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On a recent visit to the Metropolitan Opera, I saw the magnificent Nina Stemme sing the title role in Strauss’ Elektra, in a riveting and utterly vanity-free interpretation. When I mentioned her lack of vanity to my companion, she said, “what do you mean by that?” To her mind, it was not possible to be an opera singer and not have vanity.

To be the center of attention, as are opera divas, prima ballerinas, movie stars, usually means living the part that your on-stage image projects. Vanity, a concern for a public image that does not sway from the packaged message, must certainly be part of the required tool kit. It is wrapped up in the larger-than-life identity that the risks of public performance impose on any gifted person, although not all performers respond in the same way.

When I was in a university production of the play Medea, I remember all of us joking about the woman playing the lead, a large woman with powerful acting skills but very insecure about her appearance. She was fine in rehearsals, but when it came to performance she showed up with perfectly coiffed and sprayed hair, heavy make-up and false eyelashes, all of which supported a glamorous image of herself but had nothing whatever to do with the violent and unhinged Medea. Ms. Stemme, on the other hand, was truly willing to “go there,” crawling around the stage in ratty clothing and unkempt hair, looking as if she hadn’t slept in weeks, catatonic and psychotic in turns. It was completely glamour-free and utterly harrowing. In fact, she was terrifying and had I been Clytemnestra I would have run. This willingness to abandon image and appearance for the sake of a role is a measure of a truly remarkable performer, of deep talent and commitment, the opposite of a diva turn.

The same sort of diva/actor divide can be seen in the world of ballet, although it is less apparent because by its nature ballet is formal, with its own decorum and appearance. Leading ballerina roles are, for the most part, meant to be lovely. Where vanity does sometimes manifest is in male dancers, who must perform at Olympic levels of athleticism. Commitment to character can fall to the wayside, and “Am I not grand? Am I not handsome?” takes the place of an emotional connection to dancing partner or character or story. This kind of performance vanity also impedes artistic achievement. Angel Corella, in his adorable youth, was just such a dancer, a marvel in his speed and jumps, but shallow and a little thoughtless in his partnering and characterization. Then along came Diana Vishneva, a Russian dancing actress of breathtaking depth and skill. When she partnered Corella in Giselle it was as if he grew up overnight – suddenly here was a passionate, loving and grieving man, responding to her moment by moment with profound emotional clarity. Whatever was locked inside his technique was unleashed by the talent and generosity of Ms. Vishneva. He developed quickly into a superb interpreter of major ballet roles.

There is a newish crop of young male dancers at American Ballet Theatre now, callow, attractive and lightweight. One hopes that they can take their cues from their senior colleagues, Marcelo Gomes and Herman Cornejo, technically superb, mature and above all, great performers in the most complete sense of the word. They are gorgeous to look at and moving when they dance, but the beauty comes from within, from their willingness to open and share rather than show and tell. Vanity is not part of the package.


©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2016. Reuse with permission.