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!

August 12, 2015

Back to Being a Ballet Student

This is my teacher Marie Greve. Before she came to Helsinki, she was a Principal Dancer at the Royal Danish Ballet, and before that, she danced at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. She's danced all the big roles: Juliet, Giselle, Odette/Odile, as well as choreographies by Bournonville, Balanchine, and Forsythe (to name a few). Alexei Ratmansky created Anna Karenina on her, and John Neumeier his Little Mermaid. She has the most beautiful port de bras I've ever seen on any dancer, and mile-long legs that extend past six o'clock without any effort. She looks elegant in everything that she does. All of this would be impressive by itself, but Marie also happens to be the most nurturing teacher I've ever had.

I was already forty when I had my first classes with her, but she held my hand to help me with a balance on pointe and sat down onto the floor to shape my foot into a beautiful arch. In the past almost-five years, she's given countless corrections and adjustments, her patience and good humour never wavering. She saw potential where I saw obstacles. She's encouraged me to "play with my port de bras", to "colour" my dancing, and to make it interesting. Marie has made me work and dance in ways I did not know where even possible for a middle-aging late-starter ballet student like myself. It hasn't always been easy (but when is ballet ever easy?). At times, I've struggled, been frustrated, even negative. Not the kind of student you'd be happy to teach... Still, she did not give up on me. I had to learn my lessons, adjust my attitude and re-discover both the joy and discipline of ballet. Which is why I love her classes to bits. Today, Marie's back after a four-month long break - and I cannot wait to be her student once again!

This post is dedicated to all those wonderful ballet teachers who guide, correct, encourage, nurture, motivate and inspire us  - without you it would not be the same amazing experience. Thank you!

P.S. For readers and ballet students in the Helsinki area: Marie-Pierre Greve teaches at Tanssikeskus Footlight, Wednesday evenings (levels basic to advanced) and Tuesday & Thursday mornings (intermediate/advanced/pro). Note: This endorsment is completely unsolicited, I do not receive any benefits or class price reductions.

July 5, 2015


It's been three weeks since my last ballet class. In the past nine years, three weeks is the longest I've gone without dance. Now I'm looking at five more weeks, at least. My best case scenario: back at the barre by the 11th of August. The more likely scenario: sometime in fall, hopefully before winter. At least I'm not sick or injured, so that's good. I'm struggling with my dance budget, is all. Classes are expensive, you could easily feed yourself for two or even three days with just the cost of a single lesson! And when you are living on a very tight budget, every non-essential luxury means significant compromises elsewhere. For instance, I love to travel. But, given a choice, I love dance more. I like pretty shoes and clothes, but if it's class or a new outfit, I'd rather shop second-hand. I get my hair cut on birthdays only, buy generic brands (which often are just as good), and happily borrow occasional clothes from my more stylish friends. Ballet class might be a luxury, but I've never considered it being non-essential. The benefits and pleasure I get from dance far outweigh any compromises or sacrifices. The prospect of not dancing saddens me. A life without dance? Unimaginable.

I have been very fortunate this past year. In addition to my regular classes, I got to participate in a 6-month long intensive workshop (part of a dance pedagogy master thesis study), totaling 129 45-minute sessions (usually 3-4 sessions at once). The workshop helped improve body awareness and placement, and I've definitely seen and felt some progress since. There was even a performance at the end, in front of a small but appreciative audience. The movement material was based on our own improvised dancing, which made the rehearsals and show extra exciting! I'm very happy I had such an amazing opportunity to learn and grow.

There have been great classes throughout the year, with wonderful teachers. I've enjoyed the exercises and challenges, just as I've appreciated their advice and personal corrections. One lesson was a slightly bitter pill to swallow, and I've had to revise and adjust my attitude in the process. Turns out that negative moods (due to stress, fatigue, insecurities, whatever) can be contagious, affecting class mates and teachers alike. Facial expressions (think concentration face, or "resting bitch face syndrome") can also be misconstrued as something else entirely, for instance, showing lack of respect. When this was pointed out to me, I was aghast... Because I had no idea of the negative impact I was making! I was letting my everyday problems affect both my focus and body language, without realising it. Needless to say, I've since made every effort to improve my attitude. The lessons you learn in ballet... Not always about technique, but just as valuable, if not more so.

There have also been new teachers, and new discoveries. When my own teacher Marie announced that she would be leaving 6 weeks early, and we would have substitute teachers for the remainder of the season, I was initially anxious. I already knew that I would not be able to dance in the summer, and I did not want my last classes to lack in personal corrections and inspiration. It's not that self-evident for (middle-aged) adults to get such detailed and plentiful attention, with some teachers tending to put their main focus on more talented (and younger) students. Not that you cannot convince them otherwise, but it usually takes some time to build a working relationship. Well, I approached class with my best attitude (no pun intended), an open mind and my usual eagerness to learn - and it worked out better than I had expected! Of course, I missed Marie; the warm atmosphere, the corrections and encouragement she would bestow on us, but Arja was just as nice - and she made me work on other areas I had been neglecting. I have been "scooping up" my abs ever since! It was also fun trying more difficult enchaînements, faster tempi and new steps. Sometimes, you need those challenges to progress!

I also enjoyed guest teacher Minna Tervamäki's classes. I only got to attend four times (out of five), but having a recently retired principal dancer share her tips and "tricks" is nothing if not special. The focus was less on academic technique, more on neo-classical and contemporary ballet (think Balanchine, Forsythe..). I did not receive a lot of personal corrections (one or two per class), but there was a lot of fun dancing to compensate! In the long run, I would be frustrated not getting personal attention, but combined with other classes/teachers, it works just fine. Anyway, you cannot rely on your teacher to spot every mistake at all times, or to hope for praise every time there's a nice pirouette or balance... It's very important to develop body awareness, and to learn how to self-correct. Do it before your teacher reminds you! Also, you have to take pleasure in your progress, with our without praise.

Then, just when I thought my classes were over, there was an announcement of a 2-week summer intensive: morning classes from Monday until Friday, at a very cheap price I could actually afford! Of course, I signed up immediately. Classes were aimed at (semi-) professionals, but some exercises were simplified to accommodate a variety in levels. We had a different teacher almost every day, and while I only got a few personal corrections, it was a really good work-out! I even got to try some never-before-turns: pirouette en dehors, opening into seconde (like a fouetté), continuing into arabesque en dehors. Did not "quite" get it, but it sure was fun trying! The intensive was also excellent preparation for the Kuopio Dance Festival's courses. My going to Kuopio was a huge stroke of luck, and definitely the grand finale of the past dance season. I've already written about it (and there will be some follow-ups yet to come), but I could not have wished for a better finish - nor could I ask for more.

What happens next, and when, is uncertain. At present, I cannot afford classes, but that doesn't mean I'm quitting ballet altogether! I just need to stay in shape until I can go back again. Walking and jogging in the nearby forest, swimming, stretching, planks and pliés, plus tendus and fondues in the kitchen, ab exercises, relevés, strengthening feet with rubberband, waterballet... As long as I do something, because it's use it or lose it! So, I try to approach every day as if I have morning class the next. Eventually, hopefully, that day will come. 

Wherever there's a "barre"...