Ballet Classes “Up North”

So I posted recently that I’ve headed back to the UK, and one of the problems with coming back here is the lack of Ballet classes. I live in rural Northumberland (just south of Scotland) and, to be honest, there isn’t much of anything around here, never mind dance schools! I live on a farm, my nearest village is a mile away and has a grand total of one greengrocers, one butchers, one delicatessen and four pubs (we have our priorities straight!). My nearest cities are Edinburgh and Newcastle – both 50 miles away. So it wasn’t going to be easy finding classes.

The lovely town of Alnwick

So I contacted a family friend, Clare, who is currently training in dance physiotherapy and is a really good dancer. I guessed if anyone would know where to take classes, it would be her. I sent her an email back in April and she sent me the contact details of her old teacher, Miss Moseley, who teaches at Alnwick. Alnwick is an old market town with a fantastic castle (that was featured as part of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films) and some cool open Gardens I worked in for two summers (including Europe’s biggest treehouse).

So I called Miss Moseley, who was very nice and explained that term finishes in three or four weeks time but I’d be welcome to take classes until then. I assured her this was fine; any classes are better than none! I got all the details and yesterday went to my first class at Alnwick School of Dance. Classes are held at the Mechanics Institute and after getting changed in the shower room (the room usually used as the boy’s changing room had a WI meeting in it) I headed on upstairs.

Alnwick Mechanics Institute - a bit of a change from Broadway Dance Center!

I’m sure most of you reading this blog will have seen Billy Elliot. I absolutely adore the film and have watched it countless times. You know the scenes where Julie Walters is teaching in the local hall – hard wooden floors and a couple of free-standing mirrors? Well this was kind of like that! Not in a bad way either – it was kind of quaint, but a big change from the big open studios of NYC!

I had been told tights were a no-no, so I had jazz pants and a white t-shirt on and headed in. Miss Moseley was really nice, and asked what I’d done before. Class was pretty busy; she was teaching the new RAD Intermediate Ballet (I think!) so the class was a mix of Grade 6 and 7 students. This did mean I was surrounded by 14-18 year olds, but after the first 10 minutes it didn’t really bother me – and they were really good! I was pleased to see quite a few boys there too, probably 5 or 6 out of a total class of 15 or so!

Class was very different to normal. First off, we were learning to a syllabus. So for example, plies were a set combination that the students are having to memorize for their exams. Also, we all started facing the teacher and that meant I started with my right hand on the barre. This was really strange! I always start barre on my right side and it was a pleasant mental exercise to start the ‘wrong way around’ for once. Other differences included relaxing my fifth – the English system seems to require not as tight a fifth as the Russian system, so the teacher recommended relaxing it a little to save my knees some stress.

During centre work we got to pirouettes and I was surprised to find separate boys and girls combinations. I’ve only ever had one class where there was any distinction between guys and girls (when we did tours en l’air) and it was cool to see the difference. I managed some clean en dehors doubles which I was pleased with and although she asked for doubles en dedans I stuck to working on clean singles.

Grand allegro was simply grand jetes across the floor and this was where I realised that taking open classes means there are some gaps in my training. Grand jetes still don’t come easy to me and I find them one of the hardest jumps to do, even though they seem like they should be pretty easy. They just don’t quite feel right – I always want to switch legs mid-air – and they dredge up some pretty painful memories of failed attempts at triple jump in Middle School. She also asked if I’d done jetes en tournant a manege – I think that’s what they’re called: those leaps guys normally do in variations in a big circle around the stage. When I said I hadn’t she said she might pop them into next week’s class! Here’s the step – if I’ve got the name wrong please correct me in the comments!

And the coolest thing was her saying that next week if I could stay around for the girl’s pointe class afterwards, I could do some partnering work! She asked how much partnering I had done, if any, and I told her I had done a workshop but nothing else. She said that was fine and I hope I didn’t come across too excited at the prospect of partnering! It is one aspect of Ballet I wish I could do more of, and hopefully will get a chance to do more in the future. And that was the end of my first class in the UK!

And before you know it, I was back again today for another class! Although I was originally meant to take Miss Moseley’s Grade 6 class, she suggested I take the Grade 7 class instead as she thought it would be more interesting for me. It was a non-syllabus class, so a little random at times, but a lot of fun. After a fairly standard barre (including a killer grand battement combination with releves and 24 on each side) we headed to centre for turning work.

I’m not a natural turner (far from it) but survived the soutenou/chaines combination. Then we did fouette turns, which was a crazy coincidence as just before leaving for class I had been reading about the physics behind fouettes (thanks to @TheDanceTheorem’s inspiration). I’ve never done them before, and did a couple to the right but then decided to play it safe and work on the coordination on the left at the barre. It’s definitely something I’m going to work on at home, and can’t wait to try them ‘for real’ again some time. The beats combination was also a lot of fun – including entrechat quatres, battu changements, echappe beats and entrechat cinq!

Another benefit of living here: seeing this every day!

So these are my classes for the next four weeks, but after that I don’t think there’ll be very much. I am planning on a couple of trips to London (including a trip to Cloud Dance Festival : Firefly where I’m really looking forward to seeing Tommy Franzen dance Kristen McNally’s solo) so hopefully will take a few classes in the city, as well as occasional trips to Newcastle or Edinburgh. Other than that though, I’ll be working a lot – so I guess I’ll just have to be content in thinking that I’m saving money that can go towards classes down in Bath!

Well that’s it for now – I’m off to stretch whilst eating freshly picked strawberries. There’s some definite perks to living on a farm!

Until next time, keep dancing!

Endings and Beginnings

Four weeks ago I graduated from Rutgers University with an M.S. in Mathematics, and so ended my time in the United States. It’s been a momentous two years and I’ve spent the last month doing a little travelling, moving out of my flat, saying goodbyes and enjoying my last few weeks in the US.

All graduated!

This isn’t the end of University for me, as I am off to pursue a PhD in theoretical Computer Science at the University of Bath. I’m really excited about the next phase of my education, and although a lot of what lies ahead is unknown and unplanned one thing is sure – I’m going to keep on dancing!

My life post-graduation started on a slightly sad note – my last two classes at Princeton Ballet School. I’ve mentioned repeatedly here and on twitter how amazing PBS is, and in particular my two teachers Douglas Martin and Edward Urwin. My first ever class was with Douglas and I started taking classes with Ed soon after. Both of them inspire me to be a better dancer, and I never failed to give my absolute best in every class I took with them. I’m really going to miss their classes, but am looking forward to hearing all about their successes in the future: Ed as a dancer with American Repertory Ballet and Douglas as the ARB company director and choreographer.

One thing Douglas mentioned to me as I was saying thank you was for me to consider getting involved with not only the dancing but also the organisational side of Ballet. I had never thought of this efore but quite like the idea of helping out a small local company in the future – be it helping build scenery, organising fundraisers or selling tickets to performances.

He also commented that as a late-beginner I had the advantage of my ‘physicality’ and I should try to tap into it. He started himself in his late teens and he pointed out the plus side of this – having already developed muscle I can attempt a lot of “fun things” (his words) and just need to build muscle memory. Not the muscle itself too.

And finally he mentioned that they had been watching the Coppélia DVD that day! I’m hoping that my copy will get posted out soon, but he said a few people had commented on my stage presence which was nice. I’m hoping this is evidence of how much hard work I’ve been putting into Ballet – I was taking 5 classes a week for most of this year. I think we can safely say that I’m addicted!

Being of a similar age to myself Ed is a brilliant role model both in class and on stage. Every class included some kind of a brain teaser exercise (which my mathematical side loved) and he also taught me a lot of ‘male’ technique from partnering to tours en l’air. I’m also glad I got to see him dance, both with ARB and in the PBS Coppélia as Franz.

Julie Kent and Jose Manuel Carreno in ABT's production of Giselle

Next up was something much happier. Actually that’s not quite true – it was an evening equally depressing and fantastic. The ultimate Ballet tragedy – Giselle at ABT. Julie Kent was dancing the title role, with José Manuel Carreño as Albrecht and Simone Messmer as Myrta, the Queen of the Willis. This was my first ever viewing of Giselle and what a way to start! Kent was innocent, in love, heartbroken, crazy and forgiving; Carreño was a genuinely remorseful Albrecht; and Messmer had the most amazing bourées I have ever seen. This may sound like something small, but they were truly fascinating – she just floated across the stage at lightning speed.

Seeing as I am unsure when I will be back in the USA I decided to do a little travelling and so headed up to Boston for five days to visit New England for the first time. Obviously I needed to include Ballet somehow in the trip and I did so at two places: the Studio DCFA and Boston Ballet.

Me and the lovely Sue at The Studio DCFA (wearing my new hoody!)

I had found out about The Studio DCFA (Dance Center for Adults) through their great twitter account (@TheStudioDCFA) and so knew if I visited Boston I would have to take a class or two. Or four. It was great to visit a studio especially for adults – smartly decorated, convenient time slots and not a drop of pink in sight. I took the beginner Ballet, advanced beginner Ballet, Ballet Blast (including the infamous ‘pliés-of-death’!) and a lyrical class. All were truly awesome and had a ‘choose your own adventure’ style, meaning they were suitable for a range of levels and abilities. It was also great to meet some Boston ‘Tweeps’ in real life!

Next up was the ‘elementary’ class at Boston Ballet which, as it was my first class there, was completely free! Awesome it was, elementary it was not. Between complex combinations, attitude turns (a first for me) and complicated jumps it was a great class – stretching me but not so far as to make me feel out of my depth. I know Boston Ballet do a week long summer Adult Intensive each year – I only wish I was able to go as I’m sure it is fantastic!

Heading back to New Jersey I had to move out of my flat (cross-training?) but was soon back in New York City to experience Balanchine’s masterpiece – Jewels. Before the performance I headed to Broadway Dance Center for a theater and ballet class. Heading to the Lincoln Center that evening, Jewels was everything I expected and so much more. Set to music by Fauré, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, Jewels exhibits three very different styles: French romanticism in Emeralds, American sharpness in Rubies and Russian elegance in Diamonds. All demonstrated perfectly by New York City Ballet. Dancers that particularly stood out included Anthony Huxley in the Emeralds Pas de Trois and Sara Mearns debuting in Diamonds. Bravo!

Nothing to do with dance, but some inspiration from MoMA

For my last five days in America (and seeing as I no longer had a flat!) I headed to NYC for a final fill of Ballet, Theatre and Art. Art came in the form of a trip to MoMA with a friend (so inspirational!). Theatre came in the form of The Normal Heart (so very moving), Jerusalem (with Mark Rylance giving the performance of his life, and possibly of a generation) and watching The Tony Awards live in Times Square.

Ballet took up the biggest chunk of my time, of course. First up was trip to ABT to see Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream. As my first experience of Ratmansky’s work I absolutely loved it. Never before have I seen an audience at a Ballet heartily laugh so much. It is a charming, hilarious and sweet piece that I am sure will become a modern classic. A special bravo to Daniil Simkin and Isabella Boylston as the Ballet Dancer and Ballerina. Not only were the excellent in their roles but also had to deal with swapping roles – Daniil ‘en pointe’ as a ‘Sylphide’ and Isabella jumping around as a ‘ballerino’. Both hilarious and impressive! The night also gave me a chance to meet the lovely @mahrobi in person. I’ve shared many a fun and informative twitter-c0nversation with her since starting Ballet but it was so nice to meet her in ‘real life’!

Boylston and Simkin in rehearsal for The BRight Stream (Credit: Natalie Keyssar)

Next up was my last few classes at the Joffrey Ballet School and in fact my last Ballet classes in the States, for now at least. It was a lovely end to my classes here and a chance to say thank you to Dena, Stephanie and Andrei. Oh, and consulting my Dance Journal – I’ve taken a grand total of 132 classes in the USA. Wow!

Sunday was the New York City Ballet Dancer’s Choice evening – this is a program devised and run entirely by NYCB dancers (this year headed by Amanda Hankes and Adrian Danchig-Waring) to raise money for the Dancer’s Emergency Fund (which supports dancers who are injured etc.). The evening was a resounding success (sell out!) with magnificent performances. Two highlights for me were Apollo (with Craig Hall in his debut) and Liturgy (with Sara Adams and Jared Angle recreating the Wheelan-Soto partnership). This was my first Wheeldon piece and I found it stunningly beautiful – and I can’t wait to see more by him, especially Alice with the Royal Ballet!

The really awesome polaroid packs everyone got at the Dancer's Choice evening

My absolute highlight of the evening was meeting NYCB dancers (and tweeters) Ashely Bouder (@ashleybouder) and Devin Alberda (@dalberda) who were selling raffle tickets (I didn’t win..). I got completely starstruck to meet these inspiring dancers whom I have seen on the stage many times. In fact, Ashley Bouder was in the first NYCB programme I ever saw (she danced in Serenade) and so it is rather fitting to meet her at my last!

My last night was spent back at ABT for another viewing of The Bright Stream. David Hallberg was just as amazing en pointe as Daniil had been, but the stars for me were Marcelo Gomes and Gillian Murphy. Gomes is one of the most musicality-tuned (pretty sure I made that term up) dancers I have ever seen. Every step was perfectly in time with the music, and even when just walking across the stage he made it seem like he was dancing – fascinating to watch. He and Murphy had great chemistry and shared an almost infectious childishness.

Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes in ABT's The Bright Stream (Credit: Rosalie O'Connor)

And then, suddenly, I was back home. It’s great to be back on our farm, in the middle of nowhere in northern England! After a crazy-hectic two years, I’m looking forward to a nice quiet summer before starting my PhD. I’ll be working at the local pub (a mile down the road) and spending lots of time with my family and dog. Should be great!

I still haven’t sorted out where I’m taking classes over the summer yet – there is a local teacher I’ve been recommended but need to contact her to see if she runs classes for adults (or will let me attend her teen classes). Whatever happens though, I’ll be sure to keep dancing throughout the summer – even if it is just some jetés while walking the dog :)

Until next time, keep dancing!

Some proof that I'm bringing a little NYC to rural Northumberland!