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!

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?


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!


I did it.

I just ordered my own birthday present.

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




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?


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:


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.


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!!!


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…

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!

A tale of two performances: Tale 1

Here’s the first of two recaps of performances that took place in the same week, but on VERY opposite sides of the spectrum. Introduction can be found here!

This was the choreography showcase. I was feeling pretty good going in. Since we had crammed at the very beginning to learn the piece, we were able to spend all the subsequent rehearsals tidying and such. I think we all felt quite prepared going in.

We got to the week of the show and our scheduled tech rehearsal. There were two showcases, no pieces were repeated between the two, and all rehearsing that night, so time was short to get everyone in. We were able to sneak in a quick walk-through during a break, but only got to run the piece once that night.

Then show day. We rehearsed one final time in the studio after class that morning, then headed to the theatre. The piece I was in was in the second show which meant that I actually got to be a regular audience member for the afternoon show, which was kind of a treat. The program was a mix of classical, contemporary, lyrical, and modern stuff, with a tap piece thrown in for good measure. Some I quite enjoyed. Others not so much. I suppose that’s the way it is with these things! Something for everyone.

Once the show was over I rushed home to bun up and slather my face in makeup before returning to the theatre for the second performance. Call was ridiculously early. I wouldn’t have minded the extra time backstage to relax, but we were, of course, sharing our dressing room with two or three other companies, so it was crowded and awkward. The sponsoring company did offer a warm-up class open to all performers. And here’s where things got a bit interesting.

The studio space at this venue is cozy and there were only a few real barres. Those of us who didn’t get a barre made do with chairs or used the wall, trying our best not to kick one another. We’d angle ourselves so as not to grand battement into the person behind, but then would end up kicking the person across the aisle instead. None of this was the interesting part, though.

As I’m sure my readers can appreciate, one of the beautiful things about ballet is the transcendental language of the art. You can go into another studio — heck, you can take class in a foreign country with a different native language — and you still know what to expect, not only in terms of exercises, but in terms of how to behave. Or, at least, that’s what I thought before now.

Perhaps people were just punchy after a long day. Maybe they had too much sugar in the between-show break. I’m not sure. But two things were very obvious in this class. Number 1 was which students belonged to the host studio. And number 2 was that these students had zero respect for their faculty member who was conducting the class. Oh, and number 3: they had zero respect for the other studios/companies who were invited to perform alongside them. It was one of the most awkward classes I’ve ever taken. I could barely catch the combinations because I couldn’t hear what the teacher was saying over the endless cackling and chit-chat that took place every time the music was off. On top of that I felt deeply embarrassed for the teacher who was doing his best to take the high road and ignore the behavior, and for the girls who were from that studio, but who were acting appropriately.

Up until this point I had viewed this studio with a lot of respect. They turn out dancers with very strong technique (we have some of their alums at our studio and they are all talented dancers). I hope that the entitlement and brattiness I witnessed was an aberration. The alums I just mentioned are all lovely, kind people. But I can’t say that I would recommend the studio to anyone after what I saw.

I can forgive an off day. Sometimes there’s a full moon or a mass case of the sillies. (I wouldn’t have minded silly… but what I observed was simply rude.) But as with everything there’s a time and a place. When you are representing your school in public that is not the time to show off your queen bee skillz. Ugh.

I must say, though… our students and those from the other studio acted as though they didn’t notice the ruckus and performed the combinations seriously. At the end they all lined up to curtsey or bow and personally thank the teacher. Unprompted, too. Way to represent! Seriously, our director would have been irate if we acted the way these kids did, especially if we were the hosts!

After the class we got into our shoes and costumes and did last-minute run-throughs in our heads before going onstage. The performance itself… well, it was a bit disappointing for at least a few of us. Nothing terrible happened, but it wasn’t nearly as smooth as it typically was in rehearsal. There were a few bobbles here and there. I think what made it more disappointing was knowing that it was a one-and-done thing. Would’ve been nice to get a do-over once we got the wobbles out of our system.

But all in all, we came, we saw, we performed.

A couple weeks later we got to see video of the performance. And while we each focused on our own missteps, I think we could all agree that when looking at it as a whole it looked quite nice and we represented our company well.

On to tale two…

Took a walk down Clarendon Street

For years now — YEARS!!! — I’ve been wanting to take a class at Boston Ballet School. In fact that was part of my big excitement when I scored my current job. I’d be in the city, oh so convenient to taking classes in Boston.

But… since starting there nearly two years ago I’ve taken, oh, ZERO classes in Boston.

Not for lack of intention, mind you. Lots of good intentions. But with a few good excuses… and more often simply neglecting to actually, you know, make a plan, it’s never come to fruition.

But the last week in February when our own studio was on break, I was determined. Determined, dammit!

Another subscriber benefit is the opportunity to get my first class at Boston Ballet School for free, so I really had nothing to lose. One of my dance friends had taken classes there before and said she’d meet me there (admittedly some of my reluctance to go was that whole fear of looking lost, confused, and out of place). So, it was set.

What I didn’t count on is the damned polar vortex or whatever they called the bone-chilling weather we were experiencing. So when I popped up out of the T station at Copley Square I set the Google maps on my phone to give me walking directions, but was too damned cold to take it out of my pocket to look at it. I just hoped my internal compass would steer me in the right general direction.

I wasn’t feeling too sure. After I left Copley Square I found myself wandering through a decidedly residential portion of the South End of town. (Very cute part of town, it may be noted. I’m afraid that despite my determination to remain aloof to Boston’s charms I’m falling hopelessly in love with this ridiculous city.) I felt a bit lost, not helped by the fact that there was barely a soul in sight, aside from one woman who was hurriedly trying to get her dog to do his business so they could duck back into their warm brownstone. This really didn’t seem quite right!

Until suddenly I noticed a small girl walking up ahead with her dad. She had her hair in a bun. Then I saw another bunned-up girl a little beyond her. Maybe I was in the right place, after all! I came to an intersection and directly across from me was a building that had huge windows emanating a soft light on the street. I could see the shadows of what appeared to be dancing behind those windows. I MUST be in the right place!

I crossed the intersection and looked into a window where there were a bunch of people who looked like they were staffing a telethon. Which would make sense… I had just received a bored-sounding voice mail from someone at BB the night before asking me to call back if I wanted to make a gift (to which I said to myself, yes, I would, but not if you’re going to sound so unenthusiastic about it!).

Sure enough, I had found BBS. I ducked into the doors and took a good look around. I stood in a lobby that was a few stories high. In front of me stairs rose up to the next level. There was a security desk in front of me to the left and a booth off to the right with a young woman assisting someone who looked like she might be there to take a class. I stepped behind her, hoping I was in the right place.

The woman in front of me finished up and the nice girl behind the desk said, “Are you here to take an open class?” Phew, I’m in the right place! I signed in, with a bit of confusion regarding the whole subscriber-free-class thing. While I was in line I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around to see my friend who had just arrived a minute or so behind me. I waited for her to pay and she led me up two flights of stairs to Studio 6 where the intermediate class was meeting.

We were a good 15 minutes early for class, which is a remarkable feat for both of us. But it was nice to have time to settle our stuff, pick our places at the barre, stretch, and take it all in. We had walked past a couple other studios on our way, so I knew this wasn’t the biggest room of them all, but it did feel pleasantly spacious. And it was toasty warm… not the nasty, sweaty-teenager warm I typically expect of dance studios, but like someone was cranking the radiators warm. The gathering crowd seemed pleasant enough. It was obvious who made up the contingent of regulars, but the snobbery was kept to a minimum.

Finally, it was time for class to begin. Our instructor made some brief chit chat to talk up the current and upcoming BB shows and then we got to work. He did a pre-plié exercise which I enjoy… not a lot of my teachers do them. Then we progressed in the normal sequence of barre. Nothing terribly complex, though I did get a bit lost in some parts where the ballet vocabulary was dropped in favor of some: “and a buh-buh-buh-buh-BAAHH.” The regulars knew what the guy was talking about. I waggled my foot around in some approximation of what I thought he might have meant by that terminology. If it were a class at my home studio I would’ve asked for clarification, but that didn’t seem to be the culture here, so I kept quiet. It was a nice barre, good combination of exercises, some challenges, but not outside my range. Then we moved to centre. More of the same sorts of exercises. I hung back a bit, mostly because I wasn’t sure the culture of this place and I didn’t want to inadvertently step on any toes (literally or figuratively). All in all… a good workout (loved dancing in such a warm room!), not my best performance, but certainly not my worst, either.

Will I go back? Maybe. Probably. Might try some of the other classes, even the lower levels, just to experience more teachers. My main disappointment was that I didn’t find a shining star in the group. I don’t mean a real BB star. I’m pretty sure they aren’t going to be found slumming in the open adult classes. I just mean… you know how there’s usually at least one dancer in a room who exhibits that special… something? Could be stellar technique or incredible poise or just a certain je ne sais quoi. Maybe that dancer exists but was taking the night off, I dunno. There were plenty of adequate dancers, of course. I don’t mean anything disparaging by that. I was just hoping to see someone whose dancing would blow my mind. On the flip side, I was terrified going in that I would be in way over my head. Maybe Boston intermediate would mean something more than country-mouse intermediate. My friend had assured me that we would be totally fine based on what she’d experienced before, but the class descriptions can look a bit daunting. So it was good at least get validation that I’m performing at the level I claim to have!

After reverence my friend and I went downstairs to the locker room to change and then went strolling the frigid streets of Boston in search of post-class refreshments. We found ourselves at Aquitaine, which I’d heard of but never eaten at. I’m guessing their clientele does not typically consist of slightly disheveled, post-ballet class, but they were very accomodating of our vaguely hoboish appearance and we enjoyed a very sumptuous meal which more than made up for any calories burnt in class. Whoops!

So that was that. Now that I’m no longer a BBS virgin, I expect I’ll experience much less trepidation about taking classes there in the future. I know the space a bit and no one came after me with a pitchfork for having poor technique. It’s not nearly as scary as I imagined and, in fact, has a certain magical charm. So, yay for stepping out of the cold and into the studio. I’ll have to do so more often!

We know these things to be true…

…or do we?

As adult dancers we often tell each other to be gentle with ourselves. We’re doing this for fun, remember? We’re not training to be pros. Our bodies are aging and some things just won’t work anymore the way they did when we were young.

G-d damn, that’s depressing.

But yeah, I get it.

I’m just not sure I buy it.

At least… not yet.

See there are two things I’ve noticed over the past few weeks/months.

First off… les pieds. AKA, the feet. AKA, the bane of my existence (or is that my turnout? I can’t remember). I think it was sometime in college that I came to the conclusion that I was flat-footed. I mean, so many dancers have these amazing arches and super-high insteps and I have — what is it Adult Beginner called them?… ah yes, meat rectangles (correct my terminology if my memory is totally botched up there, AB!). I tried to find solace in the saying that us lower-arched girls tend to have stronger feet than those bendy-footed goddesses. Haha, Flexi-Foot, take that! But damn, it’s so hard to feel happy about this when so much of ballet is about lines and here you get down to the end of your leg and it’s all *sad trombone, wah-wahhh*.

But over the past few months I’ll be tenduing or just doing some mindless pointing during break and will look down and say, dang, feet, look at you! I mean, they’re no bananas, but it’s a vast improvement over where I was when I started back to ballet. The left one will always be a bit stupid, I’m afraid, but still, the amount of strength and flexibility I’ve gained in my feet… wow.

And then there’s extension. For those of us who were dancers in the past and took time off, that is one of THE most depressing things about coming back to dance. You get that developpé exercise at the barre first class back and think, oh yeah, I like these and then realize with horror that your leg barely goes higher than a dégagé. *gasp!* Okay, so that was a few years ago and things improved fairly rapidly and I was able to get to 90 or a smidge above. That should be enough, right? But I can’t deny wishing for one of those glorious side extensions with my foot over my head. Especially since I know I can get my leg up there (you know, that whole heel-in-hand stretch), it just… needs a crane to hold it up there.

One of my dance friends said something to me a month or two back about how much my extensions had improved. I thought it was sweet of her to say, but that’s about all I thought about it. So then there I was today at barre, doing a side developpé, when I caught sight of a foot in the mirror and realized, holy hell!, that’s MY foot up there. I looked over at it. I mean, I turned my head and, whoomp, there it is! At eye height. Without any major exertion on my part. That’s just where it went.

How did this happen? I mean, it’s not even like I’ve been putting in hours doing stretching and cross-training outside the studio. I should. I know I should. And sometimes I do. But… as an adult, sometimes the whole going-to-work, keeping-self-fed, cleaning-out-the-litter-box facts of life get in the way of my hobby and I have to be realistic. Most of the work is in the studio. Trying to be mindful of my technique and whatnot.

Dear reader, this is not meant to be a gloat, though I AM proud of myself. It’s simply a validation that all our work is not for naught. Up until these recent revelations I was feeling like I’d hit a plateau and was pondering whether it was time to accept the inevitable that some adult dancers try to peddle: I’ve reached “a certain age” and I can’t expect much improvement.

Well, that day may come eventually. But it’s not today.