ABT’s Misty, Marcelo & James on What Makes An Artist?

What makes an artist? For such an important question, the answer can be maddeningly elusive, not to mention subjective. “I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve returned to my dressing room after a performance feeling like I had made art on stage,” says choreographer and American Ballet Theatre Principal dancer Marcelo Gomes. “I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve thought that magic didn’t happen during your performances,” countered an audience member.

Dancers: Misty Copeland, James Whiteside  
Choreographer: Marcelo Gomes 
Photographer: Taylor Brandt

This intimate conversation took place at a recent Discussion and Demonstration hosted by Youth American Grand Prix at City Center in NYC. YAGP Chairman Emeritus Barbara Brandt interviewed ABT dancers Marcelo Gomes, Misty Copeland, and James Whiteside about their definitions of being an artist and their process to achieve it.

One theme that emerged from all three dancers’ considerations of artistry was the idea of constant process and improvement. “You never stop getting better,” says Misty Copeland. “It’s not necessarily that our bodies are more capable. There are no shortcuts. With more experience you become more believable.”

According to Gomes, “It takes a lot of time, experience, and patience to become an artist. You have to be humble to beable to grow, make mistakes, and stretch yourself. The day I hit a ceiling and no longer feel like I’m growing is the day I should quit and do something else.” 

James Whiteside describes an artist as “someone who can create something from nothing and can see what they want to create in their minds.” For Whiteside, this creativity is inseparable from experience. “I need lots of life to happen to be able to make and get what I need from art and dance,” he says.

But what if you’re cast in a role you’ve done countless times already? Or don’t like the choreography? Or dancing with a partner with whom you feel no chemistry? Or, for any other reason, just not feeling it? For professional dancers, artistic performances can’t depend on the absence of excuses. So, how do they create and embody art and accommodate these challenges? 

Dancers: Misty Copeland, James Whiteside  
Choreographer: Marcelo Gomes 
Photographer: Taylor Brandt

“As a professional, it’s your responsibility to adapt,” says Copeland. “Even on bad days, you have to convince yourself that you want to be there and your body follows. Find things you can make a connection with.” For Copeland, this applies to dancing with people as well as for people. “Partnerships are about communication, not your personal relationships.”

The idea of connection was important to Whiteside and Gomes as well. “I try to think about what I love about the piece—the music, costumes, scenery, the story. I try to keep myself a happy person in order to be a happy dancer. It’s not so much about refreshing the role as refreshing the person,” says Whiteside.

For Gomes, connecting with a first-time audience member is inspirational. “Knowing that there’s someone out in the audience who’s never seen this before gets me pretty pumped.”

Copeland additionally described a somewhat paradoxical relation to classes and training. “I love going to ballet class every morning. It’s like meditation to me. But it’s a little funny. You go through all these hours of being judged and judging yourself in the studio to be able to completely let it go when you get out on stage.  Performing, you’re totallaly in the moment, giving in completely to the role or movement to be free and vulnerable.”

 

Dancers: Misty Copeland, James Whiteside  
Choreographer: Marcelo Gomes 



Dancer: James Whiteside  
Choreographer: Marcelo Gomes 



Dancers: Misty Copeland, James Whiteside  
Choreographer: Marcelo Gomes