Back to the ballet!

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Aaaaaah, the glories of Lincoln Center!

Jose and I treated ourselves to tickets for the winter season, and what a joy it was to settle back into those red plush seats below that gorgeous floral-shaped ceiling.

The first evening offered three Balanchine pieces, the first, his first, from 1928, Apollo. It was…the work of a young choreographer. It felt very much of the period. I’m glad I saw it — what else (beyond some classical music) — of the 1920s are we still consuming culturally?

The second piece, Orpheus, which I loved, was from 1948. Like the others on the evening’s program, it’s a ballet with no sets and very simple costumes, to music by Stravinsky. The minimal set was by now legendary designer Isamu Noguchi.

Orpheus, as all you Greek myths geeks already know, is the heart-breaking story of Orpheus descending into Hades to reclaim Eurydice — only if he refuses to look at her until they are back in the earthly word. But he looks, killing her instantly, forever.

The third ballet, pure form, is from 1957, Agon. Loved it. It’s everyone’s first ballet class; the girls in black leotards with simple blacks, the boys (as adults are called throughout their ballet careers), in black tights and tight white T-shirts.

It demands the fiercest technique — no gorgeous costumes or tricky lighting or elaborate sets to distract the eye. There were some wobbly moments of partnering, which made it a bit more human.

 

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The Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, one of my greatest pleasures of living in New York

 

We had terrific seats in the orchestra, ($79 each, to me an absolute bargain for the value) and had a great time people-watching; such elegance! Ladies in floor-length furs, young girls in sparkly shoes, a pair of stylish young Parisiennes in the row in front of us.

I came home so excited to be back in the world of ballet, a world I entered as a young girl, taking classes with vague and unrealizable hopes of joining more seriously; I tried out a few times for Toronto’s National Ballet School and lived a block away from it in my early 20s, watching the fortunate few enter and exit those hallowed halls, walking with the dancer’s distinctive head-erect, shoulders-back, feet-turned-out gait.

In my 20s, I was fortunate to become a regular reviewer of the National Ballet of Canada (free tickets!) and was even flown from Toronto to Newfoundland to write about their life on tour, to help me produce an essay for their 35th anniversary program. Later, thanks to their PR director, I performed as an extra in eight performances of Sleeping Beauty at Lincoln Center — and have even been in its rehearsal rooms.

 

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The lights on the front of each balcony look like jewels and the gold is covered with a sort of netting effect. The proscenium looks like it’s made of thin gold chains laid together

 

Here’s a fantastic series of short films I found on Youtube about NYC Ballet, from 2014. If you love ballet, you will learn a lot about what happens everywhere but on-stage.

I now have a much better sense of NYCB dancers and some of their unlikely trajectories and backstories.

Interestingly, Peter Martins — subject of one of the videos and its long-time director — is gone, having retired in January 2018 after 24 allegations of bullying and sexual harassment by former dancers and dance students.

 

 

It is a brutal world.

It is a beautiful world.

 

 

Ballet at Lincoln Center, onstage and off

By Caitlin Kelly

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Watching a ballet at the Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City is one of my favorite things to do; if you haven’t yet been to New York or taken in a ballet there, add it to your to-do list!

Lincoln Center, three majestic white marble buildings centered around a stunning circular fountain, sits on the west side of Manhattan, spanning several blocks in the 60s. Walking across its plaza in the darkness always creates a sense of anticipation and elegance, whether you’re going to the opera or the ballet.

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The Koch theater, one of my great pleasures of living in New York

I’ve attended performances there over the years — and have even performed on  its stage, in the National Ballet of Canada’s production of Sleeping Beauty, with Rudolf Nureyev in the lead.

I’d studied ballet since I was 12 and had written about it before, so I was invited to come from Toronto to New York to be an extra — or “super” in the ballet. I was one of four “ladies in black” whose presence on stage in Act One presages the entrance of the witch Carabosse, who casts the spell on Princess Aurora, and puts her into a deep sleep. I didn’t have to dance, but walk beautifully and persuasively in costume so no one would suspect I wasn’t a professional dancer.

As a freelance journalist, I was sent on assignment to write about it by Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe & Mail — and dictated my story over the phone from my hotel room at the Empire Hotel to an editor in its Toronto newsroom. (No Internet then!)

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What an adventure!

We had no dress rehearsal. We didn’t see our costumes until opening night and my shoes were very tight. I didn’t know the score, and came down (!) several bars too soon, leading three others down a staircase too early behind me. Ohhhhhhh, shit!

I’ve done many crazy things in my life, but staring out at that enormous audience in that prestigious venue, was fairly terrifying. I did all eight performances, exiting every night, as one does, though the stage door — which I now only get to see from the outside.

Last weekend I went with a friend to see the New York City Ballet’s version of Swan Lake, a classic first performed in Moscow in the 1890s. The music is gorgeous, the story — as often with classical ballet — one of deception and mistaken identity, the action orchestrated by a wicked sorcerer against a noble prince being forced to choose a bride.

The NYCB version is short, with only two acts, and the stage set is spectacular — designed by a Danish artist, poet and geologist. One of the reasons ballet is such a rich experience is its combination of sets, costumes, music, choreography and extraordinary dancing, creating a wealth of beauty.

The dancing we saw was a bit spotty, some of it excellent and some of it raggedy, including some of the pas de deux work where partnering is key, the ballerina relying heavily on her partner’s strength and sensitivity to allow her to do her best.

We had excellent seats in the second ring (balcony), with great sight lines; the Koch Theater has four rings, (you can see fine from higher up, but binoculars are helpful from that height.) Our tickets were $103 apiece, which is a lot of money for one show, although I paid $85 in 2006 to see Romeo and Juliet for similar seats, so it’s not much of a price increase in 11 years.

Having written about the ballet several times from backstage, I also really appreciate knowing what it  takes to make every performance even possible.

 

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Read your program notes carefully and you’ll find credits for everyone from the wig master to physical therapists and masseurs; it truly takes hundreds of highly-trained specific talents to mount a production, even before the first dancer begins to pirouette. Those pink satin pointe shoes can cost $100 or more per pair — and the corps de ballet alone had 24 women.

 

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Dancers work through pain every day

 

I’ve been going to the ballet since I was a small child in Toronto, and never tire of it, whether the warhorses of Sleeping Beauty, Giselle and Swan Lake or more modern pieces. One of my favorites is Serenade by Balanchine. That music brings tears to my eyes every time — and the opening montage is unforgettable.

I’m glad I did all those pliés and tendues, because I know, in a small way, the incredible hard work, athleticism and dedication it demands.

 

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The Koch Theater railings have lacy, gilded dividers and the diamond-like lights repeat in the exterior and hall interior

Have you been to the ballet?

 

 

What did you see?

 

Did you enjoy it?

 

 

Everything is beautiful at the ballet…

By Caitlin Kelly

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Dancers work through pain every day

Fresh pink satin pointe shoes.

Clouds of dry ice.

Swans.

Layers of tulle.

Men in tights, soaring through the air as if they have strings pulling them aloft.

Dancing mice.

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If you love dance, music, gorgeous costumes, physical prowess, grace and strength, ballet’s for you!

NB: to my British readers — on December 19, BBC2 will broadcast the documentary “Rudolf Nureyev: Dance to Freedom”

People sometimes assume all ballet is stuffy 19th century tedium — Swan Lake, Giselle and Sleeping Beauty — but there are many modern ballets as well that eschew fancy costume and sets for minimalism.

If you’ve ever seen Rodeo, choreographed in 1942 by Agnes de Mille, you’ll know what fun it can be.

Even if you can only afford a seat in the 4th tier, (aka the nosebleeds), take a pair of binoculars and savor it all.

Even better, take a young friend, boy or girl, and introduce them to the utter joy of detaching from a screen, while gasping with wonder at what an exquisitely-trained human body can do.

Any boy who dismisses ballet as “sissy” needs to witness its astounding athleticism — and watch the terrific film “Billy Elliot.”

I’ve been studying ballet since I was 12 and took classes in Toronto at the National Ballet School; I auditioned to become a full-time student at the school a few times but was told I had the wrong body.

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The interior of the Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. The railings have lacy, gilded dividers and the diamond-like light motif repeats in the exterior and hall interior

In the decades since, I’ve reviewed ballet many times in Toronto, danced eight performances at Lincoln Center in Sleeping Beauty with Rudolf Nureyev in the role of the prince, and teared up every time at the opening notes of Balanchine’s 1934 “Serenade.”

It is exquisite.

Here, from The Wall Street Journal, a story about it a former dancer who performed it:

As the heavy gold curtain rises at the start of “Serenade,” 17 girl dancers in long, pale-blue gowns are arranged in two adjoining diamonds, tethered estrogen. We do not move, grip gravity, feet parallel, pointe shoes suctioned together side by side, head tilted to the right. The right arm is lifted to the side in a soft diagonal, palm facing outward, fingers extending separately, upwardly, shielding as if from some lunar light. This is the first diagonal in “Serenade,” a ballet brimming with that merging line: This is female terrain.

From this opening choir of sloping arms flows an infinite number of such lines, some small, some huge. There is the “peel,” where 15 dancers form a full-stage diagonal, each body in profile, slightly in front of the last, and then, one by one, each ripples off into the wings, creating a thrilling wave of whirling space. In later sections, there are off-center arabesque lunges, drags and upside-down leaps, a double diagonal crisscrossing of kneeling, pushing and turning, and then finally the closing procession heading to high upstage. Ballet is live geometry, a Euclidean art, and “Serenade” illustrates a dancer’s trajectory, a woman’s inclined ascent.

 

To some people, ballet is a hopelessly outmoded art — created in the 15th century and popularized in France by King Louis XIV.

I find it elegant and love using and watching its French formal vocabulary: dégagés, fouettés, battements, arabesques, pas de chat, (literally the cat’s step, a leap with both feet tucked inward facing one another).

I take a jazz dance class twice a week; even there ballet still dominates, as  its positions and movements form the foundation of many other forms of dance.

Ballet is a body language — once you speak it, it’s in you for life. Even when I lift weights at the gym, I’ll sometimes finish with a “port de bras”, graceful extensions of my arms out to my fingertips.

I was lucky enough to perform at Lincoln Center in my early 20s, although “perform” is less the right word than “survive.”I wrote about it for the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper.

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As an extra — they’re called “supers”, short for “supernumeraries” — I had no knowledge of the score or how my movements related to those of all the others on stage with me. My costume was heavy and very expensive and my shoes were far too tight. My role was both essential to the overall look and feel of the performances and far too small to matter to anyone in charge.

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more scared, staring out at an audience who had paid very good money for professional excellence. (My orchestra seat for the Nutcracker this month was an eye-watering $170.00.)

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I learned not to wear anything beneath my costume. As I left the stage entrance, a few people asked for my autograph. We stayed across the street at the Empire Hotel, its enormous red neon sign glowing still high above Broadway.

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I came away from NYCB’s Nutcracker with surprisingly mixed feelings. The entire first act is mostly acting, with very little dancing, which I found dull. Act II’s pas de deux was wobbly. And some of what was amusing in 1954, the year the ballet was made, reads a little less so today — like the three Chinese characters who embody now-dusty stereotypes.

If you’re a dancer visiting New York City, you must visit the dance supply shop Capezio, (named for its founder), which has several city branches. The one at 51st and Broadway is huge, on the second floor, and you enter, oddly, through the lobby of an office building.

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Inside is everything a dancer could want, from those black rubber pants and shorts to help shed weight (!) to a rainbow of leotards, tights, shoes, even round rotating platforms to help you perfect your pirouettes and long wooden forms over which to bend your arches to make them even higher.

The array of protection on offer is a testament — as any pointe veteran knows — to what a beating your toes take when you encase them in glue-stiffened satin and dance on them.

Inside those satin shoes is as much padding as one can fit!
Inside those satin shoes is as much padding as one can fit!

It’s amazing to watch, but pointe work is never kind to the feet and toes supporting you, no matter your age or skill.

Check out this great video of dancers at an airport — killing time doing plies!

Do you have a favorite ballet or dancer?

Have you studied it?

 

Dance: doing it, making it, watching it, loving it!

By Caitlin Kelly

Obsessed!

One of the best things about living in or near New York City is access to great dance, whether excellent instruction, places to do it for fun and world-renowned companies coming to perform — the Bolshoi will soon be here, and later this year, The National Ballet of Canada, from my home and native land.

Last week I finally attended Midsummer Night Swing, a fantastic annual NYC event that lasts only three short weeks, with a different band each night, and a different kind of music, from soukous to swing. I went with my husband for the disco night, took a jazz dance class the following morning then went to the swing dance night Friday with a band led by my friend Elizabeth Bougerol, The Hot Sardines.

They are an amazing young band, formed only a few years ago, but soon to release their first album. They play music of the 1920s and 30s, classics like the St. James Infirmary. Elizabeth, who is half French and half Canadian, sings and plays the washboard.

MNS is held in Damrosch Park — with a huge, temporary dance floor constructed just for the occasion — and tickets are $17. Typically Manhattan, the park is ringed on the south side by Fordham Law School and fancy apartment towers, while on the west side are public housing projects. You can check your bag or backpack for $3, eat some barbecue and dance your heart out!

It’s a wild and touching scene: dapper African-American men in three-piece suits and porkpie hats; hipsters in linen suits; slim young women with twirly skirts, (one in a black neoprene knee brace). Parents dance with their little children and people in their 60s, 70s and beyond dance with one another, smoothly practiced after decades in rhythm.

From "Bella Figura" by Czech choreographer Jiri Kylian -- the first bare-breasted ballet I've seen
From “Bella Figura” by Czech choreographer Jiri Kylian — the first bare-breasted ballet I’ve seen

Then, Saturday evening, I went back to Lincoln Center for the third night in a row, this time to see the Boston Ballet for the first time. I scored excellent seats — third row in the second ring — for $70 each. No, not cheap, but fully worth every penny: excellent sight-lines. full orchestra, terrific dancing, a wide range of choreography — and the timeless beauty of the theater itself, one of my favorites, (and on whose stage I performed as an extra with the National Ballet of Canada in Sleeping Beauty); here’s my blog post about it.)

The first program included the extraordinary brief ballet, Afternoon of a Faun, created in 1912 to music by Debussy and then considered extremely shocking. The dancer who performed it was Altan Dugaraa, from — of all places — Mongolia.

The Boston Ballet is extremely diverse, with dancers from Cuba, Canada, Kazakhstan, France, Italy, Albania, Armenia, Japan, Spain, Bulgaria, Hungary. It’s a young company! Only one dancer has been with them since 1993 and a few from 1999 to 2003. Their names! Dusty Button (a woman) and Bo Busby (male.)

The 2,586-seat theater, designed by Philip Johnson, was built in 1964 and is still lovely: airy, elegant, both simple and graceful. Here are some photos I took when I went back yet again on Sunday to see the second program, led off by a fantastic piece, The Second Detail, by William Forsythe, my favorite of the three dances that day.

Here’s a 4:04 video of it, with the odd, percussive score by Thom Willems.

There are five "rings" or balconies. The view from the second ring is terrific! Note the diamond-shaped lights.
There are five “rings” or balconies. The view from the second ring is terrific! Note the diamond-shaped lights.

 

 

The railings have lacy, gilded dividers and the diamond-like lights repeat in the exterior and hall interior
The railings have lacy, gilded dividers and the diamond-like lights repeat in the exterior and hall interior

I recently finished a six-month weekly class in choreography and wrote about it for Rewireme.com. I found it has radically changed how I think, how I perceive my body and my relationship to it, and it helped me begin to realize a dream I’ve had for years, to choreograph — a daunting fantasy for someone with a still-limited dance vocabulary, even after many years of studying ballet and jazz.

And here’s a very cool new app for choreographers. Now I’m eager to try it.

As someone who writes for a living, every word I publish, anywhere, is carefully considered and revised many times before I expose it to others’ views and opinions. But choreography class demands a wholly different way of thinking, creating, and responding to others—it’s intimate, instant, spontaneous, and public. Even with an audience of only two, I felt awkward at first, scared of being judged and deemed clumsy and foolish.

As a writer, my audience typically remains safely distant and invisible. Here I had to look someone in the eye, and see myself in the mirror, expressing my ideas without words, using only corporeal language. Would my teacher and classmate be able to hear me, to—literally—see my point?

In the studio there’s no time or space for foot-dragging, procrastination, or perfectionism, all of which writers are prone to. We could easily lose 20 to 30 minutes of valuable class time if we allow ourselves to be passive or ambivalent about our ideas. It’s better to just put something out there and mess with it.

– See more at: http://www.rewireme.com/explorations/choreography-class-opened-eyes/#sthash.jz1HCba4.dpuf

As someone who writes for a living, every word I publish, anywhere, is carefully considered and revised many times before I expose it to others’ views and opinions. But choreography class demands a wholly different way of thinking, creating, and responding to others—it’s intimate, instant, spontaneous, and public. Even with an audience of only two, I felt awkward at first, scared of being judged and deemed clumsy and foolish.

As a writer, my audience typically remains safely distant and invisible. Here I had to look someone in the eye, and see myself in the mirror, expressing my ideas without words, using only corporeal language. Would my teacher and classmate be able to hear me, to—literally—see my point?

In the studio there’s no time or space for foot-dragging, procrastination, or perfectionism, all of which writers are prone to. We could easily lose 20 to 30 minutes of valuable class time if we allow ourselves to be passive or ambivalent about our ideas. It’s better to just put something out there and mess with it.

– See more at: http://www.rewireme.com/explorations/choreography-class-opened-eyes/#sthash.jz1HCba4.dpuf

As someone who writes for a living, every word I publish, anywhere, is carefully considered and revised many times before I expose it to others’ views and opinions. But choreography class demands a wholly different way of thinking, creating, and responding to others—it’s intimate, instant, spontaneous, and public. Even with an audience of only two, I felt awkward at first, scared of being judged and deemed clumsy and foolish.

As a writer, my audience typically remains safely distant and invisible. Here I had to look someone in the eye, and see myself in the mirror, expressing my ideas without words, using only corporeal language. Would my teacher and classmate be able to hear me, to—literally—see my point?

In the studio there’s no time or space for foot-dragging, procrastination, or perfectionism, all of which writers are prone to. We could easily lose 20 to 30 minutes of valuable class time if we allow ourselves to be passive or ambivalent about our ideas. It’s better to just put something out there and mess with it.

– See more at: http://www.rewireme.com/explorations/choreography-class-opened-eyes/#sthash.jz1HCba4.dpuf

Dancing at Lincoln Center with Rudolf Nureyev — my true story

By Caitlin Kelly

A new museum has opened — 20 years after the death, in 1993 of AIDS, of 20th-century ballet’s most famed male dancer since Nijinksy, fellow Russian Rudolf Nureyev. The museum is not in Paris, where he’d wanted it to be, but in Moulins, a three-hour train ride from the capital.

English: Nurevey in his dressing room
English: Nurevey in his dressing room (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A report from The New York Times:

Centre National du Costume de Scène is in the Quartier Villars, an elegantly proportioned 18th-century barracks, renovated and extended after a near-brush with demolition in 1984. After the French government approved the idea of creating an archive for costumes belonging to the Paris Opera, the Comédie Française and the Bibliothèque Nationale, it took almost another decade to renovate the premises and add a section to contain and conserve the vast holdings. The government contributed around 80 percent of the renovation budget needed to install the collection (about $787,000), with the remainder coming from the museum and the foundation.

“It’s an international and important name that clearly draws people here,” Ms. Pinasa said. “The first few weeks have been very good.”

The collection is shown in three large rooms set apart from the museum’s main exhibition space; they were designed by Ezio Frigerio, who created sets for several of Nureyev’s productions. The first room is decorated with painted stage flats and offers spotlighted costumes in glass booths. Some were Nureyev’s own, most touchingly a simple pale blue doublet worn soon after his 1961 defection to the West, in “The Nutcracker.” There are also costumes from the ballets he staged, notably Hanae Mori’s 1920s-style outfit for Sylvie Guillem in “Cinderella,” an enchantment of pale-pink pleated silk, feathers and sequins, and the gold-embroidered blue-green silk tunic that is the warrior-hero Solor’s costume in the Nureyev production of “La Bayadère.”

I had the unlikely — and extraordinary — opportunity to share a stage with Nureyev for eight performances by the National Ballet of Canada in “Sleeping Beauty”, a classic, lush production.

I was then a young, ambitious Toronto-based journalist who knew the publicity director for the National Ballet after writing a magazine profile of one of their dancers. I’d studied ballet for many years, so I understood and loved that world. One day Marcia, (still a dear friend  decades later), called up and said: “How’d you like to come and be an extra with us in New York City at Lincoln Center with Nureyev?”

Who could possibly say no?

I was maybe 23 or 24 years old and had only performed, as an actress, in summer camp musicals. I had taken ballet classes for years and had auditioned (unsuccessfully) for Canada’s National Ballet School. I had never done pointe work, (not required as an extra), nor had I ever performed dance for anyone.

But what a story! I was game.

The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national daily, wanted the piece, and paid my travel expenses and we stayed across the street at the Empire Hotel, (featured in a great song by Canadian singer Joni Mitchell.)

As an extra — a “super”, (short for supernumerary, the civilians who are hired locally by ballet and opera companies to fill stages with bodies in costume) — I’d be needed for every performance.

I was chosen as one of four Ladies in Black, who presage the entrance of the witch Carabosse, who is not invited to Aurora’s 16th. party and who, furious, then casts a spell on everyone — creating the Sleeping Beauty who is Princess Aurora.

We had a few very basic rehearsals, like the artistic director impatiently humming the score, (which I barely knew!) while waving his arms at us distractedly in one of the Center’s rehearsal halls. Supers aren’t worth much attention when you’ve got principals to direct, and a corps de ballet and, oh yeah, Nureyev.

So I didn’t get a dress rehearsal, nor did I see or try on my costume or shoes until half an hour before opening night curtain. The shoes were so tight I could barely walk. My wig, with enormous buns over both ears, resembled a head of garlic. The dress weighed a ton, and I knew was worth a lot of money and I must not, on any account, damage it.

Since I barely knew the music, I wrote my stage directions on a piece of paper and taped it to the underside of my left wrist, hoping to sneak a glance at it while onstage.

On opening night, so nervous I could barely move, I managed to sweep down the wide staircase on stage, followed dutifully by the other three Ladies in Black — about 10 bars of music too early.

Holy shit.

“You came down too soon,” hissed a dancer pirouetting beside me.

The next night, while I tried to climb back up the same wide staircase at the rear of the stage after all the courtiers had fallen asleep under Carabosse’s spell a supine soldier’s sword got stuck in the thick folds of my gown.

I couldn’t move.

I couldn’t get his sword out of that valuable fabric.

And the orchestra played on, as the principal dancers hissed at me from behind “Hurry up!

Holy shit again.

Another night, as Nureyev, in his role as the Prince, dashed through the sleeping figures trying to see if anyone was awake, he stopped, took my chin in his hands and held my face to the spotlight, to see if I really was asleep.

Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit!

My chin in Nureyev’s hand.

And I couldn’t, if I was to remain, as I must, in character, open my eyes.

On another night he grew so furious he kicked a garbage can in the wings so hard his foot bled into his slipper. I swear a lot, but have never heard curses like his.

Off-stage, in the wings, he stood regally apart, sliding leather clogs over his slipper-shod feet.

Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in La Bayadère.
Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in La Bayadère. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, decades later, it still all feels like a dream — exiting the stage door and being asked for my autograph (“Margot Fonteyn.” Kidding!), putting on my stage make-up every night, sharing space with one of the world’s legendary dancers.

I live in New York now, and every time I walk up those wide steps toward Lincoln Center, to sit in the audience for a ballet or concert, I think…hmmm, let’s do that again!

Dance as though no one were watching

By Caitlin Kelly

A man and a woman performing a modern dance.
A man and a woman performing a modern dance. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The studio is huge — maybe 30 feet by 30 feet. One wall is mirror, one is glass, facing the parking lot. Two large fans create a cross-breeze. There is no clock.

The others are young, slim, lithe, their bodies able to do the most unlikely things with ease. There are three other women — a girl of maybe 15, one perhaps the same and one who might be in her 30s. There are two men, loose and easy in their skins, with the distinctive elegance of the dancer, both students at the University of Arizona.

Then there’s me.

I stand at the back, feeling lumpy and old in my black leggings and T-shirt, a bandana around my forehead to keep the sweat from dripping into my eyes. I’m wearing my black cotton jazz shoes, and have dropped into an advanced jazz class.

Madness!

Actually, it turns out just fine. The instructor is Taylor, a tall blond whose manner is comfortable and helpful, and we start out by warming up with stretches, the opposite of what we do in my Monday morning jazz class at home. Then on to push-ups and ab work. I keep waiting for us to start the center barre — the ballet routine we normally do (battements, ronds de jambes, tendues, plies, degages, etc.) — but we never do.

Instead, to my nervous delight, we are given a routine to memorize and perform, to an aching and melancholy song by Florence and the Machine. It doesn’t feel like jazz and it doesn’t feel like ballet. It feels more like modern dance, which I’ve never studied. But in I plunge, twisting and rolling and shaking my shoulders. Taylor uses the floor a lot, demanding rolls and twists and a sudden arching of our backs with our heads as pivot point.

No problem.

It is a new feeling, to simply enjoy my body for all the things it still can do, quickly, with precision, carving forms in the air on the beat. In the old days, for decades, I would hate it for all that it cannot do, for the too-big bum or not-high-enough arches or muscular forearms that resemble those of a 18th-century laundress.

Now, after years of agony and limping and crutches, I am just so thrilled to have a functioning body that can glide and leap and twist and pivot and stretch at will.

Dance is a language, a vocabulary of movement. What a delicious relief to shrug off the burden of verbal expression! Here I speak with a flick of my hands or a roll of my head or an extension of my leg, foot pointed or flexed flat.

It is such a rare joy to move with grace and speed and power, not merely using my body-as-tool in quotidian tasks, to climb stairs or drive a car or load a dishwasher.

The other students are lovely to watch, especially the younger girl who is quick, precise and has astonishing technique.

Then we’re given four pieces of music with which to improvise. I’ve never had that chance, and here among others of tremendous training and exquisite line. Their arabesques are gorgeous, mine not nearly so much.

I could freeze with fear, knowing how beautiful and skilled they all are. I’m the interloper, the one with the new(ish) replacement hip I’m still a little protective of.

But dance we do, each in our separate bubble, and it’s lovely to make it up in the instant of hearing a note or a phrase. My hands and feet and arms and legs — having studied ballet from the age of 12 — know what to do without thought. I don’t plan or think or fuss or wonder.

Like grass or corn in a breeze, I simply move.

Untethered by expectation, for once, I simply fly free.

We’re asked to use the room: walls, floor, ceiling, mirror. There’s not a lot to choose from! I crouch into the corner, bounce off a wall (that seems familiar!) and watch the others roll and slide. Then, finally, partnering, which I shy away from, truly feeling odd woman out.

The men are simply amazing to watch, never not touching, bending and twisting and crouching and lifting. Even the teacher is moved by their seamlessness.

We’re done.

I drive off into the darkness, grinning.

 

How waving a sword changed my life

English: Marines with Special Marine Ground Ta...
English: Marines with Special Marine Ground Task Force demonstrated the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program as well as displayed weaponry in support of Fleet Week 2010. More than 3,000 Marines, Sailors and Coast Guardsmen will be in the area participating in community outreach events and equipment demonstrations. This is the 26th year New York City has hosted the sea services for Fleet Week. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I moved to New York in June 1989, I arrived just in time for the worst, (of two since!), recession in my industry, journalism. I knew not a soul, had no job and had not attended university in the U.S., which, I belatedly realized, makes a huge difference in getting ahead here.

I wanted a fresh, fun challenge unrelated to work, and decided to take up fencing, through night classes offered at New York University. They’d supply the equipment. I just needed to bring energy, commitment and a pair of sneakers.

I’d taken ballet for years, and loved its grace, French terminology and history. But I wanted something ferocious and competitive, not endless plies and tendues going nowhere. Classes were taught by the NYU coach, Steve Mormando, a former Navy guy and two-time Olympian.

It was deeply, quickly humbling, as new muscles announced themselves with aches and pains. I was too slow and clumsy for foil and didn’t like epee. So Steve decided to make a small group of 30-something women into saber fencers, an unheard-of ambition in the early 1990s, when women had yet to compete nationally in that weapon.

I and my team-mates would make history by doing so.

The lessons I learned in the salle have stayed with me, helping me in work and private life. (NB: An epee, foil or saber is actually called a weapon, not a sword. But using the word “weapon” in my headline seemed unwise!)

Here is some of what fencing taught me:

Tenacity

Fencing bouts have only five touches. I was once down 4-0 and once would have simply thought “Fuck it” but Steve taught us that every point is a new bout. I won that bout, which changed how I see life’s possibilities. If I assume I’m defeated, I will be.

Fearlessness

In sabre, the weapon’s style is based on cavalry fighting, with only the body above the hips as target, including the head. Getting hit on the head is always a bit of a shock, even wearing a metal helmet, and I always came home with bruises on my arms and legs. No biggie. If you’re scared to get into the game, how can you compete effectively?

Anticipation

Fencing has been called “chess at the speed of boxing.” Like chess, the sport is very much a mental one, a matching of wits and temperament and the ability to look multiple moves ahead in order to win. This skill is essential to any sort of professional success.

Observation

The only way to win in fencing is to observe each opponent carefully, before and during the bout, in order to pinpoint and penetrate their weaknesses. Everyone has one, and likely several; I once had to fence a much larger man but used my smaller size and greater speed to my advantage.

Persistence

Fencing often hurts and, like many athletes competing in a sport they take seriously, pain becomes a mere distraction. The end goal is to stay focused and win. 

Detachment

Of all the lessons fencing taught me, this was by far the most valuable. I learned to stand back, to wait for an opening, to pull distance, to not react. Becoming emotional  — often a default female choice — is self-indulgent and useless, as anger and frustration simply impede the ability to fight (and win) with a clear head.

Here’s a fun story from The Globe and Mail about a Toronto businessman who fences extremely well with all three weapons.

American designer Vera Wang, best known for her wedding dress business, was a former competitive figure skater and ballet student, both of which shaped her drive as well. She told Allure magazine:

It was my life. I think the training and the discipline, the loneliness — you have to develop a core of strength — helped me in my career. And I danced at the American School of Ballet. That is is intense, intense shit. You know, feet bleeding, Black Swan.

Ralph Dopping, a Toronto designer, blogged about how his sport, martial arts, has shaped his perspective as well.

What does it take to get to the black belt level?

Training.

What else?

Those are just words.

But they convey a mindset toward learning. The martial arts are centered in lifelong learning whether you practice consistently or not. The principles that are taught behind the study of the art is what stays with you.

For life.

What sport or physical activity has shaped you?

Jazz Dance = Joy!

Billy Elliot the Musical
Image via Wikipedia

When I tell people I take a jazz dance class — while limping with every step — they think I’m nuts.

Which may well be true!

I’ve been dancing in classrooms, (and even for a week on the stage at Lincoln Center, as an extra), since I was a little girl who, like many, dreamed of becoming a ballerina.

As if.

I auditioned several times for the National Ballet School, a highly selective process that anyone who’s ever watched Billy Elliot might appreciate.

Unlike Billy, I didn’t make the cut, being told, firmly, I had the “wrong body” for ballet. Um…it’s the only one I have! Ballet is severely unforgiving in its demands of a highly specific body type: high arches, terrific turnout, a long waist, tiny hips and breasts (that must remain so after puberty.)

So I added jazz dance to ballet in my 20s, taking five classes a week. If you’ve ever watched a musical live or on film, you’ve felt the infectious joy of jazz dance — edgy, quick, sexy, playful.

I only take one class a week right now, as it’s all my wretched left hip will allow. And my battements, (kicks that should skim my shoulders or at least get that high), look more like degages at this point. But still, I can do a lot more than any physician would think (or suggest) and the benefits are many:

I’m sweat-drenched within 15 minutes.

I loathe” exercise” and machines but have to lose weight and stay strong somehow.

There’s a wide range of body type in my small class, mostly women in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Several of us are definitely larger than others, yet all of us move with grace and style, our feet and hands able to flash and flicker in time with the music, the rhythm as much a part of us as our eye color.

People are glad to see me there, encourage whatever progress I make, and miss me when I’m absent for a while.

Great music!

A huge gym flooded with light all to ourselves.

Twenty minutes of stretching, something it’s too easy to overlook when doing other forms of exercise.

A link to my athletic, carefree past.

A weekly reminder that, whatever my current physical limitations, they’re not 100 percent. That reminder inspires me out of the studio as well.

Here, my aging and injured body is still strong, flexible and graceful — not just damaged and painful. Women in an era that loathes anyone female over a size 6 who is not highly decorative, (that’s just about any era of the 21st and 20th centuries for North Americans!), need a place where their bodies are useful to themselves, a source of joy and power, not just something their husbands, children and/or employers rely on.

We use our head, shoulders, feet and arms, often independently, for beauty and pleasure — not for mere locomotion or other basic functions.

It’s what we do with our muscles and limbs — not just the size or shape of our hips and breasts — that matters here.

Movement! There is much we can express through our bodies. What a blessed respite from words.

Here’s a recent review of a book about one of the greatest jazz dancers ever, Fred Astaire.

What sport or physical activity brings you joy?

Dancing At The White House — Finally!

Cover of "Billy Elliot"
Cover of Billy Elliot

Great story about Michelle Obama yesterday inviting a disparate group of professional dancers — and students — to perform at The White House:

Dancers of all types — ballet, modern, hip hop and Broadway — take over the room, first for an afternoon workshop, during which students from around the country will have the chance to work with some of the biggest names in dance.

Then, after a short break, the students return to see their mentors perform in an hour-long, star-studded show. Even Broadway’s young “Billy Elliot” will be there — four Billys actually, from the show’s rotating cast.

But the main attraction is the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and that’s because its celebrated artistic director, Judith Jamison, soon to retire after two decades in the job, is the honoree of the event.

“What a rare opportunity, to be invited by your country’s first lady to be honored like this,” Jamison said in a weekend interview. “I’ve been to the White House a couple of times before, but this event is totally unique. It’s so terribly important to recognize this art form and to understand how important it is to the fabric of this country.”

I’ve been studying dance — ballet and jazz — for decades. Right now, class is off-limits because of my arthritic hip, and I miss it terribly. Once you have studied dance, the world looks different. You carry yourself with grace and strength. You learn the amazing things your body can do, and its limitations. You hear a piece of music and wonder how you might choreograph it.

I once performed in Sleeping Beauty at Lincoln Center, a production by the National Ballet of Canada, as an extra. It was one of my life’s greatest thrills, not to mention being able to use the stage entrance!

Unlike music, easily and cheaply downloaded on iTunes and available free on any radio or Internet stream, dance remains less visible, less understood and, sadly, less appreciated for the skill, stamina, artistry and dedication it requires.

Watch La Danse, a great new documentary by Frederick Wiseman, a portrait of the Paris Opera ballet company, and you’ll get a great primer in this complex, challenging world.

I loved this recent piece in The Wall Street Journal about one of my favorite ballets, ever, Balanchine’s Serenade:

As the heavy gold curtain rises at the start of “Serenade,” 17 girl dancers in long, pale-blue gowns are arranged in two adjoining diamonds, tethered estrogen. We do not move, grip gravity, feet parallel, pointe shoes suctioned together side by side, head tilted to the right. The right arm is lifted to the side in a soft diagonal, palm facing outward, fingers extending separately, upwardly, shielding as if from some lunar light. This is the first diagonal in “Serenade,” a ballet brimming with that merging line: This is female terrain.

From this opening choir of sloping arms flows an infinite number of such lines, some small, some huge. There is the “peel,” where 15 dancers form a full-stage diagonal, each body in profile, slightly in front of the last, and then, one by one, each ripples off into the wings, creating a thrilling wave of whirling space. In later sections, there are off-center arabesque lunges, drags and upside-down leaps, a double diagonal crisscrossing of kneeling, pushing and turning, and then finally the closing procession heading to high upstage. Ballet is live geometry, a Euclidean art, and “Serenade” illustrates a dancer’s trajectory, a woman’s inclined ascent.

If you have never watched a live dance performance, go! Try modern, tap, ballet, hip-hop. Anything. It will — I hope — change your life as well.

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Sleeping Beauty At Lincoln Center — A Few Decades After My Performance There

The current New York City Ballet Production of “Sleeping Beauty”, which premiered in 1991, is drop-dead gorgeous. It’s being performed until February 7 at the Koch Theater — re-named last year for a major donation; it was formerly the State Theater. It’s all white marble and gilt800px-New_York_State_Theater_by_David_Shankbone, opened in 1964 and designed by Philip Johnson, with gilded panels on the front of each level, an enormous jeweled chandelier in the ceiling and metallic lace balustrades.

The current version of “Sleeping Beauty” is slightly different from the one I grew up with, and performed there, with the National Ballet of Canada. The company came to New York and I was invited to write about the experience of being a super (short for supernumerary), an extra. They’re hired for many ballets and operas, and may not — as I was not — be a trained dancer or experienced performer.

I was a Lady in Black, one of four women whose presence presaged the entrance of the Wicked Witch Carabosse, who, enraged at being omitted from Princess Aurora’s christening, casts a spell on her. In the NYCB version, the witch is accompanied  by four creepy, crawling black winged flies; you can always tell when Carabosse is on her way, signaled by the shimmering of tambourines.

Being a super is a blast, if utterly terrifying. We never got a dress rehearsal, I didn’t know the score and my shoes were painfully tight. Just to make a great story — not on purpose — I came on-stage on opening night about 20 bars too soon, with three others following my mistaken lead. Ooops.

Another night my heavy costume, with its thick skirt, got caught on a soldier’s sword and I couldn’t move safely without fear of tearing the expensive fabric. The music, of course, kept playing as the dancers caught behind me cursed under their breath.  I somehow untangled myself so the entire cast could get offstage in time.

Being around Rudolf Nureyev was almost as scary as being on-stage in front of thousands of paying balletomanes. One night he stayed off-stage for a whole lot longer than usual, swearing loudly, after kicking a garbage can so hard he cut his foot. Normally, he’d come off-stage and slide into a pair of clogs, right over his slippers.

It was heaven tonight to re-acquaint myself with the ballet and all its characters: The Bluebird, Catalabutte, Puss ‘n Boots and The Lilac Fairy. The Rose Adagio, the signature test of every ballerina who dances the role of Aurora, went fine in Kathryn Morgan’s hands — and feet.

As they sang in “A Chorus Line”:

Everything was beautiful at the ballet.
Graceful men lift lovely girls in white.
Yes,
Everything was beautiful at ballet.
Hey!
I was happy… at the ballet.