2016: A Year in the Life of Ballet

AIB-art-for-JanAs the old year passes, I thought a look back at some of this year’s highlights with some of the major ballet companies (and not so major) would be a fitting way to look at where we’ve been and look forward to where we’re going. Below are 10 of my picks for a brief look at the world in ballet for 2016.

Starting with the Australian Ballet and in their own words:  “A butterfly flapped its wings … and unleashed a hurricane year of dance that took us inside, outside and upside down; onstage, offstage and all around. Astonishing physical feats, elegant worlds of enchantment: this was our 2016.”

And a look at New York City Ballet’s 2016-2017 Season:

English National Ballet’s 2016 production of Swan Lake:

The Los Angeles Ballet celebrated their 10 year anniversary in 2016 with this documentary:

Several notable Nutcracker productions… The English National Ballet and The Joffrey Ballet Chicago:

World Ballet Day 2016:

The Bauhaus Ballet (aka the Triadic Ballet) turned 100 this year:

And you are never too old to dance or to live your dream…

Happy 2017 Everyone!

Maria Tallchief – American Ballerina

Maria Tallchief and Erik Bruhn, 1961
courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

Maria Tallchief, considered to be America’s first prima ballerina and the first native American prima ballerina, sadly passed away earlier this year at the age of 88. Well known for her role in George Balanchine’s “Firebird”, she became one of New York City Ballet’s early prima ballerinas, and Firebird became a great success for NYCB.

Rather than writing something about her life, in this youtube clip, I found it interesting in that she speaks about rehearsing and performing and taking on the title role of “The Firebird” for George Balanchine:

“He was very careful about how you use your hands, what they call port de bras, how they move – the hands, the elbow, the shoulder….  the soul of the dancer. He was a poet and he taught us how to react and to become this poetry.”  And, speaking of opening night: “The curtain came down and suddenly the City Center sounded like a stadium after a football game after someone’s made a touchdown, it was unbelievable, screaming, yells of Bravo, this and that….”

And, a moving tribute to her life:

Psychology and Dance: Meet ‘Dr. Dancer’

As dancers, or aspiring dancers, a lot of us have experienced that tug between the desire of becoming a professional dancer and perhaps the more secure world of a 9 to 5 career position. And, some of us are lucky enough to combine both. Nadine Kaslow has done just that – combined both worlds. Here are excerpts from an article about Dr. Kaslow, (written by Elizabeth Landau, of CNN): “Psychology plus ballet: Meet ‘Dr. Dancer”.

Nadine Kaslow sits with one slender ivory leg dangling, the other tucked neatly under her dress with the heel of her beige pump facing up. These legs have supported her throughout her career as a dancer. But in her head, Kaslow struggled for years over whether to follow that path or her passion for psychology.

She eventually found a way to combine the two worlds, serving not only as a psychologist for the Atlanta Ballet, but also becoming a powerful force for providing accessible mental health care for disadvantaged women.

“I always wore a ballerina around my neck,” she said of the gold charm she’s had since age 13, which she wore Wednesday in her office at Emory University School of Medicine. “But I never talked about going to ballet. I just didn’t think I’d be taken seriously.”

Now, as the new president-elect of the American Psychological Association, Kaslow doesn’t worry about that anymore. Besides being an Emory professor and chief psychologist of Grady Health System, she is also the psychologist for the Atlanta Ballet, where some students call her “Doctor Dancer.”

Kaslow, 56, grew up in the Philadelphia area and started dancing when she was 3. She took classes in creative movement, which involved developing skills such as “prancing like a pony.”

Little Nadine knew she wanted to do something more than what the system had set out for her. She asked her mother who was the head of the school, so she could ask to learn real dance with the big kids. The boss told her she needed to be 5, but this didn’t deter her.

“I’d stand outside the class with the big kids and I would do it in the hallway,” she said. Finally, when she was 4, because of her persistence, she was allowed to start real ballet classes with 5-year-olds.

Choosing psychology

In high school and early college, Kaslow danced with the Pennsylvania Ballet. But when she applied to college, she wrote that she wanted to be a psychologist. It’s what her mother did, too, and she enjoyed reading books about psychological problems.

“I was one of those kids that, when other kids had problems, I was the one they’d come and talk to about their problems,” she said. “I really wanted to help people but I really wanted to understand through the human mind, human behavior and human relationships.”

During graduate school, she continued taking ballet classes. In her head, it was a tug of war over whether she truly wanted a career in psychology or in dance. The director of the Houston Ballet then offered her a choice: She could have a position in the company, if she lost 15 pounds.

Perhaps because of the body-consciousness of ballet, Kaslow remembers with ease how much she weighed at various points in her life. As a Ph.D. student, she said, she was already 12 pounds thinner than she is right now. On her frame, not quite 5 feet tall, an additional 15-pound loss would be dramatic.

“I knew at that point that that was not a healthy lifestyle choice,” she said. “I was old enough and I was out of the system enough that I was able to stop and say that was it. That was my defining moment.”

She got her doctoral degree in 1983 and headed to the University of Wisconsin for her internship and postdoctoral fellowship training

At the ballet

About five years ago, Kaslow started ballet classes at Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education. She met the center’s director, Sharon Story, and the Atlanta Ballet’s artistic director John McFall. It turned out, there was a way to reconcile her passion for ballet with her career in psychology.

Kaslow became the Atlanta Ballet’s first resident psychologist, helping the students and professional dancers through wellness programming and psychotherapy.

“She keeps dancing and brings her knowledge and compassion to our dancers and students to pursue their lives and passions with strength, confidence, and healthy well beings,” Story said in an e-mail. “Nadine is tiny in stature and a huge brilliant gem to all of us at Atlanta Ballet.”

When Kaslow started working with dancers in her capacity as a psychologist, she thought eating disorders would be a huge problem. Instead, she’s found other issues are more prevalent:  Performance anxiety, balance between different activities and perfectionism.

Perfectionism in particular is a problem that Kaslow has struggled with herself, and something that she shares with some of the dancers she’s seen in therapy.

“I really talk to the dancers about, how do you think about doing your best, and being good enough, and what a realistic and attainable goal is, and I try to do that for myself as well,” she said.

The cultural norms of ballet are such that it’s hard to know when a dancer truly has an eating disorder, she said.

“When I weighed about 22 pounds less than I do now, I was told I looked like a hippopotamus,” she said. “The problem was that part of me believed them. But I look at myself now and I say, ‘Well, I don’t really look like a hippopotamus now, so I probably didn’t look like a hippopotamus 20 pounds less than this.’”

Kaslow sees many connections between the study of the mind and of human relationships.

“As a scientifically-minded psychologist, I build upon many of the qualities that served me and others well in the dance world — curiosity, persistence, patience, and a passion for the work,” she said. “As an educator, I know that when I am teaching dance or psychology, it is essential that I provide a facilitating environment that nurtures creativity, self-expression, self-acceptance, and a dedication to doing one’s best.”

Her advice to graduates, she said, would be:  “Follow your passions and your dreams. I wish I had gotten that message sooner, and that I didn’t feel like I had to choose (between dance and psychology) for so long.”

The Nureyev Exhibit in San Francisco

Rudolf Nureyev at his defection from Soviet Union 1961. Courtesy of Wikipedia.org

I’d waited months to see this celebrated event at the de Young Museum, and so one day shortly before it closed, I trekked over to San Francisco to view the Nureyev Exhibit. A sense of awe filled me as I walked toward the somewhat narrow opening to the exhibit, and then realized it had been designed to make one feel as if you were part of the production on stage or backstage waiting in the wings.

The entrance was marked by 4 spotlights pointing the way to the exhibit opening. Once through, I entered an almost magical world filled with some of his most opulent costumes (and those of his partners and fellow cast) marking his major ballets displayed in windows behind scrim. Along with videos set up and running of La Bayedère, Don Quixote and one in particular that caught my eye was a large screen with a continuous clip from Pierre Jordan’s 1972 film “Un danseur” (I Am a Dancer) of Nureyev in practice executing series after series of astounding jumps. Well worth the visit – one of the highlights (for me) was seeing how small Margot Fonteyn’s toe shoes really were!

Here are clips from what others had to say about the exhibit:

From musicandmirror.com:  “Lots of beautiful costumes, photographs, and filmed ballet clips spanning Nureyev’s career await. Most of the exhibit is laid out in groups of costumes from various ballets, each backed by a small scrim that makes you feel like you’re walking backstage and onstage, as if wandering through several set pieces…”

And, San Francisco Classical Voice (by Janice Berman):  “Rudolf Nureyev’s career was as extraordinary as the fact that many people no longer know about it. That will likely be remedied with the de Young Museum’s new exhibit, “Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance,” which opened on Saturday, displaying 80 costumes from France, primarily doublets and tutus by famous designers, that he and his partners wore, along with performance photos.

Nureyev, who leapt into view in 1961, was the first dance superstar. His fan base created the phenomenon known as Rudimania. And he had a will, or some might say a whim, of iron.

He was a dancer both gifted and driven. He danced stunningly, then competently, and finally relentlessly, well beyond the moment when he should have stopped. He professed indifference to the critics who said the world’s greatest dancer was in the process of taking it all back. “I don’t want anybody, anytime, to tell me I should go away,” he told me once. “It’s not their life. I don’t tell them to go back to Harvard to study English.”

He was a famously mercurial dance director with a detailed knowledge of the great classical ballets from Imperial Russia. He brought them to the Paris Opera Ballet, where he was artistic director from 1983 to 1989, beginning with La bayadère, which, like other works he staged, was reproduced in other classical companies around the world. He revitalized the career of Royal Ballet prima ballerina assoluta Margot Fonteyn, twice his age, whose stardom, in exchange, helped bring him international prominence. They shared an artistic and personal (how personal, nobody seems to know) partnership that lasted 17 years.

So this exhibit, like Nureyev, transcends the narrative of a life cut short. His tombstone, at Saint-Genevieve-des-Bois cemetery near Paris, was created by Ezio Frigerio, who designed Nureyev’s final production of La bayadère for the Paris Opera Ballet. It’s a mosaic rendition of an oriental carpet, its folds draped over a traveler’s trunk.”

Finally, highlights from review in the Los Angeles Times (by Liesl Bradner):  “The exhibition features photographs, videos and other ephemera, but the stars of the show are 70 exquisite costumes from the ballets Nureyev danced in and choreographed, including “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker” and “Romeo and Juliet.” The opulent wardrobe pieces, valued from $45,000 to $95,000, are a testament to his obsession with detail.

He was incredibly particular when it came to his costumes. He knew exactly which fabrics to use,” said curator Jill D’Alessandro. “He believed the costume needed to finish the movement, so when the dancer stops, the costume should continue to move and float, like in Ginger Rogers’ feather number in his favorite scene from ‘Top Hat.’”

Rudolf Nureyev was often quoted as saying “you live as long as you dance”…this exquisite exhibit shows us the passion by which he lived.

Ballet: Artistry vs. Technique

Margot Fonteyn, considered by some the greatest classical ballerina of the 20th Century, and certainly immortalized by her partnership with Rudolf Nureyev, has often been the subject of the controversy:  artistry vs. technique.

With this in mind, I found a fascinating article written on this subject by Marisa Wright, someone who worked at the Royal Academy of Dancing while Margot Fonteyn was still dancing in the 60’s and very early 70’s. Here are excerpts of her article, (which can be found in it’s entirety by clicking here.)

Was Margot Fonteyn the greatest ballerina of the 20th century? I think so. It’s a great pity current generations have no way to judge her greatness.

I say that because even though it’s well worth seeing the recordings of Fonteyn dancing, they don’t do her justice. For one thing, most recordings were made during the Nureyev years, when she was already past normal retirement age for a ballerina. For another, her great gift was her incredible charisma, which the camera doesn’t fully capture.

There’s no denying that today’s ballerinas have better technique and a much greater repertoire of tricks than Margot Fonteyn. But ask any audience after her performance, and chances are very few of them could analyze her technique. They simply knew they had seen a phenomenon.

Margot Fonteyn had such a presence you could sense her, even before you could see her. That charisma flooded over the footlights to her audience. Watching Fonteyn dance, you were simply mesmerised.

My first experience of that charisma wasn’t at a ballet performance. It was in the hall at the Royal Academy of Dancing, at a prize-giving. While the General Manager was speaking, I felt a sudden change in the air. Without prompting, everyone in the audience turned to look at the back of the room (she had arrived late).

There, quietly, Fonteyn was entering the hall. The GM motioned for her to come forward and take her place in the reserved seats. I watched her walk down the aisle. I have never seen such penetrating black eyes. It was amazing how such a tiny, unassuming person could fill the room so effortlessly!

I did see Fonteyn dance, in June 1971 at a Gala Performance arranged by Richard Buckle. Here is what I had to say about her performance:

“Fonteyn was out of this world. She wore a Romantic tutu in shimmering purple. I scarcely noticed her footwork. All I could see were those beautiful, beautiful arms, rippling and flowing, curving and extending – sheer poetry! She could have bourree’d the whole time and still captivated me with those arms.”

….”Fonteyn and Nureyev provided the grand finale [from Sleeping Beauty]. And what a finale! Her face looks so young, as they say Pavlova’s always did. Even though it was only the pas de deux, she gave a complete and convincing picture of the young, newly-in-love Princess Aurora. It was an experience.”

History of the Pointe Shoe

There are many many brands and varieties of pointe shoes in the marketplace today. Each pair is so markedly different – primarily because the fit of toe shoes has to be so exact, that it needs to fit your feet like a glove – not an easy thing to do when its made of hard materials like leather, plastic, cardstock, burlap and glue. As a dancer, our entire body weight is balanced on that small space created at the end of the pointe shoe – it has to be a very secure fit. And, because every dancer has unique feet, with variations that include toe length and shape, arch flexibility and mechanical strength – most pointe shoe manufacturers produce more than one model of shoe.

Ever wonder how modern-day pointe shoes developed into what they are today?

Here’s a brief history, courtesy of Wikipedia:  When women began to dance in ballet in 1681, twenty years after King Louis XIV of France ordered the founding of the Académie Royale de Danse, the standard women’s ballet shoe had heels. Mid-18th century dancer Marie Camargo of the Paris Opéra Ballet was the first to wear a non-heeled shoe, enabling her to perform leaps that would have been difficult, if not impossible, in the more conventional shoes of the age. After the French Revolution, heels were completely eliminated from standard ballet shoes. These flat-bottomed predecessors of the modern pointe shoe were secured to the feet by ribbons and incorporated pleats under the toes to enable dancers to leap, execute turns, and fully extend their feet.

The first dancers to rise up on their toes did so with the help of an invention by Charles Didelot in 1795. His “flying machine” lifted dancers upward, allowing them to stand on their toes before leaving the ground. This lightness and ethereal quality was well received by audiences and, as a result, choreographers began to look for ways to incorporate more pointework into their pieces.

As dance progressed into the 19th century, the emphasis on technical skill increased, as did the desire to dance en pointe without the aid of wires. When Marie Taglioni first danced La Sylphide en pointe, her shoes were nothing more than modified satin slippers; the soles were made of leather and the sides and toes were darned to help the shoes hold their shapes. Because the shoes of this period offered no support, dancers would pad their toes for comfort and rely on the strength of their feet and ankles for support.

The next substantially different form of pointe shoe appeared in Italy in the late 19th century. Dancers like Pierina Legnani wore shoes with a sturdy, flat platform at the front end of the shoe, rather than the more sharply pointed toe of earlier models. These shoes also included a box—made of layers of fabric—for containing the toes, and a stiffer, stronger sole. They were constructed without nails and the soles were only stiffened at the toes, making them nearly silent.

The birth of the modern pointe shoe is often attributed to the early 20th century Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, who was one of the most famous and influential dancers of her time. Pavlova had particularly high, arched insteps, which left her vulnerable to injury when dancing en pointe. She also had slender, tapered feet, resulting in excessive pressure applied to her big toes. To compensate for this, she would insert toughened leather soles into her shoes for extra support and would flatten and harden the toe area to form a box. This made dancing en pointe easier for her, and although it was regarded by her peers as “cheating”… ironically, this practice became the predecessor of the modern pointe shoe we see today.