Archive for the ‘Classical Ballet’ Category

A social media friend of this blog, Ballet Master Jonathon Levy has written an interesting article on LinkedIn in which he explores “Concepts about Training – realities and absurdities”

What is accepted is not always efficient. So how do we get ourselves, and others, to higher levels of efficiency without placing them, or ourselves, under more pressure than it is worth to achieve?

This article touches on aspects of dancer motivation and is relevant to this blog’s  focus. You can find the article here. If you have comments that are relevant to this blog, feel free to comment here as well as on Jonathon’s article.

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Guest post by Susan R. Lin

Susan Lin is a dancer in the San Francisco Bay Area who is writing a series of posts of her own experiences, and interviews she has had with professional ballet dancers. She is the author of Dancing With Joy in which she shares her experience of dance. Her blogs (she has several), articulate how she is “Discovering the wonders of life through a corporate career, dance, and music, [and she] is incorrigibly curious about how it all fits together from the lens of culture, communications, and interpersonal interactions.”  Dance plays a large part in her life, she says: “My first love is classical ballet, but Chinese classical and ethnic dance is where my performing heart lies.” 

Although there is a particular “look” of a classical dancer – slim body, long neck, legs, and arms, arched feet and open hips – what is a dancer but a human being, and each of us is unique. It may not be immediately evident in a line of corps dancers in a traditional classical ballet company’s production of Swan Lake, but if you look closely enough or watch each of those dancers in class or rehearsal I guarantee you will see distinct qualities not only in their bodies, but in their approach to movement. In other ensembles, the variety of physicality is a key element to the aesthetic.

Given the unique qualities of body and movement, how does a dancer find the right place for his or her career? I took a quick dive to explore this through live interviews with several professional ballet dancers of varying backgrounds, supplemented by online videos and my own experience. While it is not an empirical study by any means, it has given me precious insight into one of the key factors that makes or breaks a dancer’s motivation to carry on.

What I came away with is that the journey of finding one’s own place is ultimately less about fitting in to a particular company or style; it is about trying on different “skins” – whether artistically and culturally – and asking oneself the difficult question of whether the current job is right.

In the stories these dancers shared with me, I heard the following thematic questions emerge: What is my own skin: my internal artistic style and personality? Where can I be in my own skin and still have a fulfilling, ever-growing, and collaborative experience?

I’ll share these stories with you in a multi-part series, since each dancer is an instrument and vehicle not only for an artistic director or choreographer’s vision, but for his or her own self-actualization. I believe they deserve to be heard one at a time, to further convey the sense of individuality.

Junna Ige – Finding Home
In her fifth season dancing with Ballet San Jose, this bright-eyed dancer is pint-sized but dances with an expansiveness that makes her limbs appear miles long. “There are very limited opportunities for the serious ballet student in Japan,” she laments, and in her mid-teens Ige left for northern Germany to further her studies.

Susan Lin Fitting In Junna IgeWhile she consistently received top marks at the academy, when it came time to find a job she came out empty handed time and time again. After a huge effort auditioning in some eight countries in Europe, Ige headed back to Japan – the worst possible outcome for her – dejected and lost.

In Japan, Ige taught ballet to little girls, and worked at Starbucks. “Why was I even doing this?” she asked herself, referring not only to her predicament, but to all her years training in the hopes of becoming a professional, classical ballet dancer. She was told over and over again at auditions that the reason there was no contract for her was: “You’re too short.”

Somehow, despite the heartbreak of so much rejection – not to mention money spent traveling for auditions – Ige decided to give herself and ballet one more chance. She flew to North America and auditioned for several companies. “I’d never been to America. I thought, maybe they would see things differently.”

At Ballet San Jose, she was encouraged upon seeing dancers of different sizes and heights. When then artistic director Dennis Nahat told her that he saw artists and not just bodies, she felt hope. When she was offered an apprentice contract four years ago, she took it and never looked back.

“Now I feel like I can be myself,” Ige smiles, and her voice cannot hide her joy. “I realized I’d spent so long wanting to be something I wasn’t. I wanted not to be short. I wanted to be tall, to be something else. But I’m not; I’m me. And at Ballet San Jose, I was hired because I’m me!”

This fortunate circumstance has allowed Ige to gain confidence as a person and as a dancer, and it has paid off: she was promoted towards the end of the last season and is now a soloist with the company.

And, this year she carried the tremendous pressure and privilege of dancing the lead character of Kitri in Wes Chapman’s production of Don Quixote on opening night, partnered by no less than international superstar José Manuel Carreño. She pulled the full-length ballet off with determination, sass, and showed us glimpses of pure abandon.

“I love it. Why? It’s the dance,” she says in her lightly accented English. Her eyes sparkle, and she doesn’t need to say any more. She’s found her home.

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Guest post by Jessica Wallis

Jessica Wallis is the founder of Ballet in Cleveland, a classical ballet presenting company in Cleveland, Ohio. Her mission is to share the wonder of ballet with both boys and girls of all ages. Ballet in Cleveland is working on a presentation with the New York City Ballet in June.

Caption: The tuition-free program for younger boys at the School of American Ballet

One of George Balanchine’s most popular quotes is, “Ballet is woman.” With this quote, Balanchine aimed to highlight the long lines and artistry found when women danced on pointe, as paired with the delicate curves of their lean muscles, and even hair, as Balanchine ballerinas often had long hair that he occasionally called for them to wear loose during performances.

Loose locks displayed during the finale of Walpurgisnacht Ballet

Although Balanchine was certainly not amiss by highlighting the elegance and femininity inherent in ballet’s nature, he also did an effective job of choreographing steps that showcased the athleticism of male dancers. As society changes and we begin to broaden our scope of accepted norms, I must stop and think about the place of “boys in ballet”.

This weekend our non-profit classical ballet presentation company, Ballet in Cleveland, will have a table at a fundraiser for another local nonprofit, Art Sparks. We will be donating a Ballet in Cleveland t-shirt, a pair of decorated pointe shoes, and a scholarship to a master class with celebrity ballerina Allison DeBona in March. After I thought about what we would donate, I had a moment of pause: What if a boy receives the gift? A boy wouldn’t want a pair of pink pointe shoes. Immediately I pulled one of our black shirts to package as part of the gift, and began to re-think of what we could offer instead of pointe shoes. Even me, an individual who has had involvement with ballet for over 25 years, with a (hopefully) progressive attitude toward the art, had immediately defaulted to catering the gift to a young girl, and not a boy.

In 1992, Peter Martins, ballet master in chief of New York City Ballet (NYCB) and chairman of faculty at the School of American Ballet (SAB), started the boys’ program. His specific aim with this program was to create a class of only boys. Ballet classes, if they are primarily made up of girls, tend to focus on turns and other steps in which female dancers need to be strong. An all-boys class not only allows the freedom of curriculum to focus on jumps and strengthening that boys need, but it also can make them feel more comfortable and not overshadowed by girls. Years ago, at an audition at SAB, a seven-year-old boy, who was the only boy in his ballet class at the time, shared his thoughts on the subject: “I can’t take the pink anymore.”

In a recent 60 Minutes segment by Lesley Stahl about NYCB, I was pleased to see that males were primarily featured. A few minutes into the piece, Martins was shown encouraging and congratulating young boys backstage after a performance, He reminded them not to be “mechanical”, and coached them on musicality, one of the elements that sets NYCB dancers apart from those in other companies. Principal dancer Robert Fairchild was also featured. The piece showed Fairchild’s triumph during his first performance of Balanchine’s masterpiece, Apollo. The portion about him began with his description of being teased when he was young because he was the only boy in his ballet class. Sound familiar? He goes on to say that it was difficult to endure, but that if you love something so much, you have to follow it no matter what. And good thing he did- Fairchild is one of NYCB’s finest dancers who made his way through the ranks of the company very quickly through hard work and dedication to his art. What a role model, especially for young boys with an affinity for ballet. All in all, I was struck by the fact that 60 Minutes chose to showcase young boys backstage as well as a young man in a leading role, with minimal costuming and no set, and not the typical ballerina in her jeweled tutu and crown. That said, I value and appreciate the role of the ballerina and do not wish to downplay the huge part that female dancers play in ballet. Rather, I was glad to see that the focus for this piece was on a male artist and the significance of his debut in a role, and not the typical glitz and glam that is often associated with ballerinas and marketed to the masses.

Caption: Robert Fairchild as Apollo in Balanchine’s Apollo

It is worth noting that George Balanchine, known as “the father of American ballet” was reluctant to take ballet as a child, and didn’t even have a particular interest in it. However his mother loved the arts and had the young George audition with his sister, who shared her mother’s passion for ballet. In Russia, ballet does not have the stigma for boys that it has in America. Ballet is something revered, and involvement in it is looked upon honorably for members of both sexes. So as social norms and stigmas change, and we function under an administration that welcomes and promotes equality, let us hope that with this comes many boys in many ballet classes and debuting on many stages… even if they were dragged in by their sister or their mother to begin with.

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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 6,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 10 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Susan, an online dancer friend of mine alerted me on twitter to this New Yorker article:

BRING IN THE BALLERINAS A.B.T.’s guest policy.
by Joan Acocella
JUNE 25, 2012
ABSTRACT: DANCING about American Ballet Theatre’s guest dancers. A.B.T. has long been known for bringing in foreign guest stars. The fondness for guest stars ruled out any unity of style within the troupe.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/dancing/2012/06/25/120625crda_dancing_acocella#ixzz21DPtOHdq

This article started me thinking about dancer motivation when considering opportunities for promotion and acquiring coveted roles. Here in Australia, The Australian Ballet has a very strong company of full time contracted dancers. Only very occasionally do guest dancers appear in performances and looking from afar , it would seem these guest appearances would do little to threaten the motivation of company dancers. Indeed, I expect these guest appearances would have positive effect on motivation.

Of course, motivation is a fickle thing in any endeavour. An event that may threaten one dancer, may encourage another. This raises the question, at what point could you expect guest appearances in a performance to systemically affect the motivational well being of the company? It would be great to hear from professional dancers of their experience and thoughts in this regard. Either comment on this post, or if you prefer use the contact page to send me a message and I will make your comments known but anonymous.


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Thank you to Dolly Williams for this post on her iamdollywilliams blog. It brought to our attention a video that I have included below from The Royal Ballet on the subject of motivation. Since my research interest is in the various forms of motivation through the career of a  ballet dancer, the video makes a good starting point from which to discuss this subject.

It has been my observation that when you ask a dancer what motivates them, two possible approaches are given as answers. The first is mostly reflected by this video and many of the interviews that I read. The question is answered along the lines of what motivated them to start thinking of becoming a (professional) ballet dancer. Interestingly, this approach addresses a snapshot in time and the video talks to the subject of how dreams turn into hard work.

The second approach to answers to this question look at what keeps a dancer motivated and will be a larger part of my research. This form of the question/answer usually result in responses that refer to a dancer’s perceived need to dance. Answers in this category include, “I need to”, “provides me with meaning”, “it is how I communicate”, “movement is a part of my life”, “it is my true self, my spirit”. All of these answers internalise how they feel and consequently I could suggest they have in common that they make the dancer feel good. Many careers make their practitioners feel good, but many more are ambivalent on this point. Even when they do make a person feel good, it may vary with degree and through time. For dancers, this may be more constant.

However, to be respectful to those who choose dance as a career, I suspect there is a lot more to a dancer’s motivation than a simple addiction to feeling good. What makes a dancer keep going when they fail to get that role or promotion that they have been working so hard for? More so, what keeps them elevated after the initial euphoria of successfully getting a coveted role or promotion? All of these ideas are central to my research and I welcome any thoughts or anecdotes that readers may have. Anonymity is possible if you want to contact me directly.

The Royal Ballet on Motivation

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Ballet Anatomy Jete – YouTube.

This is one of an excellent series of online ballet class lessons. It is certainly invaluable to a beginner like me, but I suspect also advanced students.

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I am considering the notion of “development stages” of becoming a professional ballet dancer. Clearly, any career has developmental stages towards becoming a fully proficient professional. However, professional ballet dancers are somewhat unique in that their development starts at a very young age, even if they do not know they are headed in that direction. And somewhat ironically, their career as a dancer also ends at a relatively young age. For my research, I would like to identify a reasonable trajectory of these stages of a dancers career. Below is a list of what I think are some obvious stages of development. It would be naive of me to think that these are the only stages and indeed that these ones are necessarily an accurate reflection of a dancers reality. Would anyone like to comment on what they think of the list and offer additions, elaborations or modifications from their own experience? Would there be better descriptions to replace any of these?

The developmental stages I have identified in (presumably) chronological order are:

  • Very young novice – first steps
  • Young enthusiast – becoming enthusiastic in ballet as an art/discipline
  • Advanced student – professional “in-training”
  • Beginning professional – Apprentice or Corps de Ballet in a part/full-time capacity in a company
  • Intermediate professionals – Soloists and Coryphées
  • Senior professionals – Senior and Principal Artists
  • Ageing (sic) dancer – significant experience yet on the road to retirement

Your input to this part of my research would be very valuable. Thank you in advance.

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This post is not a criticism of anyone who has worked hard and eventually found it too much. It is just intended to provide a comparison to permit a discussion about motivation.

Former Lost star Emilie De Ravin was on course to become an Olympic gymnast as a child – but the gruelling schedule to maintain her talents became too much to bear.

The Aussie actress won a place in an Olympics training group when she was eight and had dreams of one day representing her country.But she tells WENN, “It was just too much and it wasn’t fun anymore.”

De Ravin became a ballet dancer instead and studied with the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne. She adds, “I went there until I was 16 and I was classically trained.” contactmusic.com

I do not think anyone would under-estimate the effort required to train for the Olympics. However, I find it rather strange that one would train as a professional ballet dancer instead and then give up at the age of 16.

Recently there has been a discussion on LinkedIn that is concerned with what is perceived in classical ballet as an increasing concern for athleticism and ballet as sport. However, my goal in writing this post is to question the motivation required to continue with professional ballet as a career and lifestyle. What is that special extra that is required to be a professional dancer?

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After meeting this week with my future supervisor, I have changed the focus of my research into professional ballet dancers. My research question is tenatively now:

“How do ballet dancers accommodate changing motivations through a lifetime of changes, successes and disappointments?”

I will be arguing that each dancers’ experience is contextual and that no single theory fits all cases. Dancers have a biography that follows them through their career; from their first steps, to retirement from dance.

It will be my aim to identify contextually the career stages and possible associated motivations. I will explore how these motivations are articulated as well as experienced in reality? And importantly, how do dancers and those people they are associated with deal with these expectations and cope with success and failure.

I hope to be making more posts soon that will explore these ideas and seek contributions from anyone interested.

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