Tag Archives: a la sebesquitude

Black Magic: I’m a believer!

5 Sep

Um…hello. It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I’ve written, and it probably has something to do with acquiring this second job, as I am still learning how to manage my time better and figure this mess of a schedule out. It has also been an incredibly long time since I’ve written about some of my personal experiences inside the studio as an adult student of ballet, because I actually couldn’t afford to go. These past few months of eking out my existence and being devoid of dance have been rough, and have even led to the development of some stress related symptoms like eczema and temporomandibular joint disorder (I’m pretty sure I get all the weird diseases). While I can’t dispense medical advice, I do think being able to dance again has had a lot to do with healing these conditions. We all know the benefits of endorphins released into the body via physical activity, and obviously I really needed that. The positive emotional effects of returning to dance almost go without saying—I feel complete and alive again. I’ve always been grateful for every opportunity to dance I’ve ever had, and I will continue to do so because being grateful for something—anything—feels (for lack of a better term) magical.

On the topic of not being one to dispense advice, I would like to completely contradict myself and discuss in depth some issues on technique I’ve been exploring. I’m not really qualified in any way to teach anyone anything about ballet and can only comment on my experiences with my body, and how they relate to how I observe ballet technique in others. Disclaimer aside, in this one of my nine lives in dance, I decided to reevaluate myself and utilize the methods of Maggie Black, passed onto me by Jessica Zeller, one of my teachers from when I was at Ohio State. Before I proceed, this is by no means an exhaustive compendium on what Balanchine may have coined “Black Magic.” In fact, when Jess taught us a class a la Maggie, most of it didn’t make sense to me at the time. That’s the funny thing about ballet though—if you’re diligent about filing away the information in your mind, corrections and new ideas can take months, even years to manifest in physical practice, and all of a sudden you’ll find a little voice screaming “EUREKA!” in your head when you find a ridiculously awesome balance on relevé during center and best of all is the realization that such a feat was no accident.

While I have no firsthand experience as to how Black taught, there are a few basic principles I learned that are applied to barre exercises:

  • Work within the line of your own turnout (no, really)
  • Create a straight line through the ankle and foot, so as not to sickle or wing (no, really)
  • Try to shift your weight as little as possible
  • Keep your legs low, doing all of barre never passing forty-five degrees (optional)

Okay, now for the breakdown. Lots of teachers will often tell you to work within the line of your natural turnout, but us students make it a bad habit to cheat a little anyway. Those of us who don’t have a lot of turnout are desperate for more, and those that have a lot will cheat to get to 180° just because they can. However, Black’s method is very grounded in the anatomical, and even if you can touch toe to heel in a fifth position on flat, it’s almost certain that the same level of turnout cannot be maintained in a fifth position on relevé. To what extent the turnout disappears is going to be more or less obvious on different bodies, but if you’re working outside of your natural line, it’s guaranteed to happen. Similarly, maintaining a straight line through the ankle is taught, but not always put into practice. I find shaping the feet to be very difficult for myself, as my feet are turned in and naturally sickled, but I see in many other dancers feet that are “winged” or stretched too far outward. Especially for pointe work, this surely creates an uneven distribution of weight on the toes and just like forcing turnout on flat affects the turnout on relevé, a winged foot can inhibit the use of turnout going from demi-pointe to full pointe. I think. I really don’t know for sure, but it’s a tendency I’ve noticed in dancers who wing their feet a lot. All of a sudden, instead of moving through the joints like hinges, there are all kinds of obstacles in extraneous movements. More and more, I think Black’s way of moving is to make it as simple and efficient as possible, very point(e) A to point(e) B.

As far as this shifting weight business, it’s tricky—for good reason! When you train this way at barre, you will have to actually USE the barre more than you probably have been. Many teachers will have us students use only a light touch at the barre, theoretically able to pull your hand off at any given moment, which is certainly one way to do it…however, I see Black’s use of the barre to be a transition into class, meaning, you’re supposed to use the barre because something has to awaken, or alert your body that you will be dancing. Using the barre and not shifting your weight in essence keeps the body very square, and your entire foot grounded into the floor, as opposed to just the ball of your foot when standing on flat. This not only gives you a stronger feel for where your weight is (after all, you need to know what it feels to have your weight going into the floor if you want to push off of it!), but I think it makes further logical sense because when you do shift your weight to one leg and onto relevé, your body WILL react and training squarely at barre helps to ensure that the shape that goes on top of it is a balanced one that minimizes unevenness. It’s genius really—use the body’s natural response to make dancing easier!

Now for this forty-five degree business…an extension at forty-five is highly underrated (and ninety is a bigger beast than people might think!). The purpose of keeping the legs lower is to zero in on rotating your legs and training the muscles to move correctly. I’ll never forget what Jess said, that she worked this way at barre for six months or so and at the end of her experiment, could développé to 120°! It’s commonly known that one can be strong and not flexible, and also that flexible people are not necessarily strong. Something that always baffled me though is that I’ve seen people who are quite limber, take class regularly, and yet they can’t get past that barrier of getting their leg above ninety degrees. I’m beginning to understand more that technique isn’t about increasing some prescribed combination of strength and/or flexibility, but teaching your body HOW to move. Now, I’m not foolish enough to expect the results Jess had because our bodies are different, but I’ve already noticed a laundry list of things that have been much better at center for me.

So why did I decide to start training this way? Well, I guess I should start with the purpose, which is that I really want to be able to do a nice, attitude turn en dehors, a criminally difficult maneuver that isn’t necessarily a flashy sort of step, but for some reason makes me completely unravel. Mind you, I don’t even need to be able to do multiple turns—a clean single is fine—but all attempts have ended catastrophically and it occurred to me that I have a terrible habit of letting my ribs come too far forward in attitude and arabesque. It’s one thing to do this in an adagio, or strike the iconic pose from Swan Lake, but it’s not working for turning, and makes it impossible to use my back for spotting. So, I’ve been really focusing on keeping my ribs in, in addition to squaring my body, and what I like about Black’s method is that it helps to create three-dimensional shapes. Much of the Balanchine/School of American Ballet influence I’ve been getting has a lot of opening of the hip in second and arabesque, but a lot of what Black’s method will do is have you bring the legs forward where you actually can rotate it, and the same goes for the arms. My second position of the arms has been too far out to the side, which is part of the reason why my ribs and chest kept coming too far forward, and bringing my arms forward has actually helped me to engage my back much better, again, thinking in terms of three-dimensional shapes instead of some of the splayed out variety. I keep saying 3-D because this is a hugely important (and logical) concept for me—a ball for example, balances perfectly even though it only makes contact with a tiny amount of a surface, while trying to balance a sheet of paper is virtually impossible. Hence, my obsession with really trying to keep square hips/3-D shapes is because I’m convinced placement is the secret to good balance.

I was mostly inspired to really work at this by one of my favorite dancers, Sofiane Sylve, who has perfect attitude turns. I shall compare her with another of my favorite dancers, Ivan Vasiliev who has excellent ones, but goes about doing them a different way. This is not to say Sylve trained under Black because she most certainly didn’t—only that my interpretation of Black’s teachings are helping me to understand the body line that Sylve produces. Visual first:

The evolution of the turn, with Sofiane Sylve (L) and Ivan Vasiliev (R). And yes, I intentionally chose snapshots from clips of them in practice clothes.

It’s not perfect, but I tried to capture them at similar moments in the turn. As you can see, Sylve does a lot of the aforementioned: square pelvis, lower leg, even back, all on top of a turned out supporting leg. Vasiliev has a more open line, which is a very Russian thing to do, and has his leg further out to the side in that mysterious “a la sebesque” line (or in this case “a la sebesquitude”). It creates the illusion of length and height, offsetting his torso a bit, but inhibits the turnout of his standing leg, and in fact he’s kind of rolling onto the outside of his foot, which if you have tapered toes (and I know I do), this is a death sentence that ends in a fall. Keep your leg behind you like Sylve (almost like a detached retiré) and you stand a chance. Both are acceptable ways of turning, and Vasiliev can certainly wind around five or six times (check out his Basilio variations to see what I mean), so it really comes down to what works for your body. I do find Sylve’s prettier though, even if she only does a double or a triple, I think she has the kind of technique that lasts with you, and doesn’t rely too heavily on momentum or having the beastly strength and flexibility Vasiliev does.

Well folks, this post is getting too lengthy so I suppose it’s “choose your own adventure” time. Just know that the teachings of Maggie Black (as passed down to me by one of her students) is not a miracle cure. Although I can say that after such a long break and a mere four classes of doing this, I’m dancing cleaner than ever, with better balance, and the most control I’ve ever had. Even wonky pirouettes I have an easier time saving, and just so you know, during a round of kitchen fouettés I even did a double attitude en dehors! Was my leg very low? Absolutely. Did I feel like a rock star anyway? Absolutely. Results not typical…but what do you have to lose?

Bring it forward. Keep it rotated.