Wordy Weekends: Ulanova, Bidart and the Ageless Giselle

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bidartIn keeping with this blog’s name, I’ll be writing a weekly post about a poem, poet,  poetic technique or book with some connection to dance — or that can be read from a dancer’s perspective.

I was going through an old journal, searching for fragments to mine for an ongoing project, when I found notes on Frank Bidart’s Watching the Spring Festival (2008). Based on my scribbles, it seems I wasn’t especially moved by this book of lyric poetry, with its flat-sounding meditations on mortality. I much preferred the tonal variety and page-as-stage explorations of Bidart’s dramatic monologues and longer poems in other books. One of these days I’ll reread and write about his 30-page “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky” — maybe in November, when the National Ballet remounts John Neumeier’s Nijinsky.

There was one poem in Watching the Spring Festival that stood out to me: “Ulanova at Forty-Six At Last Dances Before a Camera Giselle.” In it, a persona watches a grainy clip of the famous Bolshoi ballerina Galina Ulanova, who finally allowed herself to be filmed dancing Giselle while on tour in London in 1956. She was 46 years old.

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Studio Snapshot

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Studio N

The early ballettrist takes a photo before people come in to stretch

Here’s one of the beautiful studio spaces at Studio N (otherwise known as the Big Ballet School, the formal academy that trains professional dancers and also has a progressive adult programme). My place on Wednesday nights, at least until the term ends in July, is in the corner, by the fire exit. This way, when we turn to the left side, I have no one in front of me to copy and have to rely on memory. I wish I could dance here all the time — the bright space always feels immense, the marley floor’s well maintained, and the pianist (let’s call him Prokofiev) who accompanies Mr. B’s Level 3/4 class is top-notch — when Pro plays an adage, it’s like the notes are waves that help you lift and sustain your leg! I should write about Mr. B elsewhere — the nickname really fits, as he loves injecting Balanchine-sque steps in the centre. We had a tendu sequence with nifty hip swings (from Rubies, I think?) that felt decidedly un-classical but were oh so fun to do. Must practice those for next week, in case they come up again.

Blogger awards!

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I started this blog a few weeks ago and still consider myself a novice in the blogging community — so it’s very sweet of Lorry (of The 109th Bead) and Paulina (of Tía Paulina Flamenco) to have recommended me for this award:

Versatile Blogger AwardThanks to the two of you! It’s really cool to have found like-minded enthusiasts, who run the gamut from true adult beginners and dancing moms to passionate dabblers and costume-crafters to semi-professionals and all-around awesome people who aim to keep their lives interesting. So here’s a shout-out to fellow bloggers who haven’t been nominated for (or who haven’t posted) this award yet:

I’m a huge fan of The Classical Girl, whose thoughtful reviews and way with words I find incredibly compelling. I’m also constantly impressed by the progress and dedication of Back to First Position, whose journey back to ballet I’ve been following. The Dancing Rider probably best exemplifies the spirit of versatility, with her posts about riding, dancing, gardening and living purposefully. Kittiecat‘s entries about her cats and dancewear are delighful, and JustScott‘s updates about performing and often being the only guy in class are enlightening.

Now I’m supposed to share 7 things you don’t know about me, so here goes:

1. I grew up in the Philippines. My partner V grew up in France. We live and work in Toronto, where we met and fell in love — but “home” and “belonging” will always be problematic concepts now. At the moment, home is where we are (and where the barre is, as Johanna of Pointe Til You Drop said so well).

Tomatoes, kale, chard and basil2. Maybe as a way to combat feelings of rootlessness, I grow things. We’re currently renting an apartment that doesn’t have a backyard, so all the herbs and veggies grow in containers. Here’s a picture of one of our “gardening corners,” with tomatoes, kale, chard and 4 kinds of basil (purple opal, lemon, cinnamon and Genovese).

3. At 32 years old, I still can’t ride a bike! I never had a bike growing up, when my mom deemed Manila’s streets unsafe for anything with less than 4 wheels. It’s on the bucket list — maybe to be crossed off this summer.

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Pointe-rs Needed!

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Back en pointe after 20 years!

Back en pointe after 20 years!

So I went to my 4th real pointe class at Studio J. A short background: Studio J is one of 3 places in this city where adults can take pointe classes. Studio E has beginner pointe workshops that run for 6 weeks at a time — but it takes me at least 50 minutes to get there, by subway and streetcar and a short walk. Studio I has a 45-minute pointe class added to a full 1.5-hour ballet class — but they’re for intermediate and advanced dancers. The last time I was en pointe, I had a 12-year-old’s body, and that was for less than a year — so I’m basically starting from scratch!

My best option was Studio J, which offers continuous drop-in pointe classes — one of which is specifically for beginners. I also liked the fact that the studio required new students to: 1) schedule a private pointe assessment lesson; 2) have been taking at least 2 ballet classes a week for the past 2 years, to ensure proper strength and technique. Continue reading

That’s the Idea…

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Had a tougher than usual Intermediate class today at Studio C. One of the studio’s owners, a gorgeous salsa dancer/choreographer, decided to take class with us. So Mr. Silver upped his game. Fondus were all on relevé with several grand ronds de jambe, frappés had doubles and even triples, grand battements had a couple of fouettés thrown in.

Our first exercise in the centre was a killer, preying on my weaknesses. It went something like (forgive any wrong terminology, please!): pirouette en dehors ending à la seconde effacé, then 3/4 promenade in à la seconde ending in 1st arabesque, fondu pas de bourré. Developpé arabesque, 1/4 promenade, passé developpe devant, fondu, piqué attitude balance, end in relevé 5th. I overshot the turn, wobbled, had a low leg to the side, found my supporting leg turned in, and couldn’t control that piqué attitude just right (either too much force pushing forward, or too much weight on the pinky side of supporting foot). The saving grace was that arabesque fondu and pas de bourré. Give me a pas de bourré any day and I’ll kill it.

I peeked at the mirror a few times. Everyone was struggling with something, even gorgeous studio owner. After our first try, Mr. Silver cocked his head and said one of his favourite lines: “That’s the idea.” We laughed.

One of the things I like about Mr. Silver, who used to be a soloist at the National Ballet and can still whip out triple turns like they were nothing, is that he doesn’t give empty praise. I’ve had a couple of teachers in drop-in classes who throw out compliments like “Excellent” and “Absolutely!” when someone performs a step at a basic, barely satisfactory level. They mean to be encouraging, I know, but somehow I believe them less. When Mr. Silver says “That’s the idea,” he’s acknowledging our effort, our attempts to think through the steps with our bodies, but also telling us that was nowhere near nailing it. Then he gives corrections and asks us to do it again. If the second try’s still wonky, he’ll say, “Let’s work on that again next week.” If it’s better, “That’s more like it.” No unnecessary gushing with this guy.

So when we moved on to assemblés and echappé battus (which I love love love!), and he looked at me and said “Good!”, I beamed. Sometimes just one word can mean so much.

Elena Lobsanova on discipline, empathy and generosity

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Photo by Daniel Neuhaus

Guillaume Cote and Elena Lobsanova. Photo by Daniel Neuhaus.

Here’s a short profile in OTM Zine of one of my favourite National Ballet dancers, Elena Lobsanova. This week, she reprises her lead role in Alexei Ratmansky’s Romeo & Juliet, which premiered in 2011. The process behind the creation of the ballet was featured in the CBC documentary Romeos & Juliets, where we also see Elena blossom from being a shy, inexperienced soloist into a star fully in control of her brilliance, clinching the coveted opening night slot. I watched her perform this role in March 2013 and was struck not just by the purity of her lines, but by her thoughtfulness and how fully she abandoned herself to the role of Juliet. I completely believed her character’s journey, from naivete to desire to despair.

It’s heartening to know that she’s also struggled with her perceived weaknesses:

“I was particularly slow; I couldn’t pick up the material as fast and I hadn’t had much experience… I could feel that something was missing, I was lacking a sense of direction and connection with my body.”

These thoughts are so familiar — I feel like every adult beginner (me included) has had them at one point or another. Elena conquered these thoughts and weaknesses through discipline, immersion in literature and lessons in empathy, becoming a much more generous performer. More on Elena Lobsanova here and here.

Points of Contact: Creating Intimacy in Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof

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kontakthof3It’s been a few days now, but I still can’t stop thinking about Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof, performed by Tanztheater Wuppertal for Toronto’s Luminato Festival. I’d seen snippets of it in Wim Wenders’ gorgeous biopic, Pina, but never before in its entirety. At a whopping three hours, Bausch’s classic 1978 piece remains stunningly powerful and relevant.

From the beginning, the audience is riveted. A woman in a pink satin dress walks to the front of the stage, turns around, pulls her hair back, bares her teeth (eliciting a few giggles), hunches then straightens her back, checks her palms and heels. Other women repeat these gestures in unison, then the men in sharp suits follow suit. We in the audience become mirrors, witnesses to their ceremonious preening and posing before the search for an acceptable partner.

Set in a dance hall, with tango and boogie tunes in the background, Kontakthof pits men and women (of different ages, ethnicities and body types) against each other, poking fun at the games we play to find intimacy. The poignant and the painful share space with the absurd. When the men freeze like statues, the women run in to fill the spaces: her face between his outstretched hands, her arms around his curved torso. A couple discusses whether to have sushi or Italian on their first date as they, with everyone else, take sliding steps forward before running back to step forward again. A man chases a screaming woman with a toy mouse in his hand. A woman asks an audience member for change to ride a coin-operated horse. A blow-up doll in a pink dress is thrown up to the ceiling. Everyone sits down to watch a short documentary about ducks.

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(S)wannabe

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“Remember, ladies, you’re not people-people,” Miss A said. “You’re birds. Swan queens.”

I nuzzled my arm, er, wing, and tried to look regal while bending back, ready to attack the first steps of the White Swan variation at Studio E.

Miss A came over to correct my arms. They weren’t broken enough. Right arm up, elbow bent, palm facing away to the right. Left arm in a low 1st, wrist flicked outwards. “Now use your upper body more.” I leaned to the right. This was harder than I thought. “No, don’t tilt your head. Look under, as if you’re hiding. You’re a bit frightened, but also a bit thoughtful.” I mimicked the pose, threw myself into those side developpés. “Don’t plié relevé into them, step with a straight leg.”

I looked at the mirror and saw a sweaty, red-faced (s)wannabe wearing a giraffe-print wrap skirt in a failed attempt to look longer and leaner.

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Notes on Watching Company Class

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It felt strange to enter the theatre on a Saturday morning, with all the stage lights on and the dancers already warming up beside freestanding barres. In a way, it felt like sneaking up on Santa’s elves in their summer workshop. But the dancers knew we were there — and thanks to their generosity, a large audience (with lots of little ballerinas and their moms in tow) got to watch the hard work they put in every morning before the curtain goes up.

Here’s what I observed from the 2nd row:

1. Just like any other class, some people come in early to stretch: frog, butterfly, straddle splits, pied à la main. Others take their time, sharing a joke or two, casually putting their hair into a bun. Some are so internally focused, athletes getting into intense game mode. Others smile while doing thereband exercises. A few rush in a minute before class starts. It’s all good.

2. Anything goes, as far as dancewear is concerned. I saw: lovely patterned Elevé and Yumiko leotards, a plain black camisole with straps that had probably snapped once and been reknotted, a gorgeous aquamarine leo with black lace bodice and 3/4 sleeves (really wanted to ask the dancer where she got this!). A faded grey Metallica T-shirt. Thigh-high leg warmers. Knit jumpsuits. Hoodies. Pink tights over leo, black tights under shorts, nude-coloured super-short shorts and bare legs on a guy. Thick cotton socks, down-filled booties, canvas split-soles, even “jewelled” pointe shoes (principal dancers Sonia Rodriguez and Jillian Vanstone appeared to be breaking in their crystal-studded pairs for Cinderella). Lululemon Studio pants, ripstop garbage bag crops, and lots of track pants — we could hear the swish, swish, swish as they did tendus en croix.

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Class Notes and Weekend Excitement

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Last night, at Studio I (which, incidentally, is where the National Ballet trains — a fact that still thrills this little fan’s heart every time I take class there), Madame T gave me a couple of corrections. We were doing fondus. “Turn out your leg more in arabesque”, she said. “You have excellent turnout, but you need to use it.” I extended my leg to the side, hovering somewhere near 80 degrees. She lifted my foot up to shoulder height. “See,” she cooed, “you can go higher.” She let go and my leg dropped back to 80. Sigh. Guess I’ll have to strengthen those hip flexors and be more diligent about stretching.

I redeemed myself towards the end of the class when we started doing brisés. A few people in the Pre-Intermediate class had never done them before, so Madame T asked “the more advanced people” to show the beats. We looked around. Our resident “most advanced girl” was absent. Madame T pointed to me and said, “Demonstrate.” Uh oh. I tried to remember what Miss C from Studio C taught us months ago. Deep demi-plié, tilt the torso diagonally forward as you brush the back leg and beat the other leg to meet it, under-over, land in 5th. It was far from perfect, but it was a definite travelling baby brisé. “Good!” We did 2 slow brisés, 2 fast, a changement, then the other side. 4 times. I was out of breath but happy by the time we were through.

On another note, I’m super excited about this weekend! Besides spending some quality time with V, here’s what I’ve got lined up.

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