Tag Archives: ohio state university

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.

Now, it’s personal…

4 Aug

I’ve been avoiding writing something about Pacific Northwest Ballet’s DVD of A Midsummer Night’s Dream because I really felt like it was only yesterday that I reviewed a live performance by them…but that was in April, which was longer ago than I thought. First, I have to say that whoever made it happen so that the Seattle Public Library finally obtained some copies of PNB’s production—thank you! I don’t know if my “suggestions” had any impact on the library’s fairly recent acquisition of it, but I’ll let my ego inflate a la Oberon. If you’ve read here long enough, you may recall that I have watched the La Scala production with Alessandra Ferri and Roberto Bolle, and in retrospect, that was a mistake! La Scala’s Midsummer is quite bland in comparison, hindered greatly by unimaginative sets that suck the charm out of the entire ballet. Although Ferri and Bolle are beautiful dancers, I don’t know that their performances really enhanced the production either. Having heard Francia Russell say that she didn’t like working with La Scala (she was not however, the one to restage Midsummer for them), as well as Lady Deborah MacMillan’s difficulties in working with them (a controversy over compromising the creativity of the set designers, coincidentally), La Scala seems to have a lot of woes they need to sort out for some of their ballets.

Anyway, the point is La Scala’s Midsummer didn’t really leave a great impression, but I’m learning to love Balanchine’s ballet, which is quite unusual for me because my opinions can be rather stubborn. I actually watched about three-fourths of PNB’s DVD before falling asleep at my computer, so the next day I watched only Act II, which proved to be a much more fulfilling experience, since it is rather disconnected from the story anyway. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying I love Act II now, and for me, the Divertissement Pas de Deux was the highlight of the DVD (though I still love Oberon’s Scherzo in Act I). Watching the DVD with fresh eyes also provided a revelation—I had seen the Divertissement Pas before! Back in my golden years as a newly minted student of dance at Ohio State University, I took “Dance 161: Dance and Theatre, 1945 to Present” with Annie Kloppenberg and Ashley Thorndike (who I have to take a moment to thank, because they told me from the beginning that I had a gift as a dance writer), and in that class one of the video clips we watched was this very Divertissement Pas. I remember now because Annie specifically pointed out to us the partnered cabrioles, and asked us to think about what we thought the meaning of that movement was. I wish I could remember what I thought, because at that time, like ninety-nine percent of the class, I had no idea what a cabriole was!

Louise Nadeau and Olivier Wevers in the Divertissement Pas de Deux (Photo ©Angela Sterling)

My personal journey with Midsummer is proving to be a strange one with some odd twists of fate. I’m now positive that the Divertissement Pas was in fact my first experience in watching Balanchine choreography. In the film, the pas is danced by Louise Nadeau and Olivier Wevers, the latter of whom I would eventually meet and see perform it live ten years later in one of his farewell performances. In addition to Wevers, Jeff Stanton (Demetrius), Ariana Lallone (Hippolyta), and Batkhurel Bold (Theseus) would reprise the same roles from they did at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in the performance I saw at McCaw Hall. There were a lot of other goodies too, like Kaori Nakamura as Butterfly (she did the Divertissement Pas with Wevers in April), and a handful of dancers I spotted in the corps like Carrie Imler, Maria Chapman, and Mara Vinson went on to become principal dancers (though Vinson retired from PNB last year). On top of that, several of the dancers like Paul Gibson, Timothy Lynch, Julie Tobiason, and Alexandra Dickson are people I’ve taken class from! It’s probably one of the most amazing things about the ballet world, how traditions are spread and passed from one to another and in a way, I almost feel connected to Midsummer now, even as an outlier on this vast and intricate web. Or maybe I’m just getting mushy and sentimental, but I definitely have a newfound nostalgia for the Divertissement Pas in particular and thus I’ve come to understand more that ballet survives when we can make the experience of viewing it personal, and that as a ballet student, even recreational, I would do well to remember the legacy that is passed on via teaching in the studio.

Overall, it’s nice DVD with some of PNB’s most legendary ballerinas, like the lovely Nadeau, Lallone, and of course Patricia Barker as Titania. I only moved to Seattle after Barker retired, and have only heard things—which I find to be true. She really is not the most emotive dancer via facial expressions, but she has some of the longest lines I’ve ever seen, and has an uncanny ability to move like water and contrast that fluidity with real attack to certain steps. It’s all a matter of taste though, as I’m the type of audience member who zeroes in on faces before anything else (then feet I suppose), so it’s important to see appropriate animation in a dancer’s face and eyes and I didn’t get that from Barker all the time…it was there in some moments and in others a little vacant. However, it could be considered a more enigmatic approach and one way to get an audience to see how you express yourself through your body. Barker was partnered by Paul Gibson as Oberon, who I felt gave a well-rounded performance, with sharp technique and fortitude in the mime. He’s not one blessed with long limbs, a freakish turning ability, or the highest jumps but he executes everything clarity and belief, so it’s a virtually faultless performance. The company as a whole looked so well rehearsed that it would be easy to sit back and enjoy—were it not for some artistic issues with the story. I know it’s sacrilege, but for me Midsummer contains a great deal of beautiful dancing that delights, but can’t do much more than that because it’s simply stretched too thin to elicit a deeper, emotional investment (Divertissement Pas aside).

Still, I learned my lesson though—they say you can’t judge a book by its cover and I should really know better than to judge a ballet by a first viewing even if it’s guaranteed that visceral reactions to any number of ballets will ensure I’ll make the same mistakes again in the future, and won’t be able to find some personal meaning each time, which is okay too because conviction in oneself is also a good thing. So check it out from your library! If they don’t have it, complain like I did–results require putting the idea out there in the first place!

Or at the very least, check out the trailer:

Dance Critics Association Conference: A crash course in reconstruction

17 Jun

Wow—a busy week! Ever since the Dance Critics Association conference, it feels like it’s been full steam ahead. Prior to last weekend, I was going to blog something about Deborah Jowitt leaving the Village Voice, but seeing as how she was at the conference, I’m just going to tie in a few thoughts I had into one big entry, rather than bore you with a thousand words of inane rambling on the subject (and believe me, I could go on and on!). I have also been working quite a bit at my new job at a bagel deli, where I sell carbs and people eat them, and though it’s not mentally exhausting it is somewhat physically so, and you know you’ve had a long day on your feet when standing on relevé feels good because it relieves pressure on your heels! I’ve been rummaging through a few backburner topics in my head, but every time I sat down to write, I would end up asleep at the computer. So I’m still getting used to the new schedule (which sometimes includes the horror of getting up early) but today my friends, is a day off!

The topic of this year’s DCA conference was reconstruction, in conjunction with Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of Giselle (but more on that later). I didn’t get to attend the whole conference, and was just a last minute volunteer but I was present on Saturday, for much of the discussion on reconstruction itself. The keynote speaker was Dr. Ann Hutchinson Guest, notation guru who knows more about the subject of reconstructing dances than the average mind can handle. It’s funny how a lot of what she talked about seemed relevant to things I learned at Ohio State (coincidentally, one of the examples she used to discuss differences in steps according to notation was indeed La Cachucha, a piece I saw at an MFA concert) and I chuckled to myself when she discussed how ballet training today is about superficial pictures, but the motivation for a movement is never a problem for a modern dancer. I actually had the opportunity to learn a ballet from notation at OSU (which was actually for six female dancers on pointe, but that’s a long story), and the thing she said that struck me the most was how reconstruction from notation is more important than video because the latter makes it so that you have to understand the movement. I always knew the importance of notation but couldn’t express why until she so artfully put it into words—the process of learning notation is an investigation of movement, and my own interpretation is that dancing from notation requires that creative process we like to call “imagination.”

The first panel discussion of the day was with Peter Boal, Doug Fullington, and Marian Smith, the trio behind PNB’s staging of Giselle. Peter opened with a general spiel, about how he wanted a unique production for the company, how Doug told him of Marian’s proximity, that it was something of a last minute decision (I seem to recall a mixed bill that it replaced), and that people are calling it the “new/old Giselle.” Now that sounds familiar…oh wait, I was one of those people! Hey…look at that legitimate writer…that’s me too! Gloating aside, there was a lot of interesting discussion on not only negotiating three minds at work, but also three documents to work with, and what the ideal creation would be. Most of the choreography came from the Stepanov, and the French scores provided the pantomime, with the usual interpolations of “artistic liberties” (at times, none of the scores provided anything of use). Much of the more difficult choreography was tested on Carrie Imler, allegro extraordinaire, who could basically do all of it though the rest of the company had some trouble, hence the adjustments. Though many fascinating questions were asked, I’m glad someone mentioned the use of humor, in the lost scenes and Smith said that the originator of the role of the old man was a world-renowned comic mime, so it is fully intended to be a moment of comic relief. She feels lightening of the mood gives the story gravity, though I still disagree here—people were surprised by humor in Giselle, though I think Act I has always had traces of it, and it’s the contrast between the two acts that gives it gravity, not an unnecessary augmentation of the storyline…but, this is strictly a matter of opinion.

There was a writing workshop during lunch that I only observed because I hadn’t been a part of the conference the previous day, and that was followed by another panel on reconstruction means, which unfortunately, by that time I was mentally checking out. Sitting through panels is a lot like lecture-based learning, and the whole experience reminded me of being in school again, something I’m not really looking to return to. Plus, it doesn’t matter how much I’ve slept, or what I’ve done for the day, I am always sleepy around two o’clock, so my notes for this panel are woefully barren. Just remember…preservation makes us human and every dancer inherits an embodied legacy.

Finding my second wind for the last panel of the day, several ballet repetiteurs shared their thoughts on reconstruction for living or deceased choreographers. Though several ballet choreographers—from lesser known to titans like Tudor and Balanchine—were discussed, I’m just going to summarize some of the Balanchine tidbits, mostly coming from Francia Russell (one of the founding co-directors of PNB). Russell indeed danced for NYCB years ago, and I suppose a lot like Carrie Imler, Balanchine tested a lot of movement on Russell, even if the performances themselves went to other dancers. Russell actually retired pretty early, but stayed with NYCB as ballet mistress, and in fact only stages ballets that she watched Balanchine produce during her tenure, as well as ballets she herself has danced. Though she doesn’t claim to have the definitive version of anything, she does say she stages things very closely to the way he wanted them (in that sense, her work is kind of like the Australia of ballet—broke away from the mother continent and remained unchanged while Balanchine’s choreography in New York evolved under different circumstances). Though she tries not to impose her personal tastes, there have been occasions where she’ll make executive decisions like when she stages Ballet Imperial, it’s mostly NYCB material but there is also choreography that is seen with the Royal Ballet (Balanchine went overseas to stage it, working closely with Moira Shearer). Also, I believe it was in regards to the finale of Divertimento No.15, she said Balanchine changed the ending for PBS’s Dance in America to accommodate the set, but she loves the original finale. Apparently, NYCB’s Divertimento is starting to look a lot like Who Cares?, and never having seen the former I don’t know what that means but it was fun to hear her opinions on several matters, like which companies were great to work with and which weren’t *coughLa Scalacough*.

The second topic of this panel posed the question of how critics should approach reconstructive work, and while this wasn’t really discussed in detail, Russell voiced some frustrations in wondering why critics feel the need to personally attack dancers, when they are so willingly giving their all. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Deborah Jowitt nodded her head in agreement, as her refusal to write negative reviews led to her leaving the Village Voice. I found it funny that in a room full of critics, who so willingly put forth their ideas during other panels to the point where questions weren’t really asked during the Q&A sessions and it was more like a debate with statements of opinion, nobody really had much to say on the matter. Well, I am of the mind of Jowitt, who I saw speak and perform a sort of dance-theatre solo at OSU, and I believe that dance truly fascinates her, which is why she is able to write about it in the way she does. She genuinely finds the art of movement captivating at all levels, which is why she doesn’t have anything negative to say about the effort put forth by performers. I admire her so much for it, and aspire to be like her, though for me it requires some effort. We all know I can go on and on about Ashton (and in an upcoming entry, I will), but when ballet moves away from the styles I favor the most, I have a harder time discussing it. However, I think when a passion is authentic, you find a way, which leads me to believe that some critics may be more in love with the search for perfection than they are ballet itself…and for some reason society seems to think if you can nitpick flaws in a performance, you must know what you’re talking about. Rest assured, I don’t think that way.

On that note, I encourage you to read my latest and first post-DCA review on SeattleDances, in which I reviewed PNB’s Season Encore performance. I am interested to hear if you think my voice has changed, or is still the same old me, and ideally, WILDLY and authentically in love with ballet!

Tell me a story?

31 Dec

To close the year, I think a highly recommended read is Ismene Brown’s article at The Art’s Desk, a sort of counterpunch to the apocalyptic, Post-Balanchine diagnosis that has been the talk of the town in the ballet’s little corner of the universe.  If you missed the hubbub over the book Apollo’s Angels, consider yourself fortunate…while I can’t really comment on the content of the book itself (I’ve only read excerpts and have heard things…as in, not good things from people I respect), my New Year’s resolution will be to read it, which in my opinion is a fair compromise for having to put up with some of the ridiculous publicity surrounding the book.  Obviously, I can’t approach a reading of the book completely objectively (which was doomed from the start due to a blatant lack of recognition for Sir Fred), but the least anyone can do is try.

Anyway, I found Brown’s article to be a delightfully poignant read, putting into just the right words the quagmire ballet finds itself in today; the lack of money and music for new, full-length story ballets.  While I appreciate (and in fact love) many shorter pieces or gala-type pas de deux, the story ballet is the tradition that has endured and it is weird that choreographers seem to just…not do them.  It’s not for a lack of trying—certainly Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon are doing what they can when the resources are available to develop new ballets, and obviously funding for the arts is always the first issue that comes to mind, but Brown is correct in that music is probably the primary obstacle.  I for one, have always enjoyed classical music and come from a classical background therefore I can’t rationalize the lack of appreciation for it.  I know I’ve joked about being old and crotchety before, but I honestly don’t think age has anything to do with an appreciation for certain standards in music, as opposed to things like that creature I refer to as “the Bieberling.”

Again, the lack of reverence for classical music is not something I can discuss rationally and will spare you inane ranting, but what is more easily discussed is how the lack of classical composers affects ballet today.  I am completely on board with Brown, but when I thought about the subject more, I realized that some choreographers probably rely on inspiration from the composers, who seem to struggle equally in making names for themselves.  Maybe it’s time to take a shot in the dark and pluck someone out of obscurity.  At OSU I took a music skills class which concentrated on creating scores electronically (since modern dance is less picky about such things), and I remember the music teacher discussing with one of my ballet teachers that he had a friend who was a graduate student in music and had written a ballet score.  Chances are it wasn’t a full, three act ballet but it was something and to be honest I don’t know that he found anyone who wanted it (ballet is not really the focus of the dance department at OSU).

Perhaps there’s a fear that the score won’t be great, that anything less than something like Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake won’t leave a lasting impression.  His scores are regarded as perhaps the greatest of all time but we have to remember that a musical genius like Tchaikovsky was something of an exception to the rule—many ballet scores, even those used today are nothing special, but survive because the ballets themselves are venerated so.  The rift between ballet composers and “real musicians” has always been apparent (though I imagine it would be less spiteful these days…survival tends to foster camaraderie, no?), however a few have achieved great success in both spheres.  Tchaikovsky is my obvious first choice, but Prokofiev and Stravinsky were also prolific in writing classical and ballet music.  However, a list of names like Ludwig Minkus, Adolphe Adam, Léo Delibes, and Cesare Pugni is often met with confused looks or rolling of the eyes from anyone outside of ballet (I even have to list them by first and last name because nobody will know who they are!).  Given, the scores these composers wrote can’t stand alone, but the point I’m trying to make is that the score doesn’t have to be memorable for the ballet to be (although it severely helps).  Choreographers shouldn’t wait for musicians to establish themselves in the music realm before seeking them out…if there’s interest from both sides then by all means, make those New Year’s resolutions to be to stop waiting!  I know it’s easier said than done when funding is an issue, but like I said, a graduate student at OSU was practically giving a score away and I’d imagine similar people exist at institutions elsewhere.

Regardless, the lack of musical prodigies didn’t stop Sir Kenneth MacMillan from creating what are probably regarded as his two most popular masterpieces, Manon and Mayerling.  Both are full-length story ballets choreographed in the 1970’s, using patchwork scores orchestrated by Leighton Lucas (Jules Massenet works for Manon) and John Lanchberry (Franz Liszt works for Mayerling).  It seems the lack of talented composers isn’t a full-proof excuse after all, when there’s a wealth of composers and music already written that is yet to be explored.  However, this is not a reliable practice because it would be the ballet equivalent of dependence on fossil fuels, but it’s not a bad temporary solution until music finds solid ground to grow from.  MacMillan wasn’t the only one either; both Sir Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine used Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, long after his death.  An alternative to finding a living composer is hitting the books, going to the library and doing some homework!  I’m no choreographer and I look for music to imagine ballets to FOR FUN.  Obviously, I have no life but if I can do it as a hobby, anyone else is free to start compiling a score on their own.

It’s like I always say—we are in desperate need of a renaissance.  America especially…I’m not sure people understand how young our country is and how the lack of historic traditions affects our perceptions today.  A celebrated story ballet is the one thing America really hasn’t contributed to ballet as a whole and while Balanchine did a few, I don’t consider storytelling to be among his strengths as a choreographer.  I’ve seen his Coppélia and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and while they were fine ballets, I didn’t find them particularly inspiring.  I don’t mean to fuel the flames of the “Ashton and MacMillan were better storytellers” argument (even if it’s right), only to point out that if we are to honor the tradition, we can’t look to Balanchine for guidance.  I think MacMillan best exemplified how fascinating real, human stories can be as ballets and I hope this is where our future lies.  Stories today are no less interesting than fairy tales, they just haven’t been translated into classical steps.

Shall we make 2011 the year of new beginnings?  I’ll do what I can.

Take two pliés and call me in the morning

10 Dec

I’m definitely feeling the love from your votes for my entry into the Top Dance Blogs of 2010 contest and the question that keeps popping into my mind is if I’m so intelligent and funny then why am I still single?  Joking aside, I figured that because I am entering as a student of dance, it would be relevant to assess what I’ve been doing in the studio, since the majority of my posts have been more academic in nature.  It just so happens that I recently traveled home to Ohio for the holidays, spending time in Dayton with family and then in Columbus for a few days with friends before heading out again for a wedding in Savannah, Georgia, where I found out one should never touch the Spanish moss.  My friends and I thought it would be funny to use them as dwarf beards a la Gimli from the Lord of the Rings franchise (you don’t need to know why…it’s a long story that will never make sense), but we were luckily stopped by a home grown Georgian friend, who warned us of “chiggers,” little red mites that will burrow into your skin and cause fierce itching (I made the mistake of Googling for pictures—I suggest that you do not).  The point is,  I was in Savannah, but before that I was in Columbus.

In Columbus, I visited with lovely ballet teacher friends, dropping in for a few classes for a “regular check up.”  As one of the many adult students of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s open program, most of the teachers I’ve encountered are in fact trained in the Balanchine method.  I’ve documented a few of these differences in previous entries, but a while ago I began to wonder if somehow certain changes have been creeping in.  The catalyst was a freak pique in attitude, where I was horrified to see in the mirror that my leg was way out to the side.  I should clarify that it’s not that I’m opposed to Balanchine entirely, but I understand much of the training methods to be unsuited for my body type, hence the “check up.”  I think revered Balanchine muse Violette Verdy said it best…she said that she didn’t think she was a Balanchine dancer because he had a company of greyhounds and borzois, while she was a French poodle (which makes me a kiwi bird—small, quirky, and flightless).  Anyway, for many reasons, I am incredibly thankful for the foundation I received at Ohio State, which was probably more Russian based, with bits of the French, Italian and British schools mixed in because PNB classes present certain challenges that I can’t always overcome.

For example, the fact of life is that I don’t have great turnout.  It’s one thing to have fairly open hips to say, 160° or 170° and cheat a little to 180°, as the teachers often tell their students to take their legs completely out to the side in an extension a la seconde.  However, if you have a mere 100° or so like I do, going that far to the side does one of two things: it contorts you into some weird position that makes you fall over or you turn in your standing leg.  I was taught to bring the leg forward in line with my natural turnout, because that’s where I can access rotation in my hips.  I haven’t much, but it’s all I’ve got and I’d rather work with that than look awkward trying to achieve the impossible or worse, injure myself in the process.  Also, I am of the school of thought that rotation in the hips has a certain aesthetic appeal because of the way the feet can be presented…but one’s preference for that or the Balanchine look is strictly a matter of opinion.

There are certain corrections in ballet that are more or less universal so I apply what I can but sometimes I do end up disregarding others.  I’m not trying to be a know-it-all, in fact, I’m completely open to trying the advice PNB teachers give at least once.  However, if I’m falling out of turns or finding it impossible to get a good balance, I go back to what I know and concepts that have proven to be the most successful for me in the past—all things I learned from my teachers at OSU.  There’s nothing wrong with having the courage to stand your ground on what works best for you and I would even go as far as saying that it is a responsibility every student, whether of ballet or even school should take on for themselves.  Learning isn’t just about the absorption of information; an understanding of what percentage of that information is beneficial is equally important.  This is not to say when I disagree with the Balanchine method I have the right to make a scene…it’s also my responsibility to try new things, internalize what it is teachers are telling me and compare that to the knowledge I have and come up with my own resolutions.  Although…if I’m going to be impudent, the gremlin in me desperately wants to mount a protest against Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in favor of Ashton’s The Dream…but I bet that you didn’t see that one coming!

Meanwhile, I loved taking class with my teacher friends again and liked the challenges I faced at barre, with (as much as I hate it) lots of work on relevé.  We even did a mini-Rose Adagio in one class, and to think that a year ago, I would have had no idea what that meant!  I felt a new sense of freedom in returning to those studios, and I could feel a certain energy that made me dance better.  I suppose time apart makes the heart grow fonder indeed, and everything just seemed stronger.  I even managed a couple of triple pirouettes and threw in extra beats whenever I could in the allegros.  For the longest time, I wasn’t really sure how to add a beat to a balloné and once I figured it out I wasn’t even sure if I could, but gosh darn it I went for it in good old Studio 3 and I did it!  So now I have that to carry with me though the million-dollar question is, have I been Balanchine-ified?  Well, I received confirmation that my technique looks stronger so the answer would be “no.”  That was the greatest news because it means that through my self-corrections I’m  succeeding as a bastion of my preferred technique, and improving as well.

Ironically, after all the efforts to make sure I wasn’t becoming a Balanchine dancer (I am an Ashton worshipper after all!), one of my friends told me that she would be doing a tiny excerpt of Balanchine choreography in her class.  While it may sound like I would have avoided it, the truth is that whenever given the opportunity I’d rather dance than not.  So it went that she taught us a short phrase from The Four Temperaments, but rather than have us dance it to Hindemith’s famous score, we danced it to Lady GaGa’s Bad Romance instead.  Rock.  On.  I totally toned down my usual emotiveness and did my “serious face,” busting out some School of American Ballet fingers and relishing the opportunity to “whack” my leg up into the air instead of an elegantly elastic grand battement.  Every now and then it’s good to let loose…even I can get a little too serious in ballet sometimes.

I am a writer: writing about writing

20 Oct

I would like to dedicate today’s entry to Kristen Legg, who gave me the chance to write a review for SeattleDances, of the second week of Men in Dance.  I’m so grateful that she sees something worthwhile in my writing and want to thank her for the opportunity to write for a broader audience.  If you haven’t read the review, here be a link for your perusal: Men in Dance, Week 2

In case you haven’t noticed, I put on my best for this one and upped the professional one of the piece.  I won’t rewrite the review with my perspective here because I think the review speaks for itself and I don’t want to damage its integrity—it’s entirely legitimate and something I’m very proud of.  I do enjoy “funny me” very much and would of course love to be that way all the time…but life isn’t about me, and that review was most certainly not.  What I realized is that a review must be about the performers so I set out to describe what I saw, insert a few neutral ideas and paint an image of the works with the assumption that each piece would appeal to somebody out there.  This task was about truly writing about dance…not indulging my funny bone.  THAT, friends, is what this blog is for!  And like proper addicts, you all just keep coming back…

So I would like to write about my first experience as a true dance writer (and not some nuttercracker with a WordPress account).  My first order of business was to follow the criteria given to me by my editor (note: I like saying “my editor” because it makes me sound more writer-ish).  She asked me to write a review—not a critique, and this was something I decided to differentiate for myself.  To some, they may be one and the same but I made a distinction because I feel that a good review tells it like it is and a critique is where one can get cranky (or positive, but generally cranky).  I still love reading critiques because constructive criticism is healthy and is useful feedback in future performances, but I wanted to look at these dances as finished products.   It’s like buying something and finding an inherent fault with it…registering a complaint isn’t going to change what it is at that moment so focusing on the present was more sensible to me.  Of course I did have my share of criticisms!  One piece (I’m not going to say which one) had a really…well, awful, schmaltzy score that I was not a fan of.  At least it had some amazing choreography but then out of nowhere came a series of Italian fouettes (if you don’t know what they look like, fret not, here’s a link), which made absolutely no sense to me.  One of my pet peeves is when a bravura step sticks out like a sore thumb and breaks the spell of a dance…they have to be used in contemporary choreography very carefully.  One fouette and I won’t notice but eight in a row? Overkill.  However, this is strictly my opinion and there must have been others and obviously the choreographer who felt that it was entirely appropriate and are the most important; my opinion as an audience member (or even a reviewer) still matters, but in a different way.

After figuring out my approach, the next step was to actually get to the show and I have to admit that getting a complementary ticket was pretty cool.  Nothing inflates the ego like going up to a box office and telling the people there that you represent something and a ticket should be there for you.  That, and having press photos e-mailed to me to post in the review was awesome too.  I had access to things most people didn’t (only one photo made it into the entry, but I got to see the rest!) and as mundane as such a thing may sound to some, I was kind of on a high.  I had a general feeling of excitement throughout the whole process and you know you’ve found something you’re meant to do when you look forward to what should be deemed “work.”

There was a certain allure too, in slipping in casually and knowing that I would write something that could reach and inform people.  The only feature that set me apart from other audience members was the fact that I pulled out a legal pad to write on, something I hadn’t done since my days at Ohio State.  I have an excellent visual memory (though it’s not something I can control) and can come up with some good descriptions as I watch a piece, but as fast as my brain works it can just as quickly forget.  My teachers at Ohio State always encouraged us to write without looking at the paper so we didn’t miss anything but writing quick notes to myself in between each piece was working well for me.  Well enough, such that writing the review was a breeze afterwards because I had all of my key phrases set to go.  The only omission was a review on one of the new pieces that evening, which I feel bad about…you see, Men in Dance had two different sets of dances the first and second week.  A review had already been written of the first week so I went with highlights of the second, including only the new works that were performed.  I ended up highlighting all but one “ugly duckling,” and there was nothing wrong with the piece, but I just couldn’t come up with anything…right.  Wouldn’t be the first time I ran headfirst into a writer’s block.

For so long, even though I’ve been writing this blog I always hesitated to call myself a writer.  I always added those adjectives describing a potential like “aspiring,” “hopeful” or “in progress,” but now that I’ve done this I think I can bring myself to say it (a la Yoda): a writer I am.  An editor I have, and in the door my foot I’ve got.  So many thanks again to Kristen…there is no greater gift than to help someone understand on a deeper level who they are.


The dance anywhere® project 3/26…DO IT

25 Mar

I had fully intended to write about the dance anywhere® project much sooner than this, but various things kept coming up and now I’m writing at the somewhat eleventh hour (my apologies Julia!).  No excuses though, so I’m going to get to it.  I’ll begin with dance anywhere’s press release, which sums up the necessary details better than I can (plus, copy + paste is viciously tempting in a time crunch):




San Francisco, March 19, 2010 – On March 26, 2010, dancers worldwide will come together simultaneously in dance to celebrate the universal importance and joy of movement.  In its sixth year, this conceptual event will take place on Friday, March 26, 2010 at noon Pacific Daylight Time (PDT), 3pm EDT (New York, etc) 8pm in Paris, Rome, etc.

Artist and dance anywhere® originator Beth Fein says, “This conceptual public art is an open invitation to all: to stop and dance wherever they will be at noon on March 26th in San Francisco, New York, Paris, Rome and other cities.  dance anywhere® is a public art project and free to all participants.

Since 2005, dance anywhere® has had hundreds of performers participate on the streets, bridges, in schools etc. dance anywhere®  integrates art into everyday public spacesand exposes unsuspecting audiences to dance.  The project also transforms perceptions of where and how art can occur, demonstrating that art does not need to be exhibited in a gallery, and dance does not need to be performed on a stage. It brings everyone’s awareness to the space they are in: the street, the office, the library, the grocery store or park. Anyone is encouraged to participate, and the project involves people of all ages, abilities, nationalities, and backgrounds. 

For more information about participating in dance anywhere® on March 26, 2010 please go to:  

http://www.danceanywhere.org      Email: Beth Fein at bethfein@danceanywhere.org

For more information about the event or photo requests, contact Jennifer Roy at  roykey@mac.com

or 415-706-7644

Bay Area locations for 2010 include:


 Asian Arts Museum

 Berkeley Art Museum

Rockridge BART

Dancers from across the United States from Hawaii, California, Colorada, Mississippi, to Chicago, NY and Pennsylvania (partial list) and around the world including: Argentina, Chile, Sweden, Switzerland, Estonia, Italy, France, Spain, Turkey, England, Ireland, Austalia, New Zealand, and Guinea have all been a part of dance anywhere®.


WHAT: dance anywhere®, a participatory global public artwork—anyone who wants to dance can participate, or as audience, shoot photos or video.

WHEN: Friday, March 26, 2010, at noon in San Francisco

WHERE: Various locations throughout the Bay Area and world


INFORMATION: danceanywhere .com

Now, let’s discuss shall we?

First of all, I have to say that I’m a huge fan of this kind of ambush tactic dancing.  I think people don’t dance enough as it is, and I’ve said before that methods of communication gravitate towards verbal and written modes and we lose touch with the ability to communicate with our bodies even though movement is the first thing we learn as infants (or even in the womb!).  There’s a fascinating paradox when it comes to movement; it is a VAST and infinite language and yet it is the most universal and most accessible.  So why is it engaged so little?  I’m in agreement that some people have a preconceived notion that art has to take place in a venue…that paintings belong on walls and dances belong on stage.  Well, I have two words for those people…Opus Jazz.

It’s kind of a funny coincidence that Opus Jazz, featuring dancers of New York City Ballet (including Craig Hall who I recognize from his cameos in Center Stage.  I had no idea who he was at the time, but he has a very handsome, very striking face!) aired on PBS last night, because while watching it I immediately thought of dance anywhere®.  Opus Jazz was a made for film version of the Jerome Robbins piece, shot on location around New York.  Although I’ve never seen the original, the dances took on a new life in new settings, like an abandoned railyard at sunrise or an open concrete courtyard.  That new life being the distinct breath of the city itself, enabled the dancers to really embody that essence and be a part of the setting in an incredibly intimate way.  My point?  Location, location, location.   Site-specific works are something I was introduced to as an attendee of multiple dances at Ohio State University and through those experiences I began to understand and appreciate even more the connection between setting and choreography.  As much as I love ballet, because it’s a genre so grounded in fantasy, a lot of scenary is relegated to painted backdrops.  Sometimes it’s all a part of the grand design a la Symphonic Variations, but sometimes the voice of the setting itself is so weak it really is “just a background.”  But dance anywhere tells us to take the opportunity to find a new voice in new surroundings, outside of the stage and studio; which is likely to change the way you dance.

It certainly presents a lot of challenges (I’m still befuddled as to how the NYCB dancers reeled off all kinds of pirouettes in sneakers on concrete or dirt) but those challenges are sure to teach our bodies to experience a familiar movement in a new way.  But participation in this project (which I highly encourage because I think it’s amazing to feel like you’re a part of something bigger, even if nobody is there to witness your moment) is not limited to people who understand a certain array of dance vocabulary.  No no…so venture forth and move in any way that feels good (or not) to you and join the collective!

As for me, I was all gung ho about participating and I WILL find a way, but I am a bit limited, thanks to a shoulder injury.  I’m basically a garden statue at this point, but I’m hoping it will loosen up by Friday.  When I tried to think of a location that inspired me, I immediately thought of Ohio State’s Browning Ampitheatre, an outdoor theater built in the style of a Greek ampitheater, with gorgeous, semi-circular stone seating.  I know I just said that dance should be danced away from the stage so an outdoor ampitheater is hardly an original idea, but I adore it all the same and I tend not to fight my impulses (you know anything ancient Greek-esque will inspire me!).  I like what I like and that’s just the reality of it all.  I’m actually more drawn to the seats themselves rather than the stage, so maybe I’ll get some friends to join me and play around there.  Or maybe the very idea of having a plan defeats the whole purpose.  Whatever your cup of tea, be it indoors, outdoors, on a stage-like setting or not, whether your dance is serious or just for fun, find a way to be a part of dance anywhere and document it.  Nobody expects you to create an Opus Jazz though…so enjoy the process, whatever the investment that is for you.

The Browning Ampitheater (photo copyright of its respective owner)

Meanwhile, did anyone else enjoy Opus Jazz as much as I did?  I’m still replaying it mentally like when Alphaville’s Forever Young gets stuck in my head.

Reader Topic: Getting Free Dance Lessons

9 Mar

So I was contacted by a reader who moderates the website http://fr.ee, a website that is solely devoted to getting freebies in life, including how to get free dance lessons.  He suggested that as a topic for my blog and I am happy to oblige…because unsurprisingly, I have opinions on this.  They already have a post that is more focused on ballroom dances like salsa, so I thought I’d tackle styles that I’m either more familiar with or have somehow managed to make its way into my category bar you see to the right.

I must preface by saying that my general views on dance are that it is in essence free.  You can put on some music (or not) and whatever movement you do (or not do) IS dance.  Untrained perhaps, but that doesn’t make it undancelike.  In fact, when I attended Separate Panes at OSU, one of the performers was not quite a trained dancer (a work in progress if you will) and yet he moves sinuously and with purpose.  It was obviously innate to him and Svetlana even mentioned how unfair it was that he danced so beautifully and she is a dance major (and ballet extraordinaire).  Unfortunately not everyone is born with such natural abilities, but dance is also one of those things where you get what you put into it.  If you invest the time and money you will see changes…changes of varying degrees depending on your body and your natural abilities but the point is if you want any change, you need to invest in it.  I promise if you do, dance will find a way to reward you!  At any rate, this is not to say you can’t enjoy a little freebie or two and sometimes that’s all you need to get started.

For free ballet lessons, there are a couple of things you can do.  You can watch videos on YouTube or slightly better, borrow an instructional video from your local library.  Personally, I don’t recommend either because if there’s one dance form that really necessitates being in the studio, it’s ballet.  I realize that some people may not have the confidence and that it can all be overwhelming to show up in a leotard and learn a bunch of new French words.  In that sense, watching a few videos is a good way to relieve some of the anticipation and at least see what some of the basic movements look like.  Even the fact that you can rewind videos can be inhibiting…after all, the art of catching up is a part of learning to dance.  If you’re learning a petite allegro and haven’t mastered all of the little jumps, negotiating with your body to get through it when it’s crunch time isn’t going to happen if you have the luxury of rewinding!

It is possible to get free ballet lessons though…for example, BalletMet, the premiere ballet company in Columbus, Ohio puts in vouchers for one free class in every program that they hand out if you attend a performance.  Getting into the performance for free is a different matter, but the voucher of course is.  If you’re really shady, you can even hang out after a performance and pick up programs people left behind or dig through the trash if you must.  If you’re super-shady, you can even ask if any of your friends are going, ask if you can have their free class and/or have them play raccoon and dig through trash for you.  It’s not glamorous…but it is free.

For jazz classes, my opinion differs a bit.  Pretty much the only way to get a free jazz class is to hope a studio might have a “bring a friend” day or a “first class free” kind of deal and there’s no way to find that out unless you know someone who attends that particular studio (I brought a friend once to a jazz class at OSU…talked to the teacher beforehand and she was cool with it.  Come to think of it, if you are a college student, checking to see if your university offers dance classes is another potential opportunity for free classes.  If you’re already paying full time tuition, why not?).  So talking is your best weapon, but I actually do approve a bit of videos for jazz.  Jazz has some neat tricks and when it comes to learning a trick-type skill, sometimes the “monkey-see-monkey-do” approach works best.  For example, watching videos is how I learned the mechanics of an illusion turn (not that I can do one, but I know how it works thanks to video).  Also, videos online in particular have been a way for innovative moves to be passed around, because unlike ballet, jazz has tons of room for new steps.

When it comes to modern, I believe it’s important to be in the studio (or not) again.  What I mean is it’s important to be somewhere…in a group, in a space, with a someone who can tell you what you’re doing or you can decide what to do, together.  The beauty of modern is that it doesn’t have to be a studio…I love it when dances take place outside.  A great way to get free classes in modern technique though is to keep your ear to the ground for any upcoming festivals, symposiums and workshops.  Modern dancers need income of course, but they are also more eager to spread their ideas, techniques and style than in any other dance form, resulting in some free opportunities.  It can be hard to find your way into the modern community though and my recommendation is to start with a local university with a dance department, since a lot of research happens there and local events often emerge as dance majors and graduate students seek to solidify their voices as they get their degrees.  These are emerging artists that need guinea pigs…volunteers are greatly appreciated.

As for tap classes, I have never taken a tap class but I can offer one unique idea.  I do not joke when I say this, but volunteer at a senior center.  I know someone who did, found out that some of the residents were hoofers and learned from them for what?  For free.  It’s an idea that is full of win-win because the old folks love to have visitors and something to look forward to and you get free tap lessons.  Think about it, this is the generation that grew up watching the likes of Fred and Ginger, Eleanor Powell and that handsome devil Gene Kelly.  For the elderly of today, tap was a BIG DEAL in their day and recreational lessons oh so very common.  This is not to say I think you should find a senior center and interrogate each resident until you find one who can tap…but the opportunity may present itself if you’re already volunteering.  They’re bound to have wonderful stories too about tap dancing in its golden age.

If none of the above works for you…be a man.  Literally.  You’d be surprised what that can get you in the world of dance.

Greek Geek it Out

4 Mar

It has to be said; I’ve yet to see a Frederick Ashton ballet I wasn’t completely in love with.  Hence, I am giddy with excitement for the DVD release of Ondine (scheduled for April 1st, the day before my birthday!) with Miyako Yoshida in the title role and Edward Watson as Palemon.  However, my latest Ashton adventure has been a viewing of Sylvia, with Darcey Bussell and Roberto Bolle.  While I’ve seen clips of both, this is the first full length work I’ve seen them perform in.  I like Bussell a lot; her dancing is so pure and regal.  An elegant ballerina is far from an original concept but Bussell pulls it off with a certain modesty that sets her apart.  And when it comes to Bolle <insert collective dreamy sigh> I get it.  Handsome face with a ridiculously favorable bone structure, tall, long limbed but not gangly and immense amounts of talent for dancing.  Ladies and gentlemen all over the world are utterly enchanted by him; one YouTube user claims that he’s the reincarnation of a Greek god, which is quite an artistic tribute (although Antinous was technically not a god and the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who had a thing for Antinous deified him after his mysterious death.  Take from that what you will!).

Classical mythology is of course perfectly suited for a discussion on Sylvia, since that’s what the story is grounded in.  Unfortunately Sylvia, while loosely based on Torquato Tasso’s play Aminta, doesn’t have much of a plot or substantial character development (I intended to read the play for further insight—didn’t happen).  So the story is very simple and requires no in-depth analysis of the program notes.  Man loves warrior nymph, warrior nymph denounces love.  Warrior nymph kills man, and Eros god of love intervenes. Hunter man kidnaps warrior nymph who now loves man, Warrior nymph gets hunter man drunk, Eros intervenes again.  Lovers reunite, hunter man killed by Diana, Diana about to kill man but Eros intervenes (see a theme?).  The end.  Ashton did his best to flesh out the story a bit but it’s not a riveting plot.  I was interested though, in how at the very beginning when Aminta is in love with Sylvia but she refutes his advances, she shows her disdain in the lifts.  Even though Aminta is the one to lift her, it’s as though she commands him and yet the hunter Orion barely has to touch her and she wilts like a flower.  Aminta does have a transformation (being resurrected by a god will do that to you) and shows more vitality in the end, which was in my opinion, the only significant growth in any character (I wouldn’t count Sylvia because being shot by an arrow of love doesn’t really prove anything).  Weak plot and characters aside, the magic of the ballet is in the score and Ashton’s delightful choreography.  Léo Delibes’s score is effervescent and incredibly difficult as well.  The grand pas de deux between Aminta and Sylvia in Act III sounds like it’s from a violin concerto.

As for Ashton’s choreography…it is of course brilliant.  I’ve mentioned before that Ashton is a genius when it comes to staging dances with props, which aren’t added just for the sake of theatrics but are at times used in cleverly aesthetic ways.  Sylvia has a following of nymphs carrying large bows which are obviously cumbersome and not only do they have to dance with them in hand they have to pull on the strings at certain moments which creates more interesting shapes and lines, in addition to the curvature of the bow itself.  Sylvia is given a dinkier bow, since she has bigger movements to do but the nymphs have considerable dancing to do as well, including a brief moment of fouettés in unison.  Unison fouettés always strikes me as a little too “dance team,” but I love Ashton’s work so I’ll let him get away with it.  I do believe dance team is an American innovation anyway, so I can take comfort in knowing there’s virtually no connection there.  Choreographic intent makes the difference here.  Apologies for harping on dance team a bit…but if you know me you know I firmly believe you can mix business with pleasure but I prefer to keep my art and competition separate.

Another signature of Ashton is to personify animals through dance which he does during a bacchanal (a festival in honor of Bacchus, Roman god of wine) at the Temple of Diana, with two dancers as goats (if it’s a proper bacchanal, little do they know they’re going to be sacrificed at some point during the festivities).  Ashton of course had a wonderful sense of humor, especially to have Sylvia and Aminta perform their virtuosic variations, followed by this pair of dancing goats (you know that joke you do with fortune cookies where you add “in bed” to the end of every fortune?  Try adding “in bed with a goat.”  It makes everything so much funnier).  The goats have quirky, playful movements which are much less literal then the chickens in La Fille, but you can’t help but smile when watching the goat pas de deux.

As for the variations and pas de deux, Bussell showed crisp, clean lines and superb control.  One of the things I love about Ashton choreography is the way he uses smaller steps and movements which don’t always look like the most difficult, even though they often are.  In a lot of other classical variations you’ll typically see ballerinas indulging in huge extensions, big leg kicks, multiple pirouettes or impressive leaps, while in Ashton’s variation for Sylvia you don’t really see any of that.  There’s a lot of little steps and jumps that are perfectly suited to the pizzicato melody played by the strings, which really gives you a sense that Ashton had more concern for the choreography than he did a dancer’s ego.

I also found Aminta’s variation pleasing as well.  For one thing the music is nice and light, as I sometimes find music for male variations to be really heavy on the “oom-pa” (like DonQ, Corsaire, Flames of Paris, etc.).  However, Aminta’s variation has buoyancy without the heavy brassiness.  There’s a wonderful symmetry to the choreography for the variation, since most typically ask a dancer to “show their good side,” but Ashton repeats certain phrases giving it a nice balance and satisfying us neurotics.  He also uses some creative jumps, the way Bolle tucks his leg underneath in the opening diagonal is a nice touch but my favorite step comes after the sequence of cabrioles (which happen right after the first two diagonals of leaps) and he does a variation on the failli-assemblé, except the assemblé has a rond de jambe with the leading leg, opens to second midair and closes to fifth.  If you have no idea what that means, that’s okay…just watch for him to go to the corner, then travel in a diagonal doing a little hop into another jump where the front leg does a wiggly-do.

Obviously, I enjoyed Sylvia a lot.  It’s uncomplicated, light and sweet…like cotton candy.  In bed.  With a goat.

(Sylvia is available in full on YouTube, but the video size seems to be distorted and will drive you crazy.  Getting your hands on the DVD is highly recommended and now that I’ve returned my overdue copy to the Ohio State library, you can!  Or if you’re super lucky, you can see the Royal Ballet perform it this fall.  I will if I win the lottery.)

Looking through the window

1 Mar

A couple of days ago I attended Separate Panes, an MFA project by graduate student James Graham of the Ohio State University.  Of course I had no idea what to expect (and it’s always healthier to approach a modern dance with no preconceived ideas), but what I did know was that it would be an installation in Sullivant Library (which unbeknownst to me is going to be gutted and renovated!).  I have to admit, because of my mischievous spirit, installation type live art is…interesting for me.  I so badly want to take it personally as a challenge to see if I can distract the performers and make them laugh.  I’m the kind of person who upon seeing stilt walkers at a park, feel an insatiable urge to roll grapes along the floor, hopeful that I can get them to slip on one.  Sometimes I really am a horrible person although Coyote, the Trickster God of Native American myth would be so proud.  Nevertheless, to his disappointment, logic and sensibility inevitably suppress these impish urges.  One of the dancers told me she would have liked it if more audience members got in her face and told me I should have, but it was more than likely inappropriate, given the atmosphere.

That atmosphere I refer to had an aura that I described as being reminiscent of The Shining.  Empty hallways but instead of gushing torrents of blood there were paper airplanes scattered on the floor, hanging from the ceilings, piled onto a leprechaun-sized chair that was apparently in an elevator that would open at random intervals, with nothing else inside.  That last bit I didn’t see because it was up to audience members to choose what they wanted to look at and where to traverse, so inevitably there was always something to be missed.  It was pretty overwhelming at first but after walking through several rooms it was no different then the act of living itself.  Is there really such a thing as aware or naïve?  Or is the truth simply that we are simultaneously both and neither?  My conclusion was that the pursuit of omnipotence is completely inane.

The first half was listless and dreamy with a handful of dancers (five, if I recall correctly) doing minimal movements, like tearing pages out of a book or scribbling on the walls with charcoal.  There was a soundscape with no specific phrases of music.  It was unnerving as it was meant to be, although I found solace in one room with hanging windows and these peculiar tree branches suspended from the ceiling with piles of smooth, rounded stones on the floor beneath them.  It was stark save for these branch/stone effigies, that reminded me of that ludicrous phrase where one chants “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”  I don’t know what idiot came up with that, but it’s so far from the truth (well, my truth) because in my experiences words hurt more than anything and while the majority of people learn the harmful effects of physical violence it seems less people understand the potential of their words.  Accordingly, those people choose not to take responsibility for the damage they cause.  The torn pages in that room were distressing, recalling all kinds of psychological pain people have inflicted on me.  I don’t like going to that place, but at the same time I’ve always believed that completely forgetting one’s history is the most foolish thing a person can do.  Physical scars are no big deal; in fact the only ones I have are ones I caused myself.  Obviously unintentional…a burn scar from baking blueberry muffins, a scar from when I stabbed my leg from falling onto a picture frame while I was jumping on the couch…you know.

At any rate, there were a lot of wonderful, unexpected moments and not just within the dance itself.  At one point, I was walking in one room that was divided down the middle with a line of book pages and in the very center of the room was a bathtub with a few votive candles.  While I approached from one side of the room, staring downward, so did another figure except from the opposite side, on the other side of the book page line.  We were both looking down into the bathtub and when we looked up, lo and behold it was my dear friend Svetlana.  It was really neat to experience such a serendipitous moment with her in an unfamiliar setting and in that moment I really felt a transcendence from audience to participant.  Later on this would be further emphasized when I was kicked in the elbow by one of the dancers…but I probably deserved it because of my Coyote-inspired thoughts earlier in the evening.  Karma’s no fool…but I am.

It was around that time that the dancers were divided into a duet and a trio, which again was the audience’s choice to view as they pleased.  I had no idea the trio was even taking place until the duet was finished so I only caught a few glimpses, before they all converged in the “window pane/branch-stone effigy room.”  There, the dancing became more visceral with familiar shapes and physicality.  The once scattered soloists that developed into a duet and trio had now found its apex in this room, dancing with strong relationships to each other by grasping hands and weaving between each other or lifting one another onto each other’s shoulders.  Chaos found a rhythm and at one point they formed a circle and my brain, which so naturally organizes things with meticulous detail had its “Hallelujah!” moment.  I also enjoyed the shadow play (thanks to great lighting design by David Covey), because not only did the shadows provide extra movement, what interested me the most was the contrast between stronger shadows and more diffuse ones and how that changes the relationships between the shadows and yet the relationships between the people remained the same.  One dancer, who I shall call the “destructive force” was intensified at some points by the monstrosity and strength of his shadow, while others were meeker.

I wish  I could recommend attendance of this event, but unfortunately I had gone to the last showing so it’s over.  However, one of the dancers told me that she and James will be performing a duet at the Judson Memorial Church (in New York) on March 22nd.  Other works will be presented and there is also a post performance discussion with Deborah Jowitt.  It’s free, so why not go?  I always love to see modern dances because they teach me just as much about myself as do the styles of dance that appeal to me with more ease.  As much as I love to indulge my sense of humor, it’s healthy to learn or remind myself of other emotions I can feel.

Yay modern.