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The New Rules of Engagement

When I first started writing this week, I had a thought to focus on something completely different. One of the books I’m reading at the moment, which features a photo as bookmark (which I’ll get to in a moment), changed my mind.



Written by retired US army general, Stanley McChrystal, the book is called Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. What, you might ask, does an American officer, leading the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq in 2003, have anything to do with Ukrainian dance? Well, grab your chai, get cosy, and let me tell you a story.


General Stanley McChrystal is a highly decorated four-star officer. His last assignment was as the commander of all American and coalition forces in Afghanistan. Retired in 2010, he has since gone on to teach as senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and is cofounder of the McChrystal Group, a leadership consulting firm.


McChrystal has had his fair share of conflict. It would be impossible not to given his line of work. Where McChrystal is unique in dealing with that conflict however is where this tale begins.


As a rule, organisations tend to operate from a command and conquer mindset. There is ample evidence that demonstrates this throughout history – both ancient as well as recent. While this method will have been key to successful outcomes in world wars I and II and certainly conflicts prior, the Industrial Revolution when craftspeople were replaced by assembly lines, and certainly within many households, what this structure lacks is a template for those situations which are not in the handbook, unaccounted for, and/or unrehearsed.


Somewhere in the middle of the book, McChrystal highlights the US Seals programme: one of the most stringent and severe of any special operations forces, anywhere. Men (and women, though none have made it through the full training yet) are put through some of the harshest conditions, their limits pushed to the point of breaking. And that, in essence, is one of the tests of the training: are candidates not just strong enough in body, but in mind, to get through to the end.


When I came to Ukraine in September 2003 to “join Virsky”, I had no idea what I was getting into. Yes, I had been trained by some of the most amazing people in Canada; yes, I had a tolerable level of technique (I had just finished my Advanced ballet exam in the Royal Academy programme); yes, I had a desire to dance. I would soon learn, however, that, and not unlike the navy Seals, the Virsky Studio programme was more than a test of the physical.


The training programme gathered prentices six days a week from 16.30 (4.30 pm) until 22.00 (10pm) on the weekdays, and a full day on Saturday. I was eager. I wanted more. And so, in November I joined the ensemble rehearsals during the day, which began at 09.30. For a full year, I danced nearly 12 hours a day, six days a week. Come Sunday, I’d have been happy to remain under the covers. And yet, groceries for the week needed to be bought, laundry needed doing, and general upkeep of the “dorm” (a story for another time) required attention.


This year of seeing little outside of a room with mirrors and barres taught me much. Firstly, I learned that there is no problem so great either inside or outside of the studio that can’t be solved. Secondly, I learned that natural talent is a bonus, not a prerequisite. I learned that crying into my pillow at night (which happened often in that first year) won’t fix whatever is wrong, but it will get me through the stress cycle to start afresh tomorrow. I learned that chocolate and coffee are a great afternoon pick-me-up, that birthdays in Ukraine are amazing, and that no matter the psychological torture of will I or won’t I get picked, we were all in “this” together.


In essence, this is what McChrystal talks about when he refers to the Seals, where the purpose of the training is “not to produce supersoldiers” but “superteams”. While this might not be an outright conscious goal of the Virsky training programme, it is one that manifests organically. Living and breathing dance with a single group of people, in conditions that push the body – physically, mentally, and emotionally – near the edge, authentically bring those who know why they’re there closer together. It also allows those who aren’t quite ready for the seriousness of the task to step back and say, “this isn’t for me”.


And this, in essence, is one of the reasons why the ensemble is as good as they are: the majority of those there have been pushed to their limits so that they work together and sync on stage.

No one is saying that an organisation, any organisation, doesn’t need a commander in chief. Most certainly they do, and this role will be more or less important depending on the organisation itself. What is of equal, if not more, import, however, is the team that comes together under that command. Respect is given to those in charge. But there is an equal respect amongst those on the stage, or battlefield, as it were. For time, effort, sweat, tears, and even a little blood, is shared.


I was offered, officially, a position as “artist of the ballet” in June of 2004 following my “Seals training” in the Virsky studio programme. And, incidentally, I accepted.

Yes, marvellous things happen when we come together and work as one, regardless of whether you are in a studio in Kyiv, a stage in Moose Jaw, or the deserts of Iraq.


Lana N Niland


Images: Navy Times, QuotesGram, WikiMedia, SMB Training, Dance Teacher, Tickethunt, The NYTimes, LNN personal files

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