…even when the going gets really rough. And Melanie Doskocil is definitely one of the tough that gets going, as you’ll see in this installment of Ballet’s Un-X-pected Lesson Files. Her story about a very unique work experience will have you asking “What am I willing to fight for?”
I was really fortunate that the last dance work I did was as a dancer for Mia Michaels’ RAW.
I had been dancing for Odyssey Dance Theatre in Utah and Mia had come to choreograph a few works for us. This was before SYTYCD. She was a quickly rising star in the contemporary dance world, was very talented and gaining fame as a choreographer. Her company had recently disbanded and she needed a group of dancers to represent her on a European tour.
From my earlier experience with her, I knew she was a tough customer.
Her vision for the dances she created was brilliant and she knew with absolute clarity what she wanted her dancers to do. Sometimes what she wanted was nigh on impossible to produce; sometimes it forced us dancers to push through our self-imposed limitations. I knew she would replace a dancer in a choreographic work faster than a petit battement if she didn’t see a dancer breaking through their own boundaries. But even when what she saw in her choreographic mind was impossible to achieve in reality, she would give you a chance, if you asked for it. She was brutally honest about what she saw or didn’t see in a dancer, and if a dancer thought too highly of their abilities, she would quickly challenge the ego with a series of intricate complicated movements that she could execute flawlessly.
I knew that I had done some of my best work under her critical eye and sharp tongue. The 10 of us newly recruited dancers had all worked with her before and thought we could handle her ecentricty, her intensity, and the brutal harshness of her wit.
What I did not know was that my limits for just about everything were about to be tested.
There is scene from C. S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader (the movie version gave a pitiful nod to this passage, but the book was vastly different) when Aslan takes Eustace, who has been turned into the Dragon, to a mountain-top well, and shows him how to shed his dragon skin. Layer by layer Eustace wiggles and wriggles and scratches and scrapes off the dreadful dragon skin. He thinks he’s making progress, but each time he goes to the well he sees more dragon skin. Finally Aslan rakes him with his claws, cutting down to what feels like the bone, and the whole thick skin falls away, leaving nothing but raw, tender, quivering flesh bared.
That’s what we felt like on a daily basis.
Mia’s name was on this project and we were going to some of the biggest venues in Europe. She wanted nothing less than perfection and she was willing to drag us there, kicking and screaming if need be.
Everyone cried…everyone wanted to quit.
My instinct was to walk away and refuse to put up with “the abuse”. One dancer told me he wished he would break his leg or ankle in rehearsal so he could quit with dignity. Dancers came to me (the old lady who Mia had asked to be dancer and manager until she could join us on the tour) and begged me to let them quit.
But something clicked in me.
Somewhere, I saw there was value for all of us in what we were doing. Rather than give up or give in, I did more fast-talking through that period than I ever had. I motivated, I cajoled, I confronted Mia, who admitted to dealing with her own demons, I cried myself and I wanted to quit, but I couldn’t, wouldn’t, let myself or Mi, or the tour company down like that.
One dancer did quit, 6 weeks into the 3 month rehearsal process. We were all shocked (and some of us secretly envious). I was so afraid that dancers’ actions would snowball and cause mass mutiny. I frantically found a replacement for her, and miraculously, our ranks strengthened, tightened around this new dancer, rather than fall apart. We wanted to cushion, to protect the newbie, and each other, from this choreographer that seemed like a destructive monster. Injuries and illness did happen, but no one else walked away.
We had solidified into a real team.
In the end, for reasons of her own, Mia decided not to go on the tour with us. I can only speculate that it was her own demons and fears that kept her from going.
So we went to Europe without her, danced to packed houses, standing ovations, and shouts for encore! We even had a couple of groupies following us around from city to city.
The dancers all took their dancing to a whole new level.
We all accomplished our dream of making that tour the best we possibly could, better, even, than we thought. As a group we had major obstacles to overcome but we did it, together. We fought our own monsters and dragons as well as Mia’s. We overcame illness and injury, we pushed through our own limitations, stripped ourselves bare of old habits, opened our minds and our hearts.
…but there was one lesson that I learned from this experience that has stuck with me over the years:
I could have given up. I could have walked away. The 10 of us could have said it was not worth it.
But some work is worth all the pain and agony it takes to get there. Each one of us has to draw our own line in the sand and determine what is worth it and what isn’t.
I have walked away from other jobs that just didn’t seem worth it. But I will always remember my time with Mia Michael’s RAW as one of the best in my life, despite the struggle.
Some dreams are worth whatever it takes to get there.
Melanie Doskocil directs the School of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet with over 20 years of professional dance and teaching experience. She began her professional dance career in 1989 with Ballet Arizona and continued on to dance with Oakland Ballet, Nevada Ballet Theater, City Ballet of San Diego, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Mia Michaels RAW, and Odyssey Dance Theatre in Utah. Ms. Doskocil began teaching in 1995, for City Ballet of San Diego, under the mentorship of Steven and Elizabeth Wistrich. She continued teaching and began directing at Center Stage Performing Arts Studios in Utah, where she created their pre-professional ballet program. Melanie has mentored with master teachers Jean-Philippe Malaty, Tom Mossbrucker, Hilary Cartwright and the excellent faculty of Marcia Dale Weary’s Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. She shares her teaching stories, ideas, and some favorite ballet classes on her blog at www.balletpages.blogspot.com.