The ballerina’s odds
Each year, on the road or back at home in New York, Baryshnikov and his artistic staff hold regularly scheduled auditions for young dancers from all over America…In some ways, they differ little from any other sort of auditions: many come calling, and extremely few are chosen. Just getting a chance to audition is something of an ordeal…If someone is touted as truly exceptional, and the person doing the touting has a proven record of talent development, he or she might get a private audition with Baryshnikov, but this is rare. For the most part they come in clutches on audition days, trying to pretend they aren’t nervous, and hoping against hope that the years of hard work are finally going to pay off. They are numbered and noted in coldly clinical detail. After a basic technical competence is ascertained, decisions are sometimes made in seconds and based on pure whim, and the atmosphere is reminiscent of an animal auction.
In an odd and quieter way, though, auditions are an infinitely sad business because the demands of ballet are so much stricter and more rigorous than those of any other of the performing arts, while the return—even with success at the audition level—seems to outsiders so meager. Yet if the ballet world has its share of rebels, malcontents, and rational critics who all resent the “system” as it is presented to them, it is also remarkable for the broad and sublime rejection of common sense. Common sense would tell parents never to send their children to ballet school. Common sense would tell teenagers that there is a wider and happier world beyond the grueling strictures of daily barre and class. Common sense would tell the graduating student that there are infinitely superior ways of making money than joining a professional ballet company. Common sense would tell a young dancer that very few—laughably few—of his or her colleagues will ever make it to the top or even near the top. Common sense would tell a maturing dancer that there is much psychological grief stored up for middle age and, quite often, great pain in old age.
Yet there remains the dance and dancers, and that fact alone testifies to the endurance of faith and sacrifice in an unbelieving age.