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!

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

Traditions: Peering Through the Lens of Nostalgia

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There are a couple of late November moments that fill me with so much nostalgia and sentimentality I get chills. One is hearing the strains of Tchaikovsky’s Miniature Overture to The Nutcracker for the first time in the long Nut season. Don’t get me wrong: I am not a fan of the ballet, nor the score, with the exception a couple of noteworthy moments (Act I Scene II’s Snow pas de deux, and the chorus which happens later in the same, and possibly Act II’s Mother Ginger variation, which makes me want to jump up and dance).

But for years my mom and I danced together in Memphis Ballet’s Nutcracker, and there are so many, many intense memories inextricably bound up in that galvanizing experience it is impossible not to be nostalgic about it, to wit: the year I was feverish with flu and sipped Sprite backstage to try not to vomit on my wool felt costume; the morning mom and I were on our way to the theatre in downtown Memphis to dance in one of many performances mounted for the Memphis City Schools, delayed by an impossibly long train at a railroad crossing, arriving at the theater just in the nick of time; the red circles painted on my cheeks when I was a soldier in Act I that took days to finally fade; my dad’s irritation with the company’s Soviet-style Russian director who possessed not one smidgen of shame about scheduling late-night rehearsals for young children with even younger siblings in tow; but also the pantheon of Really Famous principals and soloists Mr. Balanchine routinely sent down to us from New York City Ballet each year because of the same Russian director’s connections with him; and on, and on, and on.

Call it total Nutcracker immersion: it stakes its claim to you, heart and soul, and there is no escaping that for the rest of your life.

The other thing to give me chills happens on Thanksgiving morning and goes like this: Five, Four, Three, Two, One—Let’s have a parade!

It surely does the same to many thousands of others, too. What I recall about that annual moment in bygone years was special time with my dad, who made sure I was in front of the telly with hot cocoa in hand to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was a family tradition I introduced to my own young child when I became a parent.

Life sometimes gets in the way of traditions. I know mom was there some Thanksgiving mornings for the parade, too, almost certainly. But I also remember at least one Thanksgiving when we were already in the theatre in rehearsals for Nut by the time Thanksgiving rolled around. We probably watched the parade in the morning, but there was no traditional Thanksgiving dinner that year because of hours spent later in the day and into the evening at Ellis Auditorium in downtown Memphis.

The first two years I lived in Vermont I did not have cable and therefore did not have the chance to see the parade at all. Last year I was at Handsome Chef Boyfriend’s on Thanksgiving morning, but as fate would have it, high winds that ripped through the Berkshires the night before took out the cable signal. No parade.

But this year! This year, I turned it on and watched the first hour of it while HCB finalized preparations of the mountains of food we would soon pack into the car before heading to his mom’s. I got the requisite chills, as always. And dad and I had already exchanged texts to make sure each of us was poised to watch it.

My own son, on the other hand, thought better of it and decided to sleep in. So much for continuing a cherished family tradition.

Really, there is not much to cherish anymore about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Decades ago it had already given itself over to the far-reaching “commercialism” that now defines the holiday season, bumper to bumper. Christmas starts before Halloween, big box stores begin to trumpet their door-busting sales soon thereafter, and every place you go, it seems, starts piping in Christmas music at about the same time.

The truth is, I no longer really care much about the parade, particularly since adverts began disrupting the flow of things many, many years ago. I do love the very beginning moments of it, in the same way I love the Miniature Overture. I love seeing the excitement on the faces of the littles in the crowd. I will always love the excerpts from Broadway shows, even if the casts lip-sync them. (And I must say the opening of this year’s parade in particular was brilliant, with the Latin beat of the new Gloria Estefan-themed show On Your Feet! engaging everybody in the crowd, including some of the other performers. If that did not make you want to jump up and dance, then there is absolutely no hope for you.)

The rest I can (mainly) do without. More and more these days I do not even recognize the names of the featured performers. And busy Thanksgiving Day plans seem always to tear me away from enjoying the high school marching bands, all those pimply uniformed kids who doubtless are so excited to visit the Big Apple, even if they are in their “prime suffering years,” as Frank’s character insisted in Little Miss Sunshine.

Once I even suggested to my Uncle Stan, who lived most of his adult life in neighboring Queens, that I come for a visit and we go see the parade. Ever the sarcastic queen himself, he waved it off and said, Save your money: you’ll spend your entire morning shivering while you stare into a horse’s ass—literally. I always loved that peremptory honesty about my Uncle Stan, as much as I loved him.

In the end, it is not the traditions, it seems, but the memories that the shadows of those traditions somehow evoke, year after year. Roles change and life does indeed insinuate itself in the best of our intentions.

Advent is a big tradition that begins today on the liturgical calendar, and is observed right up to Christmas. The word itself means “coming;” for me, it was once all about anticipation, expectation, and preparation, back when I was still a practicing Episcopalian. It is a tradition that nowadays is mainly trampled in our eagerness to bust down the doors for holiday sales while we shop along to the strains of popular Christmas carols.

But there is also a tradition of beautiful Advent hymnody, at least in the Episcopal church, whence comes my sensibilities about such things. 2015 has felt rushed, Thanksgiving felt rushed, holiday shopping will also feel rushed, and probably some of my gifts will reach loved ones a little late. This year I plan to gift myself a bit of Advent reflection in the face of Nutcrackers and Santas, and the strains of Christmas carols that began before Halloween. I treasure the Vince Guaraldi Trio playing A Charlie Brown Christmas as much as the next guy; in fact, I’d go so far as to say it makes me wistful. It is still too soon, even for that bit of nostalgia.

I leave you to enjoy this lush, contemporary instrumental version of my favorite Advent hymn, whatever your faith tradition. Its ancient opening words—O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel—seem so timely, and nostalgic.

 

A Plié Is Not a Squat (and other truths of the universe)

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See that up there? It’s fifth position demi-plié in a class at the former Knoxville Ballet School, as executed by some of my Level 2-almost-Level 3 students. And that’s my lovely friend Joan Kunsch of Nutmeg Conservatory teaching them; I had invited her for a springtime guest appearance. As you can see, the girls have (relatively) straight spines, with knees over toes, as they should. That was a class of sweet kids, a bit tricky to teach, as some of them were late arrivals to the ballet world. But they each had an amazing work ethic in class and it was my privilege to teach them.

Plier is the infinitive, and it means simply “to bend.” Plié is the participle, meaning bent or bending. We go down, we come up. That’s it. (Well, there is more about energy and placement, but the downy-uppy part will suffice for my purposes here.) It is the most basic and important movement in all of classical ballet because, as Raymond Lukens would say, it’s the take-off and landing for almost every single movement in ballet. Oh, and the “demi” part? It just means half—you bend the knees half way and then you stretch, or straighten them. There is also a “grand” version, meaning “big,” where you go all the way down and come back up (at least, we hope you come back up).

But I digress. This post is not about the proper execution of this all-important movement. It is about my recent foray into the world of pumping iron.

Yeah, we don’t do pliés in Pump You Up class: we squat. And we squat and we squat and we squat. We squat holding free weights and barbells. And we squat to loud, pulsating, Pump You Up music. We drop our backs and stick out our booties. It is about as far away as one could possibly migrate from a plié.

That is the first univeral truth. The second one is, I am evidently hearing something else in that music, because when I am down, with my booty sticking waaaay out there, everybody else always seems to be up. And vice versa.

Okay, friends, I am a very musical person. You can’t NOT be musical and dance (see Raymond Lukens, above). That, and I am also a classically trained musician (piano and classical guitar, a story for another day). I have spent more than a decade at the front of various ballet classrooms urging my students to soak up every drop of music in each phrase. (That one is mine, not Raymond’s.) Kids like to rush. You can’t rush the music in classical ballet. Unless you are big star, and then you are called a diva.

I have concluded that the Pump You Up teachers and the other students are anxious to finish, ergo our being out of sync. I totally get that—I am anxious as hell to get out of that class about a nanosecond after it starts. I do it because I assume it’s probably good for me. You know: kinda like eating fish oil. It tastes awful, but there must be some benefit, right? No pain, no gain, and all that.

But rushing the music feels as unnatural to me as sticking out my bum in a demi-plié.

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Here is some weight lifting, ballerina-style. They’re my kids, being silly when I asked them to get out the barres.

I leave you with beautiful footage of England’s Royal Ballet in company class as taught by ballet mistress Olga Evreinoff. Yeah, it’s a long video, but the pliés are right at the start. Have a look-see, and hang around for the rest of it, should you be so inclined. They are lovely.

Gotta go work on trying to look glamorous and magnificent whilst sticking out my booty.

 

 

 

The Nutcracker is here to stay.

P.I. Tchaikovsky

I like to think Peter (Pyotr for purists) Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a rock star in his day, but I can’t say for sure. He certainly was an attractive man. One thing I can say is that his Nutcracker score (penned not long before his death) is tacky ballet music through and through. There, I’ve said it.

I can also say that I’ve made it through the entire holiday season (as defined by big box retailers) without hearing it a single time. Woohoo!

Before you declare me a Christmas curmudgeon and banish me from the kingdom, consider this: for dancers in big companies The Nutcracker represents hours and hours of repetitive work to that familiar, overwrought score, sometimes upwards of forty-plus times in a season (roughly defined as sometime around Thanksgiving and going right up to the New Year). Elsewhere in the world it is also performed at other times of the year. Waltz of the Flowers elicits the biggest eye roll with its embellished, saccharine sweet harp intro that is almost a caricature of itself, going on and on before the familiar oompah-pah oompah-pah heralds its start in earnest (listener alert! it’s a waltz!). To be fair, I have known dancers who actually like dancing Nutcracker. Not many, though. My favorite Flowers story: Daniel Ulbricht (NYCB Principal) has been known to stand in the wings and dance the “Y-M-C-A” dance for the amusement of the corps during that schmaltzy waltz. There’s one in each ballet in Tchaikovsky’s holy ballet trinity: Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty. Evidently there was a rule in the late nineteenth century that a very big, showy waltz had to be scored to satisfy some sensibility of the day.

In truth, though, I have a huge soft spot for The Nutcracker. From the time I was about eight and for several years thereafter my mama and I were cast together in Memphis Ballet’s version (lifted pretty overtly and shamelessly from Mr. Balanchine, as the company and school directors were Balanchine disciples)—I was in Act I, she in Acts I and II, usually in Snow and in the Chinese variation, which had continuous pirouettes she could pull off like nobody’s business. She was always a work horse of a dancer, very reliable, and I think the company director really liked that about her. For me, as is the case with so many young ballerina wannabees, it was simply magical, end to end, even the year I had flu and almost vomited back stage when I overheated in my wool felt soldier costume. I recently quipped to somebody that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, which is true. But my memories of Thanksgiving growing up—aside from the food and Macy’s parade and all that—have much to do with Nutcracker rehearsals, which were a galvanizing thing between me and mom, something special that unified the two of us. Sharing the stage somehow set us apart from other moms and their daughters, and we will always have that.

Another truth: there is one part of the score I really, really like, and that is Snow (Act I, Scene II)—the whole thing, starting with the Nutcracker’s transformation into a prince. It’s also a moment in classical ballet where there is choral accompaniment, which does not happen often. The Snow pas de deux, danced sometimes by Snow Queen and her prince, other times by the Nutcracker Prince and Clara/Marie, is my favorite in the ballet, too. And I must say I am sorry to have missed the fifth and final year of American Ballet Theatre’s new Alexei Ratmansky Nutcracker, which ran at Brooklyn Academy of Music and will now move to the West Coast; I can only hope for a DVD at some point, or that ABT will resurrect it in the near future in NYC.

The reality is that for most ballet companies The Nutcracker represents revenues they rely on to get them through the rest of their fiscal year, without which they could not likely exist. It’s also a great recruiting tool for the art form, not unlike all those amazing air shows the Air Force and Navy take on tour to enthrall aspiring young pilots. There is always some discussion in some corner of the world about the waning of ballet as an art form, particularly since it experienced a boom in the 70s, the likes of which it has not really seen since. I submit that there is nothing to worry about unless and until companies quit dancing Nut: it is maybe the best-ever barometer for ballet’s health and well-being.

I leave you with some silliness I like to post every single year, although I am a little late getting to it this time around. Lots going on with me at the moment, about which more later. Happy New Year! (Oh, and if you want to know the Nutcracker Truth: the versions we bring our children in droves to see each year typically bear little resemblance to the original E.T.A. Hoffman tome; there is a nice translation illustrated by Maurice Sendak worth a look-see if you are interested to know just how far we have migrated from the original tale.)

And Away We Go!

Fall term began at ballet school yesterday; the school director caught me in a moment during my Level 4A barre with a very pointy index finger. I was urging the kids to “send the foot across the room,” speaking metaphorically of course. And no, we are not in prison, but in a smaller interior classroom in our funky, architcturally interesting repurposed building. The door has those metal thingummies in the window glass. Kinda artsy, no? She apologized for the blurriness when she sent me the photo last night. Aside from the aforementioned artsy quality, I will take any help I can get softening my advancing age. Bring the blurry.

The title of this post is a nod to a kinda famous guy who happened to be in the same group of trainees as I at American Ballet Theatre in 2009, learning the curriculum we use. When some of the teacher trainees were struggling with a particular piece of movement we teach in the lower levels, he offered that expression to convey the feel and musicality of the steps. Simple and effective language can be a powerful teaching tool. Blurry photos can make us feel lovely as we teach. And away we go….

Once More, with Wiggly Animals

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Level 2 Aviary

Between episodes of attempting to catch a cheeky groundhog and putting in my first-ever vegetable garden, spring arrived here in Vermont in earnest. The lawn needs mowing and the house needs dusting. My Subi needs its snow tires off and oil changed. I need to wash the windows to welcome in the warm sunshine at long last. There are still more outside chores–lots of them.

There is no time for any of this at the moment. The young students at the ballet school where I teach are learning the last bit of their choreography for the spring performance, to be mounted in five short weeks <chews nails>. I teach most levels there–all of them really–but my primary responsibility lies with the children from age four through about eleven. This year the school director asked me to create something original for all of the younger enrollees, set to French composer Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals.

It will come off beautifully, of course. But we are in that disquieting place just now where we are hoping it comes off beautifully, rethinking timing, and spacing, and the complexity of some of the movement, second guessing ourselves. The Carnival cast is huge. Yesterday after our first full run-through I did a mental body count and arrived at something approaching thirty-five warm bodies who will be on the stage all at once twice during the ballet. That is a lot of little people, plus a few bigger ones who will have beautiful solos set by my colleagues and will help with some artful herding (pun intended, of course).

We had high expectations of our young students yesterday, and almost without exception they delivered. (This did not stop me from requesting just one more full cast rehearsal, please, in addition to what we’ve already got on the call board.) I also asked for these lovely photos; all were made during yesterday’s rehearsal, and provided courtesy of school director Jackie Stanton-Conley.

Another academic year draws to a close, another spring performance waits in the wings.

I think we should add a groundhog to the ballet to make it more Vermontish. What do you think, M. Saint-Saëns?

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Pre-Primary Level Kangaroos
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Primary Level A Tortoises
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Primary Levels B and C Fossils
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Deb, standing in for a missing Fossil
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Lovely Primary Level C Soloist Fossil
Level 1A Master of Elephant Ceremonies
Big Carnival Cast
Lovely Young Dancer

 

Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts

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See No Evil curtain call

Three composers, three teacher-choreographers, a single amazing piano instructor-performer, scores of students and their parents, enrichment from talented guest artists, and tireless volunteers.  The culmination of an academic year that saw big transitions, much joy, a few tears, and amazing progress, played out on the stage yesterday.  I am still overwhelmed and impressed by the children and adults in whose company I now find myself.  I am also indebted to Julia, who made available some of the photos seen here.  And I am so very lucky.

Backstage Golliwog
Backstage Golliwog
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Golliwog co-conspirators
Debussy makeup check
Debussy makeup check
Golliwog's Cakewalk I
Golliwog’s Cakewalk I
Golliwog's Cakewalk II
Golliwog’s Cakewalk II
Dancing with Mr. Debussy cast finale
Dancing with Mr. Debussy cast finale
See No Evil I
See No Evil moment
See No Evil finale
See No Evil finale
Backstage friends
backstage friends
and a little bit of backstage chaos
and a little bit of backstage chaos
Gorgeous Brahms, amazing Victoria and one of several students who also danced in the performances
gorgeous Brahms, amazing Victoria Dobrushina, and one of several students who also danced in the performances
Beautifully choreographed Brahms finale
beautifully choreographed Brahms finale
Brahms curtain call
Brahms curtain call
I address my little golliwogs
 addressing my littles
We are tired.  We are sweaty.  We are hungry.  We are happy.
We are tired. We are sweaty. We are hungry. We are happy.

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Achilles Heel

disturber of the peace

Today Clarence and I walked.  Again.  I have taken a break from running because the pain from a chronic Achilles injury has been too bad to push, and until today, the weather has not inspired me to run.  But we reached a soaring 87 degrees in my part of Vermont today–lots of grumbling from locals about heat and humidity, but I am loving every sweltering moment of it.  Hard to believe I was using my pellet stove last weekend, and now this.  Finally.  The couple in the photo–together with their Weimaraner, who was off leash initially–made the first bit of our walk unpleasant for this human, and also made me realize we could benefit from an obedience refresher course.

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This is theatre week for us at work; tomorrow we dig in and run dress rehearsals ’til we drop.  I am making hair ornaments for most of the girls in the Debussy piece, and also getting my music together for the sections where we will not dance to live accompaniment.  The director of the school has brought in her amazing ballet friend to help things go smoothly on Sunday; I really enjoyed meeting him today.  Plenty of nerves, lots of excitement.

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goslings 2

Meanwhile Clarence and I have been watching this young family come of age.  Reassuring; spring has arrived to usher out the remnants of Still Winter, and very soon it will be summer.  We will continue to monitor this bunch until we move to our new digs in about a month.

roof line

I will say goodbye to this lovely house on my street, whose roof line I find so appealing.  And then I will be excited all over again, this time at the prospect of a beautiful space on 180 wooded acres, and so much that is promising about the future.

But first, three ballets, two performances.  Merde to all my young dancers, and the school director and staff, and the entire cast.  I plan to enjoy every second of the culmination of a long year of work in the ballet classroom.  And after a week’s break, we go at it again. Because this is not how the story ends.

We know every part by heart…

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…almost.  A bit more refining, and we’re there.  Curtain at 2:30 and at 6:30 next Sunday at Thetford Academy’s Martha Jane Rich Theatre; three original works set to Debussy, Orff, and Brahms (one of  my esteemed colleagues in the Brahms rehearsal above).  Live music by the piano students of Victoria Dobrushina, many of whom are also ballet students at White River Ballet Academy.  Yesterday was our first rehearsal with the musicians–I have known for some time now of the talent in our ballet school, but I must say I am profoundly impressed by the same talent many of these children possess as young musicians. This is special and deserves celebration.  I am grateful as ever to be part of the palpable excitement in this creative process.  Moments from a long day of rehearsals yesterday:

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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.

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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.