Tag Archives: signs you’re old

Master Class with Herman Cornejo

24 Sep

Indianapolis is a city in a rather unique situation—the Indianapolis City Ballet is actually trying to establish a regional classical ballet company, which contradicts certain images we harbor of dance companies struggling, making cuts, or folding altogether. In this world where the arts are constantly under attack there seem to be more forces that destroy rather than create, and yet here in the Midwest, a little seed is trying to take root in a land often depicted as far more agricultural than cultured (P.S. Stop that.). And yet it’s here that people are trying—so much so that even non-dancer friends of mine in Indy have taken notice of ICB’s efforts to make their presence known at arts festivals and such. ICB has founded a school, is now looking to develop an audience and I find the prospects exciting—I mean, how often are ballet companies created? It’s like watching the birth of a volcanic island…an obscure but rarefied phenomenon that really begs us to take notice and appreciate the magnitude of what is happening, and just like how a volcanic island can eventually blossom into a tropical paradise, a newly formed ballet company can proliferate into something incredible.

Part of ICB’s efforts include an annual gala that invites internationally acclaimed ballet stars from all over the world, as well as master classes with some of those dancers and other well known teachers. This year, one of the classes was with Herman Cornejo, Argentine dynamo and principal extraordinaire with American Ballet Theatre. Ever since my first pilgrimage to New York in 2012, I’ve seen Herman dance in many roles—and I was never disappointed. In fact, he’s one of the few dancers who have ever exceeded my expectations. I knew him to be great (duh, you don’t get to be a principal with ABT if you aren’t), but watching him live was an experience that can’t be conveyed within the confines of a YouTube screen (though his performance as Puck in the DVD of Ashton’s The Dream comes pretty close to capturing his spirit and it’s well known to be one of his best roles). When I saw him on the list of guest teachers, I figured it’s only a three-hour drive—I’ve done a lot worse—and I like dancers who can do Ashton justice so I figured why not take his class? Okay, and maaaybe, I wanted to make my friend Robin, who’s obsessed with him a little jealous. Or CRAZY jealous…you’ll have to ask her (even though she’s already taken a master class with him in New York, so…we’re even? I don’t know.).

So I signed up, knowing that I’d be the only adult to participate, and the kiddies didn’t disappoint—there were plenty of younglings half my age and less, stretching like rubberbands while I massaged the hell out of my legs after the morning drive. I took a barre spot near the corner, wearing more layers to get warm in all of my senior citizenship glory, slightly horrified by some of the drastic oversplits some of them were doing. When Herman entered the room, he took a few minutes to mark exercises out, which of course set my intellectual gears into motion because while I didn’t have flexible tendons, my brain has always been my asset as a dancer, and I would of course, evaluate what I thought of him as a teacher. Let’s be real, his physique is beautiful for ballet—great line through the legs and feet, nice broad shoulders with good posture. So the question remained—could he teach? The best athletes don’t always make the best coaches and the best dancers not always the best teachers, and I’ve been wary in the past of great dancers who were unable to prove themselves as great pedagogues, so my critical thinking cap was on.

He began with a short warm up facing the barre and went right to tendus in first—at which point I panicked because I thought “where are the pliés?! I need pliés!!!” but those came right after and everything was okay. Actually, everything was great—aside from the slippery floor, which often causes my right calf to have a mind of its own and instinctively develop a charley horse (which I remedied with Tiger Balm, again showing my age as a dancer), Herman gives a comprehensive barre, with nothing crazy, and really stresses correct alignment with square shoulders and hips. “Nothing changes” he would often say, whether you move from fifth to retiré or do a fondu to relevé a la seconde—nothing changes. It reminded me a bit of the Maggie Black philosophies that were filtered down to me through students of hers, to keep the body in neutral alignment and keep things simple. Furthermore, I really appreciated that he respects individual bodies…it would be easy for someone with his physical attributes to say “turn out more, rotate more, stretch more” etc., but he never asked for “more”; he said things like “find your own balance,” which he later explained as important because we all have different things we need to learn to work with—different turnout, leg length, feet, toes, etc. A prime example would be his own feet, which have a superb arch, but he actually trains a super high relevé that goes past the metatarsals because of a freak accident that completely broke his big toe and never healed properly. So bonus points for emphasizing the idea of working with what you have in a way that can be both correct and pain free (and kudos for overcoming that adversity!)


Herman Cornejo (American Ballet Theatre) with his freakish relevé and Misa Kuranaga (Boston Ballet) at the Vail International Dance Festival in Vail, Colorado
Photo © 2012 Erin Baiano

After a brief adagio (something I find to be symptomatic amongst male teachers…not that I mind a short adage), he went through the typical assortment of pirouettes and allegro combinations, all of which were phrased well and quite Romantic, borrowing a few steps from the classical repertory. The first of his petit allegroS (yes, more than one, which gets more bonus points in my book), had a bit of Giselle and Albrecht’s first little romp (which one of my teachers once called “the most notorious 6/8 in the history of ballet), and the second had a bit of James’s first variation from La Sylphide (that wicked brisé volé-ballonné battu-jeté battu thing—I swear, some of the kids went cross-eyed trying to figure that one out, but I loved it). I was having such a great time until grand allegro, which started with my favorite step (the cabriole, the double of which is Herman’s favorite step, but I like mine singular), but then went into double tours of imminent death for the boys. Here’s the thing—I started ballet when I was 23, so I never really properly learned tours en l’air; I can count the number of times on one hand that I ever had teachers give them. They’re simple in theory—jump straight up, spin around two times, land with your feet together, but there’s something about it that my body is so terrified of that I can’t commit to it. Even my singles are wonky because I’m so scared I just want to bail every time, so I settled for doing the preparation into a simple passé relevé and closing in fifth. Kids don’t have this fear—the boys all went for it, but when you’re an adult and you’re not comfortable with a step, it’s okay to say “not yet”—which is far better to do than continue having nightmares about breaking your ankles. Although, I do have to say that Herman pointed out that in the preparation I wasn’t assembling onto two legs, so maybe that’s something I can start with. We’ll see…

Anyway, the class overall was great and for the first master class I’ve ever taken, a hell of a lot of fun. I would’ve preferred repeating the center exercises because we only did them once each (and class still went a little over time!), because Herman gives these great concepts and corrections to think about, like making jumps dynamic and negotiating alignment, but there’s no chance to try it again and really focus on something differently (then again, sometimes I forget that not everyone is the machine that I am). All in all, I’m satisfied with what I accomplished in Indy; I went in wanting to learn something new, dance cleanly and artistically, and I feel I did just that. Honestly, most of those kids had no épaulement, so in some ways, I think my maturity showed in a good way. I could’ve been embarrassed about being 29 amongst a bunch of youths and adolescents, but I chose to see it as something great, that this art form can bridge across generations and bring different people with different backgrounds together for a common purpose. And really, I was like the poster child of minority affairs—I was one of only two non-white dancers, by far the oldest, definitely the worst feet, and considering that I’ve only been dancing for about six years, among those with less time in ballet. But I was proud to represent a different kind of dancer and I hope that any other adults reading this get the message that anything—even a master class with one of the best dancers in the world—is possible, and if ballet is something you enjoy, just do it. Nobody laughed at me to my face and dancers like Herman are exemplary in generosity because he just wants to share the information and his knowledge without judgment, so there’s really nothing to be afraid of (until you get to double tours—that’s legitimate fear right there).

Meanwhile, Indianapolis City Ballet did an interview with Herman after class and they typically post those videos so I’d keep an eye out on their website (http://indianapoliscityballet.org), where you can also click on ‘Media Gallery’ to see interviews with previous guest teachers. I mean, if you want to know the secret to double cabrioles or find out why he likes dancing with Iana Salenko…darn it, I guess you’ll have to wait and keep checking their site for updates.


Proof this actually happened. Photo © Me

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.