Ballet Coolness

Last weekend I took one of my flatmates, George, to see his first ever Ballet performance. We went and saw American Repertory Ballet’s amazing American Classics mixed bill – there was Phillip Jerry’s Our Town, Randy James’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Douglas Martin’s Ephemeral Possessions, Patrick Corbin’s Folia and Twyla Tharp’s Eight Jelly Rolls. George seemed to really enjoy it and afterwards I asked him what he thought. His reply? That the performance had been so cool.

That got me thinking – Ballet is damn cool! Sure, Black Swan helped make Ballet seem cool (I’d argue that Mao’s Last Dancer was better though!) but, to be honest, the Ballet world was doing a pretty fine job by themselves! So I thought I’d share some Ballet coolness with you all:

Royal Ballet videos:

First up, some awesome videos coming out of the Royal Ballet, and Bennet Gartside (First Soloist). It all started with the The Royal Ballet. Not What You Think. video:

I showed this to my flatmates (all cyclists), and they jaws actually dropped. And I think one of them swore at seeing 1:15. This video shows perfectly how sexy, physical, impressive and cool Ballet can be. And to top it all off, they’ve started some new videos for the upcoming Romeo & Juliet at the O2! Here’s the first in their video blogs:

But the Royal Ballet isn’t alone in creating cool videos. Just today I found this cool piece by The Australian Ballet: it’s called Trace by Alice Topp and is being performed in a side street in Melbourne. I love the juxtaposition of the dance and the setting creating a certain ‘rawness’ to the piece. Awesome!

And just so you Americans don’t feel left out – here’s New York City Ballet’s Janie Taylor and Justin Peck dancing in an advert for a fashion house (I think it’s called Chloe, but I don’t know much about fashion!). It’s choreographed by Peck (who recently premiered a work to Sufjan Stevens’ music – again pretty cool!) and is pretty awesome!

Cool Posters:

Now for a shift away from videos to a more static piece of coolness: posters and season brochures. These are pretty much just an excuse to show how ridiculously good looking ballet dancers and I for one am not complaining! There are far too many posters to choose from but here are a couple of my favorites; I’ll let the pictures say their thousand words:

New York City Ballet

Royal Ballet Ondine

Another New York City Ballet shot (too many to choose from!)

Cool Tweeters!

But Ballet cool isn’t just visual. In fact, one of the coolest things I’ve found about Ballet is talking to some of the world’s best dancers on Twitter and getting glimpses into their daily lives. I couldn’t possibly mention them all but a handful include: Ashley Bouder from New York City Ballet (@ashleybouder), Daniil Simkin from American Ballet Theater (@daniil), Evan McKie from Stuttgart Ballet (@evanmckie), Gary Avis from The Royal Ballet (@balletboy09), Bennet Gartside from The Royal Ballet (@Bennet76), Marijn Rademaker from the Stuttgart Ballet (@rademakermarijn), Lauren Cuthbertson from The Royal Ballet (@londonballerina), … The list truly is endless! Each and every one is doing their part in making Ballet more accessible and popular. It means a lot that they will take their time to reply to us ‘mere mortals’, I can’t imagine many professional footballers or pop singers having the same kind of relationship with their fans.

So that’s my cool list for the moment! I know it’s a little New York City Ballet and Royal Ballet biased, but these are two of the companies I know the most about and follow the most fanatically. Please let me know of any of you favorite cool Ballet things – you can post in the comments, or on the new DaveTriesBallet Facebook page! Make sure to click the link in the c0lumn on the right to ‘like’ us!

Until next time, keep dancing!

Once upon a time there was a doll…

So this Saturday was the Coppelia performances. And they were awesome!

You may remember a while ago me mentioning I had signed up to be part of the Princeton Ballet School’s production of Coppelia. And if your memory is really good (or you clicked on the link) you’ll know that I was going to be part of the Czardas (a Hungarian Folk Dance) with some other Open Enrollment Adults (10 of us in total, 3 guys and 7 girls).

So the last couple of months have been busy with rehearsals and it all culminated in our two performances on Saturday – a matinee and evening show. I’m going to try to cover everything that happened so I’m guessing this post is going to end up being pretty darn long…

Katarina Rafael and Marc St-Pierre as Swanhilda and Franz (Photo Credit: Edward Urwin)

First up – a (very) brief summary of the story of Coppelia. We’re in a village in Eastern Europe where the crazy Dr. Coppelius makes automatons in his workshop just off the town square. Our ‘hero’ is the slightly dimwitted Franz, who is in love with Swanhilda, the eligble bachelorette of the village. After professing his love to Swanhilda, Franz notices a girl at the window of Dr. Coppelius workshop. You know, the place he builds DOLLS in? After calling to her and the girl not moving an inch he professes his love to the doll Coppelia (so he’s not only a bit dim, he’s also fickle in love!). Swanhilda sees and is annoyed, not realizing it’s a doll either. She creeps into Coppelius’ workshop, finally works out what is going on (took her long enough!) and ends up pretending to be the doll. Franz also sneaks in to see his ‘love’, Coppelius gets him drunk and then uses a magic spell to put his lifeforce into Coppelia. Swanhilda, dressed as Coppelia then pretends to come alive, much to Coppelius’ delight. After a few more demonstrations that she is indeed alive, and a bit of taunting Coppelius, Swanhilda reveals the deception, just as Franz awakes. They forgive each other (and Coppelius gets paid off by the Burgemeister of the village) and get married and live happily ever after, one presumes. So nothing unrealistic here, except for the fact it seems no-one in the village would guess that an unmoving girl sitting in a doll-maker’s window might actually be a doll. Go figure.

Now the story’s out of the way, back to the dancing!

Our first rehearsal wasn’t really a rehearsal as such – because we had nothing to rehearse! Our dance was going to be choreographed by Mary Barton (the ARBW Junior’s Ballet Mistress) and then rehearsed with Erika Mero (a teacher at PBS, and a previous PBS Swanhilda!). Although Mary had some ideas about the choreography, the first couple of sessions involved a lot of trying things out to see if they worked. It was fascinating to see inside a choreographers mind and see the dance develop. As the dance took form Mary’s ideas fleshed out into a really nice group piece with three main clusters of dancers (each with one man and two or three women). None of the steps were particularly complex on their own (this was a folk dance after all) but the overall image was surprisingly intricate.

Soon enough the dance was pretty much complete. The premise is that we were the sensible adults of the village and this dance was our way of showing the kids “how it should be done”. We would dance the first section of the Czardas before being interrupted by the ARBW Juniors (teenage dancers) being boisterous. After shooing them away we would regroup and finish off the Czardas. This superiorty would mean lots of smug and proud epaulment (upper body alignment) and even though we were peasants we would be acting as if we were draped in heavy furs and dripping in gold and jewels.

Our group of Czardas-ers; that's me in the centre! (Photo Credit: Edward Urwin)

As the weeks progressed, and the choreography was cemented, I had comfortably memorised the steps and we moved onto the smaller stuff – When chugging (a move a bit like a heavy, sharp developpe kick on a plie) how should my arms be? Did we want to have our crossed arms touching or with space between them? Seeing as we’re peasants should we stand in parallel when not dancing?

And then all of a sudden our Act 1 put-together was upon us! I had no idea what this would involve and so I arrived at the big studio with my tights on, a big bottle of water and my Masters Thesis to proofread. Sure, there was some sitting around during parts of the Act I wouldn’t be involved in, but in actual fact the day was a lot busier and more interesting than I expected. As the adults of the village, we would be on stage for most of the Act standing towards the back of the stage watching the kids dance. Barring a couple of close calls with pointe shoes (you do NOT want to be in the way of a grand jete!) there was very little in terms of spacing changes for us adults which was good.

Next up was the run-through, which was very similar to the put-together except with (hopefully) less stopping and starting and one big difference: we would be facing away from the mirror! This might not sound like a big deal, and in fact considering I hate watching myself the mirror you might think that this would be a big plus for me. Except that I never realised how much I used the mirror without even thinking about it. The final count of the dance included a co-ordinated hand flick which now had to be solely down to the music, not any visual cues. Also, I was placed at the front of the group for most of the dance and now I wouldn’t be able to see where the others were which was slightly daunting.

Surviving the run-throughs lead to our first theatre rehearsal – Wednesday night of performance week. We were performing in the Patriots Theater at The War Memorial in Trenton. I was pretty overwhelmed when I first walked in the main hall – it is truly a stunning theater, and pretty massive too! I didn’t have too much time to admire the surroundings though as “places” were soon called and I made my way to wait in the wings for my cue. Our dance went well and we spent most of the time working on being “supers”. This is a term (short for supernumeraries) which pretty much means the same as extras in TV and film. While standing upstage watching the dances we would be ‘talking’ to each other and making small gestures so as to keep the stage ‘alive’. There’s a fine line between keeping the stage busy and distracting from the dancing (the main attraction after all!) and, as I erred on the side of caution, I kept getting told to gesture a little more or be a little more active.

Shaye Firer and Edward Urwin as Swanhilda and Franz from the wings (Photo Credit: Marc St-Pierre)

As we walked off stage at the end of the first Act (promenading proudly in front of the children who bowed to their superiors :P ) we gathered to hear the feedback from Douglas and Mary. Everything had gone well but they had one little surprise for us – we would be in Act Three! Thankfully they weren’t springing a new dance on us, but we would be super-ing the entire third Act, as Franz and Swanilda get married and everyone celebrates. This was a cool surprise – after all, we would now have the best seats (or standing places to be more accurate) in the house for the third act variations and pas de deux!

Thursday was a day off (thankfully as I had a Final exam I had to proctor) and then it was back to the theater on Friday night for our first dress rehearsal, which would be the first of 4 complete run-throughs in just over 24 hours! This brings me to an important point – my costume!

As peasants our costumes were going to be fairly basic – on top was a lace up shirt under a waistcoat. On the bottom though would be white tights (!) under knickers. This was another “WHAT?!?” moment, because in the UK knickers is used solely as a term for women’s underwear. Turns out knickers mean knickerbockers here, and so I would be pretty much wearing long black tight-shorts over my tights, creating the illusion of knee high socks, paired with my usual black ballet slippers (except with white elastics to blend in with the tights). It turns out white tights are kinda hard to get hold of, and I got lots of advice on what kind to get. Although I would be wearing the ‘knickers’ over the top of them I hope I might get to reuse the tights for performances in the future so my first criteria was they had to be non-see-through. It turns out this equates to getting non-shiny tights (supposedly the theatre lights turn shiny ones pretty much transparent) and then to also wear two pairs of tights rather than just one. Kinda weird, right? However, when I put the first pair on I immediately could see why – my semi-hairy legs made the tights look kinda grey instead of white! Although shaving my legs wouldn’t be the end of the world (having been on a cycling team I used to have to shave them before riding) I’m kind of glad someone advised me to use two pairs of tights so I could do that instead!

The rest of Friday/Saturday is all kind of blurred together for me. Lots of standing in the wings, lots of waiting downstairs in the changing rooms, lots of standing on stage, occasionally dancing and constantly having an awesome time! Backstage was a little crazy, mainly due to hundreds of little kids dressed as butterflies, shepherdesses and village children, but the changing rooms were a nice oasis of calm during the day. I definitely felt our dance improved with each run through – the matinee went really well and then the evening performance completely rocked! I definitely realised during our first dress-rehearsal though that standing around for 30 minutes on stage before dancing is not the best way to get prepared! I was pretty stiff by the time our music started but luckily our promenade to our starting positions allowed me to loosen up a little (thank goodness we didn’t have any crazy moves to do!).

Me, mid-chugging during the Czardas (Photo Credit: Edward Urwin)

One thing I found fascinating about the day was seeing Ballet up-close. When you go to see a performance you see this beautiful image (hopefully) with dancers making it seem effortless and the easiest thing in the world. On stage and in the wings you get to see the reality – dancers taking deep breaths before going back on stage, dancers dripping in sweat (thanks for the shower during your spins Ed and Marc :P) and, what I found most interesting, the switch as dancers turned to face the audience – with their back to the audience there was occasional grimaces and some panting but as soon as they turned the smile was there, the teeth out and all traces of difficulty vanished.

I guess this is as good as a time as any to wax lyrical about our leads. First up, our Dr Coppelius was Stephen Campanella, a dancer with ARB and an occasional substitue teacher for my Monday class. Stephen is a great actor and really milked this role. In fact, he was so committed to the role that he continued to hobble around the theater even when not on stage – talk about method acting! Our Franzs were also two ARB dancers – Marc St-Pierre for the Matinee and Edward Urwin for the Evening performance. Ed is my Wednesday teacher and Marc had been the guy who helped Ed out running the partnering workshop I attended. They demonstrated not only great skill and flair but also great acting – particularly while getting drunk with Dr Coppelius (I guess they’ve had lots of practice :P). Their final variation completely wowed me – with sharp cabrioles, multiple pirouettes, a string of grand jetes and some awesome tours en l’air.

And finally our Swanhildas – Katarina Rafael and Shaye Firer. Wow. I still can’t get my head around the fact these two girls are only 18! They gave a phenomenal performance being scorned in the first Act, injecting humour in the second Act and then doing a complex pas de deux including a string of 16 fouettes to finish. And did I spy some doubles? I sure did!

And to finish I thought I would share my three favorite moments of the entire Ballet – all in the first act. First up, was the mazurka danced by the ARBW students. There was this really cool section towards the end where there is a sequence of off-beat claps that the two boys did accompanying double tours, pirouettes and jumps with big cambre-ed backs. Then there was a section at the end of the “Theme Slave Varie” that to me sounded reminiscant of film score music for a big WW2 battle, replete with spitfires and tanks. This was performed by the “girlfriends” doing developpes towards Franz – defiant and challenging.

And my favorite thing in the entire Ballet? One small move Swanilda makes in the first act when Franz is chasing her. She rises en pointe with a grande battement to the side, arms in second. She pauses for a split second before bringing her leg into passe, cambre-ing towards her standing leg and brings arms to fourth. I don’t know exactly what it was, but the move seemed so empowering and just really really cool. Completely stuck with me from the moment I first saw it.

And all of a sudden the performance was done, the bows were taken and it was all over. It had been such a whirlwind that I was glad for the hour drive home to let it all sink in. I was absolutely shattered (and I slept for most of Sunday), but it had been one of the most rewarding and enjoyable days I’d had all year. I couldn’t stop grinning the rest of the weekend and was most definitely on a post-performance high. I got some really nice compliments from people who saw the show, including one from the School’s Ballet Mistress – Maria Youskevitch, daughter of the famous Igor Youskevitch and past soloist at ABT! She came up to me afterwards saying she heard I only recently started Ballet and that I had “great presence” on stage! I was speechless :)

Me with my post-performance smile!

So I’ve definitely caught the performing bug, and can’t wait until I get another chance to perform! It’s a real shame I’m not going to get another chance to perform with Princeton Ballet School, but I’m hoping that I’ll have other opportunities in the future. I’ve found some classes for when I get to Bath and there is a University group that performs so maybe I’ll be able to do something with them.

Until next time, keep dancing!