Ballet class and open source

by Rob Tiller

This week Sally and I went over to the Carolina Ballet studio at lunch time and sat in on a class taught by Ricky Weiss.  We needed to return a borrowed DVD, and also to meet Lola Cooper, a dancer whose shoes we’d decided to pay for.  We sat in front of the class close to the first line of dancers, which felt awkward at first.  I wondered if we would be a distraction or otherwise be inhibiting.  I would certainly feel ill at ease practicing the piano in front of strangers.

I gradually realized that our presence mattered little if at all.  The dancers were deeply focused on their work.  Their dress was varied, with some in leotards, some in sweats, some in shorts.  It was, of course, an attractive group — youthful and graceful.  Also remarkably strong and powerful.

Weiss didn’t have to say very much to direct the dancers.  A couple of comments, a couple of gestures, and he’d have the dozens of dancers moving in a new complex pattern in unison.  There is, of course, a ballet vocabulary of movement that has a long history, in which all these  professionals have long been schooled.  But the complex combinations of movements were demanding.  There were, not surprisingly, struggle and mistakes.

Practice makes perfect.  This aspect of ballet is very like classical music.  The musician’s performance is the net of hours and years of diligent practice, considering each tiny detail, shoring up each possible point of failure, developing the mind and body to serve a particular musical message.  It takes repetition, with the challenge of somehow avoiding mindless repetition.  I think of practicing the piano as a tool for exploring something inside that is otherwise unreachable, for connecting with both the deeper self and something greater than the self.  But it also is a discipline that looks toward the future, and the possibility of greater transcendence, paid for by hard, diligent effort.

One important difference from music was the social aspect of ballet class.  The dancers worked very hard, but there was also laughter.    A few times, they applauded for the extraordinary sequences of their colleagues.  At one point, Weiss directed the dancers to spin and do enormous hurdling leaps towards the corner where we sat.  Teams of three dancers at a time came flying at a high rate of speed directly towards us.  I tried to stay cool, but I was aware that  a small miscalculation by one of them could result in serious injury — to us!  They came close.  Ballet is more dangerous than you normally think.

After the class, we met Lola.  In the class, she showed grace and powerful technique, and in conversation, she was poised and confident.  She told us about her early enthusiasm for horses, her six years as a student at the American Ballet school, and her time in Seattle.   Along with seeking her pursuit of artistic excellence, she’s also a communications major at N.C. State.

She asked what we did, and I told her a little about my work with open source software.  I tried out on her my idea that open source methods are actually close to how a ballet is made.  A choreographer borrows freely, taking preexisting ideas from all available sources, and modifies those materials to make something new.  It’s very similar to the method of open source software developers.  Lola didn’t appear to buy it, but I still think the idea has merit.  She invited us to see her do a solo in a couple of weeks, which should be fun.