March 31, 2012

Counting the Days

How do you know you've been dancing more than enough? When you don't panic because of the upcoming Easter break, but actually look forward to some ballet down-time! And I have to tell you, this is a big deal coming from me. Even my teacher raised a pronounced eyebrow at me when I told her I've been dancing too much already.. But you have to listen to your body, and whatever other noise your inner ballerina is making. In my case I've started to fade out in class, not paying attention at the barre and forgetting familiar exercises. Although I have to admit that too much of ballet might not be the only culprit. Switching clocks back to summer-time, messed-up sleeping habits and work-related concerns all play a part in my ballet-weariness.

The odd thing is that I have gotten a lot stronger lately. My extensions are higher than ever and my flexibilty seems to have improved significantly. There has even been some suprising technical progress. In the past week I did my first double pirouette into double fouetté (yay), nailed one entrechat-six, and overall I have now better ballon and balance. And in Friday's pointe class our teacher taught us Paquita's entire first variation! It was modified to our level, but there were still enough technical challenges. Like this new step combination we did yesterday: chassé - pirouette en dedans, arms in couronne - from croise fifth, plié and relevé onto first arabesque. Especially the last bit was scary. But awesome! This should be cause for lots of ballet happy buzzes, and it is. Maybe my ballet-fatigue is totally normal - at the moment you're most exhausted you make the most progress? Maybe I have outgrown my old excuse of "that is too difficult for me", and now I really must and can step up?

There are some five-six classes before the Easter break, and I plan to take them all, no excuses. There's Marie-Pierre's triple-class on Tuesday, which is always a high point of my ballet week - no matter what state of mind and body I happen to be in. And Mondays are good too, especially since I get to do a regular class on pointe. Wednesdays are my usual days off, and I'm keeping next Thursday optional. Which means either four or six days of no ballet. Good timing too, because after Easter we start rehearsals for our spring show. This will increase my ballet days to six per week, and I won't even bother to count the hours involved! Mid-April also marks the end of my three-month sabbatical, and it's back to the office for me. Drat. But in the meantime - plenty of time to rest, regroup and eat obscene amounts of chocolate eggs!

"Dare to Dream" print by Lim Heng Swee. Click here for more details: Etsy

March 28, 2012

Company Class: Pointe

There I was, at the Finnish National Ballet, sitting on a cushioned chair, tucked between the grand piano on my right and the wall-facing barre on the left. The first dancer was so close I had to glue myself to the piano to avoid getting grand-battemented. But it was a great spot, as I could watch every dancer in that huge studio. And guys, before they even started I had to check out all the dance-wear! Old sweats, loose and baggy, sleeker wool-acrylic warm-up rompers, leg warmers, down-vests, down warm-up booties, wool socks, crocheted scarfs around the hips, skirts, lots of yumikos in all colour combinations, black leggings, a few cut-off pink tights, some in other colours too. My favorite of all has to be the "I Love Nutella" t-shirt. It's really not your average work-wear - unless you're a dancer of course.

But let's steer away from class-fashion (which really deserves a post of its own), and get back to the actual dancing! Barbora Kohoutková demonstrated the exercises, but to my surprise she didn't stop there. Instead of doing the rounds, observing and correcting the dancers, she joined in and did the same barre with them! Which makes perfect sense, however, when you know that Kohoutková is still a dancer herself, and on the stage as Gamzatti this coming Saturday. And like every other professional dancer, she needs morning class to check in with her body, to limber up, to maintain technique and get ready for the day's rehearsals and performances. For us adult recreational dancers, class is usually all we get - but for the pros it's just the start of the day. Amazing and seriously hard work, really.

And that hard work started with a 30-minute long barre, which is about 10-15 minutes shorter to what I'm used to. But again, it makes sense since their morning class lasts only 75 minutes (followed by rehearsals) - and you would want to spend most of that in center anyway. It was a good barre too, lots of variety in the phrasing of the exercises. I tried to write some down into my notebook (the paper version), but there is no pause-button on a live class! Suffice to say, it was a speedy barre. And to my delight, one that I could have managed myself! Of course, you have to keep in mind that company class is first and foremost warm-up and keep-up. Pros don't need to learn new technique at the barre like us students do. The really challenging stuff comes in center, and with repertoire and new choreography. But I gotta tell you - it's an awesome sight to see thirty+ ballerinas extending their legs in developpé ecarté up to their ears! Wow.

After barre on came the pointe shoes - and here's where I would have scurried into a corner and out of the way.. Far too difficult for my skill-level! Which of course made it all the more fascinating to watch. Again, Kohoutková demonstrated full out and on pointe herself - but this time she remained in front of the class and gave corrections and advice. I was suprised that they repeated the same exercise as often as four-six times, that is if I counted right. As one group finished, the next one was already taking first steps.. and the pianist kept playing, changing tunes to keep them motivated and entertained!

There were only pro dancers in the room, except for yours truly, but even the pros don't nail every balance nor land every pirouette all the time. That's kind of comforting to know, you know? :) But when they do stay up, up, up or go for the quadruple, it's such a thrill! I saw one of FNB's étoiles, Salla Eerola, finish her enchaînement with a quintuple pirouette. Just like that, as if it were as simple as walking down the street. Yikes.

I wish I could have recorded that class on video. How often do you get to watch the étoiles, principals, soloists and corps do their morning class on pointe? What I loved was the talent and the skill, the sheer beauty of it all, but also the variety. On stage the corps de ballet has to dance as one, but here you could see individuals, along with the soloists, of course. They all have the prerequisite look and technique, but still there was variety in the quality of their movement. Something distinctive in their épaulement, someone with more bouncy ballon, another with fearless pirouettes, one dancing with intense purpose, another with relaxed calm. Some with the softest of pliés, one with the most elongated of extensions. Different colours and nuances, all beautiful.

I still feel inspired after that class. And even more in awe of the talent, hard work, determination and drive it takes to be a professional ballerina. As an adult recreational ballet student, I can only day-dream of working days in the ballet-studio and on the stage.. but I do share the same passion and love for ballet. And I know you do too.

Until next time, dance and pointe until you happily drop!

Salla Eerola's feet and shoes after pointe class. Photo: ©PTYD.

March 25, 2012

Behind the Scenes at FNB: Company Class

It was early, and I was getting somewhat nervous.. I had told the receptionist of my appointment with the Press Manager and that she would come and pick me up. There was still time to sit on the nice couch in the elegantly restrained foyer of the National Opera building and watch personnel coming in, mostly dancers. It was already a quarter before 10 A.M., morning class time. You cannot mistake ballet dancers for any other professions, not on the street, not among a big crowd. But here it was far too easy and I didn't want to stare. I was trying to be cool, you know (to cover up a sudden onset of shyness). Even when the famous, popular and stylish Minna Tervamäki, soon to be retired étoile, walked in. I'm lucky I'll get to see her farewell performance on the 31th of March - she is dancing the role of the bayadére Nikiya. Should have asked for her autograph! Next time, enough with the being-cool cover-up. ;)

Costumes for the upcoming La Bayadère.

Ten minutes before ten Heidi Almi, the very friendly Press Manager of the Finnish National Opera and Ballet, walked in and gave me a warm welcome. She then escorted me trough a security-gate, down a long marble-paved corridor, small stairs up, where we took the elevator down into the basement. The Opera building has four dance studios, but the ballet may also use the smaller stage of Alminsali and two rehearsal spaces of the opera. The big basement studio has only been in use for about a year. It used to be a storage space for the stage sets, hence the the two-story-high ceiling. You could easily build a cheering-pyramid in that studio!

Alas, no cheerleaders but a room filled with about thirty ballerinas, clad in as many different warm-up clothes, some still drinking their morning coffee. No men, as this was pointe class. I took a furtive look around, and noticed a few curious glances into my direction. I felt oddly out of place in my jeans, as I have never been in class where I did not dance myself! I really wanted to be in sweats instead, and join everyone on the floor to do some stretches! It was weird, to say the least. But at the same time fascinating.

Ms. Almi asked me if I had met the teacher before, and since I did not, she introduced me to Barbora Kohoutková (click here for her bio) - guest principal dancer and pointe-teacher for the day. I'm a big fan of Kohoutková, she is one of those rare dancers who makes brilliant technique look both effortless, elegant and soulful. So you can imagine that I was a little star-struck.. Thankfully, I managed to utter something about how happy I was that I got to observe her class. Ms. Almi then introduced me to the dancers, saying how she had given notice of my visit earlier and that I was the one who writes several ballet-blogs. I just said hi and gave a big wave. Sudden onset of the shy, again! But, class was about to start anyway. The dancers limbering up for the first exercise, and the the charming pianist, Dmitri Pavlov, ready to play some inspirational music. And me sitting in the corner, all eyes and ears, notebook in hand!

To be continued..

This "Behind the Scenes at Finnish National Ballet" -serial would not have been possible without the interest and help of quite a few awesome people! Thanks go to the lovely Mira Ollila (soloist at FNB), the friendly Press Office, the Artistic Director Kenneth Greve (for giving permission to observe company class), and finally to all the dancers who were happy enough to answer my many questions!

March 21, 2012

It Never Gets Easier, You Just Get Better

As we work our dancer's asses off and advance technically, class gets more difficult in proportion. Basically, you never get a break! As soon as you get comfortable, new steps and choreography mess with your head and feet. And once you get that right, you realise that even your basics are not without flaws.. It's a constant roller-coaster ride, and not the first time I've used that metaphor.

But you do get better. How do you know? Look back to when you started at point zero. Did you know about pliés and degagés and pirouettes and pas de chats? Nope, didn't think so. If that's not enough to convince you, take a class that is one level below your current comfort zone. Steps that you deemed too difficult back then are most likely now part of your regular repertoire! Assuming of course that you have been paying attention and working your butt off.. ;) Even if you are the most self-critical dancer you should be able to see some progress. Allow yourself to revel in this fact, at least once in a while. Then get back to work!

Before you do, go check out 4dancers great website. This month the focus is on the adult ballet student, and yours truly is featured as well. You can find my interview here: Adult Ballet Student. Be sure to read the other interviews too, they are all inspirational adult dancers!

But before you do that, I have to share some awesome news with you. I'm going to the Finnish National Ballet's company class tomorrow morning! Barbora Kohoutková is teaching pointe class, and I get to observe, take notes and write all about it! It's going to be my first installment of a new serial "Behind the Scenes", featuring dancers (and pointe shoes) of the 90 years old Finnish National Ballet. Be sure to check out the video below, it's a fun and multilingual birthday greeting from a very international company!

March 18, 2012

The List

Wrote my name on the spring-recital list. It's an open call, no-audition, come as you are kind of list. From basic levels to advanced, everyone who is willing gets to participate - which is not at all that common for adult dancers. Usually it's the kids and the teens, and the pre-professionals and then the pros who get to have all the fun on stage. And yes, the pres and pro ballerinas work damn hard for it! But why should us adults be excluded? If you have a committed group and choreograph according to ability, you can put a fine number on stage. Something that both dancers and audience can enjoy!

Sadly, I know of teachers who think recreational adult ballet dancers should be confined to the studio. Maybe they fear the cringe-worthy, maybe they think we are a bunch of wannabes, ready to turn our beloved ballet into travesty, a big joke. They are wrong. You don't have to be a cute little thing in her first tutu, nor a gifted teen or a former semi-pro. Like I said, committed and dedicated adults are quite capable of forming lines and groups and of repeating on stage what they have learned in class so far. Whether that would consist of simple temps levés, glissades and pas de chats or bourrées, brisés and grand jetés. Performing is an essential part of learning ballet, as ballet is obviously a performing art. Rehearsals alone offer a wealth of learning experiences. How to memorize steps, even if you have to change placements, working and dancing together, pacing yourself so you will survive the 1.5 - 4 minutes on stage.

And then comes the performance itself! Getting ready, helping each other out with make-up and hair-spraying buns and fixing costumes, then the last warm-ups, group-hugs, waiting in the wings for the cue. Lights out, take your place, breath in and all the jitters out. Lights on, music - and you dance! It's a big head-rush and a happy buzz and then over, much too soon! The audience applauds.. and that's what it's all about. Sharing the joy of dance.

My name is on that list now, waiting, anticipating.. We do not know yet what our teacher has in store for us. It will be a big group number, with all levels on stage together. There might be solos, certainly pas de trois, different entrances, lines and patterns - and it's going to be such much fun! In previous years our dances have been inspired by Coppélia and Swan Lake, with recognizable steps and elements but modified to our skills. I have really no clue where this year's inspiration comes from - maybe Don Quijote or Giselle? Or perhaps Paquita? I will keep you posted!

March 17, 2012

My Ballet ABC: From Attitude to Chiens

A for attitudes, and I wish I could finally nail mine everytime. Knee above foot, don't open the hip too much, cross back leg behind body, push opposing shoulder forward, think of a spiral twisting up, up and and I'm out of breath already just writing about it!

A for the right attitude, not copping an attitude. The one that shows you mean business and love to dance and are willing to work and learn!

A for arabesques, because it's about the line and not the height. All arabesques can be beautiful - think of energy flowing through your hands, head and legs. You are reaching forward, away from yourself. It is not a dead pose but movement, a story to be told. My teacher tells us never to finish the arabesque.

A for allongé, as in breath, elongate and dance tall. Fill the space around you, burst your little bubble!

A for adagio, the calm between barre and allegro.

B for ballet. As if you did not see that one coming! Love, love, love ballet! As if you did not know that already.. ;)

B for La Bayadère. Going to see Finnish National Ballet's production next. Nikiya, Solor and Gamzatti - love, betrayal and opium-induced visions of multiple shady ballerinas. Fabulous!

B for barre. Trusted friend, but not one to depend upon.

B for bourrées, especially on pointe. Love bourrées, I would bourrée to the bus if possible. Sadly, not a widely appreciated form of transport.

B for brisés, irritating little beated jumps which I only ever get right traveling to the left.

B for beats, which are fun once you figure out the timing and stop beating your feet black and blue..

B for Baryshnikov. Need I explain?

B for ballon, bounce and air-born jumps. My strong suit in ballet.

B for brain-power. You need some to learn and remember steps and stuff, but don't overthink. Do it like Samuel Beckett says: "Dance first, think later. It's the natural order." One of my favorite dance quotes.

C for class. Can't dance without.

C for cinquiéme, as in fifth position. The most stable position there is, but don't force it.

C for chassé, first linking step I learned. One leg chases after the other. Catch me if you can!

C for the pas de chats and chevals and other fauna-inspired steps. Curiously there are no pas de chiens. Unless you think of badly aligned attitude, as in dog marking tree..

C for cabrioles, in all directions except to the back. Somehow it's hard to rid myself of the face-meets-floor image. Might stem from a few nasty tummy-splashing dives into the pool..

C for choreographer. Where would we be without Petipa, Perrot, Fokine, Bournonville, Balanchine, Bejart, Ashton, McMillan, Forsythe, Wheeldon, Ratmansky, et al? Stuck to the barre, doing gym class instead.

Tell me, what does your Ballet-ABC look like?

March 14, 2012

Pink Presentation

It has been now about one month since I ditched my trusted black leggings in favour of pink tights. Never imagined I would go this far without the force of a dress-code. But here I am, and let me say that I have seen the light. Coloured like a summer dawn, it is indeed ballet-pink! Seriously, my fellow dancers, it is not as daunting or embarrassing as I had feared. I'm not entirely comfortable, but there have been definitive advantages. Enough so to outweigh the con of feeling thigh-thunderous! ;)

For one, I'm much more aware of my knee-heel-toe alignment, at least when I can see myself in the mirror. And it almost seems to me that my teachers are more aware of it too. That or they have simply noticed me working harder. Anyway, lately I have been getting a lot of fine-tuning corrections about my feet! And there has been some progress, too! It is hard to believe that after all these years I'm still capable to produce a better en dehors. Or as my teacher keeps telling us: "Present your beautiful heels!"

Now I have to confess that I haven't gone entirely pink for ever. Occasionally, I have felt the need to wear black, and I still keep spare leggings in my dance bag. Also, it is more fun to mix it up a little. Confession number two: I have been wearing knee-length cut-off shorts above my tights. I roll the legs up, just a little, but it has been my safety gear of sorts. It's silly really, no one else but me cares about the size of my thighs!

Yesterday, in pointe class, I finally decided to brave it. I was hot, the shorts added extra bulk under my new and pretty red polka-dot skirt, and we were facing the barre. Everyone was concentrating on their own thing, the teacher knows how I look already, and does not care - so what the heck! I stripped down to my leo, tights and skirt combo and preceded with the class. No biggie. No, wrong. Big suprise! I did not see the dreaded thunder thighs, what I saw instead were nicely muscled and strong legs. Not quite the preferred lean ballerina-look, but I do have dancer's legs is all I'm saying!

Five years ago I was in black yoga-pants and tunics, today in skirts and pink tights. It may seem like I'm making a lot of noise about appearances, but for me it signifies a milestone. I feel finally at ease with my ballet-shaped body - and proud of what I have achieved.

March 12, 2012

Grown-Ups at the Barre

A new ballet blog has been born! "Grown-Ups at the Barre" is a collaborative effort, put together by a group of ballet bloggers for other fellow adult ballet dancers. Yours truly had the honour of writing the first entry, and you can read it here: Adult Ballet Dancers.

The blog is still a work in progress, as all of us dancers are.. But do check out the pages "Balletiquette", "Men" and our "Library" - you will find lots of useful and fun information there! We hope to fill in the gaps soon, and are open to any comments and ideas you might have.

As for my own blog.. I will keep posting as before. Oh, and as I hinted in my previous entry, there are going to be some special posts in the near future. I have already taken my first peeks behind the scenes, and it's just as fascinating as I had envisioned. No, even more so!

Last Sunday I had another opportunity to take an open-level, by-invitation-only, recreational adult ballet class at Big Ballet Company - accompanied by a real, live pianist (the best kind)! It was so much fun! We practiced the entrance of the Shades (from Bayadère) again, this time from the arabesques until the first kneel-down with port de bras. I don't know how else to descibe it. Other than awesome. The atmosphere in that big studio is something else entirely. Sure, there is a mirrror and barres like in every other studio. But then you see a practice tutu lying under the grand piano, and taped stage markings for rehearsals, and outside of the studio there are pointe shoes everywhere and more tutus in another corner. It's just fabulous! I'm hoping for some stardust to stick on my slippers.. ;)

March 9, 2012

Pointe Shoes and Other News

After somehow managing to dance in half-dead pointe shoes for weeks, I finally gave in before my ankles caved in. Out with the old, in with the shiny, pretty and new! And guess what? Since I started pointe in August 2010, this is only my fifth pair of shoes! The first pair I wore for about 5 months, and we had classes once per week. The second pair lasted as long, but then my class number increased and my strength improved. The last two pairs I have worn, Balance Europeans, are good for about two-three months, then it's time for goodbyes. Don't you just hate it? The moment shoes start to feel like part of your foot and your technique, you have to begin all over again.. But I do like mine, we have a nice relationship going. ;)

When I took them to my first class this week, my teacher told me to pay extra attention to my right foot. This one is not as strong as the left, and needs much more coaching to get over the box and stay in line. It has also to do with my leg length discrepancy (not freakish, but noticeable if you know to look). Anyway, it is really important to do every little relevé to your utmost cleanest maximum as the shoe is still molding to the foot. My teacher even told me to skip the more advanced stuff (I was doing a basic level class on pointe), until the shoe was broken in properly. The following day, the shoes felt near perfect already!

Which is a good thing too, as our classes are advancing all the time. There is the Paquita variation, and then there are pirouettes. Last week our pointe teacher Marie-Pierre decided to give us the same pirouette exercise we had done in the previous advanced class. Yikes! You start en face, from fifth, degagé devant with the right leg, supporting leg in plié - step onto piqué - passé retiré with the other leg, and repeat twice. Third time, you don't piqué, but do a full relevé with the supporting leg as the degagé leg envelopes back into retiré (arms in couronne). From there you go directly into fourth, and turn. The thing is, we have never really practiced pirouettes from forth in Madame's class. Not even preparatory ones at the barre. All we have done is quarter and half turns in center, but from fifth. Now we just went straight into the deep end!

Luckily, my other teacher has been introducing pirouettes in her pointe class - at the barre. And I have been practicing them in the basic level class I take (wearing pointe shoes). So it's not like I'm a pointe pirouette virgin.. ;) Still, it was a bit un-nerving. I mean, Madame must have thought we were ready. That, or she was testing us. Either way, it felt almost like an audition! But, you know what? I nailed my pirouettes! Singles, with one accidental double!

Another new step in center is a relevé from fifth into effacé, with the front leg extended in degagé. That one is much trickier than rising into passé retiré, because you are switching directions and the other leg can throw your balance off. It is very exciting, though, learning all these new steps! I was also very pleased when my teacher mentioned that my technique is much better now, especially considering how little time I have been up on pointe. I guess eighteen years of training in soft slippers has something to do with that.. :)

Other News

Awesome Nellie's lovely ballet skirts have arrived! Best prize I have ever won! Quick re-cap: Nellie decided to do Operation Tidy Room, Tidy Mind which resulted in an insanely generous Ballet-tastic Giveaway. I was the lucky person to write back first and got to adopt all three of Nellie's skirts. There is the black and very short pull-on from Bloch, and a very unusual by Grishko with a red under-skirt. My favorite has to be the red polka-dot, which is Designed by Alice. I was going to dedicate a post with pics to these ex-pat Brit skirts, but got pinned down by a most annoying tummy bug. Thankfully I'm feeling much better now. If I could only decide which skirt gets to take class first.. :)

Coming soon..

I'm very, very excited about this. I talked to a lovely dancer from the Finnish National Ballet about how I would like to do a behind-the-scenes post for my blog. Daily routines, pointe shoes et al. Well, she thought it a great idea and already agreed to be interviewed. Then we talked some more, about the ideas I have and if I would like to talk to other dancers too (of course) and what sort of permission I would need.. She was very nice to pitch my blog to their Press Manager - and we have a take-off! I will be writing a series of posts for both my Finnish blog and this one, so stay tuned. More up-dates coming soon..

March 5, 2012

Shady Dame at the Ballet

Holy Kingdom of the Shades! This past Sunday I got my first taste of the entrance of the Shades in La Bayadère's second act. If you're not familiar with the plot, it's the part where grief-stricken warrior Solor is tripping on opium and seeing multiple mirror images of dead Nikiya, the love of his life. The Shades, as they are called, descend down a ramp - as if from the heavens above - reapeating the same step over and over. Arabesque, plié into fourth, port de bras, step, step, step into arabesque, plié into fourth and so on..

I lost count after 24 or so, but there should be 32 arabesques for each dancer to perform. What kills me about this entrance is that you are supposed to do the arabesques all on the same leg! Lower back spasm alert! Thankfully, our teacher/dancer Mira showed mercy and allowed us to switch legs with each direction. Phew. Anyway, we are practicing purely for fun and educational value, and not in preparation of any performance. The real Shades will be stepping onto stage at the end of March, when the Finnish National Ballet re-introduces La Bayadère into its repertory.

You know, I just realised something weird and wonderful. I have seen this ballet previously only on TV and DVD: the staging by Natalia Makarova for Royal Ballet (with Darcey Bussell as Gamzatti), and a fairly recently discovered Nurejev's version for Paris Opera Ballet (view on youtube). The weirdly wonderful part: my first live experience of this ballet is now me dancing one of the Shades! Well, practicing, pretend-play-dancing, whatever. But we were in the actual National Opera's main ballet studio and there were professional ballerinas present. For me, this is as close as it will get to the real thing, ever.

And it was lovely. The music, the steps, the many arabesques - I must be in better shape than I had thought, because one day later, no muscle aches! The beautiful port de bras, the meditative quality of repeating the same steps, over and over. It was far, far from perfect, there were wobbly bits and less-than-straight knees and near-collisions with fellow dancers, but it was a beautiful experience nonetheless. After my past and recent shy encounters with Bluebird, Sugar Plum, Little Swans and Paquita, stepping into the Shades feels like I'm ready to come out of the shade.

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, ...