Sometimes ballet can feel a bit like arithmetic: Turnout should stay at exactly 180 degrees, arabesque should rise to at least 90 degrees, fifth position should have zero space in between your toes and heels. But although there are certain marks we all aim to hit, the artistry in ballet comes from the limitless ways there are to get there.
Last night at the Dance Magazine Awards, former American Ballet Theatre star Susan Jaffe recounted the first time she met legendary ballet master Irina Kolpakova. At the time (1989), Jaffe had already been an ABT principal for six years, but she was so in awe of Kolpakova's talent and background as one of the last students of Agrippina Vaganova that she went up to Kolpakova, stood in parallel with her hands limp at her sides and said, "I know nothing. Teach me."
As Kolpakova graciously accepted her award, she spoke of how patient Jaffe was as they went back to the beginning every day so Jaffe could unlearn and relearn everything she knew about technique, and discover an entirely new way of using her head, arms and épaulement. It was astounding to hear how even a principal at one of the top companies in the world would go back to the square one to try a completely different approach to moving.
Even though class can feel like a never-ending quest for perfection, a place where we all try to be "correct," there's never just one right way to dance. Because, if you really think about it, how boring would that be?