Tag Archives: jessica zeller

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.

Cracking pigeons are harder than pirouettes Ohio State meatballs

8 Oct

I’ve been really distracted lately, and have too many things on my mind to do a full entry on a single topic because my brain keeps burning out.  So I thought I’d do an easy “search terms” day, to analyze how people are finding this blog and give my take on the topics random people are mulling.

1. Foot joints never stop cracking

Ah yes…the story of my life.  This however, is one of those things that everybody seems to have different opinions on as to whether it’s harmful or not.  I find that a lot of people who have had ankle injuries in the past tend to have some kind of permanent “click” whenever they rotate their ankles.  Both of mine do, because I had a pretty bad ankle sprain from playing tennis, reaching for a backhand volley…and maybe it was the adrenaline, but I actually kept playing the point and when I reversed direction to hit a volley on the forehand side I immediately sprained the other ankle.  There are certain talents out there in the world that need no explanation.  I don’t know why they crack now, but my guess is that there were ligaments that got stretched from the sprains and now they roll over the bones differently then they used to.  Some theorize that ligament cracking is bad, and you have to make sure to strengthen surrounding muscles to support your joints.  Some also say that forcing your joints to crack will also stretch the ligaments in the bad way, but I crack my toes and the middle of my foot all the time and I don’t have hyper mobile feet…but those are a different noise, so take from that what you will.

2. Does ballet fix pigeon toe

You know, oddly enough this seems to bring a lot of little kids to ballet, as parents are concerned about them being able to walk properly or whatnot.  It seems logical enough…if it’s turned in, turn it out, but I do wonder what the science behind it is.  I do think that the muscles can be trained in a way so that someone who is pigeon toed can learn to walk in parallel, and it becomes habitual to the body.  I once spoke with someone briefly who talked about doing physical therapy to correct the alignment of her legs/feet because her knees weren’t tracking over her toes so I would think it’s just a matter of building certain muscles and teaching them to move in new ways on a consistent basis.  She also said it was painful though.  It’s also important to note that pigeon toe can have different causes.  I was pigeon toed when I was little, but for me it wasn’t the feet, but the angle of the hips and knees that created an illusion of being pigeon toed, because when I stand with my knees in parallel my feet (the right foot more so than the left) are actually turned out.  My right knee tracks way over the inside of my right foot, and whatever the structure of my hips and knees is, it’s very difficult for me to turn out.  For those that have seen Return of the Jedi, there’s that battle scene between the Imperial army and the Ewoks, and the Ewoks roll a bunch of logs down a hill to trip an AT-ST (All Terrain Scout Transport), commonly known as a chicken walker, and it sort of wobbles for a moment before finally falling down.  That’s kind of how I lumber around sometimes…very Bambi-on-ice.

3. En dehors are harder than en dedans.

Well, to each his own…but for me (and I would think for most dancers) it’s the other way around.  I really struggle with pirouettes en dedans, I think because I still pick up my hip and it just pulls me off my standing leg.  Somehow, en dehors makes more sense to my body, and I can do some doubles and an occasional triple on both sides, but for en dedans I briefly had doubles only on one side but have since found myself in an “en dedans funk” and can barely manage singles.  I can only assume this must be true for many dancers because it seems like when dancers are doing 5, 6, 7+ pirouettes it’s always en dehors.  Although Vladdy-V seemed possibly more comfortable with en dedans, and everybody has things they’re better at so whoever you are, consider yourself lucky!

4. Pirouette into a stop

Now THIS I can tell you about, because I’ve done it once, in my entire life, and you can bet I remember what that felt like.  This all has to do with the strength of the standing leg (which is why when I did it, it was to the left, as my right leg is stronger) and its ability to maintain turnout while the rest of your body is supported on top.  I’ll never forget that day…ok, maybe I don’t remember the exact date but it was in the autumn of 2008, taking ballet in Jessica Zeller’s class, and we were doing enchaînements, and she asked us to do a pirouette and then place in tendu devant, robbing us of the luxury of quickly ending in a fourth position lunge, or shooting down into fifth.  This might have triggered something for me, like bringing my weight forward just a hair to really get on top of my foot, whereas a fourth position lunge makes us think “behind me” and might encourage too much force.  Whatever the reason, I remember being very careful with the plié because I do tend to use too much force, and thought for “shooting for a single, but spot for a double” and that made me do a perfect (if I do say so myself) double pirouette, where I stayed on relevé and SLOWLY lowered to tendu devant.  Jess even praised me and said “that was the most controlled pirouette I’ve ever seen you do” and when Jessica Zeller says that to you, you remember what you did.  Since then, I’ve gotten better, and have some more control, but have been unable to completely restore that moment of blazing glory.  But pirouettes have a very “square-rectangle” relationship in that yes, many people can do a good pirouette that ends in fourth/fifth and look fine, but anyone who really knows how to finish a pirouette is going to be able to finish on relevé or place in a clean fourth/fifth every single time.  So be a square…not a rectangle.  And work on your singles…they are IMO, the hardest pirouette to master (although some argue it’s a turning balance or whatever, blah blah blah.  Discush for another day!)

5. Getting into the Ohio State dance program

This is too funny.  I honestly wouldn’t know (I could make some almost-educated guesses) but I do know a lot of people who could answer this.  For undergrads I think they’re less picky and just look for a strong ability to move, particularly in modern.  For grads they also seem to take on a few ballerinas and “token dancers,” like a tapper, b-boy or the occasional traditional folk dancer (in undergrad too), and that person usually is researching their specialty and getting free reign to design a curriculum for teaching a class, while grads who are specializing in ballet and modern seem to be…”monitored” more closely.  Not that the others slack off by any means…sometimes it SEEMS as though they work a little more independently, especially if they don’t necessarily have a faculty member who specializes in their area of dance.  That’s just my impression…but how to get in?  Uh…be really good.  Good attitudes are also valued…never had a dance teacher I didn’t like, which can’t be a coincidence.  The only gripe I ever had was that jazz didn’t really seem to be on their list of priorities.

6. Best Meatballs in New York

If you find out, let me know.  Whether they’re Swedish, with spaghetti or Chinese “Lion head” (獅子頭), I loves me meatballs.

the cute sylphide…NOT

6 Oct

So I was trying to tidy up my side bar a bit, trying a few different widgets or whatever and a friend of mine told me about Google Friend Connect, which I thought might be interesting to play around with.  So I tried to mess around with it, only to find out that it doesn’t work if your blog is hosted on WordPress, so until they come up with a specific widget for it, it’s a no go.  Good thing I figured that out AFTER an hour of going cross-eyed trying to make it work, and smacking my head on the coffee table out of frustration.  I basically accomplished…nothing.  But the experience did make me wonder if there was anything I could do to make my blog more reader friendly.  For example, if I should add an RSS feed button thingie to the side bar (even though I believe they’re at the bottom of the blog) to make my blog for accessible.  I’ve steered clear of doing that, because I don’t really know how exactly RSS feeds work.  Anyway, suggestions are always welcome, not only on technical crap, but topics you’d like to see, dances to be reviewed, anything and everything is fair game.  I like change and could use some inspiration!

So I was looking for something on my computer, but I forget what…and happened upon something I consider to be the most horrifyingly humiliating thing I’ve ever written.  Now I can’t remember if I first saw The Nutcracker in high school or college, but regardless of whether I did or not, nobody should EVER count The Nutcracker as the first classical ballet work they ever saw.  One should always casually shrug it off, and either omit it in conversation, or if it’s the only ballet you’ve ever seen, phrase it in a way that makes it seem unimportant to you, like “well, I saw The Nutcracker when I was little…but, you know.”  This is how you can instantly gain respect from dancers and seasoned ballet fans, and come across as someone with a deeper interest in ballet than one who attends the famous “cash cow.”  I don’t have a problem with people going to see The Nutcracker, but to me, it’s a Christmas ritual, and kind of not a ballet.  Plus, there are too many children.

What was I talking about?  Oh yes, my heinous, dark secret.  Although Romeo & Juliet was the first full length classical work I ever saw (performed by BalletMet in the spring of 2008), my very first experience watching live, classical ballet was at Ohio State, when I saw Jessica Zeller perform an excerpt from Les Sylphides and part of the pas de deux from Giselle, partnered by Rodney Veal.  Ohio State’s Sullivant Hall is a small theater, and I sat pretty close to the stage, so it was also the first time I really got to see someone dancing en pointe in detail.  Now I was taking many classes at the time, and all I know is that A teacher for A jazz(?) class (Dance 201.03) had us write performance response papers, and because the performance was an amalgamation of different works, she said we could select a specific piece and I chose the ones that moved me the most, which obviously, were the ballets.  So I wrote the required, double spaced one page response and THAT, my dear friends, was the FIRST thing I ever wrote about ballet as an audience member (other teachers, including Yen Fang who showed me Remanso, only had us write journals).  So I unearthed this ghastly artifact, and could barely bring myself to read it.  I think Jessica herself once said that there’s a picture of her doing a pique into arabesque on a completely parallel leg and how it’s so horrifying, and that’s what I liken this paper to.  I’m probably building this paper up to be worse than it actually is, but it’s like looking at baby pictures.  You know the feeling.

So here it is…my first response to classical ballet:

It’s all in the Face

            Viewing live ballet is actually a fairly new experience for me, so I was excited to see Jessica Zeller perform excerpts from Giselle (after Petipa, Coralli and Perrot) and Les Sylphides (after Michael Fokine) as two of the works of mélange, at Sullivant Hall Theatre on February 9th, 2008.  When Les Sylphides began I was immediately drawn to her face, in which she wore an intensely concentrated yet delicate expression.  I was fortunate enough to be sitting very close to the stage, which gave me a new appreciation for dancers who dance on pointe.  I really saw her feet and ankles working, and it just baffles my mind that the body can even be supported on such minimal contact with the floor.  Her dancing itself epitomized elegance, and her height gave the dance a “cute” feel to it, which to me is even more appropriate for how I would imagine a forest sprite, as opposed to a much taller dancer.

            Giselle, in which she was partnered with Rodney Veal, had more of a melancholy atmosphere.  The lighting was dimmed, with a spotlight that represented the moon, so of course in addition to the woefulness, there was also a sense of romance.  Thankfully, the story of Giselle was printed in the program so I did not have too many unanswered questions as to what was going on, and to me, this is one of the biggest reliefs of ballet, the fact that ballet tells a story that is easy to grasp.  As for the dancing, I again found myself gravitating to their faces, taking note of how alive their expressions were.  Technique, lifts, and beautiful extensions were of course lovely, but in many ways my eyes would always follow a line from the face, through the body and outward.  It inspires me to remember how critical maintenance of the visage is to entire character of a performance.

Now, she is indeed short…and she’d be the first to tell you that (she would often say in class that all of our legs were longer than hers so we had no excuse for not travelling through space) but the fact that I called her a “cute sylphide” makes me want to DIE.  Like I couldn’t come up with something vastly more intelligent?!?  <insert *facepalm* here> You don’t recover from that…that’s approaching levels of saying “The Nutcracker is my favorite ballet.”   Now that your impressions of my intelligence have been severely damaged, I shall leave you with a quote from Théophile Gautier, balletomane and writer of the libretto for Giselle, in a desperate attempt to erase the debauchery you have just read:

Nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless; everything useful is ugly, for it expresses a need, and the needs of man are ignoble and disgusting, like his poor and weak nature. The most useful place in the house is the lavatory.