Upon the announcement of his retirement from a 12 year career with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, principal dancer Luca Sbrizzi had a message for fellow dancers. Plagued by perfectionism, Luca wished to share his story with others in hope that they might avoid the obsession with perfect that plagued his career. What follows is the interview with Luca for an article published in Dance Magazine with Minding the Gap founder Kathleen McGuire Gaines.
Q: Why have you decided to retire? How does it relate to your mental health and perfectionism?
I get asked this question a lot these days as I am approaching my final performance, and to be completely honest I really struggle to open up and explain how I feel and how I’ve come to this decision. I’ve been thinking about letting the ballet world go for several years now, but since it has been my only profession and the thing I know best I haven’t had the courage and the trust to leave it behind and step into the unknown, until this past year. I've always been extremely eager and driven to succeed. To improve, to get better and move forward. Climb that ladder per say. And although these are good qualities to have, I’ve learned that they can also be extremely destructive.
Starting from a young age, when I would have a “bad performance” (and I am intentionally putting that in quotations because most of the time it was only a bad performance to me and no one else) I would get really upset with myself. So upset I wouldn’t want to talk to anyone and just close in, shut the world out. Thinking that in behaving this way I would be more likely to do better the next time. It was a way for me to “punish” myself for not succeeding, for not meeting my expectations. Expectations that were set way too high. So high that they were unrealistic. This pattern only got worse over time. As I moved through the ranks and started performing more leading roles, my expectation also got incrementally more unrealistic. I expected a perfect performance. Nothing less. It got so bad that it would be very hard for me to enjoy most performances because the outcome was rarely what I wanted. And by not getting the results I wanted, I felt like I was failing. I felt ashamed of my performance and not worthy. Therefore my self esteem started to take a major hit. I started hating my dancing so much that many times it felt like I wasn’t doing justice to the art form and that I shouldn’t do it at all anymore.
During the past couple of years I started to look inward. In analyzing my feelings and my reactions, it became very evident to me that this cycle of perfectionism and low self esteem was very unhealthy. I asked myself: when does this behavior become masochistic? I was constantly hurting myself. I didn't want to feel that way anymore. I hated the person that ballet was turning me into. That’s when it became clear to me that I needed to step away from this world.
Perfectionism and mental health certainly have played a major role in my decision to retire, but they are not the only reasons. I’ve reached a point in my career where I feel satisfied with all that I have accomplished. I’ve developed incredible connections with all my partners and had the privilege of performing every role I ever wanted to dance. I’m still dancing at my physical and artistic peak and I feel so immensely grateful that my decision to retire hasn’t been dictated by an injury or from losing my job.
Moving on is by no means easy, especially with so many people not understanding my motivations. But, like the quote says, you can’t heal in the same environment you get sick. And I completely agree with that. I need to move on to heal and grow. I’ve finally learned that my happiness and mental health are more important than the relationship I have with ballet.
Q: What does perfectionism look like for you and how does it manifest?
Perfectionism manifests itself on a daily basis for me. When I mess up a combination in class, when I execute a step poorly, and when a performance doesn’t meet my expectations of perfection. Dancers, we all know this: how often do we get on stage and hit everything? How often do we have a perfect show? Realistically speaking that’s a very rare occurrence, especially when you perform a full length ballet.
I remember performing Prince Siegfrid in Swan Lake, a role I’ve always dreamed of doing. And you know what I remember most? All the little things that didn’t go the way I wanted. Not holding an arabesque balance, hopping in a pirouette, or the sticky boots on the floor preventing me from sliding down to one knee effortlessly. The list is endless. And although I remember feeling an incredible connection to my partner and hearing comments afterwards on how moving and beautiful our performance was, those are not the first things that pop into my head when I think of Swan Lake. And I hate that. That’s how the perfectionist in me impacts my dancing.
Q: Have you always been a perfectionist about your dancing? Has it grown or changed over the years?
I’ve always been a perfectionist about my dancing, but it has definitely gotten worse over time. As I grew as I dancer, my perfectionism also grew. And I think it grew because I wasn’t aware of how unhealthy a behavior it is. I always thought that striving for perfection was the best and only way to push myself to become a better dancer. But I honestly believe that it has hindered my full potential, because perfectionism and low self esteem go hand and hand. When you beat yourself down for not doing something perfectly, instead of accepting your mistake and building from that, it becomes destructive behavior. I believe I could have become a better dancer with the proper support system in place.
Q: How does the current dance culture perpetuate perfectionism and how would you like to see it change?
I see so many younger dancers struggling with perfectionism and other mental health issues. And the part that upsets me the most is that they are not even aware of the harmful behaviors they are developing. We spend the vast majority of our time in the studio, in front of a mirror, constantly looking for imperfections, nitpicking every movement. And then we get corrections on other imperfections that we didn’t notice ourselves. How can this not lead to developing a perfectionist behavior? Since a very young age, we are wired that way. We are trained to find the wrong. Lack of communication and awareness are the root problem of why this keeps perpetuating in the dance community.
I understand that seeking professional help on your own can be difficult. Like having to choose between paying for a massage or for a session with a therapist. And some may feel that seeking professional help is a sign of weakness. It’s not like that. You need to treat this the same way you treat a physical injury. You go to a professional, you do the right things and it gets better. That’s why I think it is vital to have a support system available to everyone. Wouldn't that be amazing? Mental health in dancers is just as important as physical health, but so overlooked. We need to put more resources in this area, and we need to do it as soon as possible. Maybe this won’t necessarily lead to technically stronger dancers, but it will definitely lead to happier and more confident humans.
Q: What are you looking forward to doing next?
I am beyond excited to let the world know that my wife Jenna and I are expecting. Our baby girl is due at the end of November, so the first thing on my list, post-retirement, will be to become a dad and enjoy every second of this new adventure.
I’m also looking forward to exploring my other skills and passions. I’m already a certified massage therapist, and I hope to use this skill to help my fellow dancers and athletes as much as I can. I'm also very handy. I’ve been doing a lot of home renovations and I really enjoy this line of work too. In a way it satisfies my perfectionist side. I’m really keeping an open mind. We will see where the universe leads me.