Everything is beautiful at the ballet…

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_20140629_162728416
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.

IMG_20140630_120341451_HDR

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.

IMG_20140629_162435177
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.

IMG_20151211_194239374

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.)

IMG_20151211_194229567

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.

IMG_20151212_090151434_HDR.jpg

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.

IMG_20151212_150226279_HDR

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?

 

Dancing with 800 strangers at 7 a.m? It’s Daybreaker!

By Caitlin Kelly

all photos: Jose R. Lopez
all photos: Jose R. Lopez

Seriously?

Hell, yes!

It’s a thing that started in Europe.

Dancing before work?

Dancing without drugs or alcohol?

Dancing wearing workout clothes?

It’s a radical notion — a club scene without the usual bullshit dramas of standing in line, wearing the wrong clothes or paying way too much money for drinks you don’t want.

Here’s a bemused story about it from June 2014, when 400 people showed up:

What I found was an amiable crowd of corporate employees and artists, mostly in their 20s; they seemed appreciative of the multiple chaste offerings, including massages, pre-dancing yoga and a “Free Haikus” corner, where a pair of poets who call themselves the Haiku Guys hammered out verses on attendees’ topics of choice. At 7, the atmosphere felt a bit awkward, and the dancing was tentative, but the room soon became rowdy and enjoyable.

“You get some exercise in, you feel great physically, and it’s an incredible dance party,” said Matthew Brimer, 27, a co-founder of Daybreaker. “Dance culture and underground music tends to be boxed in to this idea that you need alcohol or drugs to enjoy. What we’re trying to say is that there’s a whole world of creative experience and dance, music and art.”

And, more recently:

Two friends in New York — Radha Agrawal, 36, the founder of Super Sprowtz, a children’s nutrition company, and Matthew Brimer, 28, a founder of the adult-education school General Assembly — came up with the concept two years ago over late-night falafel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

“We were talking about how the morning space in general is pretty boring, people have their routines and that’s about it, and the night-life scene in New York is so dark and synthetic and not community driven,” Mr. Brimer said over the phone. “You know when you leave a nightclub and feel depleted? We wanted to turn that concept on its head.”

Daybreaker holds regular events in not only San Francisco (in places like the Yerba Buena Center and Supperclub), but also in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, London and São Paulo, Brazil. The cost: generally $20 to $40 a person, depending on whether you opt into predance party yoga or not.

This week, on a cold, gray Manhattan Wednesday morning, Jose and I — who are long past our 20s — got up at 6:30 after staying at a friend’s apartment. A bagel and some coffee and a cab ride over to the Highline Ballroom, on the far west side of the city.

Acrobats, too!
Acrobats, too!

We’d paid $25 per person ahead of time; you have to be on a list to know when and where the next one is being held.

I got my hand stamped with Daybreaker’s symbol — a stylized rising sun.

The cavernous space was filled with a yoga class finishing up. The floor cleared and it was our time.

Nothing makes me happier than dancing and I’ve missed it terribly.

So for the next two hours, surrounded by 700+ other happy people, I danced; I think I sat down for about 10 minutes.

The mood felt oddly innocent, joyous, free — for once — of the chronic and terminal status anxiety that infects most of us who live and work here.

Very not New York.

It felt like one big playground, the kind without bullies or cold wet cement onto which you’d probably fall.

 A man playing electric violin came through the crowd.

A man played a didgeridoo from one corner of the stage.

03 digeradoo

The bravest came and danced in the middle of the stage while the female DJ, in from L.A., spun her tunes.

A pair of very large vegetables appeared — apparently a broccoli and a celery, although one looked more like okra to me — guys or women inside huge costumes.

It was sweaty and frenetic like any club scene, but, blessedly, never weird or scary.

People caught Jose’s eye, noticed his age and gray hair, and smiled. I saw perhaps a dozen people our age.

Some people wore work clothes and many began streaming out around 8:30 as they headed off to their office jobs; it ends at 9:00 a.m.

To close, a young man performed a terrific rap poem about the New York subway — and how we so studiously ignore one another, eyes safely down or staring down the tunnel waiting for the train, instead of potentially connecting.

Then it ended as we all sat on the floor and, handed this card, all read aloud a segment of this lovely poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson — written in 1833 and published in 1842.

We read it quietly, in unison, a sort of secular prayer, the 21st century sweetly colliding with the 19th, read by 20-year-olds in gold spandex shorts and rainbow platform shoes.

IMG_20150410_094236

Then, exhausted, drenched, ablaze with endorphins, we scattered back into the city and out into our day.

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

It’s time to shake your tailfeather!

By Caitlin Kelly

Rock the Casbah
Rock the Casbah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am a dancing fool.

I take two dance classes (so far) a week, jazz and modern. This fall I’m adding a third one, studying something I’ve wanted to try for decades — choreography.

They’re my happiest three hours of the week — 90 exhausting minutes each. I come home sore, weary and happy.

There, we use a totally different vocabulary — spins, leaps, turns, pirouettes, chasses, contractions — without saying a word. It’s a blessed break from the tyranny of diction. There, our arms and legs do the talking, our heads and shoulders and neck twisting and bending, our wrists to the floor, our toes to the ceiling.

Two of my classmates are also self-employed writers, happy to flee our daily isolation, and the computer and our clients. In one recent class, our teacher had us take turns improvising (shriek) and the rest of us had to follow. It was both terrifying and exhiliarating to make it up on the fly and see what spontaneously erupted when we just…riff.

Not surprisingly, we all moved very differently.

Our teacher stopped to correct us: “Stop thinking! I can see you planning every movement. Keep going. Keep moving. Just…do it!”

I loved her demand that we just dance.

So much of our lives is dictated by others’ rhythms: rushing for the subway car or elevator before the doors slam shut; answering a call or email or text rightaway!; feeding a hungry baby over and over; walking the dog several times a day; having your keystrokes counted by an invisible boss.

We also need to dance to our own tunes.

I have friends addicted to the tango, to tap, to ballet, to swing. I’ve been dancing, and taking lessons, since I was young and hoped against hope to become (like many little girls) a ballerina.

But I didn’t have the skills or the right body shape. I still took five dance classes a week in my 20s, three ballet, two jazz.

dance
dance (Photo credit: Dino ahmad ali)

Even as my left hip was destroyed by arthritis and steroids to heal the inflammation, I kept taking class, my movements shrinking each month as the pain increased. Now, with my new hip, my battements look like the real thing once more.

And even with classmates half or even a third my age, and 50 pounds lighter, I do just fine.

But it’s not just dance class. It’s dancing, anywhere, any time.

If there’s a Rolling Stones album nearby, clear the floor, kids! Same for Stevie Wonder. If it’s “My Sharona” or “Rock The Casbah”….move!

Michael Jackson performing The Way You Make Me...
Michael Jackson performing The Way You Make Me Feel in 1988 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s an older list of great dance tunes, from The Telegraph.

And a newer list of 25 from Buzzfeed, with some of my favorites like “You Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer or “Thriller” by Michael Jackson.

Here are some amazing images of dancers in everyday, non-performance or classroom spots — Pennsylvania Avenue, shoveling gravel in pointe shoes, exulting in a Barnes and Noble, a post-shopping battement.

Here’s a great recent post, chosen by Freshly Pressed, about the body as narrative:

before we learn how to use verbal language as our primary tool of conscious expression, we have our bodies and nothing else. Even after we have learned to use our words, we continue use our bodies as a means of expression until our last breath, even if we don’t know it. The human form is fundamental to our expression, and it will always tell a story, no matter how simple or complex, whether we want it to or not. So it is no wonder dancing predates almost every form of storytelling mankind has devised. It’s a part of who we are. It’s ingrained in our DNA, and yet so many men in the modern world deny it, brand it as feminine.

Do you love to dance?

What are some of your go-to tunes?

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.

Enhanced by Zemanta