"Have you ever made a mistake on stage?" "Have you ever fallen on stage?"
These are two questions that I am often asked. Perhaps because there is a perception of ballet dancers being poised and in control as a rule, many are surprised to hear that I lost count long ago of the number of times I have done both. In fact, not long ago I found myself losing my 'poise' twice in the span of 5 minutes. During the grand pas de deux of The Nutcracker I slipped twice and in order to keep from ending up face down and underside of tutu up, I found myself in the type of bracing position that is, shall we say, 'less than flattering.' Hearing the audience gasp confirmed that there was no way I could cover it up.
Such is the reality, and some would say excitement of live performance; the chance that things will not go as planned. It has taken me my whole career to establish how to handle these situations, and all of the lessons learned until now informed how I behaved during that recent Nutcracker performance.
During performances when I was a child, through my teenage years, and as a young corps de ballet member if I made a mistake on stage I could not stop focusing on it. This inevitably led to making another mistake, and so on until my performance was not nearly what I had hoped it would be. Afterward I would run the mistakes over and over in my mind and beat myself up for them. Of course I never thought about what had gone well. While not unusual, this was not a good strategy. After many performances and years of practice I developed an ability to push a mistake out of my mind the moment after it happened. I learned to very purposefully shove the thought aside. While this eliminates the problem of more mistakes piling up due to embarrassment and fear, it is not the whole picture. An even greater lesson that I learned as a young corps de ballet member has informed not only my inner mental game but my ability as a performer and entertainer.
During my 3rd? year at the National Ballet we were performing Paquita as part of a mixed program. I was standing in formation on stage left during the finale and I was watching Principal Dancer Greta Hodgkinson performing the 32 fouette turns that the crowd always loves. At number 32 she pulled in for her usual triple pirouette finish and I watched in horror as she turned 3 times straight onto her back with feet ending up in the air. The audience gasped, the music cut and there was silence. And then, very slowly she sat up, collected her legs, and began gracefully standing up. She didn't rush. She was elegance incarnate. And as she reached the top of her assent she finished it all off with a flourish of her arms and a defiant lift of her chin. The crowd went wild with thunderous applause.
I realized that in a situation like that, when there is no way that the audience doesn't know that something went wrong, the only thing left to do is to put the audience at ease, or even better, make them laugh. Had Greta reacted differently and shown embarrassment the audience would have felt uncomfortable and upset for her. People would have left the performance feeling terrible. Instead she gave them an amazing story to tell and a laugh to share. She gave them a fantastic show and they loved her for it. Greta showed me that the mark of a true performer is not perfection but the ability to deliver something special to an audience no matter what happens.
Greta (Photo by Aleksandar
I remembered this lesson years later when I found myself on my face center stage during a solo. I got up and laughed my way through the rest of my solo and I think I even danced better after the fall than before it. At that point what was there to lose? I remembered Greta's lesson as well during that most recent Nutcracker performance. I quickly covered up my annoyance at what had happened and smiled even more as I continued my performance. After the show my brother who had been in the audience overheard a young girl from The National Ballet School excitedly tell her parents "Jillian slipped TWICE!" I hope that means I did my job well. She could have said "Poor Jillian!" Instead she loved what happened.
None of this is to say that it doesn't bother me when something goes wrong. Of course it does. I work so hard for the performances I do and I want to dance to the best of my ability. I have simply gotten better at handling a less than perfect situation. I can't do anything about a mistake once it's made, but I can decide how to handle it afterward. I can also forgive myself, and I have gotten much better at that too.
In 2012 I read an article in Chatelaine Magazine about an interview that Johan Lehrer had with Yo Yo Ma. It caught my eye because I had recently heard the famous cellist play my favourite cello concerto with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. I had been incredibly moved and amazed by his performance. As quoted in the article Lehrer said that Yo Yo Ma welcomed mistakes on stage because "after you make that first mistake, you're free - you can shut off the part of your mind that worries about failing and just let yourself go."
I thought about the incredible performance I had seen, filled with passion and unbelievable skill, but mostly about how emotional I had been made to feel. I believe that Yo Yo Ma's attitude toward mistakes contributes to his greatness just as much as his skill.
So, now I am working on actually embarrassing my mistakes, and when the time comes on stage when something isn't absolutely perfect I think of Yo Yo Ma and feel free.