Catastrophe or opportunity?

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We all suffer setbacks – but you can choose what to make of them, writes Michelle Dursun.

SETBACKS come in all shapes and sizes. They can be the result of an injury; a performance that didn’t go quite as planned or perhaps a botched audition. Setbacks are hard deal with. It can be difficult coming to terms with disappointment, rejection or the frustration of an injury.

The reality is that, for performers, setbacks go with the territory. It’s how you deal with them that can make all the difference. You could treat them as a “catastrophe”– “the End of the World!” or a “total disaster”! Or you could treat them as a “learning opportunity”, a “fortifier” or a “resilience builder”. You get to choose.

Let’s be frank: setbacks are not fun. It is okay to feel disappointed or disillusioned. As says Daniel Savetta, an artist with the Washington Ballet in the US: “Being upset is okay, it’s quite normal. No-one wants to deal with adversity, in whatever shape or form.” So it’s important to allow yourself to feel the disappointment, but it is equally important to ask yourself, “what can I take away from this?” Setbacks can be viewed as opportunities in disguise. They give you the chance to grow and learn.

Audition or performance setback
When it comes to an audition or a performance setback, the good news is - you’re in good company. Setbacks are part and parcel of life as an artist or performer. Richard Causer, a dancer with Expressions Dance Company in Brisbane, says, “You have to be prepared to experience some sort of set back and rejection if you have a career in the arts. It comes hand in hand with the job”.

Causer, who spent four years working as a professional dancer in London before joining Expressions, explains that he was fortunate to have work most of the time. However, it “didn’t happen without being turned down at many auditions”. He adds that he got to a point where he would “re-frame” his approach and take the audition “as a workshop for my personal development and myself, not thinking of it as the most important thing in my life”. He would make the most of the audition day and enjoy the opportunity to work with “amazing choreographers and dancers, learn spectacular repertoire and be part of the creative process, an opportunity that rarely happens outside of an audition”. This way the experience helped him to grow as an artist, even if he was not successful.

Gene Moyle, psychologist, Associate Professor and head of dance at the Queensland University of Technology, explains that when it comes to a performance setback it can be challenging to reflect on a bad experience because, “a setback is usually linked to negative feelings and emotions”. However she advises that taking the time to reflect upon things that didn’t go to plan or mistakes you might have made is “critical to ensure that you understand why things happened the way the way they did, which enables you to put in place goals to work towards”. Focusing on the positives in a performance is as important as learning from the negatives. “Even when we don’t get the results we wanted, there will always be at least one thing we did well.”

Setbacks can be viewed as opportunities in disguise. They give you the chance to learn.” Benjamin Ella in rehearsal for Royal Ballet’s production of 'The Nutcracker': his injury could not have come at worse time. PHOTO: ANDREJ USPENSKI
Setbacks can be viewed as opportunities in disguise. They give you the chance to learn.” Benjamin Ella in rehearsal for Royal Ballet’s production of 'The Nutcracker': his injury could not have come at worse time. PHOTO: ANDREJ USPENSKI

Injury setback
Setbacks that are the result of an injury can have a much more long-term impact than an audition rejection or a bad performance. For Benjamin Ella, a First Artist with the Royal Ballet in London, a stress fracture in his navicular bone in his foot came at the worst possible time. He had just been offered a contract with the Royal Ballet. Luckily, he says, “Dame Monica Mason, who was the artistic director of the Royal Ballet at that time, kept my contract and allowed me time to recover”. Yet when his navicular bone started to refracture after two months in London he had surgery to implant two titanium screws into the bone, resulting in a further 12 month period of recovery before he could return to the stage.

Ella explains that one of the positives of the injury and rehabilitation process was the opportunity to weigh up the future and ask himself the question: “Do I really want this?” He came to the decision that at 21 years of age, “I just couldn’t give up on passion for ballet”. “If you want something badly enough you realise that you basically have no choice but to push through” and claims that the whole process has made him stronger and more resilient.

Savetta also faced a serious setback in his career with a serious shin injury that required surgery and lengthy rehabilitation. With the goal to get back on stage “as soon as possible”, one of the lessons he learned was how to stay positive through the frustration of not being able to dance. He found he had to channel his energy into something by exploring other passions. “I even worked in the wardrobe apartment when my health permitted, learning how to use the sewing machine, hem pants and work with tutus.”

Ella, Savetta and Causer (who is currently dealing with a bicep tendon and cartilage injury) all note that another lesson to come from their injuries was the chance to reflect and reassess their approach to working. Ella advises, “you can’t go at 110 per cent every day, you would break.” One of the lessons learned by all three dancers was how to work smart, as well as hard, to maintain balance and look after their bodies.

Another door opens
Setbacks can also sometimes provide an opportunity to move forward along a different path. Christine Denny, ex-professional dancer and founder of Tapatak Oz, says that the setbacks and rejections she faced in her career were really a “blessing in disguise”. She says what appeared to be so negative at the time was a “golden nugget of opportunity steering me in another direction”. Without these setbacks, “I may never have discovered my absolute passion for teaching and inspiring the next generation of teachers and tappers”.

How to “frame” a setback
Choosing how to frame a setback is an important skill for anyone. Moyle explains that resilience is really “a mind-set, an attitude”. Dealing with disappointment can be on opportunity for growth but, for it to be so, dancers must “also recognise that this experience is just one experience” – it is not helpful to turn it into a catastrophy. Instead, the experience should be viewed in context.

So, perhaps you have had an outcome that is not what you wanted and you’re disappointed that things didn’t go your way, but it’s important to remember that the circumstances are not permanent. Whatever the setback, look at the opportunities it is presenting you. Take what you can learn from it and get back in the game. Keep things in perspective and keep moving forward, as Savetta advises, “from a place of continued learning and positivity”.

Advice for teachers
There are a number of strategies teachers can employ to support students through a setback.
1. Reflect on the performance and weigh up the things that went well along with the areas requiring attention – there are
always some positives!
2. Set goals for dealing with areas of the performance that need improvement.
3. Keep things in perspective. Wendy Mollee, ex-professional dancer and now director at Dancefever on the Gold Coast, says: “I tell students – it’s not the Olympic Games!”
4. Remind students that they are on a journey that can sometimes be difficult but the challenges provide them with an opportunity to improve and grow.
5. Re-frame the concept of success – it is not the result of everything going right all the time – it is the result of persisting through adversity
6. Remind students that this is a temporary situation and to be optimistic about the future.

This article was originally published in the August/September issue of Dance Australia. Want more like this? Buy Dance Australia from your favourite magazine retailer or subscribe here, or purchase an online copy via the Dance Australia app.


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