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How do you define artistry?

IU cultural anthropologist explains rare level of mastery by examining performing arts across cultures

Royce, Anya Peterson
Anya Peterson Royce
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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- It's the early 1980s in Louisville, Ky. The great Mikhail Baryshnikov is dancing to the music of Chopin when he launches into a series of pirouettes en dehors (turns to the outside).

What comes next transcends the "virtuoso" performance and represents the essence of the phenomenon called "artistry," according to Indiana University Chancellor's Professor of Anthropology Anya Peterson Royce. She writes:

"On the fourth or fifth turn, he let his head fall back and follow its natural weight. It was a simple gesture that set an ingenuous, wholly endearing mood. And it was a moment of the highest artistry. Most dancers would hold the head erect throughout. A virtuoso might let the head describe a backward arc while maintaining a control of its movement. Letting it fall of its own weight is more risky in terms of balance; it is folly for virtually anyone except Baryshnikov. His choice to do it was not made simply because he could, however; it was because it was the absolutely perfect, inevitable gesture for that moment. This is what I mean by artistry."

In her new book, Anthropology of the Performing Arts: Artistry, Virtuosity, and Interpretation in a Cross-Cultural Perspective, Royce seeks to distinguish artistry from virtuosity through a cross-cultural examination of performance, art and artists.

Her research spans centuries of classical and contemporary dance, music, opera, commedia dell'arte and pantomime, and focuses on a diverse group of artists. They include the 17th century commedia dell'arte, Tewa Indian dancers and Zapotec shamans, dance legends Baryshnikov, Michel Fokine and Vaslav Nijinsky, celebrated mime Marcel Marceau and renowned cellist Janos Starker. Starker is a Distinguished Professor of music at the IU School of Music.

"All performing arts recognize techniques and standards that define their particular genre. The mastery of those techniques results, for some performers, in virtuosity," writes Royce, an accomplished dancer and ethnographer who specializes in the anthropology of dance. "That level of performance is a necessary step toward artistry, another kind of mastery altogether, which even fewer performers attain."

Royce, Anya Peterson
In her former career, Royce danced with the San Francisco Russian Opera and Ballet and the Brooklyn Ballet.
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Virtuosos are good at something we can define and discuss in words that are commonly understood, Royce said. Alongside codified vocabulary come a set of standards by which we can judge a performance. For example, we can count the number of pirouettes dancers can do, how many notes musicians can fit into one impulse or how many double axels a figure skater completes. Because we have words to describe and know them, virtuosos have a kinship with us, Royce said, which is perhaps why we sometimes attach a negative connotation to them.

"What these virtuosic performers do is certainly off the charts compared to our own abilities but it is not incomprehensible. If we had the opportunity, we might have been virtuosos, too," she writes.

It is much more difficult, though, to differentiate "technically masterful" performances from "truly artistic" ones, Royce said. For one, there is no codified vocabulary that can describe artistry. What's more, audiences, especially those raised in societies where winning competitions is valued so highly, are inclined to be satisfied with a virtuoso performance. Often, their senses have dulled to those magical interpretations that transform them and test their imaginations.

Baryshnikov is that rare performer who is both a technical "wizard" and a first-rate artist, Royce said. "He is absolutely so fluent in dance. He becomes whatever he is portraying. What you see with him is the highest kind of artistry possible."

Royce calls this artistic pinnacle "transparency." To reach transparency, artists must master the technique of their art to the point where they are freed to think about interpretation, she said. They must step aside and put their art ahead of their own egos. ("It is the music that matters," Janos Starker says.) They must strive for the same kind of purity, simplicity and balance seen in the modern mime founded by Marcel Marceau. And, just as they strive to understand the creator's intention, they also must understand their audience.

"The goal, it seems to me, is not to create the most 'accurate' reproduction of a work or to aggrandize one's own performance of it. Neither is it to present a work so rarified and opaque that only a handful in the audience understands it," Royce writes. "The goal is to move the audience beyond itself to a place where it can dream or imagine -- the goal of all art, shared by creator, interpreter and most certainly by the people who come to see it."

Not all perfomers achieve or even desire to achieve transparency. Some call attention to themselves or to the difficulty of what they do, Royce said. Their performances become more like those of genres in which the point is to show the tension and difficulty. These genres include gymnastics and figure skating -- competitive spectator sports in which the competitors are judged, in part, by the difficulty of their performances.

"It takes a certain ego to hang in there and master what you need to master. And the temptation is always there to say 'look at me,' instead of saying 'look at this great work,'" Royce said.

Transparency requires performers to possess a certain level of humility and understanding that while they are, indeed, powerful, that power does not belong to them, Royce added. From Baryshnikov and Starker to the extraordinary Zapotec healers of southern Mexico, the Tewa Indians of New Mexico, and the griots -- or traditional storytellers -- of West Africa, these performers live their lives as conduits of power, working to move and enlighten people through unique artistic interpretations.

"Clearly, it is not given to every performer to achieve that state of transparency," Royce writes. "Wonderful performances happen all the time in its absence. But if you are lucky enough to witness it, you will know it, and it will stay with you always as a touchstone. It is there, too, for the performer, an elusive state devoutly desired and tirelessly pursued."

'Anthropology of the Performing Arts: Artistry, Virtuosity, and Interpretation in a Cross-Cultural Perspective' is available through AltaMira Press, http://www.altamirapress.com. To speak with Anya Peterson Royce, contact Ryan Piurek, IU Media Relations, at 812-855-5393 or rpiurek [at] indiana [dot] edu (rpiurek@indiana.edu) .