*Almost* Paradise: Close Enough

Class with Julie Kent: Pretty Dang Close; Photo courtesy of Jill Adlin

So how’s your dukkha these days?

I know exactly nothing about Buddhism, but my friend Jill does. That’s her beautiful daughter in the photo up there, standing next to former American Ballet Theatre principal ballerina Julie Kent, perhaps a little star struck. Dukkha, she explained, is the Buddhist concept of suffering, with an asterisk: it’s thought to have been mistranslated as actual suffering, when what it really means is thinking you’re suffering when you’re only inconvenienced or slightly unsatisfied. Like getting the grocery cart with the bockety wheel on it, and now you’ll spend the next half hour fighting the grocery cart around the store.

Annoying, perhaps, but suffering? You still have the privilege of browsing well stocked shelves of food which you will buy and then go home and enjoy, a privilege most Americans take for granted, anyway. You probably won’t spend too much time worrying about whether you’ve gotten the nutrients you needed today, while somewhere on the globe there’s no clean water to drink.

The Buddhists, Jill went on, maintain we add ‘extra’ to our dukkha by imagining our lives would finally be perfect if only we could accomplish <missing thing>. We’ve all experienced this, haven’t we?

In fact I’ve honed it to a lustrous sheen over the last five years of transition. There were plenty of sleepless nights at first, and no small amount of hand wringing and nail biting and wondering what would happen if and when the bank account was empty: these are the things that spawn action. There was genuine anguish to be sure, but probably never actual suffering. And my own landscape now is downright pastoral by comparison, a green hill dotted by black-faced sheep, and the occasional bockety wheel to keep me honest.

Seems that beautiful little ballerina up there, my erstwhile Knoxville Ballet School student, is North Carolina bound, finally getting her wish to enroll in full-time residential ballet school. I could not be happier nor prouder. It’s no small thing: Celia sailed over the talent hurdle, clearing it easily, the academic one a mere formality (quoting my beloved mentor: you can’t be dumb and dance). She has leapt into the world of pre-professional ballet training: the rest is up to her.

Hat tip to her devoted parents, who are moving heaven and earth (and experiencing no small amount of dukkha) to make this happen for their daughter, who by all accounts is giddy, as anybody in those pointe shoes would be.

Her mom explained the ‘extra’ she’s added to her own dukkha in all this is wishing she and her family had moved from Tennessee to North Carolina a few years ago, when they were actually considering it. But because this is an exercise in futility, she continued, she’s moving past it. She went on to list all the positives of this exciting new development, bockety wheels be damned.

There is food in the pantry and a dog dreaming on the floor—in Tennessee and in Vermont—and soon a Knoxville girl will enjoy complete classical ballet immersion in North Carolina: that’s close enough to paradise.

Young Dancer Follow-Up

Julie Kent with Celia Adlin; North Carolina School of the Arts, July 2016. Photo courtesy of Jill Adlin
Julie Kent with Celia Adlin; North Carolina School of the Arts, July 2016. Photo courtesy of Jill Adlin

I’ve been off the grid for some weekend travel, but want to share an update about young Celia Adlin, my former student who has just finished her first American Ballet Theatre summer intensive at North Carolina School of the Arts. She is shown here at the end of last week after her technique class with former ABT principal Julie Kent (artistic director of American Ballet Theatre’s summer intensives programs, recently named artistic director of Washington Ballet). Celia is giddy I am told, wearing stage makup in the photo because she was about to dance in the end of intensive performance. Her mom reports she is more than ever smitten with her ballet training; that is a synthesis of the message, and also an enormous understatement.

And so it goes; ’til soon.

How Firm a Foundation: Training a Young Dancer for Life

Knoxville Ballet School Student Demonstration
Knoxville Ballet School Lecture Demonstration February 2012, Knoxville Museum of Art; photo courtesy of Xavier Battle

Unrelenting questions, lobbed one after another by a well-intentioned ballet school dad, my back inches from an icy cooler packed with pricey frozen concoctions in one of Knoxville’s fancy new grocery stores. Did I think there was something special in his young daughter Celia? Did she possess a gift for classical ballet? And what about the summer program for young dancers at American Ballet Theatre, still in its infancy at that moment?

The questions were intelligent and purposeful, put to me in earnest by someone still wrapping his head around what ballet training might entail for his child. His wife had already answered them, an erstwhile ballerina herself; now he was merely getting backup from one more trusted source, proof positive that the planets in the squirrelly ballet universe might possibly align for his daughter.

I was emphatically unprepared for the inquisition, almost done with my errand, aimed for the door; moments earlier I had recognized his familiar face and waved hello. We stood there and chatted for a long while. Yes, I said, I believe Celia is special. And I believe the workshop at ABT is worth your consideration if you can make it work logistically. That’s the distilled version of what I told him, anyway.

Knoxville Ballet School ABT Primary Level C
Celia Adlin, Primary Level C Improvisation Exercise, Knoxville Ballet School

It was true: in my opinion Celia possessed what the former director of the prestigious Prix de Lausanne—a renowned international ballet competition—once referred to as “that elusive thing called talent.” She was maybe seven at the time, possibly on the cusp of eight. Possibly. But the idea of sending her (and some of her other talented young colleagues at my fledgling ballet school) to the epicenter of the ballet world for training with stellar faculty was admittedly so alluring. That opportunity certainly did not exist for me at the tender age of seven or eight, nor was I prepared for such a monumental undertaking. But the ABT curriculum in place for only a short time at my small school was already proving its worth in the development of the young children who were learning it.

Making a case to this smart and invested dad was a walk in the park: his daughter was growing up in a ballet family and he was already committed to giving her whatever tools she needed, even if the entirety of that had not quite come into crystalline focus. But explaining the importance of superior training to uninitiated parents—why tuition can seem so costly, why there are school uniforms, why a child should undertake ballet exams, to say nothing of the necessity of travel to far-off destinations for summer training (and perhaps ultimately full-time residential school) and all it entails—is difficult at best, hopeless at worst. (And in truth, that level of commitment is not appropriate for everybody.)

Knoxville Ballet School ABT Level 1B
Level 1A Class at Knoxville Ballet School

Educating parents of young dancers to be intelligent consumers of classical ballet training is a piece of the small private ballet school experience so often missing, I think. You can’t drop the ball: moms and dads need answers to questions, they need to hear them often, and by way of multiple platforms—a shotgun approach, if you will. With any luck, some of your answers will hit the bull’s eye and “stick.” And with each incoming crop of little ballerina wannabes every fall semester, you must start explaining and answering questions from the beginning, painstakingly, and with patience. For me, that moment in the fall always demonstrated so poignantly just how far we—my ballet school community and I—had traveled together over the last calendar year.

Very few dancers from small ballet schools in the hinterlands make it to the professional stage—hardly any of them, as a matter of fact. There are statistics floating around to support this truth, but the bigger point is this: classical ballet training for young children must be worth more than the possibility of enjoying professional life as a dancer. It must be worth more.

Knoxville Ballet School ABT Level 1 J. Ryan Carroll
Level 1 Class at Knoxville Ballet School with Guest Instructor J. Ryan Carroll

So what exactly is the payoff for your child, after you’ve thrown years of your own life and buckets of resources at her so she can pursue something quite possibly beyond her reach? There are enough answers to that single question to fill volumes. But I would say simply, to prepare her for the rest of her life, however that looks. The sum total of her experiences in the classroom and on the stage will follow her wherever she goes, and serve her in ways unimagined when you were writing her ballet school tuition checks or sending her off to residential school or buying her hundredth pair of new pointe shoes. The day she is met with some seemingly insurmountable life challenge as an adult it will have been a difficult message imparted to her once upon a time when she stood at the ballet barre, or in a packed audition class, or in a girls’ locker room, hot tears of frustration possibly welling up in her eyes, to finally help see her through it.

ABT Young Dancer Student Workshop
Celia in Class at American Ballet Theatre, August 2012

As for Celia, her ballet journey continues. Unbelievably she’ll be a ninth grader this fall. Her parents have figured out a way to obtain superior training for her in the absence of our beautiful ballet school in Knoxville where she had her first few years of formal ballet training, and from which she did indeed travel to NYC to study at ABT with two of her young classmates in the summer of 2012. It’s not easy: she must commute to Atlanta for classes and private coaching from Ashleyanne Hensley, another ABT/NTC teacher who has taken up the mantle where I left it and continued nurturing along a special girl who is now looking for all the world like a young woman. This summer she is studying ballet away from home at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts; the planets appear to be in alignment as they should be.

North Carolina School of the Arts Celia Adlin
At North Carolina School of the Arts, Summer 2016; photo courtesy of Jill Adlin

Last summer when I was in Knoxville visiting friends and families I sat down with Celia and her mom over a late dinner. We talked for hours, and not just about ballet: Celia has wide-ranging interests, one of them writing. Working as I do now as a professional writer I had the chance to weigh in on the satisfaction that comes from being paid to write, but also its realities, how difficult it is to find work or be published. In some ways it sounded so strangely aligned with some of the challenges of working as a professional dancer. For her part, Celia is excited about embracing her freshman year experiences in the fall at a school much larger than the one she has known ‘til now; ballet is but one piece of her life, albeit a big one, “beloved,” as her mom says.

Celia’s deportment and aplomb impressed me deeply; it’s abundantly clear classical ballet has left its indelible thumbprint on her. This young dancer has had a beautiful foundation indeed; the world is hers for the taking.

A note about the following video: young Celia competed in the Atlanta leg of the Youth America Grand Prix this past winter, her first time to participate in a classical ballet competition. This is rehearsal footage of the Aurora variation she danced from Sleeping Beauty Act III. A rogue snowstorm had just hit the city and threatened to cancel the competition; Celia was sleep-deprived, dancing on vapors, but determined, wearing one of her mom’s revived tutus from ballet days gone by. Her mom graciously granted permission to post the video.

Note: the photos in this post belong to Knoxville Ballet School, Xavier Battle, and Jill Adlin; don’t steal ’em—it ain’t nice.

My Journey to the Corporate World: Don’t Hate

Knoxville Ballet School Level 2B

A ballet friend and colleague recently asked whether I’ve been “itching” to teach again. I had to think about that. These days I’m not sure I would describe my desire to teach as an itch, but maybe—it felt like something more profound when I took the colossal and risky leap of faith to open a small ballet school in 2006. Any kind of business startup demands your full commitment, and I mean full, to say nothing of a healthy bank account—double what you think it will take and then some, buckets of your time, unrelenting nail biting, more time, all your waking hours, and a few sleepless nights thrown in for good measure—did I mention time?

When you start a school there are exactly no guarantees the thing will fly; mine ultimately did not, although had I been willing to leave behind some of my stubbornly held ideas about maintaining a certain artistic “pureness” in my business practices, I believe it would have: when my marriage failed and everything came unglued I was already teetering on the threshold of fiscal success. But teetering falls short of paying the light bill and the rent.

Other benchmarks at the school—teaching standards, community engagement, relationship building—undeniably painted a picture of success. I submit that during its brief life the ballet school purveyed a product of a quality unmatched anywhere in my home town and beyond. What I could bring to the table was complete immersion in classical ballet by way of the pedigree handed me by my own ballerina mom and each of her friends and colleagues, who nurtured along my intense love for the form for most of two decades. We often speak of teaching ballet as commuting the art form to a new generation, our tacit obligation to keep it alive but also to leave our own thumbprint on it, part and parcel of its natural evolution; I saw the school as my chance to do that.

But in 2009 I also made an important business and artistic decision to develop a professional relationship with American Ballet Theatre, which served my community back home in more ways than can be quantified on a spreadsheet; the school’s population—its young enrollees and their families—were the beneficiaries of the collective wisdom of scores of professionals thanks to ABT’s National Training Curriculum. Friendships and professional ties forged at ABT persist; whether they will be called again into “active service” at some point is anybody’s guess, which is the thing I find so enticing about the future to begin with, a kind of counter weight to the uncertainty that can be so disquieting.

The question is, does a ballet school, or any other business, really, deserve to be there in the first place if it can’t self-sustain? Does every struggling business (or ill-conceived business plan or idea) deserve a Kickstarter campaign? I never even thought of going down that road with my own small ballet school.

Instead I sized up my desperate situation and ultimately took a job in the corporate world after a brief teaching stint elsewhere, a “selling out” frowned on in some circles. Even the word itself—corporate—has negative connotations (greed comes to mind), some deserved to be sure. It derives from the Latin word for body, but its implicit meaning now is “all” versus “one.” The corps de ballet, for example, is the main body of the company, apart from its soloists, but without whom there is no ballet. We often think of the corporate entity, though, as antithetical to the individual, and therefore antithetical to creativity.

Working in the corporate world is not a universally wretched condition: I’m privileged to make a living doing the one other thing I love, which is writing, even if it is not always in my own voice. (Is there creativity in my work? In spades.) But when you dance in the corps de ballet, you are part of something bigger, as I am now.

Were I still at the helm of a ballet school, my approach now would almost certainly be broader, making use of the classroom space to generate revenue for as many moments as the day allowed, to reach a wider audience, to tap into the bigger desires of the community—to be more corporate minded, if you will; this is not about greed, but survival. In those days I eschewed these opportunities in the name of artistic purity, of being only the one thing, the best ballet school. Even the school’s slogan spelled it out: excellent instruction in correct classical ballet technique. But it would have been entirely possible to reach beyond the confines of classical ballet instruction and still maintain that slogan, and the highest standards for ballet training. (And in hindsight, the school’s one exceptional product really demanded a higher price tag than I put on it.) I embraced the paradigm of the diva soloist instead of being a team player in the corps de ballet, and it finally cost me my school. Without the corps, there is no ballet.

So I answered my friend’s question yes, with an asterisk: some day in the future, I would enjoy standing at the front of the classroom again, at a time when I don’t absolutely need the income from an unwieldy teaching load to (barely) make ends meet. Teaching ballet really is a luxury; working as I do now is a necessity, but is honorable, I believe, and satisfying, a pleasure for which being vilified by some folks out there in the ether feels misguided. These days I pay the light bill and the rent as a member of the corps, no Kickstarter campaign required.

Deb and Celia at ABT 1

With one of my young Knoxville Ballet School students at ABT in 2012

Swan Lake, You Rock My World.

Swan Lake 2 A

Prologue

I wish I could rewind a particular winter night about a dozen years ago at the Kennedy Center. I wish I could find all the people who were sitting in the right section of the orchestra at the opera house there, people who thought they were about to enjoy a memorable performance of Swan Lake, and tell each of them I’m sorry. I wish I could apologize to the camera man operating the large-ish equipment poised just over my right shoulder, one of several in the house filming a performance by American Ballet Theatre that would soon air on PBS. I wish I could say sorry to ABT’s Director, Kevin McKenzie, too, and to the cast. I would apologize to them all for the incessant squeaking of a particular chair in about the fourth row, for the slobbery gnawing on a rubber “cause” bracelet by its distracted young wearer, and for the unabated crinkling of a ballet programme’s pages, its inserts snatched up from the floor a thousand times over the course of a couple of hours.

Mainly I wish I could apologize to a particular boy, age twelve: I am sorry for dragging you into this venue, grand as it is, for a silly story ballet that’s a stretch for grown ups, too: you should be back in the hotel room watching a Harry Potter movie. Or doing something cool with your dad. I am guilty of cultural proselytizing, and I am deeply sorry. (But I still secretly hope some of it rubs off on you.)

Act I

Swan Lake was the first in Tchaikovsky’s famous Russian ballet trifecta, followed by Sleeping Beauty and the Nutcracker. If you had never been to a ballet and then watched those three sequentially, you’d see something emerge that feels awfully close to a formula that includes (among other things) national dances and what I like to call the Tchaikovsky Schmaltzy Waltz. Everybody on the planet is at least familiar with Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker if only from the music looped through any mall’s PA system during the holidays: it makes me want to claw my eyeballs out.

Swan Lake mercifully gets it over with quickly, right at the beginning of Act I. Music evokes powerful memories, and that waltz is no exception. My Aunt Jane taught ballet technique on Saturday mornings when I was about thirteen at my mom’s small school in Memphis. She routinely dropped the needle on the first track of a Swan Lake LP and just let it play while she took us through a solid half hour or so of conditioning on the floor before we did the first demi-plié at the barre. Cross training for dancers was not talked about much in those days: it’s exactly what this ritual was, though, our core musculature protesting to the strains of Tchaikovsky. I have an involuntary response in my gut to the Act I waltz every single time I hear it, dammit.

Act II

It’s the closest thing I can think of to synchronized swimming. Acts II and IV are also called the “white acts,” for reasons abundantly clear when you see the ballet. In my youth I failed to appreciate the immense job set before the corps de ballet in a single performance of Swan Lake; nowadays I find this work exquisite, and that is all. If you’ve never seen this ballet but someday have the opportunity, do yourself a favor: sit somewhere higher than the orchestra so you can observe the geometry unfold in the white acts. Forget the story: a prince falls in love with a swan queen? C’mon. There is a tad more to the plot than that, but still. Instead, let the ballet wash over you. Like, say, a lake. A swan lake. Or, le lac des cygnes, if you prefer.

In spite of the truly breathtaking moments in the ballet’s second act, it always inspires a few giggles. There is another waltz, but it is far more sublime than the big one in the first act (in my opinion). I can never listen to it, though, without hearing my mom singing “Sweet Rosie O’Grady,” because the first line of melody in the waltz is exactly the same. It was something mom and her classmates at Canada’s National Ballet School routinely sang as a bit of a roast when they were learning the ballet’s choreography. They also practiced the very stylized head movements of the famous foursome of baby swans in Act II, or the cygnettes, on the Toronto subway, so she said. It’s a fun piece of choreography I’ve taught before. A nineteenth century pop song and baby swans—you get them both in the second act. And a beautiful pas de deux, and a wicked difficult swan queen variation, and more of the hard-to-swallow plot.

Act III

This is where classical ballet draws from the canon of character dancing that is so much fun. In fact, I have never heard a ballet student or professional dancer complain about taking a character class or doing one of these dances. (Go here to see an excerpt from a Vaganova Academy character class, where the music happens to be from Swan Lake Act III; you’ll see what I mean.) There is character dance in spades in Act III. And the famous Black Swan Pas de Deux, with all those dang fouettés danced by the Swan Queen Odette’s evil lookalike, Odile. By the end of Swan Lake’s third act you know unequivocally things will end badly.

Act IV

And this is why I would never recommend this ballet for a young child. (Or a twelve-year-old boy.) It still ain’t over. The music in the fourth act is worth the wait—if it is not trimmed in the interest of time, as it was the night I saw ABT’s version at the Kennedy Center. And you get more of that exquisite precision work from the corps de ballet. And a tragic double suicide. And the bad guy at last is finished. It’s classic Russian choreography, but there’s the rub: no two versions of the ballet are the same—it’s not like ordering a Big Mac anywhere in the world, where you can rest assured you’ll get a consistent product every single time (even if it’s meh). There are wide-ranging versions of the ballet with choreography that honors the original by Ivanov and Petipa, and others that take their leave of it. It’s a big ballet and some companies are hard-pressed to pull it off well.

Apotheosis

Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I watched American Ballet Theatre’s version last night on our Blu-ray; we made it through the third act before calling it quits at the end of a long work week. But I wanted to prepare him for an upcoming performance we get to see at Providence Festival Ballet in a couple of weeks. If he’ll consent to it, I might throw another completely different version at him before we go, one by Royal Swedish Ballet that has a decidedly darker and more Gothic feel.

It has been a while for me and I am pretty excited to be in the theatre for live classical ballet, and to see my young friend Gwynn who dances in the company, after we missed her last summer when we visited the rest of her family. We shall be on our very best behavior, no rattling of programmes, or chewing anything, or bouncing in seats, I promise.

But I don’t promise I will remain perfectly silent.  Sweet Rosie O’ Grady, laaaaah, la, la, la, la-la!

Swan Lake 1 A

Illustrations by Alice and Martin Provenson, taken from my copy of Tales from the Ballet, a childhood favorite.

Shut Up and Listen

Some people change the very demeanor of a space simply by stepping into it. Franco De Vita is one of them. So is his colleague and partner in life, Raymond Lukens. And for a beautiful and golden chapter in my own life I had the great privilege of learning from these two wise men how to commute the art of classical ballet to a new generation of children.

Wise guys is also a fitting moniker: anyone who has been in the same room with Franco and Raymond will tell you there is no quicker witted pair, nor anyone in recent memory to possess the encyclopedic knowledge of these two when it comes to ballet and ballet pedagogy, its language, and its history. It was that wit and wisdom to lure me to American Ballet Theatre in 2009 to soak up as much knowledge as I could, nudged by a former ballet school roommate who suggested I would not regret it. It proved to be an excellent decision.

Franco De Vita sets an exercise in center floor during a demonstration class during teacher training; July, 2009
Franco De Vita sets an exercise in centre floor during a demonstration class at a National Training Curriculum session at American Ballet Theatre in July, 2009. The consummate teacher, Franco also has gorgeous lines himself, which is why I included this grainy photo of him.
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Raymond Lukens prepares for a day of teacher training at American Ballet Theatre in July 2009 with Kate Lydon, ABT JKO faculty and former dancer with ABT and San Francisco Ballet.

But there is also this: Franco and Raymond share their knowledge unselfishly and their humor with civility, never vulgarity. The two of them possess a refined elegance that is almost out of step with time, rare in a world smitten with Kardashians. It flows naturally from immersion in the art form to be sure, but also from being men of the world, speakers of many languages and students of cultures far and wide. There is some kernel of it that is difficult to explain or to quantify, except to say that Franco and Raymond are exceptional men.

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In this photo and the following Raymond teaches a Level 5 pointe class for teachers at a training session at ABT in July 2010.

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When I undertook the training at ABT I did not expect to perform well on my own teacher exams, nor to present my own students to an ABT adjudicator for scrutiny. My only goal was to go there, to the epicenter of the ballet world, and learn as much as I could, and then to bring it back home with me. Turns out I really had much bigger plans for myself than I knew at the time.

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The second year we undertook the ABT Affiliate Exams at Knoxville Ballet School; that’s me on the left, with my accompanist Eva Holder, and Franco De Vita, who adjudicated our exams both years we did them. This was in the spring of 2011. Pictured here is a Primary Level C class, and below is a Level 1A class.

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Here is the truth about being in the presence of greatness: your job is to shut up and listen. Some people really do not understand this simple rule; it shows in their behavior, in their professional lives and beyond, and that is their loss. But Franco’s and Raymond’s contributions to the ballet world are of epic proportions: it is very important to pay attention to these two men.

Epic. That is a big, overused word, entirely appropriate here. Co-creators of a curriculum that is the first of its kind in the United States—training to merge the best of the French, Russian, and Italian schools in a paradigm that includes the health of the child and the training of the whole dancer—Franco and Raymond will be remembered in ballet’s annals shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Enrico Cecchetti and Agrippina Vaganova, whose ideas about ballet helped shape and form it into what we recognize as ballet today. But it is the concern for the well-being of the dancer, I think, that will elevate this curriculum above its historical antecedents.

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Raymond addresses a group of teacher trainees at ABT in July of 2011.
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Raymond and Franco look on while teacher trainees demonstrate Primary Level exercises at ABT in July of 2011.

Franco De Vita will soon pass on the torch, stepping aside as Principal of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre, embarking on the next chapter in his life. I’ve already started the next chapter in mine of necessity, firmly rooted outside the ballet world, but in another realm as comfortable to me. The lessons I learned from Raymond and Franco have transcended ballet and reach into my professional life as a writer. They also saw me through the darkest chapter of my life to date, just as the discipline of classical ballet saw me through the rigors of my academic life and beyond when I was much younger.

Thank you Raymond and Franco: you may never know how much you helped me, and the young enrollees of a small school in Knoxville, Tennessee, during its too-short life. I wish you both all the best. ‘Til we meet again~Deb

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Full circle: Knoxville Ballet School students outside 890 Broadway, ready for their final day of Young Dancer Summer Workshop at American Ballet Theatre, August 10, 2012.