Saturday, November 12, 2011
What is Self-Expression?
"Ballet is so much about, you know, the makeup and the costumes, and a particular way to hold your body. But Alexa is a real artist."
I was troubled by this for a long time. Where does personal expression come in when you only repeat the steps of a centuries-old dance? Where, for that matter, does it come in when you are learning to play the violin, so that you can merely repeat the music Bach or Mozart or Beethoven created? That was their self-expression. Where is mine?
I'll tell you why I think my friend had only half the story. Ballet is the result of centuries of the human's desire for the beauty of movement of the body. The turn-out of the foot is not required of modern dance, but in ballet it is critical. So a dancer is not just following rules. She is mastering something that has the history of movement in its steps, it's leaps, its expression, its interpretation of music.
Why is it beautiful to dance up on your toes? Well, not all of us find it to be beautiful. I would not denigrate the feelings of those who are not attracted to it. I am; I find it awe-inspiring. I had thought for years that dancers went up on their toes because of the beauty of the line of leg and foot, but just recently a dancer told me that its more than that. A dancer suffers through the pain of being en pointe because of the freedom of movement it gives her. It has, very simply, less friction. You can fly en pointe where you cannot on demi-pointe.
So is self-expression real only when it comes directly from the mind and the body of the artist? Is it possible to express oneself through music or dance when it is not of your creation? A beautifully-executed pirouette is much the same from dancer to dancer. But each dancer who performs it is doing something beautiful. It's worth doing them over and over and over until you don't wobble and fall or end with your feet in the wrong place, because when it's done right, the dancer feels beautiful. But has she expressed herself? Or simply imitated others?
Does a musician have to be a composer in order to be an artist? Does he have to interpret Beethoven in his own way in order to be said to be expressing himself, without reference to Beethoven's intentions for the music? One would not mimic John Coltrane's solos and be thought to be a jazz artist; when you play Night in Tunisia, your solo is your own. So is an artist more able to express herself playing be-bop than playing second trombone in an orchestra?
These are deep questions and it is not my intent here to answer them. In fact, the answer can be summed up with, "You know, whatever floats your boat is OK with me."
Don't discount the merits of the self-expression that comes from an art form that has taken centuries to create, and represents the cumulative artistry of thousands of people, countries, cultures. It is self-expression. It has taken an individual's dedication, work, pain and love to create, add to it one's own heart and love, and is moved on to the next person, and to the artists of the future.