Let One Inform the Other

By Angela Mazziotta

angela_mazziottaIf there is one thing I have pursued tenaciously and whole-heartedly, it’s that blobby identity crisis which bleeds freely over lines and seeps into genres with or without invitation; the dance form which loves to be called rebellious and shrugs when it’s misunderstood by the vast majority of its audience: Modern Dance (or is it called Contemporary today?). As a young girl, I always enjoyed dance of all styles, but particularly appreciated the artistry and intention behind ballet and modern dance. They seemed rarely to be selling me something and the steps never felt like cheap “tricks” to win over the audience. Within these two disciplines, there appeared something beyond entertainment, and I wanted to be part of it. By default, since I wasn’t already a ballerina, it seemed my path in modern dance had been illuminated for me.

My interest in ballet depleted and it became something I did supplementally, but probably lazily. After all, if I wasn’t already a ballerina, I’d never be one. In college, ballet was mandatory for dance majors. I enjoyed the pulled up feeling in my core and appreciated the strength it provided me for my modern dance practice. Not to mention, my buns were coin-bouncing tight! Perhaps it is in the nature of ballet that you can’t fake it, and so I became very aware of my shortcomings. Compared to the ballet majors, I was a mess. Eventually the Ghosts of Bunions Past assured me that my feet were all wrong for pointe. I asked my professors to excuse me from the requirement of wearing pointe shoes; they obliged – after all, I wasn’t going to be a ballerina! Connecting my epaulement to my port de bras did not come naturally. My ability to execute turns of all kinds was too fickle. Petite Allegro killed me – in the brain. As a dance patron, my enthusiasm became exclusive to modern dance performances; I actually convinced myself that seeing staged ballet was irrelevant to the path I had chosen. In other words, I blew it.

Over the years an appreciation for ballet and a visceral craving for that very specific, ass-kicking physicality has timidly entered stage left and joined with my once singular love of modern dance center stage! Oh yes people, IT’S A PAS DE DEUX!

In ballet class you can pick out the modern dancers, just as in a modern class you can pick out the ballet dancers. The two practices are seemingly as distinct as tap is from jazz. But that does not mean they can’t directly inform each other. For example – when practicing an Adagio, I remember something a modern professor said about feeling the layers of your skin, muscle, bone and marrow. Vice versa, while working through modern choreography, I pay attention to using only the most efficient muscles and mechanics which are so fundamental to ballet. I think dance instructors for “open classes” are becoming more versed in bridging the preconceived gaps separating ballet and modern dance. A major difference remains that unless you show immense proficiency in ballet when you’re young, you’ll likely never break into a professional career as a ballerina. (Male dancers seem to be on a different timeline.) Today, I took an intermediate ballet class from ODC and was encouraged to see a range of ages and levels capable of making their way productively through class.

Traditionally, modern dance is a bit more accepting of shapes, sizes, gender and age. Some may argue that ballet is simply striving to fulfill an aesthetic expected by its audience. Does this exclusivity lead to elitism? I don’t know. Does modern dance join the Elite Club by insisting on “authenticity” by using a totally abstract form of communication? As an active member in the modern dance field, I am disturbed by the ways in which my chosen dance form could evolve (or be stunted) based on its all-consuming concern with fundraising.

Grants shape choreographers’ ideas to fit a mold, past success causes reiteration of the same ideas, and dances are being made and performed in places that are affordable, but not necessarily equipped for ideal dance incubation/presentation. Maybe it’s more experience, but ballet seems to have earned its keep. Or maybe it’s an effective illusion; kind of like, “If you smell good, you look good”. Tickets to see the San Francisco Ballet perform the Nutcracker in 2013 were at least $60. Completely new choreography from major local modern dance companies at the same time averaged $25 per ticket – many promoting “NOTAFLOF” which is fluffy for “No one turned away for lack of funds.” If ballet is desperate, it’s certainly quieter about it. Ballet never second-guesses its value, while modern dance throws a parade for every dollar donated to its fundraising campaign.

This year, I am on a personal crusade to continue learning what is physically and artistically possible. I plan to dabble and splash in puddles of the once intimidating ballet world, allowing the physical or observational experience of an older and wiser artform to make more deliberate my pursuit and understanding of modern dance.

Girl takes first steps at a Gregg Allman concert, choreographs to the entire Armageddon soundtrack, keeps dancing, gets a degree in Modern Dance Performance, moves from Florida to San Francisco in pursuit of the ultimate starving artist scenario, learns it isn’t so romantic but keeps doing it because what else is there?  Angela Mazziotta is a member of CALI & CO Dance, Palanza Dance, Project Thrust and enjoys developing her choreographic yell when the mood or opportunity strikes.  One day, she will be good at one or more of the following: ballet, sewing, brewing beer, painting, yoga, playing guitar, reading and/or writing. 

Photo by Eldon Christenson