Friday, September 30, 2011

Mother just as iconic as daughter

"I really have to pee," the little girl says in the crowded dressing room, as she changed out of her leotard and tights (oh so loose at that age).
"Makes sense; you've had quite a workout," the mother says.
"How do you know I had a workout?" the girl asks.  She's at the question age.
"I sar you dancing."
"Oh.  Did you see when I...?" Of course, the mother doesn't remember that very moment.
"Yes, yes; you're vehry graceful when you're dancing," the mother says, with a hint of sarcasm the daughter would not detect.  Maybe daughter isn't always graceful, particularly not when throwing a tantrum.
"Hey, you're a dancer, right?" mom says to a middle-aged woman changing out of her dance clothes. "What do you do for a sprain dankle?"
"I'd ice it and isolate it," the dancer replies.
"Ice it.  Okay.  And, like how lowng do I have ta wait?  Not like two weeks, right?"
"Can I, like, work out?  'Cawz otherwise, I'll kill myself."
"Well, just be careful.  Take Ibuprofen, ice it, isolate it."
"Is she a doctor, Mom?"
"No, she's not a dawctor, she's a dancer."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Homesick for José's

I'm looking for a ballet class I love so much that I'll do anything to get there.  Something that can light my life.  I had classes like that in Cambridge, MA, but I'm in New York, and I haven't found the equivalent here.

I like a class that starts very slowly and works its way up so that you are exhausted by the end of barre.  Mary Thompson's class at José Mateo Ballet Theatre is that way.  It starts with an exercise facing the barre, then pliés, then infinitely slow tendus.  But the class overall is infinitely fast!  That's the beauty of it.  There's an opportunity to practice every move slowly at least once before doing it fast.  It's like the development of an embryo, starting with a single cell and developing into a fetus.  It starts simply and becomes complex, and it doesn't skip steps. You don't do a pirouette until you've done passé on flat and relevé passé without turning.  This thoroughness not only prepares you for what comes next but it wears you out and warms you up. By the end of barre, I'm sweaty and warm, ready to do a split.  Too tired to talk.  (Talking was always a mistake in Mary's class, anyway.)

When classes start with shrugging the shoulders, I worry.  Not having done modern dance, I fear "ballet for modern dancers."

In some classes I've taken around here, teachers basically go from pliés to fast dégagés to ronds de jambe.  There should be so many more tendus in there!  Tendus from first, tendus from fifth.  Then fondus and ronds de jambe en l'air for strength.  I don't like a barre without développés.  That's a workout.

Class at Peridance with Alexandre Proia may not have been ballet for modern dancers, but it was ballet for someone other than me.

This class was more about teaching style and choreography than teaching technique.  In my opinion, the barre was scanty.  Center was interesting and had its own merits.  The teacher made jazzy combinations and demonstrated them fully, which many teachers don't do. It was wonderful to watch. We had a great pianist, too, who played tunes close to my heart (Edith Piaf and Khatchaturian).

This is a former City Ballet dancer.  Have to respect him and his approach.  I agree with him that learning a long, complex combination is good for the brain and that expression is important.

I do live in a glass house, made even more fragile since school started and my dancing became more sporadic.

But I do know what kind of class I want, and Proia's was not it. I suppose the class would be better for people who take many classes and have already had a workout for the day, people who want to work on style.  Not a bread-and-butter class.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

City Ballet Report: "2 and 3 Part Inventions" and "Apollo"

"E107" was my seat at New York City Ballet for $15, the student rate.  At first, I assumed I was in row 107, which made sense for the price of my ticket. Not so, as I found out later.

Out in the courtyard, the fountain I'd read about in The New Yorker was doing its magnificent display.  The water suddenly shoots up from its percolating resting position into patterns that suspend in the air for a second, then fall.  They were like fireworks made of water.  Soon the rain decided to join the show.

I headed to a Starbucks for dinner and bought a bistro box, a very nice pre-made lunch of prosciutto and salame, cheese, olives, lettuce, crackers, and a piece of chocolate for dessert.  Because of the rain, I chose the bistro box over something that might have been less expensive and farther away.  Standing room only in Starbucks.  I stood at the counter where people pick up their specialty drinks, like in the Italian cafés you hear about where people pay extra to sit.  What I refused to do was buy bottled water.

Back at Lincoln Center, I went to the bathroom where, to my surprise, there were stalls available, as a woman in black pointed out.  I told her I just wanted a drink, washed my hands, cupped them, and made up for not buying bottled water.  At intermission, the same woman was in the bathroom again telling people which stalls were available.  I took another drink.  She had a little white, ragged apron on, ragged like Apollo's tunic, and I realized then that Lincoln Center probably paid her to monitor the bathroom. The loo lady. 

When I got to my seat, I found that "E107" was fifth row, center.  I felt like a phoney, sitting there dressed up as if I had bought a very expensive seat.  Of course, I didn't pretend complacency but trumpeted my luck to people nearby.

To the ballet.  The first piece was "2 and 3 Part Inventions," choreographed by Jerome Robbins for a School of American Ballet workshop performance.  It's traditional to open a show with a white ballet, but in this one, the men broke dress code by wearing blue tights with their white undershirts.  A live pianist in her own spotlight played the inventions, in which the two hands play a duet with each other, taking turns with the melody.  In the ballet, pairs of dancers took turns at series' of steps.  The ballet seemed appropriate for a school performance in that the dancers really seemed to be playing with each other.  During one dance, two women slap their palms together, like in a handclap game, then shimmy up and down in that position.

This ballet was danced by very good company members, not principal dancers.  I was so close that I could see their smiles and the seams of their tights.  Each dancer had his or her own, unique part and individual flair to go with it.  Not at all a corps de ballet.  As a dancer starting out, City Ballet must be appealing for that reason (among others!).  By the way, one of most featured dancers had her hair not in a bun but in a French twist, another bit of individuality.

As a watched a dancer in white alone on the stage, I realized why dancers say that performing is freeing.  For so long, that concept evaded me.  Performing took what I could do passably well in the studio and made it ten times harder as my nerves took over.  Not freeing.

I realized last night, sitting in the packed house, how free the lone dancer was in so many ways.  She had space, time, and license to dance her heart out.  This dancer had the whole stage to herself in the middle of a crowded city.  She had the right to go up there and dance not her own steps but the choreography the way she wanted.   The whole audience was there to see her dance.  And unlike in rehearsal, there was no ballet master to stop her and tell her to do it differently.

In New York City, where else can you dance alone in such a big space?  You can't just start dancing on the sidewalk.  Before ballet class, everyone stretches, no one dances, and even if the big studio is there to dance in and leap across, it feels awkward to do so alone in front of everyone.  In class, you do the prescribed steps in a group.  In your apartment, you worry about making too much noise.  On stage, the dancer can go all out in a way she can't anywhere else.  She's free.

"Apollo," choreography by Balanchine, music by Stravinsky, surpassed my expectations, which were  a serious man in white tights and tunic dancing austerely.  No, it was a lighthearted ballet.  Apollo and his three muses danced and flirted in so many ways.  It seemed to me that the muses were vying for Apollo's attention and that he wasn't particularly interested in them.  At times, they seemed to be creating architecture with their arms and legs.  They made archways and went through each other and wove among themselves in the style of a folk dance. At the end, the dancers stagger their arabesques to create a stunning final pose.  It reminded me of that drawing of the supposedly perfectly-proportioned man whose outstretched arms and legs fit in a circle. 

One thing I didn't like about "Apollo" was the beginning, when Apollo pretends to strum a mandolin-like instrument as a solo violin plays double-stops with a bow.  Incongruous.

I noticed that a lot of the dancers looked younger than I am.  An odd realization.  Not only am I not good enough/not cut out to dance professionally "when I grow up," but I'm also getting old!   I'm still young enough to be taken seriously in classes.  Cherish it!

I didn't stay for the third ballet of the night.  I got my money's worth, and I'll be back again!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Why My Journalism Assignments Are Not Easy

When I studied biology, I used to think a lot about what kinds of experiments I wanted to do.  I wanted to study the intricacies of the central dogma of molecular biology (DNA->RNA->protein).  Yet I came up with few experiments.  It's much easier to have a given question and design experiments to answer it. 

Researching a given question is what I did in my undergraduate lab internships.  I didn't allow myself to think much about how important I thought worm defecation was to the world when I aspired to work in a lab studying the process.  I decided that the question didn't matter.  In my view, science was about how cleverly and thoroughly people went about answering their questions.  "It's not what you do; it's how you do it."  The so-called elegance of an experiment was what interested me.

In the popular science articles I read, experimental design gets very little mention.  Not the original questions, not the scientific methods, but the results are what the stories describe.

Now my assignment is to come up with several news story ideas.  In one case, the ideas have a given, broad topic (climate change); in the other, any scientific topic is fair game.  I find myself reading websites about climate change and getting background information and asking myself lots of questions.  But unlike in my idyllic, imagined scientific world, in journalism, all questions are not created equal.  I can't just pick a random research paper and analyze it to death.  A mediocre experiment about HIV will mean more to readers than a clever experiment about periodic pooping in roundworms.  What I choose to write about matters.

 I haven't come up with any story ideas for the class where I can write on any topic because I haven't picked a topic yet!  I could write about anything, and that makes it hard to choose a topic.   

I might like to write something about the various consequences of glacial melting.  I'm interested in how reduced salinity in the ocean water near the surface would affect ocean levels and levels of ocean ice.  On one hand, the melting of freshwater glaciers would raise the sea level.  But decreasing the salinity of the ocean's surface would make that water freeze at higher temperatures.  A higher freezing point would counteract the melting of ice on the ocean surface:  because the glaciers melt, the ocean water is more likely to freeze at a given temperature.  So on one hand, global warming may be causing the ocean's ice to melt, but glacial melting could actually counteract the melting of the ice in the ocean, even if that effect is small.

So for what it's worth, my scientific mind thinks about this stuff.  But what of all that thinking, by me and by other scientists, would make a good story idea?  That's harder to decide.  It's also about being analytical but in a creative way.

I wish I could just draw a story out of a hat or pick from a list the way I did when I wrote for The Somerville News and me being free the night of an event was reason enough to cover it.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Gorilla Coffee!

"20 20 20 24 hours to go!  I wanna be sedated."  Maybe you shouldn't be in a coffee shop, then.  But this is the music playing at Gorilla Coffee, Brooklyn.

It's one of the first places that stood out on the Google map of Brooklyn.  What a good name!  For the next few days, I talked about wanting to go there.  "It's special, Brooklyn coffee," I said, as if every coffee shop doesn't call their coffee special.

I didn't make it to the grocery to buy milk last night, and since I don't drink black coffee, I had an excuse to go to a café this morning.  I'm so glad I ran out of milk!  This coffee shop is pushing all my buttons at once.

Here I am at last sitting at a red table listening to hard rock music (the kind a gorilla might play) and drinking a delicious cup of dark-roast, special Brooklyn coffee, roasted here, I think.  At any rate, I can take a bag of Gorilla coffee, black bag with a red gorilla face, home with me.  The gorilla's eyes, inner lips, and nostrils are recessed and black, its brow, chin, and wide upper lip stand out in red.  This is the gorilla playing the drums on the radio, I think.

This place really is guaranteed to wake you up:  coffee, rock music, and red Christmas lights.  Plus, the walls are decorated with maps of Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America.  There are no captions explaining which gorillas lived where, but still, cool.

And then a former biology classmate from Oberlin who lives in Brooklyn and is also going to NYU walked in the door.  I hadn't seen her since the summer of 2007.  Could this get better? 

Gorilla Coffee!  Be there!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


I've never watched Balanchine's "Serenade."  An old friend of mine, then my one and only best friend, danced this ballet at St. Paul's School, a boarding school in New Hampshire with a stellar dance program.  Annie gave me a CD of the music (Tchaikovsky's "Serenade For Strings In C") and the pointe shoes she wore in her big performance, and I've listened to it countless times.  I haven't danced the ballet, but I've danced to the music, countless times.  I wonder how my choreography--full of attitude turns and sudden balances at the ends of fast passages--compares with the real thing.

Though I haven't watched the ballet, I've seen the blue dresses and the women with their hair down in photos.  They look like dancers in their natural state, one so ethereal to people who don't dance or those like me, who dance at an amateur level.  If only wearing pointe shoes were my natural state. 

The slow movement of "Serenade" expresses the reverence I feel for ballet.  It's slow, quiet, lonely, an elegy by its title.  When the music is on, I feel more serious about whatever I'm doing, in this case, writing.  Imagine your ballet teacher knocked on your door right now.  How would you act?  Aside from freaking out and being nervous, you might try to be polite and considerate and do things right.  This music makes me feel reverent even when I am alone. 

I'm sure many of the dancers I know have danced in "Serenade."  I can name three, and there must be more.  I recently took class with one of them, Elizabeth Walker, of the Los Angeles Ballet, when she taking a break from professional ballet to study at Harvard and took the open classes at José Mateo Ballet Theatre.  I didn't realize this "good" (actually amazing) dancer was a professional, and then I saw a photo advertising Los Angeles Ballet's 2010 production of "Serenade," with her in a beautiful arabesque.

(I'm starting to realize that most people who dance like professionals are professionals.  Why not?)

Knowing that Liz danced this ballet makes me think about her differently.  However she behaves in your average social situation, just a friendly, regular person, I know that she is, in fact, part of the other, ethereal realm, or has been there.

Of course I would like to visit that realm through dance, not just through my imagination.  But I won't make light of the ambition with "Serenade" in my head.  No clunking of dropped extensions.  No haphazard arms.  Can't be anything but earnest when you let Tchaikovsky and Balanchine in your bedroom door.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Life as a reality TV show?

You know on the reality show, "Project Runway," when the competing designers have 30 minutes (or something) at the fabric store to buy everything they are going to need for their clothing line?  I have the feeling that my master's program is an equivalent time in my life.  I need to gather up all the knowledge I can during in the next sixteen months.  

Of course, I'll always be learning, but this period of school, unemployment, and bachelorhood is the time when learning will be easiest.  So many things could happen during my twenties:  education, career, love, children, and using my physically mature body for whatever it's capable of before it starts declining (I'm thinking ballet, but yes, 'children' is a related topic, here). 

The risk of elimination from the contest, life, is always there.  But the moment when the British lady in the sky says, "You're out," may well be due to chance, unrelated to success, failure or how well you chose your fabrics at Mood.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

New Place, Same Old Me

Deciding what to write about can be difficult.  There are endless possibilities: past, present, future, or imagined situations past, present, and future.  You can sit outside and watch people and write about what you see, like Harriet the Spy, or you can sit with your eyes closed and write about what you think.  My mind is worrying me at the moment, so I prefer to escape by writing about the outside world.  But in times when the outside world is, say, monotonous (like working at a grocery store) or horrifying (being in the hospital or in worse situations, like war), people can escape by being introspective.  Or they can turn something horrifying into art, creating a beautiful version of an ugly reality.

What has this paragraph been?  Introspection, of course.  Enough of that.

I am starting a master's program in science journalism at New York University this fall.  I had my orientation on Thursday, and classes start on Tuesday, after Labor Day. I'm staying in a Brooklyn brownstone with parents of a childhood friend.  My room is on the third floor, and the kitchen is on the first floor, and the intervening stairs are narrow, creaky, steep, and dark unless I bother to turn on a light.  The first floor consists of an austere living room, music room, and dining room with ornate dark wooden molding everywhere.  There are sliding doors separating these rooms, but some of them don't slide.  When the doors are recessed into the wall, there's a little button you push that forces out a hook used for pulling open the door.  So intricate!  Update:  it is possible to close off the stairwell from the living room and kitchen to keep sounds from carrying upstairs.  At the back of the first floor, the kitchen window overlooking the garden is a beacon of light.  I am writing in the kitchen now.   The second floor has the master bedroom, a study, and a bathroom.  The third floor has three bedrooms (for three children, now grown), a bathroom, and a laundry room.  In order to get to the third floor, I have to walk up the creaky stairs, down a creaky hallway adjacent to the parents' bedroom, and either be in the dark or turn on a light in the hall, then up another flight to the third floor, where I'll be the only inhabitant.  As my friend's parents said, we'll hear everyone's comings and goings.

I don't mind the stairs, but it interests me that the layout of this house makes simple things seem worth describing.  For example, no bathroom on the first floor.  If I come down early in the morning before others are awake, I risk waking people up by going to the bathroom.  I can either go to the bathroom next to the bedroom of sleeping parents (fewer stairs, less noise walking to and from the bathroom, more noise in the bathroom) or walk down the creaky hallway to the third floor to use my own bathroom (more noise commuting, less noise tooting, or whatever).

The bathrooms have old, spacious bathtubs/showers.  There are four knobs, two faucets, and one shower head.  The bathroom sinks are unusual in that the faucets don't extend much beyond the back of the sink so that you almost brush your hands against the sink to wash them, and it is hard to drink from the faucet. 

That's about it for introspection and inspection of this house from the inside.  Did I mention the old dumbwaiter, which is now just a closet with its own working doorbell?  I'll let you know when I meet the ghosts.