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Monday, May 6, 2013

Fitting In: A Mini-Study of Motivation in Ballet Dancers


A version of this piece is cross-posted at anthropologist Mike Barnes’ site, Anthropology en Pointe. For this mini-series, I was inspired by Mike’s research goals of exploring motivation and the ballet dancer: "How do professional ballet dancers accommodate shifts in motivation through a lifetime of change, success, and disappointment?" I highly recommend taking a look at Mike’s site. He poses intriguing and relevant questions, the ensuing exploration of which provides valuable insight to motivation for dancers and non-dancers alike!

Although there is a particular “look” of a classical dancer - slim body, long neck, legs, and arms, arched feet and open hips - what is a dancer but a human being, and each of us is unique. It may not be immediately evident in a line of corps dancers in a traditional classical ballet company’s production of Swan Lake, but if you look closely enough or watch each of those dancers in class or rehearsal I guarantee you will see distinct qualities not only in their bodies, but in their approach to movement. In other ensembles, the variety of physicality is a key element to the aesthetic.

Given the unique qualities of body and movement, how does a dancer find the right place for his or her career? I took a quick dive to explore this through live interviews with several professional ballet dancers of varying backgrounds, supplemented by online videos and my own experience as a dancer of non-traditional proportions. While it is not an empirical study by any means, it has given me precious insight into one of the key factors that makes or breaks a dancer’s motivation to carry on.  

What I came away with is that the journey of finding one’s own place is ultimately less about fitting in to a particular company or style; it is about trying on different “skins” - whether artistically and culturally - and asking oneself the difficult question of whether the current job is right.  

In the stories these dancers shared with me, I heard the following thematic questions emerge: 

What is my own skin: my internal artistic style and personality? 

Where can I be in my own skin and still have a fulfilling, ever-growing, and collaborative experience?

I’ll share these stories with you in a multi-part series, since each dancer is an instrument and vehicle not only for an artistic director or choreographer’s vision, but for his or her own self-actualization. I believe they deserve to be heard one at a time, to further convey the sense of individuality.

Junna Ige - Finding Home
In her fifth season dancing with Ballet San Jose, this bright-eyed dancer is pint-sized but dances with an expansiveness that makes her limbs appear miles long.  “There are very limited opportunities for the serious ballet student in Japan,” she laments, and in her mid-teens Ige left for northern Germany to further her studies.

While she consistently received top marks at the academy, when it came time to find a job she came out empty handed time and time again. After a huge effort auditioning in some eight countries in Europe, Ige headed back to Japan - the worst possible outcome for her - dejected and lost.  

In Japan, Ige taught ballet to little girls, and worked at Starbucks.  “Why was I even doing this?” she asked herself, referring not only to her predicament, but to all her years training in the hopes of becoming a professional, classical ballet dancer.  She was told over and over again at auditions that the reason there was no contract for her was: “You’re too short.”

Somehow, despite the heartbreak of so much rejection - not to mention money spent traveling for auditions - Ige decided to give herself and ballet one more chance.  She flew to North America and auditioned for several companies. “I’d never been to America.  I thought, maybe they would see things differently.”  

At Ballet San Jose, she was encouraged upon seeing dancers of different sizes and heights.  When then artistic director Dennis Nahat told her that he saw artists and not just bodies, she felt hope.  When she was offered an apprentice contract four years ago, she took it and never looked back.  

“Now I feel like I can be myself,” Ige smiles, and her voice cannot hide her joy.  “I realized I’d spent so long wanting to be something I wasn’t. I wanted not to be short.  I wanted to be tall, to be something else.  But I’m not; I’m me. And at Ballet San Jose, I was hired because I’m me!”

This fortunate circumstance has allowed Ige to gain confidence as a person and as a dancer, and it has paid off: she was promoted towards the end of the last season and is now a soloist with the company.

And, this year she carried the tremendous pressure and privilege of dancing the lead character of Kitri in Wes Chapman’s production of Don Quixote on opening night, partnered by no less than international superstar José Manuel Carreño. She pulled the full-length ballet off with determination, sass, and showed us glimpses of pure abandon.

“I love it.  Why?  It’s the dance,” she says in her lightly accented English.  Her eyes sparkle, and she doesn’t need to say any more.  She’s found her home.
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