One more sleep ’til Swan Lake!

BB has gotten me, hook, line, and sinker.

They taught me Swan Lake choreography in the Adult Summer Dance Program.

They have plied me with teasers via e-mail and snail mail.

They have filled my FB and Instagram feeds with pretty pictures and videos.

They have accosted my eyes at every turn in Boston with signs, including a huge billboard I just spotted over I-93 this morning.

And that’s not even including the sneak preview they were so gracious to award a few of us lucky subscribers a couple weeks ago.

I’ll admit it, I’m excited for tomorrow night when I can finally see all the pieces come together! In the meantime, here’s a little background on how this show has developed including set and costume design for those of you interested in that stuff. (Isn’t that, like, all of you?! No? Am I the only ridiculous ballet dork here?!)

ASDP – Week 1 is done!

I survived the first half!

Day 5.

Enrichment class, we were back to Pilates again. The teacher added some new exercises or varied exercises to make them harder citing our “intermediate/advanced” status. Hey, I’m intermediate/advanced ballet, NOT Pilates! No, it was a good class, though. Things were feeling less foreign and as a result I (hopefully) am getting more out of it. One of the new exercises we tried was the “jack-knife” where you kind of go over into plow pose, but keeping the legs parallel to the floor, then try to press your legs up towards the ceiling, like you’re doing shoulder stand, without letting the core go all wobbly. I got a compliment on that one! The teacher asked if I’d done it before. I can’t recall if I’ve ever done it formally… I was embarrassed to admit that it’s something I’ve randomly done ever since I was a little kid simply because I find it weirdly entertaining. Should’ve joined the circus.

The intermediates stayed in the same studio for technique class which was being taught by yet another teacher, Gene Murray. I could tell from the moment he entered the studio that this man is a Character. Capital “C”. He’s one of the “guest” faculty for the program (he teaches for BBS at the Boston and Marblehead studios) and the plan was for Christopher Hird to introduce him. Well, he wasn’t there yet, so Mr. Murray introduced himself and went right into our warm-up exercise. This man will not stand on formality! Now… I’m trying to recall whether I’ve ever had a teacher who, legit, bangs on the floor with a cane to the music. I don’t think so. Well, now I have.

He was demanding, for sure. “Épaulement! You are at a level where you must use épaulement!” was a constant refrain throughout the class. But he would also pepper class with, “You are all lovely. Where have you been all my life?!” and other such endearments. I think a lot of my fellow students had no idea how to take this guy. Personally, I thought he was a hoot. Some of the people in my class are obviously on the younger side and seem to be used to a certain kind of teacher. Gene is not that kind of teacher. But thought he was delightful and managed to get a high degree of focus and clean technique while also keeping class fun.

There’s a great article about him here, written a couple years ago when he closed his own studio. Gives you a taste of what the guy is like. There’s a nice video along with it, too. Check it out.

After that was Repertoire, this time led by Carlos Molina. He’s a former principal dancer with Boston Ballet (also danced at ABT prior to that) and is married to current BB principal Erica Cornejo (whose brother is a principal dancer at ABT… lots of ballet going on in that family!). We continued to work on the polonaise from Swan Lake that we had been learning with Christopher Anderson. Didn’t learn any more choreography, but Carlos spent a lot of time working on cleaning what we had already learned. Due to the enormous size of the class, that meant there was a lot of down time. I mean, of course we marked things even when we weren’t the group of focus, but even so… lots of down time. But on the plus side, it kind of encouraged us to chit-chat a bit with our fellow dancers and actually built a little bit more camaraderie. So that was nice.

On the whole, week one was quite a trip. I’m so glad I decided to do this program and, as nice as it will be to have a few days free to rest and relax, I’m excited for next week… and a little sad knowing that it will be over after that!

Until then…

ASDP – Day 4!

Day 4 offered some welcome respite… mainly in the fact that I worked from home that day which allowed me to get in a couple more hours of sleep. Ah, sweet rest!

This was the first time I’d driven to BBS-Newton directly from home and for some reason my Waze app sent me on a epic odyssey through the ‘burbs surrounding Boston. Knowing what traffic (or traffuck as I’ve heard it referred to quite aptly!) is like at that hour, I don’t doubt that this was actually the fastest way. Thank the gods for technology, otherwise I’d likely still be sitting on the highway.

Enrichment class for the intermediate-advanced levels was modern (have you picked up on the pattern here? Pilates-modern-Pilates-modern…), again taught by Helena Froehlich. And, once again, I loved it. My body seems to adapt to the demands of modern far more naturally than it does ballet. At least this style of modern, whatever style that may be (I love modern, but am sadly ignorant about most of the details on various techniques). Most of the exercises were similar to those from the last class. She added a bunch to our across-the-floor combination, though, which was tricky to catch on to at first, but was really fun once we did (per me, anyway…). And we ended the class with I guess what you’d call a modern grand allegro, doing a run-run-grand jété in double attitude across the floor. Which was AWESOME! Why? Because I got that point where you feel like you might stay suspended in the air if only you don’t look down, just like a cartoon character who’s run off the edge of cliff, but doesn’t realize it yet.

Technique was in one of the smaller studios. I like the space of the grand studio, but it’s weirdly dim, so I welcomed the move to a brighter studio even if we were a bit cozy in there! Helena was teaching our class that day. No major revelations to report in class. Balance was a bit off at the barre. Turning fairy wasn’t drunk, but she may have been hungover — got some clean singles; anything attempted beyond that was flop city. But my muscles felt nice and stretchy. Did learn that BBS advocates that in a tendu from first to front or back the toe should “cross the line” so that at the end of the tendu the toe of the working foot is in line with the heel of the standing leg. Helena said it was kind of stylistic thing that can vary by school, but they feel that it’s a better preparation for working from fifth and encourages more proper alignment. Will have to remember that when I go back to real life.

After technique we were back to the grand studio with the advanced level for variations! Ooh, something new! Christopher Hird was leading this class. We were learning the pas de trois from the first act of Swan Lake. I’m sensing a theme here… BB is opening the 2014-15 season with a new version of Swan Lake, so it seems they’re trying to build some buzz through the ASDP. To their credit, it is working. I can’t wait to see the bits we’ve learned performed on stage by the professionals! There are two guys and about 40 ladies in the class, so the guys got quite the workout while the ladies did a lot of marking (we divided into two groups, with one group learning “Girl 1″ and the other learning “Girl 2″), but I enjoyed learning more choreography.

Typically we are done after this class, but on this night the variations class was shortened by 15 minutes to allow for a 45 minute lecture by Laura Young, a current BBS faculty member who was an original member of Boston Ballet and danced with them as a principal dancer from the age of 18-42! It wasn’t a lecture in the sense that she stood up and rattled off a series of events, but Christopher Hird asked various questions about her experience as a dancer. The part I found most fascinating was that she had started dancing with BB’s predecessor, New England Civic Ballet, when she was only 13. It sounds like it was just a small company made up largely of students. She was telling us that the moms made costumes, her dad and brother were involved in set design. The families of the dancers were what got it up and running. It’s amazing that something went from such humble, homegrown beginnings to where it stands now. And amazing that she has seen it through all of its phases. There’s an article that goes into more of her details on the BB website here and one from the Boston Globe written this year in honor of the 50th anniversary if you’re interested in learning more about her and BB’s growth over the years.

The lecture meant that we got out a bit later than usual, but I was glad to see that so many people stayed to listen. Inspiration doesn’t just come from practice, but comes from shared experiences and realizing that, as minor a cog we may be, we are all part of sustaining and growing ballet!

One more day for week 1!

The Misty Buzz

So, the whole Misty Copeland Under Armour ad has been everywhere lately. Even people I didn’t think were into ballet are posting it on their Facebook feed and it’s all over the news lately.

If you’ve — somehow — missed it, here you go:

Let me start by saying that there are a lot of great things about this ad.

I love anything that puts ballet into the media.

I love that it shows the true athleticism required to be an elite dancer. It’s not just flapping one’s arms about and looking pretty… you need to have incredible strength to make it look that easy. So kudos to UA for showing that.

It bucks the unhealthy waif myth about ballerinas.

And, it has a kick-ass reminder to stay strong and keep working hard for what you want.

But… I have some issues with the ad campaign, or at least some of the press it’s generated.

For one thing, I’ve seen a lot about how this shows that ballet is a sport. Ballet is NOT a sport, it is an art. Yes, it is an art that requires a great deal of athleticism. But it is not a sport. Sure, it is reduced to sport in some areas. We try to grade dancers on technical abilities and artistic merit. But so much of what makes ballet great is the unspoken communication between performer and viewer. And that can be a very personal thing.

I mean, I love hockey. And yeah, it can get me very emotional at times. But much of the emotion is related to whether a goal was scored or a save was made. As a spectator and fan I don’t really care if a goal was pretty or not, if a save was a case of x-ray vision or pure, dumb luck. It’s the end result.

In ballet there’s so much more to see. I’ve gone to ballets where my companion and I saw the exact same show and had two very different interpretations and reactions to what we saw. There is no final score. The end result is up for debate.

So, sorry, opiners, Misty Copeland is an athletic artist, not a sportswoman.

Then, the voice-over. Is this a letter that Misty received? Or is this something Under Armour made up for a good story? Because from what I’ve read of Misty, she never even really danced until she was 13 and was encouraged to pursue it even though her family had doubts. She had such pure, raw talent that the ballet teachers who saw her pushed to do it, far from the discouraging tone of the words in the voice-over. Maybe this is a real letter, but it just doesn’t jibe with what I’ve read of her story. I want to know more about that…

And then there’s something else… I guess maybe the fact that this is so focused on this feeling of rebellion. That, yeah, Misty might not be the image that pops into someone’s head when they think of a generic ballerina, but she had grit, strength, and a don’t-tell-me-no attitude that propelled her to the elite ranks. I’m sure all of that is true. It’s just… there are a lot of plucky, gritty, strong, determined dancers that don’t make it. And the message of this ad seems to be, well, clearly they just didn’t want it enough. The reality is sometimes you do all you can and things don’t work out the way you wanted. And sometimes you end up in a dream position without even knowing that’s where you wanted to be.

I’m not quite sure what point I’m trying to make here. It’s just, I see all these people (mostly people who know zip-zero-nada about dance) being all, “Ooh, this is so awesome, so inspiring!!!” and I’m like, yeah, it’s cool, but…

Something about it just doesn’t quite ring true to me, and I can’t put my finger on what that is.

Anyway, all that aside, the big burning question I have out of this ad campaign is… when is Under Armour going to get into the leotard business? Because, seriously? I sweat like nobody’s business in class and I could use some of that awesome wicking technology in my leos so I don’t look like I just I’ve been to the swimming pool instead of ballet class.

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!

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!