Most people think of fall being the season for New England. Summer in the Berkshires has its own charms. From Sharon, Connecticut to Williamstown, MA are a series of summer-stock and off Broadway performances. Despite having lived here most of my life, I’ve only been to a few of these performances. Last year my wife and I went to Jacob’s Pillow for the first time. This is a national historic site which is is to dance what the Olympics are to sports. Each summer over 3000 students from around the world apply for a chance to come to the Berkshires to learn from the best dancers, choreographers and coaches in the dance world. Less than 1% are selected to participate in the program. While they are here they learn, they rehearse, and they perform for audiences while they are learning. Most of the performances are free and the audiences range from little girls who have just put on ballet slippers for the first time, to the general public, to Broadway scouts looking for the next star. So what’s the lesson here?
The performances usually have an explanation of what the audience is about to see and there is usually and introduction to the program and history like I just recapped. At one of the performances this year the director provided an interesting summary of what students get in their program. It sort of surprised me, but it applies to most endeavors. He said that the program offers students three things (paraphrasing):
You aren’t all that
When you are the best of the best its easy to develop an “attitude”. Humility is often the casualty of perfection. When you put 24 of the best of something together there is likely to be some competition. Students learn that the closer you get to the top, there are more levels you might not have been aware of. It reminds me of Picasso who was actually a very accomplished traditional painter in his early years. If he had continued in the at direction the world may not have known him. Instead he found a new direction and created his own art. Much like playing golf with Tiger Woods or swimming against Michael Phelps, they are playing a different game than the rest of us. It’s the difference between technical perfection and art.
You can do more
Performers, athletes and entrepreneurs tend to plateau when they think they are doing the best that they can. Lots of things are impossible until they aren’t. The 4 minute mile and traveling faster than sound are common examples of things that people thought were limits until someone did it. I don’t know what that looks like to a dancer, but discovering that is part of the journey for the students at Jacob’s Pillow. If you are at the top of your game, how are you going to get to the next level? Most of us have a next level possible in our life. The tricky part is finding some thing or someone to show you how to get there.
You don’t have to do this
This is the one that surprised me until I thought about it for a bit. Most female dancers started dancing before they could read. (Boys tend to start in their teens). It becomes such an ingrained part of their life that they often don’t know anything else. They may have been pushed by parents and coaches for so long that the question of who this is most important to is blurred. Being the best of the best can carry a lot of pressure with it as well. The school helps students rediscover whether this is their dream or someone else’s. Being technically perfect at something doesn’t mean you have to do it for the rest of your life. This is a hard realizing whether you are an entrepreneur, in the military, or an athlete. It is very easy to see the future in context with the past. Coming to the realization that you should pursue a different direction can be a painful process. It’s one thing to learn that you aren’t good enough. It’s something different to realize you don’t want something anymore.
Most of us won’t be a world class athlete or performer, but we probably live lives where we don’t get external feedback on where we are or where we are going. We tend to self judge our place in the universe until something challenges our reality. Maybe we got fired, had a child, cancer, or some other life changing event. Then after years of being on the same path, it’s time to take a different direction. This can be a time of grieving or confusion. Everything you knew to be true has now been turned upside down. So what do you do? Find your Jacob’s Pillow. Find your dance lessons and those teachers that can challenge you and show you the alternative paths that are out there. At some point all of us be given the opportunity to move beyond what they are simply good at, and move on to a point where they can be making art.