Ballet @ Home: First Finis Jhung DVD Review!

Argh, slacking again!

I have so many topics I’ve been meaning to blog about: our studio’s annual show, an open adult ballet class I took in Cambridge, my review of a new pair of ballet slippers, and news of an upcoming giveaway (yayyyyy, free stuff!).

Hopefully I’ll get around to all of that.

But today I’m going to do a DVD review for all you living room ballerinas and danceurs out there!

I had heard of Finis Jhung from one of my dance teachers who has taken his workshops in the past. She enjoys using some of his music in class (which I affectionately refer to as “the creepy circus music,” but that’s another story!) and spoke very highly of his teaching methods. I’d love to go to NYC and take one of his classes in person, but since I haven’t been able to do that I figured putting a couple of his DVDs into my Netflix queue was the next best thing.

Coincidentally the first one, “Level 1: Barrework for Beginners,” arrived just as summer session at the studio was starting. Yesterday was day 3 of said session. The 4.5 hours of dance over the two days prior following a good three weeks off was telling on me! So… I wasn’t TOO disappointed when my commute got me home a tiny bit too late to make it to ballet. But… since I had this DVD at home I figured I’d give it a try to make up for my missing class.

Now, I’m not a huge fan of DIY ballet. I think the best place to learn is in a studio with a proper floor, mirrors, space, etc., with a qualified teacher. But I understand that’s not always available to everyone and that not all “beginner” classes cater to true beginners and that some people just want to have an adjunct way to practice at home. If any of those categories include you, I highly recommend this DVD.

It’s 90 minutes long, so about the length of a regular ballet class, but it is, essentially, all-barre. If you’re new to ballet or just looking to get back to basics (or, like me, have very limited non-carpeted space in which to practice) this fits the bill perfectly.

It’s divided into 16 (?) exercises. Each exercise is named so you can see the words written out. Finis introduces each exercise and explains not only what the combination is, but why it’s important to dancers, and mistakes to watch out for. Then his assistant, Jennifer, joins him to demonstrate the exercise full-out while he talks her through it and makes corrections.

Jennifer clearly knows her way around a dance studio, but I found her to be a lovely demonstrator. She’s good, but not pro-perfect. Strong, but not a twig. Okay, I actually just Googled her and it looks like she is a professional modern dancer. Obviously has a ballet background, but it’s not her main thing.

The exercises start at the very basic-basic level with what he calls “Number One” which is basically learning proper posture. He references it throughout the DVD to remind the home dancer to maintain that posture through all the exercises. He then introduces turn-out with an exercise that teaches the dancer how to find his/her own natural turn-out and does a basic exercise incorporating that movement with some pliés and rélevés. Then he gets more into the plié concept in kind of a non-traditional way by using a super-wide second. From there it moves into more traditional barre elements of battements tendus, dégagés, port de bras, fondus, and grand battements.

Everything is very slow and methodical, but if you’re an absolute beginner the speed is just right. Don’t worry, if you’re doing everything properly you will work up a bit of a sweat. Finis emphasizes good technique throughout, reminding you to test your balance by letting go of your barre, seeing if you can lift your heel a bit to make sure your weight is placed properly, checking in a mirror to make sure you are maintaining a square center, keeping abs engaged, breathing, shoulders down, etc. He offers tips for correction that are pretty universal and understandable.

Now, of course, I’m not a beginner, so I guess I’m not the best person to tell you whether this is truly accessible to an absolute beginner. But having taught an absolute beginner class I felt that the elements were just about right. If I were still teaching I’d definitely incorporate many of his ideas. If you happen to be a teacher this would be a helpful DVD to have in your library!

As a more advanced dancer, I still felt like I still got a lot out of this. It gave me new ways to think about certain concepts and ideas to take into the studio to correct some bad habits or fix some of the things I find challenging.

So overall, while nothing beats a real class, this DVD comes remarkably close.

Pros: Clear instruction, good demonstration, nice explanations, and helpful corrections. Introduces steps in a way that isn’t overwhelming, but still gets an absolute beginner through most of what would be included in a basic barre.

Cons: The “scenery” isn’t terribly attractive and it kind of looks like it was filmed on a ’90s era camcorder (I think the copyright date is 2002, so it is a teensy bit dated). Depending on your “home studio” set-up, it may be difficult to find a space where you can set up a “barre” and see yourself in the mirror. And speaking of the barre, it would be really helpful if you had a real barre, which most people don’t.

Stay tuned for a review of Level 2: Barrework for Advanced Beginners!

You’re never too old to stop learning about dance

Even if you’re an icon in the business!

This video of Carmen de Lavallade has been making the rounds lately:

I love where she talks about struggling with not being able to do part of a dance the way she wanted to because her legs just didn’t work the same way anymore… both how she realized that, hey, it’s a solo, so no one is going to know if you change it, but also that by changing it she learned something more about the piece.

Just goes to show that no matter the challenges we encounter in the dance studio, whether 3 or 83, there’s always something to learn and a new way to grow.

If you find this interesting you should seek out the DVD “Carmen & Geoffrey,” a documentary about de Lavallade and her husband. They are both tremendous artists and a very cool couple!

Emeralds, Rubies, and Diamonds…

But why no sapphires?!?!

Why did you shun my most favorite of jewels, Mr. B? I think it would have rounded out the piece quite nicely, no?

*sigh*

As you have probably guessed, I finally saw George Balanchine’s iconic “Jewels” (1967). Boston Ballet wrapped up their 2013-2014, 50th anniversary season with it, and in doing so served to fill in a major hole in my ballet education!

The build-up to the show was nearly on par with the Nutcracker. Lia Cirio leaping in her “Rubies” costume has been plastered all over taxis and buses and such in Boston for months now. Meanwhile, “Pricked” was pretty much not advertised at all. Curious decision on their part.

My ballet companion for the evening and I got into town early enough to catch the pre-curtain talk. I was surprised to see so many people in attendance. Usually there is only a large handful of people in the audience, but there was probably twice the typical number for this one. The curtain was open giving us a sneak peak of the “Emeralds” backdrop, a cool, pale green backdrop with large green jewels pasted on it in an intricate design. The wings were draped in white. Very elegant feel, even if it gave me the impression more of peridots (a stone I am well-acquainted with, being an August baby!) than emeralds. The other thing we noticed was that there almost appeared to be a large stain in the middle of the backdrop, like the guy in charge of creating the backdrop spilled his beer while pasting stones on it or something. I’m guessing it was probably more likely the shadow of the “Rubies” backdrop behind it, but it was kind of distracting and shabby-looking.

Shannon Parsley, BB’s ballet master, led three BB dancers onstage to the chairs lined up across the front. These dancers represented a cross-section of the company and included Erica Cornejo, Principal; John Lam, Soloist; and Paul Craig, Corps de Ballet. Ms. Parsley gave a brief(ish) recap of the season for anyone who had been asleep for the past six months. I wanted her to wrap this part up a bit more quickly. Honestly, the people who are going to show up for the pre-curtain talk are most likely going to be the avid fans who already have a clue what the company is up to and don’t need the monotonous summary of where they’ve been and what they’ve done. But… this probably is standard protocol for these things, so I tried to sit attentively and not fidget.

They then moved to the dancers who each talked about one of the pieces: Cornejo discussed “Emeralds,” Lam “Rubies,” and Craig “Diamonds.” Probably the most poignant part was when Cornejo, who danced in “Jewels” the last time BB presented it (in 2009, I think?) discussed that this is one of her first major ballets after returning to the stage post-baby. She dances the role of the “walking ballerina” in “Emeralds,” which is a role of someone who has lost her love, very emotional, but that becoming a mother has given her additional emotional fuel. She teared up on stage talking about it! Lam talked a bit about the energy required for the jazzier “Rubies” and Craig discussed the Imperial Russian feel that “Diamonds” demands.

After a few questions we were dismissed and went to indulge in overpriced cheap cabernet sauvignon and pretzel twists. Dinner of champions!

Then it was back to the theatre to our assigned seats to settle in for “Emeralds.” Ashley Ellis and Yury Yanowsky were the… happy couple (?), while Lia Cirio was the “walking ballerina” with Lasha Khozashvili was her partner. I haven’t really formed much of an opinion of Yanowsky before, other than the fact that I thought he bore a passing resemblance to Grégory Fitoussi (I’ve been thoroughly sucked into the world of Mr. Selfridge and the character of Henri Leclair, with his broody eyes and heart-melting smirk, may have been a small part of that obsession… I am completely at a loss now that the season is over!). But I love that Yanowsky is one of the few dancers who started with the company in the ’90s. In fact, he’s surpassed two decades with BB. That alone makes me fond of him. In such a youth-obsessed world, he’s showing the poise and elegance that an experienced dancer brings to the stage with no signs of disintegrating technique. Ellis looked radiant paired with him.

Lia Cirio seemed to lose herself in this one, which I liked… in some ways. “Emeralds” seems to have a rather refined feel to it, with the exception of this one couple that seems to wander through as if lost. Cirio threw herself into the role with abandon, but at times it felt like it was teetering on the edge of losing complete control. I suppose that’s the line one tries to balance on and she managed to keep from crashing over on the wrong side of the line.

And then the pas de trois. The casting was terrific and I’ve decided I really like that Isaac Akiba kid. Doesn’t hurt that he’s a home-grown dancer from BBS. He’s got a youthful look to him that lent itself nicely to the playful feel of the pas de trois, but behind that exterior is a very solid technique. I expect he’ll be growing through the ranks in the coming years.

After intermission, in which I supported the local economy by purchasing a Jewels tee (it was 3/4 sleeved and boatneck, trés cute!) and we made the rounds of the audience to find the other people we knew, we were treated to the jazzy “Rubies” set to music by Stravinsky. I guess this was supposed to be a bit of a tribute to Broadway, though perhaps Bernstein might have been a better composer?

So maybe a minute into the piece we hear this clacking. At first ballet companion and I thought that maybe the dancers had REALLY rosined up their shoes and were sticking to the marley… but then we realized that it was their costumes! The gigantic red stones on the skirts clacked together as they moved and made a tremendously distracting racket. Has it always been that way? Does it drive the dancers bananas to have to wear those? I know it would annoy the heck out of me!

Aside from that, I did like the energy in this one. I tend to like very active dancing with lots of jumps and non-traditional movements. Jeffrey Cirio and Misa Kuranaga were the central couple on the day I was there and, of course, I love them… though somehow I didn’t feel that this piece highlighted their chemistry and talents as well as other roles I’ve seen them in. Hmph.

After second intermission came — duh — “Diamonds” set to music by Tchaikovsky for the Imperial Russia experience. This one was impressive for the sheer number of dancers that are featured. Kathleen Breen Combes and Alejandro Virelles were the lead couple and can I tell you… I have a crush on Alejandro’s feet. My ballet companion had told me in advance to look out for them, but I don’t think I could have missed them. Ugh… makes a girl totes jeals. What a line! Breen Combes was absolutely lovely… until the very end. She is somehow both down-to-earth and totally elegant at the same time. She shows a level of maturity and grace that is lovely to watch. But something happened in the last few minutes. Not sure if she injured herself or if her shoe died a spectacular death, but I could tell she was struggling at the end. I feel so bad when I see that happen to dancers, especially lovely ones like her! I would guess, though, that if I were not a balletophile I probably would not have noticed. She kept going, masking any fumbles quite well. I did notice that the dancers were wearing white pointe shoes in this one, and I wondered if that contributed to the problem. Unlike the boatloads of pink shoes that the dancers can rifle through to find the right ones, I’m guessing there are only a few pairs of shoes in white, so the dancers might end up with something they consider less than ideal… just a theory on that one! I actually found the shoes distracting… might have liked them more if they were wearing white tights, as well, but I found it just interrupted the lines.

So, that was “Jewels.” Like most masterworks, I would need to see it a few times to truly absorb what all was going on and cement my opinion of the piece. As of now, “Serenade” is in no danger of being dethroned as my favorite Balanchine piece, but there were elements of this that I really appreciated. One thing I love in nearly all of Mr. B’s pieces is how he set steps to the music. Like many dancers, I have a tendency of choreographing dances in my head when I hear music, and it can be challenging when being choreographed ON and feeling that what you’re being asked to do doesn’t match with the music. Mr. B’s choreography matches what I hear in the music… so I feel some sort of bond with him over that, I guess!

And finally I’ll leave you with BB’s videos. First up is corps member Roddy Doble giving his thoughts on the pieces:

And now some snippets of the performances! This features the same cast I saw, but not sure if it’s from the same show or not.

Happy Early Birthday… to ME!

Eeeeeeeekkkkkk!!!!

I did it.

I just ordered my own birthday present.

Keep in mind that my birthday is three months away still.

But.

Yeah.

So…

Ever since I found out that there are summer intensive programs for non-kids I’ve been dying to do one.

Sun King is my dream program because, seriously, how cool is that? A week full of ballet, pointe, pilates, modern, repertoire, partnering, etc. Even in big metropolitan areas it’s hard to find that sort of training geared towards people outside the pre-pro crowd. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t want to be able to experience that stuff, at least once!

Well, I don’t think I can swing Sun King financially quite yet, but…

There’s this.

Which I’ve been thinking about for a while.

While I was at the Boston Opera House before “Jewels” this past weekend (post to come on that!) I spied a table of BBS brochures including one for the ASDP.

I picked one up and since then it’s been staring at me from my kitchen counter, challenging me to make a decision already. I knew that by procrastinating I was effectively making the decision of “no” and I wasn’t sure I’d be happy about that unless I had a well thought-out reason why I shouldn’t.

The reasons I put it off before don’t hold this year. Our ballet company isn’t doing a summer ballet, so I wouldn’t be missing any key rehearsals or performances. I wouldn’t have to take time off work since it’s a few miles down the road from my office and takes place in the evenings. And one of my friends did it in the past and said it was good, and supposedly they’ve revamped the program for this summer to be even better.

And… just… why not?

Are there more reasonable things to do with my money?

Probably.

Will this make for some rather long days during those two weeks?

I can only imagine.

But would I regret it if this turned out to be the one time I got to do this and talked myself out of it?

Hells, yeah.

So… if you’re looking for me some evening in the beginning of August, you can find me wrapping up this year of my life at BBS.

Once more I say:

Eeeeeeekkkkk!!!

Get Pricked

Boston Ballet is wrapping up their home season this coming week. Boo, hiss. But they are going out with a bang, presenting their last two shows back-to-back. Gotta be hell for the dancers, but good for those of us in the audience!

First up was Pricked, an evening of mixed rep.

The first piece on the bill was also the oldest: “Études” (1948) choreographed by Harald Lander originally for the Royal Theatre Copenhagen. BB has had it in their rep since ’88. They used a photo from “Études” for the cover of the subscriber folder which shows dancers at the barre in silhouette against a blue-lit backdrop. I loved the idea of a ballet that highlights some of the more routine parts of a dancer’s life, so I was looking forward to seeing this one. It was a full company piece with over 40 dancers featured at various points.

It starts out with this adorable segment of dancers at a long barre executing various tendus, dégagés, ronds de jambes, etc. The way it is lit you can really only see the legs and arms; everything else appears to be in the shadows. This lends itself to some really cool moments, but unfortunately for this to be truly stellar it needs to be majorly, majorly in sync. One foot turned out at a slightly different angle or someone rond de jambing with a slightly different accent makes it look a bit off. But, then again, that is reality, so… From there it progresses into the silhouette scene. And then the barres eventually go away and it goes through the other ballet class elements, but of course with fancier clothes, billion-times better technique, and without that one person who is perpetually going the wrong way and looking lost.

I feel like there wasn’t too much to say about this one. It’s neat to watch especially for anyone who studies ballet and has some pretty elements. The number of people in it is pretty spectacular. But placing it in the same show as “D.M.J.” and “Cacti” leads to it inevitably getting short shrift. Not really sure how this one fit into the “Pricked” theme. I felt like this might have been better placed in a show with perhaps more neo-classical stuff. Not sure.

Second on the program was “D.M.J. 1953-1977″ (2004) by Zuska, originally premiered by the National Theatre Brno of the Czech Republic. This was BB’s premiere of the work and — according to the program notes — they are the first North American company to perform it. This piece was much more my speed in terms of the raw emotion it displayed. It opens with with a man standing practically on the apron in front of a black curtain next to an object we assume represents a grave of some sort. Lasha Khozashvili was the male lead on the evening I was there and the pain he displayed was palpable. The curtain rises to show couples across the stage on what appear to be small platforms. They dance in unison in a nearly ritualistic sort of dance. Lia Cirio was the female lead and, I assume, is meant to represent the lost love. Cirio and Khozashvili seem to search for one another through this sea of dancers.

As the piece progresses the platforms (which I guess are actually super-thick mats of some sort) are used as props in a way. At one point they are lined up to create a wall which dancers peek over (the audience thought this was funny, though I’m not sure it was meant to be so). At another they are lined up and one gets pushed over to create a giant domino effect. Then, at the end, they are set up in a way that creates a giant sofa of some sort.

At that end Cirio and Khozashvili, almost literally, lay bare their emotions. The other dancers are gone. Up until that point the corps seemed to represent friends, perhaps, of the leads. They seem to mourn at various points, and yet their dances almost represent the challenge that those of us on the periphery of mourning experience: sadness, yet enough distance that our main focus remains navigating our own lives (and, in this case, loves). Inevitably, those at the center of the loss are left to process it alone. And that’s where this piece concludes. The leads are now wearing nude costumes and there is a pile of roses in front of the giant mat-sofa-thing. They dance together as if fighting against the inevitable. It was truly moving and the two leads were masterfully cast. I’m not always Lia’s biggest fan. I mean, I think she’s a tremendous dancer, but some roles I’ve seen her in just don’t seem to fit. In this, though, she and Lasha gave a heart-wrenching performance. Truly moving.

I was curious about the title, whether the initials and dates might have represented someone the choreographer had lost, but apparently the “D.M.J.” part is simply the initials of the last names of the three composers whose music was used in the piece. Hm.

The final piece of the evening, and the one which most obviously contributed to the “Pricked” title (though those roses in the second piece helped) was “Cacti” (Ekman, 2010). This was another BB premiere. The piece was first performed by Lucent Danstheatre in the Hague, Denmark.

“Cacti” was, by far, my favorite of the evening, if for no other reason than the energy of the piece. You can experience some of that energy here:

The costuming in this was pretty androgynous so you couldn’t always tell from the audience who were the girls and who were the guys. I kind of liked this because it showed that the female artists can (and do) perform with the same level of raw intensity that the men can. We spend so much time trying to make ballet look pretty that it’s awesome to see that those same ethereal-looking dancers can rage with the best of ‘em.

There was a fair amount of humor interspersed throughout this piece from the voice-overs to some of the scenery elements (including a cat that fell out of the rafters and a male dancer lying down holding a cactus that may or may not have appeared slightly phallic). That being said, there were a few people in the audience that either indulged in too much champagne at the bar or who had a really low threshold for amusement because they were roaring throughout nearly the whole thing and I wanted to find them and tell them to kindly STFU, already. Then again, I might be guilty of taking my ballet-going self a bit too seriously. Who knows.

Regardless, it was a highly energetic and entertaining way to end the evening. While I wasn’t sure how well all of the pieces fit together in one bill, it did manage to demonstrate the incredible breadth and talent that BB has. To have the same dancers go from the very technical and classical “Études” to banging their hands on the floor in “Cacti” shows that BB is a force to be reckoned with.

I’ll also put in a plug for their very awesome t-shirt designers. The tee for this show managed to encompass both beauty and edginess.

Pricked Tee

Though it’s hard to see in this picture it also has an Anne Brontë quote printed along the bottom of the design that fits right in with the theme: “But he who dares not grasp the thorn Should never crave the rose.” Love it!

The Pilobolus Experience

Well, hello, again, dear reader. I really need to get on top of posting when things are still relevant rather than a month after the fact, but better to post late than not at all, eh?

So, last post I talked about going to see Pilobolus perform.

Which is an experience.

But the Pilobolus Experience can only truly be gained when you get to dance with Pilobolus!

Yeah, don’t get all excited here, it’s not like I was discovered while I was walking out of the theatre or anything.

BUT!!!

The director of our studio/company had contacted them around the time she got our tix and asked if they would be willing to offer a master class while they were in town. And they said yes!!!

Woot!

So the day after we got to see them on stage we poured into the big studio at our school to get schooled by Matt Del Rosario and Nile Russell, the dance co-captains of Pilobolus. Eek!!!

We ended up having over 30 students attend the class. Many were from our school, but we also had students from other local studios (some of our teachers have gigs at other schools and had put the word out). While a ballet class with that many people would have been weird, it was great to have such a crowd for something like this. The ages ranged from probably 11-ish to 50-something (one of our ballet teachers who had originally come to “just watch” decided that she wanted to participate which was AWESOME!). Matt and Nile passed the word to warm ourselves up because there wasn’t going to be some sort of choreographed, warm-up nonsense here! (Not their exact words, just… you know.)

Once the majority of the crowd had trickled in we sat in a giant circle and they gave us a brief intro of themselves and what to expect over the following two hours. There would be no choreography. There would be a lot of movement. We should push ourselves beyond what we’re used to.

So the class opened up with us just walking around the studio, trying to avoid that old skating rink standard of going around and around the room in a monotonous circle, but trying to find holes in the crowd, explore open spaces, notice something about the space you might not have paid attention to before. We were asked to pick up speed, to (obviously) avoid collisions… but without saying anything. Now this got a little funny because they’re telling us to make eye contact, learn how to negotiate spaces with your fellow dancer, etc. and there were a lot of people who still insisted on staring at the floor and looking terrified. I found this kind of hilarious because IRL I can collapse into that shell of, “I don’t know you, don’t look at me, leave me alone,” but in this setting I’m all, “Hey, kid, I don’t bite, I swear… we’re all in this together, look at me, smile, it’s FUN goddammit!!!”

But I think part of it, aside from the wide range of ages in the group (being honest with myself, I totally would have been a floor-starer if I had been taking this class 20 years ago!), is that there’s awkwardness being in a dance studio with so many strangers. Some of it is just normal jitters, but I think, too, for better or worse in the dance world it can be hard to let go of that sense of competition. We all hope that we’ll be recognized for our individual merits and when you’re in an environment where you’re told to collaborate with these people who may be “better” than we are we fight against it. We want to be a principal dancer, not part of the corps!

The exercise progressed.

At one point we all ended up clumping together and were asked to find a single breath where everyone inhaled simultaneously and exhaled simultaneously and were asked to make that breath to be “seen”. That alone seemed to break down some of the barriers among the dancers.

There was another part where we would find a partner, at random, and hold hands and navigate the crowd. Then we’d go find another partner. Find a foursome. Connect to another foursome. Etc. Until we were all connected in one crazy, connected clump and had to navigate into a large circle without breaking the chain.

After this there were more group exercises. These were largely about being able to communicate through movement and openness with your group to create a cohesive movement or story. It wasn’t about everyone doing the same thing, but about being able to tell the people you were dancing with what you were going to do without talking. And the exercises were punctuated with opportunities to share our thoughts about what we were being asked to do and Nile and Matt would provide insight as dancers, but also as humans. When we deny each other eye contact what are we saying to the person we pass on the street? We may think we are simply saying nothing, we may be missing opportunities to see what is beyond our own small worlds.

The last part of class we were divided into four groups and each given a wacky scenario that we would need to “dance” for the other groups. There was no set choreography, no set music, nothing. We simply had to decide how we would tell our story and how we would communicate change points with one another while we were performing. Each group went up and performed and received feedback from Matt and Nile and the other groups about what they thought was going on, what confused them, etc. After each group performed we were able to chat with our group for a minute or so and then we got to perform our pieces one more time, integrating the feedback we had received.

And with that, class was over.

But it wasn’t.

Not really.

Because what I experienced in those two hours was powerful.

In some ways it brought me back to a place I had forgotten about. The techniques used in this class weren’t necessarily new to me. I have had teachers before and during college who would teach class with similar themes. I loved the freedom it gave me then and I love it still. While ballet is a joy for me in many ways, it is also a constant struggle as I try to figure out why my body can’t execute what seems so simple in my mind. Exploring movement and finding out what can be beautiful and powerful without a specific technique in mind felt so liberating the first time I tried it, even though it was scary as all get-out, and it felt awesome to come back to that space. Particularly as an adult. I took different things away from the movement exploration than I did when I was younger and more concerned with what other people thought of me. I could relate more of it to my non-dance life and also see how this type of dance is not necessarily a distinct and separate entity from my ballet world, but that it’s a valuable addition that can enhance those more disciplined forms of dance.

I also loved that this was a totally accessible class. Yes, the room was filled with dancers. But there were many people in class that I knew do not consider themselves modern dancers in the least. You wouldn’t know from looking at the group who was a “modern dancer” and who wasn’t.

Honestly, you didn’t need to be a dancer of any sort to be able to do this class. Not really. The dance is in all of us whether we’re actively taking classes or performing on a stage or sitting in an office chair punching away at our keyboards wondering where our red stapler went. It’s a powerful realization.

So yes, that was the Pilobolus Experience. I was so grateful to our director for setting up the class and to Matt Del Rosario and Nile Russell for taking time out of their busy schedule to share their world with us. If you ever happen to see that they’re performing near you go see them and if you see that there’s a class, go take it! Don’t be afraid. You’ll be transformed, I swear.

Oh, but before we let them out of our sights we insisted on photos and they were kindly willing to oblige. So here’s one of me sandwiched between Matt and Nile… that giddy look on my face? Yeah, how could I not be thrilled to be surrounded by such handsome, kind, and talented men!

Pilobolus pic

About that uncomfortable laughter thing…

Kind of coincidental that I had posted about Kathleen Breen Combes’s TED Ed talk the other day, going on about the uncomfortable laughter that can bubble up out of the audience during certain pieces.

The following day I got to witness that laughter in action.

At Christmas time our artistic director had given me a ticket to see Pilobolus when they came to town! Woot woot! They’re one of those groups that — even if you haven’t seen them perform — somehow becomes synonymous with modern dance and I was dying to witness them in action. Even better to know that I’d get to share the experience with my fellow dancers!

The evening finally arrived and, as we settled into our seats, there was energetic music playing over the speakers. Instead of a closed curtain we saw the dancers, onstage, warming up and dancing around. This isn’t the first time I’ve been to a performance where the curtains are open before the performance starts. Sometimes it’s a necessity, like when I watched Boston Ballet’s free performance on the Common. It wasn’t realistic to put up a curtain in an outdoor venue like that, so we got to see Jeffrey Cirio and Misa Kuranaga testing out the stage with a few quick steps wearing warm-ups over their costumes. Other times it’s part of the choreography, like in Jiří Kylián’s Bella Figura where the curtain opens while the house lights are still up and the audience members have to scurry to their seats as if they’ve been caught doing something naughty, while simultaneously muttering to themselves that it was quite rude that no one dimmed the house lights to alert them that the intermission was over. Setting the audience on its heels is, of course, part of the scene-setting for the piece.

In this… it was hard to tell whether there was any sort of choreography to the warm-up. This wasn’t what you might expect of a dancer warm-up. There was no lolling about on-stage doing lazy stretches, nor were there quick, marked run-throughs of choreography. Instead it seemed as though they were playing elaborate games, putting on a performance that simply didn’t happen to be listed in the program.

Okay, I’ll admit that at first it did seem a bit contrived. I love modern dance. But there are some factions within modern dance that can seem a bit self-important, a bit holier-than-thou, and a bit my-dog’s-more-Zen-than-your-dog. That whole, “We don’t need no stinkin’ technique because we’re creative!!!” giving the impression that those of us who practice dance within the confines of certain, named techniques are merely dance puppets. Or something. I’m not describing it right. But… I recognize that there is a reason behind their choice to be onstage before the performance. I assume that much of it is to create a connection with the audience in advance of the performance. Instead of the audience being passive watchers while the dancers do all the heavy lifting, those on stage gather energy from the audience and those of us in the seats are, in fact, active participants in what is created. So there’s that. I think it also gives the audience a taste of what’s to come. And, yes, in some ways it may be to purposefully create some discomfort in viewers who expect the curtain to symbolize beginning and end and that the creative mystique will remain shrouded behind it until the appropriate time.

Gah, that was a whole lot of opining about the position of the curtain!

Anyway, the dancers eventually cleared the stage and some stagehands came out to check the position of three long ropes laid across the stage and then the house lights dimmed.

The first piece was a newer one called “Licks” (2013). The program notes didn’t give any back story to this (or any of the works, for that matter) other than to say that it had been commissioned by the American Dance Festival. These were very much open for interpretation. It turns out that my first thought on this was… “I wonder if the professor of that physics class I took last semester has seen this?” The piece opened with six dancers coming on stage wearing sunglasses (or were they dark safety goggles?) and tan dance pants (with bra tops for the ladies) and using those ropes I mentioned to put on what seemed like a stereotypical physics class presentation about the propagation of waves. I know that Pilobolus does collaborations with seemingly absolutely-not-dance-related fields, so I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that there was some sort of physics-class inspiration behind this! From there they moved on to wrapping and unwrapping themselves and the other dancers in the ropes. Those ropes were gradually replaced by shorter and shorter ropes as the piece went on. It was a very high energy piece and a great way to open the show.

It was followed by two works from the early days of Pilobolus. “Ocellus” (1972) featured four male dancers performing what I can only describe as mobile sculpture. While there were a few moments of nervous laughter at various moments in “Licks” this piece, from the very beginning, evoked, if not nervous laughter, nervous squirming. Why? Well, first off let’s just say that the costume for this piece was essentially a nude-colored dance belt. Needless to say the entire audience did a double-take when they first came onstage worrying (?) that we were privy to some sort of nude dance show. And the second part of nervous squirming came from the fact that the four men were in very close contact with one another throughout the piece as they gradually moved across the stage in various lifts, slow-mo flips, etc. As I said, it felt like I was watching a sculpture morph. To me it was beautiful to see the human form, unobscured, showing a range of motion, control, and, yes, intimacy. But I could almost hear the collective inner shrieking of many of my fellow audience members which went along the lines of, “Oh my gosh, did you see how close that guy’s face is to that other guy’s junk, OMG?!!?” Considering the fact that we live in a society where people still get uppity when they see same-sex hand-holding in public, it doesn’t surprise me that people get squirmy about this. I just hope that as the piece evolved the audience was able to move past their initial shock and see the amazing individual and collective strength and trust these dancers demonstrated. I found it incredibly moving.

The second of the “old works” was a dance that was about 180 degrees from “Ocellus” and that was “Walklyndon” (1971). To me this was pure Mummenschanz-esque, slapstick, frivolous and hilarious ridiculousity (which I realize is not a word, but feel 100% that it should be!). The dancers in this wore yellow unitards with different, brightly colored boxing shorts over top. Though this was created long before the Simpsons ever came to be, that’s all I could think of when I was watching this. If there had been someone with a bright blue bouffant and another with an ever-present pacifier I would have felt for sure I had landed in Springfield! There was no musical accompaniment for this. Instead the dancers simply ran across stage, occasionally making some sort of yell or slap. Ooh, you’re in luck, they’ve posted a segment of it online! Here, watch for yourself!

At the very end of this piece they opened a sheet onstage and there were words from Teller (the little guy of the infamous Penn & Teller duo) projected onto the sheet asking for two audience volunteers to help assemble a box with power tools during the intermission. They promised coffee and donuts, then admitted that this was all a lie and all the audience members would get was a measly bottle of water. Ha! A couple eager viewers were chosen and then it was intermission time, during which people snickered about the costuming in “Ocellus”. Sigh.

Okay, intermission over and now things got a bit interesting. Er, a LOT interesting. You may have wondered why there were words from Teller. Well, the next piece “[esc]” (2013) was created by Penn & Teller, among others. If you don’t know about these guys, they are comedic magicians, so as you may expect, “[esc]” involved lots of illusions set to music with a recorded voice-over by Penn Jillette. This is where I realized that calling Pilobolus a dance company might not really explain what it is they do; “movement art” may be a better term. Because this was essentially a very acrobatic magic act. I won’t give it all away but suffice it to say that nearly all of the six dancers on stage were at some point bound, gagged, or otherwise incapacitated and we witnessed their escapes from all of these. The final trick was truly mind-boggling and we’re still trying to figure out how they did it!

“Rushes” (2007) was the final piece in the performance and probably the most involved. It opened with a bunch of chairs placed in a circle around a circle of white marley (or other flooring). There were dancers sitting in some of the chairs and it almost felt like a waiting room of some sort. The piece was made up of multiple different scenes involving the characters (each dancer did seem to be portraying a specific character in this one). As the piece progressed the chairs were moved around and at one point the movement of the chairs became as much a part of the dancing as the people. There was something ethereal about this piece and at the end I felt as though something transformative had taken place. I was moved and touched without quite knowing why. Altogether beautiful. Found another excerpt which you can see here:

You can hear in the video (which was posted five years ago) some of that uncomfortable laughter. I’m not sure the laughter was entirely INappropriate. There are some movements which just strike us as fun or funny and I don’t think the choreographers were being super serious and deep when they put this together. But you can almost hear the audience members thinking, “What, this is DANCE?! But this is silly? What are they doing? Why did he just do that? I don’t get it?!” without realizing that you don’t have to get it necessarily… you just have to experience it.

More about experiencing Pilobolus in my next post! Stay tuned…

If the shoe fits…

Okay, so here’s the final installment in my “Crazy Dance-Filled Week” extravaganza. Then I promise to get back to more recent history!

After dancing in two very different performances and taking a master class I got to head back to the Boston Opera House to take in their premiere of Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Cinderella.”

I’m usually a “First Saturday” attendee, but since I was already booked to be ON a different stage, I had to switch my tickets. Not a big deal, but this was a popular show and I didn’t get around to switching tickets until late, so the seats weren’t as good as usual. Nevertheless…

I was excited to see this one. And my excitement stemmed from a very silly reason. See, I was addicted to the show Breaking Pointe when it was on and during much of the taping in the second season Ballet West was rehearsing and performing this exact version of Cinderella. Since the television series obviously could only show little snippets of the ballet (and very few at that… actual dancing would take away from the interpersonal dRaMa!!! they tried to stuff down the viewer’s throat in that season), I wanted to know what this thing was all about.

This was BB’s premiere of Ashton’s Cinderella. They’ve performed other versions before, though I’ve not seen them. The only other Cinderella ballet I’ve seen was some backwater Russian company. And then, of course, there was our own version that we put on for the studio’s annual show last year. Not to disparage either of those versions, but I was pretty sure BB’s production of Ashton’s version would blow both of those out of the water.

Which — of course — it did.

Now, I’ve become quite used to the fact that the sets and lighting are generally spectacular, and this show was no different, from the dark and dreary kitchen that Cinderella whiles away most of her hours to the palace ballroom. The costuming was similarly evocative. As for the plot…

Well, I mean, you know the basic story of Cinderella, or at the very least have probably sat through Walt Disney’s take on it at least once. That basic plot was there, though there were some aspects that I didn’t quite understand.

First up was the fact that Cinderella’s father is VERY much alive in this story. I spent a lot of time wondering why the heck this guy who purportedly loves his daughter so very much forces her to scrub grates while the rotten stepsisters gallivant around. If there had been a stepmother I may have been able to buy it a bit more, but there was not a step-mommy to be found. According to the program notes he is afraid of his stepdaughters. Okay, sure, the stepdaughters were rather a burly and unruly pair (more on that in a minute), but really? To be so cowed by a pair of obnoxious wannabe socialites that you allow your own kid to be treated like a stray dog… I don’t get it.

Anyway, the fairy godmother enters, initially in the form of a mysterious beggar-woman that Cinderella acts kindly towards even though Heckle and Jeckle asked her to bugger off. FG rewards her kindness with gifts presented by fairies representing the four seasons. Except… I didn’t get the whole “gifts” thing. In other versions the gifts have been tangible and included the infamous, fancy shoes. Maybe it’s just that my seats were so far away from the stage that I missed the transfer of gifts. This part was beautifully danced but I still didn’t get it.

Never mind, on to Act II, AKA “The Ball.” There was the requisite prancing around by the generic “ball-goers” including some comic relief from two characters named Napoleon and Wellington. There seemed to be a group of people that served as human scenery in this part. Maybe they were playing the role of wallflowers. Not sure. I did notice that the wallflower ladies appeared to be wearing pointe shoes, but I swear I never saw them execute a single balletic step, let alone one that appeared en pointe. Or maybe I just zoned out during that part. Anyway, Cinderella then appears and dazzles all, particularly Price Princey (he has no name… but I suppose if a guy is going to fall in love with some random chick without knowing a damned thing about her he doesn’t really deserve a name… at least they didn’t turn his name into a symbol… *snort*). More lovely dancing until, alas!, midnight strikes. I actually quite liked this part of the ballet, especially when it came time to *poof!* Cinderella back into her run-of-the-mill self. It was so well done that it really seemed magical.

But then — okay, I had been warned about this part by the director of our company who had seen the show the week before, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so painfully obvious — Princey holds up a blindingly sparkly pointe shoe and starts the whole “We must find that girl!” brouhaha. My problem is not his attempt to find her, it’s the fact that the entire time she was dancing as fancy Cinderella she was wearing her trusty, pink, satin Freeds (or whatever it is that Ashley Ellis wears). They pasted no sparkles on those shoes! MAJOR plot hole right there!

So, curtain down, curtain up. Act III, or “Find that Girl!!!” Much comedy ensues resulting in, you guessed it, happily ever after. Hurrah.

Plot holes aside, the dancing.

Okay, one thing I love about story ballets is that, ideally, you get to see a bit of acting from the dancers. And in ballets that allow for a bit of fun (some story ballets take their silly plots far too seriously), you get to see some great comedy, even a bit of slapstick. The stepsisters in this were particularly hilarious. In our show they were played by Robert Kretz and Sabi Varga. Yes, that’s right, stepsisters played by men. Sit back, close your eyes, and imagine that for a minute. Truly hilarious. They were easily my favorite part of the whole thing; from the scenes of them in various states of undress to trying valiantly to put the slippers on at the end it was pure genius.

But the dancing technique showcased in this show really stood out to me. I suppose it helps to put Ashton’s version of Cinderella in context: this was the first full-length ballet he put together for Sadler’s Wells Ballet back in 1948. Technical expectations have grown significantly since then, but when performing Ashton’s Cinderella you do it they way he choreographed it, not the way we might choreograph something similar in this day and age. As a result, the steps had an almost quaint feel to them. I don’t mean that to be disparaging at all. As a matter of fact, I quite liked it. The extensions were generally kept low and the combinations relatively simple. I think this allowed the story to come through more genuinely than it might have otherwise. I think back to when I saw BB put on Sleeping Beauty last year with Lia Cirio as Aurora. She was beautiful (not sure how she could be anything but), but with her amazing talent and technique it was hard to buy into the idea that her character was only 16-years-old. In this the steps did not overpower the characterization, which I greatly appreciated.

Can’t say that Cinderella is my favorite ballet, but I loved feeling the history that came through on this one!

Bow to the master

After my two performances in the span of five days there was still more dance to experience to truly round out the week.

The day after my second performance at the DWTS competition was a day for a master class!

The director of our studio had arranged for a series of four master classes taught by different teachers from the area. I eagerly signed up for all of them, but there was one small hitch in my giddy-up. They all took place on Friday afternoons at 5:30. I work in the city. Nearly every Friday afternoon, particularly during ski season, summer, or leaf-peeping season (which translates to nearly every Friday afternoon) there is no chance in hell of getting home swiftly.

This is not to say I didn’t try. I left work early every single day we had a master class. No matter. I was always getting back home too late to go to class (if it were one of our own classes I would’ve just snuck in late with my apologies, but there was no way I’d do something like that when we had a guest teacher!).

One Friday I had even finagled my work schedule to work from home so that I could be able to take a class with one particular teacher, but that class ended up being postponed at the last minute because it was the day before school break and not many people had signed up for the class. Argh! Only silver lining to that one was that it meant I could go see Puremovement.

So that one teacher — a teacher that one of our teachers regularly takes class from — was rescheduled for mid-March. Although I hadn’t had any luck getting to the other classes in time, I gamely tried again. And this time whatever chants I offered up to the traffic gods FINALLY paid off! My bus pulled into my station with half an hour to spare. When I rushed into the studio I was met with cheers from my friends who knew how bummed I was to have missed the prior classes.

I took my spot at the barre with a couple minutes to spare. “Ah, you’re the nurse!” the teacher said. Uh-oh, my reputation precedes me. Actually, it turns out that this teacher, our teacher who studies with her, and myself are ALL nurses. Maybe we should start a support group: “Ballerina-Nurses Anonymous.”

“You’ve had quite the commute. Did you had time to eat? I have a banana if you want!” Okay, I don’t even know this lady and already I adore her. I assured her that I was fine, really, and ready to go. A bit more chitchat while a few other people trickled in and we were ready to go.

The tone in this class was so much more serious than usual. But, see, this lady was funny. She had that wry sense of humor that I love and, though strict, was in no way mean or harsh. I could easily see myself sitting at a bar with her and having a bunch of hearty laughs. But there were no laughs… okay, there were some laughs, but they were polite and immediately followed by serious concentration. I was impressed to see how much our young girls especially were eager to soak up whatever wisdom this teacher had to pass on.

She started by telling us that she received her training at SAB. Yes, that SAB! She was, as she said, “A Balanchine baby” (for she was there when Balanchine was still alive). She told us that she would see Gelsey Kirkland walking around when she studied there. All of us adults in the room had to hang onto our barres to stop ourselves from swooning. The teens didn’t quite get the gravity of these words. To be fair, when I was their age I wouldn’t have gotten it either. But I was glad that I can not only appreciate it now, but also still learn from someone with that sort of history!

With that introduction we began two hours of grueling work. When I say grueling, I don’t mean physically. Though it was physically challenging, to be sure. But it wasn’t the constant go-go-go of class. In between sides and exercises the teacher took a ton of time explaining some of the finer points of technique: seemingly small things that can make a world of difference but are more difficult to achieve than it would seem at first glance. Like how to point your foot. Seems basic, but so many of us think only of the foot, especially once we get going, and forget that the initiation for the movement should come from the ankle, not the mid-foot. Things like pulling up All. The. Way. when standing. Your knees may feel straight, but can you see daylight between those thighs? That’s a no-no! There were so many things that she mentioned it was hard to remember everything, though I desperately wanted to! She was great about praising when we got stuff right, though. Such a good class!

Now the good news is that this teacher offers an adult class not too far from me on Sunday mornings and my teacher friend regularly attends, so one of these days I’m going to have to go and experience her teaching again. In the meantime, I’ve got a few corrections that have been constantly running through my head and trying to apply whenever I’m in class.

Sometimes a single class can have a huge impact!

TED Ed talks ballet

A coworker sent me the link to this video and then about 5 minutes later I saw the BB posted the link on their FB page.

It’s about to go viral, people!

But, seriously, if you haven’t seen this yet, take a look as Kathleen Breen Combes gives a great discussion on the evolution of ballet.

I particularly love when she talks about the uncomfortable laughter that certain pieces can generate. I’ve been in audiences when that’s happened. I could be annoyed by the laughter (okay, sometimes I am), but at the same time, that laughter says that a person has been touched. Sometimes we are confronted with emotions that don’t have a tidy name like “happiness” or “sorrow” or “embarrassment.” And sometimes we laugh (or cry) in the face of these feelings. But that outward expression belies the depth of what’s going on internally. To be able to evoke those reactions from an audience when you’re not telling a neatly outlined story almost means more than the applause or standing ovation at the conclusion of the piece. At least in my mind.

People have been trained to try to find a story in ballet. And sometimes… there is no story. There may be a thread. Or there might just be emotion set to music and told through movement. And how weird is it to feel an emotion without being able to rationalize WHY you’re feeling that feeling? I mean, really! We’re humans; we look to rationalize things. Baseless emotions make no sense.

I’ve felt similarly about pieces of music. Some songs have lyrics to explain a story. But others… I still remember hearing Gabriel Fauré’s “Pavane” for the first time. I sat, absolutely transfixed, wanting to cry (happy tears, though!). It has the same effect on me, no matter how many times I hear it.

Balanchine’s “Serenade” might fall into the same category. Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,” too.

Life-changing stuff, even if we can’t put our finger on the why!