Running With Scissors

Level 1 Saute

one of my little ones beautifully captured at the top of a jump during a rehearsal of my “mini” Debussy ballet, by the deft photographic hand of the school director

This time of year dance schools everywhere roll out the abomination known as the recital.  Some of my former ballet school parents back in Knoxville whose children landed at “recital” schools after I left have recently been heard moaning online about the exorbitant cost of sequined costumes, other recital-related expenses, limited stage exposure for their children, and recital headaches in general.

We did not do the recital at Knoxville Ballet School, in part because I had no help for this mammoth undertaking, but also because I was brought up and trained in an environment that eschewed such things.  My mom’s own small ballet school in Memphis–where I trained for several important years–instead presented a year-end demonstration on a small stage, with no costumes–just classroom attire; only the most “advanced” students danced a small, chamber-style piece during the second half of the programme, wearing the simplest imaginable costumes which my mom sewed by hand.  It was all very tasteful, if a bit Spartan.

I have been asked to produce actual choreography in my new work environment–another milestone in the current chapter of my life, which is a radical departure from the previous one.  The students in the school mount a spring performance each year–decidedly unrecital-ish, with works shown in the studio a few months before the big event in June. This is a brilliant plan on behalf of the director.  It gives the uninitiated kids a chance to figure out the scope of what they are doing, and their parents important data about young students of classical ballet and our expectations of them, and it gives the school vital exposure in the local community.  This works-in-progress studio performance has a decidedly casual and celebratory demeanor but still serves as a dress rehearsal for the real deal.

My role in this year’s spring performance is mercifully small when held up against the work load of my colleagues, and I am eternally grateful for being allowed to step into it swimming pool style, pinkie toe first. But a few weeks ago the school director threw me a curve ball when she asked me what I thought about including the teen beginner class in the June performance.  I balked at first.  This class had formed only in January, and although its enrollment was and remains healthy, the girls in the class were either complete novices, or had limited exposure to classical ballet instruction.  Inexperienced.  Limited dance vocabulary. Teenagers. And now this inexperienced choreographer was being asked to create something for them that would somehow look good on the stage.  To quote one of my amazing ballet mentors:  Oy.


New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s Momentum Pro Gesualdo;
photo, Paul Kolnik

I continue to surprise myself.  No sooner had the school director nudged me towards another beautiful Debussy piece for the piano, one of the collection from which we chose music for my other pieces, than I began to see movement on my teenage girls.  I can’t quite explain this.  Maybe it is because I like the music so much, and I have been teaching these girls since January, and I feel a burgeoning rapport with them.  Maybe I work well under pressure–I always did in an academic environment.  But whatever the reason, I found myself resisting help from the school director when she offered it to me.  No, I wanted this one.  It is short, it is challenging.  The kids are novices, but they are eager.  The director found gorgeous costumes for them that flatter their leggy, still untrained bodies and recall Mr. Balanchine’s leotard ballets–simple, sophisticated, elegant; exactly what you want when you are thirteen and taking your first tentative steps into adult shoes.  And what better tribute:  Mr. Balanchine himself fashioned a school and company from untrained novices when he landed on American soil.

This process feels good.  I find myself wanting more of it, more opportunities to create.  There is no guarantee that my girls and I will pull this off with just two short weeks of rehearsal time remaining, and a finale yet to do.  (Tomorrow!)  But I have a feeling we will all be just fine, my girls and I–even the one of us who is careful, and neat, and tidy, and organized, and on time.  Now I am learning to run with scissors, and I confess I like it.

I leave you with the music playing in an endless loop in my head.

4 thoughts on “Running With Scissors

  1. I am completely sure that you will pull it off, and what’s more that the group will excel beyond your or anyone’s wildest dreams. Teens’ speciality, after all, is surprising adults.

    In this kind of situation, they are eager for the reward of a dance piece despite their lack of long term training, so they will work hard to accomplish it. And what is so exciting, is their technique will visibly improve in the process. Teens like to know what the goal is for the basics they are working on at the barre. The ballet will show them the connections between what they are striving to do and the presentational result. Thus they will find satisfaction in performing with simplicity. (One of the original teachers at NAA was a Mrs. Stella Applebaum, I think I only took a few classes with her. I remember her saying “simple is not the same thing as easy: simple can be very difficult to do.” I never forgot that one!)

    I am so happy that you could visualize them dancing to the music, and you will be so glad that you bit off this big hunk of challenge. Enjoy and congratulations! Let your loyal readers know how it goes.

  2. I studied under Stella Applebaum in the Buffalo, N.Y. area in the late 1950s. The training I received in her ballet classes served me well over the years even though I never made it a career. I used to baby sit her children now and then and she treated me to my first live ballet performance, which was The Bolshoi Ballet, Swan Lake in Toronto, Canada in 1959.

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