June 26, 2012

Back Into Ballet-Blogging

For a moment or two I really thought I'm out of ideas for this blog. You know, been to class, done that and wrote about it. I seriously contemplated that PTYD had run its course and it was time for me to move on. Let other ballet bloggers bring fresher points of view to the table. Yeah, I had come down with a case of blogger's blah.. But my ballet friends came to the rescue! I was told to take a break, eat lots of chocolate, go to class and let myself be inspired again. One blogging friend told me to step back! Which made me think of a crime scene, and little white chalk lines drawn around my many discarded blog beginnings.. Thanks go to Lorry for that hilarious image! Others gave me actual ideas to write about, and loads of fun questions to answer.

Asta wanted to know how ballet affects my daily life, what my summer plans are, which dancers inspire me the most, how to get over "ballet lows", what books/films or dance gear are my favorites and whether I've taken any "ballet holidays". Kirsten has issues with slipping pointe shoes, and would like to know how non-dancers respond and relate to my ballet passion. Mark wants to know what I've been doing, where and with whom - and I trust these were strictly ballet-related questions! [insert ;)] But you know what struck me the most? Not only that you guys are still interested, but that you've actually been inspired by my blogs. I can't tell you how much that means to me, it's just beyond awesome! Thank you, Lorry, Noora, Kim, Nellie, Kirsten, Nic, Asta, Mark, Katharine and many more (you know who you are)!

Now, to get back into the flow and groove of ballet-blogging, lets start small. A few random notes, and some answers to your questions:

A: Summer plans -  I'm staying in Finland, sadly my budget wont let me do any traveling this year. But the Finnish summer is lovely, especially once it stops raining.. The beach is close by, and Helsinki is a fun city! Staying home also allows me to take ballet classes without interruption. Although, if someone wants to invite me to their summer cottage, I'm good to go! But not more than two weeks. After that I would go stir-crazy! LOL. So, yeah, I take classes four - five times per week. There are no pointe classes, but I've been doing a basic level in pointe shoes. Which brings me over to my first random note:

Last night, after class. I was still in pointe shoes and practicing pirouettes from fifth. Was feeling steady and balanced. Decided to go for a double. Be the boss of my turns, not the other way around. And.. I did! Clean and balanced double pirouette from fifth, on pointe! Yay! My teacher didn't see it, but I had to tell her, I was so excited about it. Well, she seemed to be happy for me too.

So, there you go. I'm not done blogging yet. :)

That's my beach. Plan to do some water-ballet here!

June 11, 2012

HIBC: Sheer Pleasure

Dear Readers, it's a wrap-up: the Helsinki International Ballet Competition is over. The results are in, happy dancers have been awarded, signed out and shipped back home - but this ballet blogger isn't done yet! The last days of the competition flew by in a heady rush, I'm still feeling dazed by it all. HIBC 2012 was such an intensely ballet-infused time, that getting back to my regular schedule seems a bit of an anti-climax. Thankfully, I still have fresh memories and a few blogs to write!

I wish I could have posted them real-time, but performances ended late and bed-times came even later. After the last final round I observed class the following day, dashed home to change clothes, hurried back to watch the gala, stayed to enjoy the gala buffet, joined some volunteers and dancers for après-gala beers, slept five hours, woke up to sign out the last dancers at the hotel and get everyone on the right bus, then was wired enough to take my own ballet class. Spent most of Saturday and Sunday in bed and or couch. Would I have traded it for anything? Nope. I loved every moment of it! Now, time for some back-tracking..

Alys Shee and Jonathan Davidsson in the Black Swan pas de deux.
Photo courtesy of HIBC / Sakari Viika.

The second round of the finals opened with a big bang. Alys Shee and Jonathan Davidsson danced the Black Swan pas de deux - and they blew the audience away! Canadian Alys Shee (born 1994) competed in the junior division, but she has already virtuoso technique. She was utterly fearless in her dancing, killing those famous fouettés with doubles and even triples from beginning to end! I don't know how she does it. But what really made this particular PDD spectacular, was Shee's interpretation of Odile. Some might consider her too young to be convincing, but she played her youth in her favor. Odile came across as tempting, alluring and wickedly irresistible. The audience has to believe why Siegfried would be willing to betray his love for Odette, and blaming it strictly on Rothbart's magic robs the story of its delicious layers. A cold Odile just doesn't do it for me, I find Swan Lake much more fascinating if the audience is also seduced by Odile! Alys Shee and her partner Jonathan Davidsson had great chemistry together, and that last moment where she pulled him in, as if by an invisible string.. Wicked and wonderful!

Next came 16-year old Katherine Higgins, who has been a delight throughout the competition. She is not yet there where Shee is, but I don't doubt that we will hear more from her yet. Katherine has exquisitly long limbs and beautiful lines, effortless balances, and a rare maturity and finesse for someone so young. She was also lovely off-stage. In the final round, Katherine Higgins danced the solo variation from Grand Pas Classique. I have seen GPC performed about a hundred times and even danced it myself. Well, a shorter and much simplified version - remember I'm just a recreational dancer! Anyway, Katherine did really well. She was elegant and secure every step, but perhaps a little nervous.. Although I have to foreshadow and say that she did even better in the gala!

After the girls came a young boy, Taiyu He (born 1996) from China. Oh, boy! He pulled off octoplet pirouettes like I do doubles (on a very good day), and his elevation was through the roof! Seriously crazy stuff. I was already getting worried that there was no more to this kid than bounce and balance, accompanied by a boyish grin - but I was proven wrong in the contemporary round. Taiyu He had suprising intensity and sincerity in his dancing. But I do wonder.. He's short even for Chinese standards, and that might hinder his career. Hope he finds his place in the world of dance!

Taiyu He, this might have been from Paquita.
Photo courtesy of HIBC / Sakari Viika.

Katherine Higgins (USA), in a variation from Fairy Doll.
Photo: HIBC / Sakari Viika.

I'm not going to cover every competitor, but there were some that stood out. Among others: Ruichen Sun from China. He was a formidable danseur noble in the Grand Pas Classiqe pdd, but I really loved his non-competing partner Wang Ye. Had she been two weeks younger at the beginning of the competition, she would have placed above some of the other seniors. But the line had to be drawn somewhere, and one has to remember that experience is also reflected in artistry. Competitions are sort of (pre-)professional meet and greets. You present yourself, mingle and exchange ideas with your peers and hope for new career opportunities.

But who's to measure and evaluate art? We can look out for technical aspects, count the numbers of turns, check for turn-out, elevation, ballon, épaulemant and line - but how do you rate artistry? With different schools, styles and personalities come different qualities and interpretations, and this is as it should be. Readers often ask me who's my favorite dancer, but I can place none above the rest. It depends on the ballet, the choreography, the role, the dancer, the day it was danced and time I saw it performed. Tastes change, dancers evolve, nothing is ever the same. Thank goodness!

Next post: Wrap-Up!

June 6, 2012

HIBC: Merde!

Francesco Frola (Italy). Here in his variation from Esméralda.
Photo courtesy of HIBC / Sakari Viika.

You want to get more boys into classical dance? Have them sit in the audience and watch 19-year old Francesco Frola high-jump onto the stage. Track and field athletes - they have nothing on ballet dancers. Dancers don't take 30 seconds to prepare for a jump, nor do they land on mattresses. Oh, and have you ever seen a high-jumping athlete smile to the audience at the hight of his jump? If you have, tell that guy to take dance class ASAP! Frola brought the house down with his classical variation from the Flames of Paris, and he wasn't too shy to embrace the applause.. Must be that famous Italian charm. ;)

Charm, stage presence, personality - you need some (well, a lot) to be a performing artist. Ballet can't be all about technique, the number of pirouettes you turn, or high extensions and pretty faces. Ballet demands athletic prowess, but it's not sports. Jinchang Gu (junior, born 1997) turned octoplet piroeuttes like nothing last night, but his contemporary choregraphies have also shown a dancer with surprising emotional capacity.

Sadly, some of the finalists seemed to be somewhat over their heads with the challenge. It would be prudent to choose a variation that fits the dancer's current skill and expression. Raymonda's solo in the final grand pas demands a ballerina who's on top of her game. For a student it's a learning experience at best.. There were also some interesting choices of costumes. Maria Baranova, otherwise adorable, wore a red-black plumey fascinator on her head and gold embellishments on her black Odile's tutu. A tad too restless for my taste. And one bayadère should have gone for more, not less. Honestly, temple dancers are not showgirls - unless they worship in Las Vegas.

The contemporary part of the evening was.. let's just say it was interesting. No, let's say a little more than that! I really wish dancers and their coaches (and choreographers) would put more thought and ambition into these numbers. After watching two rounds of classical variations the audience is grateful for anything other than Don Quixote, but we are not that low-maintenance! Please, don't copy&paste more ballet steps and tours en l'air and sauts en manege - how about bringing something new and contemporary on stage? Something that will capture the audience as much as your ballet bravado just did.

Emrecan Tanis (Turkey) and Emmi Pennanen (Finland)
Choreography by Emrecan Tanis.
Photo courtesy of HIBC / Sakari Viika

Emrecan Tanis' choreography "Sena" did just that. He danced with his competing partner, Emmi Pennanen (Finland), and both delivered a focused and convincing performance. I find it difficult to describe modern routines, but I can at least tell you that I was never bored! The interplay between the dancers, the repeating themes, the music, the moves - it all worked. I didn't expect anything, but was rewarded with much of something! When the dancer wants to give of him/herself to the audience, that's when magic happens.

Magical was no other than my early favorite, Candice Adea. Again. She danced her Diana and Actéon variation with such technical purity, exquisite expression and warmth.. I think most of the audience has already fallen in love with her! Adea and her now non-competing partner had also one of the scariest over-head lifts, which had one of my back-stage friends praying for their safety! If Ms. Adea doesn't place high, I should be very surprised.

Candice Adea (Philippines) with non-competing partner.
Photo courtesy of HIBC / Sakari Viika.

June 5, 2012

HIBC: And the Final Round Goes to..

Maria Baranova, "Angry Bird".
Photo courtesy of HIBC / Sakari Viika.

There were a few suprises when the results for the final round came in, but from a Finn's point of view it was nice to see that three Finnish dancers made the cut. Maria Baranova of course sailed through, no surprise there. Her portrayal of Giselle in the first round was both technically secure and ethereal, despite the competitive setting. But I can't say that I liked Baranova's contemporary number very much. The title "Angry Bird" sounds like it came from the marketing department of the Finnish Tourist Board. For those of you who don't know, "Angry Birds" were indeed hatched in Finland (Finns tend to be very vocal and proud of any international fame or recognition). The dance with it's controlled twitchy handmoves made me think of a Swan on acid - which may have been the purpose! But you have to credit Baranova for making any choreography look great on stage. She's a real artist.

My personal highlight of the evening came from China. Chinese dancers are often claimed as balletic machines, technically as perfect as one can hope to get. But they have also managed to retain expression and artistry, in both classical and contemporary variations. Yun Wang (senior, female) was already sublime in her variation of the Nutcracker pas de deux. In the contemporary round she presented us with a pas de deux of "Sacrifice". It was intensely emotional, sincere and sustained from the first second until the last "sacrifice", when the woman changed into a red cloth and walked away from her partner. Was the red cloth a symbol of the Chinese flag? Or an allusion to the red apple in Paradise? Whichever way you decide, I think "Sacrifice" is a strong front-runner in the choreography competition!

Yun Wang (China) with non-competing partner Yang Jiao.
Photo courtesy of HIBC / Sakari Viika.

There were other delights too. Yoshiko Kamikusa (female junior, Japan) started her dance without music, and dared to draw the wait out. It worked because she had a very strong presence on stage, and because it was so different from all the classically infused dances. Another Japanese competitor, Yonen Takano (male senior), made me think of a Japanese salaryman in his black suit and white shirt. The tie had already come undone, and Takano was letting loose. For once, the tours en l'air matched the contemporary choreography! Katherine Gazda (junior, Canada) danced her own choreography, which is quite a feat for a fifteen-year old. Much of the dance showcased her considerable physical abilities, but it was danced with conviction. Gazda is a young talent to look out for!

Yoshiko Kamikusa (Japan). "Blume der Nacht".
Photo courtesy of HIBC / Sakari Viika.

I was happy to see most of my personal favorites make it to the final round, if only to see them perform again! Katherine Higgins from the USA (junior) has been a pleasure to watch, both on stage and backstage. When I observed one of the warm-up classes, she looked happy just to be there. That and effortless technique, plus beautiful balances. Alys Shee (junior), also from Canada, is another very talented and secure dancer - can't wait to see her again! Betsy McBride (USA) has solid technique and lovely stage presence. She's got one of those radiant smiles that cheer you up, no matter what. András Rónai (junior, Hungary) has technique, looks and showmanship - qualities that should land him a contract easily enough.

Ballet is an incredibly tough job, and if there's no love for the work and for the dance, it's just too hard. I do hope all the dancers get what they came looking for, whether that's a learning experience, a contract or a prize. As a member of the audience, I only ask that you keep calm and dance full out. Enjoy the experience, forget about the competition. Dance for us - we are there to applaud you!

Katherine Higgins (USA), Odette's variation.
Photo courtesy of HIBC / Sakari Viika.

June 3, 2012

HIBC: Petipa Paused

After three evenings of classical variations, the semifinal round of contemporary dance was like a breath of fresh air - much like the rather chilly June weather in Helsinki. And no offense to Petipa and Co, but there's such a thing of too much of a good thing, especially if it means parading one Sleeping Beauty after another onto stage. I counted eleven, and I'm not kidding. Beauty is popular, but it is also frequently misunderstood. Aurora may be for some the epitome of the ballerina-in-a-music-box, but she is also a young girl on the verge of womanhood. Aurora knows her childhood is about to end, and that is her duty to wed. Yet she never loses her dignity, nor her spirit - and we get to see her blossom into a sensuous woman. So you see, Sleeping Beauty's variation has more to it than dainty port de bras and prettiness.. 

Non-competing Wang Ye was a sublime Esméralda to partner
Sun Ruichen (China, senior). Her dancing was elegant, tasteful and sensuous.
Photo courtesy of HIBC / Sakari Viika.

Of course, it is challenging to dance a variation out of context, even when it's been practiced close to perfection. How do you interpret the role, how do you bring the character across to the audience? How do you let your personality shine through? High extensions, loose-hipped arabesques and multiple turns are everywhere, and they alone do not a great dancer make. Clean technique and beautiful lines, ballon, elevation, musicality, confidence, good taste, personality and artistry - these are the qualities I keep looking for. A dancer who is technically strong and confident and happy enough to take some risks on stage. Someone who understands that every step, movement and moment has to have a meaning in the dance. And that is not to showcase your über-flexibility to the judges. This is not So You Think You Can Dance..

Then again, I would have wished for some of the "sick" street dancing you see on SYTYCD, instead of the lyrical jazz, neo-classical ballet or Forsythe knock-offs we were presented in the second round. Too many dancers relied too heavily on what they know best: classical ballet technique. Adding a flexed leg here and there, or being serious instead of smiling does not yet a contemporary choreography make. I would love to see these young and very talented dancers be more brave and daring in their choices. But I do get it. Sometimes it feels better to play it safe and at least show off your bravado technique and facility. At best you can hope to get a contract, and with that hopefully access to some really interesting new choreography!

Jingchang Gu, in "My First Modern Dance". Choreography: Tisa Zhang
Photo courtesy of HIBC / Sakari Viika.

Still, despite my ramblings to the contrary, there were some noteworthy highlights last night. Jingchang Gu (male, born 1997) from China danced an amusingly titled "My First Modern Dance" - and I bet my pointe shoes it won't be his last! The movements reminded me of Eastern martial arts and yoga, minus the cliches. This was not Karate Kid gone ballet, but intense and bold modern dancing. Bravo! Another personal favorite was Franceso Gabriele Frola's (Italy, born 1992) pas de deux - with another male dancer! From a strictly girly point of view, it doesn't hurt the eyes to watch two semi-nude male dancers (who happen to be in great shape and very handsome) on stage. From a more critical POW, the choreography also had artistic value. Although the dance could have benefited from a little less pathos and a change of music (not a huge fan of the Eurovision-style soundtrack). But you have to credit Frola for taking the path less danced - he is one dancer to look out for!

Franceso Gabriele Frola (long leggings) with Lorenzo Eccher in "Magnificat".
Choreography by Francesco Frola. Photo courtesy of HIBC / Sakari Viika.

I also enjoyed Stephanie Chen Gundorph Møller's (Denmark, born 1993) interpretation of "Thirst". She was partnered by the non-competing Lukas Møller (her brother?), who is also the choreographer. I had seen Stephanie before in the variation from The Flower Festival in Genzano, and her clean Bournonville technique had made an impression. Yet she was more interesting in this contemporary dance, and I was happy to see her express herself in a non-conformist manner. Go Stephanie!

Stephanie Chen Gundorph Møller and Lukas Møller in "Thirst".
Photo courtesy of HIBC / Sakari Viika.

I should also mention Candice Adea (Philippines, born 1986), she is a favorite of mine from the first round. Her pas de deux titled "Evacuation" made me think of pair skating with its many innovative and very tricky new moves. I wish I could have seen a different side of Adea's personality, something more vulnerable perhaps, but I do appreciate the novelty act of their choreography. It certainly was a big crowd pleaser!

Tonight: Second round of the semi-finals.

June 2, 2012

HIBC: About Sitz Bones and Nerves

Popo down! It's one of the more frequent corrections we get in ballet class, meaning that we have to keep ourselves properly aligned to create that beautiful ballet line. I haven't had class since the Helsinki International Ballet Competition (HIBC) started, but my popo has been down every evening - and I mean sitting down! Seriously, you need some strong sitz bones to make it through the daily competition rounds. The first dancers step on stage a few minutes past 19:00 hrs, and the last competitors take their bows a little before 22:00. Wich comes down to almost three hours of variation after variation, with one 30 minute intermission after two hours. But we all do it for the love of ballet! It is a wonderful treat to see all this young talent, and the audience has been showing their appreciation night after night. I hope the dancers feel it too, that we all want them to succeed and enjoy their time on stage!

Maria Baranova (Finland). Just look at her eyes!
Photo: courtesy of HIBC / Sakari Viika.

Competitions are nerveracking, for sure, but somehow the dancer has to channel that excitement and adrenaline into a positive force. If you let your nerves get the better of you, it turns into a killjoy - and the audience can tell. A week ago I performed in my dance school's spring show, and although it's all for fun, I was nervous as hell. I worried too much about failing and looking bad, instead of trusting myself and enjoying the experience. Luckily, I wasn't on stage alone and my initial fear and tension was swept away by our joint energy and joy! Looking back, I now understand how important it is not to sabotage yourself. Believe that you can, no matter what. When you step on stage there is no stepping back, not until you've given it all you've got and received the audience's applause!

Yun Wang (China) in her variation from Nutcracker.
Brilliant technique and artistry! Also one of the prettiest tutus.
Photo courtesy of HIBC / Sakari Viika.

Watching the competitors this past week has really inspired me. The poise before pressure, the smiling faces, the drive and determination. Ballet is incredibly hard, contracts even harder to come by, yet they persist and dance on. Someone who doesn't know about ballet would probably wonder if it's really worth all the aches and pains and nerves and sweat and tears, but it is. I know this, even though I'm looking from the outside in. Ballet is an art full of wonder, and a learning experience from the first step until the last. Ballet pushes you, tests you, and on occasion kicks you into the butt. Ballet is also a gift that keeps on giving, to the dancer and the audience. It elevates us all.

Ryo Shimizu (Japan), in his variation from La Sylphide.
This junior has amazing ballon and elevation!
Photo courtesy of HIBC / Sakari Viika.

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, ...