May 31, 2016

The Charismatic Dancer

Talent and technique - all of the dancers at the International Ballet Competition (IBC) Helsinki have plenty of both. Every day I've been awed by their highly fine-tuned instruments and athletic feats, in class and on stage. Double-split sissone ouverts (I don't know the correct term), over-head attitude tambourine kicks, tours en l'air, multiple pirouettes (as much as ten), double fouetté turns, hops and balances on pointe, breathtakingly beautiful arabesques... But there's one skill that you cannot measure or count: stage presence. Some dancers just have it. They draw you in the moment they set foot on stage, not with tricks but with personality, the light in their eyes, their entire countenance and presence.

Present yourself - on stage and in class

We all know about the hard work that goes into ballet technique, but how do you practice presence? Is charisma something that you're born with - and if so, where does that leave the rest (of us)? The way I see it, the most charismatic dancers are not necessarily the prettiest girls, or the most princely danseurs. Not that having beautiful features has ever been a disadvantage to a performing artist, especially in in the world of ballet. Even so, much can be done with the right stage make-up, emphasizing eyes and features to suit the dancer, mood and lighting. Charisma, however, is not cosmetic. It's not a pasted on perma-grin, but a radiant smile that reaches the eyes - and the audience. Even if the choreography is somber or tragic, the dancer with stage presence knows how to present and project - all the way into the nosebleed section.

"Present yourself, be beautiful, make it interesting, be generous..." Some of the advice I've been given by my own ballet teacher. Despite ballet being a performing art, the aspect of performance came very late to me. I was already 40 when I had my first show! And scared stiff, literally. I was way too nervous and unprepared to enjoy any of it, but it was also a valuable learning experience. Stage presence starts already in class. The way you use your épaulement, your head and eyes, your stance, every step you take. Confident, believing in yourself, standing tall, elongating your body, reaching out, never being stingy with yourself. Also, your attitude and mood, the way you present and conduct yourself: positive, attentive, alert, energetic, respectful, 100% happy to be there. I have always loved being in class, working hard, dancing... Everybody I know knows I'm passionate about ballet - but I'm not exactly known for possessing charisma. Rather, I'm the student with concentration face (focused, not mad), and timid demeanor. You know, it's okay to be shy and sensitive and introvert... But when you feel small, it actually helps to dance big!

First Round, last day

Sitting in the audience in Almi Hall, I again had the pleasure of seeing many awe-inspiring and beautiful performances. Yimeng Sun (China, seniors, b. 1993) was a delightful Sleeping Beauty, pure and delicate with crystal clear lines and lovely musicality. Anastasia Tillman (USA, juniors, b. 1999) was in her element as Kitri, nailing the traveling turns-from-fith diagonal with doubles at the end. You can always tell when someone is dancing their favorite variation... Fangqi Li (China, juniors, b. 1998) danced a stunning Esmeralda with exquisite balances and, yes, stage presence. The boys/men continue to be absolutely incredible with their athletic prowess, roof-high jumps and dizzying turns. For the men, classical solo variations are all about showing off bravado technique, it is their forte. Variations from Le Corsaire, Esmeralda, La Bayadère, Don Quixote were most popular - standard competition fare. Frederico Loureiro (Portugal, juniors, b. 2000) displayed extraordinary flexibility and ballon for his young age. Kengo Nishiko (Japan, seniors, b. 1992) and Hojin Leon (South Korea, seniors, b. 1991) were among the many double-splitting flyers.

Frederico Loureiro and Yimeng Sun. Photography by Mirka Kleemola.

Other dancers and performances were not quite there yet. Ella Puurtinen (Finland, juniors, b.1998), I think, would benefit from a scholarship... She still needs to build strength and confidence, but certainly has a lot of potential. Sara Antikainen (Finland, juniors, b. 1997), on the other hand, was both secure and confident, but the tempo of her Giselle variation was too slow for my liking. Giselle is delicate, and dreamy - not lethargic. I've seen Antikainen dance before, in La Sylphide at the National Ballet School's showcase, and it was an absolutely lovely performance. One dancer's big chance was sadly ruined by the poor quality of her pre-recorded music. Maria Martyanova (Finland, seniors, b. 1995) has gorgeous lines, but both variations were a pain in the ear. After her performances, there was actually an audible rumbling of disfavor among the viewers. It is one thing to use a poor recording for practice, but not in front of a live audience and jury. It's a disservice to the dancer as well - her dancing clearly suffered from the bad sound.

Of course, two variations do not tell the entire story... Competitors who are already company members have to fit training into their rehearsal and performance schedules. Ballet students have school and homework to take care of. Seasoned competitors (juniors or seniors) have the advantage of experience. Some rise to the occasion, others need more time and practice to mature. It is good to remember that there are no losers at IBC Helsinki - even the dancers who don't win medals or scholarships, have gained unique and valuable learning experiences.

Mesmerizing Esmeralda

For me, the highlight of the evening was Yoshiko Kamikusa (Canada, seniors, b.1995). Her variation from The Nutcracker (chor. Lev Ivanov) was not flashy, but flawless and radiantly elegant. I had last seen Kamikusa four years ago, when she competed in the junior division at IBC Helsinki, but I did not know what to expect. I knew she had already danced principal roles at the Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet - despite being in the corps, so I wasn't worried... But her first variation was still a most delightful surprise. Her second variation, Esmeralda, brought the house down. Technically both brilliant and flawless, super-secure multiple turns, above-the-head attitude tambourine kicks - which she still managed to look elegant, not circus-y, high extensions, strong jump. But most of all: stage presence. Yoshiko Kamikusa's interpretation was mature, spell-binding, musical, and mesmerizing. The definition of charismatic.

Yoshiko Kamikusa. Photography by Mirka Kleemola.


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, ...