Tag Archives: maria tallchief

Technical Tricks of the Trade: Advice from an Amateur

25 Sep

You’d be surprised what you can learn from a set of new eyes, even when they may not be the most experienced.  The fact that people read this blog has given me an inflated sense of ego, and I feel impudent enough to offer some advice when it comes to taking class.  I believe that our flaws shape our perceptions, and as someone with bad feet, bad turnout and no natural flexibility, I’m always looking at how people use such things.  One of the teachers at Pacific Northwest mentioned how Maria Tallchief, who doesn’t have the best feet, would go crazy when dancers with great feet didn’t use them.  This entry shall be an amalgamation of various things the teachers I respect the most have told me and is perhaps geared towards the late starter or beginning/intermediate dance student.  For the accomplished dancer or teacher, there’s a good chance you have something better to do!

If you’re a late starter, fret not.  A late starter is someone who may start at the age of fifteen or sixteen and the good news is you’re NOT a late starter at all.  Many a fine dancer began their training at this age (particularly guys) and went on to professional careers.  One of the best examples I can think of is Melissa Hayden, a celebrated Balanchine muse, who started at fifteen…and you didn’t get to be a Balanchine muse if you didn’t have special qualities!  Hayden was every bit the technical virtuoso on pointe that other dancers who trained from an early age were and she had incredible passion—her true tour de force.  Another great dancer who started at fifteen is Thiago Soares, a current principal with The Royal Ballet, so even in this modern era can one start in their teenage years and achieve the highest ranks possible in dance.  So really, if you’re around this age, don’t call yourself a “late starter,” and think of it as a “delayed start” instead.

If you began past the age of twenty like I did, NOW you’re a true late starter (in my case, 23, so ANCIENT starter).  Professional aspirations are probably unrealistic, but that’s okay because if you’re anything like me, you just love to take class and dance.   Sometimes we’re not taken seriously because we don’t have those possibilities but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to achieve certain things like a double pirouette or a higher leg extension.  However, the approach is perhaps a little different with adult ballet and I will share what I’ve learned, in terms of the four goals that seem to be common:

I want MASSIVE amounts of turnout!

Your knees and hips are screaming—STOP.  Your turnout will improve with continued barre practice.  What people don’t realize though is that it isn’t necessarily how much turnout you have, but how you use it.  I always cite the example of one of the differences I noticed between the corps de ballet of the Bolshoi and The Royal Ballet.  The Bolshoi corps would all line up in perfectly turned out fourth positions but when they went up on pointe, wa-waaaah their legs actually turned in!  This inward rotation was actually very distraction because then they force their turnout on the way down, creating even more extraneous movement.  The Royal Ballet corps, on the other hand, had dancers who were not 180°, but moved in and out of a fourth or fifth position they could use, without extra rotation of the legs.  The cleanliness and efficiency supersedes less-than-180° turnout.

I want to développé SUPER high!

Ah yes…the ever-coveted high leg extension.  This is something like many that I have yet to achieve myself but I will tell you something a teacher told me that BLEW. MY. MIND.  There’s this idea that we need to develop the flexibility and strength to hold the leg up high to the front or to the side, which is true—the problem is once the flexibility is there, we think “strength, strength, strength!”  This actually promotes gripping in the quads and picking up the hip (which you don’t want to do) because you’re thinking about “lifting” the leg…but ballet is SO mental and this is the big dirty secret that I’ll never forget her telling us: The degree of extension that requires the MOST strength is…NINETY DEGREES!  Why?  Because that is when your leg is furthest away from you, and thus the weight is furthest away from you!  Behold, the power of common sense!  So then, how to get the leg above 90°?  She told us about her training and how she spent many months working below 90° at 45°, working only on placement, using the barre more and shifting her weight as little as possible.  That allowed her to train her muscles to extend properly and after the experiment was over she could développé to 120°.  Conclusion?  Getting above 90° is MENTAL.  Think about it (seriously).

I want a HUGE penchée arabesque!

One of the biggest myths in ballet is that every penchée needs to be ginormous and approach a full split.  Wrong!  The most important thing to keep in mind is the connection between the back and the leg, and the line it creates through the hips.  Lots of beginning students try to hike the leg up but then drop the torso, which is not pretty and doesn’t develop the strength in your back you actually need.  If penchées are new to you, start out with little tiny ones and think of the foot taking you up while the torso stays as upright as possible.  Here’s one of the big dirty secrets about penchées too…most of the time, I find getting into it to be the easiest part—it’s getting out of it that’s much more challenging.  A good penchée goes down and comes back up without shifting the foot and rolling around on it.  I used to try to penchée and my leg would literally go nowhere and what worked for me was actually learning to place myself in as square an arabesque as possible.  The Balanchine arabesque, which in my opinion flattens out the three dimensional quality of an arabesque by opening the hip didn’t improve my line at all because I don’t have the turnout.  When I stopped trying to do that and focused on squaring up my hips and rotating from the socket of my standing leg, slowly but surely I greatly improved my penchée…on one side.  My right side hasn’t figured it out yet, but there is a world of difference on my left!

I want to do 2983573982421903821 pirouettes!

Yeah, me too.  Here’s the deal with pirouettes…different things will work for different people, and chances are you will get an onslaught of various corrections.  My advice here is to remember as many as possible because even if you can’t get your body to physically achieve every correction every time, it’s very much a “checklist” sort of thing, and you’ll often find that different corrections will work for you on different days.  A lot of corrections teachers gave me of course made sense and I would try to do what they were asking but didn’t quite “feel it.”  You’d be surprised at how some corrections may make much more sense weeks, months or even years later.  A long time ago one of my teachers was always telling me to “feel wide in your back,” but only now, just the other day I actually FELT it and BAM! Triple pirouette (I’ve been chicken and sticking with doubles lately).

Hope this helps, from a fellow ballet class addict!  Let me know how this all goes…unless it makes stuff worse, then don’t sue me.  I can only hope to pretend to SOUND like a real expert.

Muse musings

3 Jun

Despite being a mere forty some odd pages from finishing the book I’m reading, I couldn’t find the effort.  So I popped in Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas, a documentary featuring interviews with Maria Tallchief, Mary Ellen Moylan, Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent, Merrill Ashley and Darci Kistler.  I needed the break from reading because my eyes were going nuts and the DVD is actually due back at the library…today.  Now, I don’t want to get into a discussion comparing Balanchine’s muses because that’s a history far too convoluted for me to want to know.  When it comes down to it, they all have their place in history and that’s dandy enough for me.  Does it matter who gets the title of “greatest Balanchine dancer of all time?”  Will it ever matter?

At any rate, what the DVD did make me ponder was the relationship between dancer(s) and choreographer.  It seems as though the method for new works these days is to simply do what the choreographer asks (which sometimes comes across as a clandestine exercise in stroking his or her ego) or the “modern” thing to do, which is to collaborate.  I want to say with certain uncertainty that choreographing a ballet on a muse isn’t widely practiced anymore.  Or maybe it is and I just never hear about it…or maybe it’s the politics the higher ups are afraid of; it’s not as if Balanchine’s favoritism didn’t spark some strife here and there.  Merrill Ashley is pretty frank in the documentary that Suzanne Farrell’s departure and return to NYCB affected her career and she said so not with jealousy or contempt, just a plain statement of the truth.  Balanchine was in a funk when Farrell left, and certain roles Ashley had went back to Farrell when she returned.  To be fair though, Ashley did say Balanchine didn’t forget the dancers who “took over” in Farrell’s absence and Ashley even had the honor of having Ballo della Regina choreographed on her.  Is it any wonder that Balanchine’s muses get all sentimental and weepy when speaking of him?  Having a dance be inspired by you and subsequently choreographed for you by a genius is like the ultimate gift.  How can you top the gift of a legacy?  When in doubt, get something edible I always say…

While I can understand the desire to avoid politics, I still love the idea of muses.  What seems to separate Balanchine’s muses from those of other choreographers is how instrumental he was in their development.  I’m fascinated by how he picked so many women at such an early age; off the top of my head I can only think of Kenneth MacMillan having done the same for Darcey Bussell (I have yet to read too much about Frederick Ashton’s muses besides the obvious being Margot Fonteyn—I have a stack of books in queue for a self induced Ashton extravaganza.  Why?  I don’t know, but I may find out).  It seems simpler to admire a known entity from afar and if a choreographer is lucky, get the opportunity to create a work on the dancer of his or her choice…but to be the driving force in the cultivation of a dancer is something else.  Balanchine is heralded as one of the greatest choreographers of all time and the most influential teacher in American ballet but it’s that grey matter—the substance between choreographer and teacher that really interests me.  I can’t shake the feeling that the key to his continual success lies somewhere in there (intangible as it is).  There have of course been others who have studied the vocabulary, technique, worked with greats and have had precious quips passed down to them from previous generations but maybe, just maybe, nobody has made the connection between teacher-choreographer in the manner that Balanchine was so gifted in doing.

Overall I thought the documentary was lovely (the archived black and white footage is to DIE for and criminally short…there were a few seconds of a Melissa Hayden and Edward Villella Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux that had me writhing for more) and especially interesting because it has interviews with a very young Darci Kistler, soon to retire in just over three weeks, thus bringing the dynasty of Balanchine muses to a close.  Blah blah, it’s the end of an era…closing one door…open a window…Wheeldon…Martins…new beginnings for the NYCB.  I suppose NYCB is still in a post-Balanchine/Robbins transitional phase and I can’t even begin to imagine the mess it must be to balance the repertoire while trying to develop new facets of the company’s identity.  It’s that kind of pressure that probably influenced Monica Mason’s controversial decision to make Wayne McGregor the resident choreographer for the Royal Ballet.  Oy…who (besides Tamara Rojo and Johan Kobborg apparently) would ever want to be an Artistic Director?  One would almost have to list “Oracle of Delphi” under previous employment on his or her résumé.  Come to think of it, Balanchine must have been a clairvoyant…how else would he have known to pick the women he did and be right, every single time?  It’s not like he went for the same formula each time either (not all of them even trained at the School of American Ballet).

In the end, I find the biggest question I have about muses and ballet is that can a person aspire to be a muse?  Is there even a difference between dreaming of becoming a great dancer and dreaming of being somebody’s muse?  Can the desire to become a muse and to originate a role perhaps negate that it will ever happen?  Maybe serendipity is the cornerstone of supreme artistic inspiration and maybe today’s dancers and choreographers are bogged down by too much desire to achieve or be and thus constrict the potential output.  Or maybe, I’m really hungry and can’t write anything logical on an empty stomach.  Now that I’ve reread this entry, I’m thinking my writing muse did a hit and run.  Too bad.

This country mouse has something to say…

19 Oct

So I’m not really a country mouse, and despite the fact that it’s a gorgeous, sunny and crisp but not too chilly October day, it’s freezing inside my house, which makes the typing process a miserable one.  But with some Turkish music playing on iTunes, here I go.  This afternoon I came across an interesting article in the New York Times (via clouddancefest on twitter), about a new series that the writer of the article described as “reality ballet.”  The word “reality” has developed an extremely negative connotation for me given the surplus of low-grade, poorly produced, inferior television programs that makes me want to run for the hills.  Thankfully, reality ballet was not entirely an accurate description.  To me it sounded more like copious amount of raw footage, and I don’t see a need to attach the word “reality” to it all.  Not to mention, “reality” has become a deluded concept to audiences today (because I sincerely hope we know better!), and I don’t see anything misleading about rehearsal footage.

The “copious-amounts of-raw-footage” became 15 Days of Dance: The Making of ‘Ghost Light.’  I’m really loving the inspiration for the piece, described here in an excerpt from the article:

“Ghost Light” is named after the stark, romantic image of a bare bulb left burning on a deserted stage. Set to Aaron Copland’s “Music for the Theater,” the dance, which was presented as a gift from the city of Buffalo to the people of New Orleans, has a vintage quality, with dancers costumed as flappers and hobos.

“I was thinking of New Orleans and how it has such a deep sense of its own history and jazz,” Mr. Reeder said. “It’s one of the reasons I went with an old Americana feel of vaudeville, burlesque and the whole ghost-light vibe.”

Attention grabbed!  I like flappers and hobos, and an antiquarian aesthetic.  I also love me some Copland, although I’m unfamiliar with this particular composition.  The piece is choreographed by Brian Reeder, who apparently has to pull his pants up a lot because he doesn’t wear a belt and isn’t very nice at times.  I don’t know if I like that, and he criticizes some of his dancers by telling them “you guys would make a horrible true Bournonville pas de trois.”  That’s kind of mean…but he says that he has to go into a zone, and I suppose an intensely creative mind can’t always control the output.  After all, nobody can spew sunshine all day.  I might be able to…but I have the mind of a child.

Anyway, the project was spearheaded by Elliot Caplan of Cage/Cunningham and Beach Birds for Camera fame, who wanted to document the entire process of creating a ballet.  Although it kind of bugged me that he said “ballet is the basis for everything in dance,” which I find to be unfortunately Eurocentric, I do appreciate his desire to document the choreographic process (even if I think documentation of dance isn’t THAT decrepit).  The fact alone that the entire she-bang is eighteen hours of footage is enough to make one salivate and squee in delight.  But that also means it’s not the kind of thing that would be shown on television, and although portions of the film will start showing this Thursday at the New York Library of the Performing Arts, hosted by Caplan himself followed by a discussion with a panel of some of the artists involved.  The entire thing will also be available for private viewing at the library.  Fantastic.  But what does that mean for the rest of us?  This is a huge problem I have with the dance world…it’s this idea that New York is apparently in an artistic bubble, and there doesn’t seem to be any consideration for those outside of it.  I’m not suggesting that I, personally be given access to such a collection but I can’t help but feel forgotten whenever I hear about the exciting things that are being done and are available to the residents of New York.  It reminds me of the “top trickling down” economic model that I once studied in an anthropology class (ANTHRO 597.01, conflict in developing nations), and the conclusion was that it was elitist and NEVER worked.  I find it ironic that Caplan made a comparison between going to the movies and seeing dance, when movies are always available to the people while dance simply isn’t.  If you grew up in Columbus, Ohio, there is so much you would never see in regards to dance because things aren’t readily available or performed often.  I’m not saying we should sit on our asses and wait for the advertisers to flood us with images and commercials, but we have to be met half way.  Otherwise, how can we find things we don’t know exist?

Perhaps my complaints are preliminary and it will be available for distribution (more than likely not for home viewing because the price would be astronomical) at the very least at major universities.  I actually discovered that Ohio State has a pretty interesting collection of things, like footage of famous dancers like Arthur Mitchel coaching Agon, Maria Tallchief coaching Allegro Brillante, Melissa Hayden coaching Stars and Stripes, Suzanne Farrell coaching Momentum pro Gesualdo and Movements for piano and orchestra.  Although that stuff is locked away in a sekret part of the library that I’m sure takes fingerprints and retina scans to access, but at least it’s there.  I just hope this new series will be available in some capacity.  Dance has this massive challenge of constantly trying to reach new audiences, but they can’t sit on their haunches and expect that people will automatically find them.  Rave Motion Pictures has made a start, and does live broadcasts of ballets around the world, but one or two a year isn’t really going to get the job done to create more public interest.  This year we have a Mariinsky Swan Lake coming up at the end of the month (although the website can’t seem to decide if the November 1st show is 1:00am or 1:00pm), and I remember a year or two ago we had a Royal Ballet Swan Lake too.  But for some of us, it’s like inoculating a fatal disease.  We really need more to survive and NOT Swan Lake! 

Anywhodle, be sure to read the entire article if you’re interested and a sucker for punishment, or you live in New York.

Brian Reader Puts it Together and Elliot Caplan Films It

HAVE YOU LEARNED NOTHING ABOUT ME?!?

7 Sep

I’ve been reading Kristin Chenoweth’s autobiography A Little Bit Wicked (along with the actual book Wicked, Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country and Carlos Acosta’s autobiography No Way Home.  This is when it helps to have multiple personalities).  Actually I’ve been listening to it because I got the audio book (come on, with that voice how could you resist?) and although I keep falling asleep while listening to it and sometimes wake up five chapters later, her stories only reaffirm the things I love about her.  And I’m not just talking about my affinity for short women with zesty personalities.  From my favorite celebs like Miss Chenoweth and Amy Sedaris, to many of my bestest of friends who approach a Sylph-like five feet tall (one of whom insists on being 5’1” when we all know she’s 5’¾”.  It’s not like it’s anything to be ashamed of!) .  I have my rage-filled Nacho, sweet sweet Totos, quasi-wife Erina, true-blue Aussie Aiko, and my bestest bestie Arika among others.  Of course I have tall friends too…I’m no heightist, but there is an uncanny (some have said “alarming,” whatever that means) pattern, but did anyone stop to consider that maybe it’s the other way around and they’re the ones drawn to me?

Anyway, it’s a hilarious and inspiring read, and I bring her up here because I’m officially promoting her to slot number one in my pantheon (previously occupied by Amy Sedaris, but never absolute).  Turns out (no pun intended), like many little girls, Kristin was very much into ballet, which her mother apparently felt was an “odd but basically healthy pastime.”  Unlike the girls that didn’t pay attention in class or put in lackadaisical efforts, she was one of the few who hung onto her every teacher’s word.  She doesn’t go too far in-depth about how far she got or how good she was, although she did tell a story about how she single handedly saved the Tulsa Ballet’s production of the Nutcracker when cast as a bunny, she hopped across the stage in character (which she described as a “Victorian Tchaikovsky bunny on Christmas Eve, with Stanislavski devotion”) and put a fallen piece of Christmas greenery into her mouth, carrying the hazardous material offstage so no one would slip on it and then returning to her place.  The then director, Moscelyne Larkin who Kristin is sure to mention was an original member of the Ballet Russes, praised her with a “Brava!”  Clearly, she knows her stuff and would watch dance specials on PBS and read everything she could find about ballet and dance, also idolizing fellow part Native-American Oklahoman, the legendary Maria Tallchief.

I guess it’s not a complete autobiography so much as it is a collection of anecdotes from her life, because she only briefly mentions taking tap, jazz and modern classes when it seems she was actually much more proficient than the book would lead you to believe (the only other dance related story was of her in college performing at an amusement park during the summers, and when she did a “high-kick-fall-into-the-splits,” her character shoe slipped and she did what she calls “the cooter smash,” fracturing her tailbone and apparently giving her the ability to predict the weather from down there).  She discusses in the book, several times, her short lived sitcom Kristin which basically nobody knew about.  Although NBC had bought about a dozen episodes as a midseason replacement, it got pushed into the summer and not only that, it changed timeslots every week and they only ended up showing half of the episodes.  I think it would’ve been impossible to try any harder to make that show even more invisible than it was.  Anyway, even though the last half of the thirteen episodes never aired, somehow someone has put all of the episodes on the tube.  It’s absolutely hysterical, and is completely “her.”  She even gives snippets of her opera background, singing Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen from The Magic Flute.  This is like the equivalent of some actress busting out some castanets and doing the Act I Kitri variation right before the punch line is supposed to be delivered.  Impressive stuff.

However, ‘tis the dance I must draw your attention to, and one of the best scenes is the catalyst and opening of the show, where as an aspiring actress from Oklahoma, she fails to get a job at an audition.  The audition is a little tap diddy, and we get a rare glimpse at her doing a pretty substantial tap number.  Perhaps she does more tapping in some of the Broadway shows she’s been in (apparently one time her and Idina Menzel started doing a tap dance onstage in Wicked because a gel on the lights was burning and making noise like a jackhammer and they could only wait it out), but again, I’ve never been to New York.  Anyway, this scene really needs to introduction and is the quintessential epitome of “You dance funny.”

“Mistake or intentional…you’ll never know.”

Words to live by.  Be sure to watch full episodes on the tube (user above has episodes 1-6, and you can find 7-13 here) and give her book a whirl.  You won’t regret it!  (If you’re curious, the title of this entry came from episode 5)