How often has the erratic behaviour of “artists” been condoned on the grounds that it is a result of their artistic temperament? Far too often, I reckon. Though more typically associated with musicians and visual artists, this can sometimes seep into the genteel world of ballet; but is this a genuine side-effect of artistic greatness, or just an indulged affectation which we hungrily lap up? Either way, the best can get away with it.
Rudolf Nureyev, Gelsey Kirkland, Jerome Robbins: names so synonymous with ballet brilliance that they hardly need introduction, and with talent that continues to outshine whatever personal foibles they may have had. Nureyev, who single-handedly merged classical ballet and pop-culture, led a life of excess that is legendary – he was raucous, blunt and overtly sexual, apologising for none of it. Gelsey Kirkland, it may be said, met her downfall from drugs through naivety, but her public and private search for perfection spilled over from stage to personal life. Robbins, also seeking perfection, garnered himself a reputation for being over-the-top in his demands of dancers in his efforts to get there. All these idiosyncrasies were taken, embraced even, because the talent that went with it was luminous.
On the other side of the coin, we have the likes of Margot Fonteyn: a very British sense of duty at all times, but no less wondrous a performer for it. Fonteyn didn’t take her mantle of prima ballerina lightly, providing a shining example for those upstage of her. Privately, her life may have been somewhat tumultuous given what she married into, but this was never in evidence, as she always conducted herself pristinely: why should her troubles be the concern of the ballet-going public?
Ballet is an art-form for the pragmatic: it takes a high-level of personal organisation and discipline. The Margot’s of this world would probably find it easier to survive in the ballet world, but it is the Rudi’s that provide the spark that gets people fired-up. Both personalities have a place in the ranks – indeed it was the tempering of the two that made Margot and Rudi’s own relationship so perfect.
The whole idea of artistic temperament has an air of mythology about it: artists and admirers alike are prone to the romantic notion of creative genius, with all its impassioned abandon, but we all know that any artistic endeavour takes hard work – I believe someone once said that genius was “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”; anyone can have a good idea, but taking it to fruition is the testing part.
While there may be those out there who have a façade in keeping with our wild and lusty archetype (and we tend to love them all the more for it), in the studio/practice room/on stage, the artists who make it to the top, indeed those at the pinnacle of every profession, are fearless and dedicated to their craft, regardless of the personal behaviour that goes along with it.