BY JASON CAMPBELL
“You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.”
I asked local ballerina Megan Kamler what should I, someone uneducated in ballet (and dance in general), look for during a performance? Megan says most members of the audience pay attention to the dancers’ upper bodies while dancers watch the feet. Faces and arms tend to display the emotion of the movement while the feet display the technical merit of the dancer. Regardless of the aspect focused on, dance is accessible enough for most people to make a connection with it. Just think about how hard it must be to pull off such different maneuvers, all while making it seem effortless. You can’t help but have an emotional response – to feel something. Dance is the art of movement of the body, but it has so much meaning beneath the surface. A dance may represent freedom, unity, expression, spirituality, joy, despair, love, anger, and anything else anyone can think of. Dance is a part of every culture in the world, including the animal kingdom. Look at all the courtship and mating rituals of nearly any animal species; some are more artistic than others, but all are dances. Dance is a diverse and universal language of art spoken by all races, genders, ages, and species.
Essentially, dance is the sport of the arts, for no other medium contains a comparable level of physicality. Moreover, I can’t think of another field in the arts where injury lurks around every turn, and where someone is waiting to take advantage when that occurs. Ask yourself this: ever had an art teacher with a mentality reminiscent of a football coach? I haven’t either. The main difference between sports and dance is, of course, the end goal. Sports are largely for competition whereas dance is truly an art, using the body and its movement to elicit an emotional response. Megan enjoys watching the audience during her dances to gauge the reactions to difficult movements. As a younger, less experienced performer she focused intently on her footwork and technical precision.
Megan grew up in West Irondequoit and started taking dance lessons at the age of 4. Like most little dancers she was exposed to ballet, tap, and jazz. She also played sports until her early teen years, at which time she focused solely on dance, and on ballet in particular. By the ripe old age of 13 her world became ballet. She’d get up, go to school and then immediately over to the dance studio until late in the evening. This was Megan’s routine through middle school when she was able to change her high school schedule to allow her to leave early in order to dance. Megan would still dance well into the evening. All of her hard work and dedication paid off, and she was accepted into the University of Arizona School of Dance. Her alma mater is widely considered to be one of the most prestigious dance programs in the country. Just like trying out for a sports team, a prospective dancer has to audition to be accepted. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that a dancer is invited to audition, along with scores of other applicants. At U of A dancers study contemporary, jazz, and ballet to generate well rounded graduates ready to perform professionally.
Unfortunately, injuries are part of the deal. So are Advil and lots of ice! Jumps, spins, lifts, and pointe work are all potentially harmful maneuvers. Any movement that requires high levels of strength and conditioning is dangerous, especially on a hardwood stage. All of those hours of rehearsal on the sprung floor in the studio are put in to avoid the shock to the body that a hard floor exerts. Tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, sprains,and bruises, to name a few, are all likely without the cushioning that a good studio floor provides. Pointe shoes aren’t even permitted to be worn by a dancer under the age of 12, and then the introduction is gradual. The first 6 months or so involve holding onto the support bar just to train a dancer’s lower body to cope with the stress, and to build up the strength needed to let go of the bar. If you’re curious what wearing pointe shoes day after day can do to a dancer’s feet, just google dancers’ feet. Pretty gnarly. Warning: Don’t do it during a lunch break.
Dance instructors are much like coaches. They are in charge and the sole decider of who is chosen to perform and who isn’t. Megan says it takes true mental toughness to make it through the process of becoming a ballet dancer. Obviously, as a young child the approach is softer and more fostering, but what happens as the dancer advances in age and skill level? The dancer’s life becomes every bit as challenging and confrontational as one would expect on the football field. The audition process is meant to weed out the weaker individuals and is a high-stress atmosphere with an even higher failure rate. There’s no one waiting to hold your hand and nurture your ego. Plus, there’s always someone waiting in the wings to take your spot if you don’t get back up. A dance routine involves a series of movements in planned succession. Getting everyone synchronized and on the same page, at the same speed, takes an extreme amount of effort by the dancers and the instructors. A painter can always fix a mistake, a filmmaker can always do another take, but a dance performance is analogous to one continuous shot that leaves no room for error, especially on pointe shoes!
Megan has a unique relationship with her director Jamey Leverett. Megan studied under Jamey in high school and now works under her with the Rochester City Ballet. It’s not especially common for a young dancer to have such a long history with the director of a professional company. Megan feels as though that close connection is beneficial for everyone. A dancer always has to trust the choreographer’s vision, that the series of movements will all come together in the end. Rarely are dancers afforded the opportunity to provide input into the routine. This is where Megan and Jamie’s mutual trust becomes an asset. They have earned each other’s respect to the point where feedback is a valued part of the process, and that the end product is as great as possible.
The main component of a great end product is the ability of the dancer to interpret the emotion of the movements and portray them on stage, in essence, the artistry. Performing is so much more than merely repeating the steps that were rehearsed for the last few months. The dancers have to captivate the audience and to make them want to see what comes next. Audiences need to feel what the dancer feels or else they’ll lose interest. Megan excels because she has the ability to convey the meaning behind her movements. In her role as Cinderella she had to adapt her dancing to fit her character. Throughout the story Cinderella changes as a person, from a neglected afterthought to the adored princess who fits the slipper. Her evolution is evident in all of the on-screen versions of the story, but how does this transformation translate to the ballet stage? Megan had only her facial expression and her body to tell that same tale. She had to look and move differently. Mentally, she had to become a different person in order to physically appear as one. Becoming unnoticeable as oneself and then wholly embodying the role is the very definition of artistry. Clearly, Megan was chosen to be Cinderella because of her artistry and not her blond hair.
Despite all of the potential pitfalls of a career in dance, Megan swears it is worth it. When the opportunity to be paid to do what you love arises you go wherever that opening takes you. It just so happens that Megan was called home to dance with the Rochester City Ballet in 2011 under her teacher from her youth. RCB is not a ranked dance company, meaning that the dancers often switch roles from performance to performance. The lead role in one production may be a corp dancer in the next. Most of the ballet companies in major US cities are ranked in ascending order: apprentice, corp, soloist, and principal. Even without the ranking system, RCB is a highly regarded company. Read all about their accolades on their website http://rochestercityballet.org/.
One of Megan’s favorite performances of the season is coming up in May where the dancers share the stage with the RPO. The energy generated by the musicians and their instruments is palpable. If you’ve never been to a live performance by a full orchestra you are truly missing out – you can actually feel the sound hitting you in the chest. Combine the energy of the music with the artistry and fluidity of the dancers and you have a performance you’ll not soon forget. Rochester City Ballet’s season runs from September through May and typically involves three major productions along with many smaller appearances in schools. Dancers thrive on performing for an audience and would happily be on stage more often. However, like most things in life, it all comes down to money. Renting performance halls is not cheap. It makes sense when two ensembles like the City Ballet and the RPO can perform together and pool their resources to strengthen the revenue stream. It’s too bad such performances only occur once a year. Perhaps there could be a collaboration done in conjunction with the Jazz Fest when there is a huge crowd of art aficionados congregating downtown.
Admittedly, my knowledge of dance, and ballet in particular, is virtually non-existent. Sadly, I’ve been told that drunk wedding flailing doesn’t actually qualify as dancing. I’ve seen Black Swan but that probably doesn’t count either. Fortunately, as a young person growing up in Brockport I was lucky enough to witness quite a few performances by Garth Fagan Dance. There was such a mix of power and grace in their movements; those were by far the best assemblies we ever had. But even those performances were seen through immature eyes, unaware of what was really happening. Luckily, I met Megan Kamler, a principal dancer with the Rochester City Ballet, who graciously shared her insider’s view of dance with me.