David Hallberg

Without Failure There is No Beauty

“Doomed because it’s never good enough.”-David Hallberg, ballet dancer.DavidHallberg022110

Today I am failing to write a chapter in my new novel.  My recent adventure in Washington D.C. was good for my soul but it has derailed the momentum I had on the writing.  I have all of the pieces of the chapter already written and only need to string them together into a seamless text.  I can’t write the first line. I have an otherwise blank word document staring at me with “[insert excellent opening line here]” at the top.  Some days you can’t make it work.  I am walking away for the moment.

Now that I am home, and have had some sleep, I am finally able to process what I heard at the Kennedy Center when David Hallberg came to speak about his life, work and the creative process.  Part of my fascination with him has to do with what people might call either his perfectionism or his insecurity.  Those are not quite the right words for it, although there are no doubt elements of both involved.

This fear and drive was something he talked about in the short film The Dancer, which I have written about here before.  Ironically, because of his stunning success– not in spite of it– David Hallberg is in the perfect position to talk about failure.  Failure fascinates me because  I am always falling down.

I have come to believe that failure is more than something to overcome.

“Failures are unforgettable,” wrote the poet Philip Schultz.

When my companions and I talked about the conversation with David Hallberg (which you can watch here) one thing stood out to all of us.  It was when one of the world’s most celebrated dancers said that he could count on one hand the number of performances that he had been truly pleased with.  It was the disparity in the reactions the audience and the dancer had to a film of Hallberg at age 16. The audience members let out appreciative sighs over the amazing raw material and talent he had.  When he looked at it, he saw his flaws and admitted that he still has a lot in common with that clumsy kid.  “From the audience’s perspective you have amazing control, you know that,” the moderator had to reassure him.

It was the moment he talked about having to go in another room and lie on the floor to recover emotionally from a performance that he felt was beneath his standard.

“You can prepare so much for a show… then you go on stage and you’re not a robot, you’re human… You want to be a different dancer. I think every artist who questions everything wants to be different. And that’s the sort of double-edged sword. It keeps me going but it can also ruin you.”

“It haunts me,” he had said in the film The Dancer.

By chance, after I returned home from my journey to see this lecture, I was flipping through the book Zen and the Art of Making a Living by Laurence G. Boldt.  I opened to page 32 and read this:

“Beauty is not an end in itself, but the by-product of making or doing things well. Beauty results from the aspiration to perfection. Yet it accepts and allows that natural imperfection which is human. Beauty is not found in mechanical correctness, but in human aspiration– in making and doing with love.”

If it is true that beauty is not found in correctness but aspiration then it can also be said that without failure there is no beauty.

Failure is not a bug, it is a feature.

Then is the artist doomed?  If the theory holds, each artist is caught in an inescapable paradox. If he doesn’t stop reaching for that unreachable star, and believing that he can get there, he will not be in the position to create the beauty that comes from trying and falling short. It means he has to fall– and he can’t be satisfied with falling.  The fall has to hurt.

Do you remember the Monty Python skit involving “getting hit on the head lessons”?

This leads to other lines of inquiry.  Is the self-esteem culture (“I’m good enough, I’m strong enough and doggone it, people like me”) detrimental to arts? Could this be why we, as a nation, seem to have less interest in fine arts and culture with a big C than some others?

There is something that draws me to this question of arts and failure.  I haven’t quite gotten to the center yet or managed to articulate it.  I will keep trying. Forgive me for my failure.

Skinny Legs and All

I drove nine hours to see the American ballet dancer David Hallberg  not dance at The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. The event was streamed live on the internet, so I could have watched it from my living room.  (If you don’t know who he is, see these previous posts: The Joys of Failure and David Hallberg, Random Penguins…)

This is not the kind of thing I generally do. Or that one does in general, when you get down to it.

Last week I saw a rock star…  Perform rock music… Without driving very far at all.  This is the kind of thing people do.

David Hallberg is skinny.  “All arms and legs trying desperately to control them,” was the ungraceful way he described himself– I am paraphrasing from memory.  (All of the quotes in this post will be from memory even though the event is archived and can be viewed on the Kennedy Center site.)  He was talking about his form at age 16, but he also said or inferred that his self-image had not changed all that much.  He was still frequently frustrated in his desire to control those long limbs.

I’m not a dancer, I’m a writer.  This is what I am trained to do: spot metaphors. “All arms and legs and trying to maintain control” has the ring of a great metaphor.

I was trying to control all my moving parts a couple of months ago.  I was managing a ballet educational tour which involved, among other things, sitting in dance studios in 26 different states (not all at once) and pushing the play and pause buttons on the CD players for 112 classical ballet classes.  The play-pushing part of my job is the most relaxing.  The rest of the time I am driving, planning, booking hotels, finding meals, communicating with schools and dozens of other small, un-sexy details. (Also juggling my publishing career.)  In class, the dancer does the bulk of the work and I have time after firing up a track marked “rond de jambe par terre” to check my smart phone.  This is how I learned about the event at the Kennedy Center. Tickets were free.  (Hotel was $200)

From my friend Michelle’s dance studio in Charleston, WV I fired off a message to my friend Jenny.  (The same Jenny mentioned in my Adam Ant post.)  I sent her the link because she knew I was on a bit of a Hallberg kick at the moment and she is kind enough to indulge me in whatever catches my attention.

“Would be nice to go to this,” I said. I did not need to add the reasons I could not– too far to walk, too soon after driving through 26 states on my own tour to contemplate a road trip.

All arms and legs trying desperately to maintain control.

“I wish I could go with you,” Jenny wrote back.

“It would be nice.”

Driving six hours (Jenny lives in Cleveland) to see a ballet dancer not dancing– when you’re not even much of a ballet fan– is not the kind of thing Jenny usually does.

“So,” she wrote. “Let’s do it.”

After pressing play on a track labeled “Grand Battement” I navigated to the Kennedy Center site and reserved tickets.   There was nothing to lose.  The tickets were free. (Did I mention the hotel cost $200?)  We had begun to lose control of our limbs.

(I just had a mental image of myself at a ballet barre, sweating as I work to stretch this metaphor.)

Before I left for Washington D.C., I posted this Facebook status: “I am actually going to take a weekend off. That is so weird.” 

Even though we had occasional days off on our tour, I never took a full day of rest and I can’t remember the last time I did. A day off meant we did not have a master class, but I took them as opportunities to handle those aforementioned un-sexy details of touring, to book the next tours, and to send out queries to publishers and agents, go back and forth with my editor on an article I was writing and so on.  When I came back to Michigan after the tour I started to work obsessively on a new novel, a task which has had me at the computer until 4 AM most days.

When I packed for my weekend adventure, I put all of the notes for the novel in my suitcase.  (Can we agree, going forward, that I can imply the whole “limbs and control” metaphor without actually saying it? I’m fairly certain I am on the verge of stretching to the point that I pull something, if I haven’t already.)

When I told my friend Michelle, a talented dance teacher, that I was going on an adventure to see a ballet dancer not dance for an hour in Washington D.C. she thought it sounded excellent.  She said, “I wish I could go on an adventure.”

“Why wish?” I said. “The tickets are free.” (The Hotel on the other hand…)

If there had not been three of us going, the whole adventure might not have happened. Children (in the case of my two companions), work, financial questions… Each of us, at one point or another, decided that dropping everything and driving cross country to see a ballet dancer not dance for an hour in Washington D.C. might not be an entirely practical fit with our busy lifestyles.  Having two others counting on you for their adventure is a great motivator.  I think they call this peer pressure.

David Hallberg seems to prefer to wax philosophically about art in general than to get down to brass tacks and he even called himself out on it at one point. This is not to say that his musings were uninteresting.  As a non-dancer, musings about the nature of the artistic calling are more interesting than shop talk about cabrioles.  He said something about risk that I recall I related to very strongly as a writer and artist. Unfortunately, I don’t remember what it was exactly.

Here is why I remember so little: about five minutes into the event I realized I had to pee.  By the time we’d reached the half way mark I was suffering from  kid-in-the-backsteat-of-the-car-sixty-miles-from- the-next-rest-stop kind of  pain.

Handy Hint! If you plan to go to see a ballet dancer not dancing for an hour, try to avoid consuming large amounts of liquid in the two hours leading up to it.  (You can trust my advice. I am a professional How To author.  See my Reader’s Digest book Don’t Screw It Up)

From that point on, my overriding thought was “Do I have to leave the theater now, or can I make it through to the end without wetting the Kennedy Center seats?” This stamped out any deeper reflections the discussion of a dancer’s art might have inspired.  (I was mentally engaged enough to grab up that metaphor about control and long limbs, though.)

After the show, Michelle turned left in a quest for Milk Duds. (We hadn’t eaten all day) Jenny and I turned right in a quest for plumbing.  We passed the men’s room– no line– and arrived at the women’s room– long line.   I had made it through the show but had not budgeted any extra energy for a long rest room line. (“He was so cute,” a woman in a glittery blouse gushed. She was standing between me and the exquisite relief of the stalls.)

Fortunately I discovered, in a quiet corner, a family restroom with a sign on the door that indicated it was only to be used when circumstances warranted.  Not sure what that meant, but I felt that my situation qualified.  Let me just say that being physically comfortable is one of the small, under-appreicated pleasures of life.  I came out of the restroom, waited for Jenny to take her turn, and then we both stood waiting for some people down the hall beyond us to take pictures of each other so we could pass.

That’s when we noticed David Hallberg, the man himself, coming out of the back stage area.  We stood there as he passed. He was texting something on his smart phone. We later joked that it was probably “Two middle-aged women making goofy smiles at me, must not look up.”

Pointe Magazine described Hallberg as “Tall, with a full head of wispy blond hair and a long forehead ending in a strong brow, David Hallberg has prominent, attentive eyes that possess a melancholic, preternatural maturity. He is, in a word, regal.”

I’m guessing he looks more “regal” without the cell phone, but he is strikingly tall and slim.

Anyway, I am glad that the program was taped so that I can watch what I missed by being there in person to see it. In the moment, I am certain I responded to much of what was said. I’m looking forward to hearing it again for the first time.

Now that I am on the subject, I do remember one other part of the interview.  The dancer spoke about recovering from an injury and all of the things he had to wipe off his schedule at that time.  He took the time to see the Grand Canyon.  On crutches.

When I was thinking about taking this trip and planning what it would be like, I mainly thought about the interview.  I thought we would spend a low key day taking in the monuments and then being intellectually engaged with a lecture before settling in for an evening of conversation at the hotel.  That is the kind of vacation we would have had if we’d controlled our limbs. (Sorry, I did have to bring it back. I couldn’t help myself.)

Instead we decided to just move and see what would happen.  We spent hours in the car listening to songs from our youth and talking about every subject under the sun. We had a chance to stay in a stylish “boutique” hotel with complimentary yoga mats and zebra print robes that cost $90 if you decide you must take them with you.   We, through a twist of fate, ended up at the Rosslyn Jazz Festival.  (Michelle had stage managed The Soul Rebels once, and discovered they would be in the city at the same time.)  We (the ones who hadn’t) met the drummer and had a great long conversation in the hotel lounge.  I hasten to add, we thoroughly enjoyed the free interview/lecture, in case my description of it might not convey this.  We spent an hour getting recommendations for a great restaurant and choosing where to go only to get there 15 minutes after it closed.  We (four of us now, including our new musician friend)  found ourselves eating pizza on an outdoor terrace and bantering with a charming Italian waiter. We got lost trying to walk back to our stylish boutique hotel and found ourselves back at the Kennedy Center. We enjoyed company all the way.  We did people watching. We laughed until eyes streamed, debated until people got annoyed, and then laughed again until sides hurt.

So what is the moral of this story? Don’t be so haunted by your quest for an unobtainable perfection that you forget to enjoy the accidents along the way.

Also–and my Adam Ant post will bear this out– I am terrible at writing reviews.

The Joys of Failure

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”-Robert Browning

Writers are constantly failing. By this I don’t mean that writers must face rejection on a regular basis, although we do. I don’t mean that it is hard to get published and hard to sell your books when you do, although this is true. What I mean is that writers never quite manage to create the work they believe themselves capable of creating. The story is never as fully or beautifully formed as it is in some deep part of the imagination.

You reach for the perfect synthesis of language and idea, the ideal way to invoke a story with these symbols on paper or screens. Sometimes you get tantalizngly close. You write something and the process is complete flow, you lose yourself. When you go back to edit and revise, you’re surprised to find that it speaks to you almost as much as it did as you were getting the words down. You know that you have given all you can give and written the best that you were capable of at that time. Yet there is always a nagging sense that it could have been better, that your best was not what you wanted it to be. A famous writer once said that novels are never finished, they are simply abandoned. You could keep revising forever. At some point you have to make the choice that it is done even though you know that there is more in you if you can only find it, if you can capture that flash of inspiration and have the skills to do it justice.

We writers don’t compare ourselves to average people. We compare ourselves to the people we read– to Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde or Dostoyevsky. When you make comparisons like that you’re bound to feel like a failure. That’s not a bad thing. It is the sense of failure more than anything else that spurs the artist on. If you’re completely satisfied with what you’ve already done there is no reason to push for more.

This is a short film featuring the ballet dancer David Hallberg.

Although he does not use the word “failure” Hallberg describes what I am talking about: the inspiration that comes from not achieving the ideal.

“…That’s what keeps me motivated as a dancer,” he says. “It attracts me to this art form. There is this level that you will never attain but you so desperately reach for. No other art form does that in the way ballet does.”

(That sentence sounds much more poetic, I now realize, when it is combined with the visual of his movement.)

Ballet has its own way of reaching for perfection and falling short, but every artist, within the bounds of his own form, aspires to attain a level that is always just beyond his grasp– the impossible dream, the unreachable star. When the muse whispers in your ear, she says, “Good try, but you failed. You can do better.”

When you experience that flash of lightning and you write something that you know has stretched your ability as a writer, when readers respond to it, it makes the years of work, the rejection and everything else that comes with this career worth it. That feeling lasts only for a moment because right away you begin to wonder, “Was that a fluke? Can I do that again? Can I do better? Is there more in me? How do I get back to that place, that moment, when it all flowed and my training kicked in and the book seemed to write itself?”

“It haunts me,” Hallberg says of such moments. It is haunting indeed.

David Hallberg, Random Penguins and Things that Give Me Hope as a Writer

Writing has always been a solitary profession. There is nothing new about that. With notable social exceptions like the Algonquin Round Table and the circle of poets surrounding Oscar Wilde, writers, unlike actors, have generally been a solitary lot.

Even so, these can be particularly lonely times for writers. The publishing world seems destined to condense into one giant corporation called Random Disney Harper Penguin House. The “Big Five” devote their advance money and marketing savvy to authors sure to generate a great ROI. Justin Beiber is a New York Times best seller meanwhile midlist authors find it harder to build a career.

Not only is it harder to get a less obviously commercial work traditionally published it is harder to make money in the ebook era if you do. That is, unless you’ve written 50 Shades of Gray, which is apparently now the best selling book of all time in England.

Self-publishing, in spite of all of the hype, is not yet a substitute for the traditional publisher. The average indie book sells less than 100 copies and most of the authors– a few outliers aside– end up spending more than they take in. The rules are all changing and no path is clear.

As an intelligent person, any writer given these facts has to say, “This is not a career. It’s too hard. I should give this up and do something practical.” This is perfectly reasonable and wise. If you’re blessed or cursed with a writing calling, however, you will only manage to remain wise and reasonable for a few moments before falling into a complete existential crisis. At which point you must admit that not being a writer is simply not going to be an option, and therefore, you need to find little things to keep you sane as you slog on.

Lately ballet dancer David Hallberg has been keeping me (relatively) sane. In case you have not heard the name, David Hallberg is a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater and the first American to be invited to dance as a principal with Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet.

Watching ballet, in any event, is a great palate cleanser for a writer. It is the non-verbal anti-novel– the part of the human experience that words on paper can’t express. (If you could capture Swan Lake with text there would be no reason for it to exist.) I firmly believe human life is large enough that it needs every form of art to give it full expression. No one form alone is capable of it.

I happen to be just quixotic enough to have tried to fund my writing career with a ballet career. Or maybe I try to fund the ballet with the writing. Either way, it’s nuts. When I say “ballet career” I should make it clear I am not a dancer. I suspect that people might be willing to pay me not to dance. I am a ballet manager/organizer. I spend half the year on the road with Russian ballet dancer Valery Lantratov conducting a geographically broad educational program which I put together with a view to eventually producing performance tours. Seeped in the world of Russian ballet as I have been for the past decade, I felt a swell of American ballet patriotism watching Hallberg join the Russians on their home turf. (It happens all the time the other way around.)

In the clip above from PBS Newshour, Hallberg talks about some of the challenges of a professional ballet career. In particular, he talks about the bullying male dancers often endure when they start to hit the teen years and how it never crossed his mind that dance was the thing he should give up. Stubborn writers should be able to relate to this.

The clip also talks about Russia’s ballet culture. The other day as my Russian counterpart and I drove across the vast expanse of South Dakota where Hallberg was born, I got to thinking about how different it must be to pursue a dance career in the United States than in Russia where ballet stars are regularly featured on television, where there are schools with historic ties to top theaters that serve as training grounds. If you’re a Russian kid with a bit of innate talent, you know where to go. There is cultural and government funding and support for the classical arts on a scale that simply doesn’t exist here. The Russians are fortunate in this.

As a writer looking at the publishing options available today there is no clear path. But there is no clear path from South Dakota to the Bolshoi Ballet either. Today Hallberg was the spark giving me that nudge to keep doing the literary equivalent of my barre exercises.