Aspirations Mid Career
Editor’s note: The following guest post is by New York City Ballet principal dancer Ashley Bouder (@ashleybouder). This is the second of a three-part series. Her first was titled My Pools of Inspiration.
In my last blog I wrote about inspiration, but mentioned that there were three questions that I frequently am asked. I’ve answered about where I find inspiration, so this entry I’d like to delve into what I strive for now at this point in my career. And like last time, I’ll start with the most obvious.
I am always trying to perfect my technique. I don’t think this is unusual. In fact, I think it is the most boring answer a dancer can give when asked what they strive for. But nonetheless, it is absolutely true and a constant thought and force in my life.
For me, that soft ballerina quality does not come naturally. Well, I guess that is not exactly true. The natural soft ethereal quality comes out in me when I’m dancing a story, or consider myself in another world. These are ballets like the vision scene in The Sleeping Beauty, the second act of Giselle, or a non story ballet like Emeralds from Jewels. But in most other ballets, I’ve been told, far too frequently, that I ‘punch it’ too much. This bothers me. It makes me feel rough and butch, like I don’t know how to be feminine.
I’m not twenty anymore. I realize now, that I am just about at the midpoint of my career. I certainly don’t want to be dancing the way I did near the beginning.— Ashley Bouder, NYCB
I do know how to be that way. I just need to be told when I’m not, so I can think about it and concentrate on making it smooth and refined in the right places. I once had a ballet master say to me in rehearsal, “See you can be soft.” I was completely upset and even angry that this coach had not noticed I could do this before. It is humbling and sometimes shocking to realize you are not as you perceive yourself. Here I thought this was a quality I had worked so intently on, that I thought must have improved. Apparently not enough til that rehearsal. What great motivation that comment supplied.
I think a turning point and great realization came in one particular performance for me. This was maybe about two or three years ago after a performance of Balanchine’s Serenade. I had had rehearsal all day and it was near the end of season, so I was absolutely exhausted. I don’t think I warmed up because my ankles were so jammed that I felt like I had shards of glass in them. I just remember worrying about how I was going to get through this performance without marking the whole thing.
Well, I went out and really felt like I was marking. I just couldn’t do any more than that. Afterwards, Peter Martins came back and kissed me and told me I was beautiful. And my ballet mistress for the piece came up to me gushing. She told me she had never seen me look more beautiful and so feminine. I sort of laughed in her face and said I was marking! And she very rightly told me that maybe I should do that more often.
I have really taken that comment very much to heart. And I admit, that I can’t always do exactly that. I am a ball of energy when I get onstage, usually. I can’t help it. Something happens to me in that space between the wing and the stage and I come alive. Something lights up and there is no stopping it. I’m the first to admit that I get carried away. And by carried away, I mean CARRIED AWAY. I know that leads to an overexertion and certain ‘punchiness’ to my dancing. But in my defense, it comes from a good place. I truly love what I do. I love dancing and performing, which is why I’ve made it my life.
I want perfection, or as close to it as I can get. I want flawless technique without sacrificing an ounce of artistry. I want to be dynamic and soft. I want to be real and ethereal. In short, I want to be a ballerina to remember.— Ashley Bouder, NYCB
I do have to admit though, that comments about that aspect of my dancing in reviews bother me. When I’m corrected in print, it feels wrong. Of course, I’m talking about one critic in particular, and I’ll leave it up to you to figure that one out. But I do not predetermine my facial expressions in non story ballets and it is not my intention to ‘stare’ at the audience. This is my joy of dance and my personality coming out. It hurts a little to see the same critique in print on several occasions. I get it. But I also can’t control some things when I’m in the moment.
Still, I do find that as I go through my career, I am getting more compliments on my ability to shade. I do find it easier to be soft when I’m tired now. I used to try extra hard when I knew I was tired, so that nobody would know. But I now realize that it just looked too harsh and like I was trying too hard. I try now, even when I’m full of energy to take it easy and mark a bit. I’ve learned that I don’t have to ‘do’ all the time. Sometimes the beauty is in the taking it slightly under, so you can really accentuate those special technical moments.
And perhaps in doing that, just taking those roles I’ve done for awhile slightly ‘under’ I’ve discovered another thing to strive for: a new interpretation of old roles. I’ve been a principal now for over six years and many of the roles I perform now, I’ve done for a long time. But I’m not twenty anymore. I realize now, that I am just about at the midpoint of my career. I certainly don’t want to be dancing the way I did near the beginning.
It may come down to adjusting the timing of phrases within a solo. That is something simple. To look at a ballet musically and reinterpret and showcase passages and certain steps, or balances in a completely different way. I love doing that, especially in Balanchine pieces. I learn so much more about the genius of that great man by trying his ballets in different musical ways and finding that each is valid and interesting in its own way.
I truly love what I do. I love dancing and performing, which is why I’ve made it my life.— Ashley Bouder, NYCB
But also, I am toying and experimenting with interpreting roles in a different mind set. It may be about maturity. Coming at it with an older perspective. Or being serious instead of playful. I often like to think of some of my favorite ballerinas past and present and wonder how they would approach a role and then try to inhabit that feeling. I often try these moods on in a studio by myself, or even in my own living room. Sometimes it feels totally wrong, but was worth the try. But sometimes, almost magically, it fits. Like trying on a hundred pairs of jeans and finally finding the best pair of your life. Something clicks. The feeling is right and it makes sense. I love that.
I guess in short, what I strive for is the impossible. I want perfection, or as close to it as I can get. I want flawless technique without sacrificing an ounce of artistry. I want to be dynamic and soft. I want to be real and ethereal. In short, I want to be a ballerina to remember.