Falling from Grace: Ballet Has a Reckoning

The fall has come not a moment too soon, some might say.

Peter Martins stepped down as Ballet Master in Chief at New York City Ballet last week after allegations of sexual harassment and the verbal and physical abuse of company members, reported the New York Times. This is not the first time he has come under public scrutiny. There was the alleged wife beating incident some years ago, but Martins’ wife, former NYCB principal ballerina Darci Kistler, dropped the charges the next day. And Martins pled guilty to a DUI in 2011. Now it seems more than one person who danced for him has a bone to pick with him.

Several weeks ago after the public sullying of movie producer Harvey Weinstein, the moguls started falling like dominoes. Why, I wondered aloud to a colleague, had the earlier shaming of Bill Cosby not started the same cascade of high-profile evictions in the entertainment industry? What was special about Weinstein? Or has the cultural climate shifted just enough in the intervening couple of years that fewer people are afraid to come forward with their stories? After the Weinstein story broke, scarcely a day passed without some other firing or forced resignation of big names across industries. Funny thing, I told my colleague, that kind of thing happens in the ballet world all the time, and has for decades.

I suppose I decided in the case of ballet, anyway, there was simply some tacit, industry-wide acceptance of bad behavior, and so it would merely continue and life would go on in the classroom and in the theatre, superimposed over unspeakably bad behavior by people who are supposed to be leaders, and therefore one would assume, held to higher standards. But not in the arts: ballet feels so tied to ancient standards in the first place, it seemed this problem too, the sexual misconduct, might somehow be tolerated along with other practices that would never fly in other arenas nowadays—like referring to the members of a company as ‘boys and girls’ instead of ‘women and men,’ for example. That is to say, children, not grown-ups. And everybody knows you can push around children in ways no grown-up would tolerate, the thinking might go.

And then the news of these allegations broke. I happened to hear about them on a local NBC affiliate in a breaking story near the end of the evening news broadcast. Then there was a silent spell which proved to be only the calm before the storm. One of my ballet homies astutely observed, good thing it was Peter: had it been somebody less renowned the same old problem would doubtless have persisted unchecked. But Peter Martins’ ousting may pave the way for others to speak up with less fear of professional repercussions.

And fear is precisely what all this boils down to. Recently retired NYCB principal dancer Wendy Whelan articulated this so eloquently one evening last week during an All Things Considered broadcast on NPR: “It’s a tradition that’s built on discipline and focus and pleasing people. And it can easily get manipulated. For us, career is everything,” she said. “I mean, he’s literally my dad’s age,” she continued. “And, you know, a lot of us dancers interestingly, I think, have a dad thing…our dad was either not there in a certain way or just harder to please or something. And we all have this thing about pleasing dad.” Ironic that she used the word ‘tradition’ to describe ballet.

For dancers, it would seem, the time-honored tradition to tolerate serious missteps on behalf of the artistic staff is perpetuated in the name of job security, as other artists have claimed—even physical abuse and unsolicited sexual advances. Nor is this kind of criminal behavior (let’s call it what it is) limited to female dancers alone: there are ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ victims of these crimes.

My own parents are only five or so years older than Peter Martins. And when we first moved to Memphis in the mid-1960s, and my mom joined Memphis Ballet, the same kinds of things went on in that company. Teachers took Draconian measures in classes to correct ballet technique (as occurred everywhere on the planet in those days unfortunately), and unprofessional dalliances happened in the company. At eight I understood that the artistic director and his wife were divorcing precisely because he had become romantically involved with a company member. I also remember an awkward year or two when all three of them—husband, ex-wife, and girlfriend—continued to share the same classrooms and the stage. You could excuse it all as expected, anywhere there are ‘temperamental’ artists; I am sure the Board of Directors did. In another ironic twist, the ballet company and school in Memphis observed the same paradigms almost precisely as the ones Mr. Balanchine had by then established at NYCB and its affiliate School of American Ballet, and the company directors in Memphis were in fact Balanchine disciples themselves. The leader sets the cultural tone for an institution, and Mr. Balanchine in particular was a ballet icon whose influence made its way around the world, to say nothing of Memphis, Tennessee. He was also notably viewed as a father figure by many of his dancers (if not all of them), but his own questionable behavior flew under the accountability radar; he might not be so lucky were he judged by today’s standards, of course.

Stepping away from the obvious damage for a moment—the physical and emotional injuries wrought upon individual victims—there’s something more sinister to these breaking stories, that threatens ballet systemically. Now and again the potential demise of classical ballet has been prophesied, based on its decline following the ‘golden age’ of the 1970s, when one Mikhail Baryshnikov emerged on the ballet horizon and raised the technical standards, for male dancers in particular. Importantly, he brought classical ballet to places it had never been, namely the American living room: ballet finally entered our pop culture conversations, as it never had before.

But its appeal was ephemeral, only now showing signs of again reaching a broader audience thanks to the likes of Misty Copeland, for example, with her big commercial sponsorships and barrier-breaking successes that black ballerinas could only dream about once upon a time. And there is American Ballet Theatre’s ground-breaking National Training Curriculum that has raised teaching standards for those who seek it out, addressing the whole dancer, improving dancer health, ostensibly staving off injuries, and making longer careers possible (they’ve been getting longer and longer, thanks to more intelligent training around the globe in general). But none of this matters if the people in charge believe they are Teflon coated in the professional sphere!

Sound like a stretch? Consider the parents whose daughter, like Wendy Whelan from Louisville, Kentucky, for example, might be a prodigy. It’s already a tough call: convince them to spend money hand over fist for highly specialized training for their talented daughter—full-time residential training that takes her far from home, where she will have nothing approximating a normal childhood, will need to forestall her college education so that she can dance, and may in fact continue to need her parents’ financial support even after she finds her way to the professional stage—and then add to that this little footnote: she may need to sleep with the artistic director of her dream company if she wants to advance through the company rankings and get the roles she desires.

It frankly infuriates the heck out of me—I don’t care how beautiful Peter Martins once was as a dancer, and indeed he was. Because that kind of behavior makes the job of ballet teachers everywhere more difficult, and ultimately threatens the very existence of the form. Young ballet students might as easily take up soccer or the cello: what responsible parent would knowingly send them down a path with criminal abuse at its terminus?

As somebody once observed, it’s only ballet, and there is truth to that. Wendy Whelan and others of their ilk may view the landscape through a different lens, though—the “career is everything” lens. And anyway, criminal behavior is criminal behavior, whether it happens to an intern at a major network, or a young dancer who fears losing her status with the company she’s dreamed of joining all her life. Really, classical ballet is hard enough.

I leave you with the trailer of a fairly recent film that beautifully documents the last couple of years of Wendy’s professional life with New York City Ballet, through her surgery for a torn labrum, and her farewell performance months later. You’ll see glimpses of Peter Martins, too. The full-length film, Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan, is available on Netflix.

Photo at top of post is the property of Knoxville Ballet School; don’t steal—it ain’t nice.

Shape Shifting Words and Other Moving Truths

Same Shape as Always

Have you ever fixated on a simple word until it’s no longer recognizable? The word desk, for example, is a four-letter word that means “a table, frame, or case with a sloping or horizontal surface especially for WRITING and reading and often with drawers, compartments, and pigeonholes,” so says Merriam Webster. Roll around the word desk for a while, considering its three consonants, and the single vowel that makes it pronounceable, and it will elude you, gentle reader, like some sci-fi shape shifter only masquerading as a desk. Soon you will question your own sanity and wonder whether you invented that word, or misunderstood it all these years, and it was never really a desk at all, but some other thing. Like a sked. Or maybe a keds (ah, somebody already took that one). But you catch my drift.

My beautiful writing desk has no drawers, compartments, or pigeonholes—my antique bill-paying desk fits that description to a tee, and now sits in a preordained spot in our gleaming new kitchen. Instead my writing desk is sleek and modern, with a clear glass top and nickel-colored legs that arc up from the ground gracefully to meet it. For six years it was my director’s desk in the office at Knoxville Ballet School. Then it was loaded onto a moving van and set before a big picture window in my Vermont cottage across the road from Lake Morey: that was a magical and terrifying year, and a lifestyle I could not sustain. But for the next move to a loft apartment in the central part of the state the writing desk was pronounced Too Bulky: David-the-Chef and I took it apart and carefully placed it in the garage below the loft. Thence to an Arlington, Vermont storage unit when we finally combined our two households in 2015.

But in our new home a beautiful room awaits that desk, with pale yellow walls and big windows overlooking the back yard and the river beyond it, one corner of the room awash with sunlight on days we’re lucky. That corner looks like it was made for my big, glass desk. You can always hem and haw about the placement of a chair and ottoman here, or a bookcase there, but some furniture informs you unequivocally where it belongs, and the writing desk has spoken.

In fact I should be writing this post from that sunny perch, actually a tad overcast today. But the shape-shifting desk is missing its hardware. And in the intervening years since it was last moved, we can’t for the life of us remember where we put it. Other hardware—curtain hardware, for example—we found, exactly where it was supposed to be, inside a bag, inside a box. Right there. But in more than a week of hauling, schlepping, and unpacking, there is no desk hardware. It is specialized hardware for a special desk, not something you can run down to the Home Depot and pick up along with the trash bags and light bulbs you need. Last night I lamented to DTC that maybe the glass desk will end up in the tag sale with all the other things we’re tag sale-ing next spring, because it has no hardware. The writing desk is useless without its hardware, so I am still writing with my laptop balanced upon my knees.

One day last week leaving work I had a similar moment to the word contemplating moment, where I did not recognize a gauge on my car’s dash board: it was the visual equivalent of the shape-shifting word. I kept staring at the gauge and thinking, wait—have you always been right there? In that spot? I thought about this for several miles, several solid minutes, even turning down the radio at one point, unable to reconcile this stupid thing in my mind. I waited and waited for something to change, for some toggle switch stuck in the wrong position inside my noodle to finally flip, and then everything would seem as it should. The switch never flipped, and I finally relented to my own silliness, and retrained my brain to recognize the gauge in this new place where it’s been all along. I believe I grew some new neural pathways in that exercise. The only explanation for this I can muster is the monumental upsetting of everything that happens when you move: nothing is where it should be, nothing is as it seems, and life’s routines are shaken in general. Alas, there are miles of new neural pathways to grow yet.

Yesterday Scout tripped the alarm when we were away from the house getting more boxes of things at the rental. I disarmed the system from my phone before central monitoring was alerted, thus averting the arrival of the cavalry and an invocation of false alarm fees. Days before that the installer assured me Scout did not weigh enough for the motion detector to care, not to worry. He was wrong. Motion detected at 1:56 pm, said the app on my phone. Alarm tripped! I was in transit for trip number two of the day back over to the rental, so back I went to check on things. I could imagine Scout tripping the alarm when he hopped onto the sofa. Or perhaps hopping off the sofa to growl at the postman, a thing he did on Friday. Another item for the week: call the alarm company—little-ish Labs can convince the motion detector they are big dawgs.

Meanwhile, Scout seems unimpressed by the move, and in fact alternates between moments of indulgent relaxation on the sofa or the human bed, and sheer exuberance exploring the breadth and scope of his new back yard. More lessons to learn from a dog.

Chef and Boxes on Thanksgiving Day

On Thanksgiving Day we pushed up our sleeves and worked like crazy from the dawn’s first light until we collapsed into bed late. A vacation day during a big move is simply too valuable to do things like watch parades and football games and cook huge meals or entertain friends and family. Those things will wait. Instead we had a simple dinner prepared by the chef, of seared salmon, rice, and caramelized Brussels sprouts, and I opened a lovely bottle of wine from a case our CPA gave us as a housewarming gift, bless her. We ate hungrily, mostly quietly, sneaking Scout a succulent piece or two of fish after he finished the crisped salmon skin the chef threw into his dinner bowl. Then we watched the pilot episode of Twin Peaks, a favorite of mine the chef has never seen, and marveled at how much the world has changed since that David Lynch creation, which seemed so stylized and revolutionary at the time. Now it seems ordinary, maybe because I already know who killed Laura Palmer, or maybe in my mind’s eye I made it into something it was not, like the gauge on my car’s dash board.

Last night I reminded my David-the-Chef not to look too closely at the configuration of clothing in the upstairs closet, or the placement of pots and pans in the kitchen: it’s all a work in progress, I quipped, and will no doubt change and change again—shift shapes—in the coming weeks.

Keep that in mind next time you go into the bathroom, he said. Uh-oh, I thought.

Instead, this is what I found:

Everybody needs ‘em a little ballet in the bawthroom. Such a loving and thoughtful chef. Has anybody seen my desk hardware?

An Evening of Ballet: Refueling at the Mothership

The Mothership

Last night we saw ‘big’ ballet right down the road in Manchester. It’s a rare thing in these parts, in this underserved and sometimes overlooked state of Vermont, where a tiny population can’t support big art, or even medium-sized art of this caliber. We got lucky this time. Billed simply as ‘An Evening of Dance with American Ballet Theatre & Friends,’ this mixed-rep performance was staged and led by former ABT soloist Anna Liceica, who also danced last night in a couple of works, including a variation from Michel Fokine’s Romantic-era ballet, Les Sylphides, and in her own arrangement of ‘Dance of the Hours’ from the opera La Gioconda. The rest of the cast were members of American Ballet Theatre and Pennsylvania Ballet (ergo the ‘friends’).

I met Anna a few summers ago when ABT & Friends came to the Lake Placid School of Ballet, where I had a guest teaching engagement. So it was nice to see her again and catch up briefly before she and the rest of the cast were whisked off to dinner at a patron’s house. And I loved meeting one Lauren Post in the flesh, a young dancer whose talent I spotted many years ago observing a morning technique class at a Youth America Grand Prix regional finals competition: it was a story I’ve carried around for more than a decade and finally got to share with her. (Plus, we are both Southern girls, so as Eloise would say, you can imagine….) And bending Sterling Baca’s ear for a moment was fun, a dancer I’d long admired in classes and demonstrations through various legs of teacher training at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre, starting in 2009. Anna, Lauren, and Sterling, and the rest of the talented cast danced beautifully last night to a reasonably full house. Will they return to Manchester, we wondered? Maybe one day, Anna said; they’d like to.

This evening of ballet—good ballet—dovetailed with my longing for a shot in the arm after a couple of empty ballet years, with only one other occasion to see this young dancer at Festival Ballet Providence in Rhode Island to break the silence. I still have a ballet tome rattling around in my head, and some day I’ll let it out. It’s all about expectations: what five-year-olds expect when they step into their first ballet classroom, what their parents expect when they write their first tuition checks—and what anybody should expect of the child who decides s/he wants this life professionally. It’s a long pathway from those baby steps to the moments that unfold on the stage as they did last night, one fraught with peril, as a friend would say. Professional ballet is hard on the body, and hard on the wallet in a cultural milieu where it’s not held in the same esteem as, say, professional athletics. Most young folks who take that leap of faith know they’ll be taking on extra work to survive in the impossibly underfunded arts world here: you have to really want it, and that may finally be the single most important ingredient for any gifted young dancer who seeks the stage.

When I opened a small ballet school in Knoxville in 2006 I aimed to swat away a few gnats, those tenacious myths that cling to ballet training in the guise of legitimacy. In short, I set out to teach the parents in my ballet school community how to be intelligent consumers of classical ballet: I urge ballet newcomers even now to ask questions, and look skeptically upon a school that can’t or won’t answer them—too many schools hide behind rules and regulations in the name of some imagined tradition. I can still hear my mentor Raymond Lukens’ words during the first session in ballet pedagogy training I ever attended at ABT, to learn the curriculum this very ballet mogul co-authored: never make a rule unless you have a reason for it. In my first year as director at Knoxville Ballet School a number of parents asked whether they could watch their child in class, for example. Yes, I said, that’s what the observation window is for. At <School X>, they would say, it was forbidden—we were never allowed to watch. One mom told me she was so desperate to see what was going on—and importantly, whether her child was enjoying it—that she lay down on the floor, nine months pregnant with her second child, to try to peek through the crack under the door. This is just silly, and that is all.

I understand the motivation behind the rule, within reason—parents can be a distraction to the learning process when they’re standing outside a window grimacing and gesturing in some indecipherable sign language to their little person, whose focus on the teacher is now lost. And in some teaching environments it may be appropriate—big, reputable ballet schools with high enrollment, for example, where inviting parents to watch presents a logistical nightmare to say nothing of the disruption to the learning process. Those schools have the luxury to say no legitimately, knowing parents will have the opportunity to see their children on the stage at least once (and often more) in the calendar year, and also in the classroom for observation on designated days.

But in my small, suburban school in Knoxville, Tennessee, I said yes: it was good advertising for the product I was purveying, and proof positive we were hard at work. And anyway, simply closing the curtains sends a clear message to an offending parent who is not likely to offend again. I once had a tiny, beautiful Chinese student who at first simply refused to participate unless her mother came into the classroom with her; she was five at the time and spoke no English. I unfolded a chair in the corner of the classroom; shored up by her mom’s presence, the child was content to participate fully with her classmates and by the end of the academic year had gained enough confidence that she finally asked her mom—in perfectly clear English—to stay in the lobby with the other moms. She went on to enjoy much success in her ballet classes and in the annual ABT Affiliate exams before her family returned to China. In the end, my class observation policy was never a problem; it is a single example of many where a silly rule masquerading as a cherished ethos has the potential to ruin a child’s chances for classroom success, to say nothing of leaving a sour taste for the art form in the mouths of her parents. I was able to position myself in such a way as to straddle the professional ballet world in which I had grown up fully immersed, and the real needs of uninitiated ballet parents and their young children.

Last night during intermission I spoke with a man from Boston, a balletomane I think it’s fair to say, who arrived late to the performance and wanted to know what he missed. That in turn led to a lengthy discussion about Romantic-era ballets, modern audiences, and a few unfortunate attitudes and practices that stubbornly persist in some professional companies even today—where the work environment has improved in most settings as compared with previous generations, but where a few antiquated and unhealthy practices are still tolerated in others. Turns out he’s a psychiatric therapist who treats lots of young dancers. I told him about my teacher training at ABT and explained to him that for the first time in the history of ballet training in this country a new curriculum has emerged that actually addresses the training of the whole dancer; this was music to his ears. It’s groundbreaking in a country where anybody can hang out a shingle and claim to know how to teach ballet—whether they possess the qualifications to do it, or had rather hide behind closed doors doing god-knows-what to vulnerable young folks, a phenomenon I’ve witnessed firsthand. It’s another truth we learned on the first day of teacher training at ABT: you need more professional certifications to give somebody a manicure in this country than to teach a child classical ballet. I think most folks would agree the stakes are higher for the health of a child.

But one other thing about this still-new training and curriculum I’ve been less successful explaining to parents, or to anyone who would listen: this is a big deal. No, really—not all ballet schools are alike (far from it), and most school directors don’t possess the constitution to subject themselves to scrutiny, to adhere to a set of high standards and then invite adjudicators from the epicenter of the ballet world to come and see whether the school is honoring them. This was finally the best answer I could ever give a parent who questioned why s/he should write a check for $50 at the end of the year for a ballet exam: because the exam tells all of us whether I’m doing my job well, teaching your child ballet—it holds me accountable—and this benchmark after all should matter to you a great deal. It was a simple line of reasoning and stated in those terms made undertaking the exams an open-and-shut case.

It’s hard to believe I’ve been disconnected from the ballet classroom since October of 2014; I’m lucky to ply my trade now as a writer, though, and enjoy it as much. One of my colleagues with classical ballet roots not unlike my own asked one day last week whether I miss teaching. I don’t miss the punishment to an ageing body, I told her, nor cobbling together freelance work to try to make ends meet. But I do miss the process of enlightenment, the priceless ‘Aha!’ moments in the classroom when you nurture along a kid who finally internalizes some thing she’s been struggling with, and the same moments outside the classroom, when a parent demonstrates a depth of understanding about classical ballet training in May s/he did not possess in September. And I miss the satisfaction of observing those parents sharing their wisdom with the new crop of parents who cross the school’s threshold the next September.

For now I’ll make my peace with the joy of watching a handful of beautiful dancers who finally came to town.

I leave you with excerpts of Alexei Ratmansky’s reconstruction of Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty as performed by dancers from American Ballet Theatre in 2015 at the Guggenheim as part of the Works and Process series; Lauren Post dances Silver Fairy, seen in the opening on the left.

*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.