Flawed Beauty and Awkward Truths

What I Learned from My Brief Career as a Ballet Dancer

'I don't want people who want to dance, I want people who have to dance.'
Choreographer, George Balanchine

Did I ever tell you I once performed in a ballet?

When I was a student at Oxford, a visiting ballet troupe from London put on a production of ‘Cinderella’ at the Playhouse. The custom in those days was for touring companies to recruit extras from the local student population. Our friend Jez had some connection with a theatrical agent, and we were always interested in earning a few extra quid.

So, one afternoon, along with a handful of my mates (Tall Jez, Little Jez, Matty and Alex), I tramped along to the Playhouse for a briefing. We were of varying height, aptitude and agility, but it didn’t seem to matter too much. An hour’s instruction and we were stage-ready, match-fit.

When it came round to the performances, I think we acquitted ourselves rather well. We employed the principles of method acting to inhabit our roles as military cat people. We stood to attention and looked distinguished. We held spears and marched about a bit. The highlight came when four of us carried a feline ballerina across the stage in a sedan chair - a cat litter, I suppose.

I was left with a couple of enduring impressions.

First of all I developed a real respect for ballet. I had had no previous exposure to classical dance and I guess I thought of it as a rather rarefied, elegant affair. I had no idea of the physical exertion involved. But as we stood in the wings awaiting our next entrance, the principals would join us from the stage, having completed a seemingly effortless, graceful, gravity-defying pas de deux. The moment they were out of the audience’s sight, they would be bent double with exhaustion, gasping for breath. 

Ballet dancers are not just artists. They are athletes.

George Balanchine and Arthur Mitchell

George Balanchine and Arthur Mitchell

Secondly I had a rather chastening encounter with my ballet costume. We got changed in the archaic theatrical dressing room backstage at the Playhouse. Space was limited and we were surrounded on all sides by mirrors with bright bulbs around their edges. We’d been given a number of feline military garments to accompany our roles. Coarse black breeches, red velvet waistcoats and white furry cat heads. But before we could don these, we first had to strip right down and put on a pair of pink ballet tights that extended up to our chests and were suspended by thick elastic shoulder straps.

As I regarded myself in the unforgiving dressing room mirrors, clothed only in my long pink ballet tights, I was confronted with the truth of my moderate looks and unconvincing masculinity. There was nowhere to hide. I was indeed no Rudolf Nureyev. It was a humbling experience. 

'The mirror is not you. The mirror is you looking at yourself.’
George Balanchine

I was reminded of this recently when judging the APG Creative Planning Awards

Across a diverse range of categories and tasks, brands were taking a long hard look in the mirror. KFC sought to acknowledge its historically flawed fries and the logistical disaster when its stores ran out of chicken. Mothercare focused on real women’s bodies post childbirth and endeavoured to translate ‘body shame’ into ‘body pride.’ And with its ‘Bloodnormal’ campaign Bodyform/Libresse shed a positive light on the truth of periods. 

In the age of transparency, brands need to be prepared to recognise their flaws and failings – indeed sometimes to celebrate them. Brands also need to be positive and proactive around issues that were hitherto regarded as unappealing and unattractive. We must speak honestly, talk candidly, take on taboos vigorously. We must learn to embrace flawed beauty and awkward truths. 

Though scarred by my experience with the pink tights, I retained an affection and respect for ballet, which in my later years has translated into something of an enthusiasm. Ballet is where art meets athleticism. It’s both an escape from, and an engagement with, the real world. It’s an exercise in essential truth.

As the great choreographer George Balanchine once observed:

'Music must be seen, and dance must be heard.’ 

'Mirror in the bathroom,
Please talk free.
The door is locked,
Just you and me.’

The Beat, ‘Mirror in the Bathroom'

This piece first appeared on Jim's blog here.