All, Art, Culture/Life, Faith, Tales from the Tutu Side

The Gift of Dance

In the words of Porky Pig, “That’s all, folks!”

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The final curtain has fallen on the 2016-2017 ballet season in my neck of the woods. As I think back over the past months, one of the outstanding take-aways for me is gratitude for the opportunity that ballet affords me to encounter other people and, hopefully, to have a positive impact on them.  This interaction happens primarily through the performances themselves.

After one show, an audience member told one of the company’s directors that watching one of the pieces was the first time she had felt joy in two weeks!  What a blessing that we as dancers and artists have a platform to uplift others!

In addition to regular ticketed shows, I’ve also had the chance to dance in numerous outreach performances at elementary schools and at senior living communities/assisted living facilities.

Let me tell you that these are special audiences, and they make these performances some of the most meaningful.

I could write a whole separate blog post about the exuberance, hilarity, and joy of the shows for kids.  They really do say the darndest things!

But dancing for the elderly has been truly moving.  Their faces brighten when we simply walk into the room.

Occasionally, we have been able to chat with the residents of the assisted livings and retirement communities after we’ve performed.  Invariably, we receive nothing but love and encouragement from these lovely souls.  In return, we are able to listen to their stories, such as tales of their own involvement with dance, or we simply offer a friendly smile and a warm hand-shake.

It is such a humbling and beautiful experience to be able to put dance at the service of others in this way.  Like other careers, the dance world can sometimes lead a person to be self-absorbed and to focus on self-aggrandizement in a demanding and competitive environment.  These outreach shows can be a good check on that attitude and a reminder that dance, like all talents, is meant to be shared and to benefit others.

Often in these facilities, we are dancing on carpet or on parquet or a combination of the two.  Sometimes we have to dodge low-hanging chandeliers (a particularly humorous situation for an above-average-height dancer like me).  In any case, definitely not ideal surfaces or conditions for a performance.

But that is not the point.

Of course, from a business angle, we are there to promote our company and our upcoming shows.  However, from a human and personal angle, I’ve come to realize that the purpose of these shows is not flawless technique or mistake-free dances. Naturally, I want to do my best, but the reason for these shows, especially the ones at retirement homes, is to uplift hearts and to spread joy.

Particularly in some of the facilities caring for lower-income senior citizens, our dancing, and simply our presence, is needed and appreciated.  One of the most memorable shows for me was at an organization that cares for children, elderly as well as mentally-challenged adults.  Some of the audience actually had tears in their eyes while we danced.

Even in places where the residents are more well-off financially and physically, our shows can be a morale boost.  One woman, whose granddaughter happens to be a professional dancer, explained to us that she had decided to wear a skirt that evening because she “was going to the ballet.”  She also repeatedly said that she was tired of “only looking at old people!”  Clearly, she was excited to see some youthful faces!

These authentic interactions, whether while dancing or in post-performance conversations, are an affirmation of the dignity of every person.  They are an opportunity for us as dancers to partake in an act of mercy for a group of people that is all too often disrespected and neglected.

I am so deeply grateful that our visits to these various places put a little more love into the world and, hopefully, a ray of sunshine into others’ lives.

“Whatever you did for these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

These shows are truly a gift for both givers and receivers.

 

Beautiful Ballet Pic
Image credit to Musetouch Visual Arts Magazine

 

All, Art, Tales from the Tutu Side

Corps-eography

Performing is one of my favorite parts of being a dancer.  After all, performing is really the purpose, the point of it all (pun intended).  All of those hours of training and sweating and rehearsing in the studio, while rewarding in themselves, are meant to lead to the sharing of those honed skills and artistic gifts with an audience.  Ballet is indeed a performing art, and one could say that a performing art is a relationship, a relationship between the performers and the audience.  Performing is simultaneously one of the most gratifying, humbling, and exalting experiences in the life of a dancer.

 

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These words can definitely be applied to dancers as well.  Image credit to Classic FM’s page on Facebook.

 

 

Moreover, during performance weeks, the regular class and rehearsal schedule is almost always different due to theater time, costumes fittings, etc.  I like the change of pace.  It is a welcome break from the usual expectations of the day-to-day.  There is also a palpably different energy surrounding performances.  Excitement and nerves are in the air.

Here where I dance, we just completed another performance.  I danced as a sylph in the corps de ballet of “Chopiniana” also known as “Les Sylphides.”  The ballet does not have a narrative.  The only plot line consists of a poet (the only male role in the ballet) who is dreaming of and dancing with a “flock” of sylphs.  The ballet was created over one hundred years ago and is of the romantic style, meaning that the tutus are long and the arms and heads are held in a particular way.  It is much softer and more ethereal than other styles of ballet. I truly feel as if we are a painting come to life.

The corps de ballet is the large group of dancers that are often on stage with and behind the soloists and principals.  Though the corps members are not the “main” dancers in any given ballet, one would feel their absence were they not there.  A well-known example of corps de ballet work is the dance of the Waltz of the Flowers and the Snow scene in “The Nutcracker.” Those particular two pieces are extremely aerobic and physically taxing.  But the true on-going challenge for the corps is pronounced right there in its name. “Corps” means “body” in French, and that it is the task of the corps dancers: to move as one living organism.

The corps work for “Chopiniana” was not as technically or physically difficult as Flowers or Snow or other corps roles, but the challenge was the meticulous care put into making sure the small details, the slow movements, the spacing, were uniform and correct.  Even eye-lines and head angles were under scrutiny.

Being in the corps teaches one to be a team player and to be spatially hyper-aware.  If, during a performance, the person in front accidentally goes off the intended mark, one must follow in order to keep the integrity of line.

I once saw the corps of Nutcracker described as the “unsung heroes” of the ballet because they had danced in every show.  That is another challenge or benefit (depending upon one’s perspective) about dancing in the corps.  Unlike principal and soloist roles, which often have multiple casts for a run of a show, the corps is usually the same for every performance. I read once that a professional dancer said she was in her best physical shape when in the corps because she was so strong from dancing in every show.

The next time you attend a ballet or watch one on video, I encourage you to be more aware of the corps de ballet.  Pay attention not only to its actual dancing, but also to its smaller movements, its poses, its angles and headlines.  Many hours of rehearsals and painstaking polishing of details went into that seemingly effortless final product.

Even though it may be an “unsung hero,” the corps is an integral part of a performance and without it the beauty and richness of many classical ballets would certainly be depleted.

 

Swan Lake photo from Ellman's
Image credit to Ellman’s Dancewear Facebook page.

 

 

All, Culture/Life, Tales from the Tutu Side

The Nostalgia of Nutcracker

bishops-wifeIn the 1947 Christmas film The Bishop’s Wife (which I highly recommend if you haven’t seen it), one of the characters, a college professor, suggests that the holidays are a good time for looking backward. Nostalgia and memories certainly seem to be an integral part of this season.  Emotions, both joyful and painful, can flood one’s heart and mind alongside these memories.  Images of lost loved ones, remembrances of past friendships, family traditions, funny stories, and everything in between.

A large part of my nostalgic reminiscences this year has involved dance and “The Nutcracker,” undoubtedly, because I recently performed in this ballet for the first time in many years. It was truly a joyous experience to be a part of it all again.  Nutcracker, as with all shows, can bond people together and facilitate camaraderie.  Carpooling to and from theaters in and out of town, hours-long rehearsals, waiting around in dressing rooms, cheering on friends and colleagues from the stage wings, enduring and laughing at all the random mishaps, mistakes, and bloopers that inevitably occur when all the various dance, stage production, and musical elements are combined.  And, of course, the unpredictability, nerves, and exhilaration of performances.  All of this can come together to produce memorable moments.

Naturally, performing in a Nutcracker again evoked memories of the people and places connected with my past Nutcracker experiences.  So many people who were my best friends, my teachers, so much excitement, laughter, hard work, tears, so much of what my life and my family’s life was like at that point. Looking back through the lens of intervening years and experiences, I can now appreciate even more the sweetness of those times.  It would be fun to have a time machine to transport me back if just for a day.

But I am also reminded of this Lewis Carroll quote: “It’s no use going back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” My friends and I were still kids, dreaming about what we would all be and do. We were different people back then–not just age-wise but emotionally, spiritually.  Nevertheless, I believe the heart of those friendships is still there.   I still truly care about all those people, even though I have lost touch with some of them, and I would welcome the serendipitous crossing of our paths once again.

“Some people come into your life for a reason, others only for a season.”  And some, I have learned, may enter, exit, and then re-enter one’s life when one isn’t expecting it…just like a dancer on a stage.  It is cool to be old enough to have gained the perspective to see how God can intertwine various aspects, experiences, and people in one’s life.  Some people that I danced with years ago and but with whom I lost touch, are now back by my side in the studio on a daily basis.  I consider it a providential gift and a happy surprise when occurrences such as that happen.

One shouldn’t live in the past because doing so blinds one to the blessings and lessons of the present moment.  However, now and then, perhaps during the holidays, it is good for one’s spirit to indulge in nostalgia and to travel down memory lane, to cherish what one had because it most certainly contributed to the person one is today.

Cheers to you, Nutcracker, and to all my friends, old and new, who are ineffably a part of those oh so memorable days!

 

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All, Art, Tales from the Tutu Side

Moments of Wonder

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Edgar Degas’ Dance Class, Bing Images

 

 

Ballet is a teacher, a teacher of life lessons as well as of quirks unique to the art itself.  Returning to dancing full-time after a college hiatus has reminded me of many of these lessons, both sweet and sour.  For example, I had blissfully forgotten just how gosh darn sore one’s toes become and how much one’s feet can ache after being crammed in pointe shoes for hours on a daily basis.  The flip side of that, however, is the liberating feeling of removing said shoes and being able to spread one’s toes wide apart again.  In ballet, the old saying, “beauty is pain” can very often be all too true.

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Pointe shoes!

Furthermore, training and performing in any dance form and especially in ballet, at least at a school or company worth its salt, teaches a person to push himself/herself.  To perform and even to take class every day, one must have a solid work ethic and a whole lot of discipline.  Moreover, one must allow oneself to be vulnerable for one is continually being compelled to move out of his or her comfort zone, through self-motivation, teacher-prodding, and new and challenging choreography.  Trying and failing and trying and succeeding are part and parcel of the life of a dancer be he/she student or professional.  Practice that pirouette again.  Hold that balance a bit longer.  One more time.  A little more effort.  And most importantly, don’t forget to put heart and soul into the movements as well.  No automaton dancers.  One’s passion for ballet is what one can draw upon to inform the artistry and grace that gives life to the technique.

Despite the mechanics, the technique, and the arduous work that I know goes into ballet, sometimes it still seems like magic to me.  When I watch someone execute a step flawlessly or when the movements feel natural and good in my body or when I see the amazing feats of grace and coordination in balletic partner dancing, I find myself thinking of the tremendous gift that is dance and ballet and of the goodness of life.  I experience a moment of wonder.

Some of these moments have recently come during rehearsals of “The Nutcracker.”  This time-honored ballet favorite is familiar even to those who are not ardent followers of the dance world.  Many professional companies perform dozens of shows of “The Nutcracker” each year during the Christmas season.  Between rehearsals and performances, Nutcracker can easily consume a dancer’s life for three to four months.  Dancers sometimes joke about being sick of hearing the music over and over.

However, I never get sick of it.  Though the choreography of “The Nutcracker” differs company to company, Tchaikovsky’s incomparable music is the one exquisite and steadfast component to any production.  Perhaps because it has been a long time since I have danced in “The Nutcracker,” I have a re-awakened and heightened appreciation for its beauty.  Regardless, while listening to this grand score, I have found myself with goose bumps and not being able to suppress smiles.

One day as I was dancing to “Waltz of the Flowers,” I found myself almost becoming emotional while I was moving across the studio.  My stamina and breath were flagging toward the end of the nearly 7-minute piece, but the music was swelling and building, and in that moment, I realized that I had to allow the music to carry me through to the end.  The music and the realization that to little children in the audience, I really will be an enchanted flower dancing across the stage.  I am a character in a fairy tale.  And to me, that is pretty cool.  Again, a moment of wonder, of magic, and of appreciation for the gift of imagination.

The famous ballet choreographer George Balanchine said, “See the music, hear the dance.” This quote captures in a nutshell the relationship between dance and music, namely, an intimate one that enhances both sides.  I believe a prime example of this quotation is in “The Nutcracker.” The music is so rich and diverse as is the dancing, which includes several smaller dances or variations that reflect different nationalities. The music seems to be telling the story. There is the spiciness of Spanish, the sophistication and sensuality of Arabian, the breathless exuberance and strength of Russian, the excitement of the snow scene, the joy of the waltz of the flowers, and the majesty and romance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier’s grand pas de deux, among all the other colorful, beautiful parts.  Throw in costumes and a set and the end result is truly awe-inspiring. (To learn more about a grand pas de deux, please see my previous post, Lessons in Love & Chivalry from the World of Ballet.)

These little moments of wonder are inestimably valuable, especially in our day and age.

Amidst the hustle-and-bustle of our daily lives, the concerns we may have about national and international events, and the modern technology that allows us to have a geyser of information and facts at our beck and call, it is rejuvenating and calming to allow ourselves to feel wonder and awe at the simple things in life and at the beauty of the world around us.  Remembering this can help us on those inevitable days when our occupation or our particular stage in life can be overwhelming or feel monotonous. I know I am trying to recognize more and more the little things in life and to thank God for them.

As a closing thought, if you have never listened to Tchaikovsky’s musical masterpiece of the Nutcracker or if you have never attended a live performance of “The Nutcracker,” do yourself a favor and remedy that situation.  It will be well worth your while.

You can watch an excerpt of “The Nutcracker,” filmed for television in 1977 and performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland, two icons of the dance world, here.

All, Art, Tales from the Tutu Side

Lessons in Love & Chivalry from the World of Ballet

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A Hopi Indian saying goes, “To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak.”  Dance is expressive of one’s innermost feelings.  It is a vehicle by which those emotions can be conveyed powerfully to an audience and can make the spectators feel what the dancer is feeling.  Dance can tell a story without words, and it has the capability to transport those watching into a different time and place.  Dancing has been an integral part of human history down through the ages.  Nearly every culture has its own traditional folk dances that are unique to it.  In the formal dance world of today, there are numerous genres of dance: classic disciplines like ballet, jazz, tap, and ballroom as well as contemporary genres like hip-hop and break dancing.  The different kinds seem to be continually multiplying.  There are several television shows that, happily, bring dance into people’s living rooms.  Though, unfortunately, the emphasis of these shows can sometimes seem to be more about overt (and objectifying) sexuality than about the art form of dance and the portrayal of inspiring and beautiful relationships between a male and a female dancer.

However, this is not the only way in which the world of dance presents relationships, and one only has to travel to the theatre or search for a video on YouTube to watch a very different portrayal of relationships in the world of classical ballet.  People may not initially think to look to ballet for an example of a positive, romantic man-woman relationship.  Yet it is there, engrained in the very function and atmosphere of the movements.

George Balanchine, the world-renowned choreographer and founder of New York City Ballet, once said, “The ballet is a purely female thing; it is woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener.”  At first glance, one might be taken aback by this bold, perhaps stereotypical statement; nevertheless, it warrants consideration.  Most of society certainly associates ballet with girls and women even though there have been repeated examples of male professional athletes who extol the benefits of taking ballet.  The athletic prowess of male dancers could match almost any athlete; moreover, dancers must be graceful and artistic at the same time as they exude power and strength.  There’s even a humorous saying about male dancers: “Real men don’t lift weights, they lift women.”

Nevertheless, I think Balanchine is grasping at something deeper than the mere physical aspects of ballet, though they could be considered the manifestation of that deeper concept.  He is, arguably, touching on the relationship between man and woman as depicted in the world of ballet.  That relationship is one of complementarity and chivalry, two words that are often excluded from the contemporary milieu regarding relationships.

This notion of complementarity and romantic chivalry is manifested through the steps of ballet and through the interaction between the man and woman, especially in what is known as the grand pas de deux.  The grand pas de deux can be found in full-length ballets, such as the pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier in “The Nutcracker.”  The grand pas is danced between the two leads in a ballet, and it includes five parts: an entrance, an adage (slow) section, male and female solos, and a concluding up-tempo coda.

Overall, the dance highlights the dancers’ strengths both together and individually.  In the sections of the grand pas in which they dance together, the couple must possess unfailing trust in one another, not only emotionally but also physically as one’s bodily well-being partially rests with the other person.

The ballerina must trust her partner to catch her, to physically hold and to lift her, and to support her in her movements.  In doing this, she exhibits vulnerability and self-gift, and through this, a certain strength and courage.  On the other hand, the man must trust himself to care for and to uphold her, and he must trust her to do everything in her power to help him to support her.  This help can be simply how she holds her body in a supported pirouette (turn) or by making eye contact with him before a lift.  Just as communication is essential in off-stage relationships, one could say that the aforementioned examples are a form of unspoken on-stage communication which is necessary to make the grand pas de deux the best that it can be.

Also as in real life, a major part of this ballet relationship is timing.  Timing is everything in balletic partner dancing.  In rehearsals, the duo should strive to come to know one another on a personal level.  In order for the grand pas to be successful, the couple must learn each other’s quirks, weaknesses, and strengths.  Only then can the dance be seamless and united.

Naturally, this trust and coordination can only develop over time–which requires patience, another essential ingredient to both on and off-stage relationships.  The two dancers painstakingly rehearse for countless hours, sometimes practicing the same step over and over.  Through the good days and the bad, they must work together through frustrations, challenges, and even injuries in order to achieve their common goal of a mesmerizing and seemingly effortless final product for the stage.  They both have a vested interest in the dance, and they must be willing to do what it takes to make it work.

The male and female solos are the opportunity for the individual dancer to display his or her dancing abilities.  A female solo can be elegant, graceful and even a little bit sassy.  The ballerina may show off her turning and balancing abilities or other steps that exemplify strength.  The man’s solo is typically filled with bravado and impressive turns and jumps.  These solos are short and impactful.  Despite the fact that they are complete and lovely in and of themselves, when the two dancers come together again, it elevates the dancing to a new level.  Together they are able to do things they could not do by themselves, and with their combined energy and teamwork, they create a thing of beauty.

The overall feeling of the grand pas de deux is one of chivalry, respect, and romance.  The man’s character is inspired by the woman’s character, her beauty, and her love.  The female dancer is supported, protected, and presented to the audience by her partner as the one to be watched and admired.  His energy and strength are complemented by her quieter, gentler power.  They are not in competition with one another but rather work together to be the best versions of themselves on stage.

This mutual giving and respect between the couple extends even to the final bow at the end of the performance.  The couple returns to the stage together, but the man usually takes a few steps back for his bow so that, once again, the ballerina is the main focus.  Furthermore, it is a tradition for the lead ballerina to receive a bouquet of flowers and often, she will pluck a flower from her bouquet and give it to her partner in a gracious gesture of sharing and affection.

From start to finish, the grand pas de deux and the world of classical ballet promotes a version of male-female relationships that may be idyllic but is also inspiring and beautiful.  Though real life is not like fairy tales and ballets, the values these stories and traditions embody are certainly worthy ones, and they deserve a deeper consideration and perhaps emulation in the real world relationships that are lived each and every day.

 

NOTE: I originally wrote this article for The Gadfly, a student publication at Franciscan University of Steubenville.