Sunday, October 23, 2011

The well-trodden paths of ballet class

Pas de basque was the first step in a combination across the floor in class on Saturday at Mark Morris Dance Center, Brooklyn.  It's a step that can be very slow and luxurious, or it can be a quick waltz.  The first time I recall encountering the quick-waltz version of the step was in a class taught by Mary Thompson in Cambridge, Mass.  This step baffled me.  Even though I knew how to do the slow pas de basque, there didn't seem to be enough counts for the quick one.  I was used to the step taking four counts, with a rond de jambe--circling the leg from front to back--on the first count.  In the quick version, you need to rond de jambe and step forward on count one in order for it to work, and I mostly found this out because it didn't work for me. 

So this Saturday, I knew how to pas de basque quickly. My memories of Mary's pas de basque combinations returned.  Yet the memory of being nervous about doing pas de basques and losing a count or a step and not knowing why in Cambridge was somehow pleasant.  A familiar memory was pleasant, even though the experience remembered was one of anxiety. 

I thought of Mary when we did balancés toward the back corners of the room.  Dancing toward the back corner in combinations that ultimately travel forward seemed counter-intuitive to me, but it comes up all the time, and I'm ready for it.  I thought of her when we did pas de chats.  Mary said that the height of the jump, in which you move sideways and bring both feet under you one after the other, was determined by how much your torso rose, not how high you got your bent legs off the ground. 

As we did circular port de bras, rotating the upper body in a circle around the hips, I remembered how my friend and I used to try to look at the floor the whole time, a feat quite difficult when you are bending straight back.  It's a challenge that goes along with using your head in the port de bras, since if you can't bend your back any further, as any limbo player knows, you can always throw back your head. Actually, looking at the floor helped me keep my balance during the port de bras, whereas just using my head without looking at anything made me fall over, or at least feel like I was going to. 

Though these steps may not be familiar to all readers of this blog, they have layers of familiarity for dancers.  Ballet class, which has the same format every time, everywhere, is a routine in itself.  Then come the memories of all the teachers and what they've said about various steps.  "Exhale as you go forward," one teacher said every time we did a bend forward at the barre.  I think she just liked saying it; surely everybody caught on after she said it a few times, since it's an easy correction to apply! 

So during that circular port de bras, exhale as you go forward, don't cut corners, use your head, and try to see the floor the whole time!  And don't get too lost in daydreams. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


When I got to my seat in the fourth ring of the Koch Theater, a bronze orb covered in glittering circles of diamonds/clear jewels, the chandelier, hung before my eyes.  Each section of the theater's upper levels had its own matching, glittering circle.  Jewels studded the theater's rings.

I did not wear any jewels to see Balanchine's work of the same name.  I left the house in a flurry, thrilled with the possibility of making it to the ballet, knowing that I might be late.  I didn't take time to fuss with my costume, and I was right on time.  Why do people in the audience dress up for the ballet?  Whereas the performers costume themselves for the audience, the performers can't see what audience members are wearing and probably don't care.  Audience members dress up for each other.

"Emeralds" was lyrical and beautiful.  It used a Fauré piece I particularly like that made me imagine the dancers were in an enchanted wood where miracles, like ballet and falling in love, take place.  During one variation, the ballerina spun around moving her arms intricately above her head.  I tried to imagine an emerald doing so but failed.  It was just interesting choreography.  Balanchine had dancers lift their arabesques in staccato fashion to match the music.  No leg dropped or shook.  Balances were all suspended.  No one broke the spell.

Throughout "Rubies," I kept thinking that the dancers didn't look like humans at all.  Maybe this is what dancing minerals would look like:  flashy, angular, hard.  They danced turned-in and in plié with flashes of extensions to the side and turned-in back attitudes.

"Diamonds" began like a dry version of "Swan Lake," with dancers in white, accompanied by Tchaikovsky, doing balancé after balancé, but toward the end, it was magical.   As in "Emeralds," the dancers looked like humans perfected, my image of ballerinas. At one point, the entire corps de ballet put on long gloves, and the dancers waltzed around the stage in pairs, the diamonds glittering off the women, so that it looked like a ballroom scene from My Fair Lady.  Though Audrey Hepburn wore black gloves and pearls for Breakfast At Tiffany's, I thought of her, here, too.

This is my take on the ballet itself.  Since I'd never seen it before, I can't comment on the quality of the particular performance apart from the choreography.  Technique was brilliant, as expected.  Some places could have used more turnout, but the dancers used more turnout than I ever will!

 It's important not to let one's own humility toward dancers and their amazing abilities prevent one from being critical.   Just because I don't always turn out well doesn't mean that I can't fault City Ballet on the point.  It's the same concept as science journalists not being so enamored with science that they don't critique it. If I could dance that well, I'd be onstage!

And that was my night at the ballet, the last for a while, since next week, City Ballet is going off on tour?/taking a break?/not performing in New York!  Meanwhile, I'll be concerned with my own academic performance.