Why fall in love with ballet?

Aug 2017 - edition.cnn.com/2014/09/19/opinion/zhang-ballet-future/index.html


How a ballerina dances


Isabella Boylston performs in "Bright Stream" by choreographer Alexei Ratmansky.

Isabella Boylston, the 27-year-old new principal
dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, says it's not. Born in Idaho,
she started dancing at 3 even though no one in her family knew anything about
it. Her love for ballet has taken her touring around the world.


While ballet is still very much admired, this classical and
rigorous art form is no longer enjoying the popularity it once had in its glory
heydays. "For most of the 20th century, including the entire post-war
period, ballet was central to our cultural life. Now more than ever before it
needs to be connected to the culture and the direction we're heading,"
says Jennifer Homans, a dance critic who has written about the history of
ballet.


Homans says the tremendous social changes that occurred after
the 1990s affected ballet's cultural prominence. The important question now is:
What is the place of ballet in a rapidly changing and high-tech society where
people like to watch three-minute YouTube videos or check text messages
constantly?


To help revitalize ballet in the 21st century, New York
University is opening the Center for
Ballet and the Arts on September 22. "The big issue is the
future of ballet. It is being reinvented as we speak -- and that takes time,
talent and resources," says Homans, who is the heading the center.


With this new ballet think
tank, and with dancers like Boylston who is full of optimism, will
ballet leap gracefully into the 22nd century? Time will tell. CNN spoke with
Boylston about what it's like to live and breathe ballet today.


Why should we care about ballet?


Ballet is such a unique art form. You can say things through
dance that you could never express in words, and ballet has the ability to
touch people on a deep, abstract level. In some ways, ballet is more valuable
now than ever. Everything today is so fast-paced and technologically overloaded
-- people are constantly staring into computers or their phone screens for
entertainment. But going to the theater to see a ballet is unique in that it's
completely live and in the moment -- unfiltered and unedited. It's a real and
tangible meditation.


What sparked your passion for dance?


I was about 11 when I completely fell in love with ballet. I
was going to this little ballet school situated above a tavern, and we had live
piano music, which is really rare for ballet class at that age. My teacher
would bring a bag full of silk scarves and at the end of each class we would
each take one and dance around and improvise to the music. It felt so free and
was the perfect outlet for my creativity. I also loved watching dance movies. I
loved "Center Stage" and "The Turning Point."


Do you have a favorite character?


So far, it's been Giselle. It's about a girl who falls in love
for the first time and she's on this incredible high, then she gets betrayed
and everything comes crashing down. She goes completely mad in front of
everyone onstage and dies. In the second act she comes back as a spirit and
finds forgiveness within herself. When I performed it this past season, I felt
like I became her. It was so emotional, and I could feel so much support from
the other dancers onstage. Everyone was invested in the story. Another favorite
role is Odette/Odile in "Swan Lake." The Tchaikovsky score is
incredible, and I love the animalistic swan imagery. It's a fun challenge to
play up the contrast between White Swan and the Black Swan.


What are the 3 most painful things you've ever had to do?


Most people don't realize how athletic ballet is -- you have
to be so mentally strong to be a dancer.


One of the toughest things I had to do was Act 2 of "Swan
Lake" when I was in the Corps de Ballet. You have to stand very still on
one leg in a position called b plus for what seems like an eternity, after
jumping and doing hard dancing. Your feet cramp and everything hurts. When I
first performed it as a teenager, I think I had tears streaming down my face.
But then you learn how to pace yourself and it becomes more enjoyable.


Another ballet is "Theme and Variations," by George
Balanchine. It's definitely one of the hardest things I've done. You get
unbelievably tired, to the point that it feels almost impossible to get
through. I've seen people throw up in the wings from exhaustion after it.


It's the same with Black Swan Pas de Deux from "Swan
Lake". But, I don't focus on the pain. We love what we do. And it's the
best feeling when you get through something really physically hard and the
curtain comes down and you've given it your all physically and emotionally.


How many hours do your dance every day?


On average, I probably dance for 7 to 9 hours a day. We start
every day with ballet "class," which is a series of exercises you do
to maintain strength and warm up. That's followed by rehearsals and sometimes a
performance at night.


What do you say to people who say ballet is boring?


They've probably never seen a great ballet with great dancers.
For instance, if you watch a bad football game it can be boring, too. Ballet
has something for everyone to admire. If you don't like the choreography, you
can listen to the music, and if you hate that too, then at least there are
beautiful people onstage. There are some young choreographers working today
like Justin Peck, who make ballets that are the farthest thing from boring. We
are making a dance film together that will come out later this year. Stay
tuned!


Do your feet hurt all the time?


Actually, no. Your feet become accustomed to being en pointe
and our pointe shoes are surprisingly supportive, taking the stress off your
toes. Other parts of my body hurt though. Ironically, the harder I'm working
the less pain I have, because your body gets into crazy shape.