Dance has changed, therefore dancers have changed. Dance expertise has shifted from one dimensional to multi-dimensional.
I saw Hubbard Street Dance Chicago perform last night (presented by the incomparable White Bird). They were amazing, as always. HSDC is an incredible group of dancers that is able to be hard and soft at the same time. They are all incredibly strong and flexible, and in amazing shape (the great irony is that most of them probably smoke – the dance world is full of 2-pack-per-day yoga instructors).
Watching them dance, I was struck by the amount of expertise and hours that they have had to study in order to become so proficient at the art of movement. Figure most of them have been dancing for about 20 years – definitely enough time to become an expert at something (which takes 10,000 hours of practice).
But, the type of expertise that the world needs has changed. And dancers are a great example of this phenomena.
At the turn of the 20th century, theatrical dance consisted of one discipline – ballet. A dancer needed to have solid ballet technique, including a wide turnout, in addition to a short carriage, and long legs. Ballet is all about circles – every gesture in ballet is circular in motion and requires that the dancer focus on the outline of the circle. Ballet is also presentational – it shows the audience movement in a very clear, defined way. The ballerina faces the audience when she moves, and the corps de ballet moves in unison.
So, the ideal ballerina needed to have strong presentational stage presence, and long extensions to make those circles large and impressive.
Contrast that with one piece on the HSDC program – Ohad Naharin’s Tabula Rasa. The first section involves long movement phrases, performed by a group of 9 dancers spread across the stage. They are not placed in a line, but they are moving in unison. Then, small groups of two, or four, or three break out of the established movement sequence and start a counterpoint, slicing instead of soaring. They stay in their own world for 15 seconds, then one of them melds back into the larger group. Someone else joins the counterpoint for 30 seconds. The landscape of movement shifts and evolves, with individual dancers shifting alliances, starting a third phrase, banding together and disbanding like shifting dunes in time lapse photography of the desert. They are not moving in circles, but instead doubling back on themselves, jutting and thrusting, letting waves of motion ripple through their bodies.
The skills required here are significantly different than in the ballet. Dancers must be able to quickly change intention, direction, and effort. They must be able to partner in nontraditional (i.e. non-ballet) ways: women lift men, two women partner, three men partner. They have to be as comfortable rolling around on the floor as they are with jetes.
The expertise of dancers has shifted from having a deep understanding of one discipline – ballet – to having strong proficiency in many disciplines. Ballet is still important, but dancers must also have studied Graham technique, yoga, Pilates, floor barre, folk dance forms, Horton technique, Stomp!, Blue Man Group, circus arts like trapeze and acrobatics, Broadway and show dance, and more. Today’s dancer is an expert in movement.
Today’s dancers don’t need to be the best ballerinas or ballerinos the world has ever seen. A much more prized ability is flexibility between movement styles, combined with strong fundamentals and kinesthetic knowledge.
Now, dancers must be in the top 25% of performers in several specialties to be successful working artists. And that, to me, is more impressive than being in the top 1% of all ballerinas. Assuming that any successful dancer is willing to work extremely hard and has some natural talent that they incubate, there is only one way to become a top ballerina: have the perfect body type, and train at one of a handful of top international ballet schools.
But there are many ways to become a successful modern dancer. You can come from a number of different backgrounds, be in several dozen cities around the world, and have a curiosity about different types of movement.
And that leads to more interesting dance, and more interesting dancers.