May 25, 2016

Dance Like No One is Judging

Dance like no one is watching, is what we often hear... All you have to do is be in the moment, listen to the music, apply what you have learned - and enjoy the dancing. Easier said than done. I don't perform on stage, so class is never just warm-up, but the only place where I get to dance. Ballet is my passion, not profession - which doesn't mean I don't take practice seriously. Sometimes, too much. I've always been focused on progress, applying corrections, improving, pushing myself, working hard... But then I can also be too hard on myself, disappointed when I don't meet my own expectations, forgetting what dance is all about: expression and the joy of moving to music. You learn technique to play your instrument, but you cannot paint music without soul.

As an adult ballet student, I have to work with a lot of physical limitations, and accept my shortcomings (lack of turnout, low arabesques, not having the lines I dream of). But there are also advantages: I don't have to go on stage when my body is tired and aching, my (future) career and livelihood does not depend on my performance in class, there's no pressure to do well, no competition, no stress. Hard work, sweat and challenges - yes. But those are an integral part of the experience, and I would not want it any other way.

Two Coppélias. South Koreans Han Dahuin (blue background) and So Yun Park.
Photography by Mirka Kleemola for IBC Helsinki. 

For a young and talented dancer competing in a prestigious ballet competition, it's a very different experience. Every moment is essentially your calling card, a live resume in the making: how you work in class, how you present yourself on and off stage, and finally, how you perform in front of an audience. Those dancers who rise to the top, win price money and prestige, and may be offered job opportunities or scholarships. Not to mention making important contacts for their future careers. It's no wonder tension and nerves run high! Some competitors are, of course, more experienced than others, and many have already secured their first or second contracts with companies. Still... Can you imagine dancing in front of a distinguished jury of notable Artistic Directors? Maina Gielgud, Nina Ananiashvili, Angel Corella, Jorma Elo, to mention a few but not all. Yesterday evening, as I watched IBC Helsinki's jury take their seats, I could feel the electricity building in the air... A ballet competition is serious art (I don't want to say business, even though ticket revenue is what keeps the boat afloat).

What then do the judges look for? I was seated two rows behind (the jury is shielded by unoccupied rows, to their front and back), and could see them scribbling down notes and whispering to each other, but I can only guess... Certainly, it has to be a combination of technique, musicality, expression, stage presence (presentation & projection), personality, artistry - relative to the dancers' age and experience. But, while technical merits are fairly easy to judge, artistry and expression is not. Sometimes, it comes down to personal preferences and tastes. That's why there are seven judges, to bring a variety of views and experiences to the table, and to balance out subjective opinions. Well, that's how I think it works, as I haven't actually talked to any of the judges... In my most humble opinion, I also believe that each judge wishes for every dancer to do well and succeed. Just like the audience does. We want everyone to feel excited and happy on stage, to give us their all, to be lifted with their grand jetés, and touched by their performance. Dance like you love it!

Yesterday evening saw the first day of First Round at IBC Helsinki. Twenty-one dancers took to the stage, 12 juniors and 9 seniors. They performed variations from Giselle, Paquita, Coppélia, Harlequinade, Raymonda, Swan Lake, La Bayadère, Don Quixote, La Fille Mal Gardée, Esmeralda, The Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, and Le Corsaire. Usually, the audience gets to see most variations performed more than once by different dancers, so it's easier to compare technique and interpretations. Or you can just sit back, and enjoy without looking at technical details too much. I try to do both. Glittering costumes, nerves, happy smiles, amazing jumps and turns, failed balances, disappointment, triumphant recoveries, hard work paying off, athletes, emerging artists... The excitement of it all!

Looking at the first evening of three (round one), the South Koreans rule. So Yun Park (seniors, b. 1996) was a smash hit in her gravity-defying and completely secure Paquita variation. Wonderful ballon in the exhilarating grand jeté entrance. That girl can fly! To top it off, turns like there's no tomorrow, effortless, joyful expression and a pleasure to watch. Another South Korean, Han Dahin (juniors), danced the same variations and was equally delightful without being identical. Not as impressive in the Paquita variation as Part, but I did like the softness in her fingers. Too often, energy and nerves make hands and fingers stiff or over-extended, when they should add the final touch... Of the boys, Korean Jeongmin Cheon (juniors, b. 2000) dazzled me the most. He danced a variation from Harlequinade, which is not one of my favorites, but Cheon really sold it. Incredible jump and turns, bounces like he has trampolines under his feet. And that happy smile!

Other stand-outs: Oben Yildirim (juniors, b. 1997) from Turkey. Her Paquita did not convince me, she seemed tense and lost balance... But her comeback after the intermission was impressive! Yildirim danced Esmeralda's variation with gusto and spirit, hitting those tambourines like she's never done anything else in her life. The audience loved it!

Ketlin Oja (left) and Oben Yildirim. Photography by Mirka Kleemola for IBC Helsinki.

Ketlin Oja (juniors, b. 1997), Estonia. A perfect princess in her Nutcracker variation. She reminds of a music box ballerina, blonde and delicate, with the face of a precious doll. Very precise and controlled. Sure to proceed to round two, where I'll be very interested to see her dance something different and contemporary.

Xinlun Zhan, (seniors, b. 1991), China. Certain to proceed to the Final Round. She danced Sleeping Beauty and Don Quixote variations with utmost precision, and has that perfect physicality we have come to expect from the Chinese schools. Perhaps a bit reserved/polite in her expression... I would like to see the dancer beneath the role, something that makes her unique. Having said that, her dancing came across as effortlessly elegant.

Christian Pforr (juniors, b. 1997), USA. Very promising, great jump. I liked his variation from Coppélia better than his first one from Giselle. Hope to see him in the second round, and not stress about the performance too much. Enjoy, and engage with the audience. Forget about the judges.

There were others too, lots of potential and promise. Every dancer had something special about them even if there sometimes was still an element of youthful inexperience. Ballet is hard, competitions are even harder, travel days, jet lag, new surroundings, nerves... It all takes a toll. Failed balances are understandable. Tomorrow is another day. See you on the stage, toi toi toi!

- Johanna Elina Aurava

May 17, 2016

Aim High, Enjoy the Ride - Six Alumni of IBC Helsinki 2012 Look Back

Four years ago, I worked as a volunteer at the International Ballet Competition (IBC) Helsinki. It was an exciting experience, to see the inner workings of such a prestigious competition, and most of all, to meet all those talented and hardworking young dancers. I could not help but be drawn in, and keep my fingers crossed for everyone! And while IBC is a competition with a total of 80.000 € in awards, it's not all about taking home places and prize money. There's so much more: learning experiences, performing opportunities, dancing in front of knowledgeable and appreciative audiences, making important contacts, meeting dancers from all over the world, forming new friendships... And let's not forget the joy of dance! Since IBC Helsinki 2012, it's been my pleasure to follow the blossoming careers of many alumni, to see students grow into professional dancers, and competitors into artists.

Before IBC Helsinki 2016 kicks off next week, I interviewed five alumi about their past experiences and how competing affected their career path. Here are their answers:

Candice Adea (Philippines), 1st prize seniors

Candice Adea with Juan Cordero, in the grand pas de deux from Diana and Acteon, at IBC Helsinki 2012.

What did you take home from the competition?

I took home the 1st place, but, more than that, I took home new friends, lessons, and most definitely new experiences.

How did it affect your career?

It opened many doors but, I believe, more than affecting my career, it inspired a lot of young dancers in the Philippines to pursue their dancing dreams. Seeing them gives me so much joy and it inspires me to work even harder.

What are your favorite memories?

My favorite memory was when a Finnish group came to me and said, "Thank you for your performance." I'm used to people saying, "Wonderful," "Beautiful," and "Congratulations." But, up until that point, I had never had an audience member thank me for our performance. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate all kinds of compliments but hearing those words affected me. After all of the blood and sweat and late rehearsals for the competition,"Thank you for your performance" acknowledged the hard work we put in to get this far. That it was worth it. It was a moment money could never buy.

What advice would you give to this year's competitors?

My advice is to enjoy the whole experience, both the stresses and the triumphs. The experience will be beneficial to your growth towards becoming a better artist.

Photo courtesy of Candice Adea: Dance Page

Candice Adea was Principal Dancer for Ballet Philippines and Soloist for Hong Kong Ballet. Currently, her season with Ballet Met (USA) is coming to a close. She essayed principal roles in Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote, The Nutcracker, Coppelia, and Amada, among others. Candice Adea was trained in the Philippines at the CCP Dance School, the Philippine High School for the Arts, and earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree Major in Dance, from De La Salle—College of Saint Benilde. She credits her training to Victor Ursabia, Nonoy Froilan, Brezhnev Larlar, Noordin Jumalon and Cecile Sicangco. Adea was the first Filipina to win at the Helsinki International Ballet Competition taking 1st Place, Senior Women’s Division in 2012 and at the USA International Ballet Competition with a Silver finish for the Senior Women’s Division in 2010. In July 2011, she garnered the Third Prize at the 8th Seoul International Dance Competition in South Korea, Senior Women’s Division, among other.

Katherine Higgins (USA), 3rd prize juniors

What did you take home from the competition?

I think the biggest thing I took away from the competition was self awareness. The environment of HIBC that I experienced promoted learning and artistic growth before any prizes or negative competition, and I really felt that I grew through working with new people and performing in such a welcoming place. I met all kinds of artists from all over the world that taught me more about the art form, and in studying that, I learned more about myself. The competition was a big step forward for me in terms of feeling comfortable onstage. It was my first IBC, and of course nerves are a part of such a prestigious institution, but I felt surrounded by such positive energy from all the competitors, teachers, and staff around the opera house that it was so easy to just have fun onstage. The opportunity to perform so many different pieces in a beautiful place, around great people is one I will always cherish.

How did it affect your career?

After my experience at IBC Helsinki, I felt excited to try other competitions and performing opportunities, which have all shaped me into the dancer I am today. The structure of the competition helped me become more comfortable with taking 'risks' onstage, and finding what I wanted to present to the audience. The competition was definitely a springboard for the years to come, and it makes me happy to think about!

What are your favorite memories?

It's so hard to pick a favorite memory! But I would have to choose the master class where I got to see Kenneth Greve and Nina Ananiashvilli try some pas de deux steps together. Seeing such amazing dancers and now teachers together having fun in the studio was fabulous! I also loved the work of the pianists who played each morning in the classes. They played with such heart and chose songs that really inspired me. That is something that really touched me and I won't forget.

What advice would you give to this year's competitors?

The only advice I can give to this year's competitors is to keep an open mind and just have fun. Enjoy the incredible people, the setting, and this time to learn and grow. I wish everyone all the best at this year's HIBC and I hope that anyone who is a part of the competition will walk away with a positive experience to cherish, like me!

Photograph (c) Katherine Higgins / facebook

Katherine Higgins was born in Wilton, CT, United States, and began dancing at the age of 3. At 15, she began training at the Royal Ballet School of Antwerp in Belgium, graduating in 2013. Katherine has competed in and earned medals in many international ballet competitions all over the world, including the Prix de Lausanne, the Grand Prix at Youth America Grand Prix, a bronze medal at Helsinki IBC, the prize for promising finalist at Varna IBC, and a bronze medal at Moscow IBC.In August 2014, Katherine joined l’Opera de Paris, earning a lifetime contract in August 2015 and was promoted to coryphée in November 2015. 

Yoshiko Kamikusa
(Japan), finalist, juniors

Yoshiko Kamikusa, taking Nina Ananiashvili's master class at IBC Helsinki 2012. Photo by Johanna Aurava.

What did you take home from the competition?

Competitions are a great place to meet new people and make valuable connections in the dance world. The most important network that I treasure are of the dancers I met there. The majority of them now dance in professional dance companies, and I still keep in touch with them. They continue to inspire me on a daily basis.

How did it affect your career?

Although attending the competition at the time didn't lead to job contracts right away, I believe that having competition experience is an advantage when applying for a job, and even for after you get the job. For one, I personally think it helps during the audition process when you have competition experience in your resume. You need to turn the director's attention towards you when mixed among the thousands of possible applicants. It takes a lot of dedication, potential, versatility, hard work and passion to even be accepted to compete in the first place, and usually companies look for such qualities in a dancer. Competitors who do well are also accustomed to handling high pressure and nerves. They have to prove their best on stage with only one chance in order to make a lasting impression and set themselves apart from the many other talented dancers. This is much the same in a professional dance company. In order to thrive and rise through the ranks, professional dancers must have nerves of steel and strong performances. So, my participation in the HIBC has definitely played a role in helping me get to where I am today - a professional ballet dancer at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, having already danced various soloist and principal roles despite my short time in the company :).

What are your favorite memories?

Taking daily ballet classes with the wonderful guest teachers in the beautiful studios at the opera house. Watching the Manon PDD at the gala, performed gorgeously by Barbora Kohoutková. Eating lunch beside the opera house, facing the Töölönlahti Bay on a lovely sunny and warm day.

What advice would you give to this year's competitors?

To not stress too much, observe and learn from the other competitors, and to just enjoy every minute of every rehearsal and performance. It's not everyday that you can participate in an amazing opportunity like this and you can gain so much positive things from competitions even if you don't win... don't let it go to waste by letting any kind of negativity into your head!

Yoshiko Kamikusa and Luzemberg Santana in Nutcracker, 2015. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Photo by Rejean Brandt

Yoshiko Kamikusa joined the Royal Winnipeg Ballet as an Apprentice in 2013 and was promoted into the Corps de Ballet the following year. Since joining the Company, she has performed such leading roles as Odette/Odile (Swan Lake), Clara (Nutcracker), Puck (The Faerie Queen - A Ballet Based On A Midsummer Night’s Dream), among others. Yoshiko Kamikusa began her training in ballet at the age of seven in Hawaii. She later moved to Vancouver to pursue professional training under the tutelage of Vera Solovyeva and Nikolai Levitsky. She has competed at various international ballet competitions, and won First Place in the Japan Grand Prix International Ballet Competition (2013).

Giovanna Lamboglia (
Brazil), junior

Giovanna Lamboglia dancing Kitri's variation at IBC Helsinki 2012

What did you take home from the competition?

It was one of the greatest and best experiences of my life. Interacting with people around the world with different cultures is enriching -  and you learn something different with the dancers and teachers.

How did it affect your career?

In addition to enriching my curriculum, it was my first international competition. I got to see live how the world is working, which level I was in and which I wanted to reach.

What are your favorite memories?

Dancing on stage and to compete with great dancers who were principals and soloists was what I most loved. I have made great friends who I still talk with and meet and each one is dancing in a different place around the world. And, of course, the opportunity to take class with Nina Ananiashvili (one of the judges) and get her advice.

What advice would you give to this year's competitors?

Enjoy every single minute in this great competition because they are valuable - and later you will miss it so much! It will be kept in your heart for the rest of your life. The treatment given to the dancers, the competition organization and all volunteers you will never find elsewhere. And give your soul to the audience when on stage, because it is not a competition that will only count your turns, but they want to see art. Good luck everyone!

Giovanna Lamboglia, photo by Rachel Ribeiro

Giovanna Lamboglia has since danced with Ballets de France, and is joining Ballet Jörgen in Toronto next season. Giovanna est née à Goiânia, au Brésil, et commence sa formation de danseuse à Fortaleza. Plus tard, elle étudiera auprès de Ronaldo Martins et Rachel Ribeiro à Rio de Janeiro. En 2012, elle est acceptée à l’école Maria Oleneza et dansera dans les productions du théâtre municipal de Rio de Janeiro avant de sortir diplômée de l’école en 2014. Giovanna est lauréate de nombreuses compétitions : Séminaire internationale de la danse de Brasilia, American Dance Competition et Entreatos Dance Festival, entre autres. Son répertoire inclue les plus grands rôles du répertoire classique : Swanilda dans « Coppélia », Aurore dans « La Belle au bois dormant », ou encore le rôle de Medora dans « Le Corsaire ». (Biography courtesy of Ballets de France)

Václav Lamparter
(Czech Republic), junior

Václav Lamparter, far left, taking Nina Ananiashvili's master class. Photo by Johanna Aurava.

What did you take home from the competition?

I took home many experiences. Helsinki IBC was my first big ballet competition. It was wonderful to meet and to see so many great dancers and their coaches around me. I also liked very much to dance on the stage of the Opera house.

How did it affect your career?

Because I didn't make it to the finals I think it made me definitely a bit stronger and taught me not to give up too early, because later on I got some medals at other international ballet competitions. I think it affected my career in a way of gaining more experience in performing on stage because at that age (I was 16) I hadn't yet danced many times on stage alone, and until then I had never prepared so many pieces at the same time.

What are your favorite memories?

Among competing and ballet classes with such a great teachers like Barbora Kohoutková or Nina Ananiashvili, I also enjoyed sightseeing (there was a cool sightseeing bus organized by the competition) and the reception at the City hall for all the competitors.

What advice would you give to this year's competitors?

I would advice to watch as much as possible during the competition. It's an amazing opportunity to learn from other dancers. Most important is to have fun and to enjoy your dancing. Then the audience will enjoy it as well.

Václav Lamparter at The Semperoper Ballet. Photo by Mathieu Rouaux.

Václav Lamparter is currently a member of the corps de ballet at The Semperoper Ballet in Dresden, Germany. He was trained at the American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company at the Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis School, USA, and The Dance Conservatory Brno, Czech Republic. Lamparter has won numerous awards: 3rd Place Beijing International Ballet Competition (2013), Placed in the Top 12 Finalists of Youth America Grand Prix (2013), 1st Place Youth America Grand Prix Semi-Finals (2013), 3rd Place International Ballet Competition Prague (2012), 1st Place Istanbul International Ballet Competition (2012), 2nd Place Olomouc Ballet Grand Prix Award (2011), 1st Place Vancliffen International Ballet Competition For Young Talents (2011).

Betsy McBride (USA), senior finalist

Warm-up before class. Betsy McBride (in burgundy hoodie) talking to Simon Wexler. Photo by Johanna Aurava

What did you take home from the competition?

I had the best time at the competition. I learned a lot from the other competitors and also the teachers. I appreciated the fact that a lot of people in the competition had wonderful artistry that I think is usually neglected at competitions. I left feeling enlightened by everyone’s passion and focused energy.

How did it affect your career?

At the time of the competition I was so accustomed to my usual performance routine that the whole experience was so foreign to me. I was used to being rehearsed by my artistic staff and having them encourage me and prepare me along the way. I went to the competition without a coach or teacher (which was very unusual for most of the competitors there) and for the rehearsals I would just run things alone. It was a wonderful growing experience learning to trust in my own dancing and not need validation from others. I think this is a really important aspect in this career because it can be hard to feel confident in yourself or your dancing when you aren’t getting any feedback but chances are most of the time no feedback is good feedback.

What are your favorite memories?

My favorite memory was dancing in the final round. It was just such an exciting show to be a part of. The audience was completely full and so excited to be there!

What advice would you give to this year's competitors?

While I was at the competition it definitely had more of a workshop feel to it rather than what most would expect from a competition. I really enjoyed the sense of camaraderie. I would advise this year’s competitors to support each other and create a nicer environment to perform in. Performances are stressful enough without the overly competitive attitudes and a relaxed atmosphere will help prepare everyone to do their best.

Photograph by Ballet Zaida.

Betsy McBride joined American Ballet Theatre as a member of the corps de ballet in June 2015. Her repertoire with ABT includes Columbine in The Nutcracker, and Fleur de farine (Wheat flower), Silver Fairy and Red Riding Hood in The Sleeping Beauty, as well as roles in all of the Company's full-length ballets. McBride is originally from Coppell, Texas. She began her training at the Ballet Academy of Texas. At age 14, she continued her training at Texas Ballet Theater’s School. She performed Clara in The Nutcracker with Texas Ballet Theater and joined the company under O.B.E. Ben Stevenson at age 15. McBride was an American Ballet Theatre National Training Scholar and performed in George Balanchine’s Mozartiana during ABT’s tour of Texas at age 11. She was awarded the Grand Prix at the 2007 Youth American Grand Prix Regional Competition and was a finalist at the 2012 Helsinki International Ballet Competition. McBride danced for Texas Ballet Theater from 2007 to 2015.  Some of her principal roles include Ben Stevenson’s Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and The Nutcracker, Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow, Svetlana in Stevenson’s Dracula, Green Lady and Solveig in Stevenson’s Peer Gynt, Waltz Girl and Dark Angel in George Balanchine’s Serenade, Solo Girl in Balanchine’s Rubies and the pas de trois in Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries, as well as roles in Jiří Kylián's Petite Mort, Val Caniparoli’s Lambarena and Kenneth MacMillan’s Gloria. (Bio from ABT)

February 8, 2016

The Night I Saw Zakharova

Svetlana Zakharova as Nikiya in La Bayadère, The Finnish National Ballet. Choreography and production: Natalia Makarova. Photographty (c) Mirka Kleemola / FNB. 

Svetlana Zakharova. First, I have to admit that I've never been a fangirl of the Russian ballerina. Despite her perfect physicality, 180° turnout, sky-high extensions, incredible feet and crystal clean technique. Her dancing is no doubt awe-inspiring and amazing, but I'm not that crazy for over-split developpés and grand jetés, certainly not in the most classical repertoire. A bit of upward curve goes a long way, but why shorten the line to make an exposition of extreme flexibility? The aesthetic of an extremely over-split jump is lost on me. Having said that, it would be very odd and unfair to dismiss a star like Zakharova because of the way she uses her extraordinary physical abilities. Albeit, she is not the first to ruffle traditionalists' feathers, the great Sylvie Guillem did it long before her. And I do adore Guillem, who does bear a physical resemblance with Zakhraova.... Anyway, ballet thrives on exceptional talent, discipline and artistry - all qualities that Svetlana Zakharova has in abundance. When it was announced that she would guest perform in The Finnish National Ballet's production of La Bayadère, dancing the role of Nikiya, I knew it was the event I could not miss. I was very lucky to get tickets.

When we entered the Opera's foyer, you could sense it right away: a tangible buzz in the air, excited anticipation, and familiar faces everywhere. Ballet students of all categories, retired dancers, working dancers, teachers, Zakharova-fans, aficionados and balletomanes. Not just any audience. I'm sure the dancers must have felt it too. The electricity. When SZ made her first entrance, stepping down the stairs of the temple, huge applause. But the Finnish audience did not bestow this honor on Zakharova alone. Her partner of the evening, Michal Krčmář, was welcomed just as warmly, and rightly so. Even Desislava Stoeva, who danced the role of Gamzatti, was applauded on her first appearance - something that I don't see happening in a regular performance. Like I wrote, special audience, special show.

I was seated five rows and one orchestra pit away from the stage, and had it not been for the tall blonde sitting in front of me, I would have been in ballet heaven. The moment she leaned back, her head completely obstructed my view of center stage. I'm 1,61 cm tall, and my shoulders at level with the edge of the seat. Hers were almost two widths of a hand higher. I should have gotten an extra cushion for elevation, but that evening all cushions had been employed to the left side of the entrance. Let's just say that my neck received an extra workout. I tried to respect the space of the woman sitting next to me, and apologized for my neck-craning exercise. She was nice enough to understand, and did not seem to mind. As I was seated closer to the right side than the middle, I did have better vision of the dancers' left stage. Luckily, I came with a friend, and whenever I needed to stretch my neck to the left, I could bump head to head. I did my best to keep up with the action on stage and not miss anything, but it did keep me from fully immersing into the magic. Still, whenever Zakharova was in my vision, I could not keep my eyes off her.

A ballet expert later commented that she did not hit all of her balances in the first act, but I do not know the temple dance variations that well. All I saw was perfection in execution, musicality, a port de bras that is otherworldly, and feet to die for. There is something undeniable magnetic in watching a ballerina who has it all. The height of her arabesques - without compromising turnout: unbelievable. Her pointe technique: beautifully articulated. Yes, extensions were high, but not over-split or flashy. In the second act "scarf pas de deux", Zakharova's developpées into seconde almost touched the scarf, and I held my breath as Michal Krčmář stretched his arms high above his head to accommodate Svetlana's incredible reach. The pas de deux was executed flawlessly, there were no entanglements. As for Zakharova's grand jetés: I would be a happy dancer with half of her split and hang time. My initial preference for a 180° grand jeté remains. The classical line is, in my humble opinion, more beautiful than folding legs up on each end. Although, a slight upward curve initiated with the front leg can look absolutely stunning. It is a question of degrees really. I have to say that I expected SZ to execute her grand jetés in rhythmic gymnastic style, but at least there were no glaringly obvious over-splits. Not that it would have mattered that much. It's never just about one step or saut. One more note about her physicality which I was not alone to make: Zakharova's arms look very thin, almost to the point of distraction. A freak of nature, as one viewer commented, or a product of genetics, training and life-long discipline. Their fragile shape do lend SZ a quality that is most suited to the portrayal of swans, sylphs and other not-of-this-world fantastical creatures. Her port de bras is wonderful: sensitive, musical, expressive.

Technical perfection aside, Zakharova's portrayal of Nikiya came across as somewhat reserved. I have noticed this quality before, and wonder if it's rather a question of personality, not interpretation. Perhaps the reserve is intentional, a reflection of her star status, a way to retain mystery. Then again, despite the glitzy mid-riff baring costume, Nikiya is a temple dancer, not a show-girl. She has committed her life to servicing the gods, falls head-over-heels in love with Solor, is betrayed by said love of her life, and reduced to an after-life vision. Other than the falling-in-love part, there's not much to make light off. Zakharova's Nikiya looks happy in her first act pas de deux with Solor, then tragically heartbroken, then unattainably solemn. Still, sitting in 6th row, I would have expected more of an emotional impact. Perhaps I payed too much attention on her feet when the tall blonde was not in the way of my vision.

Svetlana Zakharova, Desislava Stoeva and Michal Krcmar. Photography (c) Mirka Kleemola / FNB.

Desislava Stoeva, on the other hand, displayed no reserve in her interpretation of Gamzatti. Stoeva has strong features, which were emphasized by even stronger make-up, and she projected all the way into the nosebleed section. At times, I felt, almost too much. Gamzatti's confusion, indignation and pain at seeing Solor reacting to Nikiya's presence was played in hands-off-my-man-bitch looks and deathly stares at Solor. Fierce, and a big hit with the audience, but veering on caricature. Gamzatti is royalty, not reality TV. Both female protagonists love and want the same man, both are betrayed by him. And just as Nikiya is not a show-girl, neither is Gamzatti a "common" woman. But I have to applaud Stoeva for holding her own, for entertaining the audience, and for dancing all of Gamzatti's showy variations with elegant bravado. Ms. Stoeva has certainly earned her promotion to Principal Dancer, which was announced after curtains and made public the next day.

As the audience was giving standing ovations to Zakharova and the evening's stellar cast, another announcement was on the way. When you see the artistic director and entourage walk on stage, you know to expect something special. Kenneth Greve, AD of The Finnish National Ballet, first presented Svetlana Zakharova with a huge bouquet, then proceeded to give a celebratory speech... leading into the presentation of the prestigious Edward Fazer Award to Etoile Dancer Michal Krčmář. The Fazer Award is given biannually, and is considered one of the highest recognitions of artistic merit. Furthermore, Michal was not only awarded for his considerable skill and artistry, but also for advocating and coaching the next generation - even though he is still himself part of that generation! I'm fortunate enough to have seen Krčmář on stage and also met him in person, and I can only say that the award could not have gone to a better dancer. His exuberance on stage, the ballon of his grand allegro, the double cabrioles, the dare-devil turns and manège - all despite a lingering ankle injury.. Fantastic! Not to mention his boyish charm, his joy in partnering Zakharova, the face of Solor when he realizes his mistake... I'm always happy to see him perform!

Michal Krcmar and Svetlana Zakharova. Photography (c) Mirka Kleemola / FNB.

In the light of Zakharova's bright star, one could almost forget to write about the fourth star on stage: the corps de ballet. But, there is no Bayadère without the 2nd act Kingdom of the Shades, no otherworldly magic without the Shades' mesmerizing entrance, one of the most beautiful scenes in ballet. The corps of FNB danced beautifully, and I was delighted to be in direct eyeline with the right line, at the end of their entrance. I was also relieved that the tall blonde had decided to switch places for the second act, so I did not have to crane my neck back and forth. One tiny gripe: there was a rather noticeable difference in the height of arabesques between the first, second and third shade. To be more precise, the arabesque of Shade Number Two was considerably lower throughout. Clean, controlled, beautiful - but not matching the Shades arabesquing before and after. I know that the corps is arranged primarily according to height, to create an illusion of uniformity, but the steps need to be identical as well. I do not know if this difference presented itself in earlier performances, and it's a very minor gripe anyway. Not really a complaint, more of an observation. The Shades Act is one of the most hardest choreographies for a corps de ballet, and to be part of it a tremendous accomplishment and milestone for any dancer... Also, considering that there were young apprentices among the corps, it was very well danced indeed! The three solo Shade variations were all performed with aplomb. I especially liked Rebecca King's Second Shade variation: the arabesque balance at the end of her first cabriole diagonal, and the following two compound steps where she turns back to the audience, and holds her balance. Often it's danced so that the audience sees only the back, or the half turn is more of a quarter, but King really presents the steps to the audience. A lovely detail! Kudos also to Frans Valkama's Bronze God in the last act. After seeing the rehearsals, I have renewed awe and respect for this incredibly difficult variation!

To summarize the experience: I left the ballet star-struck, if not in love. It was an amazing, mesmerizing evening. I feel privileged to have seen one of ballet's biggest stars live on stage, at such a close range too. Thankful to all of the artists of FNB for turning an ordinary day into an extraordinary evening, lifting both body and soul. Believe me when I say that we had dance in our steps and dreams long after you guys went home. Thank you all!!

Finnish National Ballet: La Bayadère / Bajadeeri. January 29th, 2016.
Photo: my own. 

December 31, 2015

My New Year's Dance Solutions

1. Remain curious. Be open to new ideas, suggestions and corrections.

With ballet practice relying so much on repetition, it's easy to get settled into the same old routines. But developing your muscle memory is more than going through the motions. To make exercises into dance, you have to stay awake and alert. What is it that you're really doing? Are you applying all corrections as well as you could? Do you ever question and understand the mechanics of both your weaknesses and strengths? Do you attempt to self-correct, find new ways to improve? There is a lot of excellent dance literature and dance videos for additional study. Sometimes, it's also a good idea to seek out a new studio and teacher (you don't have to abandon your old one).

2. Take care of yourself

Get enough sleep, rest and enjoy a well-balanced diet. There are degrees of fatigue: feeling tired after a long day doesn't necessarily mean a bad class, in fact it's often the opposite - you leave feeling like a new person! But if you're tired all the time, haven't recovered from previous classes, muscles are heavy and sore, and you're low on energy... Then you're setting yourself up for disaster. Your brain doesn't communicate with your body as well as it should, fun challenges turn into frustrating obstacles, your positive attitude evaporates, and you even risk injury. I've been there, but I've also learned my lesson. For example: When I get home after my Wednesday evening class, I've only one hour to get ready for bed (if I want a full 8-hours of sleep). I have to unpack my bag, pick out new stuff for Thursday morning class, shower, eat and stretch. What not to do: log onto facebook, or any other social media. I love to share, like and comment, but it's very distracting! And after that last ballet class, I'm hyper enough as it is... You know the feeling?

3. Practice good habits

Practice does not make perfect, but practice makes habits - and good habits make you a good dancer! It starts at the beginning, which is why I like to take a weekly basic class. Slow and simple exercises give me time to focus on proper placement and line, and to improve tendus, pliés and turnout. Luckily, I have a teacher who does not make it easy for me. Just because I have studied ballet for over 20 years, doesn't mean everything is super clean (technically speaking). Far from it! I'm still working to fix quite a few not-so-nice habits (the recurring banana foot, and losing my turnout in ecarté). I love going back to the basics. Sometimes, it feels like being back on solid ground. To give myself an additional challenge, I do the class often on pointe.

4. Be a fearless learner

Focus, pay attention, apply yourself - but don't worry about making mistakes! True, you might not look very graceful on your first or even fifth attempt, and you might make a complete mess out of that complex pirouette... So what? It's not a competition, not an audition. And even in auditions, artistic directors look at how well you recover from mistakes or falls - the mistake itself is not such a big deal. Don't turn a failed pirouette diagonal or a bad day into an existential crisis. Your teacher wants you to learn, to do well and enjoy yourself. She/he knows that it takes many tries, failures and a lot of work. That's why s/he keeps correcting you, not to criticize but to help you. Fear less, dance more!

5. Make it interesting

Who wants to look at a boring dancer? Dare to dance big, to challenge yourself, to go boldly where you haven't danced before. Even when it's basic class tendus, every tendu is dance. It's always movement, never dead. Ballet school robots are not interesting, expressive dancers are. This includes your face and your eyes. Dance outside your bubble and let your eyes sparkle. Express your love of dance!

6. Bring a positive attitude to class

Ballet is hard. Don't make it harder on yourself, or others (this includes both your teacher and fellow students). Of course, you're allowed to have feelings, nobody is immune to frustrations or bad days... But keep in mind that negative moods can be contagious, and dampen the joy of others. Even your teacher can be affected - and all she/he wants is to give you a great class! It's also a waste of your valuable class time. Whenever you feel a negative mood lurking, try to postpone it until after class. With the risk of sounding like a kitchen psychologist: acknowledge the feeling, put it aside and move on. You can deal it with it later on. Either you forget all about it, or realize it wasn't a problem to begin with, or you can be proud of yourself for acting positive. Having said that, there are some problems you cannot shut out of class. If you're having a difficult time, and can barely manage (but class is still respite), say something to your teacher before class. You don't have to be a perfect student all the time. It's fine to do less, it's okay to take care of yourself.

7. Cultivate a positive body image

I've struggled with this, on and off. Not having a body that is considered "beautiful for ballet", despite all my passion and hard work. In this context, "beautiful for ballet" means a physicality that is suited for a professional career - and very few people are! But when you look at facebook, instagram and pinterest, it can seem that everybody out there has that beautiful ballerina body... Except you. My body type is short, sturdy, with square shoulders, wide hips, big thighs, big hands, muscular legs. I'm almost 47, and seem to have missed the memo where it says: "Start your upper body workout now and never ever take a day off!" There are wrinkles on my body which I've not noticed before. I've gained weight, again. It does affect my body confidence in class, no use lying about it. But ballet class is not a beauty pageant! Nowhere does it say my body is not suitable or pretty enough to learn ballet and enjoy myself! How well you dance does not depend on your body shape. A beautiful dancer is not born, but made - with hard work, discipline, musicality, artistry, and passion. When I see myself in the mirror, and feel less than confident and pretty, I try to remember this. Dance is movement, stories and moods told to music... There's so much beauty, right there.

8. Be grateful, stay humble

I never take my dancing for granted. I'm grateful for every class, even the hard ones. Especially the hard ones! I'm grateful that my teacher Marie has never lost patience, nor interest. After five years, hundreds of classes and thousands of corrections, she still takes care... And that means so much to me! Also my other teachers and classes... I've had some wonderful learning experiences last year, with Ophélie, Misha, Nicholas, Jarkko, Arja, Virve, Pattie, Minttu, and Dmitry, the best pianist ever. I'm looking forward to more hard work, to new and old challenges, to many mistakes, lots of corrections, single turns and sometime triples, balances and Balanchine steps, a bit of progress and a great deal of bliss.

Wishing you all a wonderful New Dancing Year!