“Dance is music made visible” is a famous quote from choreographer George Balanchine. Weirdly, great artists do not always dance “on” the music. Like great musicians, they understand the rules and when it is appropriate to break them. For instance, if a dancer is a swan in the corps de ballet of Swan Lake, synchronicity adds power to the scene. However, Odette may subtly play with the musical phrasing to create spontaneity within her characterisation. After all, Odette is rather flighty and trepidatious of Prince Siegfried in their initial meeting, and to create this effect, her timing must appear real and natural. This can be taught to an extent; however, with great artists, this is instinctive and vibrating within them.

Shade 2: Charisma

Stage presence, X Factor, star quality – you know it when you see it. Former Australian Ballet principal Steven Heathcote had it (still does) and a smile that reached every seat in the theatre. Rudolf Nureyev brought something wild to the stage – as does Natalia Osipova – with a seeming unpredictability and spontaneity which commanded attention. Mikhail Baryshnikov had a “laddish” charm. Tamara Rojo: a fiery intensity. Charisma manifests differently in each dancer, but their watchability is the same.  

Charisma in dance is one part stage craft, two parts likability, with a dash of the promise of excitement.

Natalia Osipova: the very definition of artistry.
Natalia Osipova brings a seeming spontaneity to her roles. Photo by Johan Persson.

Shade 3: Aesthetics

Two dancers spring instantly to mind: French ballerina Sylvie Guillem and Italian dancer Roberto Bolle. Coincidently, both dancers have performed Russell Maliphant’s Two, a striking solo work which requires an exceptional physique and physical range to perform. Certain roles look best when the dancer’s body can create particular shapes. For instance, MacMillan’s famous role of Manon, being orientated a lot in profile, favours ballerinas with excellent upper back mobility, leg rotation and shape, with aquiline feet.

However, aesthetic requirements change for various choreographers, and can be dependent on which company they’re creating on. Take British choreographer Akram Khan, whose fusion of Indian classical dance and contemporary dance focuses more on the range, mobility and strength of the upper body and less – typically – on leg rotation and shape. However, Khan noted, when working with English National Ballet’s dancers on his work, Dust, that he adapted his choreographic language when working with classically-trained bodies. He describes them as: “super-charged technical putties.”

Disclaimer: the “ideal” physique in dance is dependent on the dance work, role performed and company, and not every great dancer has an amazing body like Guillem or Bolle. The best dancers often don’t have the best facilities but have worked incredibly hard to shape what DNA has given them, through accurate technique, alignment and strengthening.

Shade 4: Obsessive compulsive tendencies

This may seem like an unusual quality to esteem for artistry: after all, it can be a debilitating disorder. Uncontrolled obsessive behaviour in dancers can also lead to self-destructive tendencies, such as over-training, neuroticism and eating disorders.

However, I would argue that all great dancers display controlled obsessive-compulsive tendencies within their training – controlled being the optimum word. Look at footage of Baryshnikov in the movie Dancers, where he practised the same step – an angled double assemblé – over and over and over again. Just a movie, I know, but close to the truth. Likewise, Nureyev would practise his solos multiple times before a performance, almost exhausting himself. Legendary choreographer Martha Graham said “practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired”. Which then releases the dancer into an almost instinctive zone, where they trust in their ability to perform technically demanding steps, consistently, in an almost unconscious state. Thereby releasing the artist into a higher zone. Or as painter Edgar Degas put it: “Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.”

Shade 5: The “wow” element

Typically (not always, but mostly) great dancers have a “wow” element. This may be an ability to turn, like Rojo, or jump, like Osipova. Or perhaps it is flexibility, like the Royal Ballet’s Melissa Hamilton. Or an incredible acrobatic range – I am picturing the cast of Garry Stewart’s Australian Dance Theatre piece Birdbrain. An ability to isolate body movements can also bring a “wow; I am having a flashback of Kathryn Dunn from Chunky Move…years back now.

The 'wow' factor. This image is from Garry Stewart's 'Birdbrain': dancers Zoë Dunwoodie, Daniel Jaber, Christopher Mills, Thomas Fonua, Matte Roffe, Harrison Elliott, Natalie Allen, Rowan Rossi. Photo by Oliver Toth at Accent Photography.
The 'wow' factor. This image is from Garry Stewart's 'Birdbrain': dancers Zoë Dunwoodie, Daniel Jaber, Christopher Mills, Thomas Fonua, Matte Roffe, Harrison Elliott, Natalie Allen, Rowan Rossi. Photo by Oliver Toth at Accent Photography.

Shade 6: Characterisation

Characterisation within dance exists in different realms. There is the literal concept of playing a character, like Giselle or Albrecht. And then the abstract thought of the body representing something less distinct, like say an inanimate object, a creature or just an idea. For instance, in William Forsyth’s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated, the characterisation is represented by an aloof “industrial” coolness from the cast, like everyone on stage is striving to be the golden cherry (there are two golden cherries hanging “in the middle, somewhat elevated” on stage).

It would also be remiss of me not to mention two of the great Antipodean character actors: Colin Peasley and the late Sir Jon Trimmer. Both could steal a show with their acting ability and understanding of how to project a ballet’s “script” without words.

Shade 7: Movement quality 

Native American ballerina Maria Tallchief, noted for her technical brilliance, is quoted as saying: “A ballerina takes steps given to her and makes them her own”. In other words, a step is just a step if you do not understand the context in which it should be performed. This can be aligned to how a character may move, or the light and shade used within a dance phrase. From a technical perspective, movement quality is an awareness of the use of dynamics, and the coordination of pathways between the upper and lower body. 

A final thought

Artistry is a great divider of opinion and can be slippery to capture. Also, opinions differ greatly between the Baby Boomers and Generation Zs and everyone in-between. For instance, dancers from the black-and-white era tend to place more value on story-telling, movement quality and dynamic. The modern TikTok generation is likely to focus more on aesthetics and pyrotechnics. These are vast generalisations, however, in my experience, it rings true.  And yet, every now and again someone comes along who everyone, or almost everyone, seems to agree is a true artist. For that rare being, an audience will applaud as one.

Matthew Lawrence is a former principal artist with the Australian Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and Queensland Ballet. He is currently Ballet Master at the Queensland Ballet. This article is published in the Jan/Feb/Mar issue of Dance Australia. Print is for keeps! Buy on-line here or subscribe here.

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