The highest praise for a dancer these days is to call her “an athlete.” What is wrong with “artist”? Why prolong the inferiority complex about art? Let’s get past that whole macho-athlete-branding thing. Take a look a this gorgeous dance by Sergei Polunin to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” directed by David LaChapelle:
The dance “settles whether ballet is a sport,” trumpets the USA Today headline. Does it? Have I missed some juicy argument, with flung crockery and high tempers? I didn’t think so. Ballet, as Ukrainian dancer Polunin underscores, is an art.
While I’m delighted that Misty Copeland’s Under Armour ads have gone viral, giving an important ballerina a high public profile, I worry that too much focus on her photogenic musculature and physical power detracts from what are, to my dance critic’s eye, her greater gifts. She is a deeply expressive artist, with a unique, lush and very personal way of moving, which allows her to convey and elicit emotion. At its very best, her dancing transcends her body, leading us beyond her perfect pirouettes to…well, the wonder of life. This is what art does to us. Our minds can become so scattered by just getting throughthe day-to-day work/life struggle, and witnessing art can be soothing and uplifting. It can have any number of other effects on the psyche, too, creating an emotional experience that can take us away from the drudgery, and beyond the present moment.
That’s how I feel watching Sergei Polunin in his stunning “Take Me to Church” solo. He’s telling a story, and I’m hanging on every non-word. I feel lifted when he flies into the air; I feel a thrilling little almost-whirl when he whirls. I’m right there with him on his own journey of vulnerability and transformation.
Why does his dancing draw me in? There is mystery to art and its effect on us. Neuroscientists would say my brain is rewarded by watching him, so I want to watch him over and over. But continue asking ‘why is that?’ and science has no answer. I sometimes feel that obsessive “replay” impulse when I’m watching Roger Federer dance on the tennis court, or when I’m revisiting clips of Greg Louganis’s poetry in motion as he leaves the diving board. Federer and Louganis and a select few other athletes transcend their sport; they are no longer simply demonstrating skill, aggressiveness and physical mechanics. They impress us with much more than musculature and power. They show us other qualities, qualities that have nothing to do with the game, such as fluid ease, rhythm, balance, harmony, grace. They are beyond athletes, just as Copeland and Polunin and other dancers are. They are artists. How fortunate for the rest of us.