Tag Archives: school of american ballet

So long, summer session

14 Aug

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s summer session of classes has drawn to a close and I am beat.  It was immense amounts of fun and I really look forward to taking classes there on a regular basis, but not as much as I have been for you see, I made the mistake of purchasing a twenty-class card without fully recognizing that it would expire in a mere five weeks, thus I had to go to class four times a week to ensure that I got my money’s worth.  Going from not having danced in a year to four (and even five classes a week because I dropped in for a couple of classes at Cornish College of the Arts) was really stupid and I suffered appropriately.

I joke when I say I’m old, but the truth is I’m no spring chicken…those were swarming the sacrosanct chambers of the PNB school, participating in the academy’s prestigious summer intensive program.  Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and full of hope, I couldn’t help but admire their enthusiasm…the kind where you still think you’re invincible and actually need people to tell you how important it is to warm up.  Fact: When you realize you NEED to warm up and when you no longer crave fruit-flavored candy (i.e. Nerds, Airheads, Laffy Taffy, SweetTarts, Skittles, Jolly Ranchers and the like)…YOU ARE OLD.  This is not to say we olden folk don’t enjoy candy…in fact, when you become old, chocolate officially becomes a food group.  However, you notice disturbing things like how when you buy saltwater taffy, none of the flavors are fruity (I went to a shop down by Seattle’s waterfront and the flavors I got were cinnamon roll, pumpkin pie, caramel corn and chocolate chip cookie.  The aversion is scary, isn’t it?).  At any rate, spring chickens…they’re adorable.  Although their enthusiasm was slightly less appreciated when the adult class was over and I was in the process of peeling myself off the floor and they were stampeding in ready to go.  Throw this mid-twenty-something, decrepit tree branch a bone, kitty cats!

I have enjoyed the process of learning School of American Ballet…technique (don’t argue with me, please…I’m not THAT knowledgeable so it’d be like shooting an ocean sunfish in a barrel).  I know I’ve discussed some new ideas that I encountered like the class I took with Peter Boal, but other faculty members are also of course heavy on the SAB training.  They certainly like their jetés at barre (even though they’ll always be degagés to me) and it was difficult getting used to new ways of doing petit allegro.  Oftentimes the teachers would include a stop, like a sous-sus to relevé or just a plain hold after a certain step and that drove me insane.  One of my early coping strategies for petit allegro was to just keep bouncing no matter what (ESPECIALLY Bournonville!) so every time there was a pause of some kind, I kept going even though I knew there was no step to be done.  Isn’t that the story of ballet class though?  How often does the mind know better and yet the body does not obey…

Meanwhile, there is one teacher in particular (who shall remain nameless for no reason) whose class I enjoyed immensely.  It seemed less SAB-y (whatever that means) than others and I really liked the structure of the class.  But have you ever had a teacher who sings while demonstrating every combination?  Oddly enough, it actually helped with remembering the sequence of steps and knowing where to place the accents but it was always the same song.  Slow rond de jambes at barre?  Same song.  Grand allegro?  A variation on the same song.  So now I’ll be walking down the street to the library and surprise, guess what little diddy is stuck in my head—or worse, it’s the kind of thing that like my flute teacher always said of the “augmented scale,” will keep you lying awake at night.  And that it does (this problem is exacerbated by the fact that my iPod is broken).  Who would have thought a ballet teacher could give you insomnia…it almost makes me wish there was a court of some kind just for funsies that would try farcical lawsuits to see what the outcome could have been in a real court.  I’d play.

PNB teachers really know how to dish it though…never have I had so many teachers inflict punishment by virtue of my mortal enemy, the temps de cuisse (which for non-dancer types, is basically a sideways jump from two feet with this little “hiccup” where one foot goes from back to front and then jump.  Sound easy?  SHUT IT.).  Sure, I had a teacher at OSU give it every now and then but at PNB it’s almost every other class and it’s brutal.  I don’t know what it is about this step, but I can never seem to take off of two feet equally so it looks and feels awkward, or during the “hiccup” I’m thinking so much about shaping the foot the jump is already over.  I got some good advice from a tweeter to really stay in plié before going after it and finally, today I actually managed a run through where I had it down…but that was eclipsed by two failures.  I shouldn’t complain though because progress is progress.

Oy, I have to tell you though the class this morning was rough.  Maybe it was because it was the last class of the summer but it was freakin’ hard.  A really intense barre, oodles of center work, multiple allegros (with the aforementioned step of Satan, the temps de cuisse) and guess what the teacher ended class with…(and say this in your most ominous, master-of-the-universe voice possible) the ENTRECHAT SIX (courtesy of ABT’s online dictionary).  Maybe this is pathetic, but I can actually remember exactly three instances of encountering this beastly little jump in class: One, the teacher said we could do it and nobody did because we thought she was joking; Two, the teacher asked for it and WAS joking; Three, the teacher had us try ONE at the end of a jump sequence.  Today, we were asked for eight in a row (fortunately, with a life saving sous-sus in between…though a trampoline would have been better) and I almost died.  Maybe I even died and came back to life, but I’m pretty sure I was not all that successful—there may have been some cheating with a royale or entrechat quatre thrown in.  As much as I suffered, in retrospect I’m glad the teacher had us do it.  I recognize the danger of complacency and I’m not always one to test my limits on my own.

One of my limits is the SAB way of pirouetting though.  When doing a pirouette en dehors, they like a straight back leg in fourth position and to pull the arms into a compact position.  I was always taught to plié on both legs and bring the arms to first.  Neither way is wrong, but what I like about the way I was taught is that when you spring up from two legs, you’re moving the whole torso in one piece, whereas I’ve found with the straight back leg, there’s a tiny little contraction that has to happen in order to bring the pelvis completely underneath you.  That little shift has a tendency to wreak havoc on me and there’s always the chance that I can adjust and eventually adapt but what I’ve also noticed in people who use that preparation is that they often have a harder time finishing a pirouette on relevé or finishing in a clean fifth position…I think it’s the snappiness of the preparation that makes it difficult.  For me, there have been days where I have had some really satisfying single pirouettes, leading to clean doubles and I don’t want to fix what isn’t broken.  I guess this is the big dirty secret as an adult student of ballet and probably the worst thing I could divulge but you don’t always have to do everything a teacher asks you to do.  Sometimes, you’re allowed to do what works for your body (and more importantly, your mind).

Looking back I think this post may come off as a roasting of PNB but that’s not my intention.  Even if it is I would do so with great love because I LOVE taking classes at PNB.  It’s kind of like getting to peek in on the company class every now and then…sure it’s a little creepy, but I watch in awe with complete admiration.

Staging a Comeback, Part II

10 Jul

My attempt to revitalize my limited ability to dance continued with a class with Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ballet master, Paul Gibson.  I suppose it should be mentioned that a friend and I also went to a hip hop class today at Velocity Dance Center in Capitol Hill, but my hip hop ventures should never be discussed publicly.  I do pride myself on being someone who will try anything once, or even try something, fail and repeatedly try again.  The idea that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results has merit for me…but I’m pretty sure this is last call for that genre.  It hurts in ways I don’t enjoy.  However, I may return to Velocity for a modern class someday.  They have ballet too, but I didn’t see any barres which disturbed me.

Mr. Gibson’s (I feel like it’s weird to write “Mr.” but we’re not on a first name basis…Master Gibson is too Jedi reminiscent…Sir? Duke? Lord?) class yesterday was absolutely wonderful though, and much closer if not exactly what I’m used to.  His bio at PNB’s website says he did do summers at School of American Ballet and danced with San Francisco Ballet before joining PNB.  I’m guessing his training is perhaps more well rounded, as San Francisco Ballet is more comprehensive in terms of the styles/techniques they perform, e.g. they are one of the few American companies to include Ashton and MacMillan works in their repertory (begin countdown to San Francisco Ballet’s revival of Symphonic Variations…207 days to go!).  Oddly enough, Lord Gibson also omitted pas de cheval and grand rond de jambe en l’air, which I didn’t think were necessarily too advanced (I take my grand rond de jambes at 45 degrees to work on placement anyway) but perhaps it’s all just coincidence.  Although on second thought, perhaps men, who tend to have less range of motion compared to women find grand rond de jambe en l’air less fun to do.

What I did find interesting is that despite Sir Gibson’s history with SAB and PNB, one of the corrections he gave was to really lengthen through the wrist in a straight line, which I always thought was more of an English thing.  Especially at SAB where they do the hyper extended fingers and such it surprised me that his aesthetic aimed for a purer line.  I’m okay with it though because it’s my preference too but there were some obviously PNB trained dancers in the class who did what they were used to.  If the wrists and hands weren’t a dead giveaway the arabesques certainly were.  Those dancers had really open hips in their arabesque which Balanchine’s ladies are notorious for and while I understand the appeal of a higher arabesque, I still like one that is as square as possible.  The open hip tends to splay out the torso as well and I think it kind of flattens the arabesque thus making it two dimensional.  When the pelvis is more square, then the arabesque has a three dimensional depth to it.  Neither is wrong, just different, but I will say that I still think a square arabesque is better for a promenade or a pirouette.  I’m also convinced that that open of a hip in arabesque makes it impossible to maintain turn out on the standing leg and at best, step onto a parallel leg in a pique arabesque.

I was really pleased that Baron Gibson gave a lot of little jumps, with a warm up of little jumps and two additional petite allegro combinations after that.  By that point in class I was kinda sorta feeling really good and was all “I got this!” and decided to try a little batterie in the assemblés and jetés.  It’s funny because this used to be my least favorite part of class, then one day I decided not to hate them and they became infinitely better for me (power of positive thinking!).  I’m not an adagio dancer nor am I a formidable grand allegro jumper but sometimes I feel like I’ve found a home in petite allegro.  One of my former teachers would have us repeat an allegro and then an optional third time with a faster tempo, which wasn’t always successful for me but I always wanted to try.  Of course yesterday I was practically wheezing after the second run through so I was in no shape to do such a thing but it brought back fond memories.  I think I see petite allegro now like puzzles and it’s fun for me to put the pieces together (I was one of those kids whose parents never bought actual toys, just brainteasers or books so such things still delight me).

Probably the oddest moment of the day was when Earl Gibson had us do a series of battement fondu (basically, leg kicks for those of you unfamiliar with ballet terminology) across the floor.  This wouldn’t strike you as something strange but then the pianist started playing One from A Chorus Line and all of a sudden it was this ritzy, jazz baby moment.  If that doesn’t make you want to break into song I don’t know will (and some people didn’t refrain from a little singing.  Although nobody sang when the pianist was playing Sixteen Going on Seventeen from The Sound of Music, but I would be thoroughly impressed by anyone who could manage to sing during a  frappé combination).  I love to have fun in class as much as the next whacko but this time had me actually trying to stifle a huge Broadway grin in addition to the urge to find a gold sequined top hat to complete the look.  It was unfair.

Class ended with a fun grand allegro (although I thought attempting cabrioles might’ve been pushing it for the day) and the combination ended with a saut de chat, for which Count Gibson didn’t specify arms and you know me, when it comes to this age old question I always have to ask.  The gentlemen had to have their arms in écarté or effacé but the ladies also had the option of going to third.  He said he would never have the men leap with their arms in third so indeed he doesn’t have a wild side like Karen Eliot.  And they say chivalry is dead…

All in all, I had a most wonderful, eye opening time taking class from PNB’s elite instructors and hope they do something like this again.  Maybe next time I’ll make the subtle suggestion of bringing back Dances at a Gathering ASAP.  I really considered writing it on a t-shirt, but I don’t know what kind of sense of humor these people have.

It’s okay to laugh in ballet

4 Feb

I find it hard to believe that anything could be more important in life than laughter.  So today’s post is all about ballet and comedy…ballemedy if you will.  Especially in a world is so grounded in tradition and formalities I think humor is often overlooked in ballet and it’s important to remind ourselves to think of humor as a completing element; nobody is truly human without it (is that not the essence of this blog…or of my life for that matter?).  Dancers themselves don’t always take things so seriously but when we see this scrupulously polished finished product on the stage, we forget that fact as the performers whisk us away into a world of fantasy and splendor.  So I present to you some evidence that ballemedy is alive and well, kicking us in the gut so we double over in laughter:

The first is a piece entitled Le Grand Pas de Deux, with choreography by Christian Spuck (the resident choreographer of the Stuttgart Ballet).  The music is Gioachino Rossini’s overture from his opera La gazza ladra (or The Thieving Magpie).  A fine piece with plenty of furious strings and a flittering piccolo melody that sounds like fun (although I’d rather shoot myself then play piccolo again.  While the piccolo itself is very cute, playing it can feel like trying to squeeze your face through a keyhole).  The overture certainly inspires a comedic air and is often used as such in popular culture, like that video on youtube of cats doing funny things…it should come as no surprise that the overture makes a fine incidence of ballemedy as well.  So Le Grand Pas de Deux debuted in 2000 (to who knows what kind of reviews…and who cares anyway?  It’s a great piece) and has all kinds of giggle-worthy moments.  I love that there’s a cow in a tutu onstage, wonderful little touches of odd looking choreography amongst a dazzling array of classical steps.  It’s one of those pieces that you can’t imagine would ever be boring for the performers.  Especially for such professionals I would think it would even be therapeutic to be able to take to the stage and get a laugh every now and then, amongst the plethora of applause, flowers and even tears.  There are a few performances of this on YouTube, of them I most enjoyed  Julia Krämer and Robert Tewsley of the Stuttgart Ballet:  

Next we have a gala…performance (not quite a piece) with lots of cross-dressing, role reversals and a large hammer.  This came from the World Ballet Festival in Tokyo, where principals from top companies all over the world gathered to dance like they never have before.  You have Vladimir Malakhov as Giselle, partnered by Diana Vishneva as Count Albrecht and Malakhov is surprisingly proficient at pointe, a rare talent for a danseur.  Their lifts were absolutely breathtaking and set a new standard for dancers aspiring to perform the principal roles.  Aren’t you glad my last post was about Giselle so you know what I’m talking about?  Moving on, the gala performance included many famous variations like the Bluebird variation from Sleeping Beauty (with a tragic end) but they saved the fireworks for last; Natalia Osipova doing the male variation from The Flames of Paris.  With a giant hammer (of which I couldn’t discern the purpose of such an implement, but if I know Japan, I know they love their giant hammers.  Purpose?  Not necessary.).  The crowd goes nuts when she leaps onto the stage, ascending to heights that earn her own strata in Earth’s atmosphere that is aptly named the Osipovasphere.  I’m amazed that she basically does the male variation in its entirety (with a few interpolations…although I highly doubt she’s incapable of a pas de ciseaux, aka “switch leap”).  Great to see her get to jump in regular ballet shoes instead of pointe shoes as well…that has to be liberating.  Enough talk, now video:

For the last shred of ballemedy I would like to draw your attention to a former ballet dancer, Megan Mullally.  Prior to her days (much prior, actually) as the martini soaked, piccolo-voiced Karen Walker on the NBC sitcom Will and Grace, Mullally was in fact a soloist with the Oklahoma City Ballet when she was in high school, dancing with them for five years and attending summer intensives at the School of American Ballet.  During interviews in promotion of the remake that must not be named (Fame), Mullally recalled her experiences at SAB (housed in the Juilliard building), talking about how strict and disciplined it was and how old Russian ladies would say mean things while wearing sunglasses (“Make plié!” Perhaps?).  It was the acting in ballet that she was most drawn to and actually inspired her to leave ballet and pursue acting as a career instead.  But you know what they say…you can take the dance out of a dancer but you can’t take the dancer out of…mmmkay.  You know what they say.  At any rate, in more recent years she became a fan of SYTYCD and even had the nerve to skip a meeting for her own talk show that was set to premiere, just to attend the finale.  For which, not only did she not have a ticket, she was also busted for snapping photos inside, which they so kindly announced over the intercom: “Ladies and gentlemen, Megan Mullally is in the house and she’s taking pictures illegally.”  She obviously continues to enjoy dance, even if it isn’t the main priority in her life and it’s funny where your past experiences can take you.  We all know the benefits of having experience in dance because it develops internal rhythm and musicality, but whoever thought such talents could be called upon in a situation like this:

Oh Megan.  How I heart you.  My friend Liz said that she hopes Megan was paid a lot for that (a shorter, edited version ahs been hitting the television waves as a commercial), to which I merely replied, “Hell, I’d do that for free!” (and videotaping?  Not necessary).  Clearly, Liz has also forgotten what it’s like to go grocery shopping with me in the first place.