Remembering Michael Maule: Important Ballet Lessons for Life

Showing My Grandparents a Little “Attitude” at Age 10

Nothing like a good ballet school audition to remind you you’re not at the center of the universe.

This is not a bad thing. It had already dawned on you years earlier in a classroom full of young ballet hopefuls when you did not get the instructor’s attention you so felt you deserved one afternoon. And later when the short-tempered Armenian-born artistic director of the ballet school and company blew his lid around 9 p.m. when you and your third-grader colleagues were being mindless and silly instead of focused, when he was running the same Nutcracker scene for the umpteenth time in rehearsal. (You could not help yourself at that hour past your bedtime, nor could he.)

Film director Robert Altman tried to illustrate this ballet condition in The Company, a plotless 2003 indie drama that trudges on unrelentingly to its final unsatisfying scene. It owes whatever wider appeal it might have enjoyed (if any) to headliners James Franco and Neve Campbell. The Company at least gifts the balletomanes among us a few lovely Joffrey Ballet performances in classes, rehearsals, and on the stage (hence the title) between its other tiresome and self-indulgent scenes.

And it does shine a light, however dim, on an irksome problem that persists in the ballet world, a thing that raises hackles and occasionally inspires serious discussion: the antiquated directorial practice of addressing company personnel as boys and girls, instead of men and women (or ladies and gentlemen), or occasionally more endearingly but still too childlike, “babies” and “dears.” The tone is not always sweet: you can discern the meaning in its delivery, like when a rude sibling blurts out something inappropriate at the holiday dinner table and a savvy aunt responds, “Well, bless your heart.” Makes you feel “dear” right down to your socks, doesn’t it?

The tone of the delivery was something else slowly dawning on your third grade self in ballet class, especially since your mom danced in the company and you watched rehearsals all the time: you had a full frontal dose of it—ballet directors could be brutal. The beauty of this arrangement, perhaps its salvation, was that ballet directors could also make you pee yourself laughing, because they often muted the decorum filter, to everyone’s amusement. Many still do; it takes a “big” personality to fill those shoes.

After the filming of that movie Robert Altman observed he’d never directed a group of people so pliant and obedient (I’m paraphrasing). He went on, You’re on set and say to nobody in particular, where are the dancers? And all of a sudden fifty of ‘em are right there—actors are nothing like that.

Sounds like a compliment, unless he was suggesting dancers are all a bunch of lemmings; I have known a few lemmings in the ballet world, only they’re called bunheads.

Michael Maule died last week at 95: he was one of the first people to help me understand I was not at the center of the universe, in a most polite and humane way. Anything but a lemming himself, Mr. Maule possessed an impressive pedigree on Broadway and in ballet, but by the mid-to-late-1970s when I knew him he was the distinguished director of the National Academy of Arts: it was an unlikely school with a star-studded faculty in Champaign, Illinois, operating in the 1970s, limping along financially towards the end of its life before it finally folded for good around 1978.

I would meet Michael Maule at a school audition when I was 12. But because I attended the school only in the summers and he occasionally took time away from his teaching post then, I remember him mainly as the man who gave the audition classes, together with his colleague and school administrator Mary Moore, a woman who possessed exotic red fingernails and wore the best costume jewelry ever: Ms. Moore was the antithesis of the gauzy, pastel ballet world I knew, a quality that demanded one’s full attention. The pair toured the country recruiting kids to the school; when they announced a stop in Memphis my ballerina mom informed me I would be there.

And so I was, neat as a pin in my plain black leotard with a number pinned to the front, my hair shellacked into a perfect ballerina bun—a veritable bunhead. It would be my first residential performing arts school audition, for the only residential school I ever attended, but by no means my last audition class.

However well my mom prepared me for that experience, I could not have been fully prepared for the scrutiny to which these two kind people were about to subject the young auditionees in that classroom, a space long familiar to me but now commandeered by aliens: Mr. Maule with his exotic accent (South African born, of Scottish lineage), and Mary Moore with her distinctly metropolitan demeanor. They called us in one by one to stand in front of them. Please take first arabesque à terre, Ms. German. (Snap, went the Polaroid.) Thank you. Please stand in first. Thank you. Please give us battement tendu à la seconde, thank you, arms in seconde. (Snap, snap, whisper whisper.) Thank you. Please lie on your back in “frog”—place the soles of the feet together. (What the hell? Somebody is manipulating my legs and hips, there is more discussion.) Thank you, Ms. German. Please take your place at the barre.

A few weeks later came the acceptance letter together with the audition evaluation in multiple pages, an “x” marking the spot in one of three columns (excellent, fair, or undeveloped/needs improvement) next to every movement under scrutiny. Sometimes the “x” was typed a little clumsily between the two columns, a reminder that a scoring rubric can’t tell the whole story. But the best part was Mr. Maule’s thoughtful essay in which he shone a light—the brightest one—on every inch of me: who among us does not relish a story written with us as its main character? I remember the best and the worst of it: tightness in the hips, extension of the legs not where it should be for my age, weak pirouette on the left. But then: “a lovely arch was noted in the feet,” pointe work was “stronger than average” for my age.

So it was true: I could go on living with myself, warts and all. Mainly, I was one dancer of many with some gifts, but much work still to do. As always it remained up to me to determine my own destiny, however lemming-like my behavior at 12 or 13. Mr. Maule helped me understand that lesson through his kind smile that day, and on a few more occasions before everything was said and done.

But Michael Maule also unknowingly prepared me for an especially brutal audition in Toronto, Ontario, before the legendary Betty Oliphant at my mom’s own alma mater, Canada’s National Ballet School (in a weirdly ironic plot twist, it would be Neve Campbell’s alma mater, too). That audition was for the academic year ahead and did not go as I hoped: the school had room to take only two girls in my audition class of about 15 or 20. Ms. Oliphant was an observer that day, one of many adjudicators who sat at a long table watching the class; candidates were eliminated in rounds.

I made it through to the final round of cuts, but was let go just before pointe work, something I was keen to demonstrate, shored up as I was by Mr. Maule’s words; afterwards I tried hard to fight back tears, but Ms. Oliphant sprinted over to speak to me and my mom, the woman she’d taught ballet as a girl, and who in turn was now teaching me. She placed her arm around my shoulder, looked me square in the eyes and said, Continue your studies and please come back to us.

Without hesitating I quipped, Thank you, I am going to the National Academy of Arts in Champaign, Illinois.

My mom could not have been prouder of me that day: most assuredly not at the center of the universe, I was undeniably in command of my own destiny. Thank you, Mr. Maule, wherever you are.

Old John Dormitory in 1978, National Academy of Arts, Champaign, Illinois

 

Romancing Haglund’s Deformity: My Forever Running Partner

Scout-the-Runner
Scout-the-Runner

Vermont broke weather records last week: my car thermometer said 73° when I left work Friday afternoon, with partly cloudy skies and a pleasant breeze that carried an earthy spring scent—in February. I could be wrong, I speculated to Handsome Chef Boyfriend a few days earlier, and I know there’s still plenty of time for big snow, but this feels for all the world like spring thaw to me. Yes, he agreed, and even if it snows again, it won’t stick around long.

Call it climate change, but it feels more like weather. Winter’s fury’s still fresh in my mind: below-zero misery, the distinctly menacing sound of the heat cycling on and staying on, heart-stopping electric bills in the post office box, and the eternal fight to keep winter on the outside of the car, to say nothing of shooing it out of the house: we’ve paid our cold-weather dues, and if spring wants to move in a month early, so be it. Mud season is a thing of beauty.

Yesterday there was no cycling on of the modern kerosene heater that warms us pretty well in this tiny place. The house was blessedly quiet, with only the sound of a laptop keyboard clicking behind me, a snoring Labrador wedged next to me on the sofa, clouds drifting across the skylights overhead, and aromatic brown rice bubbling under the saucepan lid on the stove just around the corner. Later on we’d throw open the door and leave it that way, just as we do every day in summer: how delightful to enjoy this appetizer in winter, even if it’s only a tease.

Spring thaw means resuming my running habit in earnest. But where it was once part and parcel of every day in my erstwhile Southern life, in Vermont it is seasonal. Some folks manage in the winter with special equipment, but my damaged foot objects. This was a point of dispute between me and my well-intentioned doc in December: you can do it if you really want to, she insisted. I lobbed one back at her: not at my age, not with Haglund’s deformity. I know Haglund’s deformity, she persisted, and you can do it if you want.

It was another doctor, an orthopedic surgeon in Tennessee, who identified this malformation in my heels (it’s more pronounced in the left one), and another who explained why I have it. Sometimes Haglund’s is called the “pump bump” because women who routinely wear heels are vulnerable to it. I’ve never worn heels a day in my life, except maybe for the odd special occasion. I mentioned this to one of my M.D. ballet dads a few years ago when I was still teaching. How could I have something tied to the wearing of those awful shoes, when I never wear them? Well, he opined, you may not wear the shoes, but consider this: you put your foot in that position every day of the week for hours at a stretch.

He made an excellent pointe, so to speak: ballet dancers (and their teachers) maintain this position of the foot more often than not. It’s called relevé, and you can see it here in spades in an examination class at the renowned Vaganova School:

But I digress. My doctor is wrong on this one, and that is that. I’m more body aware than the average Joe and because of my badly compromised foot have exactly no stability on ice, not even on packed snow if it’s slippery. Time and again this winter I grabbed hold of trees to stay upright negotiating the topography of the back yard for Scout’s late-night pee breaks. If growing old is not for sissies, as the wisdom goes, neither is winter in Vermont with a dog.

Nor is the confounded bony protrusion on the back of the heel the only problem: it’s all the soft stuff around it—muscle and tendon—irritated by movement, sometimes angered, occasionally declaring all-out mutiny. I will make your life a living hell if you attempt to stand and walk. It occurs to me I can’t have my foot replaced.

So I won’t run in those conditions, even with special equipment, the conditions which prevailed from some time in December until only a few days ago. Instead I will respect the foot.

But mud! Mud is the perfect medium for running, a thing I remembered last weekend when Scout and I embarked on our first several runs of “spring,” as it were. The heel sinks into the soft, mushy gravel in a satisfying way, water oozing up around it, the shock absorbed mercifully and gently in the ankle, the knee, the hip, and the lower back, while blood courses joyously through the veins. Scout is a perfect running dog, happy to keep up whatever cadence I ask of him. A slow couple of miles a day feels fine for now, with some starting and stopping to honor the foot thrown in for good measure: I’m a good listener and had rather avoid mutiny down below even if the heart thumping up above urges us on.

After the rice finished cooking yesterday I laced my running shoes with Scout circling me enthusiastically. Crossing the bridge over the Battenkill I glanced uneasily at the water roaring under it in torrents, carrying runoff from the nearby mountains; later HCB and I would observe places it has already breached its banks to settle in wheat-colored fields. Elsewhere in our neighborhood the same is happening on a smaller scale, streams ripping through culverts under the roads and in some places spilling over the top of them.

Scout kept his nose skyward to concentrate new smells that surely must assault him like a freight train, stopping now and then to bury it in the warm, wet schmutz on the side of the road below. Meanwhile my foot cried out like a mythical Mandrake yanked out of its potting soil, but I didn’t let on to Scout, only slowing down now and again to shush the pain.

Once home we headed directly to the tub, where a mud-encrusted Scout suffered no pain in his first stem-to-stern scrubbing on my watch. And true to his character, he stood resolute and patient in the soapy water through it all, content to lie on the bathroom floor quietly afterwards for a towel drying and brushing. Scout ended his day as it began, hunkered down with his humans, but sweeter smelling, exercised, his belly full of turkey and kibble.

I know running will never be the same as it was even a few years ago. There will always be a twice-daily regimen of ice baths, and pain meds, and fish oil, maybe some massage, and the occasional Arnica application if I want to keep going. Two things I know for certain: I need to run. And my left hand needs a leash in it. For the time being, anyway, they’re both met.

haglunddeformity1a

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.

Providential Weekend: Photo Essay

NYLO 12

How often does the opportunity arise to combine three cherished interests—in my case ballet, architecture, and cuisine—in a single weekend? Almost never, but I just pulled it off. Add to this the intoxicating joy of unfettered time with Handsome Chef Boyfriend and a happy reunion with one Gwynn Root at the end of her second of three performances dancing Swan Lake with Festival Ballet Providence, (and after too, too long without seeing this beautiful young dancer, the progeny of a pair of amazing artists). We also finally got to meet her very handsome and talented boyfriend Trevor-the-jazz-guitarist from Atlanta.

Gwynn & Trevor 1

Gwynn & Trevor 2

Gwynn & Trevor 3

Gwynn described her post-performance face as too “Kardashian” for her own tastes, which made me giggle; nobody expects a clean-scrubbed and dewey post-performance face at that late hour. With or without stage makeup this young woman is stunning, inside and out. It feels so unfair to have only an hour or two for cramming in several years’-worth of important catchup conversation before everybody turns into a pumpkin; it is assuredly better than no time at all.

It’s been an enriching weekend bumper to bumper. Spring has arrived with more intent in southern New England than it has here in Vermont. Yesterday was stunning, and I still find it incredible that I can photograph things with any acuity at all inside a moving car, but it’s possible: I grabbed a couple of respectable images during our longish, traffic-delayed pass through Worcester, Mass.

Worcester 1

Worcester 2

We stayed at a place in Warwick just outside Providence called NYLO: edgy, almost brually modern accomodations in a repurposed factory. It gets high marks for inventive use of space and clever interior design, slightly lower marks for missing a few important details. The building alone was enough to make me happy, but the ruins next to it are delicious: I don’t know the back story but sure as heck hope it has a happy ending.

Warwick 1

Warwick 2

Years ago—before child rearing emerged as my full-time occupation—I was headed down a different path in historic preservation. It did not happen, but my passion for architecture (including vernacular and even derelict architecture) has never waned. NYLO got it right; props to a place whose lobby felt more like a book store and where not a single square foot of interior space was wasted. Thoughtful design is a thing of beauty.

NYLO 1

NYLO 3

NYLO 9

NYLO 10

NYLO 4

NYLO 2

NYLO 11

Festival Ballet Providence put its own spin on Swan Lake to make it manageable for a contemporary audience. It was still long, and my favorite part of the score in Act IV was missing. Festival is a small company but managed to make itself look big onstage, no small feat. Handsome Chef Boyfriend this morning had a suggestion for the bigger ballet world when it comes to full-length corps de ballet work where all the dancers look exactly the same (as they should because they are, well, the corps): put numbers on their tutus, he says, like hockey players have on their jerseys, so you can tell who’s who.

This idea probably won’t fly, although I once suggested commercial endorsements on tutus to create cash flow the same way they do for NASCAR racers. Lookalike ballerinas notwithstanding, HCB enjoyed going to the ballet. Theatres are magical, as I have said before; construction for this particular venue—the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in downtown Providence—began in the late 1920s but was delayed by the Great Depression and finally completed in 1950. I had only my cell phone for the few photos I made, but still love that it found the sunlight falling across the proscenium as ballet patrons filed in ahead of the performance.

Vet Theatre 3

Vet Theatre 1

Vet Theatre 2

We finished our weekend in Providence this morning with breakfast at a place recommended by a local;  we found it worth the half-hour wait. HCB analyzed every crumb of it as he is wont to do when we eat out. The kitchen was in full view of the patrons (for HCB this is tantamount to eating dessert first). I had my Nikon out for these and loved capturing the movement that is part and parcel of a very busy commercial kitchen.

Cranston 2

Cranston 3

Cranston 4

We’ll be back, Providence. (Just as soon as we can get our pants snapped again.)

New Running Shoes, Perilous Decisions

Not many weeks ago I took the first uncertain steps to resume running after an injury interrupted a many-years-long stint; I wrote about it here. I have a new pair of running shoes to prove it, hard-won shoes begat by the sweat of my own brow and a little research, and a long drive to a neighboring state.

Posterior Tib 2A

In the intervening days and weeks I have undertaken a running regimen one of my colleagues reviewed for an online publication. It’s aimed at folks who are athletic slugs with a keen desire to exercise, but without effective strategies for starting and sticking with it. The typical scenario of failure, as the program’s creator describes it, is resolving to run, and then over-reaching the first time out, soon throwing in the towel when the body balks.

That does not describe me. I am the runner who once started each day with a quick swig of water, a leashed dog or two, and then covered no fewer than four or five miles at a respectable clip before the sun had fully breached the eastern horizon. I remember the first time I ever tried this, tiptoeing out the back door a few minutes past five a.m., opening a squeaky iron gate quietly as I could to keep from waking the neighbors, stepping off the curb onto the chilly pavement with two eager Siberian Huskies whose excited breath showed in the amber light of the street lamps. The only sounds were the dogs’ toenails against the pavement, the occasional soft clinking of their tags, and our collective breathing. Somehow I did this crazy thing again the next day. And the next, and for many, many years, with different combinations of family dogs. I came to love this hour that was sometimes the only peace in my day.

We were so easily spooked in those early mornings by whatever we imagined lurked in the shadows of neighborhood trees and hedges. (Human or canine, the mind plays sinister tricks on itself in the darkness.) Out on the main road rolled newspapers sailed over the top of the paper carrier’s car in the darkness, each one set aloft by his expert arm but still landing with a quiet thwap in one driveway and then another (this action sometimes evoked a low growl in the dogs); we could hear baritone radio voices muted inside passing luxury sedans pointed towards the big teaching hospital just across the river, the doctors on call starting their rounds; we could smell other people’s toast and coffee; more than once skittish urban foxes and coyotes crossed our paths; finally we witnessed the street lamps flickering off as daylight overcame dawn. Each day my dogs and I watched the neighborhood wake up; by the time we arrived back home they were tired out, our own house was stirring, there was a child who needed to be gotten up and readied for school, breakfast to be made, schedules to follow. My quiet time for the day was over.

This lifestyle continued unchecked for years and I honestly believe brought me a measure of sanity I could derive from nothing else. But soon after I moved to Vermont for a new teaching position, and shortly before I lost my beloved German Shepherd Clarence in early 2014, chronic posterior tibial tendonitis forced me into running retirement. It’s a mouthful but mainly describes inflammation in the muscle and its associated tendon that reaches down from the calf and wraps under the heel by way of the ankle bone on the inside of the leg. Mine is painfully distended and swollen in the region of the heel itself near the attachment, and behaves badly most of the time. It does not respond well to stress, which would include long distance running. It does not take a shining to classical ballet, either, and one movement in particular, called relevé (think calf raises)—a movement that occurs many, many times over the course of a single 90-minute ballet class—is particularly aggravating. And of course it does not respond well to the other kind of stress, either—the emotional kind.

Add afternoons of teaching ballet class for a three- or four-hour stretch (actively dancing and demonstrating relevé and lots of other body-challenging movement), to mornings of vigorous long-distance running, and a congenital heel deformity that adds wear and tear to the soft tissue, and then throw in a little happy weight gain just for good measure, and the body will finally protest so loudly you can’t ignore it another second. Dang posterior tibial tendon: an orthopedic surgeon diagnosed it as compromised many years earlier, but it was decent enough to allow me to keep on keepin’ on. Now it was throwing the worst imaginable fist-pounding, screaming, spitting tantrum. It certainly had my undivided attention, as nature intended.

Posterior Tib 9A

My foot looks normal every morning but by day’s end is swollen and tight and yellow; it does this whether I run or do nothing, but it’s worse when I spend the day on my feet. Lately it has sprouted new capillary growth I can see just under the skin. But in my professional life now I spend most of an eight hour stretch sitting: this has brought welcome relief to the offending foot and heel. And in the last couple of months…could it be? I swear I could feel actual healing in that foot. The rest of me has felt like a slug, like the wanna-be runners for whom this interval training app is intended.

People rebound courageously all the time from all kinds of trauma far worse than mine, going on to reach impossible training and professional goals. I decided the “baby steps” approach of this little regimen could be the salve I needed to ease back into running again, this time without all those damaging relevés, and sadly also without a dog at the end of a leash. The first couple of times out I was giddy from the old euphoria that for me comes only from running. Other pursuits have stepped up to the plate in the last year and a half in lieu of it—yoga, weight training classes, bicycling in summer and spin classes in winter, and even swimming. Nothing does for me what running does, but I concede some of them (yoga especially) help make running better, or even possible.

Significantly, I returned home from those first few jaunts pain free: nada. zip. nothing. No pain at all, at least nothing outside of what I consider “normal” pain. Rest must have been the thing that was missing, I concluded, the thing all the dance and sports medicine professionals insist is so important for soft tissue injuries, but is so elusive for driven athletes. I finally gave this tiresome injury what it wanted, or so I believed.

Slowly and surely the pain came back.

I’m soldiering on for the time being, nearing the end of the fourth week of the training program and skipping some of the modules that feel silly to me. Last week I researched running with posterior tibial tendonitis, thinking other runners who have the same problem would report the fix: there must be some cocktail of exercises, stretching, icing, heat, or other things to make this work. In truth I have tried them all in the past (and some I still practice), but held out hope there was something I missed.

Posterior Tib 1A

Instead I found this ominous warning: Stop running, and stop now. Do not attempt to push through the pain. You do this at your own peril, risking permanent damage to your foot, damage that will change its shape and ultimately change how you walk and move. Furthermore, the very instep itself is at risk, as the tendon is what holds it up, giving it the important structure it needs to do its job.

Terrifying advice that leaves me at yet another difficult intersection.

Run at your own peril. Don’t run at all.

There is a particular flavor of nightmare I hate, and it goes like this. You wake up in your own bed and familiar surroundings, and everything seems fine. It is time to get up and start the day. And then some awful thing happens, some terrifying thing, there is a menacing person you don’t recognize standing behind the open bedroom door, or whose shadow just stirred in the hallway beyond. Then you realize, I am not yet awake—this is a nightmare. And you try desperately to stir. You open your eyes again, thinking you’re in the clear, and then that shadow moves again. You are still in the dream, imprisoned by your own mind. Eventually you do wake up and pinch yourself just to be sure, and you start your day in earnest, feeling a sense of disquiet.

Every single morning for an entire year I felt like that, the year I lost everything that had meaning to me, the year before I left Tennessee to start life over in Vermont. Every morning I was caught up in the hope that what was happening to me was only a bad dream, and every morning I was disappointed. Things got dramatically worse before they got better, loss and angst following me right into my new home state, financial ruin, emotional turmoil along with it. I have likened this to being pushed into a deep hole, somehow managing to cling to the edge with only a couple of fingers.

And then I managed to get the other hand to the top, then all ten fingers dug in, and then an elbow, and another. Then one swinging foot found a toehold, bits and pieces of dirt still giving way under it, but in the end the toes won and the other knee made its way almost to the top of the hole.

Daily I reminded myself, you can choose to sink or to swim, advice I heard often growing up in a family with a strong line of matriarchs at the helm.

In the last few weeks I have felt better (in spite of the foot) than I have in the last two years, and not just physically. At first I could not breathe and a couple of times was caught up in comical bouts of coughing that continued over the course of a day. Then gradually my lungs cleared and I felt better. Muscles began settling into a shape I recognized and my clothing felt better on me. Even my head started working better, with  renewed clarity of thought and vision.

So here is what I think about this tricky situation. I could die next week, or tomorrow, or today, for some stupid reason. I could keep on battling middle age weight gain with inadequate tools in my bag, and all the unpleasant problems that sprout from that like obnoxious little tributaries flowing from a big, muddy river. Or I could take a risk, live dangerously. It could be a perilous decision.

Or it could be life-affirming.

As Mr. Balanchine said, there is only now. I choose to live in the moment, to risk peril in a new pair of running shoes.

Posterior Tib 6A

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.

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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.

Chandelier 1

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.