October 29, 2011

Eyes on Me

Note: "Eyes on Me" is not the sequel to "Eyes on the Prize". My ego is not that huge, no need to deflate it. Anyway, that last post was about pirouette spotting and chasing multiple turns. Not about declaring myself a prize. ;) But I could use an ego-boost nonetheless! Or learn how to fake it in class, instead of looking like I´d rather dance into hiding. "Dance like no one is watching." What is that quote about anyway? Feeling free to express yourself and not fearing judgement - which is a good thing, I´ll give you that. But you can´t dance ballet in your own little bubble, not if you want to captivate your audience (imaginary or not). Gotta own that stage, darlings!

Yesterday we continued to practice the GPC variation in pointe class. G (our teacher) is gradually replacing some of the modified steps with the original steps, and it keeps getting more challenging every week. We are now doing the exact same version from 06:20 until 06:47 (video below). Piqué attitudes are still replaced with piqué soutenus, and there are no en dedans pirouettes. But the tombé coupé developpé (or is it fondue relevé?) at 07:06 is now being introduced into the mix. Yesterday I got to try it for the first time in center! Failed a couple of times, tried again, failed better and then almost got it! Cool. :)

Pointe technique is difficult. Remembering all the detailed port de bras, épaulement and where to look while on pointe - even trickier. It is so tempting to keep your eyes on the mirror to check what you´re doing, or look around at the others to make sure you´re dancing the same steps at the same time! I am making some progress, even remembered to look right, then left on the first piqué step. But the hardest part of all is looking straight ahead, and inviting your "audience" to look at you! You need some ballerina attitude for that. And a healthy amount of self-confidence and self-esteem.

What I need most is to rid myself of the belittling noise in my head: "You´re not good enough. Who are you kidding, pretending to be a ballerina?" That stupid fear of looking like I´m trying too much. Too often I feel that as an adult ballet dancer I have to make some sort of a disclaimer: Yes, I know my ballet is pretend-play. Yes, I know there is no foreseeable future where I would dance a variation on pointe, on stage. Yes, I know that given my age and facilities, not likely to happen. But it´s so much fun to practice, and so exciting to learn all these new steps! Do I really have to apologize to my imaginary audience for not looking and dancing like a pro? Nope, I didn´t think so!

In the end my teacher told me not to be shy, and that I dance beautifully. I should just go for it and capture my "audience". Okay then, deep breath and.. all eyes on me!

October 26, 2011

Face Your Plié

Yesterday we started our advanced ballet class with the usual pliés - except that our teacher had us facing the barre through the entire exercise. Just like in the preceeding beginner's class. Which was a bit odd, but I figured Madame has a good reason for it. I mean, her instructions and corrections are among the best I've ever received. So I don't question, I just do as I'm told.

Sure enough, the moment we turned en face (my barre was in front of the mirror), Madame was behind me. "This exercise is for you." I was to look at my plié, see what I was doing wrong and self-correct myself. Which I then tried to do, with Madame helping me to spot the difference. It's because I have this tendency to do a slight hip-tilt, which I can't feel at all and barely see in the mirror. But it's there.

I think I know why I'm tilting my pliés. There is a very minor scoliosis in my lower back, which causes one hip to be slightly raised, and the right leg to be functionally a wee bit longer. I have also a significantly deeper plie on my right leg than on my left. But it's nothing serious, and has caused me no grief since early adolesence. At least not outside of ballet class.

On the one hand, dancing helps me keep my body balanced. On the other hand, my asymmetry is another obstacle to overcome. I would not care so much, but in ballet those pliés are hugely important! And I have been doing quite well so far, to the pointe that it's only a small adjustment to make. Something to pay extra attention to. I just need to become more aware of my body's mechanics and re-train myself. I so want to get this right.

Ballet is a never-ending journey, pardon the cliché. Except that you don't travel in a straight line, but make stops and midway return-trips along the road. Sometimes you get to do fouetté pirouettes and intricate allegro jumps, and in the next class you are working on improving basic tendus and pliés. One might think that going from advanced to basic is one step forward and two back. It is not. Ballet has its own stepping choreography. Two steps back equal three forward!

My plié is getting there.

Solid advice from Finis Jhung. Pliés and other valuables.

October 19, 2011

Eyes on the Prize

Teacher: "Your double pirouettes are perfect. If you would use your eyes, you could easily turn quadruples!" Never mind the disclosure of the benefits of spotting, it´s the word perfect that is still ringing in my ears. I mean how often do you get to hear that word in ballet class? Like never is how often! Now, I´m not experiencing sudden delusions of grandeur, rest assured. I´m perfectly certain that there was still room for improvement. For one, I did not snap-spot my turn. And I´m pretty sure Madame would have said to turn out my heel even more. But the turning itself.. You know that feeling, when you are perfectly centered and turning around your axis like a big spinning top?

It´s plain awesome.

I love pirouettes. I love watching a good turner, I love practising turns. Even when they tilt, fail, crash and burn. Something about pirouettes just makes you want to get back on the horse´s axis right away. There is always another chance. Like spinning the roulette. But pirouettes are not about luck. All dancers know the technique involved. The required plum line, the strong core, the preparatory deep plié, the pushing down to get up, the arms that close, the instant pose. I know this too, and still my pirouttes fail me far too often. My triples, they come and go as they please. As for those quadruples - I could possibly crank one out if my life depended on it. Or if it would get me backstage at Kings of Dance.

I´m not a bad turner. I do, however, suck at spotting. So far I have managed  to turn without, but it doesn´t look as neat. And there are apparently limits to the amount of turns you can do without spotting (unless you´re on skates). I can tell you I have practised a lot. A lot lot. Spot - turn - spot. We have been doing this beginning exercise in class where you stand in 6th, and keep shuffling around with the focus on your spot-snapping head. I have repeated the same exercise at home. It´s the same as in the video above. But when I get to the actual pirouette, my head somehow refuses to spot twice. It´s like it has a mind of its own.

Maybe the problem is my eyes. I´m nearsighted, and wear neither contacts nor eyeglasses to class. By the way, that´s what still keeps me looking young in the mirror. In-built soft-focus lense - smooths away wrinkles like no botox does! Maybe that is not the problem either. I can see both the trees and the forest outside my window, so I should be physically able to spot a spot in class, right? Perhaps I just have slow eyes. Maybe I´m too much of a dreamer. Lots of maybes going on here.. But, it´s one thing to let go and have the music carry you to new places. It´s another thing to maintain control at the same time. Turning is not about letting go. You have to take charge, be the boss of your pirouette. Decide beforehand whether you want turn once, twice or thrice. See yourself turning - and always finish in style!

Occasionally I succeed and all the x-factors come together to produce one super pirouette (for my own standards, mind you). In Berlin I did a triple from fifth with arms en couronne, and it was sweet! In Madame´s class I once did a 3,5 turn - we were supposed to finish facing the other corner and I had too much speed going. So I let it turn. There is definitely potential for more. Maybe even those quadruples. I just need to keep my eyes on the prize.

October 16, 2011

Cabrioles, Cake and Cinderella

Sunday evening, and my vacation week is just about to close. Normally I would not suffer from the Monday Blues, but this time I have come down with a very annoying cold. Which means that there will be no dance classes for me! Work, if I can manage it, but afterwards straight home and back on the couch. Did I already mention that I hate missing classes? You guessed? Alright then..

Terence Kohler: Cinderella – A Tragic Tale
Pictured Tiina Myllymäki, Michal Krčmář
  Photo: Sakari Viika.

But let me recap my vacation week just a little, because it was all dance from Monday to Friday! To kick the week off, I took my usual intermediate-advanced class - but followed by a basic level class in pointe shoes. The last time I did this was way back in summer, when there were no actual pointe classes available. But I liked it, and it helped me a lot. Even doing a simple developpé in center becomes a challenge in those boat-is-rocking pointe shoes! Which means you get a better sense of feeling the floor, and your balance will improve. So I asked my teacher if it would be okay to squeeze into basic level, and then tied my ribbons.

It was fun! We did a basic barre, but there were some pointe exercises as well: sous tenus, piqués, and added relevés. I did my fondues facing the barre, because I´m not strong enough to do a clean set with just one hand for support. But I tried to do the entire and very long frappé set entirely in relevé. Cramp alert! Center was good, and no cramps. The pirouette exercise was too quick, but I braved single turns nonethless. Doubles? Not there yet. To finish the class, we did chaînés déboulés: three turns, pause (come down) and repeat. On my right, more newborn giraffe than graceful ballerina. On my better left, hello chaînés! Now I´m seriously considering adding this class to my permanent rep. That would mean a total of three pointe classes each week. I might have to buy my new pair sooner than I had budgeted for..

Tuesday it was time for Madame´s classes again. My favorite time! Right along with my Friday classes, and please never ask me to choose. I love them both; their styles are different but compliment each other in the best way! Anyway, Tuesday class was solid goodness. Our teacher was in an especially good mood and gave us a tough, pro-level class. Just the way I like it! There was a bit of Balanchine, some Denmark (as in Bournonville), lots of French school and plenty of Madame´s own elegant and fluid style - you can´t really ask for more. Having said that, my pirouettes from Monday have gone missing but I´m hoping they haven´t travelled too far. Miss you guys!

Class note: when jumping grand allegro, do not neglect the second leg! Let it go higher!

Pointe class with Madame was brilliant. Hard work, but she calls it "money in the bank". Seriously, you have to do the killer relevés. Nothing comes from nothing. There was this one move where we did a big honking grand plié in second, on pointe, and all the way down. Then took one hand from the barre and used it to push and stretch our arches. In center we did a small variation with piqués and ballonés, which I´m finally getting.. And our usual balances up in fifth, with battements lent in all directions. I don´t know why it feels easier to piqué into balance and stay there, than to degagé from a closed position in relevé - but it does.

Wednesdays I usually recover from Tuesdays, but hey - vacation! As in sleeping late and relaxing. Which is why I decided to take another class with another teacher. Except she was ill, and my own teacher surprise substituting! I hope that other teacher is feeling better already, but at the time I was not complaining! It was a good class and I had a fun stretching-chatting session afterwards with a dance buddy. Get me talking about dance and there´s no end to that conversation!

Thursday we went to see the last dress rehearsal for the Finnish National Ballet´s new production of Cinderella. The choreography by Terence Kohler is not the traditional fairy-tale, but a psychological and dark retelling of a tragedy. It´s a story about loss and loneliness and the need to be loved. Despite its sinister overtones, there is hope and in the end, love heals. We were really impressed by Kohler´s cinematic storytelling, by Auerbach´s equally cinematic score and by the dancers. The choregraphy is a mix of modern dance and dance theatre, but the language of classical ballet is not forgotten. Cinderella´s pointe shoes play a significant role..

After our ballet at noon, we of course had to have some après-ballet cake and coffee. Cheesecake with sea buckthorn berrys and capuccino. Delish. Followed by pointe shoe shopping! My friend bought Bloch Heritages and I bought me some big-toe gel tubes. It really was a good day for ballet. And cake. Yes, you can have your cake and dance too! :)

This is the cake I had. One piece only!

Did I say short recap? Okay then. Friday was another double set of advanced class, followed by pointe class. I was already feeling the upcoming cold, lead in my legs and hardly any lift-off on my jumps. But I do recall something.. Yes! I love doing cabrioles to the side!

Class note: when doing rondes de jambes en terre, remember to stretch the working foot before you pass it through first.

October 8, 2011


Yesterday I had a Moment in class. The kind which not only restores faith in potential abilities, but takes you places. New places. Makes you fall in love with dancing all over again. 

We have been practicing parts of the Grand Pas Classique variation, modified to our level of course, but still a big deal for an adult dancer. Huge. Anyway, I have been watching that GPC with Elisabeth Platel over and over, admiring her brilliant technique, elegance and apparent ease. Did I mention that she is one of my all-time favorite ballerinas? Madame Platel has been to Helsinki many times, and I was once lucky enough to see her dance Giselle (partnered by Manuel Legris). Still gives me chills. Platel has also been visiting Helsinki in preparation for the upcoming International Ballet Competition (May-June 2012), as she will be teaching a master-class for a select group of pre-professional young dancers. And she has been giving courses and seminars to ballet-educators, including my own teacher.

Elisabeth Platel

Yeah, I´m digressing from my Moment. But it was Platel who inspired me, who held the wand for ballet magic. Because that was what it felt like. Pure out-of-body-magic.

So, we have been practicing said GPC variation sans the most difficult bits. It would be crazy not to, since I´ve barely graduated out of beginner´s pointe class. The first eight counts of the ballerina´s solo are almost indentical, but instead of the relevé into attitude we do a sous sous. Our teacher has slowed down some steps, and added bourrées where there are none, but it fits the music. Instead of the piqué turns in attitude we do sous tenus, but with the same arms as in the original. No pirouettes yet, and the ballonés on pointe will undoubtedly be replaced with something else. But even with the modifications there is nothing easy about it!

Post-edit: " Our teacher has (..) added bourrées where there are none." It was kindly pointed out to me that this is not correct. And yes, on careful re-inspection I can see that there are tiny bourrées in the original variation too. Ours were just more pronounced because of the slightly slower tempo. There are of course different interpretations of this variation (as many as there are ballerinas dancing it), even if they are only subtle nuances.

Dear Reader, something has changed, and for the better. I no longer fear The Variation! Yes, I´m still in awe. Okay, dumbfounded is more like it. And I will always have serious respect for anything danced on pointe. But I no longer feel like I want to go into hiding. You cannot dance and keep holding back. You cannot dive into the deep end without jumping off that edge first!

My Moment was a private little affair. Our teacher was giving instructions to the first group (our class is split into 2-3 levels with corresponding center exercises), and my group was waiting and quietly goofing around at the other end. We practice in this huge and long studio, you could pretty much have two different classes at the same time.

I wanted to try out those piqué attitude turns, because I love anything with piqués in it. Piqué into attitude and turn. Not too bad, and I keep trying. Then it just happens. I piqué into a high attitude and do a full turn around, in slow-motion. Any slower and I would have needed a prince to rescue me. It feels like gliding and floating and like I could stay up forever. I´ve had this dream before. Only at the time I was sleeping, not dancing.

Magic is believing in yourself. If you can do that, you can make anything happen.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

October 5, 2011

Ballet Buzz

I get no kick on a plane. Flying too high with some guy in the sky is my idea of nothing to do.. No, I get a kick out of.. battemants and grand jetés, ballonés and pointe shoes, Balanchine and bourrées! I know there are other addicts out there, but we are not B.A.D. (Ballet Dorks Anonymous). No, we carry our addiction quite proudly, like hearts on our little sleeves. Never mind the dazed glazes of our friends and family, when we recap our classes to the last detail, again and again. Or when we go on and on about the finer points of a McMillan, Ashton or Ratmansky ballet. Or when we dissect the many virtues of Marcelo, Rojo or Hallberg. But thank the heavens and twitter for peer support - I know my non-dancing friends do!

If you don´t dance, you just don´t get it. If you do dance, you can´t do without. It´s a habit that feeds itself. The more you dance, the more you need your classes. Before you know it, you´re cultivating a daily habit. Okay, not daily. Even dedicated and driven dancers need to take a day off. If only to complain about their poor Monday shape the day after.. But your body gets used to it. I loved my Summer Dancathon, taking 5-6 classes per week. Now I´m back to three days a week, which is just not enough! I´m so desperate for more!

My dance-week starts on Monday, and boy do I feel that weekend break! Stiff and hardly any bounce in my body. Tuesday I´m back on my game again, Wednesdays are spent recovering from Tuesdays. Thursdays I´m climbing walls because there is no class (suitable to my schedule and requirements) and Fridays it´s back to advanced class and pointe, but I´m feeling the preceeding two-day break again. I know, I know -  it´s much better than one class or nothing at all, but what can I say? Both body and mind need a regular ballet-fix!

Yesterday´s class gave me such a buzz I´m still riding on its waves. We did a small bit of Balanchine´s choreography - intricate and quick steps and very different from my usual technique class. I´m not sure if it was out of Theme and Variations or some of Mr. B´s other ballets. I asked after class, but I´m sorry to say it did not stick to my memory. Which is funny because I do remember the steps. I gotta say that I absolutely adore Balanchine´s style of movement! And it´s a real privilege to learn (some) of the choreography from Madame, who has also danced in Balanchine´s Serenade (in the photograph above, "seated" right) and Apollo. Once you get your head and feet around the new steps and the speed and the accents, Balanchine is such a joy to dance. Not saying our attempts were any joy to watch though. But I did get a kick out of Madame´s demonstration!

My buzz did not end there. I got some very profound corrections, or lets call them directions instead. You see, I´m always told by my teachers to lengthen my back. I feel that I´ve done all I can, short of growing an extra vertebra. My line is plum, shoulders are mostly down, abs are strong, imaginary someone is pulling the top of my head, and imaginary someone other tugging in opposite direction. Still it is not enough. I can´t do a degagé before my teachers are on my case. Lengthen your back. Longer!  

Again, it goes back to the idea of presenting yourself. I have been standing straight alright, but Madame with her keen eye for the tiniest detail sees that my upper back is holding me, well, back. It´s not so visible as to hit you in the face like a bun gone astray. But it is lacking something. Attitude. Non-apologetic presence. Finally, Madame tells me to lift my upper sternum, and for the first time I think I get it. At least the idea of it. It will take some time to become second nature, but until then I can just fake it. Present myself, instead of holding back. Dear Readers, this is more than relevation, this is a revelation!

I apologize if I´m causing buzz-envy, but it did not end there either. It appears I´ve been jumping my sauts in first all wrong. I´m not sure I do it all the time, but instead of extending my legs in an open première, I´ve been pointing my feet underneath me, with heels almost touching. No idea where I got that from. When Madame pointed this out to me, I was totally baffled (and a little bit embarassed). But: it was the easiest thing to fix. Ever!

Then we did the turning on pointe thing, not piqué turns, not sous tenus, nor chaînés déboulés ( I really have to ask next time). You start from fifth, raise straight onto pointe in fourth, bring back leg in (it stays in the back), turn and open front leg again into fourth, staying up on pointe the whole time. Repeat until you reach end of diagonal. Arms close from 1. arabesque position and open again. The video clip of Lander´s Etudes shows it best, although they cross the back leg to the front (forward to 1:45).

We did this slow, and it was hard. Up, legs together, turn, stay up, open leg, stay up.. Madame, who is not wearing pointe shoes, asked me to demonstrate and darlings, it was not pretty. But I did as I was told, and kept my weight forward and used my shoulder and the inside of my thighs and all the confidence and 'tude I could master. And it worked! By the time we turned to the left, I was having the best time!

Even when there are no short-cuts to technique, ballet remains a short-cut to Happy. Buzzz...

October 2, 2011

Sneaky Does It

Teachers can be sneaky. Like when they don´t tell you that you´re about to practice a very famous variation, because they know that it would freak you out and have you jeté into hiding before the pointe shoe drops. My teacher is like that. She knows me so well, it´s embarrassing.

The funny thing is that I should have recognized the music right away. I have watched that variation on youtube so many times that Auber´s music is permanently burned on my brain. But I´ve never ever considered trying or learning any of those steps. Dreamed, yes. But which ballet enthusiast/dancer/wannabe-ballerina would not dream of dancing like the sublime Platel?

Piqué passé retiré - pas de chat - pas de bourré dessus - relevé attitude (we did a simple sous-sous instead) - back leg coud de pied - front leg coud de pied with corresponding port de bras - plié into passé retiré - pas de bourré en tournant with legs into high retirés - repeat.. I was concentrating so hard on the steps that I did not realize we were doing the beginning of the female solo of Grand Pas Classique! Way to sneak that in, Signora..

Had you shown me that variation a year ago, I would have deemed it mission impossible. And to be completely honest and get-real realistic, 90 percent of it still is (and at least 65% will always remain that). The attitude turns, the hops on pointe - please educate me as how to desribe them in correct ballet-French - the fouetté pirouettes, and the list goes on and on.. All we did was the first 8 counts repeated twice. You can now go and watch the video, fast forward to 06:25 and stop before Platel does her piqué attitude turns. Remember to replace the attitude relevé with a sous-sous.

I know, for you been-there-done-thats out there, baby steps. For me, a huge deal. I´m so not going to be blasé about it. You may have to trick me into variations, at least until I learn how not to freak out at the sight of Solo Dancing. But darlings, I have to admit it - I loved every classique step!

To That Special Ballet Teacher

To that special ballet teacher, who not only teaches you about technique, but helps build your confidence, nurtures your inner artist, ...