June 23, 2015

All That Jazz and Ballet Too

When I looked at the Kuopio Dance Festival's course programme, I searched for ballet classes first. That's my main focus, everything else comes second. I was delighted to see Arja Tervo teaching the professional morning classes and the adult intermediate course (among other levels). Arja substituted at my studio for six weeks this past spring, and I really enjoyed her friendly manner, positive attitude and professionalism. The combinations are more complicated and difficult than I have gotten used to, but it’s a welcome challenge. Arja also gives lots of personal and detailed corrections, and always encourages to push beyond your current ability. That’s how you do it. If you wish to progress, you have to step outside of your comfort zone, again and again! While still keeping in mind that there are no shortcuts. Solid, clean technique takes a lot of time and hard work, and the focus should always be on quality and musicality, not tricks. Better to make it simple and beautiful than to rush through levels and end up with messy in-betweens. If memory, muscle strength, proper alignment and coordination are not ready to catch up, you will risk learning mistakes - and possible injury. So, step outside that comfy zone, but don’t try to leap over a canyon. If in doubt, ask your teacher.

Okay, back to Kuopio Dance. I figured that I might be able to do morning class with the pros (dancers, teachers, students..), but that class overlapped with Pattie Obey’s jazz course. I would have also liked to take the intermediate contemporary course, but it was at the same time as intermediate ballet! Finally, I decided to take jazz intermediate (10:15 - 11:30) and adult ballet intermediate (13:30 - 15:00). There would be just enough time for a light lunch in-between.

4th floor dance studio (Kuopion Tanssistudio), with views to the City Hall and market place.

I haven't been to jazz class in, like, forever. To be more precise, the last time must have been in the mid-90s. Back then, I was taking classes with Maiju Pohjonen at the Tanssivintti dance studio, but I never progressed beyond advanced beginner. I had a hard time learning coordinating and adding of move upon move, and more often than not I fell behind. Now that I think about it, at the time I was still a beginner (basic level) in ballet - and solid jazz technique also requires solid ballet technique! Really not the best background to jump into an intermediate jazz intensive 20 years later, especially one that is being taught by renowned master teacher Pattie Obey... But, there were no basic levels for jazz at Kuopio, and I really wanted to take the plunge, hoping that my ballet would be a strong enough foundation to build all that jazz on! It felt like the right timing, despite my very limited experience. I’m not getting any younger, and you have to grab those once-in-a-lifetime chances like there is no tomorrow.

How convenient to live next to the dance studio! My usual one-hour commute was reduced to five minutes, which meant that I was always in a rush to get there. But never late! The studio is on the fourth floor, and I skipped the elevator to give myself a warm-up (which got harder with every day). When I got to the studio, I realised that I had not thought about footwear. Most dancers wore black jazz shoes, a few had socks. I slipped into my worn-out ballet flatties, only to realise that they were much too slippery for the studio floor. It was okay doing exercises in place, but as soon as we got moving across the floor, I felt extremely insecure, and tossed them back into my bag. I tried to do the next class barefoot, but it was too sticky for tendus and turns. Finally, I found a suitable floor contact with thin socks. Combined with sweat and humidity, they gave secure traction but were still low-friction enough to allow for turning and sliding. What did I learn? Always come prepared for different floors and conditions!

Before class started, Pattie asked us about our jazz dance experience. For a moment, I felt my heart sink. If I told her that it had been advanced beginner 20 years ago, would she give me a raised eyebrow? I settled for "some jazz", which is accurate enough. She also asked if we do any teaching, which is common for Kuopio course participants. Sure enough, there were two contemporary/jazz teachers in the first class, and more throughout the course (the size kept changing as many had overlapping courses, performances and volunteer duties). I said to Pattie, "just ballet", and later realised that I had inadvertently introduced myself as a ballet teacher. I'm still a bit embarrassed about it.

When class started, I was not as lost as I had feared. I think Pattie gave us a basic level introduction instead of an intermediate class, just to see what we could do. Many of the warm-up and stretching exercises were surprisingly familiar, taking me right back to my first ballet teacher Jill Miller's dance workout classes. Jill had been a jazz dancer, but she taught mainly ballet (beginners to professionals). She also gave "workout" classes, which I now realise, had elements from jazz dance warm-ups. Roll downs, flat backs, ab exercises, to mention some. Coincidentally, Jill Miller and Pattey Obey were both trained in the Cecchetti ballet method. The ballet part of Pattie's jazz class was the "easy" part, not that ballet is ever easy. But I could do the pliés, tendus and jetés and chaînés, developpés and attitudes and whatnot without overloading my brain capacity. The part where we started adding moves onto moves? Oh my...

Thankfully, we practiced basics first. Getting my somewhat rigid upper body to contract, release, isolate, roll, swing was fun - and oh boy could I feel it by day three. I realise that I've underused my body and its capacity to move in different ways! Ballet keeps things pretty square, even with neo-classical and contemporary influences. I'm always excited when teachers urge us to "dance big", but it's not easy to move away from a strictly academic style. Some teachers will admonish you right away if you go for temps lies with big sliding glissés or upper bodies that move out of their most square confines. Which is why I like Arja Tervo's and Marie Greve's ballet classes so much. They are constantly reminding us that we are no longer at "ballet school", meaning that it's time to dance and to express - not just to execute the steps in a technically correct manner. It has to be interesting, both to the dancer and to the audience (even if you only ever do class). Personalities should not disappear underneath technique! The same with Pattie Obey's jazz class.

Expression in dance class has always been more challenging for me than the technical aspect. I'm not a performer by nature, and my inhibitions tend to surface whenever we are told to "dance as if you were on stage!" In fact, after our first ballet class at Kuopio, Arja took me to the side and told me in the nicest way not to be "so Finnish." In this context, being Finnish means being too reserved. Of course, you cannot put every Finn under one hat, but it's a recognized national tendency. There's also the fear of what others might think of us. If we step out of line and draw attention to us, it might convey that we consider ourselves to be superior to our peers. "Who does she think she is?" But why take dance class if not to express yourself, be the dancer you truly want to be? I have learned that some classes work better for me than others. The atmosphere has to be positive. An encouraging teacher with a sense of humour definitely helps. As do fellow dance students. What I loved about those jazz classes: after we took turns across the floor, every group was applauded. You don't see that in ballet class, at least not where I dance.

I wish I could have danced more "out there" in those jazz classes, but I was hard at work to keep track of triplets, ball changes, funky moves and port de bras that seemed to have a mind of its own. I would have needed twice the time to pick up all the combinations, and then add some flavor. Sure, my ballet technique helped, but it also got in the way at times. I can do consistent double pirouettes, but turning from a parallel position is surprisingly difficult. Even harder when you have to finish in seconde parallel. My feet keep turning out automatically! So much of my ballet technique is embedded deep into muscle memory, which is fine for ballet, but... It was interesting, to say the least. When we did ballet steps, it was a welcome rest for my brain. Just as everything jazz was exciting to the point of being overstimulating. Too much new information to handle! I think it was day four when my brain fried (apparently not than uncommon). Day five I can't remember, but during the last two classes we did jazz in the style of musical theatre. It was a short combination out of "Over There!" (1976), and I loved it! First time I felt myself dancing, not just trying to keep up. I still messed up some steps and moves, but I had so much fun getting there!

I have to add that Pattie Obey is a great teacher: passionate, professional, inspiring and chock full of dance wisdom which I would have liked to written down, word for word. She's demanding but friendly, and has a terrific sense of humour. Pattie often told us that she's old enough to be our grandmother (well, not mine), and if she can do it, so can we. Except that she was in better shape than any of us! What did she say...? "If you stop (now), that's it." Considering that she demonstrated full out while still suffering from a cold and jet lag, I have only one word: respect. No wonder Dance Magazine has named her "Teacher Extraordinaire!"

I'm very happy that I took the plunge into jazz, it really pushed me into a new direction. Even my ballet teacher Arja noticed the change! She had urged me to show my love for dance, to present myself and to bring some pizzaz into my steps.. And I did!

Last day group photo (class kept changing, some switched to advanced when their schedule allowed it). Pattie in the middle, I'm third from left. My eyes are closed, which happens a lot in group shots. But it was a great group!

P.S. Another benefit of jazz class: All that upper body work loosened up my stiff neck. It also helped with the lower back pain that had been bothering me all year (ouch in cambré)! Since I got back from Kuopio, I've added some of the exercises to my daily pre-stretch warm-up. 

June 12, 2015

Kuopio Dance Festival, Day 1: Here Comes the Rain Again

Finnish National Ballet Summer Tour: Snork Maiden is about to be entangled by some flesh-eating Angosturas... Excerpt from Anandah Kononen's ballet Moomin and the Comet. Artists of FNB. Photography (c) Johanna / Pointe Til You Drop.

The first day of the Kuopio Dance Festival began with sunshine but ended in rain for the Finnish National Ballet's Summer Tour. Because of the moist stage, all pointe numbers had to be cancelled, and the 1-hour programme was shortened to 15 minutes. The same thing happened last year in Helsinki. Which is why I made a detour to Lahti that summer, to see the full show performed on an indoor stage. Sadly, today was the last tour date, so no chances for a rain-check. But at least we got to see four great numbers instead of none!

The first piece shown was a contemporary solo choreographed by Ville Valkonen, commissioned as a birthday present for dancer Kailey Kaba - what a cool gift! Beautifully danced too, especially under less than ideal circumstances. Finnish summer is fickle, either cold and rainy or warm sunshine. Usually, a mix of everything with no guarantees whatsoever. Any outdoor performance comes with weather reservations - although not for audiences. Finns are quite used to dressing weather-appropriately.

The ballet highlight of the short show was a pas de deux performed by Tuukka Piitulainen and Elena Ilyina. Although Elena did not dance en pointe, it still took a lot of guts from both dancers to lift and leap across a moist stage! Elena has an amazing jump, and a beautiful presence on stage - she didn't seem bothered by the cold and rainy weather at all! Tuukka was her gorgeous partner, strong and secure. Just the kind of man you'd want, in any given situation. Okay, he's way too young for me, but a girl can dream, right? 

The Summer Tour ended with an excerpt from the Anandah Kononen's Moomin ballet: fabulously costumed, flesh-eating Angostura flowers (but no too scary for the kids) and a cute pas de deux by the hippo-like Moomin couple. The kids loved it, as did the adult audience. As an extra special surprise and condolence for the shortened show, the company donated a bunch of signed pointe shoes to the fastest in line. Oh my goodness. Young ballet girls rushing to the stage like starved wild animals! Four pairs of pointe shoes were clearly not enough, so the dancers donated every pair from that last Moomin ballet: tangerine-dyed Angostura pointes. Their new owners could not have been happier!

Dance festival newbie

It's the first time I'm in Kuopio, but I almost did not make it here. I was delighted when I received the press invite, but Kuopio is a long distance from Helsinki. I had to arrange travel and accommodation on a next-to-zero budget. Luckily, I got super-cheap round trip bus tickets for a mere 20€. Which is a bargain, considering the drive takes over five hours! Then I found accommodation via the "International Network of Ballet Dancers": a friend of a friend (actually more than one, it's a small world of dance) is hosting me for the entire festival. There's even a cherry on top: the flat is right at the town square, and within easy walking distance to all dance studios and theatres. In fact, my jazz class is in the next building across the street!

All that jazz

I was crazy enough to sign up for Pattie Obey's jazz intermediate (course aimed at adults), even though I took my last jazz class back in the 90s. Talk about dancing outside your comfort zone! Usually, I don't go that far above my skill level, but there was no basic jazz course available, and I figured that my strong background in ballet would help. Guess what? It's surprisingly hard to do pliés and tendus and pirouettes in parallel! My legs keep turning out all by themselves, so deeply ingrained is ballet in my body and brain. And oh boy with the coordination of arms and head and the hips are moving and developpés are in releve plié... I had also forgotten about syncopated steps and triplets and whatnot. But Pattie teaches old school classic jazz (in a variety of styles), and you really need to be fluent in ballet as well. At least I got some moves right! It's a lot of fun though.

And Ballet Too

Of course, no dance festival without ballet class. I was happy to see that Arja Tervo is teaching ballet, because I really enjoyed her classes when she substituted for my regular teacher (Marie-Pierre Greve) this past spring. Arja is a super teacher, she's very friendly, gives lots of hands-on corrections and that all-important feedback and encouragement. Classes are challenging, but there's no progress if you don't push yourself every class you take. What I love about Arja's classes: she really cares about her students, and you can tell that she loves teaching all levels and ages. She makes us work hard, but we always have a great time. You know what else is fun? The change of scenery. Taking ballet in new surroundings, with different people.

Things I love about Kuopio

Ballet. Jazz. Everything within easy walking distance. Good coffee, and cheaper than in Helsinki. Found this great lunch place, three-course gourmet food for 10€. Friendly people. Views to the lake. And I keep bumping into old dance friends everywhere!

Coming up: Day 2 & 3, plus review of Compagnie Käfig's mindblowing, jaw-dropping, hip hopping, boxing Boxe Boxe!

On my daily walk to ballet class.

Dance studio

View from class. Really.

Studio. The floor is really springy!

Walking to and from class has never been this scenic.
VIP tickets for the shows!!

Cute Cafe Kaneli (cinnamon).
Street view in Kuopio.

April 29, 2015

A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Finnish National Ballet

A Midsummer Night's Dream, choreography by Jorma Elo. Pictured: Samuli Poutanen as Puck, with students of the
Finnish National Ballet School. Photography by Sakari Viika, courtesy of Finnish National Ballet.

Stars sliding down from the sky, moonlit fairies, a secret forest, magic love potion, confused lovers, dreams and awakenings, mirth and happy endings... It was a wonderful evening, set to Mendelssohn's music, sparkly like the cava I had during intermission, sensual like a midsummer breeze, a breath of fresh air into the world of ballet. I had seen Jorma Elo's work before, so I knew to expect innovative and exciting choreography - but Midsummer Night's Dream is his first full-length story ballet... How do you even translate a play into dance? Seated in the audience of the second cast dress rehearsal, I tried to recall what Shakespeare's play was about... I had not done my homework on purpose, because a choreography should be able to stand and dance on its own.

The curtains open, and Puck appears. Bare-chested, green tights, with devil's horns on his head. He is holding a big red folder, marked "PLAY", and goes about contorting his body, sniffing and tasting the air. One wicked half-grin, and the entire audience is sold. I was lucky enough to see both casts, at the rehearsal and premiere, and I have to say this: both Pucks are fantastic. Frans Valkama is a natural choice, in appearance (that grin!) and personality. Samuli Poutanen (first cast, premiere) was equally marvellous. Some facial expressions were perhaps more pronounced (compared to Valkama), but I was seated closer that time. As a dancer, you have to project into last row - subtle does not show. In movement, Poutanen appeared more forceful, especially when he hurtled himself across the stage in breath-taking grand sauts I don't even know the names of. Both Poutanen and Valkama are technically very strong dancers, but it's always been their expressive personalities that have appealed to me the most. Hint to the Artistic Director: Put these two Pucks into a gala dance-off!

After Puck's introduction, a free-standing stone wall with ancient Greek drawings comes to life - we literally see characters stepping onto stage. It's far more traditional than what I expect. Dancers are posing, walking. A marriage proposal is mimed by pointing to the ring finger of the extended hand, just like it has been in every other story ballet. All very elegant and beautifully presented, including a refined pas de deux, but to me it lacked Elo's trademark innovativity. Prologues should set the mood and give background information, but personally I'm weary of anything involving mime. I talked with a few audience members and they shared my initial bewilderment. That's when a very old gentleman told us to "always do our homework!" But is it really necessary to be well versed in Shakespeare before you can view a ballet based on his play? One lady told me that she soon gave up trying to understand every twist, turn and motive. She simply sat back and enjoyed the dancing.

Nicholas Ziegler as Theseus and Daria Makhateli as Hippolyta, with artists of FNB. Photo by Sakari Viika, courtesy of FNB.

After the premiere (my 2nd viewing), I thought about it some more. The duke of Athens (Theseus) and the queen of Amazons (Hippolyta) are supposed to represent order, in contrast to the dream-like world of Puck and the fairy queen Titania. What could be more orderly than purely classical ballet? When the stone wall turns again, the ballet comes back to live. This time, the narrative is carried by the dancing: a young couple (Hermia and Lysander) is in love and wishes to marry. But Hermia's father wants her to marry another man (Demetrius) instead, which she refuses. Then there's Helena who is in love with Demetrius, but he wants Hermia... The father asks for the king's (Theseus, Duke of Athens) support and Hermia is commanded to obey. I like how the characters have distinct choreography. Demetrius (Johan Pakkanen and Tuukka Piitulainen) especially stands out, an angular contrast to the softness of Hermia and Lysander. Ilja Bolotov and Eun-Ji Ha, a couple in real life as well, bring their young love sweetly to life. Elo takes full advantage of Eun-Ji Ha's fearless and secure technique (her balances are breathtaking), and she delivers. Petia Ilieva (2nd cast) is a beautiful Helena, her dancing effortless and lush... She is a woman in love. How could Demetrius be so blind? Linda Haakana's Helena feels younger, a sweet but silly teenager compared to Ilieva's more mature Helena. I'm happy with both interpretations. Ballet needs personalities, not clones!

Eun-Ji Ha as Hermia, with Ilja Bolotov as Lysander. Photo by Sakari Viika / Finnish National Ballet.

The scenery so far has been sparse: a black background with single illuminated stone wall. But as we enter the forest, stars descend from the sky like leaves on a tree. It is a beautiful vision. Fairies come alive, moving as multicellular organisms, framing their queen Titania in odd and wonderful patterns. Jorma Elo recycles and repurposes time-honored steps, then adds is his own movement: organic, angular, witty, ingenious. Port de bras and port de têtes are intricate, rich in texture. As a result, everything feels revitalized, lush and joyful. There are whimsical details you could almost miss: the stars sliding from the sky, literally. Those stars (or fairies) are small ballet students wearing illuminated pouffy skirts and hats. It is not entirely clear what their function is, but they are adorable. The one thing that I do miss: more light. The corps de ballet appears as if it were lit only by moonlight, which makes dancers' faces almost disappear. By comparison, Queen Titania stands out (as she should).

Tiina Myllymäki as Titania, with artists of the Finnish National Ballet. Photo by Sakari Viika, courtesy of FNB.
Tiina Myllymäki as queen Titania is everything you could ask for, and more. Expressive, musical, tender, yet fierce. She takes Elo's choreography and makes it her own. Sergey Popov and Michal Krcmar are perfectly cast as Oberon, impossible to decide which one I liked better. Popov is tall, elegant and blond... Krcmar boyishly handsome, athletic, charming. Both have beautiful lines and mad technical skills, in leaps and turns, and partnering. Popov danced the premiere with Tiina Myllymäki, Krcmar partnered Rebecca King in the dress rehearsal. Rebecca King did well, rising from understudy to leading role. That's ballet for you: one dancer's injury is another's opportunity. King definitely rose to the occasion, her dancing strong and secure. But my award for "Dream Team" has to go to the first cast, because of the beautifully expressive Tiina Myllymäki.

Wilfried Jacobs and Tiina Myllymäki. Photo by Sakari Viika, courtesy of FNB.

One character is still missing: Bottom. Wilfried Jacobs prances around with his folksy theatre ensemble, in preparation of the royal wedding (as alluded to in the prologue). It's a merry group, providing comic relief amidst the love-sick. It liked that Elo uses dancers' indivdual strengths. Instead of both casts dancing the exact same choreography, he lets two men do their own thing: Xiaoyu He pulls of acrobatic breakdance moves (and I lack that particular dance vocabulary to describe it), while Alfio Drago fouettées like there's no tomorrow. In Elo's dream, the entire corps - men and women - gets to dance at their maximum ability. There is no standing in lines and formations, only dancing. I love it! But back to Bottom. When Puck bestows him with the head of an ass, I could not help but fall a little in love - even without magic potion. Jacob's ass is heartbreakingly funny (and I bet that's a sentence he never expected to read). He partners the enchanted Titania with an endearing and hilarious mix of bewilderement and how-lucky-am-I. Their pas de deux is one of the ballet's highlights.

Meanwhile, love-lorn lovers are bewitched and bewildered - Puck confuses the young athenians and sprinkles the magic onto Lysander, who falls in love with the first woman he sees: Helena. Things get even more confusing when in attempt to fix things, Demetrius is also enchanted - and now falls for Helena. It would seem that affections and lust are easily interchangeable. In the end, the spell is lifted, and lovers reunited. Order is restored. The scenery changes from blue-toned midsummer night to sunny day, with golden and amber colors. A triple-wedding ensues and the story ends in a firework of dance. It feels like a celebration, all the way into last row. But who wants to wake up from this dream?

- Johanna Aurava

More notes and observations:

- The music by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy - absolutely magnificent.
- The world premiere of Jorma Elo's Midsummer Night's Dream was at the Vienna Staatsoper in 2010.
- Nicholas Ziegler a most regal Theseus, and Daria Makhateli as Hippolyta... Oh my, what stunning extensions - a true Amazon queen! I've had the good fortune of taking class with Nicholas Ziegler - he's a really good teacher! It's always weird seeing someone you know in character, on stage.
- When Titania wakes from her enchanted dream and realises she's been with an ass, she's almost too quick to shove him off her bed. Realisation and reaction are simultaneous, the comic timing feels off. But perhaps it was not meant to be that funny. By the way, I felt really sorry when Bottom the Ass was discarded so ruthlessly. Titania is not the nicest lady.
- The Indian Princess. Again, without knowing the play (where the princess is a prince instead), it's unclear who she is and why Titania and Oberon fight over her possession. She is moved around like a chess pawn, always in the same pose, not giving the young girl much to dance.
- I got to meet Jorma Elo! He is so cool... Down-to-earth and really nice. Not that I let it affect my review or anything.
- You don't have to understand ballet to enjoy ballet. But I would advice reading at least a summary of Shakespeare's play. A bit of homework makes the experience even richer. 

Michal Krcmar as Oberon and Frans Valkama as Puck. Photo by Sakari Viika / FNB.

February 23, 2015

My Ballet Habits

"A pirouette is not a pirouette unless you complete it." I was practising my turns on the side, when I got the correction/reprimand from our guest teacher. It was not the first time either. My own teacher is equally strict about it: you do not mark your arms in turns, and you always finish your pirouettes. In other words, cultivate only good habits.

Bad habits, once they have imprinted themselves onto muscle memory, are very hard to get rid off. You might not even know that you're doing something wrong, because it feels right. Which is why changing an old habit takes a lot of time and conscious effort. Essentially, you have to re-wire your brain. I have done this, and I'm still doing it. Some of you might remember my posts about the dreaded "banana foot", which is how my teacher describes a sickled foot. The "banana" used to make recurrent appearances in my tendu degagés and passé retirés (especially in pirouettes). I never knew I had this problem, until Madame pointed it out. For the past four years, we have been working on getting rid of it. Lots of work, countless corrections. And while the sickled foot is not yet completely extinct, it has become a rarity. I just wish I could have avoided it in the first place.

The Banana has not been my only bad habit, or tendency (or glitch in personality). Technical challenges aside, I've been working to improve my mental attitude in class as well. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fairly hardworking and focused student, but I'm also prone to let bad days and momentary setbacks overwhelm me. There was the video recording from class which rattled my self-confidence, the challenging stretch which I could not do (and I was extremely annoyed at this), life in general, fouetté turns in particular, body issues and whatnot. Not every class, but whenever I'm feeling more tired than usual and/or particularily vulnerable. I can get in a mood, and withdraw. It's not a happy place...

But I'm learning. That time I was super annoyed (or "pissed off" as my teacher called it), I managed to turn my mood around, and use the pent-up negative energy for a positive boost. Guess what? It was one of my best classes. The video recording? Cringeworthy, but ultimately worth it. While I was not happy seeing my many mistakes and flaws, I now have much better understanding of the work that needs to be done. It's a lot more than I thought! The body issues? Working on it. Life in general? That's a tough one. Sometimes, problems can affect my mood in class. But class is also an escape from the rest of the world, so there's that. I can give myself permission to think of nothing except ballet, at least for those 90 minutes.

Focus. My undivided attention. Not letting setbacks get to me. Making a conscious effort every time. Pushing myself, believing that I can. Those are the habits that I try to cultivate in class, along with every correction I receive. It is a challenge, but there can be no progress without change. And the way I see it, ballet is about the journey and making discoveries, never about standing still.

P.S. After the pirouette reprimand, I worked twice as hard, really paying attention to my finishes. When class was over, I continued practicing. My teacher saw what I was doing and gave me extra pointers and corrections. I need to work on my arm-plié coordination before the turn, lift my chin, and relax my neck, among other things. I'm happy to say that there has been some progress! Now I just need to make a habit out of it.