What Is Your Story?

The story of Julie Kent

What is your story?
Julie Kent was trending on my feed last week. I didn’t know who she was but I clicked on an article, interest piqued by the description that said the American Ballet Theatre Principal Dancer was retiring after 29 years with the premier ballet company of the United States. Reading about how ballet has shaped her life in Vanity Fair, I got a glimpse into the commitment she has to her craft and instantly wished that I had been able to make her final performance to see her artistry first hand.

I rarely go to the ballet or dance performances of any kind. While I appreciated performances I saw as a teenager attending an arts high school, it was more out of amusement in seeing my classmates on stage rather than for the beauty of it.

What had been an abstraction with no real connection to me became a story that made me want to go see for myself the determination and passion that goes into this art.

Therefore, it is natural that I’ve never felt moved to support an institution like American Ballet Theatre, even at a level as basic as buying a ticket to a show. But once I heard this story and saw the face of one person in the company, it made me think that I must go. What had been an abstraction with no real connection to me became a story that made me want to go see for myself the determination and passion that goes into this art.

Under Armour, American Ballet Theatre and the story of Misty Copeland

I did go just once to see American Ballet Theatre, and that was because someone gave me a free ticket. At that performance, chatting with an older couple to my right, I learned that it was their first time at a professional ballet as well. They were in town from Wisconsin and had added the show to their usual mix of plays and concerts after seeing an Under Armour commercial featuring American Ballet Theatre dancer Misty Copeland. They spoke of what an awe-inspiring person she is and how thrilled they were to get to see her perform.

I thought to myself that the athletic clothing commercial must have been quite something if it got people to break from their usual entertainment patterns and buy orchestra seats at Lincoln Center to see the star of the ad. And it is. The ad effectively communicates the optimism and drive that inspires something essential in the American spirit and summarizes the triumphant life story and beauty of Misty Copeland, who really is nothing short of incredible, and was today announced as principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre.

What is your story?

Once I was there, I was surprised to see that American Ballet Theatre was not nearly as conservative as I had assumed; their repertoire was varied with both modern pieces and classical ballet. Not that I had done any research, but I had a fixed idea of what the ballet company stood for and thought that it had little to do with me. Much like the way many think of classical music, art museums or other “high art,” the ballet was an exclusive club in my mind and I was not invited.

It seems that a good way to engage new audiences is through effectively telling one story at a time.

It seems that a good way to break down such ideas and engage new audiences is through effectively telling one story at a time. The Under Armour ad is interesting because I do not need to know anything about ballet to be inspired by the human drive, artistry and power that is not necessarily thought about in relation to ballet. It connects the work of Misty Copeland to a more universal struggle with their craft that is shared by all great artists. This inspires the artist in me to work harder and strive higher.

All that from a one minute “story.”

Story is a kind of universal human language.

Story is a kind of universal human language and great stories are both highly specific and universal so that within them we see the specific story being told, but we also see ourselves. This is why it has such power. It can draw us in, and it can do so over seemingly great distances—for my orchestra seatmates from Wisconsin or for me from the discipline of music.

Putting an art form on a pedestal and holding inside conversations with other aficionados certainly has its place, but in the interest of appealing to those on the outside of the privileged inner circle, story is the key.

Photo credit: Ballet Shoes by Kryziz Bonny, used under CC BY 2.0 

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3 thoughts on “What Is Your Story?

  1. James Heaton says:

    I post the following comment from a publisher friend of mine, Ann, with permission:

    Interesting, James, as are all your posts. I hope you don’t mind my weighing in – but how does one consider ballet without considering drive, artistry, and power? Look at that photo. She is leaping, holding her arms in perfectly graceful poses (down to the fingertips), turning her head, and smiling. It takes enormous power to achieve that level of artistry. And drive? Many prima ballerinas are from broken or alcoholic homes. That something or someone got them into a ballet studio and that they kept going back speaks of their drive.

    This brings up another interesting theme – how much hard work goes into making something look effortless.

  2. James Heaton says:

    Ann, thank you for the comment. What I find interesting in what you’ve said is the fact that this is so obvious to you.

    This means that you are an initiate—a member of the club of knowledge with respect to this art. What is always so hard for people on the inside of anything is to see the near total lack of understanding that is possessed by those on the outside. Insiders comment “Isn’t this obvious?” and project their understanding out into the world thinking, “Surely anyone can see what I see.” But very often, from the vantage point of an outsider, all these obvious things are in fact quite invisible.

    We don’t mean to be obtuse. We’ve really just never thought about it. It has never been important enough for us to allocate the necessary neurons required to develop even a cursory understanding. I’m generalizing, but our brains are actually designed to do this—to shield us from information that is not directly relevant to our needs. It protects us from the chaos of the irrelevant and along the way we make ourselves largely impervious to empathetic understanding … until we are told a story.

    • Jonathan says:

      Right you are, James, an excessively deep global breadth of awareness is a character flaw (mea culpa). However, breaking though that shield to shine a scintillating spotlight upon that special something is half of the battle for anyone in your field. The nobility of your inspiration in indeed a pleasant way of continuing that arc.

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