May 30, 2012

HIBC: Candice Can!

I have never been this excited about any ballet competition before! As a volunteer you get to know the competitors a little, and you do get emotionally involved. As a dancer, albeit recreational, you also know about the hard work, and aches - and about the excitement of being on stage, the euphoria and exhileration! At worst ballet can be a pain, but first and foremost it's bliss. To see all the performances I'm skipping my own classes, which is quite unheard of (ask anyone), but this is special circumstances. Anyway, after our spring show I can actually use the break. My left toe starts to complain if I just look at my pointe shoes! I wonder how the HIBC dancers are coping..

First impression of Tuesday's first round: the girls are the belles of the ball, but the men are the rock stars of ballet! If the seats had been filled with young boys instead of the usual crowd, I can tell you there would have been more than a few converts to ballet! Crazy jumps, double cabrioles, mutiple turns en l'air, double split jumps (don't know the name of that one), sixtuplet pirouettes, you name it. Variations from Don Quixote and Corsaire were favored by both junior and senior male dancers, and it's easy to understand why. They are real crowd-pleasers. Especially the non-competing Ivan Zaytsev made most of his stage time in Le Corsaire's pas de deux. He was a secure partner to the technically excellent Yulia Tikka (both from Russia), and entertained the audience with his wicked and boisterous charm. Think Johnny Depp and Pirates of the Carribbean.. ;) The junior dancer Rodrigo Almarales from Cuba was another force on the stage. Fierce and fearless, you gotta love that!

Fierce was also my personal favorite of the day, Candice Adea from the Philppines. Her portrayal of Kitri was sublime, both sensuously elegant and suprimely secure. You don't see this often, technical bravura together with heartfelt artistic expression. Adea has it all, a warm and winning smile, excellent taste and real quality in her dancing. Throw in some fearless pirouettes, the kind where her partner pushes her off to turn like a spinning top, and that famous high one-arm lift - Wow!

Candice Adea with Jean Marc Cordero.
Photo courtesy of HIBC. Photographer: Sakari Viika.

I was also happy to see familiar faces doing well. Machi Muto from Japan (I picked her up from the airport) was lovely in both her Coppélia and Don Quixote variations, and Candy Tong (we were in the same ballet class last Friday) performed secure high extensions in her Queen of the Dryads varition. Mirella Costa Neto (Brazil) was a very energetic Esméralda, and a flamboyant Kitri. I would also like to give her credit for the prettiest costumes! Finlands 15-year old Sara Antikainen was a pleasure to watch, especially in the second round. Sixteen year old Katia Almayeva (Russia) has the highest arabesques I've ever seen, really very impressive. And she can turn! Francesco Frola Gabriele (Italy) was another of the male highlights, his Sigmund variation from Swan Lake ready for the big stage.

Oops, it's already ten to six - I have to run! More variations to see, blog you later!

HIBC: For the Love of Ballet

Monday morning I reported for volunteering duty at the Helsinki International Ballet Competition (HIBC). As my first job I got to sign in the competitors, their coaches or other accompanying persons. First impression: the young dancers are so polite and sweet, always smiling - which makes our work a real pleasure! Of course, good manners are part of proper balletiquette and instilled into every dancer from an early age. Ballet is hard, and requires both discipline and respect for the art. And Love! Without love for dance there can be no passion, no drive, no soul. When you love to dance, it carries you forward, no matter how hard you have to work for it. And as a volunteer you want to make sure they all have the best experience possible!

Before competitors get to show their skills in front of the judges and audience, there are morning classes, studio rehearsals, stage rehearsals and a lot of commuting between the hotel and various studios in different locations. As volunteers part of our job is to make sure everyone finds their way and doesn't get lost. But the Opera building had us confused at first too. The personnel entrance is level with the street outside, and one would assume we are on the first floor, right? Wrong. The entrance is designated as the 2nd floor, and when you take the elevator down you get to the first floor (dressing rooms). The backstage for Almi Hall is two floors down, which is on K1 (basement 1), but the other big ballet studio is located on K2, which is not acceessible via the same elevator. And the main ballet studio is on the fifth floor, which somehow seems only two floors higher. Well, once you know your way around, it seems simple enough. ;)

I did get a glimpse of some of the classes and rehearsals, and I can tell you that the level of this year's competition is really high! I'm looking very much forward to all the performances, and as I have been getting to know some of the competitors, it's even more exciting! Last Friday, when I took my own class at Dance Center Footlight, there was a new girl.. and you could tell right away that she had come to compete at HIBC. She had insanely long legs and extensions up to the roof, but I was equally impressed by her secure balances and lovely demeanor. I didn't talk to her after class (I stayed for pointe), but it was fun to meet Candy Tong again at the Opera! She asked whether I take class every day, and she told me that she had liked my teacher Gabriella. I'm likely old enough to be her mother, but ballet does make for great bonding!

Yesterday, after I had finished my shift, I toured around the building and found one very young competitor rehearsing in the smallest studio: Katherine Gazda from Canada. Katherine is among the youngest, fifteen years old. From my point of view, still a baby! Nah, not really. It was easy to tell that she's mature beyond her years, in a good way. A ballet dancer's career can take off when others of the same age are still in high school, which is a lot of responsiblity for a young person to handle. Gazda maybe only fifteeen, but she has to focus already on contracts and career opportunities. And if I remember correctly, Katherine has still has some seven scholarships to choose from. Awesome!

Ballet is an universal language and as such international careers are commonplace. One of the senior competitors I picked up from the airport, Machi Muto, is from Japan but danced until this summer at the Norwegian National Ballet. She is now under contract with the Hong Kong Ballet, which is closer to home, but still.. Even though ballet is hugely popular in Japan, you can't expect to get any salary for your work! Only men or foreign stars get paid. No wonder then that so many Japanese ballerinas have emigrated to international companys. We are all in it for the love of ballet, but you can't live from ballet alone.

Next post: First Round

Ballerina for a Day

Dear Readers, where do I even begin? It has been a whirlwind of a weekend, two fabulous and exceptionally warm summer days here in Helsinki, but me - I was more than happy to stay inside the theatre! Classes, stage rehearsals, make-ups, warm-ups, last-minute corrections, jitters and nerves, dancing, excitement and applause - all over much too soon! You get hooked on this stuff, you really do. As a recreational adult ballet dancer you are mostly "confined" to the studio, which is by no means a bad thing - but who hasn't dreamed of dancing on a real stage in front of a real audience? This past weekend that dream came true once more - and I got to be a ballerina for a day! Twice!

We started our spring show weekend with dress rehearsals. The stage is smaller than our rehearsal studio and we all had to adapt and adjust. It was tricky because there was hardly enough time to mark places and do one run-through with the music. There is this bit in Giselle's second act, where we are worshipping Myrtha: kneeling on right knee, left leg front. Your arms go down, nose to left straightened knee, arms and knee up, and cambré back. Repeat four times. I was too close to the center spot, and messing up the star formation in the process. My teacher is a woman of action, which is great, but getting dragged across the stage in my lovely beautiful wili-tutu? Not very diginified! LOL. Needless to say, I remembered my place afterwards. Our Don Quijote rehearsal was not much better. No ballerinas were harmed, but it was a bit of a mess. Not to worry- bad dress reahearsals make for better performances!

Giselle's entrance of the wilis was on Saturday, and what a fabulous day it was! After our dress rehearsal we wilis went out for some lunch; huge chapatas dripping with flavoured oil.. Hey, when you dance this much, you are hungry all the time! Whether it's chorizo sausage in my chapata or chocolate for dessert, anything goes. And for once, nothing shows. Bikini season? Bring it on! After our little feast we headed back to the theatre, it was time for make-up and putting flowers in our hair. How often do you get to write a sentence like that? In our white tulle and white flowers we looked like a bridal party, albeit one that got jilted before the wedding.. But when we finally stood in the wings, ready to step on stage, it was magic.

Not perfect, by no means, but it was wonderful. In the first performance I stumbled during a simple pas de bourrée, in the second I lost my balance in arabesque. Thank goodness my wili-partner stood her ground, otherwise we would all have tumbled like dominos! Apart from those small mishaps, everything went well though. I even got swept away and into character. Intense stuff. But it was over too soon! I want to go back on stage! And on Sunday, we did.

Our 8-minute all-levels Don Quijote-style dance was a success, in the end. The beginning, not so much. After our teacher had given us a 30-minute warm-up barre (very pro), I practiced some of the trickier parts, my entrance included. Was feeling pretty satisfied and semi-secure with my efforts. Then, right before the first diagonale: attack of the jitters! I know that dancing on the stage is different from dancing in class, nerves can get the better of you. A friend of mine once said that you leave 20% of your skill in the classroom anyway. In my case it felt more like reverse: 80% was left stranded in the studio, and 20% made sure that I still could walk if not dance on the stage.. Seriously, my glissade assemblés and piqué attitudes sucked, as did the chassé - temps levé arabesque, followed by pas de chat. No excuses here. After that sorry entrance, I figured things could only get better - and they did! Right until the end, when I nailed my solo chaînés and grand jeté!  As a group we did really well, especially after the initial nervous excitement disappeared. A friend of mine was in the audience and said that we looked like we were dancing for each other and for the audience, and enjoying every moment of it! What a happy ballet-buzz :)

From one stage to the backstage.. I have had no time to yet to recover from our spring shows, but Monday morning I reported for volunteering duty at the Helsinki International Ballet Competition! Next post: For the Love of Ballet.

May 20, 2012

I Can't, I Have Ballet..

Starting from today, ballet takes over pretty much my entire spare time: classes, rehearsals, recitals, volunteering, classes, watching others dance, and then blogging about it all. Ballet until I drop - hey, it's the motto I live by! I just hope I won't drop too soon.. ;)

Today (Friday): advanced ballet class, as usual, followed by pointe class, as usual. We are going to rehearse our entrance of the wilis for the upcoming spring show, and.. we get to try on our costumes! I haven't seen anything yet, but those tutus should be wili-esque: long, white and romantic. It's certainly a big improvement from last year's see-through flower curtain -skirt (which I've worn for two different shows already). If those wilis wouldn't be so sad in their eternal damnation, I would do a happy dance on stage!

Saturday: Don Quixote rehearsal from 12-14.00 hrs, followed by a bonus pointe session. Two of the advanced girls are doing the Paquita variation, which we practiced in pointe class earlier this spring. Our teacher is letting us (me and a two other girls) rehearse along, because it benefits us technically. Of course, we have to stay in the back and out of the way. But, last Saturday, one of the girls had to miss rehearsal (work, nothing serious) - which meant the rest of us got corrections and coaching too! And I can tell you that I really need it. That Paquita variation is serious stuff, especially when you consider that I have been on pointe for only a year and a half.. I have finally gotten past the fear of looking silly, but that final diagonal with them en dedans pirouettes, arabesques onto relevé and chaînés is a killer! So I'm more than happy to practice any chance I get.

Our big Don Quixote dance is coming along nicely. Groups, entrances, lines and rows and patterns have been sorted out - now it's down to the dancing and fine-tuning. There are 19 dancers, from all levels and with a variety of experience and skills. Most of the steps I have been doing forever, but the choreography and style is new. Last time I was told to work on my presence and my épaulement, because it's not yet "Don Q" enough! I was already dancing full out at the time, and frankly, I don't know how to be more "Don Q". The problem is, there is just not time enough. You have to learn the steps, dance with the group, and do the best you can. Maybe I'll discover my inner fiery and proud "Spanish" ballerina when the lights go out!

We also got try on our costumes, short satin skirts with tulle underlays. Mine is rose-red, and it's lovely. Although I was a bit apprehensive at first, because the rouching at the waistband adds even more width to my hips.. But my teacher assured me that I look just fine, and reminded that we are constantly on the move anyway. By the way, the fastenings for the waistbands we got to sew ourselves. I'm proud mine turned out neat enough, sewing not being one of my many skills.

The flower is my own, but hasn't been approved yet..
It has a clip on the flip-side, and can be fastened without sewing.

Sunday: last rehearsal for Don Q! Help! Now is the time to dance full out, smiles and all. I have one "solo" diagonale in the final coda: four counts chaînés deboulés - chassé - big grand jeté with arms in couronne. It's awesome, as long as I don't veer off and crash into the group on my left. We also have an extra rehearsal for Giselle, which is sorely needed. We have been working on the entrance of the wilis in class only, and someone has always been missing. I have danced twice without my partner, and it will be helpful to see her instead of imagining her placing!

Monday: regular classes, hopefully some chaînés and jetés as well. Must focus on clean technique and finishes!

Tuesday: last three classes with Madame. Summer term starts the week after, and she won't be back until mid-August. I'm going to miss her classes so badly! I think I'll write a list of all the corrections I have been getting, and the things that need extra work. Which is a lot! And yes, will blog said list here.

Wednesday: last day off, for a while.

Thursday: regular class, that's all.

Friday: last class before spring show, also last pointe class before fall and last rehearsal for Giselle.

Saturday: dress rehearsals at 12.35 hrs, show at 16.00 hrs (4 pm) and 19.00 hrs (7 pm). Time for those wilis to enchant, twice. No idea when I'll be home.

Sunday: show at 18.00 hrs (6 pm). Don Quixote! We get only one chance, best to dance full out and enjoy every second! Also, Madame said she's going to be in the audience. Happy, and slightly nervous. Final bows before the summer, and time to have some aprés-show bubbly!

Monday: no rest for the weary, as I'm going to volunteer at the Helsinki International Ballet Competition. Wake-up call at 9 am! After my guide-and-help gig I have another class in the evening. Life and dance goes on..

Tuesday - Wednesday: more volunteering, maybe a basic class if I can schedule & manage it.. And if that isn't enough: I have been selected as the official audience guest blogger for the ballet competition! So, for the next couple of weeks I'm fully booked. Lucky me. :)

May 14, 2012

My Ballet Bag

Hold-all ballet bag. I can fit everything in here, except for my macbook..

Two pairs of pointe shoes, Bloch Balance Europeans (size 6 XX). Two, because I'm trying to figure out which pair to wear for our spring show. One is slightly more worn, to the pointe that they are about to die on me. A regular pointe class might be too much already. The other pair has a little more life left, but I need them for class. Then again, the entrance of the wilis in Giselle calls for quiet shoes.. So: old pair gets to go on stage, and younger pair gets to do all the hard work in class. Seems fair enough.

Black short "professional" ballet skirt. The pro-tag is courtesy of Bloch, I have no such illusions of grandeur. It's a short and flimsy skirt, but somehow makes my popo look smaller and my legs appear longer. Gotta love that! I have two other fave skirts, and alternate between them depending on on my mood. I also have this huge black, long-sleeved, wide-necked viscose t-shirt, which doubles as a long skirt. I just wiggle out of the neck-opening, and use the sleeves to tie the thing around my waste. Very practical.

Soft ballet shoes, flatties, slippers.. What do you call yours? Mine are from Bloch, and I usually wear their model "Pump" in ballet pink. Sometimes I also buy Sansha Pro1, because you can't get the Blochs here in Helsinki. Sansha has a nice advantage: you get a free mesh-bag matched to the color of your shoes! Mesh-bags are great for storing pointe shoes, as they allow the shoes to air out even before you get home after class. And I can fit my ouch-pouches in there as well. Don't want to forget those!

Leotard(s). On Tuesdays I have three classes (with one hour break after the first), so I pack two. Currently my favorite is hot pink with double spagetti straps and some lovely detailing at the bust line. The colour really wakes me up! Pink convertible tights, black leggings (which I often wear on top of the pinks), aforementioned skirt, self-made sheer top. Just cut out the gusset of old or new tights/leggings and hey, presto! I might pack leg warmers, but usually ditch them after first pliés. I also carry old socks which I wear on top of my slippers before class. Never during class.

Small scissors, Bunhead's Stitch Kit, skin-coloured fabric tape to patch up canvas flatties, lamb's wool, jelly tubes for big toes (don't use them all the time, only when toes cry for it), small tin box for hair pins, snap clips and elastics, hair-brush, travel-sized hairspray, mirror, elastic ankle brace (just in case), antiperspirant, water bottle, nut/fruit-protein/energy bar, chapstick (lip balm), tiger balm, ibuprofen.. Plus all the other stuff a girl needs to leave the house!

That's pretty much it. Hope I didn't forget anything.. :)

May 7, 2012

Good Morning Class!

I'm not a morning person. But I do love ballet, and the prospect of starting my day with dance is enough to turn me into a morning-class person! Which is where I was headed this past Thursday. Sadly, not to dance myself - but when you get to watch the pros instead, I sure am not complaining! Yup, I had gotten another pass to observe The Finnish National Ballet's company class. Last time I saw most of the women in pointe-action, this time I was looking forward to a regular mixed class. Actually, the prospect of seeing hunky danseurs leap through the air is enough to turn any girl into a morning person.. ;)

As I crossed the short distance from the tram-stop to the Opera building, I noticed a few dancers walking ahead of me. I couldn't help but check my posture, even exaggerate my almost-not-there duck-walk. It didn't matter that no one was looking, I enjoyed getting into the part. A little make-believe early in the morning.. Of course, I couldn't fool anyone in the know - my hips don't lie (Shakira!). The thing is I've got a little too much in that department, at least where pro ballet is considered. But I do have the poise and the bounce (and a bit of technique)! Anyway, I was going to observe class, not audition for the company. So I picked up my name-tag (cool) from the reception, and Jussi from the Press Office came to escort me to the class.

There are two classes each morning, and I chose the one in the main ballet studio, which I know well already. When we arrived, there were a few dancers stretching and limbering up, and I was happy to see a familiar face greeting me with a smile. It is odd, usually I write my blogs from the POW of an insider and not looking in from the outside. Here I was in a ballet studio, which is home away from home, and instead of joining the other dancers on the floor, I sat down on one of the chairs (in front of the mirror, close to the grand piano). Talk about conspicuous behavior! Seriously, I would have been less nervous at the barre! Just as class was about to begin, Jussi introduced as the ballet blogger who's come to observe. Turns out my blog's link was already posted on their announcement-board! Dancers, if you are indeed reading this, thanks again for putting up with me! Especially since I had permission to take pictures, and had to take quite a few.. Taking photos of moving dancers is not easy, you want to do everyone justice.

Guest teacher Piotr Nardelli and artists of the Finnish National Ballet.
Photo: Johanna / PTYD.

"Vamos chicos and chiquitas!" I couldn't help but smile when guest teacher Piotr Nardelli gave out excercises and corrections. At the beginning of class he seemed to have all the energy the dancers were still gathering. Of course, morning class is for warm-up and getting ready for another long and strenuous day. Really, I don't know how the pros manage it day after day. It takes heaps of self-discipline, for sure! And Mr. Nardelli's class was not one for sleepy (bun-)heads.. In center, he chose dancers to demonstrate some of the exercises, making them literally think on their feet. You better be awake and know your ballet-French!

I love to watch dancers in center. You get to see how much work all those seemingly effortless steps, turns and jumps actually take. And you get to see dancers take risks, throw themselves into the music, without restraint. You also get to see them fail, just like us regular recreational dancers. But they always stick to it, until they get it right. I really should remember this, in every class I take. I also wish one could pick up awesome pirouettes from watching alone! The very young and lovely First Soloist Maria Baranova pulled off perfect quadruples like it was no big deal at all. Well, at her level it probably isn't. Maybe she was going for sixtuplets? Jealous much? Baranova wasn't the only one of the ladies who impressed me. Etoile Petia Ilieva has an exquisite quality to her jump (among other), and Ophélie Rodighiero was another fearless turner. But as I had already seen the ballerinas before, I was focusing mostly on the boys/men.

Wow. The men were totally exuberant in their dancing, even boisterous! You can really tell they love to dance, and don't mind showing off their technique! And why should they? The pirouettes were awesome, the multiple tours en l'air seriously cool. I have to say that the over all level of "our" men at the Finnish National Ballet is impressive, even internationally speaking. I strongly suspect that the leadership of Kenneth Greve has been the decisive factor in this fortunate development. Of course there have always been good and wonderful danseurs, but perhaps not as many as presently.. There was one dancer in particular,  he seemed to glide in the air, without any apparent effort. Like walking, only flying. I was excited to make this new discovery - until I found out he is leaving Finland after the summer. Readers in the UK, take note: Nicol Edmonds was offered a contract with the Royal Ballet! Though I'm sad to miss out on his dancing, I know it's a dream come true. Huge congrats to Nicol!

When the class got to grand allegro, I had long since forgotten about being an outsider - I just enjoyed being in the audience! I didn't even notice when the Artistic Director of the company walked in and sat into the chair next to me. When I did, he said something which was probably a greeting, but I was caught off guard, and the words were drowned in the piano music. So I gestured towards my ear, and he repeated (probably wondering whether I was a bit dense): "Hi, I'm Kenneth Greve!" Me, rather star-struck: "Yes, I know.. I'm Johanna". KG: "Yes, I have seen you around." Me: blushing. Then he said something about having read my blog and that he liked it. Me: speechless. The only explanation I can give is this: it was class, and I do not talk in class. Okay, I might on occasion whisper something to a friend, but if a teacher corrects me, I do as I'm told. If there's praise, I nod, maybe smile and then get back to work. You can take the student out of her class, but you can't take the ballet-school out of the student. Should there be a next time, I better write something smart on a post-it and stick it to my forehead. ;)

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, ...