Wordy Weekends: Ulanova, Bidart and the Ageless Giselle


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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“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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Say hello


Last night, at Studio M, Señor gave our Ballet 2/3 class a lovely, languorous port de bras sequence. From 5th croisé, look back coyly as you chassé back before opening arms into 3rd and tendu devant, tombé and switch arms to gaze at the upper balcony seats, ronde to the other corner, open arms to seconde, posé forward into 5th, lift back leg into a mini arabesque and lunge back, cambré forward and back, prep arms for pirouette, pirouette en dedans with arms in 5th, detourné to the other side.

We marked it, then Señor moved some people over to the front line, the way he normally does, choosing different people from week to week. He asked F to stand beside me, then asked, “Hey, do you know each other?” Smiles and nods. We were two of the regulars — I’ve been taking Señor’s class, on and off, for more than a year now. “I have a brilliant idea. Why don’t we all introduce ourselves and say hello?”

The energy in the room changed. Normally guarded ladies smiled at the newbies, the guy who’d spent most of the barre staring at his reflection in the mirror greeted everyone warmly, people shook hands and looked each other in the eye. After living in Toronto for 8 years, I’ve gotten so used to people looking away, looking down, going to great lengths to avoid offending each other with their eyes. I remember feeling invisible the first few times I walked around downtown, people enclosed in their public bubbles of unseeing. So different from my home city, Manila — where from the moment you step out eyes are on you, looks of undisguised curiosity or judgement, sometimes just a neutral look that lasts maybe 5 seconds and asks nothing in return but acknowledgement.

Señor said, “Now let’s translate that same feeling of openness and warmth to our port de bras. Be present. Be generous with your audience, with each other. Leave the porch lights on!” The pianist rippled through the first bars and we chasséd back. Señor turned on the studio’s two spotlights. Our arms said hello to the front row, to the balcony, to each other in the mirror. Hello, I see you. I see you too. Thank you.

First Steps


I’ve been meaning to do this for a while now.

This time 2 years ago, I was in limbo. I had just become a permanent resident after a few years of studying and working in this city. My days were spent in a grey cubicle staring at 2 computer screens, poring over retail flyer pages and catalogues, proofreading prices, correcting other people’s spelling, and if I got lucky, churning out a tagline or two. I was luckier than many. But something was missing. I had a steady job, my debts had been paid, my loving relationship with V was still going strong after 5 years, and my family back home was doing well — but there was a silence that kept gnawing, that threatened to swallow me up whole.

I went hiking. I grew herbs, beans, tomatoes and cucumbers in containers. I got addicted to playing Diablo III. The restlessness kept growing. Then while visiting my brother in San Francisco, we happened to catch an episode of So You Think You Can Dance, which I’d dismissed as just another mediocre talent show. I saw Eliana’s audition and was speechless. Her body was so expressive, so joyful and honest. By the time she won season 9 with fellow ballet dancer Chehon, I had made up my mind. I would try to dance again. At 30 years old.

I had danced ballet as a kid in Manila, from age 4 to 13, taking Royal Academy of Dance exams and popping toe blisters from pointe shoes. I stopped for all the reasons other girls do: not the ideal body type, not committed enough to give up time with friends, ultimately not good enough to go pro. I still loved it, but I stepped away, thinking that part of my life was over. Once in a while I’d get nightmares of being onstage, dressed in jeans among a flock of white tutus, not knowing what the choreography was and running away before ruining the piece for everyone. I’d wake up with my heart palpitating.

Stepping into Studio C’s beginner ballet class was like meeting up with a good friend you hadn’t seen in years — you liked each other once, but aren’t sure anymore if you can keep a meaningful conversation flowing or make room for each other in your current lives. I put a tentative hand on the barre, between other black-legginged adults. There was room. It was a safe place, a fresh page, a sanctuary other (re)beginners in the blogworld had discovered for themselves.

I started slow, one class a week at first, then 2 (my aching muscles needed a few days in between to recover). Then I discovered other studios in the city, some of which even had live pianists and a progressive ballet curriculum for adults. Some things came back easily (thank you, fast-twitch muscles made for petit allegro), other things I still struggle with (hello spotting, hello there, no here, no…chaîné turn fail). The more I danced, the more genres I tried (tango and contemporary are new favourites), the more I realized it was like re-learning a language. There are emotions, concepts, nuances only that particular language can express, that other words can’t even come close to. I also discovered that the more I danced, the more I wanted to write again.

This is a record of that continuing process of discovery, of experiencing the sense of freedom and wholeness and possibility and community that the worlds of dance and poetry can give. Welcome to Poets and Pirouettes. This should be an interesting ride.