Monday, 10 August 2009

Questions about Excellence

St Petersburg is home to the Mariinsky ballet company, but they are currently performing for London audiences with a variety of pieces from their repertoire. For the past few days they have been dancing one of the best loved ballets: Swan Lake. When I saw them on Saturday evening they performed with extraordinary beauty.

Ballet came to Russia during the 1700’s via a French ballet master. Despite ballet being essentially a European art form (starting in Italy and developing in France), the Russians have taken ballet to their hearts and made it their own. With music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreography by Marius Petipa Swan Lake is more Russian than it is anything else.

So today we rightly associate ballet excellence with Russia. On Saturday evening they demonstrated their rich and proud ballet heritage with a confident and daring production. This was showy ballet – Victoria Tereshkina raised rapturous and warm applause for taking her Act II pirouettes to the limit. Andrei Ivanov as the jester grabbed everyone’s hearts as he amazed and delighted in equal measure. Swan Lake does not ordinarily have a jester; but the humour it brought to the production made it an excellent addition. And the four cygnets danced as one, so perfect was their timing. To say they were technically excellent would imply that emotion was lacking, and it was not. They were technically and artistically superb, with an easy grace that comes from knowing you excel at something.

So a few lessons quietly sunk home. With companies as dedicated as the Mariinsky, excellence cannot be taken at face value.

In my own business, therefore, I have to look at what can be improved. To look at processes and skills that might be considered good, but then ask how they can be made better. It is no different from the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen, just today inspired by ballet. There are always competitors, young and old, looking for opportunities to do things better: competitors who want to delight the customer more.

On Saturday it was a jester who took our breath away with his cheeky grin and dazzling pirouettes. Now it is Monday morning I have to look for the jester in my own work. It’s an interesting question. The answer to which probably won’t include a pointy hat.

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