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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.

Caption:
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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About this time last year, a wonderful gentleman from The Australian Ballet named Colin Peasley welcomed me to the Sydney Opera House to watch the company behind the scenes. I spent three hours or so talking to him, and watching the dancers in class and rehearsal. And whilst I did not know it at the time, I was watching Darcey Bussell from the Royal Ballet conducting the class – more here. Twelve months on, it is time for me to take stock of what continues to motivate me to do research into professional ballet dancers. Since motivation is the theme of my study, it stands to reason that I should examine my own changing circumstances.

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A reader recently asked me how I developed my interest in ballet. It is not that I ever danced when I was younger, so why the sudden interest? The answer I gave him has reminded me how much I have missed out on by only now discovering the joy of dance. Last year, I took some absolute beginner ballet classes and really loved it. Unfortunately I have left it a bit late in life and my co-ordination is not up to taking my dancing seriously.

But that is not the end of my interest since my research will enable me to live vicariously through the dancing of others. Here is a version of how I answered the reader who I mentioned earlier.

My interest in ballet, is a fortunate amalgamation of two interests. I have been a subscriber to The Australian Ballet for a number of years and have seen every performance of theirs’ in this time. I have very much enjoyed it. However, it took on a far more interesting turn when I decided I could blend this interest with my other love, cultural anthropology. As a very mature age student, I received an honours degree in anthropology in 2004 and started tutoring undergrad courses in the subject. All this time I was looking for a cultural setting I could research for a postgrad degree. After a number of false starts looking at topics that led to little interest on my part, it occurred to me the middle of last year that I could study professional ballet dancers as a cultural group. I started doing a lot of reading and working through social networking groups and this blog and discovered that as a cultural grouping, professional dancers in general have not received the attention they deserve from ethnographic research. By this I mean, a great deal can be learned from spending an extended period of time observing and interacting with dancers in an extended fieldwork setting. With this in mind I have contacted local full time ballet companies and I am looking at others overseas.

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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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I am still making slow progress with finding a company that will agree to me conducting fieldwork. I have received rejections from two ballet companies regarding fieldwork with them. I still have two more proposals outstanding with other companies but I am having trouble making contact with the persons who may be able to approve me spending four to six months with their company of dancers. So far I have only tried ballet companies in Australia and New Zealand. There are any number overseas that I could consider but they would need to be English speaking since the degree I am considering has no time available to learn another language. Do any of my readers have any thoughts on the matter? Is anyone willing to suggest this proposal to their company? If so, contact me and we will chat. Research overseas will cost a lot more in expenses, so if anyone is aware of any scholarships that may support such research I would be very interested.

UPDATE: Mike Barnes – Fieldwork Proposal document. This proposal mentions the first half of 2013, but it may have to slip to the second half at this late stage.

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This video from “The Atlantic” shows a Pas de Deux from the visual perspective of the dancers. However, without experiencing other senses such as embodied movement, position in space, and the physical presence of the partner, etc, it is impossible for the viewer to substantially feel the dance. As a complete novice to dancing ballet (a few classes only), I find the video is jarring to my senses – as the introduction warns. It gives me no real feeling of what it is like to dance. I would expect the viewer’s sensual response to the video would depend significantly on their own experience of ballet dancing. It would be interesting to hear from professional and student dancers what they experience when they watch this video. Tell me how it makes you feel and what your level of dance experience is. Also, what do you think of the argument I have made?

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