Has the Magic Gone?

Maria Fay on the state of dance (1999)...

By Maria Fay

It is clear that technical standards in dance are at present generally impressive world-wide, while in the past that was true for only a few companies. Because of higher and healthier living standards, better education and medical care, improved facilities such as flooring, heating, more suitable shoes and dance-wear, most dancers have a chance to receive an improved training and to cultivate better-proportioned bodies. these are more sensitively tuned with better-shaped muscle structures, higher extensions, and a greater strength and endurance than in previous times. Then, dancers needed to perfect themselves in only a few disciplines and styles (classical ballet, character and mime), whereas today they are trained to cope with numerous additional dance-techniques and choreographic styles.

On the stage, more then ever before, “high-tech” machinery and lighting can help our generation of dancers immensely in creating magical theatrical effects, as does the use of more sophisticated and imaginative textiles for costumes.

As a result, today’s choreographers have all the facilities to hand for revitalizing the magic of the classics and making them look more interesting than when they were premiered. When composing new works they can choreograph as freely as their fantasy takes them. Some dancers and choreographers make the best of these given opportunities and this results in pleasurable productions and occasionally, new masterpieces.

However, when assessing the present situation as a whole, one cannot help having mixed feelings. There are many performances where one feels that there is a lot on offer but something important is missing. One may be well entertained, and often dazzled, by the virtuosity of certain dancers or impressive stage effects, but one is not touched. It is as if there were no real substance to the dance; nothing to involve either the dancers or the audience in a truly artistic experience. These performances lack that magical atmosphere which is the essence of all interpretive art forms, and which has been experienced so often in the past. Why has this magic disappeared?

Good performances are given by artists with strong personalities, but magical ones can be generated only when the performing creativity of a charismatic leading dancer is matched by an ensemble of performers with a prominent stage presence.

Why is it that in spite of all the advances in the dance profession, and the talent of the numerous youngsters who enter vocational schools each year, dancers have become stereotypes instead of charismatic individuals? Why is it that we can produce dancers of versatility, virtuosity and with beautiful physiques but artists such as those of the past, “legends in their own time”, rarely ever emerge today?

In recent years these questions often crossed my mind, but were my doubts justified? Since I became an “aged” professional I have been afraid that I might be falling into the usual habit of looking at the past through rose tinted spectacles while seeing all the faults of the present greatly enlarged under a microscope.

Was I glorifying and enshrouding in mystique our yesterdays while criticising today too harshly? Was I becoming a grumbling, embittered old professional, a dated and sour ex-dancer, secretly jealous of youth? As I have always despised this kind of person I have closely scrutinized my responses and came to the conclusion that this was not the case.

I gradually became aware that many people of all age groups — dancers and others from within the profession as well as the public — felt similarly to myself. We all seemed to be greatly disturbed that our art form has lately changed: extreme physical accomplishment overshadows true artistic quality. A result of this is an excessive lack of strong personalities on the stage.

I believed that part of the problem might stem from the physically-minded methods by which young candidates are often selected for entry into vocational schools and for later professional life (I have already discussed these issues in The Dancing Times in my articles: “Survival of the Fittest” and “Glass or Diamond”), and some attitudes towards teaching and auditions which damage a dancer’s self-confidence. However, I didn’t think these to be the only reasons.

At the same time I noticed that similar symptoms occurred in other art forms. Teachers of singing and music, coaches and critics, are also worried about too many of the new generation of singers and musicians becoming perfect robots, combining “devilish” skills and virtuosity with enormous stamina, instead of trying to discover their own identity and an individual sound.

There must be a common reason causing this artistic decline in all these art forms.

Artists usually react sensitively to the trends of their times and, even if they wished to, they wouldn’t be able to detach themselves completely from the idols and ideologies of their surrounding society.

Twentieth-century man has created modern versions of the Golden Calf — combustion engines, cameras, cinema, hi-fi, TV and video, telephones and other communication systems, etc. Above all computers have become our idols. We have created them for our pleasure and comfort, to own, use and enjoy. They are the results of man’s ambition and the proof of a human’s capacity to achieve a higher quality of life through technical precision.

We live an absolutely technically-minded and materialistic society where the motivating force is to challenge and outdo any measurable achievement. Translated into dance terms this means more pirouettes, higher extensions, greater speed, loftier jumps, a faster transfer of weight, increasingly intricate rhythmical and dynamic challenges with quicker changes of direction and more complicated double-work and so on. The wish to fulfil these tasks is natural and exciting for most dancers. It has always been the ambition for each generation of young artists to challenge and possibly overtake the technical prowess of its predecessors as well as present rivals. These are positive aims and there is nothing wrong with them as long as they don’t become the only goal as far as their vocation is concerned.

To be appreciated and admired by the public has always been one of the driving forces of an interpretive artist. Perhaps today’s young artists subconsciously feel the only way to be appreciated and admired by their technically-minded audiences is to try to overwhelm them with something measurable, to out-shine the intricacy, precision and capacity of those man-made machines which are their common idols.

In order to accomplish this goal during the short period of their dancing life, it seems that dancers engage so much time as well as physical and mental energy, that there is hardly any chance left for them to seek, find and establish their own artistic identity through dancing. By the time their personality has matured the body will be too tired to support the metamorphosis from a skilled craftsman to a real artist.

If this is the case, do we passively watch this infectious trend pass by, eradicating — like an epidemic — most of the values which differentiate art from craft? Can we afford the let the “magic” go? Shouldn’t those of us who see this corrupt trend as being alarming look for some remedy which might halt this contagious disease before dancing becomes more and more estranged from its artistic values and converts into some kind of sophisticated athletic entertainment?

Perhaps we should search for different ways of teaching and rehearsing by which we might succeed in nurturing more unique and charismatic personalities. By re-establishing in young dancers’ minds the importance of quality and individual interpretation in dancing, we might manage to stop the “epidemic” and bring back the “magic” to even more dazzling heights!

copryight (c) 1999 Maria Fay
originally published by the Dancing Times Magazine