The elusive first position in ballet: a race that can never be truly won

by Annie Carroll

It must be nice to finish first in a race. I imagine that each time Michael Phelps won Gold in the pool, he had no doubts over whether he deserved it.

He was first. He was the best that day.

As a young ballet dancer, competing for a medal in the suburban eisteddfods of Sydney left my head swimming with doubts over the logic of the adjudicator and consequently my performance.

In ballet, as with all art forms, what constitutes first place? And perhaps more importantly, can there ever be a first place?

When we look at the great ballet companies of the world, there is never just one principal dancer who reigns supreme but rather a group of dancers at the peak of their careers. Often vastly different in style and physique, but all similarly excellent in their technique and artistry. Each a rare and unparalleled performer.

During my years at The Royal Ballet School, I’d have heated debates with my peers over who was the better dancer – Alina Cojocaru or Tamara Rojo?

I understand now that what we were really doing was making arguments for why we preferred one or the other. It was utterly subjective, even internal, as we would seem to favour the dancer we identified with more.

And of course it didn’t really matter who had the last say in these debates. Both Alina and Tamara are exceptional and beyond comparison. They are both commanders of their technique and masters of their individual artistry.

With the great ballet dancers of the world there’s a sense of collective excellence in all its divergent glory.

This is why ballet is so hard to adjudicate and why that elusive first position shouldn’t hold so much importance for young dancers. Of course, it is wonderful to strive to do your best, but there is no less achievement if your best doesn’t come with a cheap medal in a fake velvet box. I am sure Alina and Tamara would agree.

So why do we still engage with competitions within the arts, particularly from such a young and tender age?

It was years into my eisteddfod career before I reached what my ballet teacher referred to as ‘the winner’s circle’, where I didn’t feel completely humiliated every time I set foot on stage.

“Here is where you must be”, she would say, often reminding me of this after I’d placed only with a ‘Highly Commended’.

“It doesn’t matter Annie”, she would say, “you’re still up there with the best of them.”

These eisteddfods did not teach me to acknowledge the importance of individuality, or that there is always more room at the top than one might think. Instead, the persistent threat of defeat echoed out of every canister of hairspray and every soft pop of a lipstick opening.

And you’ve never seen a girl size up her competition until you’ve been a tutu-clad 13 year old at the Warringah Eisteddfod. The air seemed to perpetually be weighed down with the cloying comments exchanged between overwrought mothers, belying the harsh, ruthless ambition of it all.

However, despite the melodrama, these competitions instilled in me some of my greatest assets as a dancer and, perhaps, human being: the desire to succeed, the courage to expose myself to the scrutiny of others, and the determination to overcome disappointments.

When I arrived in London to begin my training at the RBS, I had already been dancing alone on the stage for many years, which turned out to be a handy advantage in variation class. In fact, it was a noticeable trait in all the Australian students at the time that they had courage in their movement and command over their space.

The art of performance had been drilled into me from a young age, and so had the habit of carrying out a post-performance critique of all that I had done wrong on the stage. Dancers easily turn into their worst enemy moments after the curtain drops, unravelling each moment and surmising what could have been done better.

This perfectionist behaviour can quickly devolve into a pointless exercise in lambasting what has come and gone – that exquisitely ephemeral time spent in front of a hushed auditorium, however imperfect it might have been.

And it is in that transient place where the relentless physical work and disappointment in oneself fades into a quiet space and the idea of winning or losing fails to coerce each movement: the moment of transformation from athlete to artist.

Something Michael Phelps, I’m sure, has never experienced.

2 Comments

  1. Kate Furnell
    Posted August 25, 2013 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    Very well expressed Annie. It is very difficult to explain
    to others the intensity of the emotions experienced
    in the hot house situation of student competitions.
    Your last paragraph sums up the performance experience
    beautifully.

  2. Cass
    Posted August 28, 2013 at 2:35 am | Permalink

    Great article. I think the true competition is with yourself, and at the end of the day, you know that. Whatever placing you receive, you still know how well you danced, what steps you nailed, and what you could have done better. Being proud of yourself for giving it a go is most important I feel.

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Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin, Marguerite and Armand,  the Royal Ballet, photo © Tristam Kenton/Royal Opera House.

Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin, Marguerite and Armand, the Royal Ballet, photo © Tristam Kenton/Royal Opera House.

Alina Cojocaru, La Sylphide, the Royal Ballet, photo © Johan Persson/Royal Opera House

Alina Cojocaru, La Sylphide, the Royal Ballet, photo © Johan Persson/Royal Opera House