Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Follow-up: The unbearable briefness of a dance career

When I wrote about dance as an ephemeral art recently, I talked about how a dancer's career is shorter than a writer's because the body ages out of it. But I failed to mention the possibility of injury cutting that career even shorter. The near-constant possibility of injury makes dance even more precious and fleeting—something that viewers of So You Think You Can Dance have recently witnessed. Alex Wong, my favorite dancer from the current season, was injured last week during a rehearsal for a Bollywood number. He leaped and then crashed down, his Achilles tendon ripped.

The next night, Alex stood on crutches while judge/producer Nigel Lythgow told the audience that Alex will have surgery this week, which is predicted to be "80 percent effective." Then Alex must recuperate for three months. That means three months without work for Alex, who left his post as the principal dancer with the Miami City Ballet to be on the TV show and, in so doing, was told by the company's director not to come back. There's a 20 percent chance he may not be able to dance again, anywhere.

The audience gasped at the news and Alex wept, tears streaming down his face.

Alex was in two of the best dances in the past few weeks: a modern dance routine to Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah in the first competition broadcast; and a hip-hop number, amazing because he is a ballet dancer but still acquired hip-hop so quickly. (I can't embed the dances here because Dick Clark Productions is continually forcing them off of YouTube; I've done my best to find them on the SYTYCD web site, in the links above, but the clips I've found may not be exact. Each clip is probably also, unfortunately, preceded by a 25-second ad on their web site).

What if these are Alex's last two, best dance performances? Is it enough that they were seen be a national audience for those few precious minutes? Will they be the sum of his body's artistic work?

I remember what Joni Mitchell said in her "Miles of Aisles" live album: "No one ever said, 'Paint me another Starry, Starry Night, man'," referring to the impermanent art of the performer (perhaps one reason she retreated to painting).

If everything I wanted to say as a writer could be compressed into a three-minute dance, would I risk dancing it if it meant I couldn't express myself again? Of course not—my fingers ache nearly every day to say something, to put something down. But most professional dancers must face this question, however subconsciously, each time they perform; any dance could be their last.

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