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.

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

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!

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…

Ready for a new season!

And, no, I’m not talking about the weather here… though with the temp at -1 degree Farenheit this morning when I left the house, I’m ready for that, too!

No, what I’m talking about here is the buzz that a ballet friend started in class last night.

There are still three more shows to go in Boston Ballet’s 50th anniversary season, but… they just released the line-up for the 2014-15 season.

Dear reader, I was excited for this year, but next year… I literally found myself involuntarily squealing and clapping to myself at my desk as I read the article this morning. Thankfully I have coworkers who are forgiving of these silly quirks.

First up, Swan Lake makes its Boston Opera House debut! With new costumes and sets! While I think the new Nutcracker left a lot to be desired, the sets and costumes were quite nice, so I’m thrilled that Robert Perdziola is all over that. And Mikko Nissinen is adding in a prologue, hmmm.

Then in the spring, “Lady of the Camellias” which they did in ’04, but I’ve never even heard of, let alone seen. I’m excited for a story ballet that’s totally brand new to me!

Then their first mixed rep bill, “Shades of Sound,” with a repeat from last season and two BB premiers. I know people get persnickety about them repeating stuff too close together, but it’s Chroma!!! Which was awesome!!! And I’ll be able to see this from my new seats which are ever so much closer to the action than the balcony seats I had last time!!! Plus, it’s on the same bill as with some Balanchine (“Episodes”), and I generally do love me some Balanchine. And a choreographer and work I’ve not heard of (Hans van Manen’s “Black Cake”), but Nissinen’s description sounds like something I will love.

Followed by another mixed rep, “Edge of Vision” with an Elo world premier and an unnamed other work, plus Helen Pickett’s “Eventide.” That last is yet another piece/choreographer new to me, but from the article, it sounds like Pickett must be like Elo, constantly revising her work. While BB performed this in ’08, there will be a new segment with music by Phillip Glass (the composer who wrote the music for Close to Chuck!) and Ravi Shankar which sounds like an incredibly cool collaboration right there. Can’t wait.

And last but most definitely not least will be “Thrill of Contact” which indeed sounds most thrilling. Why? Well, first up, there are four pieces in this one. The first one is Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations” which I saw NYCB perform at SPAC last summer. Though I feel like a jerk for saying this, I’ve enjoyed BB’s take on Balanchine moreso than his own company’s, so I can’t wait to see them do this for some more compare/contrast. Then there will be a piece choreographed by BB’s own principal dancer (and my very favorite male dancer) Jeffrey Cirio. Swoon. If that boy can choreograph half as well as he can bound around stage, it should be spectacular. Then some Forsythe: “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude.” The title itself is pretty awesome. I lovedlovedloved “The Second Detail” so I’m sitting on the edge of my seat for this one. And then… oh then… dear reader, I can barely contain myself! Jerome Robbins’s “The Concert.” I have only ever seen this on YouTube and I can’t get enough of it. It’s hilarious and adorable and I’m appropriately THRILLED to finally be able to see this live!

I think it’s safe to say that this will be another 5-show subscription package for me for next season!!!

Getting Close to Chuck

Boston Ballet is back!

After a fabulous kick-off to the season last fall with their free, one-night-only gig on the Boston Common, followed by a riveting La Bayadère they were on to the silly season (aka, Nutcracker) which I successfully avoided in spite of their massive marketing campaign. Sorry, guys, I love ya, but once is plenty for me for the forseeable future!

The only problem with skipping out on Nut is that the time between October and February seemed an eternity to wait to get my BB fix. Ah, but here we are in the (near) spring with four glorious shows to satisfy those thrills!

First up is a mixed rep evening entitled Close to Chuck after one of the featured pieces. Loving contemporary movement as I do, I couldn’t wait! My La Bayadère companion (one of my fellow adult dancers) joined me again for this one. She has seen far more story ballets in her time and was looking forward to seeing something of a different ilk.

Coincidentally the director of our company/studio, her husband, and another couple we dance with (okay, we dance with the girl and the guy steps in to partner her in shows when needed) were attending the same night, so we were able to catch up and enjoy a pre-show dinner at Back Deck, just down the street. I highly recommend their elderflower margarita, though perhaps not so great if you want to be able to focus for the first third of the show! Whee! As for dinners, my companions all had delicious-looking items, but my choice of the grilled vegetables Provençale was a bit boring for my tastes. Ah well. Can’t win ‘em all! A quick plug for subscriber benefits, though… we got us 20% off our bill!

The great thing about the restaurant was its plum location just down the street from the Boston Opera House, allowing us to zip out with 15 minutes before curtain and be comfortably ensconced in our seats before the show began.

Quick aside here about etiquette. Since I have a subscription I have the same seats for each show. But invariably you run into about 10 different ushers all asking to see your ticket and help you find your seat. I can never decide whether to say, “Oh, it’s okay, I know where I’m going, I’m a subscriber” and risk looking like a pompous boob, or play along like I have no idea where I’m going and let them lead me to my seat. Hm…

Back to the show.

First up was the headlining piece: Jorma Elo’s “Close to Chuck” or, more accurately, “C. to C. (Close to Chuck) Reborn.” Although Elo is Boston Ballet’s Resident Choreographer, he originally created the work for American Ballet Theatre. The version we saw is edited from the original (hence the “Reborn” part of the title). From what I gathered through the post-show chat and other things I read, Elo is not one of those choreographers who creates a work and then expects it to exist in perpetuity in exactly the same form as the original, so this was, in fact, heavily edited to make better use of the costumes, to play up the chemistry between the dancers and the pianist (Bruce Levingston, the only pianist who has performed the score), and reflect the unique qualities of BB. Having not seen the original ABT version, I can’t comment on the changes, but I can say that what I saw (influenced as it may have been by the aforementioned elderflower margarita!) was very impressive. I didn’t know much, if anything, about Chuck Close prior to the show. I discovered that he is an artist who experienced a potentially career-ending spinal aneurysm which left him paralyzed. He had to relearn and refine his way of painting in light of this. I could see how the movements reflected this majorly influential experience in his life. There were moments where the dancers moved as if their limbs were foreign objects, difficult to manipulate. But at other times the movement was flowing and natural. The costuming was minimalist: men in black tights only, women in black leotards with sheer panels, no tights. But throughout the piece they would occasionally appear on stage wearing floor-length black skirts. The inside of the skirt revealed pieces of the Chuck Close self-portrait which they would display in various ways throughout the dance. The music was written by Phillip Glass, a well-known composer of a wide variety of works who has a few Golden Globes and Academy Awards on his shelf and who happens to be a friend of Close. As I mentioned above, Bruce Levingston was the pianist, as he was for the original ABT version, appearing stage right with his back to the audience. The set itself was designed by Mr. Close himself (how fascinating must it be to create a set for a ballet whose whole purpose is to honor you?). On the whole this was a fascinating collaboration of visual and performing arts. Truly inspiring.

Here’s BB’s Close to Chuck preview with some back story by Elo and rehearsal scenes (exciting note, just last night I was in that first room they show the dancers rehearsing in… subject for a future post!):

During the brief intermission we got up to stretch our legs, powder our noses, and inspect the wares at the boutique. My pocketbook was safe this show; nothing screamed at me to take it home, though they had some cool stuff on display, including some cool recycled/repurposed tote bags made from the banners they had used throughout the city to promote the Boston Common show. On our way back to our seats I nearly ran headlong into a guy who seemed awfully familiar. Um, hello, Mikko Nissinen. Nice show you’ve got going on here.

Back to our seats for the world premiere of “Resonance,” a piece created by José Martinez, a former Étoile with the Paris Opera Ballet and current director of the Compañia Nacional de Danza in Spain. The curtain opens on to the stage which has been bisected diagonally by what appears to be a wall of some sort. The only light comes from a bright beam coming from the far end of the wall (upstage, stage right) and the ever-powerful Lia Cirio– wearing a gorgeous long, navy blue dress — steps backwards onto the stage in the path of the light.

Throughout the ensuing piece there are ever-shifting elements. The pieces of the original wall are moved around revealing a pianist on stage at one point, then obscuring her again as if by an unseen hand. Until, towards the end of the piece, one section of the set is rotated in the center of the stage by four of the dancers. The costumes change, as well. Lia Cirio and Dusty Button were the lead female dancers. When Dusty first comes on stage she is wearing a leotard in the same blue as Lia, but without the long skirt. At some point the characters switch. The men, too. They are wearing long-sleeved tunics in one part, and then in another they are bare-armed. There are two pianists playing the music, but we only (occasionally) see one of them. In the corps work the soloists would occasionally dance separate and then at times join in the corps. They were dressed similarly, making them blend in seamlessly so that you almost lost track of the lead. The style of dancing struck me as vaguely Balanchine-esque with a modernist-classical feel. I felt that there was a lot of subtle symbolism going on during the piece, but subtlety is not always my strength when it comes to art. I enjoyed the piece, but must say it was the one I felt least inspired by at the end of the evening.

Here’s Martinez speaking about the piece:

After the second intermission came a piece I’ve been dying to see for years, though those who have been attending BB more regularly might be a bit bored with it by now: Jiři Kylián’s “Bella Figura.” This is the third year out of four that BB has featured this work. I’m not sure what has led them to show this so many times. My perverse thought is that they’re hoping the intrigue of partial nudity will help bring in new audience members. Not sure, but it’s a fun theory. There are portions of this piece where women (and men) appear topless. Honestly, though, it’s not terribly interesting. Ballerinas are pretty flat-chested, if you aren’t already aware. So if you were hoping for something titillating, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed.

I’m not quite sure what Kylián had in mind with this work, but having seen others by him recently, I think that making the audience uncomfortable is part of his aim, at least in recent decades. Not in an overtly shocking way, but by pushing the boundaries of what we might consider acceptable in the world of ballet. For example, Bella Figura starts while the audience is still milling about during intermission. With the house lights on the curtain suddenly opens to reveal a group of dancers who are going through motions as if marking bits of choreography, preparing for the show. In this way of opening the piece, the audience is already on edge. People have been caught out of their seats, not sitting politely as we are trained to do when the lights flicker the warning to let us know intermission is coming to a close. Even those of us who are seated are cut off abruptly mid-conversation. You’re not sure whether to be embarassed at being “caught” in a theatre faux pas or to be annoyed that Kylián had the nerve to start the piece without fair warning. Alongside that, you can’t help but wonder if there’s been some error. Did some noob backstage open the curtain accidentally? Have we caught the dancers in some private pre-show ritual not meant for our eyes? Oh no!

I’ve noticed a definite movement vocabulary in his works: a kind of balance of very fluid motions juxtaposed by choppy, almost violent motions. The dancers facial expressions and steps have an almost in-your-face quality. If you’ve come to get washed away by pretty, flowy ballet, this is probably not the piece for you. But if you’ve come to feel emotion, you’re in the right place. The music he chose for this (a variety of works from Foss, Pergolesi, Marcello, Vivaldi, and Torelli) has a haunting quality to it. The choreography pulls at the viewer. Towards the beginning the dancers are all traditionally clothed, with the exception of one. A female dancer appears in nude-colored trunks and… that’s it. You feel this sense of vulnerability from her. It’s like that stereotypical nightmare come true… you’ve gone to work and realized only once you got there that you are stark naked. But she seems to not quite notice. It’s as though she’s preoccupied with other thoughts. A black curtain closes shutting off our view of the corps behind her and she and a male dancer (actually, he may have been wearing only nude trunks as well, but somehow his character didn’t stick out as much) are alone at the front of the stage. She steps forward, reaching towards the audience with her mouth open as if trying to tell us something. She steps back to the curtain where she’s wrapped in it from behind, only to come forward again. This process repeats itself. In my mind it was as if she was fighting two urges: one to feel safe, secure, swaddled, while the other was to reach out, allow herself to appear vulnerable and seek whatever it was she was seeking. And so it goes. The emotion is not always so raw. At times there’s an almost playful aspect to it. In one section after the iconic “red skirt” portion (all dancers, men and women alike, dance together wearing billowy, vermillion skirts and — you guessed it — no shirts) the curtain closes almost completely except for a small space in the middle where two women kneel, pulling off their skirts (don’t worry, they still have those nude trunks on) and almost seem to poke and prod one another as if they were two creatures from different planets trying to figure one another out.

At the end, after the curtain closes on the final scene, including two bowls of fire on stage, my companion and I let out a simultaneous sigh. We weren’t quite sure what we had just experienced, but it was emotional and it was deep. And perhaps this is why BB has been keeping it in constant rotation on their playlist.

Here’s their preview of the piece (and yes, there is a tiny glimpse of partial nudity, so viewer beware if you’re bothered by silly stuff like that):

On this particular evening there happened to be a post-show talk in the lobby with Mikko Nissinen (Artistic Director of Boston Ballet) and special guest Bruce Levingston. I love taking advantage of the pre- and post-show chats and learning what I can from the people behind the scenes, whether they be Mikko, the dancers, musicians, students, etc. In case you haven’t noticed, ballet isn’t just about staring at the stage for me. It’s kind of all-consuming. Luckily my companion has a similar dorkish streak and was happy to entertain my suggestion to stay and hear what they had to say. The talk centered primarily on Close to Chuck, the process of translating it from the original ABT production to something that was uniquely Boston, and also the history of how the piece came to be. Hearing the two men talking about it certainly gave me a greater appreciation for what I had seen.

In case you want to learn more, the Boston Globe did a very nice article on this which explains things far better than I could.

And so, that was my experience of getting Close to Chuck. As with nearly all contemporary works, I wish I had the chance to see it twice. I find that in reflecting on what I saw I come up with more questions and a burning desire to see it again and see what answers I can come up with. The show is running through March 2nd, so if you’re in the area I highly recommend you go check it out and see what you come away with!