These excerpts are from Montero’s article Against Flow, in Aeon magazine. Recommended.
Against the flow; or, Improving Everything
When I was a student at the San Francisco Ballet School, I loved watching the advanced dancers in the class before mine. Their soaring leaps, their whirlwind turns, their command over everything from the sweep of their arms to the delicate placement of their heels – so easy did they make it all seem that I sometimes wondered if these beauteous creatures were made, not out of flesh and blood, but from dance itself.
I was therefore surprised one day to come upon a member of the class, facing the barre, working diligently on her battement tendus. A tendu is one of the first exercises you learn as a child taking ballet. It’s simple: starting from a standing position, you move one leg out to the side, point the foot on the floor, then bring it back to your starting position. Why did this supernal being need to practise such an easy step? What could possibly be improved?
Years later I realised that the answer to this question is: everything. There can be more articulation of the toes; rotation can be made more extreme; even that ineffable quality of artistry can be developed. It’s often thought that the greater your prowess, the easier your performance becomes. However, as I progressed upward through the ranks of the ballet world, I saw that this wasn’t the case. Rather, as my dancing improved, I developed both higher standards for what counts as excellence and an enhanced ability to evaluate my technique. What was once facile became difficult; what was once flawless revealed myriad imperfections; and, in certain instances, what was once enjoyable turned into a nightmarish trial.
Sprezzatura: Early Cool
For the most part, however, the effort of ballet remains cloaked in a guise of gracious ease. This makes ballet a stylised version of a pervasive phenomenon: the cult of cool, which prizes the ability to perform difficult actions with insouciance. The Italian Renaissance author and diplomat Baldassare Castiglione was an early champion of cool, or what he thought of as studied carelessness, calling it ‘sprezzatura’. And his Book of the Courtier (1528) delineates in exquisite detail how to ‘practise in all things a certain nonchalance which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless’. As Castiglione understood, we value cool because we assume that those who act effortlessly must have plenty of resources in reserve for when bigger challenges arise. They exhibit a superfluity of fitness. Creating this appearance of ease is so valuable, Castiglione thought, that one should devote considerable effort to making it happen.