Oh, Just. Let. Me.

Patient Scout Surveys the World
Patient, Camouflaged Scout Surveys the World

Scout was mainly charming at work all last week, save his single throaty warning growl misdirected at the company CEO. He was walking towards us with a scary cardboard box, though, so you can imagine. Still, Scout was patient through long hours of copy writing and editing, and for that he was rewarded with a romp—the second in a single week—at the top of the world, better known as the Mile Around Woods. I used the panorama function on my iPhone to try to capture the view; it scarcely does justice to that breathtaking vista here in the southwestern corner of Vermont.

However patient is sweet Scout, I am the opposite. At the top of the world, I have a chance to reflect some about that particular character flaw, and to ponder other great questions of the universe, which I did on Friday.

In seventh grade I developed my own font; there are no surviving examples to show here, but imagine the stylized, glowing scroll inside Tolkien’s celebrated ring, change it to swirling English runes, and you’ll have a close approximation in your mind’s eye. I worked tirelessly on that font in my social studies class whilst the teacher droned on impassively about nothing at all. A kid who sat next to me tried to copy it. I hated he was doing it, but could not stop him. One day I finally spoke up, because he was getting it All Wrong: let me just show you, I implored him, because you are ruining it. Encouraged by this intervention, he asked me to write out the entire alphabet for him in my font.

At home I painstakingly created a master list of upper- and lowercase letters: if somebody was copying my work, they better get it damn close to how it was supposed to be, went my thinking. I was keenly interested in showing him how, even if I’d rather yank the silly pen out of his hand and just do it for him. Patience.

More patient as an adult, I discovered teaching came naturally to me when I opened my small ballet school in Knoxville. Sitting in pedagogy classes at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, I also discovered my beloved mentor possessed the same sensibility about getting things right, whether he was talking about executing a movement, correcting a student, or using the correct terminology.

Terminology. That resonated with the wordsmith in me. Don’t agonize over it, he said, if you’ve been calling a movement this for years, when you should have been calling it that. But he emphasized at least knowing the correct language, often with the accompanying subtext of how a position or movement came to be called what it is to begin with.

One of my favorite examples is the term passé versus the term retiré. Many ballet teachers mean this position when they say “passé:”

Retirés All
Retirés All; photo, Xavier Battle

Strictly speaking, it means “passed” or “passing” in French (the infinitive form is passer, meaning “to pass”). This denotes movement, in this case movement of the foot from the front of the knee to the back or from the back to the front. But when you’re simply talking about the position of the leg at the front, the back, or even the side of the knee, you really mean retiré, which means “withdrawn:” the foot is withdrawn from a position on the floor and is now placed at the knee of the standing leg. (If anybody in the ballet world is reading these words, they’re rolling their eyes about now.) It’s really just semantics, as they say.

Does it really matter? Practically speaking, no. Ballet teachers, dancers, and choreographers will go on saying passé when what they really meant to say was retiré, and the world will keep on pirouette-ing on its axis (and by the way, pirouetter means to spin, and tourner means to turn, in case you’re interested). But I liked telling the story to my young students , and nowadays I like telling it to anybody who will listen.

In my work as a copyeditor I sometimes feel pulled to wear my teacher’s hat again, but mainly can’t in the interest of time: the goal in a marketing agency is to roll out the strongest possible content in the voice a client wants and hand it to them as quickly as possible—there’s really no time to dawdle. Sometimes I make copyedits a writer never sees, other times I make a suggestion and leave it to the writer to fix the copy, but occasionally feel the need to explain why I’m making a particular change.

Lately we’ve had some lively discussions at work about modern writing conventions, about using language that’s not technically correct but “sounds” better in print than what is correct, because it flows more naturally, as it might if you were simply talking to somebody over coffee. I’m okay with this most of the time, especially if it makes a client happy, but also because absolute propriety in language is just plain silly in some contexts.

Other times language is downright sloppy; comma placement seems to rear its head on many of these occasions. I found this example yesterday when I was rummaging through the bathroom cabinet:

Band-Aid Blunder
Band-Aid Blunder

I’m a huge fan of the Oxford comma (more eye rolling) because in most cases it clarifies the meaning of a sentence and saves the reader needing to read it twice. But in the Band-Aid box example, there’s also a missing comma. As written, we’re to think applying a bandage will clean our dry skin: placing a comma after the word “clean” takes away any mandate to scrub and instead tells us where to stick it. (Not sure what’s going on with all that capitalization; it bothers me, too.)

There are other spots where a comma is called for, and so I have added them in red:

band-aid_box_blunder_2

Does it matter? Nah. Everybody on the planet knows how to use a Band-Aid. Am I both an obnoxious and an impatient editor? Most assuredly.

I leave you with this scene from one of my favorite kid movies, because impatient Woody and I are kindred spirits, and because it’s fun.

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.

Dancing in the Company of Giants

Robbins was more immediately successful than Balanchine, but the two together…when I think that we had them both! What a combination! We were incredibly lucky.

—Violette Verdy

Le Ballet II

In fall of 1969 Memphis Ballet School and its company had not long occupied the second floor of a mainly spent Depression-era building at the at the corner of Summer Avenue and National Street; before that a fire had destroyed the company’s home and in the interim classes and rehearsals were held in the National Guard Armory; my family had only just moved to Memphis from Knoxville. The Armory was where I had my first pre-ballet classes at age five, but what I recall most about that time were long hours sprawled in a corner with my books and crayons waiting for mom’s classes and rehearsals to end.

I started ballet classes in earnest when I was seven or eight at the school on Summer Avenue. You could blast through the street level door of that ramshackle building and explode noisily up the dark, narrow stairwell without disturbing a soul. The sound of live piano accompaniment spilling from two separate ballet studios collided in a familiar dissonance and met you at the top, along with the air, fragrant with sweat and rosin and the smell of old building. Patches of duct tape fought hard to push back the innards of orange vinyl sofas in the hallway, worn out furniture of unknown provenance.

There was a proper office to the right where a receptionist sat at an old desk whacking out correspondence on a loud typewriter. To the left a hallway led you to changing rooms and toilets around a corner, and finally to an antiquated Coke machine where you could drop a quarter in the slot and open a skinny door to wrestle out a Coke or a Tab, or an Orange or Grape Nehi; sometimes you had to put up a fight ’til it surrendered your drink, else trudge back down the hall to the receptionist to report your lost change. I chipped my tooth on one of those bottles when I was eight, and got in trouble for horsing around in the girls’ changing room to boot.

The school’s new directors were young Soviet-era immigrants, Balanchine disciples to the core, and as such lifted the School of American Ballet paradigm out of NYC and plugged it in on that seamy Memphis street corner, right down to the class level designations (Children I, Chidren II, and so on) and color-coded school uniforms. I am absolutely certain this did not impress me at age eight. But as the years unfolded my eyes were opened to a minuscule ballet world where everybody knew everybody, and because of our connection to SAB and Mr. Balanchine himself, NYCB company artists were but a phone call away: they visited us often and carried the principal roles of most of the ballets the company mounted in those days. It was not unusual to see the likes of Edward Villella or Gelsey Kirkland or Helgi Tomasson or Patricia McBride (and many others of their ilk) wandering around those creaky hallways. And because mom danced in the company, I experienced complete and early immersion in that tiny world, whose New York City epicenter it seemed had landed right on our doorstep.

We also sat on the precipice of what would soon emerge as ballet’s golden era, where one Rudolph Nureyev had already paved the way for others to follow and to foist classical ballet upon American pop culture. It would not be long before we tuned in to see Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing Twyla Tharp on our living room televisions, names that would ultimately come into common parlance everywhere. Though I am certain I took some of it for granted, my ballerina mom worked hard to impress upon me how lucky I was to share the company of these ballet greats.

In the old ballet school building on Summer Avenue there was a musty storage room next to the office where sets were lain on the floor in heavy, carpet-like rolls; it was narrow and dark and most ballet school parents probably did not notice it in their comings and goings. The only occasion I had to go inside it was for costume fittings, when a seamstress came in and set up her supplies near the doorway during Nutcracker season; she made you hold still to avoid being stuck while she pinned and tucked material, then asked you to turn around, and tugged at your waist, made you turn around again, and raise and lower your arms. A few more pins and you were dismissed.

But if you were to climb carefully over the yards and yards of rolled sets in that big closet you’d finally reach the other end, where you could peer through a crack in a locked wood door to see everything that was going on in the main studio. It was where my mom positioned herself one January day in the mid-1970s to observe me in my first audition for residential ballet school when I was twelve. Mom had long left the company and started teaching at her own school in the suburbs where I was now her student; we had not been inside that creaky old building in a while. And unbeknownst to me at the time, I was about to cross a much bigger threshold into the land of ballet giants.

deb2

My mom is a force to be reckoned with. We had discussions about the faculty at the residential school in Illinois where I would attend summer classes for three consecutive years; they centered around duly reverential behavior and good deportment in general. I was warned of consequences for behaving badly, as gangs of adolescent girls are wont to do on occasion. I am sure I rolled my eyes, but I did hear this message: you are privileged to be taught by the likes of these people. There were many of them: Gwynne Ashton, Alexander Bennett, Natalia Krassovska, Buzz Miller, Vitale Fokine, Birute Barodicaite, and so many others. Most of them are gone now.

Last week ballet lost another one, the delightful and inimitable Violette Verdy, a Balanchine ballerina of French extraction who left an indelible mark on generations of young dancers. Her absence leaves another great void, a hole that will be filled by others only in the fullness of time. A friend and colleague mused, Does every generation feel the losses like we do?

I can only speculate on the answer to that question. For my part, I do know it took me some time to fully comprehend and appreciate the moment of that microcosm of ballet greatness at the corner of Summer Avenue and National Street in Memphis, and I had help; I know there were probably many who did not get it at all. And I took that awareness with me when I went away to school. And I most assuredly took it with me when I had the great privilege to attend teacher training at American Ballet Theatre in 2009 and for a few years thereafter.

I hesitate to speak to an entire generation of young people who do not seem duly impressed when they find themselves in the presence of giants, or do not miss them enough when they’re gone, but I think it is the case sometimes, symptomatic of decades of feel-good teaching, celebrations of mediocrity, and shored up self esteems. At the risk of sounding tiresome, I submit there is a price tag on it; we’re already paying for it collectively well beyond the reaches of the ballet classroom.

Miraculously, the building on Summer and National is still there, derelict, boarded up, graffiti’d, just about forgotten. Nor has the rest of the neighborhood fared well; it was never a good neighborhood to begin with, but across the street from the school once stood an old, diner-style Krystal and a corner Rexall drug store. My young colleagues and I patronized those businesses every single week; they’re gone now, along with the ballet greats who flew up and down that dark stairwell so many times. In its stead looms a neighborhood that knows nothing of any of that.

One of life’s great thrills is finding yourself in the presence of giants; the important thing is to learn humility and recognize the moment. Ms. Verdy certainly did.

About the photos: the first is of a rare history book in my possession, written by Boris Kochno and containing numerous heliogravure and photogravure illustrations by Picasso and others. It is teeming with so many of the antecedents of ballet giants I have known. The other photo is of me around age thirteen warming up before a spring demonstration performance, on the eve of another summer at ballet school in Illinois. Many thanks to the wonders of Google for the image of Memphis Ballet School in the here and now.

Settling into Your Gifts

The more she dances, the more she wants to dance.

Celia YAGP I A

In the intervening decades since I was a young dancer the ballet competition has emerged as part and parcel of the classical ballet landscape. It is not the stuff of controversial choreography and revealing costumes on little people and trophies handed out willy-nilly, but a serious contest to vie for the attention of movers and shakers in the ballet world, maybe earn a free ride to a stellar ballet school or a spot in a coveted ballet company. The usefulness of ballet competitions is still debated in ballet circles, but by and large—if you wish one day to dance professionally—at some point in your training years you’ll find yourself there, dancing a two-minute variation you chose from a sanctioned list weeks or months before, showcasing what you’ve got in front of a panel of esteemed judges.

The judges have a difficult job. They observe many young dancers over the course of a weekend (or longer), most of them already highly accomplished, and some dancing the same variations back to back on the stage. They are looking for “this elusive thing called talent,” as the former director of a competition once said. It is one thing to be a big fish in the small pond whence you came, quite another to take class in a roomful of big fish, to say nothing of competing with them in performance.

The benefits of competition reach beyond finishing well, or “placing”: competitors have the opportunity to dance in master classes given by members of the panel (sometimes many classes depending on the competition, and even one-on-one coaching with notable dance mentors). They chalk up a little more stage experience. And they receive a written evaluation, a mandate to improve technique where it needs it, but there is also praise where it is deserved (we hope).

Those of us who’ve spent time in the ballet trenches teaching youngsters to dance especially like that last bit: any seasoned ballet teacher knows you can tell a student to pull up the supporting knee or stop lifting the chin or to fully stretch the knee in arabesque, ’til you’re blue in the face, maybe for an entire semester. And then a judge says it, et voilà! The problem is fixed. We roll our eyes and go on, glad that somebody finally drilled the message effectively through a young person’s thick skull.

I still have a proprietary interest in my former students, even in the absence of my small school in Tennessee, and even though I’ve left the teaching world for the time being. The percentage of kids in a ballet school like the one I founded who go on to enjoy a professional life as a classical ballet dancer is minuscule. Some teachers hang on the hope that one (or more) of their students will enjoy professional success. I did not. There are plenty of worthy reasons to learn ballet that have nothing to do with life on the stage. But one of my former students appears to have set her sights on it, and I could not be more thrilled she has found quality instruction that promises to help get her there.

She attended her first big competition a couple of weeks ago in Atlanta, and as fate would have it, plowed through a number of obstacles to arrive at her two minutes on the stage. Not least of all was the weather, a rogue Southern snowstorm that first threatened and finally succeeded in calling off an afternoon of competition while event organizers hustled to reconfigure schedules at the last minute so every competitor could participate.

There was that: the storm and the cancellations. Then there were two back-to-back nights of sleep deprivation. And when this young dancer’s number was finally, finally called, officials announced they could not find her music, news that was delivered unceremoniously to her backstage and which left her beyond distraught.

In the end the problems were resolved and she danced beautifully in spite of nerves and everything else, and emerged with honorable scores from the judges, along with honest evaluations echoing things she’s heard before. She was pleased with the outcome, and in the end more determined than ever to keep moving down the road that ultimately leads to the stage.

The more she dances, the more she wants to dance, her mom told me when we were doing the competition postmortem through a series of emails. The ballet competition is a contrived stage experience, not a true reflection of ballet performance in the “real” ballet world. But this one was indeed a true learning experience for this girl. I am not sure I’d have emerged from a weekend like that so undaunted and fiercely resolute about dancing at the tender age of fourteen.

But that is what it takes: self-possession and self-assuredness early on, for a career that happens early in life and ends sooner than most. There is also the so-called “elusive talent,” and this girl has it in spades: I recognized it the day she came to me at age six.

A parent once told me she was enjoying watching her young daughter “settle into her gifts.” That is a beautiful way to describe allowing a child to figure it out. Sometimes you have to nudge them a little. There will be difficult days and decisions ahead, but I know one young dancer who seems to have settled into her gifts quite comfortably. The rest will be up to her.

Celia YAGP II A

Photos courtesy of Jill Adlin and used by permission; don’t steal ’em—it ain’t nice.

 

All That Glitters: Making Effort Look Effortless

When I was eight I had a Russian ballet teacher who thought nothing of whapping me and my classmates in our tummies in ballet class. The message was clear, if unrefined: flatten the belly. He could have said it, of course. Despite his accent he was still understandable and I’d probably have internalized this as a verbal correction. But the physical sting of a slap in the gut was clear, effective, and uncomplicated communication. I worked on tightening my belly every day in class and grasped this as part and parcel of the classical ballet aesthetic: ballerinas have flat tummies. Check.

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This also marked the opening of a chapter in which the difficulty of classical ballet began to unfold: it was not really about tutus and tiaras at all, but physical discomfort that sometimes kept me from falling asleep at night, even as a third-grader. It was also fun—were it not I’d have abandoned it. But soon it would also be about blisters on the knuckles of my toes, the first signs of what would become chronic injuries I can still feel, and a daily sweat-induced stink. When my ballerina mom opened her dance bag you could smell it, a pungent mix of rosin, leather, and other seasoned textiles.

Still, I loved fingering the things in that bag: the soft chiffon of wraparound dance skirts, the hockey socks she’d long recomissioned as leg warmers since her days as a young ballet student in Canada in the 1950s, loose hairpins and bandaids, the requisite bottle of Jean Naté (so you could go somewhere in public after class or rehearsal and not clear out the place), and shoes upon shoes: soft leather ballet shoes in varied states of decline with blown-out elastic and holey toes, or pointe shoes with ripped out shanks she had consigned as class or rehearsal shoes, or maybe just thrown into the bottom of the bag to be forgotten. And sometimes shiny new pointe shoes without elastics or ribbons, whose platforms were not yet darned. I loved sticking my nose inside them and breathing in the distinct new-shoe smell of layers of materials glued and hardened to form the satiny toe box, caressing the tidy pleats on the bottom with my fingers. I would soon feel betrayed by my first pair of those clunky shoes that refused to comply with my wishes as my soft leather ballet shoes always had. Damn pointe shoes, you lied: you are not pretty at all.

Ballet must be pretty in the theatre on the stage, though: nobody wants to buy a ticket to see ugly. I used this little anecdote in class all the time with my own young students in lieu of whapping them.

This weekend a photography exhibit opened in London, of images by Rick Guest showing dancers with all the sparkle and glitter stripped away. In his artist’s statement Guest says,

[Dance] deliberately conceals the enormity of effort that goes into its creation … but I think that this does a great disservice to the dancers, and that having a sense of what lies beneath both enhances our experience of the performance and leads to a more profound appreciation of the dancer’s essential being.

Maybe: I’m still on the fence about this. The photographs are revealing and interesting, possibly only to dancers. They do not portray ugliness in the sense of tummies hanging out (there are no tummies on these dancers) or egregious classical technique, but more of the sort that lived at the bottom of my mom’s dance bag: the grit that is part and parcel of being a dancer.

In the third grade there were little boys who routinely said ballet was for “sissies.” That language incensed me and sent me over the top. In those days I’d agree the sparkly veneer was indeed doing us a disservice, that those smarty-pants needed a reality check about the real moxie one needed to be a dancer. It would not have mattered, of course.

But my inclination is not to think of this Big Lie so much a disservice as a gift: learning to show effortless beauty is a life skill that transcends classical ballet (in the classroom or on the stage) and serves us well in our “civilian” lives, too. I try to use a little of that moxie in my own professional life—the unrelenting drive that insists on the best output delivered in the most professional and elegant way possible, even when it is uncomfortable. There are plenty of professionals who missed that meeting.

And what of us glittery “sissies?” Some of us did okay for ourselves.

P.S. If you are inclined to follow the link to the exhibit, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments. If you are not a dancer, do you find the images interesting? Would they enhance your enjoyment of a classical ballet performance?

 

 

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.

Rituals And Boundaries: Important Life Lessons

Butter Dish III Edit

Yesterday I hollared to Handsome Chef Boyfriend, Hey, don’t put a new stick of butter in the dish ’til I have a chance to polish it—it’s looking a bit gnarly.

You must be feeling better, he said.

It’s true, I was. For the first time in over a week I was feeling somewhat restored after the first full night of sleep I’d had in as long. I have not been this worn down by illness in recent memory. I can power through a head cold as well as the next guy, and have been known to teach ballet with laryngitis on occasion. But this stuff is sinister.

Last week was a blur. My workweek rituals were derailed right out of the starting blocks on Monday with my request to telecommute, the workday spent on the sofa in my jammies, no routine packing of a lunch or gym bag. I felt grateful for a compassionate employer and work-at-home privileges.

But boy, did it ever get so much worse before it got better.

And however unwelcome illness, the derailing of daily rituals is as objectionable, speaking only for myself.

I recently saw a candid piece of video shot on a U.S. Marines base playground. In it a handful of kids are seen swinging and playing, while in the distance can be heard the first few trumpeted notes of evening Colors. Instantly and without provocation, the children stop playing and swinging and stand respectfully at attention. There are no adults seen in the video. The music ends and the kids return to their boisterous play. (Go here if you want to see it.)

It is obviously an important ritual the children have learned to respect. The video felt timely to me,  upended as my own cherished weekly rituals have been and will be a bit longer.

That little video got me thinking of all kinds of rituals, and how they serve humanity.

It also recalled an embarrassing moment in my brief life as a ballet school director. I had a guest artist at the school teaching an open master class, meaning I had advertised the class and made it available to the general public. A couple of my own students were there, but the class was attended mainly by kids from other schools in the area—whose decorum and general deportment were beyond my control. While the instructor was in the classroom getting his notes and music organized ahead of class an unknown teenage girl blew into the classroom and flung her dance bag in a corner, kicked off her street shoes, and shoulted across the room at him: “Hey! I saw you at DEA Nationals!”

Stunned, he looked up and said, “Excuse me?” “Hey, weren’t you a teacher at DEA Nationals?” “Yes,” he said and put his head back down to his notes. “I thought so,” she said without so much as a smidge of shame.

After class I apologized to him and underscored she was not one of my own. He laughed and said, “That girl obviously has NO sense of boundaries.”

Seems nobody ever taught her to stand quietly at attention for evening Colors.

If ever there were a universe fraught with ritual, it is classical ballet. From attire and grooming, to entering and leaving the classroom, there are time-honored rituals observed in classical ballet institutions across the globe. Long hair is swept into a classical bun. Class ends (and sometimes even begins) with the ritual of révérence, a formal display of respect and gratitude to the teacher, the purveyor of the art form, and often from one student to another. In some schools children enter the classroom in a formal way, when they are invited, in an exercise called pas marché. It is a lovely thing to observe, and an excellent way to teach a young child respect for the learning environment. In the professional world, every day begins with the ritual of ballet class; a famous dancer once likened it to brushing your teeth in the morning. It is how you reorganize your body after sleep, said another.

None of it is frivolous. We sweep long hair into a neat classical bun to keep it from interfering with movement, and to show the face and the neckline. Even the act of combing the hair and fastening it to the head is an important ritual that helps ready the mind for the discipline that is about to unfold. The rituals of pas marché and révérence teach the important skills of walking as one would walk on the stage (much more difficult than you might imagine), and of taking a bow in a show of gratitude at the end of a performance. And, of establishing all-important boundaries, from student to student, and student to instructor. And even from performer to spectator.

The professional begins each day with class to organize and prepare mind and body for a busy day of rehearsals. All of it, from the tiniest ballerina wannabe learning to take a tentative curtsey, to the professional warming up in  class, making a careful head-to-toe inventory of potentially bothersome injuries and other concerns for the rest of the day and the workweek—it all matters.

Important rituals reach into every corner of our lives. Nighttime bathing and stories prepare a young mind for sleep. Daily exercise maintains the body and prepares it for the rigors of life. The ritual of holy baptism (and rituals of other faith traditions) nutures spiritual lives collectively and entrusts an entire community with the spiritual stewardship of an individual life.

And what of animals? Rituals exist in the pasture and barnyard as much as they do in our own back yards. Bestselling author Jon Katz documented the braying of his beloved donkey Simon, which happened almost on cue, every single morning—it was Simon’s “call to life,” as Jon said. A ritual through and through.

None of it feels silly to me. With rituals and boundaries come preparedness for life and a sense of peace in a world over which none of us has much control. And daily rituals create an environment ripe for intellectual life and creativity. At least, that seems to be what happens in my life: rituals build a framework that somehow allows me to think and create, and also to handle the curve balls that are thrown my way from time to time.

No gym bag again tomorrow. Butter dish looks great, though, and I’ve spent some time today thinking and writing. How satisfying.