Mind over Body
(by Maria Fay, A & C Black, London, 1997)
Under the title MIND OVER BODY, in the year 1997, Maria Fay, the renowned Hungarian professor, brought out a collection of essays that had originally appeared in "The Dancing Times". The collection came onto the scene before many had ready access to Internet, and as a result, may not be as widely known outwith Great Britain as it would deserve. To let the book speak for itself, by reproducing extracts with some of its major points, struck me as the best way to encourage foreign dancers and teachers, even those whose knowledge of the English language may be fairly slight, to plunge in and read the thing through.
Miss Fay has seen a great deal, and there is anger in her book, though masked by wisdom and an urbane manner. Her concern is with the abuse that many, perhaps most professional dancers face from their school years onwards. And she appeals to the teaching profession to take personal responsibility for bringing about a drastic change to the present state of affairs.
(The quotations from Miss Fay's book are in italics, and this writer's comments, in regular case. Emphasis added in Bold)
On Darwinism in the theatre
From Part 3 - Survival of the Fittest
ESSAY ENTITLED "IN SPITE OF ... AND NOT BECAUSE"
A long and varied experience in the dance scene has convinced me that the way we have chosen the majority of our students during the last half-century, and teach (...) choreograph for, and treat them, could lead to a result where, generally, only the physically-fittest and emotionally less vulnerable, will survive and succeed.
On "Vigorous" Teaching practices
ESSAY ENTITLED "CRUEL TO BE KIND ?"
Life for everyone is difficult and often unjust, full of suffering, and sometimes with horrors. Parents and teachers in every walk of life should tell the younger generation not only about the good and beautiful things (...) but also about the difficulties and ugly side of life (...) But should we make them experience all these things during their student years, just in order that they can stand up to things whenever, and if ever, they come across them in adulthood ? In ordinary life, we all wish to be good parents, but would we beat, abuse, cheat torture, overwork and injure our own children for these reasons ?
Now, is Miss Fay making all this up, off the top of her head ?
As many readers will be aware, the world-famous Paris Opera Ballet School at Nanterre has been at the centre of great controversy in the past few years. In late 2002, a labour-law report by the auditors' firm "Socialconseil", was followed by a week-long tour of inspection by the DDASS (Direction départementale de l'action sanitaire et sociale), mandated to investigate allegations including moral harassment.
On December 4th 2002, the Paris daily "Libération", following the Socialconseil Audit referred to above, interviewed, amongst others, one of the School's medical staff, Alain Faugouin, osteopath, who says : "I have seen stress fractures. The children are pushed to the limit, but without strict medical follow-up. As is the case for high-level athletes, they develop pathologies, which are brushed off lightly. The watchword is "put up, or shut up" (marche ou crève). When a child returns to work after an injury, he is not gradually brought back in. Suffering is seen as making the effort worthwhile."
On "physical criteria", and pigeonholing
ESSAY ENTITLED "THAT EXTRA SPARK"
Miss Fay recollects the first time she saw a likeness of Vaclav Nijinskii :
A big head was perched on a relatively long torso, to which short, heavy-looking arms and legs were attached, covered with well-developed muscles. Was this what the Blue God, the Spirit of the Rose, the Golden Slave, the one-and-only idol of so many people, looked like ? Today, a dancer of his height and proportions, even with a most outstanding technique, would be allowed to dance only character or demi-caractère roles (...)
Miss Fay then turns to Olga Preobajenskaya, a hunchback twice dismissed from the Maryinskii School,
"but there were numerous, more complicated and medically-involved examples in dance history, where a dancer's ability and achievements have proven to be exactly the opposite to what common sense, the knowledge of anatomy, dance technique and dance medicine could have ever predicted.
Indeed ! Selection policies have reached a degree of craven fanaticism, that in another not-so-far-off time and place, would have gone by the name eugenics.
Oddly enough, many of our Schools and Theatres are now run by men and women who, as dancers, may themselves have been short and stocky, or had thick legs, or a broad neck, or a weight problem, but who are become, twenty years later, perfervid converts to Georges Balanchine's aesthetic, blithely bouncing from the institution anyone who looks the way they looked !
Like cattle, youths and girls in vocational schools are weighed and measured on a weekly basis. No matter how intelligent, how musically gifted, how exciting, if their proportions be less than ideal, they will be sent down.
What does appear to be a textbook example, is the case of M. Medhi Angot, a youth of perhaps five foot eight or nine, who is amongst the ablest of the POB's School's graduates in many a year. Only this month, the POB declined to recruit him, on grounds, or so it seems, of his slight stature alone.
Where does that leave the Chosen Few ? In their heart of hearts, they cannot but know that their face and figure may well have got them to a place, where others' greater talent has failed to reach. They may have "won", the way a prize puppy wins at a Dog Show. Not a cheerful thought.
On Teaching Cooperation rather than Competition
From Part 4 - the Art of Teaching
ESSAY - PRACTICAL SOLUTIONS FOR MORE EFFICIENCY
Miss Fay recounts how, being once called away during a class, she told her advanced students to form small groups, and "tutor" each other :
The news of this game-like tutorial spread fast, and I was obliged to repeat it with the rest of my graduates in other tutorial groups. They became quite popular as they produced immediate good results. From that moment we worked in this way regularly and systematically (...) we soon realised that the method could be applied also very effectively in repertoire classes, as most of the time these have to be divided into very small working groups...
Now, three or four years ago, Le Figaro's weekly news magazine interviewed a graduating student at the POB School at Nanterre. I cannot recall the girl's name, but I do recall her saying something to the effect : "Ici, on n'a pas d'amies, que des copines. Parce que nous sommes toutes des rivales" ("Here, we have no friends, just school-chums, because we're all rivals"). Again, a year or so ago, the French press reviewed a television documentary broadcast, I believe, on France 3, and entitled "Des Racines et des Ailes". According to the press, the students at the Nanterre School declared that they decline to help a classmate in difficulty, because "we've got to learn to compete." A professor then steps in to reinforce that view.
It's probably no accident that the Institut Charles Darwin International, is based, not in England as one might have expected, but right here in beautiful Romainville (93).
On the nature of the artist
FROM THE ESSAY "GLASS OR DIAMOND ?"
Just as good craftsmen can cut and polish glass to a convincing imitation, intelligent and well-meaning teachers can utilise their professional skills to make a suitable physique move with pleasing precision. If a student be taught and polished with consistent care for many years by knowledgeable pedagogues, the result can easily be a perfect "fake". One might ask, "So what, if the fakes looks and dances as well as the genuine talent, who cares ?" Though not really talented, but with some feeling for style, nor truly musical, but able to keep in time with the music, nor very expressive, but intelligent enough to learn the basic technique of mime and theatrical gestures, and possessing a pleasing-looking body and face, in addition to perseverance, this imitation of a genuinely gifted dancer will pass quite well for a real one.
An "infantile" profession ?
ESSAY ENTITLED "DANCERS, NOT CHILDREN"
I am ashamed to admit how often I must have been guilty of using the words "girls" and "boys" when talking to other teachers and choreographers about dancers who are, after all, grown-up fellow artists.
On the "Role" played by the Audience
ESSAY "NOT TRAINING BUT TEACHING"
Dance technique has never been as advanced as it is today and if we keep over-emphasising this in performance, we could lose the well-educated, deep-feeling, sensitive and critical part of our public. This would mean the loss of those very people whose sophisticated desires and demands motivate dancers to perform meaningful and artistic performances, and choreographers to create imaginative works on new subjects, in new styles, which, from time to time, may give rise to masterpieces.
Where has that "well-educated, deep-feeling, sensitive and critical part of our public" gone ? Is Miss Fay over-stating the case ?
Only very recently, a European television station broadcast an interview with the Head of a world-famous school. Clad entirely in black perforated leather, the Head looked boldly into the camera, and said something to the effect (paraphrase), that "girls who are sent down from the school, can always become meneuse de revue". For those who may be ignorant of such things, in joints like the Crazy Horse or Lido, a meneuse de revue is the glamour puss marshalling the front line. She gets to wear a bit more clothes than the rest.
What does that tell us about what the Head imagines must run in the students' mind ? About what the Head imagines those girls might wish to do with their lives ? About what the Head imagines runs in the public's mind ?
Miss Fay reports on a statement overheard at an audition she attended :
"All of you will have to wear a number, and you will have a chance to finish the barre exercises. Afterwards, we'll begin to weed you out gradually after each centre exercise. Those dancers in whom we lose interest will be asked to leave."
On private lessons in vocational schools
Throughout their studies and dancing life, dancers are always taught in fairly large groups. It is not so surprising - especially when technical problems occur - that from their early student years, they long to have private lessons (...). In all the other performing arts, it has been long recognised that frequent use of the "one-to-one" teaching method is the right way to nurture young talent. Consequently, the finances and timetable schedules in these schools have been organised to accommodate this. (....) if vocational schools would incorporate regular coaching and private lessons in their schedules, most probably dancers would be more secure in their technique, less vulnerable to injury and, later in professional life, the physical and psychological need for private lessons would be reduced.
Further essays in MIND OVER BODY deal with the importance of movement analysis early on in a dancer's studies, on the potentially great value of dance notation seen, again, from the standpoint of movement analysis, and on the a-historical, anachronistic way in which repertoire is generally studied at the present time, with untold damage to the style.
Another, critical point Miss Fay makes, is why so many dancers today are tone-deaf :
"(In class) Pianists may choose music according to their own taste, technique, and what they believe would fit (...) from Bach to Honky-Tonky, from military marches to Chopin (...) by way of Beethoven to Stravinsky and Gershwin and pop: tangos for fondus, fox-trots for tendus, and so on.