On ballet and performance

Ballet barre

I was tired. I could feel the muscles in my leg twitching as I fought to push it higher into arabesque. The music seemed to last forever and when it finally did end, the entire class seemed to breath a joint sigh of relief. We were happy to have completed the adagio, but Madame was not convinced. “We will do it again” she said sternly, arms crossed. “But this time, I want you to dance”.  She wanted us to dance? We exchanged confused glances and shrugs – what did she mean? So, we did the whole exercise again and again after that. After our third attempt it was clear that we were not understanding what she meant by “dance”.

ballet barreSource

Madame silently walked to the centre of the room and proceeded to do the whole exercise herself, without the aid of the barre. Each movement began with a graceful port de bras, she took an easy breath before each cambré and no matter what movement she was doing her body always seemed to project upwards and outwards. When she finished, she said “ladies, when I give you an exercise I don’t just want you to do it like robots. I want you to dance it – dance the exercise!

The dancing begins at the barre and not only in the centre. You have to perform, even if you’re just doing a basic tendu.”

Up until that point I guess I had never really thought about barre work as dancing, as strange as that may sound. I had always of thought of it as a  kind of preparatory stage before the actually dancing began in the variations in the centre. But I guess one of the things that differentiates ballet from other “sports” is that the emphasis is always on aesthetics and performance. At no point do you just do an exercise for the sake of gaining muscle or increasing stamina – every exercise no matter how basic it is, is also intended to improve the beauty of your lines, the quality of your jump, the weightlessness of your movements. The goal is always to improve your performance.

“We will do it again.” Madame slowly walked back to the front of the room. “But this time ladies, dance it!”

Ballet barreSource

So, that’s what we did. It’s amazing how the way you think about an exercise can change everything about how you execute it. I kept catching glimpses of myself and the others in the mirror. Our movements suddenly became softer and more fluid and our facial expressions looked less anguished and more relaxed. And although the exercise was basic, I “danced it” like it was a mini variation and paid more attention to the transitions between movements. The music ended and everyone brought their arms back into bras bas.

“Yes, ladies” said Madame, content at last. “Now, that was dancing!”

Bunhead improvisations

I seem to be placing myself far out of my dance comfort zone lately and trying dance forms I’ve never tried before. Most recently, I’ve embarked on a super exciting dance project that’s turning out to be a bigger challenge than I had first imagined.

As with many things in my life, my involvement in this project is down to a chance encounter/ happy coincidence. A few months ago, I decided to skip ballet for a contemporary dance class at my studio and met an old friend there. To cut a long story short, she told me she had recently founded a dance company, was looking for dancers for an “experimental” piece that would be performed next November and asked if I wanted to take part in it.

As an amateur dancer, one part of me was delighted at the thought of performing on stage with professionals so I said yes straight away. The other part of me, however, couldn’t get past the word “experimental”. For someone used to the rules and conventions of ballet, the word “experimental” conjures up scary images of chaos and people doing random, awkward movements. But I was determined to give it a go and knew that, no matter what, I would learn and grow from the experience.

So, I went to the first rehearsal.

It was tough.

How tough?

I’ll just say one word – IMPROVISATION.

Tochi, This Life and Times

The choreographer wants parts of the piece to be improvised so we started the rehearsal with a improvisation exercise. We were asked to introduce ourselves to the other dancers in a three-minute improvised dance. Three whole minutes of my heart racing, awkward motions, embarrassed staring at the floor and feeling like I was dancing naked  – three minutes that seemed like three hours.

When I was done, I bashfully mumbled something about “not being good at improvisation” to the girl next to me. I felt I had to make an excuse for my pathetic performance. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so embarrassed in my life.

She, in turn, said something that I will never forget and have tried to keep in mind in the rehearsals that followed.

“That doesn’t matter.  It’s just important to stay calm and be confident in any movement you make.

When improvising, if you think you look stupid, that’s how you’ll look.”

Her last sentence has really helped me and I can feel myself becoming calmer and more confident with every improvisation session we have. I’ve taken it as my lesson on letting go, being in the moment and letting others see me for who I am.

It’s amazing the insights dance can lead you to, isn’t it?

Tochi, This Life and Times

Happy birthday Emily!

Emily Dickinson's hands

Every time I see the famous daguerreotype of her, sitting and delicately holding what looks like flowers, I remember her beautiful poem “I cannot dance upon my Toes”.

Emily Dickinson, one of my favourite poets, was born on the 10th of December 1830. So today, on the eve of her birthday, I’d like to share the poem with you. If you’re longing to dance on pointe but haven’t done so yet, I’m sure you’ll relate to her words.

Emily Dickinson

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I cannot dance upon my Toes by Emily Dickinson

I cannot dance upon my Toes —

No Man instructed me —

But oftentimes, among my mind,

A Glee possesseth me,

That had I Ballet knowledge —

Would put itself abroad

In Pirouette to blanch a Troupe —

Or lay a Prima, mad,

And though I had no Gown of Gauze —

No Ringlet, to my Hair,

Nor hopped to Audiences — like Birds,

One Claw upon the Air,

Nor tossed my shape in Eider Balls,

Nor rolled on wheels of snow

Till I was out of sight, in sound,

The House encore me so —

Nor any know I know the Art

I mention — easy — Here —

Nor any Placard boast me —

It’s full as Opera —

Emily Dickinson

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Happy birthday Emily!

Top 10 gifts for balletomanes

The evergreen trees are up and fairy lights are twinkling form ever corner of the city – there’s no denying it’s Christmastime! If you’re anything like me and have left the gift shopping too late, do not despair – I have a gift guide for you, right here!

This post is for you other halves. You loving, patient paramours who have to put up with ballet-crazed partners (BCPs) and their weird habits (endless dancing around the house, using EVERYTHING as a ballet barre, engaging you in incomprehensible “ballet talk” at odd hours of the day…). You are true angels!

Finding gifts for your BCPs can be a daunting task – especially if you don’t share their enthusiasm for the art form. The following is a list of the top ten gifts I think most BCPs will enjoy receiving this festive season. I hope it helps!

1. Go see a show

The ultimate gift for any BCP is a ticket to see a ballet – you can never go wrong with this one. You’ve probably heard your BCP mumbling something about “Nutcracker Season” recently – the Nutcracker is THE Christmastime ballet and one most BCPs will enjoy watching. Why not get them tickets to see it?

Penny-wise tip: Ballet tickets can be expensive, depending on where you sit. If your heart is set on getting your BCP tickets to a ballet but you don’t want to pay a mini fortune to buy them, try getting the so-called “student tickets” higher up in the galleries. They are further away from the stage but cost only a fraction of the price of regular tickets. Another bonus of these seats – no one will notice if you nod off for a power nap. It’s a win-win deal!

Vienna Opera Ballet

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2. Support their “team”

Just as every sports fan has their favourite teams and players, every BCP has their favourite ballet companies and dancers. Why not get them merchandise from their favourite ballet company? Not sure which company they like? Even if they favour a foreign one, most BCPs will also have a soft spot for their local ballet company. Look for merchandise from the ballet company in the city/country they live in/are originally from.

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Sources (clockwise): Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Australian Ballet, American Ballet Theater, New York City Ballet

3. Keep them warm

Ever notice how your BCP wraps themselves in layer upon layer of clothes before ballet class? That is to keep their muscles and joints warm enough to avoid injury – particularly important for adult BCPs. Help keep them warm by getting them some more layers to put on. These warm-up booties are pretty popular at the moment and can even be warn on chilly nights at home.

Bloch booties

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Penny-wise tip: Feeling crafty? Why not knit or crochet some leg warmers for your BDP? Or make some out of old sweaters?

4. Help them shine

BCPs can never have too many leotards. The difficulty is finding ones that look special enough to let their personalities shine out. Yumiko leotards are famous for doing just that and most BCPs would be delighted to own one. If you know your BCPs favourite colours you can even design a leotard just for them on the Yumiko website (click on the source link below the image)!

Yumiko leotards

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5. Clear the (foul) air

If you’ve noticed a foul smell wafting out of your BCPs dance bag, that would be the result of years of carrying sweaty clothes and ballet shoes – yuck!  It might be time to get them a new dance bag and Repetto has a few lovely ones to offer.

Repetto dance bags

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6. Ease their tension

I don’t know a single BCP who would not be delighted to get a professional massage. Massages can enhance performance by releasing muscular tension, help speed up the body’s natural recovery process and can even help prevent injuries. What is not to love? Massage styles that have been shown to be beneficial to dancers include sports massage, Swedish massage and lymph massage.

Massage

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7. Give the gift of relaxation

If he or she is anything like me, your BCP will usually return home from ballet class completely exhausted. I, for one, am always grateful for a warm bath, some relaxing music and my foot roller to help relieve my tired feet. Why not make your BCP a “recuperation kit” with a soothing Epsom bath salts, a foot roller/massage ball and a nice ballet CD? I’m feeling soothed and relaxed just thinking about it.

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Sources (clockwise): A Balanchine Album; Epsom bath salt; Foot roller

8. Capture their success

Photos make a wonderful gift for dancers and are a great memento of a particular moment in their dance journey/career. Why not book a special photo session for your BCP at a local photography studio and make them a dance model for a day?

EXT_gift guide1_2013

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Penny-wise tip: The obvious way to save money on this gift is to take the photos yourself. So, if there are any avid photographers among you, why not make your BCP the subject of your next photography project?

9. Feed their inner bookworm

If there is one thing true BCPs never tire of, its learning about ballet. As you already know, they’ll spend hours watching ballet videos on youtube, searching the internet for tour dates and information on their favourite dance companies and reading biographies of ballet’s greatest dancers. Books about ballet are always a good idea! Here are a few of my favourites.

Ballet books

Sources (clockwise): Apollo’s Angels, Classical Ballet Technique, Dancers Among UsMao’s Last Dancer,

10. Support their habit

A gift that will always be well-received are vouchers for their ballet studio. They are going to take the classes anyway, why not help support their ballet habit? If you do get vouchers, just be sure to get ones for a ballet studio your BCP actually likes – they can be picky about which classes they attend and which teachers they train with.

Ballerina at the barre

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11. Continue being you (bonus)

As is usually the case, the best presents are the ones money cannot buy. I’m sure many BCPs will agree, the fact that you put up with their ballet craziness is the greatest gift of all. So, patient paramours, continue smiling when your BCP practices ballet combinations in the living room while you’re trying to watch TV. Keep letting them hog the computer all day to watch the 1 millionth ballet video on Youtube. Keep pretending to listen while they explain (again) just why they love Vishneva, Osipova and Seminova.

Your support, active or passive, is the best gift you can give.

Ballet couple, ballet love

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That concludes my list of top ten (plus one) gifts for BCPs – I hope my suggestions were helpful. To the BCPs that are reading this, is there anything I missed? Let me know what’s on your ballet Christmas wish list.

Happy (belated) birthday Alicia!

Alicia Markova

When Alicia Markova took the stage, audiences could not keep their eyes off her. She was ethereal, vulnerable and danced like a breath of fresh air.

Born Lilian Alicia Marks on 1st December, 1910, Markova began dancing at the advice of her doctor who hoped it would help strengthen her weak bones. It did much more than that and the little girl’s talent was soon recognised by her teachers – she was quick to pick up difficult combinations and had a natural ability that could not be ignored. She became known locally as “Little Alicia, the child Pavlova”.

Alicia Markova

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At the tender age of 14, she was hired for the Ballets Russe of Monte Carlo by Sergei Diaghilev who saw her dancing in class. She was to become one of his biggest stars and a daughter figure for him (she even called him Sergeipop!). After Diaghalev’s death, a distraught, 18-year-old Markova struggled to come to terms with the loss but found that numerous choreographers were eager to work with her. She returned to England and became the founding principal ballerina of “The Ballet Club” – the first professional ballet company in the UK founded by Dame Marie Rambert (later Rambert Dance Company). She was then invited by Ninette de Valois to join the Vic-Wells Ballet (later Royal Ballet) and later went on to form her own touring company with her lifelong friend and ballet partner Anton Dolin. Even after her retirement at age 52, she remained deeply committed to ballet – as a teacher, choreographer and director of various international balletic institutions.

Alicia Markova

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Dame Markova was a true pioneer in many ways – she was the founding dancer of two of the greatest ballet/dance companies in the world, the youngest-ever soloist in the Ballet Russe at the time (the first real “baby ballerina”, I guess) and the UK’s first Sugar Plum Fairy. She was also the first English ballerina to dance Petipa’s version of Giselle – a role most attributed to her.

Happy birthday Alicia and thank you for paving the way for the dancers that followed you!