Ballet is full of paradoxes. It looks effortless, but requires grueling work. Its dancers are slight, but inestimably muscular. It arose from 15th-century court etiquette, but is essentially timeless. It is modern, but classical; vivacious, but ruthlessly formalistic.
It is also a reminder of what it means to be human. I didn’t know this until I discovered the work of Justin Peck, resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet. Unlike ballerinas of old, the dancers in Peck’s ballets don’t prance around in stiff tutus—they wear sneakers, like us, and their motions are nimble facsimiles of our lives. Ballet reduces things to their most abstract form: it distills emotions, relationships, and ideas into movement. A dancer can say things with a flick of her wrist that would take me pages full of words to express. In our increasingly digital world, ballet stands out as a fully embodied art.
In our increasingly digital world, ballet stands out as a fully embodied art.
One of the advantages of living in this digital era is having the world at our fingertips: as I learned more about Peck’s work, I feasted on an endless flurry of ballet videos online. But eventually, I fell so in love with ballet that I had to step away from my laptop and try dancing myself. And yes, donning a leotard is as terrifying as it sounds. That first lesson, I felt like a sentient robot who had only recently become aware of its capacity to move. My body seemed to have no consciousness at all. Whose were those confused and uncoordinated limbs in the mirror? And whose feet were these, at the end of my legs, that refused to point and rotate in the directions I desired? Fifteen minutes in, I was already exhausted, gripping the barre for dear life. My teacher noticed me sweating and reminded me to breathe. She smiled. “And that’s just learning how to stand,” she said.
In ballet, even standing and breathing must be done the right way, with precision and perfect form. Ballet is the infinite combination of deceptively simple movements that are easy to understand, but take a lifetime to master. As I continued to study, I found a sort of comfort in the idea that certain motions were more right than others: it seemed to say that our bodies mattered, and what we did with them mattered even more. I felt like ballet was teaching me how to truly inhabit my body.
Yes, donning a leotard is as terrifying as it sounds.
Though dancers may seem superhuman, ballet is one of the most human art forms we have, requiring neither paint nor ink. Its canvas is the human body. You can’t necessarily tell the years of a writer or a painter or a sculptor from their work, but a dancer’s age is obvious, and her career is short. When her body has given out (usually in her thirties or forties), succumbing to injury or the inevitable, uncontrollable effects of aging, so has her time on the stage.
Like a dancer’s career, our bodies are also ephemeral. In the grand geological scale of things, blink, and a human lifespan is over, faster than a pirouette. This isn’t comfortable to think about. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons we find ourselves less and less present in our bodies, less conscious of our physical surroundings. Perhaps that’s why we find ourselves wedded to the unreality of our screens.
But why all this fuss over bodies? They seem, at best, imperfect and embarrassing vessels. Bodies age. They grow feeble and old and break down, one cell at a time. Bodies get injured and tired and hungry and sick. They are, on the whole, not entirely reliable. Why not embrace a future as brains in vats, as consciousnesses uploaded to the cloud, and be done with it?
In the grand geological scale of things, blink, and a human lifespan is over, faster than a pirouette.
As more of our work, our interests, and our personal lives plays out online, ballet reminds us that a crucial way we relate to one another is in physical space. One of the most common dances in ballet is the pas de deux (literally, “step of two”). These dances are often romantic, but at their core, they provide us a visual of two people simply relating to one another: accepting, rejecting, supporting, and failing one another. This, too, is part of what it means to be human. Like in the pas de deux, our deepest human connections and conflicts often involve our bodies.
I was thinking of all this the first time I saw the New York City Ballet in person. Justin Peck was premiering his work, “The Decalogue,” (meaning “ten pieces”—perhaps an allusion to the Ten Commandments). It was one of a series of ballets being performed that evening, and Peck himself (then a soloist in the corps) danced in the evening’s first number. As I watched him, I was struck by what a fleeting moment this was. Here we were, both in the prime of life. Both with the same bones and tendons and sinews that would stick with us until they grew old and stiff and then stilled forever, succumbing to decay. It was inevitable. No matter how skilled our bodies or knowledgable our minds, death would come for us both.
No matter how skilled our bodies or knowledgable our minds, death would come for us both.
In the face of our mortality, it is tempting to view the Christian doctrines of incarnation and resurrection with skepticism. To be sure, Christ’s incarnation meant that God himself experienced what it is like to have a human body, to experience hunger and thirst and physical tiredness and pain. To experience death itself. But empathy alone cannot save us, and despite Christian scriptures and tradition telling us that Christ was resurrected and conquered death, every single one of us still die.
One method of coping with this reality is attempting to ignore it, to live as if death, and our bodies themselves, didn’t matter. And the contemporary world is happy to comply, offering us infinite options for numbing and disembodying ourselves.
But if we lose sight of being incarnate, we forget what it means to be human. We forget that in becoming human, Christ took this imperfect, incarnate body and transformed it. We forget that Christ still has a human body, resurrected and glorified, today. The beauty of ballet, and my own attempts at the barre, reminds me that I, too, am an incarnate creature, that I must remember death and long for transformation. It helps me to live in hope of a resurrected world.
The beauty of ballet… helps me to live in hope of a resurrected world.
Justin Peck’s new ballet was marvelous. Like most of his works, it had neither elaborate sets and costumes nor obvious plot. Eleven dancers wove in and out of formations and patterns with perfect syncopation. (Unlike me, each knew very well how to make use of their arms and legs.)
Later, as we left the theater, I confessed to my husband that this abstract ballet had made me cry. “I know,” I said, “I’m ridiculous.”
“I cried, too,” he said. We somehow figured out that the exact same moment had made us both cry: a quartet of dancers, hunched over and frozen by some sinister force, suddenly revived as a couple passed over them with joined hands. I remembered my first time at the studio, when I had learned to stand, to breathe, and I wondered if that was how it felt to come to life again.
“It was a kind of resurrection,” I said.
“Exactly,” he said. He took my hand, and together we began the long walk home.