Artwork, Dance

Re(de)fining Work

I follow Albina Belova (choreographer for Enana Dance Theatre) on social media, and recently she posted some videos of impressive young dancers. I think most people watch a video like that and marvel at the girls’ abilities, so it intrigued me when her comment was: “Hard childhood?”

On reflection, it shed light on something she’d said to me a few months ago about growing up and training as an artist in Russia: [We had] good discipline – but also, so much was not allowed. So you try to find yourself in your work. But the only way to do that is to refine it, to keep refining and searching and refining.

Even though I did not undergo intensive arts training as a child (I was, in fact, barred from it), I remember feeling that this remark still resonated with me. Growing up in pre-Internet Saudi Arabia, I also had a very restrictive childhood. So I understand about running with whatever things you can do, and how imagination thrives when your immediate circumstances are lacking. I was drawn to the arts in particular, because they encouraged finding yourself through imagination. Furthermore, art gives you ways to lend tangibility to the things you dream up. It gives you an alternative, a kind of self-preservation, in bad situations. But I became acutely aware that working by myself, my skills could not get up to par for what I wanted – or that certain skills (classical dances, in particular) were totally inaccessible.

The irony is that one of the reasons people discouraged me from artistic pursuits was so that training wouldn’t take over my life. “Do you really want to do that?” they would ask. “Do you know how much work it takes to get to that level? How many hours a day, how much physical discomfort, for how many years?” I was dismissive because they weren’t artists themselves. They hadn’t felt the pull; they hadn’t been through the process they were putting down. But now that I am in training, I see how onerous it can get. Even when you love the art form and what you can ultimately do with it, the work that gets you there is painful. Dance exercises physically hurt. Singing scales can get tremendously boring.

Maybe I would have fallen out of love with the arts if this had characterised my early experience with them; I don’t know. But I do understand why it was portrayed as a privilege not to get artistic training: “You don’t have to be consumed by all that work. You can have a life.”

Yet then – as now – I would ask: “What life?” It’s not much of a life if you are overwhelmed by longing for something that is withheld from you. You do not feel alive unless you feel driven, and you do not feel driven if you believe that what matters to you is unattainable. And that is why I keep up with training. It is hard, and there are times I outright hate it. But it offers hope and drive.