It was fascinating to read Frank Augustyn’s Dancing from the Heart, right after reading Karen Kain’s Movement Never Lies. Not only were they dancing (and romantic) partners for 7 or 8 years, they also went to the same ballet school and stayed with the National Ballet of Canada for some years after their partnership dissolved, so their memoirs cover much of the same ground. Their perspectives are different, of course, partly due to their personalities, and partly due to their genders.
Though Dancing from the Heart is primarily the story of Frank Augustyn’s life as a dancer, he also takes the opportunity to speak up for male dancers in what is a female-dominated art form. You saw a little bit of this in my last post on this book. His “dos and don’ts for ballerinas” come at the end of a chapter in which he exposes the tendency of ballerinas towards diva behaviour.
One of Augustyn’s complaints was how when ballerinas strive for perfection by rehearsing steps repeatedly, they don’t think of the strain they are putting on their partner, who has to lift them repeatedly. He was plagued with back problems throughout his dancing years, and this was not made better when his partners wanted to practice lifts umpteen times to satisfy themselves that they had it absolutely right.
Though Augustyn was certainly no slacker, he took a slightly more laid back, even spiritual approach, to his dancing. He didn’t try to force perfection, but let it come in its own time, as though it were a gift rather than an achievement. For this he got labelled as lackadaisical by his more driven partners, including Karen Kain. I think he was just misunderstood. For him, dance came primarily from the inside out, from understanding his character. If he could do that, the right movements would come. He was aware that when it comes time to perform, sometimes the magic is there, and sometimes it isn’t, and it has little to do with how perfect the rehearsal was or even how well he was physically. He writes about one memorable night:
The performance began, and from the very beginning everything was so right. The steps flowed and seemed effortless. Karen and I were absolutely in unison, more so than ever before. Fredericton doesn’t often give standing ovations, but after this performance, they did. Our coaches came backstage with tears in their eyes, which was highly unusual—they’ve seen the ballet so often, and they’ve even seen you do it more times than they care to count. Some of the other dancers were crying. Karen and I looked at each other and said, What happened? What happened? To this day, I can hardly remember what we did, in terms of how many pirouettes I did, or how well Karen did her variation, or how well the lifts went. What I remember was this amazing feeling that someone else was doing this for me. It was almost as if an outside force came down and did it for us. Karen and I talked about it after the performance. We both had the same feeling, that we weren’t really doing this, that we weren’t really ourselves. Neither of us will ever forget it. If only I knew the key, the secret. We gave many good, maybe even great performances, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the performances I felt that good about.
I think that is the sort of experience that performers of all kinds live for.
The last chapters of the book are about his career (so far) after leaving the National Ballet of Canada. One of his ventures, which I mentioned here a while back, is a series of programs called Footnotes: The Classics of Ballet. I’ve seen a number of the episodes and they are a really good introduction to the art of ballet. The episodes combine interviews with dancers (including Karen Kain), inspiring performance footage from some of the greats, and narration by Augustyn which is both humorous and very informative. Ballet fanatics can get the whole series (20 half-hour shows) on DVD from Sound Venture. I’m considering it myself though it is rather expensive. Until then I will have to settle for reading the ballet books that Santa (ahem) brought me for New Year’s.