- Jennifer Milner
Should You Suffer For Your Art?
Updated: May 26, 2021
In The Red Shoes, an anguished dancer is caught between her controlling director - her art - and her boyfriend - her “real” life. In the end, the girl commits suicide, unable to stand being torn apart between the two. Sound horrible? Most girls in my generation sighed romantically, wishing we were talented enough to have a director want so much control over us.
As I write this, Peter Martins has taken a leave of absence from New York City Ballet amidst an ongoing investigation into sexual and physical harassment. I’ve no desire to delve into his situation or speculate on the specifics of this particular investigation, though I do think that this lawsuit is the tip of the ballet iceberg and there will be some uncomfortable months or years ahead. For today, this incident simply reminds me that there is a long history in the dance world of blurred or nonexistent boundaries, misogynistic directors and choreographers, and a widely-supported notion that one must have lived through some great trauma in order to be a truly great artist.
Starvation, mental or social isolation, verbal and sexual abuse: all commonplace in the arts world, often discussed too infrequently. Let's shine a little light into some dark corners of this idea that true greatness must come at a truly terrible price.
Starving for an aesthetic Yeah, we have to talk about this. Is it normal for you to spend all day a bit hungry, to feel hollowed out and weak because you’ve got a leotard ballet coming up this weekend? Do you let your ballet master’s cutting comment about hauling you up into a shoulder sit get inside your brain and cause you to put your fork down before you’ve had enough? Probably. Should you? No.
Listen, this is a whole article in itself, but starving yourself is not ok. Ever. The hard truth is that dance, especially ballet, has a specific aesthetic. Of course, the Really Big Question is, Should there be a specific aesthetic at all? And if not, what can be done to change that?
Trust me when I say this: I predict some changes are coming. But these changes will need to happen from the top down, in the minds and choices of directors, teachers, and even audience members. So for right now, with the way things are, the question we need to be asking is, How can we achieve today's aesthetic in a healthy way? Find a nutritionist who says something more helpful than “just eat less”. Figure out a way to get the most out of your food and fuel yourself efficiently (see my recent guest blog on the subject!) Figure it out, but in a way that’s going to keep you healthy, physically and mentally.
Because here’s the thing: starvation/deprivation/bingeing-and-purging is not a solution. It’s NEVER going to work long-term, and there’s only two ways out of such a situation once you’re in it: you either quit the destructive pattern (perhaps willingly, by seeking help, or unwillingly, say being taken out of the dance world), or you die. Those are really the only two options - there’s no third option of managing it successfully long-term. Starvation isn’t romantic suffering-for-your-art; it’s suicide for your art.
Isolation Dancers are notorious for being socially awkward, or having very few friends outside of the dance world. Breathing the rarefied air of ballet twelve hours a day can make it difficult to make and maintain “normal” relationships: it's a rare non-dancer friend who can listen to you regularly rhapsodize over a new pointe shoe maker, or make dinner dates with you at 11 pm. Or what if you’re from a family who doesn’t support your life choice, and you don’t have that unconditional love and support to fall back on when days get dark? Being rejected by your family must feel incredibly hurtful and lonely, and in such a situation I pray deeply you find your “tribe” who will love you for who you are and be there for you.
A lonely lifestyle sometimes goes with the territory of being a vagabond dancer. But a feeling of being completely alone in your life, of having no one close you can talk to? That’s not something you should accept. Seek out people who will like the real you, who want to get to know you and think you have something to contribute to the world. Because you do. And living an isolated life won’t make you a better, more focused dancer - it will simply make you a lonely person who has no joy to express in her dancing.
Physical or mental abuse If you grow up learning unquestioning obedience to the director/choreographer/teacher, can you even recognize mental abuse when it happens? When a choreographer grabs you by the arm and shoves you angrily across the stage because you’re not moving fast enough, do you think you deserve it?
The ballet world is a hothouse atmosphere, putting dancers under a strictly controlled grow-lamp, controlling every aspect of her environment, micro-managing decades of nurturing. Parents surrender control of their children’s futures and psyches to near-strangers and can only cross their fingers and hope those people have good intentions. Every single time I teach an adolescent boy or girl, I’m extremely conscious of the power I hold in my hands, to shape not just the way they dance but how they see themselves. I never use the word “diet” as anything other than a synonym for “what you put in your body”, and as we discuss what’s weak or needing fixing physiologically, I’m careful to avoid looks-based comments like “your thighs are big compared to the rest of you! Let’s fix that”. And going one step further - any time I do an assessment on a new adolescent dancer, I ask the parents for permission to touch their child before I lay hands on the girl or boy. Usually the parents look at me as if to say, “Of course! Why are you even asking?” and as I feel down a dancer’s spine or across her ribcage I can see it doesn’t affect her at all, so used to intense scrutiny and manhandling is she. Between teachers and dance partners, dancers have already grown accustomed to other people having proprietary, sometimes uncomfortable hands on their bodies.
Ballet directors and choreographers have a reputation for being domineering, controlling perfectionists. You may think that suffering their rude comments or blurred lines of sexual propriety are the price you pay for working with a great artist - or even that it will make you a better artist yourself. That, my dear, is plain-a$$ wrong. No amount of genius can excuse rudeness or making you feel less than human.
I have quit exactly two dance contracts my entire life. The first was a non-union summer stock where I was vastly overworked, became injured, and (shocking!) had no one interested in helping me get better. The second time, I was working as a pick-up dancer in a major city’s Nutcracker with a director who turned out to be incredibly verbally abusive. My non-dancer friends couldn’t believe I put up with it, which helped me see I shouldn’t have to put up with it. I quit a week before Nutcracker opened, he swore I’d never dance again, and a week later I was cast in The Phantom of the Opera. I have never felt regret about walking out on those contracts and am always grateful that my parents instilled enough confidence in myself to do so.
NO ONE touches you without your permission. NO ONE should make you feel like less than who you were created to be. And NO ONE should have enough power over your emotional health that you don’t know what you feel until he (or she) tells you. You have choices you can make along the way, I promise. If the choreographer is a class-A misogynistic jerk, but insanely talented, you have a choice: you can choose to stay in the situation, taking the good from it and ignoring the awful comments, not letting them define you; or you can seek to change the situation/remove yourself from the whole thing. Staying is a choice.
As you struggle your way towards (or through) a professional dance career, you may think that suffering is par for the course, that if you don’t suffer you’re not the real deal, and it’s true that pursuing any dream can require some sacrifices. But what cost is simply paying the piper for following your dream, and what price is too high? Sacrificing for your art - living in near-poverty, waking up every day with aches and pains, missing every Christmas with your family - is, unfortunately, often part of the package so think long and hard before you sign up, and go into it with eyes wide open. But suffering for your art? That’s not a requirement. I’m not saying it won’t happen: marriages break up, families are estranged, career-ending injuries exist. But choosing to live through something when you could get out, thinking it’s the cost of dancing - that’s too high a price tag.
There will be heartache in your life, and I encourage you to use it onstage, allow it to shape your performance. Don’t seek out suffering or live passively through it thinking you’ll be the better for it. The authentic you, flaws and all, has something to show the world that no one else has. I can’t wait to see it.