Last night i went to see the Moscow Ballet. Pretty incredible stuff and very inspirational, but not so inspirational that i thought about taking it up myself.
I know that, no matter how inspired i was, there’s no way i’m going to be a ballet dancer. Why? Well, because i’m not ten anymore, and if i wanted to be a ballet dancer, i’d need to have enrolled in ballet school by this age.
Some skills are just so complex, so hard, require such training and commitment, that they literally require a lifetime to master. In the recent film Black Swan, Natalie Portman plays a ballet dancer, but even with six months of training, she was unable to capture the true grace and poise of someone who has spent their life doing it. The body is literally moulded and shaped by the activity. Bones and muscles change density and strength in response to the pressures on a young frame, to the extent that it’s possible to deduce what activities were undertaken by someone through an examination of the skeleton.
Such commitment and motivation is a complex issue. Is it even possible for someone at this age to make an informed decision as to whether this is an activity that they want to invest their childhood years in learning? It’s not just ballet of course, recently i saw a programme with two young Indian boys who were completing their maths degrees at age 11. They worked 3-4 hours a night (after their full time schooling) to achieve this. Cultivating people into expertise is a controversial idea. Their father was of the view that there is no such thing as genius, just hard work.
I’m not sure that i agree with that, but it’s certainly interesting to consider where we invest our time, where we spend our youth and our lives, how and when we learn and to what depth we take that learning.
The deeper our understanding and learning around a subject, the longer we spend studying it, the greater our authority becomes, but, on the downside, the greater the range of other opportunities we have passed by. I often think this around music. I can play guitar poorly, and would love to play better. Plenty of my friends are highly accomplished musicians, but i never spent the time learning, and i still don’t. Clearly my motivation and determination is lacking. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as i’ve invested this time elsewhere, but it’s something i’m aware of.
Ballet dancers have relatively short careers in dance, as do many professional sportspeople and others who rely on finely tuned physical prowess. The years of training take their toll on the body, injuries become cumulative and, as experience grows, age slows us. By the mid thirties, most people will be moving into roles more suited to their new found status: experienced, but retired!
You can’t have both: experience and youth. The natural payoff of twenty years dancing is twenty years of experience, leaving you ready to teach and pass on that knowledge. This progression from learning to practitioner to teaching is natural and common across many disciplines, but particularly noticeable with these physically driven activities.
I sometimes wonder how it must feel to experience the loss of ability to operate at the premiere level, to feel the changes that must take place, that you must be aware of, as you move through these stages, something which is, i guess, an integral part of the learning experience. Learning to be perfect and learning to leave it behind. This type of transition is more noticeable in physical skills than in knowledge based ones, where age often brings greater prowess, although ultimately even our mental agility tails of as well.
Learning to build skills and learning to lose them again, whilst learning to teach and share them with others. It’s all part of the same journey.