December 24, 2012

Snowflakes Outside my Window

Today, on the morning of Christmas Eve, I did my last dash to the grocery store. Not so much dashing as stomping my way through ankle-deep new snow. It has been snowing all of December, every single day, at least that I can remember. On Christmas Eve stores close at noon, and won't open again until Thursday. Finns take Joulu (Finnish for Christmas) very seriously and like to make an early retreat. I do enjoy this time of the year: the snowed-in landscapes, the candle light in the evenings, the mulled wine and other Christmas treats (chocolate being a year-round favorite), the Nutcracker season - and Snowflakes. I love the dance of the Snowflakes most, and wish I could just once be one. Frothy tutu and glittering tiara included. Sadly, the only snowflakes I encounter are outdoors..

Snowflakes in Royal Ballet's Nutcracker. Photo (c) Alice Pennefather / ROH.

When I was still in school, I used to ski and ice skate outdoors whenever there was snow and ice. I'm ashamed to say that I've gotten lazy since. It's much more comfy to sweat in a dance studio, even though sub-zero temperatures mean extra layers of warm-up wear. However, since I discovered that the field at the edge of the forest (I can see it from my window) is now an ice skating field.. Maybe it's time to get myself new skates? I just realised that I haven't ice skated since I started ballet! Professional ballerinas (or those in the making) are probably not supposed to, because of the risk of injury. At least that's what my teacher said. But I'm no ballerina, I can risk falling on my butt. And after twenty years of sticking to non-iced grounds that's pretty likely to happen.

Speaking of ballet (that's what this blog is about after all): I'm taking a break from ballet! Just for the duration of our eleven-day Christmas break, nothing more. And nothing less. This time around, I really need it. There was that stress from moving house, then rehearsals on top of regular classes, then the xmas show, followed by more classes and other stress... and then I kinda zonked out. The last class of 2012 went by in a sloppy-toed and tired blur. My teacher was not pleased with me, she thinks that I take class too seriously and get frustrated too easily - especially when I'm tired or stressed. Which admittedly is not far from the truth, but this time there were circumstances which I explained later. Anyway, my teacher knows me pretty well and reminded that we can't always do and be our best - and that's okay. No reason to get upset over. She's right, of course. But sometimes life is hard, and even ballet class can't make it right. Better, yes.

New York City Ballet's Snowflakes. Photo (c) Paul Kolnik.

So, I'm not really counting the last class of 2012 as the grand finale of my ballet year. That, my friends, took place in the preceding Tuesday and Wednesday lessons. In Marie-Pierre's class I got the kind of corrections that push you further, and the inspiration that lifts you higher - literally. I love that she teaches the way she sees it, without watering ballet down for us adult recreational "ballerinas". The demand for quality is always there, as is the refining of your technique and expression. It doesn't matter so much how high you can lift your legs, but what does matter is how you do it. There is not a moment wasted, not a beat that isn't danced to the best of your ability - present and future.

Tuesday's class was even more awesome than usual. Because of the upcoming Holidays, there were less of us - which translated into more to do and more corrections from a very demanding Marie-Pierre. Sure, I could sometimes take class without, but getting those personal corrections always changes something for the better. Or, at least it gives you an idea where to go from here. For instance, when were doing ronde de jambes, I was told to watch out for that last moment in ecarté (the hardest bit). There are still a few millimeters left to turn my heel out even more. Not forcing anything, but using proper alignment and awareness. I'm continuously surprised that there is so much "more" for me to accomplish! "More!" is in fact something I frequently hear from Madame. It means being generous with your/mine plié, with the length of your allongé, with you presence and projection.

Artists of the National Ballet of Canada backstage at The Nutcracker. Photo (c) Bruce Zinger.

Another awesome moment of Tuesday: I finally nailed my pirouettes right in front of my teacher! She was walking backwards, following our line (a little unnerving) - and I felt confident and on top of my legs. Clean doubles, both en dehors and en dedans. Clean meaning properly aligned heels, which is always a challenge for me. Madame keeps reminding me every time, but this time even she was finally happy. Result! There was also a moment in pointe class. We were doing balances in center, and I had that same secure and calm feeling. From fifth, degagés en avant and arrière (about 45°), and passé retirés - plié and repeat. It's impossible to do the entire exercise without a wobble, but I managed a few nice balances. Marie-Pierre gave me an appreciative nod afterwards on top of the regular praise (she's very generous that way). Yay! There was more, both in the way of corrections and getting-it-right moments - but I want to wrap this up in time to unwrap my xmas presents...

Snowflakes from San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker. Photo (c) Erik Tomasson.

Wednesday was "Johanna's Pirouette Day." Really, that's what our teacher Gabriella called it after class (not those exact words in English, but that's the gist of it). Most had left already, only a dance buddy (with better turns than mine) was still there. I would have known it even without the praise, but it's always nice being acknowledged. Especially after a very long and insecure non-turning plateau. I'm not sure what was different, because I know my technique has been there for much longer. It must have been the calm and happy state I was in. No stress, just having fun, while remaining focused in the moment. Even my bad spotting was better - and I managed a rare triple (rare for me). My pirouettes were not the only cherries of that class, it was the entire atmosphere: relaxed, fun, motivated. I had enough energy to do two classes back to back, and Gabriella pushed me to go for a deeper penché and a higher leg. Apparently I can do it! Yay!

But now it's time to rest and recharge ballet batteries. My right knee has been acting up since Thursday, I suspect it's something to do with quads and their tendons, right where they attach at the top of the knee. It hurts when I do a deep plie on one leg, and gets achy after being bent for too long. I have now eight full days to recover, and hope that does it. All I plan to do is enjoy the snow (inside and outdoors), watch several Nutcrackers, read some, write some, eat well and plenty, meet family and friends and have a lovely time. I wish you the same: a wonderful Christmas and Happy Holidays!

- Johanna

All photos not credited are (c) Pointe Til You Drop.

December 12, 2012

Get Your Face On

I'm pretty good with my port de bras. At times I have to watch out for the droopy elbows, and take care that fingers don't freeze into positions. Oh, and make sure that arms are not too high in first, and not too far back in couronne. But, all in all, I think that my port de bras is one of my stonger suits. This, however, is not the case with my port de tête. I know to look sideways when the steps call for it, or front when it's first arabesque - you know, the basic directions. But other than that, my face and eyes tend to stay too much straight ahead. It makes my dancing look static, like I'm just going through the motions.

"Present yourself!" It's perhaps the most frequent guidelines we get to hear in class - and personally speaking, one of the hardest. I get shy in front of an audience, even if it's just the teacher and my classmates watching. Not the kind of shy where I blush and retreat to the corner, but the kind that has me dancing smaller than I could. Like a wallflower, instead of a blooming rose.. I hesitate to put myself out there, to get my face on and dance full out, expressions and all. I'd rather keep my poker face, check my alignment in the mirror and smile mostly on the inside.

Somewhere along I forgot that dancing involves the entire body, literally from head to toes. Partly it's because the performing aspect is fairly new to me. Before, ballet class was something I did for myself only - in the sense that an (imaginary) audience was never part of class. I enjoyed dancing as such, and did not give much thought to what my face looked like or when and how I should tilt my head. Or how to project and present myself. But I'm getting there.

Seeing myself on video has definitely helped. After you get over the cringe-factor, it's an excellent learning experience. I could see that while my chaînés turned alright, my head was too slow to spot. It made my turning look sluggish. I could also see that the lack of port de tête makes my dancing look boring, which is not the quality I'm looking for! One of my teachers (Marie-Pierre) saw our spring show, and noted the same (the static head - not the boring aspect). Yesterday, she told me that she had planned to work on this with me, but during the long summer break kind of forgot about it (we have been focusing on other things). Anyway, we had a short chat before class about the upcoming show, and then she made me work like I was on stage already. Marie-Pierre reminded me to use my head and eyes and gave me exact directions, even through pointe class. When to tilt my head in pas de bourré, change directions, or how to present myself - not just the basic academics, but the dancing. There is so much to learn, so much to express! A subtle movement here, a big pose there. Nuances, shades and colours. Time to get my face on.

December 10, 2012

Moving Day

I've been saying that home is where the barre is, but last week I found myself a new home. Initially, this was not by choice but out of necessity. My old building is undergoing massive renovation and us renters were asked to vacate our apartments by a certain due date. I found my new place pretty much last-minute, and had to arrange everything within a week. I gotta tell you, I haven't been this tired in years. Did a crazy amount of sorting, recycling and throwing stuff out, packing, lifting, carrying, and unpacking stuff. The amount of said stuff one person accumulates over the years is just unbelievable. I finally had to say goodbye to stacks of ancient Dance Magazines (I saved one), shabby leos and even most of my old (pointe) shoes. But I did make a few fun discoveries in the process, like ballet programmes I had saved from almost twenty years ago..

Well, I couldn't throw Darcey out! The issue is from September 1994, and Darcey was hailed as a Balanchine natural..  The programme in the middle is from Platel's and Legris' guest performance in Giselle, here at the Finnish National Ballet. I can't believe it's been twenty years! I still remember that night, it was pure magic. Legris had the most insane batterie, and Platel was just so delicate and beautiful. Another thing that continues to amaze me: I have danced a small bit from Giselle on that same stage! Of course it's not the National Ballet's stage anymore (they moved into a new building), but I love the history of that old theatre. On the far right is the programme from POB's 1995 tour to Finland. I got to see "Paquita" (Grand Pas and Pas de Trois), Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments" and Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated". Etoiles such as Nicholas Le Riche, Laurent Hilaire, Monique Loudières, Isabelle Guerin, principal dancers Agnès Letestu, José Martinez, and up-and-coming dancers such as Aurélie Dupont. It was absolutely breathtaking and flabbergasting, and I still remember the chills down my spine.

In between the packing and unpacking I managed to sneak in a few ballet classes. Which I can barely remember, I was that tired. But I needed class so bad even a snow storm couldn't stop me! My body was in all the wrong kinds of pain: stabbing needles in my neck, weird aches all over - I knew a good barre would set me right again. And that it did, although it took me almost a week to recover fully. Meanwhile, lots of wobbly balances and spaced-out moments mid-music. Who knew left and right could be so hard to keep apart? But I'm good now - and happily settled in my new-home-without-a-barre. It's a tiny studio, but neat and with a nice view into the woods and the sky above. The name of the street has a poetic sound to it, and if I were to translate it into English, I could say I'm living on a moonbeam.. Kind of fitting for a former wili, don't you think?

My Big Move inspired me to make another change: I moved my barre spot in class! We had to switch studios because one of the fixed barres snapped into half, and apparently you can't buy spare barres off the shelve. So while we wait for our new custom-made barre to be delivered, we have taken over the big studio with the grand windows and view to the theatre and Finland's biggest department store. It's a nice view, with Christmas lights and snow-frosted trees. I had already settled back into my old spot, but after moving homes I decided to be bold. I switched in front of a window, which is a bit drafty this time of the year, but I get to see myself in profile to the mirror. It's not my favorite angle, but that's why it makes sense! My teacher noticed my move too, and thought it a good idea. Now I can check my alignment in the mirror and adjust my popo, turn-out, heels, and whatnot. Mind you, this is not a permanent move. Once we get back into our regular studio, everyone is likely to return to their old spots. Still, it all feels like new beginnings..

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, ...