Thursday, 6 October 2011

In pursuit of perfection?

In a recent article in the Times by ex Royal Ballet star, Deborah Bull, ballet is apparently "about perfection, not punishment." This headline worries me somewhat, because although the rest of the writing is staggeringly well balanced for a mainstream media effort (well, she does have a wealth of real experience rather than simply a 2 hour date with the film Black Swan), it still perpetuates the myth that perfection is possible. Read into what she has written (you'll need to be a Times subscriber) and you'll see that she talks of dedication, building strength and flexibility, the demanding schedule of a dancer and the years of practise it takes to get to dance with a company: all of these things are doubtlessly integral to dancers' everyday lives, but still, I find the use of the term perfection troublesome.
Deborah Bull (image courtesy of the Times online) - Pursuing perfection even as a child?
What is perfection? In Black Swan Nina pursues perfection to an obsessive degree; it is her nemesis and her eventual downfall. Ballet companies (and any company for that matter) pursue perfection all the time. But at what cost?  I wonder, is art ever perfect? And if it is, is it still art? I don't mean to belittle effort or achievement; I for one wouldn't go to the ballet if I didn't think it was well rehearsed and full of dancers showcasing their well honed, practised talent. I'm not suggesting dancers shouldn't strive to achieve their very best, but perfection? I'm not so sure:

I came across this definition of perfectionism in a book I'm reading:

Perfectionism is the setting of, and striving to meet, very demanding standards that are self-imposed and relentlessly pursued despite this causing problems. It involves basing one's self-worth almost exclusively on how well these high-standards are pursued and achieved.
(Shafran, Egan & Wade, 2010)

Anyone at the top of their game is, obviously, aiming to be the very best they can be, but the problem with perfectionism is that good can never be good enough. We've all done it, haven't we, when we've been praised for something good and dismissed it as fluke or thought that something else must have had a role in our success? Any classical art, especially one as potentially rigid and structured as ballet, has the potential to drive people onwards to better things, and this is good, this breaks barriers and forges new paths through the art(s). But, relentless pursuit of 'perfection' - that's not healthy, surely?

When I was little, my mum used to tell me a story about the women who weave Persian rugs: apparently, somewhere in every rug, they weave a deliberate imperfection. These women are highly skilled craftswomen, whose work is highly revered the world around; they are the very best at what they do, but they choose to make a mistake. Why? Because they believe that God (their Allah) is the only one who is perfect and it would be arrogant to suggest that anything man can do could be as perfect. They aren't shoddy craftswomen, they are apprenticed for years before they are considered skilled enough to make the highest quality rugs, but they are humble too.

I love this story: it captures my imagination and reminds me of magic carpets and stories from the 1001 nights. But I also think it holds a really important message: Pursuit of excellence is essential; it drives us onwards as humans; it makes our great artists (and ballet companies) what they are today - exciting and mesmerising to watch. But maybe, as dancers, instead of citing perfection as our aim, we need to change our choice of words, because, like the Persian rug weavers, maybe we need to acknowledge that mistakes are human, and that's what makes us man, not machine.


  1. I could learn a lesson from those Persian run ladies. And I know several other people who REALLY could! They're brave ladies though - it is hard to deliberately not do your very best.

  2. I think striving for perfection can be dangerous...I think the beautiful thing about ballet is that it is never perfect and our technique can always be improved we should all just relax and do the best we can and enjoy the beauty. that's what i think :)