Engaging Generation Y in ballet – thoughts and ideas

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from RESEO, who are “the unique European network for education, participation and creative learning in opera and dance”. They consist of representatives of all the major opera and ballet houses in Europe, and host bi-annual conferences to discuss important ideas in engaging audiences with opera and dance. Their current conference (10-12 Oct) is titled GENERATION Y: Engaging young adults in opera and dance.

After a really stimulating Skype call with Clare from RESEO, I was asked to write a couple of pages about ideas for engaging Generation Y in ballet. It would mainly be thoughts on what I think works (and doesn’t) and would be printed out (including a French translation!) and given to the conference attendees during one of the ballet-themed sessions.

I was very honoured to be asked, and was happy to help. Unfortunately the request came right in the middle of a big academic paper deadline so the finished article is a bit rushed. Hopefully though it was of use to the conference-goers! I thought I’d reproduce the article here on my blog (along with a few added pics/videos) to see what my readers think. In particular, I’d love to hear whether you agree/disagree, or have any other thoughts on engaging 18-30 year olds to both watch and participate in ballet.

I’m a Computer Science PhD student who, three years ago, started taking ballet classes. Having mainly been interested in sports (rowing, cycling, triathlon) in the past, I got absolutely hooked and now take hours of class a week alongside regularly watching live ballet. I run a blog about my journey (http://www.davetriesballet.com) and have written reviews and pieces for national websites. Recently, I was selected to be a Royal Opera House Student Ambassador, and so spend time promoting opera and ballet around campus to my peers.

It might seem a little strange that I started ballet so late (I was 23 when I first started class), and I’m certainly not “the norm” – but there’s no reason I couldn’t be. Ballet offers a great all-round workout, helps increase flexibility, and promotes lean muscle. It’s important however, to dispel certain misconceptions and stigmas associated with it.

It sounds counterintuitive, but often the most effective way to connect with my generation is by not “trying too hard”. There’s been a couple of really great role models for guys (or girls) starting ballet in their 20s+ recently. The first is Hollywood star Ryan Gosling who revealed that he takes class at an LA studio. He doesn’t do it to get snapped by the paparazzi, and doesn’t take private classes – just takes class like the rest of us. Similarly, British Olympic swimmer Liam Tancock uses ballet seriously within his training. I think one of the best things about Tancock is that he’s so “matter of fact” about doing ballet. Being interviewed by the BBC (BBC Article) he points out the benefits of ballet and how it’s impacted his performance. It’s not a big fuss and that’s awesome – the easiest way to make ballet accessible is by making it seem “normal”.

Liam Tancock doing ballet as part of his Olympic training schedule (src: BBC)

Liam Tancock doing ballet as part of his Olympic training schedule (src: BBC)

The link between sport and ballet is a powerful, but tricky, one. Ballet is indeed a great way to increase fitness, but care is needed to avoid lumping it with Zumba and other purely fitness-based dance classes. When I talk to my friends about ballet class, I tend to emphasise the control needed, along with the fitness and strength (plus grace, artistry and many other factors). It’s also fun to tell them “Why lift weights when you can lift girls” – perhaps not precisely the right sentiment (I’m not advocating guys starting ballet just to meet girls!) but a good conversation starter.

One event that I think connected ballet and sport in a clever way to create genuine interest in both watching and doing ballet was an Royal Opera House “Insiders” (Under-30 Friends) evening hosted by Rugby Ralph Lauren (ROH Article). Alongside a preview of the fashion brand’s upcoming collection, the event featured a conversation between a Royal Ballet Soloist and professional rugby player. Although outwardly two very different disciplines, surprising similarities can arise between ballet and sports. This gives supporters and players of sports a tangible connection to ballet which can prompt them to go see ballet, or even take a class!

Royal Ballet Soloists Dawid Trzensimiech, Kristan McNally and Wasps scrum-half Charlie Davies at the Young Friends Insider event. (src:ROH)

Royal Ballet Soloists Dawid Trzensimiech, Kristan McNally and Wasps scrum-half Charlie Davies at the Young Friends Insider event. (src:ROH)

Whether we like it or not, social media and the web now surround us in our daily life. I initially set up a Twitter account when I started ballet as it gave me an informal way to ask (usually pretty stupid) questions about taking class. The relaxed feel of twitter meant I could ask fairly minor questions (“what is the difference between a glisse and jete?” or “should I wear a suit jacket to see a ballet?”) and get honest answers.

Harnessing the web was taken a step further in the hugely successful Royal Ballet Live (with accompanying Twitter hashtag #RBLive). I found this a great way to show my friends what dancing is like – I could post the livestream link to my Facebook wall and my friends could watch daily class, rehearsals and more. One particularly important part of the day in my eyes, was the fact that the host (TV and Radio Presenter George Lamb) had no prior knowledge of ballet. He was ably joined by Royal Ballet Soloist Kristen McNally (who has previously live-choreographed to Kanye West in an Apple Store (ROH Advert) – very cool!) which meant he could ask all the questions the non-experienced viewers wanted to ask. Throw in a Q&A/studio session with Wayne McGregor and Mark Ronson and ballet was indeed shown to be “cool” and “current”.

Putting ballet out of context is an awesome way of grabbing new audiences. In my opinion, one of the best ballet videos online is “Royal Ballet. Not what you think.” (embedded above) which was created by First Soloist Bennet Gartside. This features clips from ballets (classical and contemporary) backed with rap music. There’s such a cool juxtaposition between the dancing and music and it just “works” (even though it, perhaps, shouldn’t!). All my mates I have shown this to has been amazed and impressed, and more interested in going to see a live ballet. It reckons it’s best summed up in the following YouTube comment: “This is truly awesome. Unconventional but fantastic combo of music and dance. Brilliantly edited. Offers a totally different perspective on the passion, dedication, athleticism and artistry required for ballet. Absolutely love it, love it, love it!”.

It can be notoriously difficult to engage Generation Y, with their MTV-attention spans and heads constantly buried in their iPhones. One thing I’d encourage more than anything is to talk to youths who are already interested in ballet and try to harness their passion and knowledge. I happily spend a lot of time encouraging people to be interested in ballet, simply due to my passion for the artform – many others will do the same!

If you have any questions or want to discuss this further please feel free to email me on info@davetriesballet.com – I hope my thoughts have been of use!

So those are my (slightly rambling) thoughts. What do you think? Do you agree with my points, or disagree? Do you have any other ideas about what works/doesn’t work when engaging younger audiences? Let me know in the comments below – I’d love to get a debate going!

Until next time, keep on dancing!

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Romeo & Juliet Researched – The Pas de Deux

It is no secret that one of my favourite ballets is MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet. The last time the Royal Ballet performed it I saw three casts and I wrote a guest post about MacMillan’s choreography for A Younger Theatre. The Royal Ballet are reviving it again next month and I will be seeing it twice: once with my favourite pairing from last time, Cuthbertson & Bonelli, and once with a new pairing, Hamilton & Watson.

As I enjoy the ballet so much, I’ve decided to delve a bit deeper and analyse the piece. Alongside this post which discusses the ballet’s Pas de Deux, I’m also hoping to look at topics like the music and use of narrative devices in future posts. Hope you enjoy!



Pas de Deux in MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet



As Frymoyer ([2]) notes: In the world onstage, balletic gesture reveals how Romeo and Juliet understand themselves and the world around them. Nowhere is this communication stronger than in the three central Pas de Deux where the lovers discover their love, and then experience the ultimate heartbreak.

Unlike more classical ballets, the Pas de Deux in Romeo & Juliet do not follow the standard structure of adage/alegro, variations and coda. This is partly due to the musical characteristics of these segments: Rapid shifts of meter, tempo, harmonic and rhythmic texture, and affect give the music a spontaneous nature that presents to us the psyche of the protagonists ([2]).

The Pas de Deux are so important, in fact, that Prokofiev gives them the central `Romeo & Juliet Theme’, the musical centerpiece of the ballet ([1]). As Bennett notes, the theme contains not only the rhapsodic ecstasy of the love dance, but also the unspeakable tragedy of death ([1]), something MacMillan’s choreography also reflects over the three Pas de Deux.

Pas de Deux 1: Balcony Scene




I have chosen my favourite pairing to showcase the stunning Balcony Pas de Deux – Lauren Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli of the Royal Ballet

The first Act of the ballet culminates in perhaps the most preminant scene in all theatre, Romeo confessing his love to Juliet on her balcony. As the scene opens, we see Juliet standing on her balcony and Romeo’s theme is played on an organ as she wistfully dreams of love and marraige.

Following Romeo’s stealthy entrance, Juliet almost skips down the stairs, barely containing her excitement at seeing her new love. Her innocence is reaffirmed with her placing Romeo’s hand on her breast to feel her beating heart, and Romeo tells her to wait as he declares his love (2:25).

Romeo’s musical theme reappears in an altered form to form Romeo’s variation ([1]) which starts very grounded, with a string of renverses, attitude turns and saute de basques. The speed of MacMillan’s choreography seems to reveal Romeo’s excitement and he is only paused on the approach of Juliet. Juliet lays her head on his hand (3:10), which seems a choreographic nod to the lines:

See how she leans her cheek upon her hand
O that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!
(II.ii 23-25)

This is followed by a combination almost entirely based around expansive leaps (acting almost as a reprise to the earlier section) – revealing a more expressive Romeo.

As Romeo’s theme culminates (3:35), Juliet opens her pirouette into arabesque with her arms wide as if opening her heart to the world. This is one of my favourite parts in any ballet (it gives me goosebumps every time!) and signals the start of the “Love Dance”, whose theme has emerged out of the Romeo theme like a butterfly from a chrysalis ([1]). As the pair dance together the fluidity of the choreography speaks of their predestined love, something the dancers have to achieve to give this duet its potency.

The lovers present themselves to the world, unashamed of their love, in a slightly unusual promenade arabesque (with Juliet’s inside leg raised) finishing facing the audience asking for acceptance from society (4:22). The lovers proceed to open up to each other with arabesques, developpes and lifts all more expansive than the last.

As Romeo falls deeper in love, with a gesture to place his head on Juliet’s dress, she flits away to pose in the opening expansive arabesque that started the dance, trusting Romeo to come and catch her (5:10). Once more asking for acceptance from society, Romeo lifts Juliet high above his head (5:25), perhaps as if to place her back in the safety of her balcony.

Giving Romeo the opportunity to fully express his love, Juliet suddenly worries for Romeo (5:45), checking for her family: If they do see thee, they will murder thee (II.ii 74). She then runs back to Romeo who once again raises her high above him, in the iconic lift (5:50) that seems to echo his lines:

O, speak again, bright angel! for thou art
As glorious to this night, being o’er my head
As is a winged messenger of heaven
(II.ii 28-31)

Lauren Cuthbertson as Juliet and Federico Bonelli as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet © Bill Cooper/ROH 2012 by Royal Opera House Covent Garden, on Flickr

Lauren Cuthbertson as Juliet and Federico Bonelli as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet © Bill Cooper/ROH 2012 by Royal Opera House Covent Garden, on Flickr

Juliet now gets a chance to show her love with a playful combination (6:15) almost mimicking Romeo’s earlier renverses and attitude pirouettes, before skipping her way around him delicately en pointe, a movement MacMillan uses to emphasise her childlike playfulness (contrasting her more stately walking when meeting Paris). Romeo supports her in a sequence of arabesques (6:50) – as she literally falls into his arms declaring her love.

Finishing with two even more trusting lifts (7:20), the couple take a moment to truly see each other. Romeo lifts Juliet onto pointe and, well, Juliet’s slightly shocked expressions says it all. With a final touch of their reaching arms, the curtains close on one of the most beautiful pas de deux in ballet. I really feel that MacMillan got the perfect balance between telling the story through the dancing, but not sacrificing the beauty or flow to do so.

Pas de Deux 2: Bedroom Scene




The Bedroom Pas de Deux is here performed by one of the most famous Romeo and Juliet partnerships: Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta at The Royal Ballet.

As the curtain rises on Act III, the newly married lovers are in Juliet’s bed (the Capulet’s orchard in the play). The bedroom Pas de Deux is a clever counterpart to the Balcony Pas de Deux: motifs reappear from Act I but in distorted forms to display the change in the lovers’ relationship. The Pas de Deux as a whole is a lot more physical and extreme – as if to sacrifice beauty for emotion, reflecting Romeo and Juliet’s acceptance of the harsh reality of their love.

Romeo rises and, thinking on the fatal actions of the previous day, dons his cloak. In a mirroring of the balcony scene he intends to hide from Juliet, only this time to sneak away. As Romeo looks out at the rising sun, foretelling his departure to Mantua, Juliet wakes and begs him to stay:

Therefore stay yet; thou need’st not to be gone. (III.v 16)

Reminding Romeo of their love (both physical and emotional) Juliet recalls movements from the Balcony Pas de Deux, though slightly altered. Instead of the open, expansive arms in arabesque, Juliet now reaches forward as if yearning to escape the nightmare she has found herself in (1:50). Romeo drags her back and embraces her to remind her of his devotion. As he lowers her to the side, she turns away from him and the overhead lift becomes less ecstatic and more a sign of resignation to fate (2:18).

The following sequence references the previous love duet, but the feel of the piece has completely changed. Juliet is restrained, and Romeo seems to become the instigator of the dance. As he spins her you feel like Juliet is losing her grip on the situation, reflected in her dejected and resigned movements. She has accepted the impossibility of their love, shown in the agonising reprise of the previously defiant arabesque pose at 3:26 – both lovers accepting their doomed fate.

Romeo lifts Juliet high above his head (3:52) once again, but this gesture is reminiscant of a crucifixion, foretelling Juliet’s coming death. As she drops into his arms she appears lifeless before escaping his grasp to present herself to the unyielding morning sun, as if a sacrifice against the dawn. Romeo pulls her back (4:07), spinning her into his arms with great force.

As Juliet pleads once more with Romeo, she falls at his feet (4:35) – a role reversal from the Love Dance. Echoing the motif from Act I, Juliet falls from arabesque into Romeo’s arms (4:45). The movement is much more extreme now, Romeo catches her whilst standing before dropping to the knee, Juliet’s previously low arabesque is nearer vertical, and she visibly strains against him. This is all evidence of how much more is at stake now; their heightened emotions are pushing at the boundaries of their bodies and hearts.

We hear the light hearted theme that Juliet skipped away from Romeo to in Act I, but she now leaps through an entrelace (5:00), and runs to the corner where she stops in shock. As she breaks down, she opens herself up but this time Romeo stifles her movement to pull her away. She reaches to escape in a series of arabesques (5:15) and we cannot help but feel her torn anguish as she collapses to the floor.

Just as with the Balcony Pas de Deux, we finish with a kiss and an outstretched arm: the first almost pitying, and the latter unreciprocated as Juliet bids Romeo farewell:

O, now be gone; more light and light it grows. (III.v 35)

Pas de Deux 3: Death Scene





The final scene of the ballet is here performed at La Scala by the Prima Ballerina Assoluta Alessandra Ferri and Angel Corella.

The final scene of the ballet takes place in the Capulet Crypt. The music pronounces the stately elegiac ‘Death Theme’ as Juliet lies on her bier. With Paris mourning by her side, Romeo appears in the shadows, but makes no attempt to hide as he stabs Paris (2:55).

Romeo emulates the start of Act III as he climbs next to Juliet. He drags the unconscious body across the stage, approaching the corners as if to emulate their triumphant pose from Act I (3:15). As [2] discusses, choreography is the lovers’ primary way to communicate so Romeo shares his grief through it.

Romeo tries to echo the final triumphant lifts of the balcony pas de deux (3:30) as we hear the love theme emerge from the deathly orchestrations. As the music resumes it’s funereal theme, Romeo places Juliet back on her bier and takes the poison (5:30).

As Juliet wakes she discovers Romeo lying dead and, reverting to her childlike naiveity, trys to shake him awake (7:00). She futilely tries to pick him up, as if for one more dance.

At this point Prokofiev renders the music “undanceable” ([2]) and MacMillan leaves Juliet rooted to the spot as orchestral sound sweeps over her, negating the visual space and “envoicing” rather than “dancing” her grief ([2]). This is the final proof that all is lost for Juliet – even her ability to express herself through her movements has been taken from her.

She screams as the music crescendos (7:20): strings shriek up and down two octaves, great screams of anguish that reach heights that our nerves and ears can scarcely bear ([1]). She rushes to pick up the dagger from Paris, and delivers her own fatal blow (7:45). Collapsing on the bed she drags herself towards her lover, and stretches out a hand to him, just as at the end of the balcony scene, when their love was still pure and innocent, and the end of the bedroom scene, where their ending was foretold.

The death scene is really beyond words, and usually renders me completely speechless at performances. The quotation of movements from earlier in the ballet just makes it all the more poignant and affecting. A fitting end to the most tragic of love stories.


I hope that you have enjoyed reading this post – it took some effort to research but I’ve found it fascinating to delve deeper into one of my favourite ballets. I’m hoping to do some more “in depth” posts on ballets (not just Romeo & Juliet), the history of ballet, and technique. Let me know if there is anything you think I should cover – just pop a comment on this post.

Until next time, keep on dancing!

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References

[1] Bennett, Karen. Star-Cross’d Lovers: Shakespeare and Prokofiev’s `pas de deux’ in Romeo and Juliet. The Cambridge Quaterly, Vol. 32, No. 4, 2003.

[2] Frymoyer, Johanna. Ballet as the Subject’s Speech: Defining Classical Gesture in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Proc. of Sound Moves Conference, 2005.

How time flies!

They say that time flies when you are having fun. This is certainly the case when I realised that this week marks my 3rd “Ballet-versary” – it’s three years since my first ever ballet lesson!

Me dancing with Ellie in the Le Corsaire Adage (© Derwood Photography). Would never have believed I could do this!

Me dancing with Ellie in the Le Corsaire Adage (© Derwood Photography). Would never have believed I could do this!

I can’t quite believe it. It seems like only yesterday that I did my first ever plié and got confused by “the glissande-thing” (at least I know my terminology has improved since then!).

Since my first class I’ve managed to do so many things I could have never imagined. I daren’t think of my reaction if you’d told me before that first class that I’d perform in a full-length Swan Lake as Rothbart, or that I’d perform the full adage from the Le Corsaire pas de deux.

The only reason I’ve been able to do so much is that I’ve been lucky enough to have some truly amazing teachers. Not only have they been patient and welcoming, but they’ve inspired me to push and stretch myself beyond my self-imposed boundaries. I cannot thank them enough, and hope that they can see just how grateful I am.

I also need to thank all you readers! You help inspire me with every comment, tweet, or hit to the website. In particular, I love receiving emails from people just starting ballet. If you have any questions then feel free to tweet me or send an email to info@davetriesballet.com. And if you thinking about taking the leap into your first ballet class – DO IT!

Something else that happened this last week that I’d never have imagined three years ago. Thanks to being a Student Ambassador for the Royal Opera House last year, I was chosen to get a week’s work experience there. I was working with the Digital Development and Digital Media teams and had an amazing time! I can’t go into much detail about the actual work but I got to work on some exciting projects for their website and even wrote a couple of news pieces – my first ever article on the ROH website is about the awesome mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato!

Just being part of such an institution for the week was highly inspiring – everyone I worked with seemed so passionate about their work. Plus, walking past dancers like Lauren Cuthbertson, Steven McRae, Thiago Soares and Bennet Gartside in the corridor (and mainly being too ballet starstruck to say hello!) was obviously a massive inspiration, even if I never managed to escape work to go see Don Quixote rehearsals… I guess I’ll just have to wait until the opening gala at the end of the month!

This last Sunday (just like every fortnight) I had 4.5 hours of ballet – and loved every second. It was jam packed – my teachers had me learning Basilio’s variation from Don Quixote, the opening section of the Swan Lake Pas de Trois, and the following Pas de Quatre from Raymonda‘s Grand Pas de Dix:


Needless to say – so much fun!

I’m going to try to update the blog a bit more regularly than recently – my life is settling down into a bit of a routine so should be able to fit in more blogging. Unfortunately, work has meant I’ve had to stop my Tuesday class each week, but I’ll still be taking class every Wednesday and Friday, and every other Sunday for my mammoth rehearsal sessions. I’ll be blogging about stuff happening in class and preparations for two productions I’m going to be in – La Fille mal Gardée with the adult group in December (I’ll be performing as Colas), and Cinderella with the youth ballet company in March (I’ll be performing as the King and Dance Teacher). I’m also planning some pieces on specific ballets – Romeo & Juliet is top of the list (as it’s my favourite ballet!). Please let me know if there’s anything you want to read about.

You’ll also notice some changes to the DaveTriesBallet website over the next few weeks. I’ve been having some real difficulties with WordPress at the moment – all of my comments have vanished from the dashboard! So I’m also taking this as an opportunity to freshen up the site a bit – any feedback on the changes is very welcome.

Until next time, keep on dancing!

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P.S. An update on the website: Thanks to the truly amazing @clouddancefest comments should now be working! Unfortunately I’ve lost all previous comments (*sadface*) but new ones should work – yay!

Summer School, Injury and Rehearsals

Once again I have taken ages since my last post to update the blog – apologies! This has partly been down to moving flat (finally done!), partly due to work/future career stress (my supervisors want me to submit my thesis in June/July – argh!?! The real world beckons…), and partly as I’ve been feeling down and didn’t want to fill a post with me moaning. So what’s been happening?

Four weeks ago was my Russian Youth Ballet Company’s Summer School. I’d been excited about this for months – two weeks of daily class, repertoire and pas de deux work. Pure bliss!

Arriving on the Monday I was slightly nervous – would I be completely out of place both in terms of technique and age? This was answered immediately: sat in a circle we took turns to introduce ourselves. Virtually all the dancers were around 16 and at vocational schools: Royal Ballet School, Elmhurst, English National Ballet School; even four girls who had travelled over from Japan! Luckily there were a few familiar faces among the students – including the only other guy who I know from the YBC (he’s an amazing dancer and is off to ENBS!). I had no time to worry how out of place I’d be though, it was straight to the barre and on with class.

During the week I was pushed harder than ever before in ballet. Class was fast-paced, tricky, and physically demanding with longer and mor complex combinatins than my normal classes. As the girls got ready for pointe, me and the other guy worked on a male variation with my teacher. He taught us a variation from Gayane – a ballet by Khachaturian, the same compose as Spartacus. It was the hardest, and longest, variation I’ve ever danced and, as you can probably tell from the following recording of the music, it was epic!

Following the girls pointe class (a quick 20 minute break for the boys) it was on to a combination of pas de deux, repertoire, and character. The PdD involved a series of combinations culminating in a short section of the Adage from Don Quixote. The repertoire was a waltz from La Fille mal Gardée – the Russian versin, not the Ashton – and included some really nice partnerwork. Finally, the character piece was a set barre work music from Carmen, taught by a guest teacher who danced with my teachers in Russian – the piece had a very flamenco feel!

Every day I came back to my house sore and tired, but with a huge grin on my face (even if rush hour traffic meant a 2 hour drive!). On the Friday things were slightly different: after a quick barre we started rehearsing for the end of week performance to family and friends. We’d be doing a selection of centre exercises, the other guy and I would each perform the male variation, the girls would demonstrate some pointe exercises, we’d work through the PdD exercises, before finally performing the Carmen and La Fille mal Gardee pieces. I had to keep reminding myself to mark during rehearsals to save my energy. Thankfully, before I even had time to get nervous it was time to start!

Here's Vasiliev doing the jump I was talking about - EPIC!

Here's Vasiliev doing the jump I was talking about - EPIC!

Centre exercises went well (even if I did forget the brisé at the end of the petit allegro…) and then came my variation. Eek! I was going first and took my place downstage right of the studio. With a small bow to the audience I ran to the upstage left corner to start my opening diagonal of leaps, including an awesome “Spartacus-esque” leap. The was followed by a pirouette combination before heading to the back of the stage to collect my “flaming torches” (there weren’t any actual torches, so we had to just pick up thin air). Next up were a sting of three soutenous to tours en l’air to the knee, followed by a “torch-wielding” pirouette. With another small bow to the audience there was a more lyrical renversé-grand fouetté combination leading me downstage for a manège of more fun leaps. Finally, with lungs bursting and legs screaming, there was a diagonal of grand jeté en tournant sulminating with a tour en l’air to the floor. Phew! Here’s the only video I can find on YouTube of someone dancing the variation – it’s not exactly the same choreography but is close:

By some small miracle I managed to both remember the whole variation and execute it as cleanly as I could have possibly hoped for. I was ecstatic and really proud of myself. I watched the other guy perform – he absolutely blew me away! He was truly awesome: double tours left-right-and-centre and fantastic ballonne in his leaps. So inspiring to watch! As we both tried to catch our breath we joined the girls after pointework for PdD. This also went really well – even the penchée promenade – and it was on to the two repertoire pieces. Both went well and I didn’t feel completely stupid letting my inner-matador out for the Carmen piece (olé!). Then all to quickly it was time to head home, with the weekend to recover before week 2.

That night I was shifting some stuff from my old flat to my new house when I noticed a sharp pain in my left bicep. I ignored it and had pretty much forgotten about it the next day when I drove to help my brother and his wife move into their first house. Sure enough, a couple of bags of garden clippings later and I felt the same pain, but this time much worse. By the evening it was hurting to do most things involving moving my arm and when I brushed the inside of the bicep against anything I felt a really sharp electric pain that lingered for quite a while. This certainly din’t seem a good sign.

It stayed as bad all throughout Sunday and after a restless night’s sleep I got an appointment with the University Nurse on the Monday morning. After examining it (ouch!) she told me she thought it was superficial thrombophlebitis which is (as far I understand) a small clot near the surface of the arm that surrounds a vein (which causes the pain). Even though I knew the answer, I asked about ballet – “four weeks of absolute rest” for the arm was the treatment. I was gutted. Not only did I have the second week of the summer school starting that day, but the guest teacher was the Senior Principal of English National Ballet, Elena Glurdjidze.

I tried to pick myself up and started the hour’s drive to Bristol – if I couldn’t dance then I could at least watch class. Perched on an aerobics step at the side of the studio I watched the students warm up and get ready for class. Elena took class and you could definitely tell that she had been at school with my teachers – there was the same methodology behind her exercises which was great to watch. Moving to centre, she introduced some exercise with a Raymonda feel – this was no coincidence as she would be teaching the girls the Act III Variation later in the day. As class finished the two boys (both also from the Youth Ballet Company) started learning a short variation from La Fille mal Gardée which I could mark the legs for at the back of the studio. It was a really happy and chirpy piece that looked really fun to dance.

Next up was Elena teaching the girls Raymonda – wow! Having recently played the eponymous role with ENB, Elena was every inch the icy imperial queen whilst demontrating (such a transformation from her lovely self!). It was amazing to watch: every movement told the story and the smallest of breaths became as important as an arabesque. To be able to watch such a demonstration up close was an honour and hugely inspirational. It was also inspiring to see how quickly the girls picked up the variation, and by the end of the session some were already adding the little nuances that Elena had talked about. Here’s Elena dancing Raymonda with Ivan Putrov – amazing!

As I headed home that night I was glad I had been able to observe, although I was still absolutely gutted not to be able to dance. I returned on the Tuesday to observe again, before working on Wednesday and Thursday. Finally on Friday I headed in to watch the end-of-week performance. I was so impressed and could see clearly the improvements in the students, especially the girls in the Raymonda variation. I definitely saw some future stars in the group!

So following that I’ve had three weeks of doing no ballet. It’s been so frustrating! It doesn’t help that I’ve been stressed with moving flat and work – ballet usually chills me out so I’ve been a bit highly strung. I’ve tried to do some cross training but it’s been surprisingly difficult to find things I enjoy that don’t use my arm – no swimming or rowing for starters.

Last week my arm finally started to feel (almost) back to normal. Perfect timing as I had the start of rehearsals for Cinderella that the Youth Ballet Company will be performing in February. I’m so excited for this, and found out I’ll be playing the King in Act II, as well as sharing the role of the Dance Teacher in Act I. With 4 days of rehearsals I’ve had a lot of choreography thrown at me, but I think a lot of it has stuck. At least I hope so!

The choreography is proving much more difficult to learn than Swan Lake: unlike Tchaikovksy, the Prokofiev score offers very little distinct music cues so much longer sections have to be learnt all together. It is also much more physical than Swan Lake – I get thrown around by the step-mother (my teacher in drag) which is proving a lot of fun!

I also got some exciting news last week. The adult group I dance with is putting on a shortened version of La Fille mal Gardee, and the girl who is choreographing it has asked me to be Colas! I’m really excited about this (although not so excited about the yellow tights!) and can’t wait to get stuck into rehearsals.

So that’s my (overly long) round up of the last few weeks. I’m now off to work… at the Royal Opera House!!! I’m here for my week’s work experience working with their Digital teams. Look out for an update next week!

Until next time, keep dancing!

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A Gala in the Sunshine

This Saturday I performed at a local Gala for a charity’s 60th birthday. The charity had got a local stately house to open up its grounds and were celebrating by having a day filled with arts and crafts stalls, picnics and live entertainment. As it turns out, both of the local groups I dance with had been asked to perform, and I would be dancing with both on the day – with only 20 minutes break in between!

With the adult group I’d be performing three pieces – Pas de Deesses (a Pas de Quatre), a selection from the Precious Stones Suite in Sleeping Beauty (a variation and a short closing segment) and the male variation from the Pas de Trois in Swan Lake. With the youth ballet company I’m in I’d be performing five pieces in total: Act III Spanish from Swan Lake, the pirate character dance from Le Corsaire, the waltz from Cinderella, a new contemporary piece, and the most exciting/scary piece of all: the Adage from the Le Corsaire Pas de Deux!

Whilst all the pieces with the adult group I had performed before (even if the variation from the Pas de Trois had been learnt in a rather hurried fashion), four of the pieces with the youth ballet company were new to me.

The pirate character dance is a really fun dance, where I even got a pair of pistols to wield! I was dancing with one of the girls from the youth ballet company, along with six girls from the school. Although technically not the most difficult piece (apart from a few grand saute de basques to the knee) it involved a lot of running around and jumping! Turns out pirates, or at least balletic ones, were an athletic bunch! Here’s the music for the dance to give you a feel for it:

The waltz from Cinderella was a big group piece and, as the only male dancer, I had a little solo string of saut de basques to the knee, followed by some pirouettes and then a bit of partnering (some nice simple little lifts with a couple of the girls) before a final pose. The contemporary was a new piece our contemporary teacher had created on us to the most beautiful piece of music: Quintett N.1 by Dustin O’Halloran. The dance ended up being Cunningham-based (an artifact of being a youth ballet company I guess) and really lovely. There was a recurring movement which was, to me, akin to an emotional shock and made the piece quite cathartic to dance.

So the biggest piece for me to perform was the Adage from the Corsaire Pas de Deux. I’d be dancing with Ellie, a girl from the youth ballet company who is a beautiful dancer who is off to vocational school next year. Because we could only start after Swan Lake was over, and because the youth ballet company only meets every 2-3 weeks, we only had three rehearsal sessions before the performance. Because of this, we added an extra hour-long rehearsal with my awesome teacher on the day of the performance (just before I had to go dance with the adult group!).

The Adage is, without question, the hardest piece I’ve ever performed. There isn’t much solo-work, but there is a lot of partnering, and some quite tricky bits! So as well as getting my assisted pirouettes up to scratch, I had an attitude promenade, arabesque carry/lift, penchee promenade, turning grande jete catch, assisted grand jete, assisted grande saute de basque and a gateway turn to contend with! Luckily me and Ellie ‘synced’ with our partnering fairly quickly, and whilst the first rehearsal was a bit tricky (it felt like I was “putting on the brakes” in pirouettes – entirely my fault) the later ones went really well.

By the final rehearsal we had all the steps learnt and were working on the polish and characterisation. As the slave I had to be deferential to Ellie’s Medora, but I also had to personally work on making all my movements more expansive (a problem I always have).

There were a couple of problems once we arrived at the venue: most significantly the fact that it was 31C and bright sunshine! As all of my costumes for both groups involved multiple layers of tights and tunics (made out of lovely thick material) this meant that I spent most of my day very very sweaty and didn’t even get a tan out of it! On a more serious note, it meant I had to be really careful about dehydration – I had a headache most of the day and even after drinking 3+ litres of water I didn’t need the toilet… not a good sign!

The stage itself was a small raised platform. It was rather small which meant I had to be a bit careful about jumping off the stage (seriously!). It was also black, which meant it absorbed all of the heat from the sun, meaning that we couldn’t put down the marley floor without risking it melting! In fact, the heat coming through my shoes whilst standing on it was quite uncomfortable. It wasn’t actually too bad to dance on, not too slippy, but we had to be careful not to trip over or land on any of the joins of the various platforms.

The performances themselves went pretty well. The first two pieces with the adult group went without a hitch (except for nearly kicking one of my partners in Pas de Deesses because of the small stage!). I then took my place for the variation from Pas de Trois – starting in croise attitude downstage with the music meant to start during my first entrelace. Unfortunately, when the music started it was the wrong piece! Turns out the wrong piece of music had been added to the CD and there wasn’t much I could do except for sneak off the stage whilst the music continued…

The youth ballet company was next and I honestly don’t think any of the pieces could have gone any better! No mistakes, I managed to stay on the small stage (although the Cinderella string of 3 saute de basques to the knee were a tight squeeze!), and perhaps most importantly I really enjoyed every dance. In fact, I think I enjoyed the Corsaire Adage the most; I reckon it’s my best performance I’ve ever given.

I’m rather excited and nervous (after checking it was okay with my partner Ellie) to post a video of the Adage on here. It’s the first video of me performing I’ve posted and I hope you enjoy – any tips would be welcome, but be nice!

And with that I’ll sign off this (unintentionally wordy) blog post. In the coming weeks I’ve got my birthday, followed by two weeks of Summer School with my Russian teachers in Bristol (including some guest teaching from Elena Glurdjidze, Senior Principal at ENB!) – I’ll make sure I post an update about it. What are your dancing plans for this summer? Let me know in the comments below.

Until next time, keep on dancing!




P.S. If you want to see the pro’s dance the Le Corsaire Pas de Deux, here’s a rather gorgeous version by Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares (on a slightly larger stage….!):

Crazy Gala Times…

Life has been pretty crazy recently (hence the lack of blogging – sorry!) but last week it got even crazier.

I dance with a group of adults (there’s about 20 of us, including 2 other guys) near where I live, and for the past few months we’ve been preparing to put on a gala: an evening of ballet for friends and family. Most of the performances we do are for small audiences (at hospitals or care homes) so it was really exciting that we’d have a bigger crowd. I was to perform in 3 pieces: the “Precious Stones” Pas de Cinq suite from Sleeping Beauty, my opening Rothbart variation from Swan Lake, and the Wheat Pas de Deux from Coppelia. I’ve posted some videos below of the variation in Precious Stones and the Wheat Pas de Deux so you can see what I was getting myself into!

So last Wednesday was the final class/rehearsal before the show. We had a slightly speedy class for around an hour to warm ourselves up then we planned to run through the whole gala on stage for the first time.

However, as we were running through the final grand allegro exercise there was a sudden crash as one of the dancers fell to the floor. Whilst doing the exercise he had landed badly on his ankle, and a physio who dances with us said they thought he had ruptured his achilles. It was horrible to see and everyone was a bit in shock – one minute he was happily dancing and the next in agony and unable to walk. We got his ankle stabilised and he called a friend (luckily a surgeon!) to come and pick him up. Although he had indeed tore his Achilles I can happily say that the surgery to reattach it (on Friday) went very well and hopefully he will have a speedy recovery!

Whilst he was lying on the floor with his ankle aloft, the dancer turned to me and said, matter of factly, that I could sub in for him in the Swan Lake Pas de Trois. Wait. What?! It turned out he wasn’t just in shock and that he indeed meant it, and the two other dancers in the piece agreed. I’m not one to back down from a challenge so agreed to do it – what had I gotten myself in to?

Suddenly it was all hands on deck – we had 1 hour of rehearsal left before getting kicked out of the theatre. Whilst the others ran through bits of the show on the stage, me and my two partners went into the corridor to learn the piece. Thankfully, I’ve danced with both of the other dancers in the Pas de Trois before, and get on really well with them, so we just dove straight in. We walked through the opening adagio segment (the longest bit) a couple of times and tried to get it in my head (along with some scribbled notes to remind me what goes where). We ran through it a couple of times in the corridor with music before getting one chance to go through it on stage to see spacing – it felt surprisingly ‘secure’ in my head but we didn’t have any time to run through the coda.

That night there was lots of frantic messages between the three of us, trying to organise a rehearsal and updating each other on how the injured dancer was doing. Needless to say I didn’t sleep particularly well with all that choreography going around my head! We managed to find a studio that we could all get to (we live about 50 miles away from each other) for the Friday morning for two hours – I just had to learn all the choreography by then! Thankfully we were working off a YouTube video that I could watch and learn from – ABT’s version with Cornejo, Reyes and Cornejo. The girls had pointed out that if I was learning the adagio and coda I may as well(!) learn the variation too so I worked my way through that too. Usually I would have booked the studio at Uni to practice in, but seeing as they had demolished it (for a rebuild) two days earlier that wasn’t possible!

Heading to the rehearsal on Friday morning I felt like I just about knew the adagio and kind of knew the variation, but was finding it tricky getting the coda to ‘stick’ – I kept getting the sections muddled up. Although we worked (really) hard in that two hour rehearsal it was possibly the most fun I’ve had in a ballet studio. We all worked hard but also decided that we really just needed to “enjoy it” – there wasn’t any pressure to get it perfect, but if we didn’t enjoy it that the audience certainly wouldn’t. By the end of the two hours I was feeling much better about the piece – not confident, but not quite so clueless.

On the day of the performance we had morning class before a complete dress rehearsal. Unfortunately one of the other Pas de Trois dancers was teaching in the morning so we couldn’t run it during dress, although I got a shot at my variation and my other two pieces (I wasn’t doing Rothbart anymore). This was followed by a nervous hour or two waiting for the audience and my other partner to arrive. Luckily she arrived about quarter of an hour before the doors opened so we got to practice a few bits and pieces on stage with them en pointe (we had rehearsed in flats on Friday to save their feet). In particular we ran through pirouettes: I haven’t had much experience with assisted pirouettes and find them pretty tricky (I often feel like I’m “putting on the handbrakes”) – and the coda had loads of them! My two partners were awesome though and I got a feel for how they both turned.

Then all of a sudden it was time to perform! First up was Sleeping Beauty to open the show. It felt pretty good, not my cleanest run of the piece but I managed to not mess up, and my double pirouette to the knee went smoothly (unlike in the dress when I ended up falling into the wing!). One thing I did notice during the piece was that the injured dancer had managed to make the performance (in leg cast) and was sitting in the front row – great to see him there, but definitely added to the nerves for the Pas de Trois!

The Pas de Trois was closing the first half and, following a group hug, we took our places upstage left and waited for the music to kick in. The next 10 minutes were a blur, but I enjoyed every second! The adagio went pretty smoothly and as the first dancer started her variation I tried to get my breath back and went over my variation in my head. I really like the variation and, for some strange reason, think I prefer it and know it better than the ‘Gold’ variation from Precious Stones I had been working on for a couple of months. I guess it plays to my strengths – lots of big jumps! It went pretty great on stage – even though I started the entrechat quatres early (I guess I don’t jump as high as Herman Cornejo!) so ended up doing 2 sets of 8 of them! I had also swapped the final manege for a diagonal of “tombe, pas de bouree, sous-sous, tour en l’air” and managed to brave a double for the final one! Recovering in the wings we only had the coda to get through now – not the trickiest bit in terms of steps, but I found it easy to get it muddled up in my head. Thankfully I made it through unscathed (even remembering a stupid soutenou I had forgotten in all the rehearsal runs!) and the pirouettes were pretty good: we got a nice round of applause midway through for our string of doubles and triples, and even though the final turn was a bit dodgy we managed to recover to the final pose nicely.

We had done it! As we took our bows I think my grin could have powered a small village – such an amazing feeling! The Pas de Trois is undoubtedly the hardest piece I’ve ever performed on stage and my legs and lungs were burning by the end, but it didn’t matter. Whilst I could never expect to be as good as the injured dancer (ex-Scottish Ballet) would have been, looking over to see him clapping the hardest out of the audience I knew I hadn’t done too badly.

No time to ponder on the piece though, after an all-too-brief interval the gala restarted and I got ready for the Wheat Pas de Deux (with one of the girls from the Pas de Trois as Swanhilda and myself as Franz) which was closing the performance. This was the piece I was probably most comfortable with but, ironically, was probably the one I was least pleased about on the day. It didn’t go badly, just not as well as we usually do it – maybe it was just tiredness creeping in. It didn’t really matter though – I had enjoyed every second of the performance and it felt amazing to take the final curtain call with everyone else.

So that was probably the craziest performance I’ve ever done! I’ve got another performance coming up on the 13th July – a charity gala day at a local stately home. I’ll actually be performing with two groups: the Russian Youth Ballet Company and the adult group. I’ll not be doing anything new with the adult group (some bits from Sleeping Beauty and the variation from the Pas de Trois) but am doing lots of new stuff with the YBC. I’m reprising Act III Spanish from Swan Lake (with my partner from the show) and then have learnt the Dance of the Pirates from Le Corsaire, the Waltz from Cinderella, and a new contemporary piece created for us to Dustin O’Halloran’s “Quintett N. 1″ (a gorgeous piece of music). Most terrifyingly however, is the fact I’ll be dancing the adagio from the Corsaire Pas de Deux. I’m lucky to have an amazing partner to do it with, but it’s still pushing me (and my partnering skills) to the limit. Here’s Maria Kochetkova and Daniil Simkin showing how it should be done!

I’m off to America though in the meantime – I’m presenting a paper at a big conference in Boston followed by a few days in New York seeing friends. Needless to say I’ll be taking plenty of ballet classes whilst I’m out there! When I get back there’s another conference (here in Bath) that I’ll be presenting a paper at before the gala. Then I’m hoping to be able to do at least a week of the Summer Intensive run by my Russian Ballet teachers – it all depends how work is going though.

After this summer though I’m going to have to cut back on my ballet for a bit. My PhD has ramped up over the last few months (for good reasons though – we’ve been getting research published) and I don’t think I’ll be able to last much longer juggling ballet and academic work! I’ll still try to take class as often as I can, but I’m definitely going to have to cut down a little – maybe down to a couple of hours a week. Add to this that I’m in the final stages of sorting out a three month internship at a research company in Canada next spring (yay!) and I’ve just got a bit too much on my plate! Don’t worry though, I’ll still be blogging – just perhaps a little more sporadically…

Until next time, keep on dancing!

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P.S. Some of you will know that I’ve been a Student Ambassador for the Royal Opera House for the last year. A few weeks ago at the final session of the season I was told that I’d been selected for one of a pair of week-long internships at the Royal Opera House in September! I don’t know which department I’ll be working in yet (hopefully Digital Development, Outreach or Education) but it’ll be an awesome chance to work at my dream workplace – where else can you walk out of your office and see some of the top dancers in the world rehearsing?!

Rothbart!

It’s all over. Last Saturday I danced Rothbart in Swan Lake for two performances and I’m still on cloud nine from it. Here’s a round up of the last few weeks:

3 weeks to go

With less than a month to go, rehearsals were in full swing. Alongside two class/rehearsals during the week, Saturdays now contained long rehearsals with the ballet school (Act I Scene I and Acts II-III) and Sundays were rehearsals with the youth ballet company (Act I Scene II). I’d finally learnt all my sections:

  • Act I Scene II (Owl Rothbart): opening variation, confrontation with Siegfried and Odette and Coda
  • Act II (Man Rothbart): Entrance with Odile, lead Spanish, a couple of bits in the Black Swan Pas de Deux, mime and exit at the end of the scene
  • Act III (Owl Rothbart): Entrance and capture of Odette, confrontation with Odette and Siegfried, final fight with Siegfried and my (delightfully dramatic) death.

I finally got my hands on my cape for Act II which turned out to be a bit more stressful than I thought. When I enter with Odile I present her to the queen and leave her to seduce Siegfried whilst I quickly whip off my cape and immediately start the Spanish dance. Unfortunately on my first attempt in a rehearsal I completely failed to undo the cape, resulting in me having to awkwardly lift it over my head and headdress/crown-thingy and run to make the start of Spanish… Oops!

We also had a photographer come to one of the youth ballet company class/rehearsals to take some promotional pictures for the show. Rather than in costume like the last ones, these were action shots during class and there were a few of me that I’ve put in the little gallery below. I’m quite pleased with them, especially my grand assemblé, but it pointed out that I’ve still got loads to work on! All the photos were taken by John Hudson LRPS (www.jahphotography.com).

1 week to go

A week before the performance was a the Easter break and I still hadn’t met the dancer playing Odette. Along with the guy playing Siegfried, she was staying in Bristol for the week leading up to the show and so my teachers suggested I come along to daily class/rehearsal with them – I jumped at the opportunity!

So every day I would turn up at a little dance studio outside Bristol for anywhere between 2 and 5 hours of rehearsals at a time. There were only 8 of us: my two teachers (both ex-principals), the two guest dancers, three pre-professional students (from Elmhurst/Royal Ballet School) and me. Needless to say I felt a little out of place but I tried to make the absolute most of it. Each class went along at blistering pace and pushed me harder than ever before: one of the most amusing moments involved my attempt at an exercise involving grand pirouettes switching from a la seconde to devant and then through to attitude derriere (I wasn’t too successful!). I could feel myself improving each day though, and it was so inspiring to take class with such amazing dancers. I think my happiest moment came on the final day of class when my teacher had the guys doing pas de bourée, chassé, tour en l’air across the floor and much to everyone’s surprise (not least of all my own!) I managed three double tours en l’air! They weren’t the cleanest tours ever, but I was ecstatic. Unfortunately, my teacher now won’t accept single tours in classes anymore!

The second part of these classes was lots of rehearsing. The guest dancers had only met once before and everyone needed to work on partnering and spacing. It was amazing the progress in just a week though – and it was such a pleasure to watch the professionals rehearsing their parts. It was good to get to grips (literally) with the partnering sections and much of the week my teacher had me working on the characterisation. Obviously Rothbart is quite a distinct character and he wanted me to make sure every movement conveyed this. I lost track of the number of times I got told I needed to stride out more, take more time, and make every movement more deliberate. It certainly helped, and I definitely felt my dancing improved hugely over the week. I alo got some great tips on partnering – shifting my hand position according to which jump I was assisting, using my plié more, etc.

1 day to go

With one day to go, my mum arrived to stay with me and watch the performance. She’s never seen me dance (or seen a ballet whatsoever) so it meant a lot to me that she came down and was really excited for to see what I’d been working on for the last few months. I left her shopping in Bath on the Friday though as I headed for the dress rehearsal.

This was our first chance to see the size of the stage, have a complete run through and space everything out. The stage was ever-so-slightly smaller than our rehearsal space so we had a few minor collisions, but otherwise things went pretty well. The only thing left to do was head home and get a good night’s sleep ready for Saturday…

The Big Day!

All of a sudden it was time. Six months of hard work was to culminate in two performances and I was a bag of nerves.

Arriving at the theatre 2 hours before curtain, we ran through a couple of the more crowded bits on stage to ensure people didn’t run into each other. My teachers reminded me to just mark everything and definitely not to jump as I needed to save my energy (by the time the day was over I’d be very grateful!).

Heading down to the changing rooms I got into my Act I/III costume. My teacher came over and worked on my stage makeup – he had danced Rothbart in Russia so was recreating what he used to have. Standing for about 15 minutes whilst he worked on it, I had no idea what it was going to look like – I got a bit of a shock! I’ve put a picture of it below along with some of the stage before the performance. Reckon I look evil enough?!

So how were the performances? Pretty amazing! The start of Act I Scene II had me crouched in a red spotlight on a dark stage, with smoke blowing across the stage – couldn’t have been more dramatic! The variation went without a hitch (even the nasty en dedan attitude derrière pirouette) and all the bits with Odette/Siegfried went well.

Then it was a run downstairs to get changed for Act II whilst the audience enjoyed wine and cake (totally unfair!). My Act II entrance was so much fun (a chance to look smug and disdainful with Odile) and this was followed immediately by Spanish. I think this was my favourite dance in the show as I knew it well enough that I could simply enjoy every second. The audiences also seemed to enjoy it as me and my partner got some nice cheers at the end of it! Then it was standing around in character during the other national dances before the Black Swan Pas de Deux. Whilst I didn’t have too much actual dancing in this (except for a couple of small segments) there was plenty of acting to remember: gestures to Odile, hiding Odette and directing Siegfried. This was followed by me tricking Siegfried into swearing his love for Odile (including a silent evil laugh!) and running off stage.

Then was my really quick change (no interval!) back into the Owl costume for Act III. After Odette tells the swans what has happened I appear and remind her who is in charge (lots of partnering) and Siegfried appears. A quick breather in the wings and then it was time for the finale: a fight to the death with Siegfried. It’s kind of strange but I can’t remember this section from either performance. I guess the music and character swept me away and it’s all a bit of a blur until I’m lying on the ground with a wing ripped off pretending to be dead!

Finally, the curtain calls were amazing – I got my own bow just before the lead couple and I got a mixture of applause and pantomime booing. Was kind of awesome just to soak in the applause. It was even more special knowing that my mum and a load of my friends were in the audience. Most of my university friends had never seen a ballet before and they all really enjoyed it. It meant a lot to me that so many of my friends had made the effort to come and watch and share my performance and even more so that my mum did. I was also lucky enough to get some wine from my Spanish partner and some flowers from a friend to say congratulations.

Here’s a few pics that my mum managed to snap during the performance:

After both performances (with only about half an hour between them!) I was absolutely shattered. Making sure I thanked my teachers just one more time and promising to keep in touch with the guest dancers, I finally drove back home to talk through the performance with my mum, get some well earned sleep and then drive her to the airport the next day.

What’s Next?

So now it’s all over. I can’t believe it to be honest! I’ve still got a few performances coming up in the next few months. Ballet Bristol (the adult group I dance with) are doing a summer gala in June which I’m dancing quite a bit in: Coppélia Wheat Pas de Deux (as Franz), Sleeping Beauty Jewels suite (as “Gold”), and another variation (either Franz Wedding Pas de Deux from Coppélia or my Rothbart opening variation). On top of this, there is a gala nearby for the Sue Ryder 60th Anniversary (a national charity) and both of the groups I dance in will be performing! I’m not sure what I’ll be dancing (I think the youth ballet company will be doing the “Danse des Forbans” from Le Corsaire).

Sorry for the long post but hope you enjoyed reading! Have you been performing recently? How did it go?

Until next time, keep on dancing!

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New Kinds of Narrative

Sat watching the live cinema relay of Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I was struck by how different a piece it is compared to, say, Swan Lake or Giselle. This is not just because of the different subject matter (no-one in Alice dies for a start!) but is, I feel, due to a completely different approach to narrative.

Classical Ballet Narrative

As ballet started to take shape into the artform we know today, narrative ballet was arguably its main purpose. If ballet was to survive outside of the context of opera, it needed to not just be as beautiful but also as capable at telling a (at times rather complex) story. In an attempt to enable this depth to ballet, early choreographers started to formalise a very natural way of expressing speech through dance: mime.

If you’ve seen any classic ballet – Swan Lake, Giselle, Coppelia – then you will have seen ballet mime. Whilst at first it can be slightly overwhelming to fill in all the unspoken gaps, ballet mime soon becomes easy to understand and beautiful in its own right. I am relatively fluent in British Sign Language and it is quite startling how similar the syntax of ballet mime is to BSL. In both, a literal translation becomes a very direct, subject-centric form of English: “Would you like to dance?” becomes something like “You dance, yes?”. This can be seen in the following clip of Royal Ballet dancers Romany Pajdak and Erico Montes demonstrating a section of mime from Swan Lake:

This approach leads to self-contained ‘chapters’ of story interspersed with divertissments, pas de deux and so forth. The dance is not always needed for the advancement of the plot, and large sections can be easily removed without affecting the audiences understanding. Obviously that isn’t the point of these ballets, and no-one would think of removing the Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty, but it could be done without a fundamental change in the narrative.

Neo-Classical Ballet Narrative

The emergence of neo-classical ballet brought a new approach to displaying narrative. There was less dependence on separate mime sections and mime was instead absorbed into the choreography.

Consider Cranko or MacMillan’s narrative works (Onegin, Romeo & Juliet, Mayerling…) and we see that the story is told through every movement and therefore mime becomes unnecessary. Little gestures that would have been resigned to mime take a role in the choreography. There is certainly no distinctive breaks between dance and story. Partly I think this is due to the subject matter: it would be a very brave (or foolhardy) choreographer who attempted to explain the subtle intricate emotions of Onegin or the all-consuming grief of Romeo & Juliet solely through mime.

Mime is still present in neo-classical ballet but in an altered, and perhaps enhanced, form. In Ashton’s La Fille mal Gardée, there is a famous scene in the second act where Lise daydreams about “When I Am Married”. Here Ashton takes classical mime and expands it, resulting in a section that could almost be a variation in itself. Certainly it takes skill to perform – here is a video of Mathilde Froustey of POB performing the mime:

Balanchine seems to take a different approach to other neo-classical choreographers. Rather than absorb mime into his choreography, Balanchine seems to let his choreography inhabit the mime. In his masterpiece Apollo, simple movements evolve into sections of dance. Apollo strums his lyre in a classical gesture which morphs into a striking moment, revealing an inner rebellion. Polyhymnia, the muse of mime, dances her variation one-handed whilst in the classical mime pose of a single finger on her lips to indicate silence resulting in a fantastic transformation of familiar steps. I also love the subtle way that Balanchine incorporates poetry into Calliope’s variation: taking direct inspiration from a line of poetry to choreograph in Iambic Hexameter. This way of deconstructing mime into movement is just one more demonstration of Balanchine’s genius.

Contemporary-Classical Ballet Narrative

The current crop of choreographers (which I have deemed “contemporary-classical” for lack of a better term) are forging their own approaches to narrative.

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Wheeldon abstracts the story away from the dancers. Instead, much of the narrative is given through projections, puppets and set design. The segments of dance allow us to see into the characters rather than the plot – a sensible idea for Alice, where the characters are the essence of the magic.

Thanks to modern stage technology (both digital and physical) pieces like Alice can have many more scene changes than Petipa could have dreamed of. This facilitates the shifting of narrative: instead of having to spell out Alice’s growing/shrinking through mime, we can demonstrate it through a change of set (helped along with projections). Wheeldon is also unafraid of immersive theatre techniques: when Alice pops her head through a knee-high door, her view is materialised with dancers in the aisles of the stalls and confetti cascading over the audience. I’m not sure what Ivanov would have made of that! Next season, Wheeldon’s new full-length ballet for the Royal Ballet is based on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale – he will need to delve deeply into the characters and relationships in a more serious manner than Alice, and I am intrigued to see what he produces.

Liam Scarlett seems at times to be a neo-classical rather than contemporary-classical choreographer and his Sweet Violets certainly had obvious inspiration from MacMillan. However, with his new full-length piece Hansel & Gretel, he has spoken of drawing inspiration and using the space it will be performed in for the piece. The Linbury Studio Theatre is an underground space in the Royal Opera House with large metal doors and exposed steelwork: Scarlett wants to use this prison-like atmosphere to help his audience relate to the main characters.

This site-specific viewpoint has been used elsewhere: Robbins’ “ballet in sneakers”, NY Export: Opus Jazz, was filmed recently in various locations across New York with NYCB dancers, working so brilliantly it is as if Robbins had planned it. The following is a clip of Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall dancing a segment on the High Line:

Within Ratmansky we have a first-rate classic storyteller: his reinterpretations of classics such as Flames of Paris and The Bright Stream feel fresh yet authentic. Although initially exclusive to the Bolshoi, his narrative works have recently expanded to ABT (The Bright Stream and The Firebird), Royal Dutch Ballet (The Golden Cockerel) and National Ballet of Canada (Romeo & Juliet) amongst others. I have a feeling that in years to come Ratmansky will be considered one of the greatest narrative choreographers of ballet and I’m excited to see what he will come up with next.

So what is the future of narrative ballet? We may catch a glimpse of it here in the UK with the premiere of Wayne McGregor’s Raven Girl. McGregor’s distinctive style seems dependent on taking familiar movements and reinventing them, so I am highly intrigued to see what he might do with narrative. Working with Audrey Niffenegger on a modern narrative this promises to be a memorable production and perhaps a pioneering one.

With so many ways of expressing narrative, the future is certainly bright for ballet. There are a wealth of choreographers creating narrative works and I have only touched upon those I have direct experience of. Choreographers are tackling new subject matters (for example Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby) and with international co-productions companies are more willing to take a risk on full-length narratives (Birmingham Royal Ballet and National Ballet of Japan co-produced Aladdin and Wheeldon’s Alice and The Winter’s Tale are co-productions between the Royal Ballet and National Ballet of Canada). I, for one, am excited to see what the future holds!

What are your thoughts on narrative ballet? Let me know in the comments section below.

Until next time, keep on dancing!

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DaveTriesBallet’s Guide To Seeing A Ballet (Updated!)

I recently hosted a “Ballet… Not What You Think!” screening of free ballet at my University to try and dispel a few ballet myths. Coincidentally, this was on the same day as the Royal Opera House hosted a live debate entitled Are opera and ballet elitist?. This prompted me to look back at my post about seeing a ballet for the first time and update a few things…

I first watched a ‘proper’ Ballet nearly three years ago. I’m not ashamed to admit I was kind of scared. Don’t get me wrong, I was also really excited, but there was also something slightly intimidating about the whole experience. Is this elitism? I don’t think so, and none of the attendees at my ballet screening thought so either. I think instead it is more about the unknown – and hopefully this post can help other people in the same situation I was.

I now feel a lot more comfortable going to see a performance; I still get (very) excited but am no longer intimidated by the idea of heading to the Royal Opera House or The Met. Hopefully after seeing your first ballet you’ll realise there’s nothing to be scared of!

So where to start? Well first off, I need to correct common misconceptions: going to see a Ballet is not only for the posh, doesn’t have to be expensive and isn’t all about fluffy pink ballerinas looking pretty! Now those are out of the way, let’s get a little more practical.

What to see?

It can be really daunting to know what on earth to pick to see when you don’t know much about ballet. Do you choose a classic or a modern piece? A full length ballet or a mixed bill of shorter works? I asked my readers on Twitter and Facebook to help and here are their answers:

My readers' suggestions (click to enlarge)

As you can see there are many differing opinions because, guess what? Different people like different things! Just like any other art form, there will be styles of Ballet you enjoy, and others you don’t but half the fun is in finding out what your personal taste is. At my ballet screening I showed two quite contrasting works: MacMillan’s Concerto and McGregor’s Infra. It was fascinating to see how people reacted to both works in different manners.

Mixed bills are a great way to experience Ballet for the first time – they usually consist of three short (around 30 minutes each) pieces split up by intervals. Although there is usually an over-arching theme to the evening (it might be works by a single choreographer or relating to a certain subject) you will usually end up seeing three very different and distinct pieces. The short time length and multiple intervals let you digest what you have seen and if something wasn’t to your liking you don’t have to sit through 3 hours of it!

Seeing a full length ballet can be magical – the music, the costumes, the sets, the narrative and, of course, the dancing! Whether the classic Swan Lake, the Chrsitmas-sy Nutcracker, the mildly depressing Romeo & Juliet or the emotional roller coaster that is Giselle you cannot help but get swept up in the story and sheer spectacle. Many people worry about following the story but be reassured that you’re not going to be confused: most ballets have a clear storyline and you can always read the programme notes in the interval.

Alina Cojocaru as Giselle. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

So after all that, what should you pick? That’s completely up to you. My only rule is that you should pick something that looks interesting to you. It could be the storyline, the costumes or a dancer you’ve seen on YouTube – but there is no point going to watch something you don’t really want to see!

How to watch?

A lot of people worry about how to watch ballet and are put off by thinking they need to watch in a certain ‘way’. This isn’t the case! Whenever people ask me how to watch a ballet I just tell them to “sit back and enjoy”.

People wonder if you have to pay attention to certain dancers or should only look at their feet or faces. In truth, you should pay attention to whatever grabs your attention. Everyone on stage is performing for your enjoyment so sit back and enjoy it :) In fact, if you get swept away by the music and get distracted from the dancing, that’s completely fine too!

Where to sit?

Okay, so you’ve decided what to see; now how/where do you buy tickets? It is a complete misconception that tickets are unaffordable and out of reach from anyone earning under a six figure salary. I can go see the Royal Ballet for £3 – that’s less than a pint of beer in some pubs!

If you are a student or under 25 it is well worth checking if there are offers running. A lot of the larger companies do student rush tickets: “day of” tickets sold to students at greatly reduced prices (between £10-20/$15-30). These are often for the best unsold seats in the house and as such it’s often luck whether you get a good seat or not. I even once got a top price ticket at New York City Ballet for only $25! The Royal Opera House also has a great Student Standby scheme which offers £10 standby tickets to certain performances alongside four designated “Student Amphi” performances where the entire amphitheatre is reserved for students at discounted prices!

What if you’re not a student? Well there is nothing wrong with sitting in the “nose-bleed” seats at the top of a theatre! You may not be close enough to see the dancers facial expressions (though opera glasses/binoculars can help) but you gain a new perspective on the piece. For a lot of non-narrative pieces this can be a boon.

View from the back of the 4th Ring at NYCB (Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

Another option is sitting to the side of the auditorium. These are often “restricted view”, meaning you can’t see the far corners of the stage, but are highly discounted. Don’t be afraid to ask someone at the box office their thoughts on the seat; they probably know if the restricted view will greatly affect the piece or not. Often most of the action for a ballet is done centre stage so this might not be a huge issue.

Finally, there are often standing room tickets sold (sometimes on the day of the performance). Although standing for a couple of hours doesn’t sound fun, I usually find the ballet is absorbing enough to not notice. Depending on the venue, ushers may let you sit in unoccupied seats after half an hour or so, but this is in no way guaranteed!

There are usually a huge range of prices for ballet tickets which makes them really accessible. A ticket to see Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in a Premier League will cost you £46 upwards. A ticket to see the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House will cost you £3 upwards (and at certain performances the top price is £37).

What to wear?

People fret about what to wear to a ballet – thinking they need to wear a tux or evening dress. I’ve only worn a tux to one ballet event – the Royal Opera House Fall Gala where it was the suggested dress code. In general I would recommend going for “smart-casual” and whatever that means to you.

In general, I normally wear smart trousers, smart brown shoes, and a shirt. I’ve usually been to a Ballet class in the city during the day so often have a bag with me, but I always leave this at the coat check. Maybe some of my female readers could suggest appropriate wear for the ladies reading this? Most girls I go with tend to wear a summer dress or blouse/trousers etc (but I’m not an expert on female fashion!).

What rules of “Balletiquette” are there?

People get hung up about whether there are particular rules of etiquette for going to see ballet. There are no set list of things to do/not do – just use your common sense! For example: be on time, turn off your mobile, don’t take photos, save lengthy discussions with your neighbour for the interval, don’t eat in the auditorium, be quiet as soon as the orchestra starts playing and don’t leave as soon as the dancing finishes.

Darcey Bussell giving a curtain call

If there is a live orchestra you should applaud when the conductor appears. When else should you applaud? That’s a tricky question and I got differing opinions when I asked people their thoughts. You should definitely clap any time a dancer bows but you can also clap at the end of a particularly impressive sequence of steps, or when a principal appears for the first time. If in doubt, you can always just follow what everyone else is doing!

You’ll probably also hear shouts of “Bravo”, “Brava”, or “Bravi” during the applause. These are Italian words to show appreciation for a dancer’s performance. Technically Bravo is for male performers, Brava is for female performers and Bravi is for more than one performer. However, you’ll probably hear Bravo more than anything else, regardless of the dancers gender. I’ve got to admit that I’m still not brave enough to “Bravo” (no pun intended!), it’s completely optional.

What if there’s no ballet near me?

So you don’t live in London or New York? Maybe there isn’t a `local’ ballet company or you only get a couple of touring companies nearby each year. All is not lost: a lot of the big ballet companies have started live cinema relays of a handful of productions each season.

These relays can be a great informal way to see a ballet and a chance to see world class ballet at your local cinema. It also has a sense of familiarity – everyone has been to the cinema before so it is an unintimidating setting.

Just go for it!

So that’s pretty much it for my guide to seeing a Ballet except to say “just go for it!”. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what you see, what you wear or where you sit. Just go, enjoy the dancing and bask in the experience. It’s great!

Oh, and if you’re still intimidated by the idea of going to see a full Ballet – watch some DVD’s first! There are some excellent recordings of the world’s best dancers dancing the great Ballets and it can be an informal way to get familiar with a piece before going to see it live.

If you’re a Ballet regular then please share any tips you have in the comments, or let us know what your first Ballet was and how you found it. And if you are going to see a Ballet for the first time, please let me know what it was like!

Until next time, keep dancing!

DaveTriesBallet’s Guide to Stretching

I often get emails and tweets asking for suggestions about stretching. I want to start by pointing out that I am no expert. Nowhere near. I don’t have any sort of medical or physiological training and can’t do the splits or a six o’clock penchee. But when I started ballet I couldn’t touch my toes and can now shoulder my leg so I guess something must have worked.

Recently I’ve gotten into the habit of stretching every day and have seen a huge improvement – I tend to do it either at the gym after a workout or at home in front of a DVD and it only takes ten minutes or so. In the space of a month or two I’ve gone from only just being able to shoulder my left leg (with my hand grabbing my ankle) to now being able to shoulder my right (with hand at ankle) and left (with hand on heel) relatively comfortably. In fact, last week at my Russian Youth Ballet Company rehearsal the teacher had us shouldering our legs in centre (without a barre!) and I managed to do it to both sides :) I started with a routine that an awesome tweeter (@LilAngelicRose) sent me and I’ve since tinkered with to make it more suited for me.

I’m going to start with the usual (and very smart) disclaimer: never stretch without warming up your muscles! It can be very easy to overstretch cold muscles and injure yourself. Obviously stretching isn’t completely pain free but there should never be sharp pain – if there is then stop immediately. It can also be easy to overstretch warm muscles so always adapt a stretch to your ability – if you can’t touch your toes yet (I couldn’t when I started ballet) then don’t attempt to shoulder your leg straight away. All of these stretches should be familiar to dancers and if there are any you don’t know then don’t attempt them.

So with that cheery disclaimer out of the way, here’s my usual daily routine.

  1. Start with a nice simple butterfly stretch (note that I have no idea if my names for stretches are even close to correct!): sit on the floor with the soles of your feet together and a nice straight back. Cross you arms and grab your opposite ankles rather than your feet (a teacher told me this prevents sickling in the exercise) and beat your knees (wings!) quickly to help warm up your hips. If you like you can pause to stretch your hips open and stretch forward.
  2. Butterfly stretch (picture found on Google)

    Butterfly stretch (picture found on Google)

  3. Next stay seated and open your legs as wide as they will comfortably go keeping straight kneed. Don’t worry if they’re not particularly wide – I’m terrible at this stretch!
    (If like me, you can’t open your legs very wide a good thing to work on this is to lie on your back with your legs straight up against a wall. Make sure your bottom is against the wall and your legs are turned out. Open your legs (staying turned out!) and you can let gravity do the work for you!)
    Sat on the floor with your legs open, flex your feet and point them a couple of times (I tend to keep mine pointed for the rest of this exercise). Put your arms up in 5th and stretch to the side. If you are flexible enough you can hold on to your ankle to help (but don’t overstretch!). Return to sitting up straight and twist to face the same leg. Keeping arms in fifth again bend forwards aiming to get your chest on your thigh and forehead on your knee. Repeat to the other side.
  4. Still with your legs open, bend forwards with your arms in fifth and allowing your back to bend, aiming to get your forehead on the floor. Repeat with a straight back aiming to get your chest on the floor (I’m so far from either it’s not funny!). Finally do some full circles stretching to the side, rolling through to the front and then to the other side.
  5. Bring your knees back together so your legs are straight in front of you. Work your feet thoroughly: try to point your toes back at your chest then work through a flexed foot, demi-pointe and into a full pointe. Repeat this over and over and over! You can also use a theraband here if you wish. Flex your foot, rotate outwards then pointe to draw a circle with your toes. Repeat inwards.
  6. Lie on your back. Do five or so grand battements devant with one leg then on the last one grab a hold of your leg and hold it in the air stretching. Still in the air bring your leg into a passe then outstretch again, this time making sure your leg is nicely turned out. Hopefully you should be able to stretch a little further! Repeat with the other leg.
  7. Turn onto your side and do five or so grand battements a la seconde. On the last grab hold onto your leg and hold it in the air stretching a little further. Bring back into passe and emulate shouldering your leg: hold your ankle/heel/foot and extend to the front before pulling around to the side concentrating on keeping your leg turned out. Again, hopefully you should be able to stretch a little further than before!
  8. Pigeon stretch (again picture from Google)

    Pigeon stretch (again picture from Google)

  9. If you can do the splits then I’d put them in now, otherwise do some pidgeon stretches: it’s hard to describe so I’ve included a picture! It is like doing the splits but bending the front knee so that your shin is perpendicular in front of you. From here you can bend your upper body forward and back, lift up your back foot and grasp it with a hand or take your back foot on demi-pointe to lift your leg and elevate your hip. It’s all about opening up your hip and stretching your glutes – do whatever feels good!
  10. If you’re in a studio you can always follow these with the “standard” leg-on-the-barre stretches. Finally, stand up and do some plies and port de bras in first, second, fourth and fifth to finish off.

Following all these stretches I like to do a few balances just to re-center myself: fifth sous-sous, cou-de-pied, passe, attitude derriere and arabesque. When I’m in the gym I quite like trying these on the round side of a bosu ball (flat-footed) to strengthen my ankles. At home I do them on demi-pointe, constantly trying to hold them just a few seconds longer than last time!

So that’s my stretching regime! Do you stretch daily? Is your sequence of stretches similar to mine? Have I missed off your favourite stretch? I always like to hear new stretching tips so please share any in the comments section below.

Until next time, keep on dancing!

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